ON THE SHELF: THE MITFORDS – LETTERS BETWEEN SIX SISTERS

Originally published in June 2016

I had bought this large (800+ pp) volume at Hatchard’s on my trip to London in 2014 and had first tried to read it when it finally arrived in a Royal Mail bag, along with several other books I’d purchased.  I made it through the first chapter before realizing that I was thoroughly lost – who in the world is Honks? Which sister was called Woman? And who is The French Lady, as there were two sisters who lived in France? At that time, I had scant knowledge of the biographies and inner workings of the Mitford Sisters. Thus, I’ve spent the past year attempting to rectify that deficit, not simply in order to be able to read this book, but because the Mitford sisters, their circle of family and friends, the times they lived through and much else about them is fascinating.

 

The Mitford sisters (clockwise from top left): Unity; Jessica; Diana; Nancy; Deborah; Pamela

Below are the thumbnail biographies for each sister, and their brother, from the Mitford Family entry in Wikipedia:

  1. Nancy Mitford (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973). Married Peter Rodd and had a longstanding relationship with French politician and statesman Gaston Palewski. She lived in France much of her adult life. A writer of many novels, including her most popular (and somewhat autobiographical), The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Also a noted biographer of historical figures, including the Sun King.
  2. Pamela Mitford (25 November 1907 – 12 April 1994). Known as “Woman.” Married and divorced the millionaire physicist Derek JacksonJohn Betjeman, who for a time was in love with her, referred to her as the “Rural Mitford”. After her divorce, she spent the remainder of her life as the companion of Giuditta Tommasi (died 1993), an Italian horsewoman.
  3. Thomas Mitford (2 January 1909 – 30 March 1945), known as Tom was educated at Eton, a close friend of James Lees-Milne there. Lover of Tilly Losch during her marriage to Edward James. Died as a soldier in Burma. According to Jessica’s letters, he supported British fascism and was stationed in Burma after refusing to fight in Europe.
  4. Diana Mitford (17 June 1910 – 11 August 2003). Married aristocrat and writer Bryan Walter Guinness in the 1929 society wedding of the year. She left him in the society scandal of the year (1933) for British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. She was interned in Holloway Prison during the Second World War. Her belief in fascism never wavered nor her affection for Adolf Hitler. Mother of Max Mosley.
  5. Unity Valkyrie Mitford (8 August 1914 – 28 May 1948), “Bobo” or “Boud” to her siblings. Famous for her adulation of and friendship with Adolf Hitler. Shot herself in the head days after Britain declared war on Germany, but failed to kill herself and eventually died of pneumococcal meningitis at West Highland Cottage Hospital, Oban, after being transferred from Inch Kenneth.
  6. Jessica Mitford (11 September 1917 – 22 July 1996), commonly known as “Decca”. Eloped with Esmond Romilly to the Spanish Civil War. Spent most of her adult life in the United States. Two years after Esmond was killed during the Second World War she married Robert Treuhaft, whom she met as a fellow US government employee. Member of the American Communist Party until 1958. She wrote several volumes of memoirs and several volumes of polemical investigation, including the best-sellingThe American Way of Death (1963) about the funeral industry. Grandmother of James Forman, Jr. and Chaka Forman, sons of the African-American civil rights leaderJames Forman by her daughter Constancia Romilly.
  7. Deborah Mitford (31 March 1920 – 24 September 2014). Married Andrew Cavendish who became the Duke of Devonshire, and with him turned his ancestral home,Chatsworth House, into one of Britain’s most successful stately homes. She wrote a dozen books.

 

To read more on the Sisters, click here to find a 2014 article on them from the BBC Magazine. I won’t give you my personal opinion on each sister, as I don’t want you to be influenced before you read the book yourself.

