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.
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 Rocheads
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
Gentlemans 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
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
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 Chesterfields 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
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
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
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 Napiers 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 awayif 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.
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 Mintos 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, dont 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
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
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 :
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
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
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,
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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