There was a time when landed gentry were able to lead a life of extraordinary privilege and freedom. It was the era of the lordly pleasures. Secure in their wealth, confident of their position, indulged by their countrymen, the aristocrats of eighteenth-century England did their own thing, and in doing it, invented enduring ideals of what is considered to be civilized living. As in so many ways, the aristocracy pointed the way to pleasure for later multitudes. From time to time they had to attend to the business of their estates, but it was rarely urgent, and life for many of them flowed as smoothly as the Thames. For the rich this was not an age of anxiety…
However, at the outset of the eighteenth-century the life of the English country gentry was far from easy and relaxed. Their stiff formality and their half-feudal punctilio was a common butt of humor for town wits and coxcombs. By the second half of the century, Joseph Addison’s urbane reminder that ”Nothing is so modish as an agreeable Negligence” was rapidly permeating the life of the squire, who now began combining the gaiety and refinement of the town with the spacious comforts of the manorial estate.
”The Fashionable World is grown free and easie; our Manners sit more loose upon us: Nothing is so modish as an agreeable Negligence. In a word, Good Breeding shews it self most, where to an ordinary Eye it appears the least. If after this we look on the People of Mode in the Country, we find in them the Manners of the last Age. They have no sooner fetched themselves up to the Fashion of the polite World, but the Town has dropped them, and are nearer to the first State of Nature than to those Refinements which formerly reign’d in the Court, and still prevail in the Country. One may now know a Man that never conversed in the World, by his Excess of Good Breeding. A polite Country ‘Squire shall make you as many Bows in half an Hour, as would serve a Courtier for a Week. There is infinitely more to do about Place and Precedency in a Meeting of Justices Wives, than in an Assembly of Dutchesses.”
In the eighteenth-century, due to profits of increased agriculture, the expanding worldwide commerce of England, and the stabilization and security of government finances, a large class of men, gentry as well as aristocrats, felt secure in their wealth as never before. This and the emerging consumer capitalism of the time ; a dynamic of affluence and pressure to spend spawned lifestyles that were elegant, self-indulgent, worldly and cultivated in the best sense of the word. Much of these indulgences were channeled into a building craze; the pleasure of reproducing Italian villas in a Neo-Renaissance style often based on Palladio’s designs.
The building craze also helped root the English country gentleman even more firmly into his estates. New buildings created new problems, for a house requires a setting just as a picture needs a frame. A few parterres on the French or Dutch model, a canal with formal buildings, or a few vistas cutting each other at right angles were previously all that was deemed necessary. The grander the house, the grander the parterre, the more ornate the canal, the more numerous and geometric the vistas ; however, ambition was kept within restrained and formal limits. The eighteenth-century country gentleman, however, put few limits to his pleasures, and he took over not merely the acres surrounding his home but the whole landscape as far as the eyes could see. If need be, he razed villages that disturbed the view.
The first Earl Bathurst, a tree fancier, created about his house at Circencester a forest through which he carved out glades and serpentine walks, dotting them with whimsical buildings that had even more whimsical names: Alfred’s Hall, Pope’s Seat, The Horse Guards, Ivy Lodge, and the Silvan Bower. In the long summer evenings, Lord Bathurst took his guests to Alfred’s Hall where they could dine alfresco and drink their claret in the cool evening shade. But a wood decorated with follies, as they were called, was not enough.
Whatever the cost, a gentleman’s landscape must have water, so Bathurst dig out a lake that seemed as natural as if God himself had placed it there. Still, the landscape did not look finished. A hill seemed to spoil the diagonal view , so Bathurst had it leveled. Once leveled, it left a gap so vast that the prospect needed something to catch the eye. He toyed with a pyramid, played with the idea of an obelisk, and finally decided on a huge Doric column topped with a more than life sized statue of Queen Anne.
Lord Bathurst lived to be ninety-one and never stopped adorning his forest. He ran into debt, selling estates, buying others, pouring out money on statues, columns, follies and whimsies. Until the month he died, he rode about his park for two or three hours in all weather and refreshed himself every evening by downing a bottle of claret or Madeira. Self-indulgent, wanton, extravagant, obsessed, one might say, but two hundred and fifty years later, Lord Bathurst’s delights still charm the eye and improve on nature. He created a landscape that now seems as natural as the Cotswold Hills, but is entirely the work of a man who knew how to please himself as well as posterity.