Letters Between Six Sisters was edited by Charlotte Mosley, who is married to Max Mosley, son of Diana Mitford. She has done a marvelous job here and managed to organize a monumental amount of material into a cohesive and very readable format. As the Editor’s Note tells us from the start, “the correspondence between the six Mitford sisters consists of some twelve thousand letters – of which little more than five per cent has been included in this volume.” The letters begin in 1925 with a single letter from Pamela to Diana and pick up speed in the early 1930’s. Mosley thankfully prefaces each decade with an overview of what was occurring in the lives of each sister during that time. Naturally, the elephant in the room for the Mitfords during the 1930’s was Unity’s passion for Adolph Hitler. One never gets a clear picture of Unity as a person, in this or any other source, so I still can’t decide whether her Nazi fantaticism was down to Unity’s having been simple minded, cruel, impressionable or just plain mad. Unity stalked Hitler, especially in a restaurant he was known to frequent, and made no bones about these activities. In a letter to Diana in December of 1935, Unity wrote: “ . . . today at last he came, it was wonderful, and he was tremendously surprised to see me. He immediately asked me . . . to go and sit with him . . . The Fuhrer was heavenly, in his best mood, and very gay. There was a choice of two soups and he tossed a coin to see which one he would have, and he was so sweet doing it. He asked after you, and I told him you were coming soon. He talked a lot about Jews, which was lovely. News from Absyssinia and Egypt kept on coming through on the telephone, which was rather exciting. The Furher stayed in the Osteria for two hours, wasn’t it lovely . . . . .” She signed the letter “With best love and Heil Hitler! Bobo.”

Of course, the letters can only tell us so much about any aspect of the Sister’s lives. Their individual feelings about any subject, or about each other, at various points over the years were often not consigned to writing. There is a lot of reading between the lines to be done, which Mosley admirably accomplishes. However, not all is as it seems, even with her help. In June of 1940, Diana Mitford and her husband, Facist leader Oswald Mosley, were both jailed without charge or trial under Defense Regulation 18B, which allowed for the internment of people suspected of being Nazi sympathisers during WWII. Diana was remanded to Holloway Prison. This did not stop the Sisters from communicating. On 19 November of 1941, Deborah suffered the death of her newborn child, a boy who had been born prematurely, and wrote to Diana in prison: “It was heaven of you to write your precious letter and all. You can’t think how much better I feel now, really quite alright. . . Oh Honks, never Gilliat again,  I have completely lost confidence in him. He never turned up till ages after he was wanted and when I was there with everything over he came in and the nurses said `Here’s a friend to
see you’ and if I’d had the strength I really would have kicked him or at least asked him where he had been all the afternoon . . . .
” Three days later, on 22 November 1941 Nancy also wrote to Diana from her own hospital bed in London, “Darling Diana – Thanks so much for the wonderful grapes, you really are an angel and grapes are so good for me. I have had a terrible time, so depressing because they had to take out both my tubes and therefore I can never now have a child. I can’t say I suffered great agony but quite enough discomfort . . . . The Rodds (Nancy’s soon to be ex inlaws) have been wonderfully true to form – my mother in law was told by the surgeon I shld be in danger for 3 days, and not one of them even rang up to enquire let alone sending a bloom or anything. I long to know if they bothered to look under R in the deaths column, very much doubt it however. . . Muv (their mother) was wonderful, she swam in a haze of bewilderment between me and Debo. When my symptoms were explained to her she said ‘ovaries – I thought one had 700 like caviar.’ Then I said how I couldn’t bear the idea of a great scar on my tum to which she replied `But darling whose ever going to see it?’ . . . . Much love darling and many more thanks for the grapes, Nancy.

On the face of it, both of these letters sound like nothing more than correspondence from two sisters to a third. Nancy’s letters, though written from a hospital bed, still manage to retain Nancy’s typical breezy tone, offered up with a dollop of sarcasm. However, in 2002, MI5 released WWII era documents that described Lady Mosley (Diana Mitford) and her political leanings. “Diana Mosley, wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, is reported on the ‘best authority’, that of her family and intimate circle, to be a public danger at the present time. Is said to be far cleverer and more dangerouso than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions. She is wildly ambitious.” Nancy Mitford was the `best authority’ quoted above. Diana at last learned that her sister had not once but twice written to the government about herself and Oswald Mosley and that her words had gone a long way towards seeing them both imprisoned. 

