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When a House Is Not a Home: Elite English Women and the Eighteenth-Century Country House

  • Judith S. Lewis



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1 Quoted by Rowse, A. L., The Early Churchills (New York, 1956), 284. More recently, Henrietta Spencer-Churchill has asserted that while traditionally attributed to Alexander Pope, “Upon the Duke of Marlborough's House at Woodstock” was in fact the work of Evans, Abel. See Blenheim and the Churchill Family: A Personal Portrait (New York, 2005), 87.

2 Arnold, Dana, “Defining Femininity: Women and the Country House,” in The Georgian Country House: Architecture, Landscape, and Society, ed. Arnold, Dana (Stroud, 1998), 79; Franklin, Jill, The Gentleman's Country House and Its Plan, 1835–1914 (London, 1981). A notable exception is Christie, Christopher, The British Country House in the Eighteenth Century (Manchester, 2000), who devotes a chapter to women and the family in his survey.

3 Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 20 vols. (Oxford, 1989), 7:322–29.

4 On this point, see Vickery, Amanda, The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England (London, 1998), 6; Davidoff, Leonore, Doolittle, Megan, Fink, Janet, and Holden, Katherine, The Family Story: Blood, Contract, and Intimacy, 1830–1960 (London, 1999), 54, 84, 85.

5 For a nuanced discussion of the luxury critique and its discursive functions, see Wahrman, Dror, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c. 1780–1840 (Cambridge, 1995), 6073. For the way in which the luxury critique affected politically active upper-class women, see Lewis, Judith S., Sacred to Female Patriotism: Gender, Class, and Politics in Late Georgian Britain (New York, 2003), 163–74. For research into the realities of landed women and their patterns of consumption and taste, see Helen Berry, “Women, Consumption and Taste,” in Women's History: Britain, 1700–1850, an Introduction, ed. Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus (London, 2005), 197–99; Ruth Larsen, “Introduction: ‘Secret Springs’—Unlocking the History of the Women of the Yorkshire Country House,” in Maids and Mistresses: Celebrating Three Hundred Years of Women and the Yorkshire Country House, ed. Ruth M. Larsen (Castle Howard, 2004), 1–3; Vickery, Amanda, “Women and the World of Goods: A Lancashire Consumer and Her Possessions, 1751–81,” in Consumption and the World of Goods, ed. Brewer, John and Porter, Roy (London, 1997), 274.

6 See, e.g., Bannet, Eve Tavor, “The Bluestocking Sisters: Women's Patronage, Millennium Hall, and the Visible Providence of a Country,” Eighteenth-Century Life 30, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 25; Virginia Kenny, The Country House Ethos in English Literature, 1688–1750 (Sussex, 1984).

7 Arnold, Dana, “The Country House and Its Publics,” in Georgian Country House, 23; Wilson, Richard and Mackley, Alan, Creating Paradise: The Building of the English Country House, 1660–1880 (London, 2000), 271; Beckett, J. V., The Aristocracy in England, 1660–1914 (Oxford, 1986), 366.

8 Franklin, Gentleman's Country House. Similarly, see Peel, J. H. B., An Englishman's Home (Newton Abbot, 1972). James Lees-Milne, arguing in 1974 on behalf of the preservation of country houses, enunciated three major categories: “the country house created by a great man; the house which becomes the retreat of a great man; and the house which created a great man.” Clearly, the concept of national heritage did not then include either women or mediocrities. See “The Country House in Our Heritage,” in The Destruction of the Country House, 1875–1975, ed. Strong, Roy, Binney, Marcus, and Harris, John (London, 1974), 13.

9 Kugler, Anne, Errant Plagiary: The Life and Writing of Lady Sarah Cowper, 1644–1720 (Stanford, CA, 2002).

10 Mandler, Peter, The Rise and Fall of the Stately Home (London, 1997), 129.

11 See Lewis, , Female Patriotism, 65126; also see Chalus, Elaine, “‘To Serve My Friends’: Women and Political Patronage in Eighteenth-Century England,” in Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present, ed. Vickery, Amanda (Stanford, CA, 2001), 5788. For the nineteenth century, see Reynolds, Kim, Aristocratic Women and Political Society in Victorian Britain (Oxford, 1998).

