Tag Archives: Lady Catherine Walpole

18th century escapades – Lady Walpole’s curious grotto

Whenever I start to write about the paintings of Marianne Rush I have a tendency to wander off into fantasy. As I recently had a very pleasant meeting with a distant relative of the lady I feel an obligation to anchor this post in reality as far as possible. So let’s be clear. The picture below is not a painting by Rush, (we’ll get to her later) although there’s something about the trees and the foliage in the foreground which reminds me of her work. This is a black and white photograph of a water colour by another artist (possibly unknown) of “Mrs Aufrere’s house in the Stableyard, Chelsea”, about 1780. It shows the entrance to the Coal Creek, a kind of canal which ran a short distance into the grounds to the west of the Royal Hospital, and on the corner, the Octagon Summer House.

The house which may be visible in the distance used to be called Walpole House, and had been one of the residences of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (but don’t get him confused with the previous Earl of Orford, Edward Russell, who had been Walpole’s mentor and whose title died out. Walpole took the title himself as a tribute to his old friend). Walpole is regarded as the first Prime Minister and the longest serving in that role. (He is the father of Horace Walpole, author of the Castle of Otranto, the first “Gothic” novel and builder of an extraordinary house, Strawberry Hill  in Twickenham which fortunately you can read about elsewhere) Walpole and his first wife Catherine (Horace’s mother) used the house and garden for entertaining and filled both with extravagant collection of furniture, decorations and exotic trees and plants.

I have here next to me a small pamphlet entitled…. well, instead of copying all that out let’s use the medium of the digital image.

There’s that word “curious”. The final line refers to a separate sale of “exoticks”. Regretfully we don’t have a copy of that. The exoticks, were the many plants and small trees which had grown in the garden, along with exotic fruit like pineapples, which were popular and expensive items for the leisured classes of the day.

Walpole died in 1745, hence the sale. His wife had died in 1737. Without intending to malign either of them, it seems that though the marriage had begun as a happy one, the two had gone their own way in its latter years. Walpole also had children by his mistress Maria , who became his wife after Catherine’s death.

I had no trouble finding images of Sir Robert. Here he is looking as grand as possible

Although we have a print showing Lady Walpole it proved slightly harder to find. Fortunately there are other images of her online. She was famed as a great beauty, but not as notorious as a slightly later celebrity.

The sale catalogue backs up the notion that the Walpoles enjoyed an extravagant and sumptuous lifestyle.

Have a look at the contents of ” the taffetty bedroom

Fabric wall coverings were popular with those who could afford them.

The contents of the “worsted damask bed chamber”:

The senior servants’ rooms were less ornate, although they had the basics, and probably wouldn’t have complained about the “feather beds”.

 

Also listed is “the red room in the garden

That would be one for the 18th century version of World of Interiors.

When writing this post I’ve relied heavily on an article on Walpole House written by the late David Le Lay for the Chelsea Society Annual Report in 2013. David and I spent an hour or so one afternoon examining prints of the Royal Hospital looking for a glimpse of the House on the western side. This print by Maurer seems to offer a view.

You can see the summer house again, on the extreme right, and to the left a single storey building with a row of windows which might be the Orangery.  The house itself could be behind that. A close -up helps a little.

But let’s not worry too much about the elusive house. According to an early volume of the Survey of London the house couldn’t be seen from the river.

With the garden buildings in mind let’s turn at last to Marianne Rush.

She calls this the “Green House”, not a glass house as we would think of today, although some doubts creep in here. The building in the pictures looks a little like the Orangery, which still exists. But the architect, Vanburgh,  favoured round headed windows. At any rate it was a building containing many plants and fruit trees, with paintings and objects, and space for entertaining.

According to Thomas Faulkner in his History of Chelsea (1829) “Lady Walpole took great delight in improving these gardens and spared no expense in procuring natural and artificial curiosities from foreign parts. Her grotto exited much of the attention of the curious at that time.” 

“During the King’s absence in Germany one summer Queen Caroline frequently honoured Lady Walpole with a visit, and dined in the green-house, which was laid out with choice flowers and plants, and hung with some of the fine paintings which were afterwards removed by the Earl of Orford.”

In August 1729 the Walpoles entertained the Queen and several other dukes and princesses. ” A kitchen was built on purpose in the stable yards…with above 20 places for fires etc. The Fruit for the Dessert was collected for a week previous from all Quarter of the Town…there were several Barges of fine Musick playing all the Time. After which they returned to the Green House where the illustrious company were entertained with a Ball and afterwards supp’d in the same place.” According to the Monthly Chronicles, quoted by Alfred Beaver in his book Memorials of Old Chelsea. An exaggerated account? Well you wouldn’t get all that in here:

It’s not clear whether Marianne ever actually saw some of the buildings she painted but she seems to have been quite careful in her work and if she never actually saw the Ranelagh Rotunda for example she would have been familiar with it from prints and engravings. We give her the benefit of the doubt.

The grotto is a little more problematic. Here is Marianne’s painting. Look carefully.

Is that something like a Hindu deity beside the urns? Maybe not.

As David Le Lay and others who have written about it (I also looked at an article in a 2004 periodical called Follies) have said, it’s not quite clear where the grotto actually was. There are some half-buried arches on the grounds but they don’t look much like Rush’s picture and it’s hard to imagine the grotto in its heyday when it was much celebrated and compared favourably with Queen Caroline’s own grotto. There were even some verses in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1734.

[Scan from Faulkner, which was clearer and didn’t obscure the name W-lp-le.]

 

 

And rival Grotto Caroline.” Decorating your grotto with shells was a bit of a thing back then. I looked at an article in Country Life for 1944 (February, when there was still some time before D-Day to think about grottos) showing some examples, which mentions Lady Walpole’s grotto, but of course had no pictures.

There are no signs of any shell decorations in Rush’s interior.

So perhaps this view is speculative, or just imaginary, although Rush did like that trope of 18th century water-colourists, the empty room.

The summer house too looks  quite deserted, apart from that bust. She’s taken care with that glimpse of the view outside and the light entering the small room. Can I  see a hint of the windmill on the south bank?

Rush’s view of the exterior is a useful point at which to stop, as it provides the opposite point of view from our first picture, and does seem to look like other views of the summer house. There’s the windmill again. (There really was one – it appears in several prints.)

Marianne got this one right so perhaps she knew more than us. But. as I’ve found, an aura of mystery still clings to her and her paintings. And I like that, as you’ve probably realised.

Postscript

I have used the Rush pictures before in one or two of the imaginative posts I used to write when I started the blog so it’s good to get back to seeing them as views of reality. When they were first acquired by the library in the 1920s it was because they provided a valuable look at a whole series of buildings which no longer existed. I am still very taken with their visionary qualities though, and it seems quite appropriate that we’re not quite sure about Lady Walpole’s grotto. We were high on word count and low on pictures this week so I’m going to find a furnished summer house and lie down now. Oh, and I don’t think I’ve ever had to say this but as this is a complicated business I should add that any errors are mine and are not attributable to any of the sources I’ve used.

This post is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Marianne Rush herself and David Le Lay, a friend of Chelsea.

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