Walnut-paneled room with oak mantelpiece, completed 1611
Removed from Rotherwas Court, Herefordshire, England
Bequest of Herbert L. Pratt (Class of 1895)
Stained glass windows, 16th-17th centuries
Permanent loan from the George D. Pratt bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
English knight Sir Roger Bodenham commissioned this room for his West Midlands estate, Rotherwas Court, sometime after 1600; the date 1611 inscribed on the chimneypiece presumably marks the project’s completion. Although the names of the carvers and the details of the commission are unrecorded, close examination of the room itself reveals much about the likely circumstances of its creation and the meanings it would have held for its first viewers.
The earliest recorded reference to the room, in Thomas Blount’s 1678 manuscript history of Herefordshire, characterizes it as a "whole dining room wainscoted with walnut trees, and on the mantel tree of the chimney twenty-five coats in one achievement." That prominent display of the Bodenham family’s coats of arms suggests a motivation for the project, a visual proclamation of Sir Roger’s distinguished heritage, as if demonstrating the inherent merit of his 1608 elevation to the knighthood.
The four warlike female figures bracketing the oak chimneypiece’s central motif allude to the family’s Roman Catholic faith: they personify the four cardinal virtues. From left to right, they represent: Justice (who originally held scales); Temperance (who would have carried jugs of water and wine); Prudence (who has retained her snake signifying falsehood or evil, but lost its counterpart, either a mirror or book signifying truth, or a dove representing goodness); and Fortitude (who grasps a column symbolizing endurance). The vogue for painting wooden sculpture, so popular in Sir Roger’s day that Shakespeare mentioned it in his plays, would fall from fashion soon afterward; by 1624, Sir Henry Wootton would decry the practice as an example of "Englishe Barbarisme" in the arts.
The style and subjects of the room’s other carvings, executed in luxurious imported walnut, display an engagement with then-current Renaissance ideas. The classical columns and arches adapt Italian models, known across Europe from the correspondence and descriptions of travelers, and the books and sketches circulated among artisans and patrons. Although the original arrangement of the room’s panels remains uncertain, the narrowing of certain arches as they approach the corners of the room may represent a deliberate attempt to employ fresh concepts of linear perspective to heighten the illusion of recession into space.
The stylistic variation of the heads, animals, fruits, and flowers (including Tudor roses) on the frieze, architrave, and chair rail indicates the handiwork of several craftsmen. The naturalistic poses of the mantel figures suggest the carvers’ familiarity with similar projects undertaken by the Huguenot sculptor Maximilian Colt, Master Carver to James I, around 1609 at Hatfield House, the estate of Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury, located less than fifteen miles north of Rotherwas Court.
In 1731, Sir Roger’s descendants removed the carvings to the family’s new house, built nearby on the same estate; elements of the paneling and chimneypiece that didn’t fit into the eighteenth-century enfilade were moved onto ceiling beams or stored in cupboards. At the same time, the room’s original ceiling (the appearance of which is unrecorded) was replaced with oak beams. The present neo-Jacobean plaster ceiling reproduces one designed by architect James Brite for the room’s twentieth-century American owner, discussed below.
When the family line expired and the estate fell into disrepair, an antiques dealer acquired and dismantled Rotherwas Court’s thirteen Elizabethan and Jacobean rooms. Almost immediately after "Charles [Duveen] of London" displayed the present room (considered the finest of the group) in his Fifth Avenue showrooms in 1913, Herbert Lee Pratt, Amherst College Class of 1895, purchased it for his neo-Jacobean estate, The Braes, then under construction in Dosoris Park, Glen Cove, Long Island (now the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering). Pratt, a son of Standard Oil founder Charles Pratt and half-brother of Charles Millard Pratt (for whom the nearby dormitory is named), bequeathed the room, together with a significant collection of American and British paintings, silver, and furniture, to his alma mater in 1944. The college incorporated the room into the Mead during the museum’s construction in 1948-49.
Between 1949 and 1962, Robert Frost offered public readings of his poems in the room during his regular visits to Amherst. In the years that followed, countless generations of Amherst students have passed between its walls. Indeed, the room’s American history has disproved the words of James I, who, following his visit to Rotherwas Court, reportedly proclaimed (borrowing the ancient proverb about Corinth): "Everyone may not live at Rotherwas." In fact, at Amherst, the pleasures of Sir Roger’s once-private "delicious seat" are now open and welcome to all.
To learn more, see:
Judith A. Barter, “The Rotherwas Room,” in Decorative Arts at Amherst College, Mead Museum Monographs, volume 3, winter 1981-82, pp. 1-8.
John Harris, Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 196-197.
For additional images, visit: https://www.amherst.edu/aboutamherst/tours/nooks/rotherwas
Click here to see what's on view in the Rotherwas Room.