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Yester House, East Lothian: designs for alterations to a house for the 4th and 7th Marquesses of Tweeddale, c.1760-89, executed in part (8)


Yester House was constructed in 1699-1728 for the 2nd Marquess of Tweeddale to the designs of James Smith and Alexander MacGill. In 1715, the house passed on to John Hay, 4th Marquess of Tweeddale, a significant politician who served as Principal Secretary of State for Scotland, Keeper of his Majesty’s Signet, Extraordinary Lord of Session and Lord Justice General of Scotland, as well as a Representative Peer for Scotland in five different Parliaments.

In 1729, the 4th Marquess commissioned the architect William Adam to replace the roof of the house. Adam proposed a platform roof with new centre pieces on the north and south elevations along with a new external staircase and flanking pavilions and links. The elevation drawings and plans were later published in Vitruvius Scoticus (1812) though they were built to a variant design. Adam remodelled and decorated the interior, including the insertion of a new stone staircase with iron balustrades and a new first-floor hall (now dining room) and second-floor saloon, extending through the new attic level. The plastering work was carried out by Joseph Enzer and his team, Philip Robertson and Francis Nicols. William Adam died in 1748 and further works to the house were put on hold, leaving the saloon unfinished. Both Robert and James Adam were instead asked to design some garden buildings and work on the local church, Gifford Chapel, for which Robert designed a Rococo-Gothic west front in 1753 before setting off on his Grand Tour in 1754.

In 1759 Robert Adam returned from his Grand Tour and together with John Adam, the brothers completed the decoration of the saloon comprising a coffered ceiling (SM Adam volume 11/101 & 51/1/25) inspired by the vaults of the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. The walls were inset with large paintings by William Delacour, and plaster panels. It would appear from letters that John was responsible for the room though the inclusion of details such as the winged griffons in the panel above the fireplace was most likely introduced by Robert. The room was completed in 1761.

The 4th Marquess died in 1762 and the estate was eventually inherited by a distant relative, William, who was the youngest son of the 2nd Marquess. William, 7th Marquess, had recently married and was encouraged to embark on further improvements to the house. In 1789, the new Marquess of Tweeddale commissioned Robert Adam to design a grand carriage entrance to the north front of the house in place of the existing stairs (which had been added by his father William Adam). Much like his father, Adam went beyond the requirements of the commission and made designs for alterations to both the north and south fronts in a neo-classical style, with the following justification accompanying his designs:

‘I have always thought Yester House one of the best contrived plans I ever saw in this or any country, and that if the outside Elevation had been in any degree on a Par with the internal distribution of the apartments, it might be called the most compleat House in Scotland. But those lines of flat ashlers running from end to end and from top to bottom of both fronts of the House dazzle the Eye and render them a mass of confusion…I therefore thought it would be a pity whilst I was doing the design of the ramp of approach, not to try if something could be made of the outside of the house to correspond with it.’ (Dunbar, 1972, p. 35)

These designs are in the Soane Collection (SM Adam volume 41/5-9) and propose a grand semi-circular ramped entrance with Vitruvian scroll balustrades and tripods with urns. The proposed changes to the north front elevation involved replacing the central three bay windows with arched windows, with external decoration including rosettes, friezes and swags in panels. The four columns were replaced by pilasters and raised to first and attic level to allow for large windows to the saloon at first floor, with a closed pediment containing a coat of arms above and three free-standing statues. Adam also proposed alterations to the remaining elevation of the house, the links and pavilions, but these were not carried out. There is a finished design of the front elevation in the HES archives which, according to King, is signed by James Adam. King suggests that the volute capitals in the drawing are too small to be by Robert and could therefore be a James design.

To the south front, Adam proposed inserting a series of composite columns across the elevation to articulate the central three bays and end bays, with a central pedimented attic storey supported by columns, along with windows in relieving arches on the principal floor, a motif he continued across the pavilions which are drawn in pencil. Adam also made proposals for the first-floor drawing room on the south side of the saloon, proposing to convert the two rooms into one long double-apsed room screened by columns at either end, like the library at Kenwood, with an octagonal-shaped boudoir and adjoining closet. Only the coach ramp and alterations to the central three bays of the north front were carried out.

The builder John Hay was employed to carry out Adam’s designs, however, the Marquess refused to pay the final bill based on Hay’s poor workmanship which resulted in a two-year long dispute settled by a Decreet Arbitral on 16 November 1792, after Robert Adam’s death. Tenders were issued in late 1792 to carry out Adam’s proposals to the first-floor drawing room but nothing came of it.

There is another drawing in the collection with the inscription ‘Yester Marquis of Tweddle’ (SM Adam volume 10/201) but it is not entirely clear what the drawing relates to as it does not bare resemblance to any other designs or buildings.

In 1802, the Marquess travelled abroad with Lady Tweeddale but was interred in the Chateau of Verdun at the renewal of hostilities between France and Great Britain in 1803. Both died there in 1804 and the estate was inherited by George Hay, 8th Marquess. George had just begun an active military career and did not turn his attention to Yester until 1816 after his marriage to the daughter of the Duke of Manchester. The western range of Yester House had been partly destroyed by fire in 1797 but had been rebuilt by the early-nineteenth century, as it is shown in an 1821 engraving by Elizabeth Steele. In the 1830s, the 8th Marquess commissioned the Edinburgh architect Robert Brown to carry out major alterations to the house involving the complete internal reorientation of the rooms on a different axis, the removal of the west range and insertion of a substantial porte-cochere and balustrade to the new west front with a circular carriage entrance. It is likely that it was during this time that a large amount of eighteenth-century stuccowork and carvings were replaced with Brown’s early Victorian interior decoration, Robert and John’s saloon, however, remained intact. It would appear from Ordnance Survey maps that it was also during this time that Adam’s grand carriage entrance was grassed over.

Literature: A.T. Bolton, The Architecture of Robert and James Adam, Volume II, Index, 1922, pp. 32, 90; D. King, The Complete Works of Robert & James Adam and Unbuilt Adam, Volume 1, 2001, pp. 188-189, 356; A. Rowan, ‘Yester House, East Lothian’, Country Life, Vol. 154, 9 August 1973, pp. 358-361, 16 August, pp. 430-433, 23 August, pp. 490-493; N. Pevsner, The Buildings of Scotland: Lothian, 1978, pp. 211-213; J. G. Dunbar, 'The building of Yester House, 1670-1878', Transactions of the East Lothian Antiquarian Field and Naturalists Society, Vol. 13, 1972, pp. 20-42; W. Adam, Vitruvius Scoticus: Plans, Elevations, and Sections of Public Buildings, Noblemen’s and Gentlemen’s Houses in Scotland, ed. J. Simpson, 2011, p. 35

Louisa Catt, 2022



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Contents of Yester House, East Lothian: designs for alterations to a house for the 4th and 7th Marquesses of Tweeddale, c.1760-89, executed in part (8)