12 See Judith S. Lewis, “1784 and All That: Aristocratic Women and Electoral Politics,” in Vickery, Women, Privilege, and Power, 99, and Female Patriotism, 97–113; Steinbach, Susie, Women in England, 1760–1914: A Social History (New York, 2004), 8081; Perkin, Joan, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England (Chicago, 1989), 8687.

13 Davidoff et al., Family Story, 83.

14 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Rochberg-Halton, Eugene, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (Cambridge, 1981), 121.

15 Tadmor, Naomi, Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England: Household, Kinship, and Patronage (Cambridge, 2001).

16 Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, Meaning of Things, 144.

17 Lewis, Female Patriotism, 171–73, 181–82. See also Wahrman, Dror, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, CT, 2004).

18 Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, Meaning of Things, 4.

19 ibid., 17.

20 Quoted by Turberville, A. S., A History of Welbeck Abbey and Its Owners, 2 vols. (London, 1938), 1:400–401.

21 ibid., 1:393.

22 ibid., 1:399.

23 Jackson-Stops, Gervase and Pipkin, James, The English Country House: A Grand Tour (Boston, 1985), 35.

24 ibid., 32–33.

25 Harris, Frances, A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Oxford, 1991), 8, 11, 12.

26 Frances Harris, “Holywell House, St. Albans: An Early Work of William Talman,” Architectural History 28 (1985): 32.

27 Rowse, Early Churchills, 24–25, 95–96. Although he was the oldest son, John had not inherited a home from the Churchills, who were minor provincial gentry at the time of his birth in 1650. Minterne, the family home, went to his younger brother Charles.

28 Harris, Passion, 83.

29 Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, to Mr. Craggs, Friday morning [1711], British Library (BL), Stowe MSS 751, fol. 1.

30 Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, to Mr. Craggs, Friday morning [1711], British Library (BL), Stowe MSS 751, fol. 2.

31 Harris, Passion, 83.

32 Duchess of Marlborough to Craggs, BL, Stowe MSS 751, fols. 7–8.

33 Harris, Passion, 119. It is only fair to Sarah to point out that she was not the only client with whom Vanbrugh had a troubled relationship. The papers of his widow show that many clients owed the architect money at the time of his death and that these accounts had not been settled because of disputes about price, primarily cost overruns that involved years of litigation and the services of Hoare and an array of attorneys. Lady Vanbrugh at Whitehall, Borthwick Institute, York, Yarburgh MSS YM/VAN/9 [1743].

34 Harris, Passion, 222.

35 Jackson-Stops and Pipkin, English Country House, 88–89.

36 Girouard, Mark, Life in the English Country House (New Haven, CT, 1978), 251.

37 Sarah Duchess of Marlborough to Mr. Craggs, St. Albans, July 1711, BL, Stowe MSS 751, fols. 8–10.

38 Sarah Duchess of Marlborough to Mr. Craggs, 18 July 1714, BL, Stowe MSS 751, fol. 112.

39 Harris, Passion, 82. Sarah also noted of Althorp that it had “room enough in it to entertain a King, if one could have so bad a taste as to like them.”

40 Girouard, Life in the English Country House, 179–91.

41 Harris, Passion, 213.

42 ibid., 221–22. Most architectural historians, of course, side with Vanbrugh and, quite typically, blame Sarah for the delays in completing the structure. See, e.g., Bence-Jones, Mark, Great English Homes: Ancestral Homes of England and Wales and the People Who Lived in Them (New York, 1984), 42. The reality, of course, was not only the problem of Sarah's rupture with the queen but also that of the cost overruns: Vanbrugh and the duke were spending so much more than the government had anticipated. The building stoppage between 1712 and 1716 came about because the workmen refused to work without getting paid, and Marlborough had to negotiate with the government over who would pay which costs. A. L. Rowse actually suggested years ago that Vanbrugh purposely failed to complete the family apartments out of fear that the Marlboroughs would fire him once they had a place to live (Rowse, Early Churchills, 288–89). Sarah always feared the “sencelesse lyes” that were being told about “the reason of stopping the building,” there being “not a shilling of money” when she wrote in July 1711 (Duchess of Marlborough to Craggs, BL, Stowe MSS 751, fol. 7).

