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Drawing from the Past: William Weddell and the Transformation of Newby Hall

review - At the City Art Gallery, Leeds, until 13 February 2005

Newby Hall, close to Ripon in North Yorkshire, is, as Pevsner described it, 'a large red-brick mansion with stone dressings', writes Kenneth Powell.

It would be of no special interest were it not for the major programme of alteration and extension carried out there by Robert Adam from 1766 onwards. The Adam interiors at Newby - and particularly the magnificent sculpture gallery (the shell of which was designed by John Carr 'of York') - are of world renown (see pictures).

Adam was then Britain's most fashionable architect, a talent courted by the super-rich and powerful. Elsewhere in Yorkshire, he had completed sensational interiors at Harewood for the Lascelles family and was working for the Winns at Nostell Priory. His commission at Newby came from William Weddell (1736-92) - recently returned from the Grand Tour and elected to parliament - who was anxious to establish his reputation as a man of taste.

In a fine essay in the well-illustrated book accompanying the exhibition (extraordinarily good value at £5), Ruth Guilding explains the rationale behind Weddell's activities as a collector of antique sculpture: 'It was a moral activity that ennobled the collector, and which could lend prestige and public legitimacy to the newly rich' ( Weddell had risen from relatively modest origins via a fortuitous inheritance and a judicious marriage). Hence the sculpture gallery, the key element in Adam's scheme, a place that Weddell's guests would view, after dinner, by candlelight (as recommended by Goethe).

The Newby Hall archive was lodged with the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS) some years ago but only in 2001 did the 500 architectural drawings at Newby, including works by Adam, Chambers and Burges, come to the WYAS.

This exhibition displays a small selection of them, illustrating Weddell's transformation of the hall, along with other material relating to his life and collecting activities. 'Drawing from the Past' is a vivid reminder of an age when enlightened grandees put Yorkshire firmly on the architectural map of the civilised world.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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