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The Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon
Chapter XI. West Shandon

As stated in an earlier chapter, Mr Napier acquired ground at Shandon in 1833, on which he built a small house, where he was in the habit of residing during the summer months.

Sunny memories are still called up among the few survivors who were privileged to enjoy the hospitalities of the first West Shandon house, memories standing apart from any attaching to the larger house which took its place. The possession of pictures and other works of art called for a gallery where they might be suitably displayed; other additions followed, and the mason was much in evidence over a period of years. Eventually the first house disappeared, and the structure presently existing took its place, the whole, especially the front to the Loch, being one of the happiest creations of Mr Eochead. The building of West Shandon house extended over many years, but the great tower erected in 1852 practically fixes the date of the present edifice, and the following is a copy of the writing deposited under the foundation-stone in the north-east corner :—

“West Siiandon, 18th February 1852.

“This parchment, along with newspapers and a few coins, was deposited this day under the Tower of West Shandon House.

Another bottle (containing one specimen of each of the gold, silver, and copper coins at present in circulation, with the newspapers and other statistical papers of this date, also a brass-plate having the names of the family engraved on it) has been deposited in another part of the building.

“Those bottles, &c., &c., have been deposited by Robert Napier, Engineer, Glasgow, and feuar of West Shandon, for the amusement it may be of some future generation, provided that the means taken to preserve the parchment and paper prove successful.    R. Napier.”

The local stone not being well suited to the style of architecture, fine white sandstone was brought from Bishopbriggs vid the Forth and Clyde Canal; and the woodwork of the house, after various differences with contracting joiners, was completed by men from Govan shipbuilding yard.

In designing and building the house, special attention was paid to producing a structure that would give little trouble in the way of repairs; and to obtain this end expensive expedients were adopted, which the test of time fully justified.

Mr Napier took the greatest interest in Mr Rochead’s work, and made so many alterations on the plans that he was said to have been his own architect.

Reference is made to West Shandon in ‘The English Gentleman’s House,’ and there is a criticism by Professor Kerr, from which we quote a few extracts :—

This plan is presented in our series as an extreme case of intentional irregularity. No doubt there is much of the merit of convenience obtained by this total want of conventional regularity. The entrance-hall is much too small, unless we include with it the interior vestibule, which again, if large enough, becomes awkward in form. The cloak-room is a good item. . . .

The three public rooms form a good suite of its kind. The library is very good. . . .

The dining-room must be considered out of rule except as a sitting-room; the character of form is not that of an eating-room at all; no doubt considerations of prospect have governed the case. . . .

The offices generally are very confined, and not instructive. The same must be said of the museums, picture-gallery, and billiard-room in their relations to each other and to other apartments.

To cover over in this way the space which is generally, in such a plan, an interior court, is not to be commended; there is too much ceiling light and borrowed light in consequence, and with these comes stagnation of air and unwholesomeness, perhaps even on the pleasant shores of the Gareloch itself.

Mr Napier evidently did not think the criticism complimentary, so he wrote the author on the subject, and the Professor replied, saying—

The mediaeval type of arrangement is characterised by what you quote as “disorderly convenience”: the classical type rests upon orderly (in too many cases) inconvenience. Between the two, I prefer the want of order to the want of convenience; and so evidently do you. As for bad plans, I could have selected them by the dozen; but a .plan which is not bad, but the contrary, and at the same time unusually characteristic, was the object of my careful search, and I thought your house a most striking one in this respect, and well worthy of study. A passing jest or two in speaking of it appears to catch the eye of some people, but this is nothing. I think I may presume that you desire to have an unconventional unembarrassed house, and your success is complete. That such success must be paid for by the acceptance of a few drawbacks is but a truism that one scarcely needs to suggest.

Those who can recall Robert Napier as a capable business man are now but few, as it is more than forty years since he personally negotiated a contract; but in his capacity as owner of West Shandon, making friends of young and old by his geniality, he lives in the memory of many.

The most attractive part of the house was the museum and picture-gallery, where was to be found one of the finest amateur collections in Scotland, of which an elaborate catalogue was compiled by Mr J. C. Robinson of the South Kensington Museum. There were many typical examples of the early Italian, Dutch, and Flemish masters. Raffaelle was represented by a Holy Trinity, which once formed part of the collection of David, the eminent French painter; Titian, by a portrait of his daughter; Guido, by a Magdalen from Lord Chesterfield’s collection; Paul Veronese, Tintoretto, and Da Vinci, by Scripture subjects. The landscape art of Italy was illustrated in the works of Pannini, Salvator Rosa, and other well-known artists. There were numerous examples from the brush of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vandyck, and some of the masterpieces of Quentin Matsys and Teniers, such as the Rent-Day, the Card-Players, &c. There were also specimens of the art of Verboeck-hoven, Van Schendel, Cuyp, Jan Steen, Haghe, and other Dutch painters.

Pictures by Claude, Greuze, and Murillo adorned the walls ; and the school of British art was represented by Reynolds, Wilkie, Raeburn, and contemporary artists.

In the museum were to be found inlaid ecritoirs, marqueterie bureaus, buhl cabinets, screens covered with Gobelins tapestry, and many fine pieces of decorative furniture.

Valuable selections of Dresden, Vienna, and other European porcelain found a home in cases set around the rooms.

Naturally the French art of the eighteenth century was well represented, the Sevres porcelain specimens being of special interest, and including parts of sets of which the other pieces were scattered over Europe. Five pieces of great beauty belonged to a set of which the remainder was the property of her late Majesty Queen Victoria, and these formed one of his special treasures.