These two dark episodes in the lives of the Mitford Sisters aside, the majority of the letters in this book are far lighter in tone. Here are a few examples: 

Deborah to Diana, 13 August 1957 – ” . . . . I wonder if you’ve seen the papers, they are full of Hardwick and the death duty deals, I think v. satisfactory for us but sad nevertheless (1). . . . Evelyn Waugh came last week, on his way to Renishaw. He is a crusty old thing, he didn’t actually get cross but one felt he was on the verge all the time. The Wife was here (2), we were talking in my room when we’d mounted (the stairs) and he kept coming in saying things like `I hope there is Malvern Water by my bed, I hope the blinds keep the light out, may I have some lemonade to take my sleeping draught in, has Lady Mersey finished with the bathroom’ and generally making one feel that things weren’t quite right and that it was one’s fault. I thought he had really gone for good when he came back with a look of triumph on his face, and said `I’ve looked in the pedestal beside my bed and I thought I ought to tell you the POT IS FULL.’ Oh Honks the humiliation, the horror. I was rooted to the bed, couldn’t help in any way, left him and the Wife to deal with it, hid my head in the blankets and was properly put out. Evelyn seemed rather pleased. Oh dear, not what Nancy calls a nice character . . .  

1. Hardwick Hall, which had been in the Devonshire family for fifteen generations, and nine of Chatsworth’s most important works of art, had been handed over to the government in lieu of death duties. 
2.  Lady Mersey, Deborah’s longtime friend. 

Deborah to Diana, 13 August 1958 ” . . . . . We went to lunch with the Sitwells on Monday. Dame Edith was in a long fur coat (which she never even unbuttoned for lunch) and a feather hat and her long white hands and huge rings. She is lovely and gone on the same people as me, viz. Cake (1) and Greta Garbo. She told us the chief things she remembered her mother saying were ‘We must remember to order enough quails for the dance’ and ‘If only I could get your Father put into a lunatic asylum.’ Poor Osbert doesn’t seem much worse, but it is frightening to see him walk with that fast shuffle . . . . .

(1) The Queen Mother. Deborah adopted the nickname after attending a wedding where the Queen Mother, when told that the bride and groom were about to cut the cake, exclaimed, ‘Oh, the cake!’ as though she had never seen it happen before. Deborah was lastingly impressed by her enthusiasm.

Nancy to Pamela, 25 November 1966 – “Dereling, Many Happies – but where to send them? Oi don’t know. How old we are, eet ees deesgusting – I wonder if we smell like old people used to. One lars (alas). 28 Nov 66 Well I left this to moulder and got yours this mg from a very improbably address but also one from Debo expecting you there. The list! (1) Diana and I are already on non-speakers over it but finally arranged for her to fetch the things (all that either you or the others don’t want) and then will fight it out here. But be sure to take what you do want regardless of us. I die specially for the opal brooch and the Miss Mitford watch. If Debo begins to say she wants anything kindly direct her gaze to the Chatsworth Safe and say I said so. Take her there and shut the door on her until the things are in Forceful Lady Mosley’s bag. (Though Lady M is putty in her hands I fear.) I’ve got to do a thing on the Fr. wireless and must flee – Much love, Naunceling.

(1) A list of possessions belonging to the sisters’ Aunt Iris, who had recently died. 

The final letter in the book was sent by fax from Deborah to Diana on 5 January, 2002 and runs “Darling Honks – So thrilled with two from you this a.m. Keep at it but please make the ghoul effort and finish yr book for OUR SAKES. I’ve just written you a long letter but this is to say we’re still alive in the snow and cold THEY give a thaw but God seems to think otherwise in his unsweeting way. I wish he’d weet a bit. Hurrying over the ice to the post in the village. Much love, Debo.

On the whole, there is nothing earth shattering in any of the letters – they are simply missives between six sisters which give a rare insight into a way of life now gone and celebrated names long passed. But as a whole, the letters transport one into a world that was far more enchanting, amusing and engaging than the present day. At least for as long as it takes one to get through the 800 plus pages of this book. I am bereft having just finished it. Let’s hope that Charlotte Mosley gets around to editing the other 95% of the Mitford sister’s letters soon. In the meantime, I consoled myself by visiting a few Mitford sites during my trip to England in May, 2016 and by making this portrait of Debo my FB profile picture.