43 Harris, Passion, 253. If the twelfth-century romantic triangle had any personal meaning for the Churchills and Vanbrugh, surely the two men liked to fancy themselves in the role of the great Henry II, while Sarah, of course, would have identified with Eleanor of Aquitaine.

44 Blenheim Inventory, BL, Add. MSS 61473.

45 ibid. Henrietta Spencer-Churchill quite correctly regards the production of this twenty-page inventory, four years after the eighty-year-old Sarah had last set foot in Blenheim, as a “remarkable feat of memory” (Spencer-Churchill, Blenheim, 94).

46 Harris, Passion, 10.

47 Harris, “Holywell House,” 35.

48 Harris, Passion, 304. Mackley and Wilson, of course, have pointed out that the professional architect was something new, the great country houses prior to Vanbrugh's Castle Howard having been completed by masters or clerks of the works. Vanbrugh was more the first of the breed than typical.

49 ibid., 100.

50 ibid., 319.

51 Wilson and Mackley, Creating Paradise, 272–73, 348–49, 355.

52 Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, Meaning of Things, 17.

53 Lewis, Female Patriotism, 26–28, 44–45, 75. James Lomax says that both “husband and wife were passionate collectors of real discrimination” (Temple Newsam Paintings [Leeds, 2000], 5). Present curator of Temple Newsam, James Lomax was of enormous assistance in the preparation of this article. See also his article, “Temple Newsam: A Woman's Domain,” in Larsen, Maids and Mistresses, 89–104.

54 Jackson-Stops and Pipkin, English Country House, 82.

55 Christie, British Country House, 279.

56 Wells-Cole, Anthony, “Another Look at Lady Hertford's Drawing Room,” Leeds Art Calendar 98 (1986): 16; Leeds Art Collection Fund, The Temple Newsam Inventory, 1808 (Leeds, 1987), 28.

57 Wells-Cole, “Another Look,” 16; Frances, Lady Irwin, to Lady Susan Stewart, 8 April 1766 and 8 November 1767, Granville MSS, The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) 30/29/4/20 and TNA: PRO 30/29/4/25. Lady Susan, the daughter of the earl of Galloway, would eventually marry George Granville Leveson-Gower, ultimately becoming the marchioness of Stafford.

58 Quoted in Cocks, Anne Somers, “The Nonfunctional Use of Ceramics in the English Country House during the Eighteenth Century,” in The Fashioning and Functioning of the British Country House, ed. Jackson-Stops, Gervase, Schochet, Gorden J., Orlin, Lena Cowen, and MacDougall, Elisabeth Blair (Hanover, NH, 1989), 205; also Christie, British Country House, 95 n. 252.

59 Frances (then styled Mrs. Ingram) to Lady Susan Stewart, 16 March 1759, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/12.

60 Lady Irwin to Lady Susan Stewart, 5 February 1767, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2/23.

61 Lady Irwin to Lady Susan Stewart, 8 April 1766, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2/20.

62 Lady Irwin to Lady Gower (the former Lady Susan Stewart), 2 March 1770, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2/33.

63 Lady Irwin to Lady Susan Stewart, 16 March 1759, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2/12; Lady Irwin to Lady Gower, 11 May 1769, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2/29.

