Heiresses, art, and the Midlands

Subtitle: Female affluence and patronage, or the vicissitudes of compulsive collectors. Or: Abbesses, arrivistes, aristocrats and art.

Context: Last October my wife and I broke a round trip to Northumbria with overnights in the English Midlands and came across fabulous artistic treats. I was guided partly by a Matthew Parris Telegraph piece, but also by my crazes for Medieval stained glass and Swagger Portraits.

Case Number One: Herkenrode glass in Lichfield

The Lady Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire, has breath-taking stained glass from the 1530s. The images are vivid and muscular, fit for a modern cartoon or superhero movie. The windows were originally made for the aristocratic or at any rate affluent Cistercian nuns of Herkenrode Abbey, in the east of Belgium, during one of their convent’s periods of great prosperity when they invested heavily in artistic objects of devotion. I learn from Yvette Vanden Bemden’s 2008 article (see footnotes), that various affluent familes paid for the glorious work.

In the late 1790s the windows were rescued from the French Revolution’s dissolution of Herkenrode by some of its ousted and enterprising nuns. They bought the monastery from the state and resold their holding to a property dealer who in turn sold on the fabulous glass at local (and under-rated and therefore cheap) rates to a minor English aristocrat, Sir Brooke Boothby, whose later life was importantly informed by his grief for his daughter, Penelope, who had died aged four. This intellectual, sensitive, and extravagant man then passed the bargain on at cost to Lichfield Cathedral for re-installation there in 1803.

Thus was restored some of the artistic damage caused to the cathedral’s glass by the mid-17th century Civil War and the likes of the great Puritan iconoclast, Sir Robert Harley and his Committee for the Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry. This Harley was (by my count) the great, great, grandfather of the collecting-mad Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford we are about to meet. (See below.) In our time, the glass was dismantled, restored, and re-installed (2015).

Case Number Two: Capitalism, fabrics and recycling

Vast Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, was the creation of “Bess of Hardwick” (1527-1608). “Bess” is too cosy a moniker for this powerful figure. Elizabeth Hardwick, of local minor gentry farming stock, rose in her second marriage to be Lady Cavendish and in her fourth and last, the Countess of Shrewsbury. The last of her several building projects, Hardwick Hall, has a fabulous display of wall hangings from her various houses. True to our secondary  theme – the changing fortunes of patrons and their art – the most treasured of Hardwick’s fabrics are appliqué embroideries which re-deploy or recycle sections of medieval ecclesiastical capes. In a row about them with Lord Shrewsbury, Bess said these were acquired by her third husband, Sir William St Loe (1518–1565) who had rescued them from Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Bess either tolerated or didn’t spot the courage or craziness of Mary, Queen of Scots, her husband’s prisoner, as the latter embroidered fine dissident heraldic images, now revealed and discussed at their home in the V&A.

Bess is a mysterious figure: she seems to have been acquisitive to the point of ruthlessness. It was said that she was manish in her ambition; but maybe also she was simply aware that marriage was the womanly tool society had given her and she wasn’t going to waste her several chances at it. Three of her marriages enriched her, but not least because of the capitalist talent she brought to her husbands’ side.

Apart from schemes for self-advancement, entrepreurship and asset management, Elizabeth’s creativity seems to have been homely and artistic and was very often overtly feminist in its celebration of qualities possessed by historic women. She did at least some hands-on work with fabrics, even if she made sure paid experts and craftspeople were also on hand. Goodness knows what either she or Mary would have thought about the modern plebeian pleasure taken in their works. 

Case Number Three: Funding and recovering from a spendthrift connoisseur

At Welbeck, in the “Dukeries” of Nottinghamshire, the Portland Collection is testimony to aristocratic ingenuity, patronage and the collecting bug across several generations. In the 1740s, Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles, Countess of Oxford, retired to Welbeck Abbey where she could create a fitting memorial to her noble family and her late husband, the connoisseur, Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford, the latest of a clever collecting family which had come a long way quickly from its origins in the Herefordshire squirearchy. Edward Harley’s generosity and passion for art and books had run though much of the huge wealth she brought the marriage before shame and drinking overtook him. As Edward’s widow, Henrietta set about dispersing his collection, not least the manuscripts which would become a mainstay of the British Library. Lichfield’s Samuel Johnson co-authored the catalogue of some of the works, and thus – perhaps more than he knew – future-proofed its reputation and value.

The Harley Gallery on the Welbeck estate now houses two free galleries: one celebrates the Portland family forebears.and the other has rotating shows on more modern art. One reels away from the former especially very aware that affluence and aristocracy licence fabulous innovation, patronage, and whimsicality.      

Margaret’s collection was dispersed by her will because she seems to have thought her children were variously undeserving or in greater need of funds than artefacts. But with dispersal came an auction catalogue which is a treasure trove in its own right. Besides, much of her material ended up in good hands.