Chatsworth House
Heywood Hill Bookshop, Curzon Street, where Nancy worked during WWII.
And in case you simply cannot get enough of the Mitfords, here’s the link to the Mitford Society, which regularly posts new articles on the subject(s) and which offers a good sized archive of past articles.
Please click here to find a video of Charlotte Mosley interviewing
Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, for the Frick Collection.

 

THE 2019 SCOTLAND TOUR – THE FOOD

A decades old tradition dictates that Vicky and I begin every trip to London with a Pimms at The Clarence, Whitehall
We traveled to Edinburgh via train and met up with the rest of the tour group. Left to right – Andrea, Kelly, Kristine, Brooke, Denise and Cecily.
First things first
Cecily Horton and Victoria Hinshaw prepare a roast chicken dinner
Soup for lunch in Stirling
Denise opted for the pretty pate and she also acted as our intrepid beer taster, see below

It should be noted that Denise did not taste them all at the same meal.

Steak with trimmings at our local, the Gargunnock Inn
Vicky opted for the haggis
A little something at home to tide us over until Sunday lunch
Sunday roast at the Gargunnock Inn
The ultimate indulgence – a glass of pinot noir, Scottish tablet and . . . . . tablet ice cream!

Johann Zoffany by Jo Manning – Part Two

Queen Charlotte with her Children and Brothers, Zoffany 1773

Akin to the group paintings of the Sharps, Gores, Impeys, and Queen Charlotte’s family, is Zoffany’s cluttered-with-many-many-bodies iconic painting of the founding members of the Royal Academy – a painting faithfully reproduced whenever a piece about that august association is published – showing the two female founders, Mary Moser (a painter of exquisite still life, mostly flowers in vases) and Angelika Kauffmann (a renowned allegory painter whose work can be seen on ceilings at the Royal Academy building at Piccadilly Circus).They are on the wall, not 100% part of this mostly male group.

The Royal Academicians, circa 1771-1772

The painting brutally conveys the message that no women were allowed to pursue life studies, paintings using nude male models.While the men are intently engaged upon the muscular attributes of these young and muscular men, these women are framed in portraits on the wall, woefully gazing at each other, far removed from the action below.

I was quite familiar with the RA painting, as I have been doing research on 18th century female painters for some years, but I had not had the opportunity to see in full force the magnificence of his famous Tribuna Of The Uffizi, painted over the years 1772-78, when Zoffany resided in Italy.The Tribuna is an octagonal room in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence that was designed for the De Medicis in the late 1580s, and where the most important collections of that family were displayed. Zoffany here portrays the northeast section of the room, but varies their arrangement – artistic license – deliberately adding works that were not normally displayed there.

This is a fabulous work, simply fabulous! My initial assessment of Zoffany’s work was now seriously challenged as I gazed upon this wonder.So much is taking place: connoisseurs discussing a nude painting; young men on their Grand Tour gazing appreciatively and lustfully at the buttocks of a marble statue of Venus; a youth eying the sketch a gentleman is making of another marble statue; and, everywhere, exquisite renderings of great works of art.One could never tire of looking at so many minute details and musing upon the vignettes told so amusingly by the artist.

A Tribute to the Ufizzi – 1775

As Alastair Sooke described it in the Telegraph:

“[The exhibit includes] a staggering picture called The Tribuna of the Uffizi, which is often described as the best painting he ever made. Commissioned by Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, it took Zoffany the best part of the 1770s to complete. Amid a tumult of famous works inside the Tribuna room of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Grand Tourists can be seen chin-wagging. Zoffany includes more than 20 portraits of miscellaneous toffs surrounded by replicas of masterpieces by Holbein, Rubens, Raphael and others.
“An emblem of the curious, acquisitive spirit of the 18th century, it is spectacularly detailed. As its rhythms ripple across the retina, the eye’s muscles have to work overtime to keep up with the profusion of the artist’s vision. The unifying bright red of the background, though, deftly prevents the composition from swirling into chaos.