64 Lady Irwin to Lady Susan Stewart, 8 April 1766, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2/20.

65 Frances, Lady Irwin, to Lady Gower, 7 May 1771, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/40.

66 Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, Meaning of Things, 33; Klein, Lawrence E., “Politeness for Plebes: Consumption and Social Identity in Early Eighteenth-Century England,” in The Consumption of Culture, 1600–1800: Image, Object, Text, ed. Bermingham, Ann and Brewer, John (New York, 1995), 377.

67 Lady Irwin to Lady Gower, 27 November 1769, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2/31; same to same, 8 August 1774, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2/44. She refers to Temple Newsam as “my old mansion” in a 1780 letter to Lady Gower (TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2/52).

68 Lomax, “Woman's Domain,” 91; Lady Irwin to Lady Susan Stewart, 5 February 1767, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/23.

69 Lady Irwin to Lady Gower, 8 August 1779, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/2.

70 Lady Irwin to Lady Gower, 29 August 1778, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/48.

71 The occasion was the visit of Lord William Gordon in 1780 to pay court to her second daughter, Fanny. Lady Irwin to Lady Gower, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/52.

72 Alistair Laing, “The Eighteenth-Century English Chimney Piece,” in Jackson-Stops et al., Fashioning and Functioning, 249.

73 Leeds Art Collection Fund, Temple Newsam Inventory, 16, 38.

74 ibid., 45.

75 ibid., 34.

76 Lomax, “Woman's Domain,” 96–97.

77 Leeds Art Collection Fund, Temple Newsam Inventory, 28.

78 ibid., 14. There were some items in the house that properly bespoke “dynasty.” The Ingram coat of arms appears on a set of mid-eighteenth-century china, probably purchased before her time. The most impressive sign of dynasty in her time was the re-engraving of the family silver, 420 items of cutlery with a coat of arms, ninety-eight dishes and plates, as well as occasional pieces like sauce boats, a coffee pot, and a bread basket with full armorials. The bill for this undertaking was dated 1773, therefore in the lifetime of her husband, the ninth Viscount Irwin (ibid., 16).

79 Lady Irwin to Lady Susan Stewart, 14 December 1766, TNA: PRO 30/29/4/22. There were 119 paintings separately identified in the inventory (aside from family portraits, considered heirlooms and going directly to the daughters), of which only seventy-six hung in the Picture Gallery. Nineteen were on the walls of Lady Irwin's dressing room, and another ten were in her smaller anteroom, while others were scattered about the house.

80 Arthur Young, A Six months Tour Through the North of England Containing an Account of the Present State of Agriculture, Manufacture, and Population, in Several Counties of this Kingdom … interspersed with Descriptions of the Seats of the Nobility and Gentry and other remarkable objects, 4 vols. (London, 1770), 1:349.

81 Leeds Art Collection Fund, Temple Newsam Inventory, 35, 38, 42.

82 Lomax, “Woman's Domain,” 96.

83 Lewis, Female Patriotism, 26–28.

84 Lady Irwin's eldest daughter, Isabella, marchioness of Hertford, was perhaps typical of this transition to a more historicized view of the past. She inherited Temple Newsam “for life” after the death of her mother and proceeded to impose a sort of “faux Jacobean” splendor on much of the house, creating a Darnley room with red damask in the space that was his alleged birthplace. Her marriage settlement included the terms that the Hertford dynasty take on the names Shepheard Ingram, in addition to their own surnames of Seymour Conway, in recognition of the fortune she brought. Temple Newsam itself, however, did not go to that family but ultimately went to the eldest son of her third sister, Elizabeth.