Case Number Four: The collecting bug is inherited and revved up

Case Three’s Lady Henrietta had a daughter, Lady Margaret Cavendish Holles Harley, who on her marriage became Duchess of Portland (1715-1785). She, if possible, out-collected her father and out-dispersed her mother. She amassed a vast collection of natural history materials in the manner of the old Tradescant “Cabinet of Curiosities”. The wonder, a little over-looked (but not by the gallery’s own appreciative monograph on her), is that she also vigorously represented a new age of pre-Darwinian, proto-scientific taxonomy. She was, in short, an intellectual pioneer and patron and admired for it in her own day. This thoughtfulness is well-suited to the region: Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802, grandfather of Charles) was over at Lichfield, and wrestled with science’s overhaul of speculation and superstition.

Margaret’s story is a useful corrective to the modern riff that feminism was invented by the 20th Century. Her patronage of and involvement in the Bluestocking movement has strong echoes of the hands-on creative work of that great female capitalist, Bess of Hardwick, generations before. They are both worthy successors of Lady Margaret Beaufort (c1443-1509): a matriarch of the Tudors, fenland improver (she drained some) and important sponsor of urban, lay female spirituality in the east midlands, not least in Stamford (now in Lincolnshire).  

Case Number Five: Sudden gains and losses, and beauty as a sort of patronage

John Singer Sargent’s Winifred, Countess of Portland, 1902

One gasps at first sight of the swagger portrait of Winifred, Duchess of Portland in the collection which bears her name, at Welbeck. Typically of John Singer Sargent at his best, it is designed to be glamorous and extravagant but also to speak of the subject’s interiority which if not troubled is somehow tantalising. Winifred Anna Dallas-Yorke was born in Scotland of the Lincolnshire squirearchy in 1863. She almost fails the test of this small series. She was a kindly soul, good to the tenantry, and outstanding as a campaigning animal-lover. But then she makes the list: she sponsored a working class miner to become an art student. She must have been a character in her own right, since her husband, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland, ruefully and publicly acknowledged her power to make him more philanthropic than he might otherwise have been, not least since he did so well out of his horse-racing interests.

Winifred bowled people over at every level of society. Charles J Archard, editor of the Newark Herald wrote one slight book, The Portland Peerage Romance (1907, and available at The Gutenberg Project). It is an ideal romp through the Portland saga, from Bess to his own day. But it becomes rhapsodic on Winifred. “She was a merry girl as she used to ride her pony in the Lincolnshire lanes, indeed, she was regarded as somewhat of a tomboy, but a year or two passed away, and she surprised those who had known her in girlhood, to see her the most fashionable beauty in the Row…. She had a wondrous type of beauty too, that made all those who admired its style, fall beneath her spell, her complexion was delicate, yet with the glow of health upon it ….Her lithe and graceful figure, nearly six feet in height, with a face pleasing and mobile, and a voice that charmed in its tone, made her distinguished in any society where she appeared”.

Archard was a confirmed bachelor, devoted to his mother. His friend the editor of the Newark Advertiser, in his obituaryreckoned him to be as sickly as he was literary and compassionate . I like the idea of Archard’s appreciation of the Duchess, and feel quite strongly that it is a species of patronage to be capable of eliciting work like Sargent’s, even if someone else pays the bills which come in from artists (she was painted by de László too), and the couturiers and jewellers.

There is a fine curatorial moment in the Portland Collection when we see the smashed (and sparkling) glass of the case which had displayed Winifred’s most famous jewels, made by Cartier, and a gift from her husband for Edward VII’s Coronation in 1902. They were burgled in 2018 by thieves using power tools and are still missing. 

Footnote #1

It is pretty easy to trace online the path the Herkenrode Abbey glass took from Belgium to England. It looks like the definitive account of all aspects of these treasures will be The Stained Glass of Herkenrode Abbey by their long-standing aficionados Yvette Vanden Bemden and Isabelle Lecocq (forthcoming from OUP).

For now, I am thrilled to have The Journal of Stained Glass, Vol XXXII, 2008 which has Yvette Vanden Bemden’s “Stained Glass from the Abbey of Herkenrode in Lichfield Cathedral”. Apart from everything then known about the windows (including its donors), I found the answer to an important question about stained glass. Namely, how did the congregation really see the windows?

The story of its restoration is usefully given here: https://www.vidimus.org/blogs/news/update-on-the-herkenrode-windows-at-lichfield-cathedral/

Footnote #2

There is a good deal of writing about Elizabeth Hardwick’s tapestry and embroidery and appliqué work, and her household, including her involuntary guest, Mary, Queen of Scots. A good source is Santina M Levey’s An Elizabethan Inheritance: The Hardwick Hall textiles (1998), with its sumptuous illustrations.

The V&A obligingly gives us an online account of Mary’s dissident and satirical handiwork:

Footnote #3

The Harley Gallery, Welbeck publishes these two invaluable and succinct small books: Derek Adlam’s The Great Collector: Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Rebecca Stott’s  Duchess of Curiosities: The Life of Margaret, Duchess of Portland (2013 and issues since).

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Publication date

12 December 2021


Mind & body; On art; On books