“Part of the fun comes from spotting works of art (a Raphael Madonna here, a nude by Titian there), almost in the manner of the Where’s Wally? children’s books. But as well as being learned, the painting is full of hearty innuendo, as Zoffany satirises the less-than-lofty aspirations of the English ‘milordi’ who set off on the Grand Tour in search of amatory, not artistic, conquests. A group of five men gaze adoringly at the sculpted bottom of the Medici Venus (one uses an eyeglass to get a really good look). Elsewhere, there are visual gags about buggery. The work is a wonderful reminder that the 18th century was as rowdy as it was refined. Perhaps this explains why Zoffany’s royal patron wasn’t enamoured with the finished piece, which was relegated to Kew Palace.”

Sooke’s well-written, almost poetic piece (“rhythms ripple across the retina”) segues into my what-I-didn’t-know-about-Johann-Zoffany story quite nicely.The buggery jokes… !The gentleman who has his hand on the canvas of the Venus of Urbino, by Titian, and seems to be pointing to the statue of the naked wrestlers, is one Thomas Patch, a scoundrel who’d been exiled from Rome for homosexuality/aka/buggery.(This depiction of Patch, in particular, seemed to have offended Queen Charlotte, the “royal patron”; she and her husband the King can be said to have had a limited sense of humor.)

So, then, Zoffany was not as boring as his court/society/family portraits might have indicated.Indeed, he was an urbane, witty man who was involved in his share of scandal…befitting the 18th century, that great age for scandal. As Sooke comments further, he “was an urbane chap with an eye for the ladies and an appetite for the finer things in life.”How true, how true, is this last comment!

For he was apparently also a bigamist, marrying his pregnant second wife – his very young mistress, who’d stowed aboard the ship carrying him to Rome – whilst still married to his first wife, who lived apart from him in Germany. This “marriage” was, obviously, illegal while his first wife was alive and they were not divorced.

This intrigued me greatly, so I looked into it further, consulting the excellent 2011 biography by Mary Webster (Yale University Press 2011).Zoffany had married Maria Juliana Antonetta Eiselein in Wurzberg, Germany, and had moved to London with him. Claiming homesickness, she left him early on, before 1771, but then returned briefly, only to leave him again around 1772, with the same complaint of missing her family and country.

In 1772, Zoffany took out what is called “letters of denization”, declaring he desired to switch his religious affiliation from Roman Catholic to Protestant. His biographer Mary Webster says, by way of explanation, that “German Protestants were allowed to divorce on grounds of incompatibility without incurring any social disgrace to either side.” (Rather enlightened, that!) So, was this an attempt to divorce Maria Juliana Antonetta?It might have been, but he never followed through with an action.(Webster further speculates that it might have upset his Roman Catholic family in southern Germany if he were actually to divorce his wife.) Instead, he sent her back home with an annuity; they remained married but never saw each other again. They’d had no children together.

 

With Mrs Zoffany gone, there were rumors that the artist had taken up with the wife of “an Israelite”, an unnamed Jewish woman. There was also talk that he roamed the London streets looking for young girls. This last bit of information comes from a well-connected German woman at the court of King George III named Mrs Charlotte Papendieck, who was to become a close friend and confidante of Zoffany’s next mistress – and, eventually, his wife – the teenager Mary Thomas.Mary – described as a very beautiful girl — was said in Mrs P’s memoirs to have told her the story of how she met Zoffany.
Mary Thomas, circa 1781, at the Ashmolean, Oxford, the artist’s second wife.

