Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review Of "Improper Pursuits"

 By Carola Hicks

... is a biography of Lady Diana Spencer-Beauclerk. The story takes place from the mid eighteenth century until her death in 1808. She was a very famous artist during her time, and even now. You may not know her name, but you will know some of her paintings.
Portrait of Lady Diana Beauclerk by Richard Cosway

Lady Di first married Viscount Bolinbroke, where she

found herself the mistress of  and estate which included the Manor House at Battersea, a rambling, many-roomed wainscoted Elizabethan house which had been lived in and loved as their London home by many generations of St. Johns; a nearby dower hose had been built more recently by Wren. The gardens of the Manor ran right down to the Thames, where the widening river curved and gave misty views of Chelsea village on the opposite bank, accessible by private ferry.[1]

However, that house was too far from London, so they rented a house at 7 St. James’ Square, which was the most desirable street in the mid 1700s. Very little else is given regarding this fashionable abode, which does seem a little odd. However, Hicks gave quite a bit of information regarding the Viscount’s country estate where hundreds of acres of estate grounds were “set in the gently rolling Wiltshire downs.”[2] Here, “Bully” as the Viscount was called, was changing the formal gardens into the more Romantic style. There, a “magnificent avenue and a massively walled flower garden… provided a sunny and fragrant haven as well as the fresh fruit and vegetables which were not just consumed at the house, but also sent up to London when the family were there.”[3] Apparently, this estate created forty-five thousand pounds per anum, but still not enough to cover the spend-thrift’s debts!

As the lady remarried (a real intrigue, so you need to read the book!), she began painting on a semi-professional bases. She “established a reputation as a flower painter.” Now, with her new husband, Topham Beauclerk, she moved into the newly completed Adelphi development, which was designed by the Adam brothers, which had magnificent vies of the Thames. (See an old paper of mine on Rober Adam here)

London householders were charged a national tax (land and window tax) and a parish rate, the latter contributing towards poor relief, the watch, and street lighting, cleansing and repairs… water pipes into domestic cisterns in the front basement area… [and] used a steam pump to supply local mains. Households could have their own supplies even pumped to an [4]

upper floor, and many had a flushing lavatory. (Not for the use of the servants, however, who had to use a hut in the back yard, whose cesspool was emptied by the night-soil men.)”

Besides their London home, they also had a country house called The Grove at Muswell Hill, which was their “rural base.” Interestingly, this foothold of the family estate was only a rental, and was not owned at any time. And, apparently they spent exorbitant amounts on continue refurbishing. So much so that tickets were charged and had to be applied for well in advance. There were splendid greenhouses, hothouses, observatory, laboratory for chemical experiments, and one of the best libraries around. They also cannibalized the real family seat, an old medieval timber house for its “fine inlaid oak floor” from the great parlor, the wainscoting and carved woodwork to fit up the Grove, and then let it rot into ruin.[5]

Lady Di painted settings and caricatures, but she was famous for her classical “pretensions” of “pretty little fauns and cherubs” as well as flowers.[6] She did quite a few for Wedgwood!
What puts her here, besides owning and living in so many palaces, is that she also painted the walls
of some of them. She painted six rectangular panels, which were over twelve feet high and three feet wide… EACH, as well as three smaller ones to go over doorways. These particular panels were painted on paper and hung on wood so that they were portable. They were

Over several hundred square feet of painted surfaces. Each panel is different in detail but follows the same formal structure. There is a strong cornflower-blue background, against which are vertical bamboo trellis supports, wreathed with different types of leaves, flowers and tendrils of jasmine, pinks, roses, passion flowers, honesuckle – which carry on across the top and bottom. At the base of each there is a bouquet of three or four contrasted [7]

Pair of wine coolers; blue and white jasper ware; subject,, in a different permutation for each of the six panels – carnation blends with honeysuckle and narcissus, briar rose with dahlia and lily, all entwined together and depicted with exquisite detail and botanical accuracy.

There is even more to this description, but you need to pick up the book to find out more. She painted more for friends and family One was a three-dimensional Rococo fountain design for her nephew the Marquess of Blandford at Whtie Knights Park in Reading. Hicks said that her “flower murals are still full of impact for their formal properties of color and design as well as for their botanical accuracy.”[8] Plus, I add, they are pretty!

Almost forgot the Walpole Cabinet! She painted all of these and Walpole had this made especially for the paintings. They reflect a book that he was writing at the time.

[1] 75.
[2] 78.
[3] Ibid.
[4] 161.
[5] 209.
[6] 221.
[7] 311.
[8] 356.

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