Bathurst was a pioneer, pointing the way for Capability Brown, the great landscape gardener of eighteenth-century England who laid out such masterpieces as Chatsworth, one of the noblest parks in England. Today, visitors to these English country houses, with their vistas of woods and meadows and the reflected light of their distant lakes , are moved to praise the beauties of nature , except that, indeed, it is all man-made. As far as the eye can see, it is all contrived; coming to full maturity centuries after it was conceived.
The aristocrat’s instinctive belief that he was superior to the rest of humankind, combined with a strong dose of inbreeding, produced, as one might expect, a wonderful forcing ground for human eccentricity. After all, who was going to say no? Certainly not the easy-going , permissive, amused society of Georgian England.
No one was more bent on pleasure than George Walpole , Earl of Orford, the grandson of Sir Robert Walpole, once prime minister. Orford inherited the great house of Houghton, containing the finest collections of old masters in England. The world of politics or of fashion awaited him, but in vain. He preferred horses, greyhounds, boats, and Mrs. Patty Turk. Mrs. Turk, whom all his friends admired, had been a strikingly beautiful maid at Houghton. Becoming his mistress, she stayed with him until she died, and he remained totally devoted to her. This lifelong passion was undoubtedly responsible for his withdrawal from aristocratic society and into the world of jockeys, breeders and boatmen; a world in which Patty could act as hostess.
Walpole lived a life entirely devoted to pleasure, regardless of the consequences. He sold off his grandfather’s collection of pictures to Catherine of Russia. And he gave away the great flight of stairs from his grandfather’s house. Still, the debts piled up as he raced, coursed, dressed up his militia, and dallied with his mistress. Like many of the aristocrats of his time, he insisted on living life on his own terms, no matter how odd they might seem to the rest of the world.
Aristocratic society was permissive, not all of it of course, but most of it, and so they pursued Venus as ardently as they did Bacchus or Diana. Love in all its forms amused them. They gossiped endlessly and light heartedly about the adulterers, the lesbians, the homosexuals, or those aristocrats who hungered for the callused hands of working-class women. Hardly anything shocked them except an outrageous misalliance and even that was forgivable for a man, though certainly not for a woman.
…”William John Cavendish Scott Bentick, the fifth Duke of Portland for example, was a very shy man, didn’t like meeting people and banned them from his home, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. He went one step further, he decided he would live underground and began to build a series of subterranean rooms. An underground ballroom was built and a billiard room so big it could house a dozen billiard tables. These rooms and various others were connected by 15 miles of tunnels. One tunnel, a mile and a quarter long, connected his coach house to Worksop Railway Station. This made it possible for him to travel in a blacked-out carriage to the station where his carriage was then loaded on to a railway truck. When he reached his London home in Cavendish Square his servants were sent away as he climbed from his coach and rushed in to the privacy of his study.
….Lord Rokeby decided that he would like to spend all his life, near or in water. He believed passionately in nature, the natural life. He spent hours in the sea off the Kent beaches, and his servants often had to drag him out on to dry land, unconscious. As he got older, at his home Mount Morris near Hythe he had a vast tank built with a glass top, had it filled with water and spent nearly all his life floating in the water.His chief activity, it is said, was meditating on the Liberty of Man, and his chief delight as a man of property was letting his estate run to seed out of repugnance for all forms of artificiality. ” He grew the most enormous beard, it hung down to his waist and spread out on the surface of the water. His obsession with water was so great that had drinking fountains installed wherever he could and drank great quantities every day. He lived to be 88, so he was a good advertisement for the health giving properties of water!”
…For Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, life was a perpetual succession of enthusiasms . Taking up the fad for science , she built a laboratory at her house to conduct chemical experiments. Taking up the craze for Rousseau and Nature, she dispensed with a wet nurse and suckled her own children, at least one of whom was illegitimate. Taking up the craze for gambling, she wound up owing one million pounds. Yet her ruinous debts, her legions of admirers, and her bubbling eccentric enthusiasms never outraged fashionable society. Georgiana was, in fact, society’s queen as well as its greatest delight. When she dies in 1806, the Prince of Wales was heard to say, ” We have lost the best bred woman in England”.