West Wycombe Park is one of the finest examples of the 18th century’s obsession with creating entire environments expressing the ideas and sensibilities of the day. It’s less of a grand country house in Buckinghamshire, England, and more of a self-contained illusory world dedicated to the preoccupations and interests of its founder Sir Francis Dashwood, Premier Baronet of Great Britain.
Sir Francis commissioned the building of the Palladian mansion in the mid-18th century. But, West Wycombe Park is not only about the house. Its vast complex of Rococo gardens and other buildings on the large estate were also part of a unifying plan that would see this bit of English countryside turned into a self-contained reality in which the quotidian was far less important than the elaborate staging of an evocative environment.
West Wycombe Park’s rear portico
Neo-classical preoccupations are everywhere, perhaps no more so than in the magnificent house with its famous colonnaded rear portico and contrasting tones that evoke the ancient world. The Temple of Vesta, situated on an island in the lake and once used for Dashwood’s fêtes champêtres — upmarket garden parties with live entertainment— also exhibits the affinity with all things classical, so dear to the hearts of refined connoisseurs of the day.
West Wycombe Park’s Temple of Vesta and hilltop mausoleum in the distance
At West Wycombe Park, however, it is the strange slant towards the sexual proclivities and more esoteric pursuits of the period that populate the massive gardens. These follies and grand landscaping gestures stand as monument to some of the more juicy aspects of the lives of 18th-century aristocracy and landed gentry. They also, quite naturally, make the estate and its buildings something of a permanent set for films and television. Quintessentially English country refinement makes it easy to see why ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ or a veritable slew of Jane Austen costume dramas would set their sights on West Wycombe Park.
But there are also surprises in the roll call of films that have used it for location shooting. It’s hardly a location that springs to mind when thinking of the French time travel farce, ‘Les Visteurs’ (1993). Ditto for a deluge of horror movies and occult thrillers, perhaps most famously for ‘The Omen’ (1976). But on closer inspection this actually makes complete sense.
The eerie St Lawrence Church nestles atop a hill overlooking the estate and nearby is the equally otherworldly mausoleum of the Dashwood family. The landscaping genius of the gardens seems to have been entirely for the service of future filmmakers’ needs: it completely masks the hustle and bustle of roads or any modern life in either direction, providing unbroken vistas of these strange visions.
But it’s the famous caves, the home of the notorious Hellfire Club and its allegedly satanic shenanigans, that are the most notorious. The nearby Temple of Venus perhaps spells out the real nature of hell— or heaven— most clearly. We can understand both the not-so-subtle visual pun of the latter and the moody subterranean caverns of the former as being far more about serving the libidos of Sir Francis Dashwood and his mates than any real commitment to the Dark Lord.
Satanism in an Enlightenment world struggling against the control of the church, as De Sade frequently demonstrated, fitted with a whole range of transgressive practices that might get the juices flowing, quite literally. And, if you were as privileged and wealthy as Dashwood and his circle, as the expansive compound at West Wycombe Park shows, you could afford to bring the best of contemporaneous design culture to serving the purposes of libidinal gratification and other excessive appetites. What could be a more horny foray into an orgy than a lavish dinner in one of the especially constructed caves?
These days, the pretty conceits of the gardens above or the hellish bowels of the caves below provide endless possibilities for those making films. But let’s get one thing straight: West Wycombe Park is largely a testament to 18th-century design culture’s ability to serve the needs of those making whoopee.