The collection of miniatures, snuff-boxes, bijouterie, clocks, and watches was most extensive and unique, and the whole was set out exquisitely.

His taste for ornamental smith-work, as became a descendant of Tubal-Cain, was displayed in curious old locks and keys, metal-work, guns, swords, armour, and accoutrements of all kinds.

Numerous pieces of sculpture by Fillans and others stood in prominent positions in the hall and elsewhere, but special attention was always directed to a statue of a veiled lady executed by the famous Thorwaldsen.

The gathering together of so . tine a collection of articles of vertu, though a task of no small difficulty, was a source of the greatest pleasure to their owner. He was justly proud of it, and at all times he was delighted to show the house and its treasures to his friends. The majority of his visitors had no special knowledge of art, but all, even the children, had beauties pointed out to them, and went away with memories that did not easily fade.

The grounds, which were laid out with great artistic taste, were a distinguishing feature of West Shandon. The winter climate on the Gareloch permits the growth of various foreign trees and shrubs too tender to succeed elsewhere, and conifers and rhododendrons were freely planted, whereby beauty was conferred upon the spot as noticeable in winter as in summer.

Mr Napier’s hospitality was boundless, and is well illustrated by his offer to place his establishment at the disposal of Lord Dalhousie, Governor of India, who happened to be staying in a hotel at Arrochar. To this offer the Marquis replied as follows :—

Arrochar, September 15, 1856.

Sir,—I am unable to thank you sufficiently for your most kind and courteous letter. Its kindness is so spontaneous and so manifestly genuine, that I should accept your proposed hospitality with the greatest pleasure were it not that my movements are necessarily so uncertain that I should not be justified in putting you to the inconvenience which my acceptance of your proposal would inflict upon you.

I trust, however, that you will so far permit me to profit by your courtesy, as to consider your letter the commencement of a personal acquaintance with you, and that you will allow me, when I shall have put away—if ever I do put away— my crutches, to take some opportunity of presenting myself to you, and of personally thanking you and Mrs Napier for the very gratifying instance you have afforded me of real Scottish hospitality. —I beg to remain, my dear Sir, with many thanks, your very faithful servant,


R. Napier, Esq.

As bearing on this subject, we may subjoin a characteristic letter from his intimate friend Mr Lorne Campbell, who was factor to the Duke of Argyle, and resided at Poil-na-kill.

Rosneath, Thursday.

My dear Eobert Napier,—Of course you know we have Lord John Russell here, and you will be glad to know they have seen the Loch on Tuesday afternoon for the first time in the perfection of beauty. Among the first objects that attracted his quick eye was your chateau: and on my telling him whose it was, and what a terrible fellow you are, he launched forth at once on the Duke, the Cunarders, and all you have done for them, and said he would like to go and see you some time while they were here.

They go to-morrow to Lord Minto’s for a few days. He will likely tell me when he proposes to see you; and I will be sure to give you notice, that you may be at home.

They are most agreeable, easy people; so when they do go, don’t make too great an ado about them. A glass of sherry will serve them ; and if I act as their coxswain, you can, if you like, give me a glass of champagne.—Yours very truly, Lorne Campbell.

Not only to private individuals but also to public bodies lie extended a hearty welcome; and lie took a prominent part in entertaining the British Association when they visited Glasgow in 1855.

Professor Pillans, writing him at that time, says :—

As one of those who availed themselves of your kindness in placing the Vulcan steamer at the disposal of the British Association, I am deputed by them to convey to you, in their name and, I think I may venture to add, in the name of all the members of the Association now assembled here from every part of the United Kingdom, the expression of their cordial thanks and sense of obligation for the opportunity you afforded them in the “land of the mountain and the flood” of renewing old friendships and forming new acquaintances which to some may prove an era in their lives, and to all will be a day of agreeable recollections.

They regard this act of considerate liberality on your part as one of a series which promises ere long to extend a designation, hitherto reserved for the East India Company, to the yearly increasing number of the “Merchant Princes” of Glasgow.

While entertaining so freely, Mr Napier never forgot that he had also responsibilities; and social needs came in for a full share of his bounty. He took a great interest in the church at Row, which he attended regularly. He was on very friendly terms with the Argyll family, and in connection with the rebuilding of the church the Dowager Duchess thus wrote him :—

St Leonards-on-the-Sea,

28th Jan. 1850.

Dear Sir,—I should have replied to your letter, dated the 12th, much sooner, but my health is often my excuse for deferring letter-writing, and I shall therefore hope you will excuse my delay.

I have asked Mr Davidson to address you on the subject of the Row church, &c., &c. He manages for me all these matters, as I am myself quite unfit to do so.

I am sure the parish generally are much indebted to you for the great interest and liberality with which you deal with them.

I trust all will be well and pleasantly arranged regarding the new church to please all parties, and to be conducive above all things to the comfort of our worthy minister.

I hope Mrs Napier and the other members of your family are quite well.

With kindest remembrances to Mrs Napier and yourself, I am, dear Sir, yours very sincerely,

A. Argyll.

Robert Napier, Esq.
of West Shandon.

The Rev. Laurie Fogo, who succeeded the saintly John Macleod Campbell, was minister of Row parish, and during his incumbency the present handsome church was built. To its erection Mr Napier contributed liberally, and lie also placed in the churchyard an elaborate monument, in the form of a statue, to mark the resting-place of Mr Henry Bell, the pioneer of steam navigation.

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