Though Mrs Papendieck’s memoirs were later disputed as to their veracity by the Zoffany’s children and grandchildren, what she has to say is fascinating. According to the 2011 book edited by Martin Postle:

“Mary Thomas, the daughter of a London glove maker, first met Zoffany sometime in the winter of 1771 or early the following year. [This would be about the time Maria Juliana Antonetta fled London for Germany the second time.] Mary’s own account of her life with Zoffany was recorded in the memoirs of her friend Charlotte Papiendieck. According to Mrs Papendieck, Mary had told her how Zoffany, who ‘in his leisure hours prowled around for victims of self-gratification’, had stalked her to her parents’ ‘humble dwelling’. Shortly afterwards, he left for Italy. On discovering that she was pregnant, Mary stowed away on the boat, making herself known to Zoffany during the voyage. On arrival in Italy, Zoffany apparently told Mary his German wife had died a few months earlier, and so ‘he married the object of his affection, who became a mother at 16’.”

“In Webster’s biography, there is some discussion as to whether she might have been 14 at the time she became pregnant. She could also have been closer to 17, but there is no definitive proof to corroborate this. She may indeed have become a mother at 16.He was 39, a good 20+ years older than she.(If she was really 14, it would have been a difference of 25 years in age!)

Mary Thomas gave birth to Zoffany’s first child we know of, a boy, in Italy.Zoffany may have gone through a form of marriage with her in Genoa that the girl thought was legal – she was very young and said to be rather naïve and shy – and he supposedly told her his wife had died – but the first Mrs Z was very much alive in 1772.(She died in Germany in 1805, 33 years later.) From 1772 onwards, however, Mary Thomas was to pass as Zoffany’s wife.

Tragedy struck when the baby was 16 months old and he fell from a go-cart down a steep set of stairs in Florence; the severe head injury was to kill him three weeks later. They went on to have four daughters together, two before he left for India in 1783 – without Mary – and two more daughters after he returned to her.

While in India, he was reputed to have taken up with an Indian woman and had at least one child, perhaps more.According to the Postle book, “Given his own libidinous predisposition, it was inevitable that he should have taken an Indian mistress, with whom he had several children, including a son.”Though it is hard to establish that he had “several children”, there seems to be agreement that he did have at least one son with his Indian mistress. This child was said to have been left in the household of a French nawab, Claude Martin, a man with whom Zoffany had been very friendly, but the little boy has been lost in the mists of time.Nothing more was ever heard of him again, nor of any other children he might have sired with this Indian woman.

Zoffany returned quite wealthy to England in 1788 after his sojourn in India and settled into that very nice home on Strand-on-the-Green. But, according to that old gossip and gadabout, diarist/letter-writer Horace Walpole, he came back “in more wealth than health”.India’s climate was harsh on Europeans, and diseases — before the advent of antibiotics – caused the deaths of many expatriates. But although he was said to be weakened in health, Zoffany lived for 22 more years. It was at 65 Strand-on-the-Green, that beautiful home on the river, where he died.

I’m standing by his tomb at the head of this piece, and here are more photographs from that churchyard many of you might have passed on the way to Kew Gardens:

St Anne’s, Kew, with the road to Kew Gardens, that great botanical showpiece, in the background. This inscription is of Mary Thomas, Zoffany’s second wife, who died in the great cholera outbreak in 1832, 22 years after the death of her husband…

 

This was one of his grandchildren…a baby girl…

I can’t identify the grandchild, nor the year of her death, nor whose daughter she was, which child of his four daughters’ children.(As I mentioned previously, there were four daughters of his marriage with Mary Thomas and a boy who died before the age of two years whose name I could not verify.)

The first two girls Zoffany had with Mary Thomas were Maria Theresa (1774), who was called Theresa, and Cecelia (1779); the last two were Claudina (1794) and Laura (1796). Their father left them ample dowries of £2,000 each and all made “good” marriages. To his wife Mary he left the house on Strand-on-the-Green and money for her upkeep.But there was a restriction on the house:she would lose it if she remarried.Though she received at least one known proposal – from the wealthy sculptor Joseph Nollekens — she never did remarry.

And what of that first wife moldering away in Germany?She passed away in January of 1805, so that bigamist Zoffany finally wed Mary Thomas at St Pancras Church on April 20th, four months after receiving word of his first wife’s death. Zoffany was 72; she was by then probably in her late 40s. They were to be legally wed only five years; the painter, who suffered from severe dementia in his last years of life, passed away in 1810.Mary Thomas outlived him by 22 years, dying in 1832 from the great cholera epidemic in London; sadly, their eldest daughter Theresa died within a few days of her mother from the same outbreak of disease.

