glories of ownership

The noble houses of eighteenth century England…

…For these rooms no expense was spared. The finest plaster workers were brought in from Italy; tons of mahogany and other rare woods were imported from the East and West Indies; gold leaf was squandered ( at Chatsworth the window frames are gold-leafed outside as well as within); and Europe was ransacked for paintings and sculpture, furniture and marble. The cost is rarely known. Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton spent 1,220 pounds on the trimming alone of his fabulous green velvet state bed, especially designed for him by William Kent. This bed alone cannot have cost far short of at least several million dollars at present rates.

—After returning from his prolonged study trip to Italy, David Allan specialised in painting conversation pieces for Scottish aristocratic families. These were informal group portraits, often in an outdoor setting, and showed the sitters occupied in leisure activities. In this scene, Sir William’s sons, William, James and John, present the trophies of a hunt – a fox’s mask and tail – to their mother, Lady Frances, and their sisters, Frances, Henrietta, Elizabeth and Magdalene.—Read More:

The cost of Blenheim, without furniture or pictures, was rather more than a quarter of a million pounds. Eastbury, also by Vanbrugh, which only existed for twenty-five years, cost 125,000 pounds. Houses that were very modest by these standards, such as the delightful one at Ombersley, built by the first Lord Sandys, quickly devoured 30,000 or 40,000.Yet so essential to greatness were these houses that men would load themselves and their descendents with debt rather than deprive themselves of the glory of ownership. Lord Sandys, a man of moderate means but inordinate ambition, mortgaged his estate to the tune of 23,220 in order, doubtless, to impress the citizens of Worcester whom he represented in Parliament. By the middle of the eighteenth century such monuments to a family’s importance were de rigeur- cost what it might.

—Surgeon William Inglis was best known as a keen member of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the oldest golf club in the world. Allan, a member of the same golf club, shows Inglis and his caddy on Leith Links, about two miles from the city centre, where the club was then located (it’s now based at Muirfield in East Lothian). Behind Inglis, the annual trophy presented by the City – a golf club with silver balls attached – is being paraded across the Links. —Read More:

And of course, the contents needs must match the scale of building and the sumptuosity of its decoration. To form his great picture collection ( now, because his bankrupt grandson sold it to Catherine of Russia, housed in the Hermitage at Leningrad- save for those pictures that a cash starved Soviet government in turn sold to Andrew Mellon), Sir Robert Walpole employed not only the ambassadors of the Crown to scour the dealers but also spies and secret agents to discover what might be extracted from the houses of the European nobility.

painting by Sr Joshua Reynolds. —The lady is Louisa, second daughter of George Pitt, 1st Baron Rivers and married to a Dorset landowner whose principal enthusiasms in life are hunting and dog-breeding. Louisa took little interest in her husband’s pursuits, nor in the literary works for which he would be remembered: Thoughts upon Hare and Fox Hunting and Essays on Hunting, Containing a Philosophical Enquiry into the nature of Scent. ‘She was a creature of a fiercely passionate nature, a spirit all compact of fire’, wrote one commentator, while Peter Beckford ‘was a cynical man of the world with the looseness of principle and the hardness of temper of the typical eighteenth-century “fine gentleman.”’ Their marriage, predictably, was a wreck. But at the time this portrait was painted Louisa was infatuated with her husband’s cousin. William Beckford was the complete antithesis of Peter. Poet, musician, novelist, architect, connoisseur, Gothic and Oriental fantasist, he possessed the fabulous wealth, from his father’s vast Jamaican sugar plantations, to put his ostentatious fantasies into practice. When he travelled in Europe the size of his retinue resulted in his being mistaken for the Austrian Emperor. He celebrated his coming of age in September 1781, with a party costing an unprecedented £40,000.
Mrs Beckford’s intrigue with her husband’s cousin was by no means a simple triangular affair. At first she acted as the confidante and go-between in William Beckford’s homosexual liaison with the teenage son of Viscount Courtenay. Young Courtenay (‘Kitty’ to his friends) was said to be one of the most beautiful boys in England. Louisa, however, soon fell passionately in love with William on her own account.—Read More:

Naturally prices soared; Sir Robert himself frequently broke his own records; usually this hardheaded statesman, to whom suspicion was as natural as breathing, bought well; but many vain, arrogant young noblemen became easy dupes for the fakes and copyists. Yet even so, the artistic collections of the English nobility, even after the enforced sales of the twentieth century, remain of exceptional quality and worthy of the most distinguished museums of Europe. ( to be continued)…

The entrance hall at Syon House is the work of Robert Adam, eighteenth-century England’s greatest architect. The room is a double cube and is entirely white except for the black and white marble floor. Image:|Brentford||1|20|20|150

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