85 Cohen, Deborah, Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions (New Haven, CT, 2006), 86.

86 Burke's Peerage describes her as “Frances, only daughter of Thomas Talbot of Gonville, Norfolk,” while the artist Joseph Farington, who visited Saltram, describes her as “the daughter of a surgeon and apothecary at Wymondham.” The parish registers of Wymondham indicate that Frances Talbot, daughter of Thomas Talbot, gentleman, and Frances, his wife, was baptized on 11 January 1782 (Norfolk Records Office, Norwich, PD 184/4). This entry is consistent with that found in Rye, W., Norfolk Families (Norwich, 1913), which contains an entry for Talbot of Wymondham. Thomas Talbot (1744–95), her likely father, not identified by profession, was the father of a clergyman and the grandson of a doctor. He appears to be descended from Thomas Talbot, who was MP for Castle Rising in 1640 and is described as “Lord of Gonville Hall Manor in Wymondham” (874–75). Thanks to Jonathan Draper, archivist at Norfolk record office, for the reference. However, Fanny was married from a place called Hadrack Priory (BL, Add. MSS 48233, fols. 1–2).

87 Johnson, Ceri, Saltram (London, 1998), 22, 50, 25.

88 Fanny Talbot to the Honorable Mrs. Villiers, 8 August 1809, Morley Papers, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

89 Johnson, Saltram, 50.

90 Frances Lady Boringdon to Hon. Mrs. Villiers, Badminton, 5 September 1809, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

91 Lady Boringdon to Hon. Mrs. Villiers, 28 August 1809, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

92 Lady Boringdon to Hon. Mrs. Villiers, 8 February 1810, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

93 Lady Boringdon to Hon. Mrs. Villiers, 10 September 1809, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

94 Lady Boringdon to Hon. Mrs. Villiers, 9 September 1809, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

95 Fanny Talbot to Hon. Mrs. Villiers, 8 August 1809, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

96 Fanny, Lady Boringdon, to Hon. Mrs. Villiers, 16 and 23 September 1809, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

97 Fanny, Lady Morley (her husband was elevated to the earldom in 1815), to Mary, Lady Grey [ca. 1825], Hickleton MSS A1.4.18, Borthwick Institute, York.

98 Johnson, Saltram, 8, 50.

99 Fanny, Lady Morley, to Mary, Lady Grey [ca. 1825], Hickleton MSS A11.4.18. Similarly, we note that her first visit to Castle Howard did not take place until 1825, despite the fact that Lord Morpeth was one of her husband's very closest friends. But he had not succeeded his father as earl of Carlisle until that year. This suggests that he and his wife, who had spent all twenty-four years of their marriage (and were already grandparents) under the paternal roof at Castle Howard, could only now invite their friends to visit. So it may not have been only women who could not escape the rigors of paternal authority. Men just had earlier hopes of escaping.

100 Frances, Lady Boringdon, to the Honorable Mrs. Villiers, 12 October 1809, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

101 Fanny Boringdon to Mrs. Villiers, 12 October 1809 and 18 November 1812, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

102 Frances, Lady Boringdon, to Hon. Mrs. Villiers, 30 September and [?] October 1810, BL, Add. MSS 48233.

103 Lord Boringdon to his sister, Hon. Mrs. Villiers, 19 October 1810, BL, Add. MSS 48228.

104 Quoted in Bence-Jones, Great English Homes, 195.

105 Johnson, Saltram, 42, 44, 46–47, 50.

106 ibid., 4–5, 9, 44, 48.

107 Lady Boringdon to Hon. Mrs. Villiers, 9 September 1809, BL, Add. MSS 48233. There are eleven portraits by Reynolds at Saltram. Far from being of distant ancestors, however, the portraits were of his mother, who died when he was three, and other immediate family members, some he would have known and some he would not have. One was of himself as a boy. His having hidden them away might therefore have reflected a psychological component on his part, although he raised no objections to Fanny's putting them on display.

108 Johnson, Saltram, 51–53.

109 ibid., 11, 25, 27.

110 Tague, Ingrid, Women of Quality: Accepting and Contesting Ideals of Femininity in England, 1690–1760 (Woodbridge, 2002), 98.

111 Cobbe, Frances Power, The Duties of Women: A Course of Lectures (London, 1881), 139, as quoted in Cohen, Household Gods, 104–5.

112 Davidoff, Leonore and Hall, Catherine, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (Chicago, 1987).

113 Christie, British Country House, 111.


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