Quite a life our peripatetic Johann Zoffany led…

One would hardly have known it, from his (mostly) sedate paintings.And he was a fun fellow, too.This painting shocked me, but only because it was the Zoffany I had not known, a man who hung condoms on his wall and dressed as a friar to take part in a bacchanalia one can only imagine!

He’s dressing up a Franciscan monk, according to the caption, preparing for a night out on the town.

I leave you with the bon vivant, in this later, rather happy, self-portrait, painted  when Zoffany was 43 years of age…and already, alas, losing his hair:

Still that skull, reminder of time running out…mortality, mortality…but that’s a smile on his face as he no doubt recalls his naughty sexual escapades well into his late middle age. He had a good life, methinks, despite his early loss of hair. Painted circa 1776…

Osterley Park, An Adam Jewel

by Victoria Hinshaw
Osterley Park was once a rural retreat but today it is in Greater London, reachable by  the tube (look for the Osterley stop on the Piccadilly line).  The original Tudor mansion was built in 1575 by Sir Thomas Gresham, banker and founder of the Royal Exchange.  The old house was built of red brick around a square courtyard.  After considerable alterations in the 17th century, it was acquired by Francis Child, the immensely wealthy London banker, in 1713. His grandson Francis hired Robert Adam to transform the house in 1761 but he died before the house was finished, leaving the house to his brother Robert Child.

 

Adam’s work was completed in 1780. The center of the west section of the building was removed by Adam and replaced with a giant white Ionic portico.

 

 

 

The elegant portico opens up the courtyard.

 

Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey

 

The 5th Earl of Jersey (1773-1859) became the owner of Osterley Park by way of his marriage to Robert Child’s granddaughter, Sarah Sophia Fane, the Lady Jersey who was a patroness of Almack’s. The story of the young heiress is well known, the second elopement of a Child female.

Robert Child’s daughter (Sarah Anne Child) had eloped with John Fane, later 10th Earl of Westmorland, in 1782. Robert Child (1739-82), proud of being a prince of the merchant class and not an aristocrat, did not want his property and fortune to go to the Westmorland family. He wrote a will which left his money and property to the second child of his daughter. Sarah Sophia Fane inherited everything at age eight. In 1804, she married George Villiers, who changed his name (a necessity under Child’s will) to Child-Villiers and in time became the 5th Earl of Jersey. He was the son of that Countess of Jersey who was a mistress of the Prince Regent.

The Osterley house was rarely used by the Jerseys, who had a country estate, Middleton, in Oxfordshire in addition to a large townhouse in Berkeley Square. For decades Osterley was maintained but empty of life. The Jerseys entertained there only occassionally. Eventually it was let to Sarah’s cousin, Grace Caroline, dowager Duchess of Cleveland, a daughter of the 9th Earl of Westmorland. When she died, the 7th Earl of Jersey and his wife Margaret (1849-1945) lived and entertained there. The Lesson of the Master, a novella by Henry James, is set at Osterley.

 


In 1885, the famous library was sold for thirteen thousand pounds. After the 7th earl died in 1915, the tenancy of the house foundered again. For many years, it was rarely used until the 9th Earl opened it to the public on weekends. He gave it to the National Trust in 1949 and considerable restoration has taken place. It was recently used for some scenes in the film Gulliver’s Travels and has been in numerous other movies and television productions.

The rooms are arranged in a horseshoe, with the entrance hall at the top. After walking through the exterior portico, one crosses the courtyard and enters the magnificent hall, designed by Adam in 1767. The color scheme is neutral, greys and whites with stucco panels of ancient military scenes on the walls. The floor has a black pattern on white marble, a reflection of the plasterwork ceiling design.

The Breakfast Room at Osterley Park, Middlesex. The harpsichord was made for Sarah Anne Child in 1781 by Jacob Kirckman and his nephew Abraham. The lyre-back chairs are attributed to John Linnell.

The Breakfast Room has a lovely view of the park and was used as a sitting room, graced by Adam’s arched pier glasses. This room was redone in the 19th century, but the colors and some furniture is to Adam’s design. The drawing for this design is in Sir John Soane’s museum, London, as are many Adam designs. It is dated 24 April 1777. The room also contains a harpsichord of 1781, made by Jacob Kirckman and his nephew Abraham, who were well known for their instruments. It belonged to Sarah Sophia’s mother, the countess of Westmorland. After her death in 1793, her husband asked to have it sent to him as a memento of his wife; it was returned to Osterley in 1805.

The Tapestry Room was designed to hold a set of magnificent Gobelins tapestries designed by Francois Boucher depicting the Loves of the Gods. Several Adam rooms for other clients were decorated similarly, with the tapestries ordered from the Gobelins factory in Paris, which was run in the 1770’s by a Scot. The sofa and eight matching armchairs were specially created and upholstered to match the tapestries.

The magnificent ceiling is another Adam masterpiece. The central medallion shows Minerva accepting the dedication of a child. The four smaller medallions show female representations of the liberal arts. As was the usual practice, these paintings were done on paper, affixed to canvas backing and placed in stucco frames after the ceiling was painted.

Kristine, admiring and photographing the Osterley Park ceilings.

 

A self portrait by Angelica Kauffman. She did many paintings for Adam, often in her well-known allegorical style. In an era when most of the artists were men, Kauffman (1741-1807) excelled at portraiture and even huge historical and allegorical paintings. Born in Switzerland, she found great success in England. In 1781, she married her colleague Antonio Zucchi (1726-95) and the couple went to live in Rome. Adam had met Zucchi in Rome and persuaded him to come to England in 1766. Zucchi also executed many paintings for Adam rooms, often in ceiling medallions or above doors and fireplaces.

 

In the State Bedchamber stands a huge bed, made to the Adam’s design in 1776. The drawing is also in the Soane museum. Not only did Adam design the bed, he designed the hangings and embroidered silk counterpane and the interior of the dome. Included in the design are many allegorical symbols, including marigolds, the emblem of Child’s Bank. In this room is another of the exquisite ceilings by Kauffman.

The Etruscan Room Dressing Room shows Adam utilizing ancient designs discovered in Italy. At that time, the term Etruscan referred to the types of designs found on Greek vases. Horace Walpole in 1778 said the room was “painted all over like Wedgwood’s ware, with black and yellow small grotesques.” The furniture is attributed to Chippendale.
The Childs had spent a great deal of time developing the gardens and the park with lakes, wildernesses and open space.  Fortunately, these  also survive and have been restored. Under the supervision of the National Trust, the park is open to the public and is well used by hikers, strollers, bicyclists and bird watchers.
A visit to Osterley Park is on the itinerary of Number One London’s Town and Country House Tour in September. Itinerary and full details can be found at the link.

Johann Zoffany by Guest Blogger Jo Manning

Originally published in 2012

Jo Manning at the tomb of Johann Zoffany and some of his family members, St Anne’s Church, Kew, on a very cold and very grey day at the end of May 2012. (I am wearing 5 layers of clothing.) Nearby is the tomb of Thomas Gainsborough who, born six years before Zoffany, predeceased him by twenty-two years. The tomb was restored in 2008.

I’d always considered Johann Zoffany to be . . . well, why not say it:  boring. Yes, boring. All those courtly paintings of royals and assorted aristocratic or rich mercantile families and groups. He had to be as ho-hum as his subjects, no? Well, how wrong can someone be? Terribly wrong, as I was to find out. The man had some interesting aspects to his persona, not all of them admirable, but…ho-hum, he was not! His life fit right into the scandal-ridden 18th century.

Self-portrait as David with the head of Goliath, 1756

                                             
Johann Zoffany was one of the first of the 18th century artists I came across in my researching of the London art scene a few decades ago.  He was competent enough, but his paintings seemed just that, competent, not too exciting.  A good man with the brush, for sure, but, really, his subjects? Let me take you with me on my journey to find who the man was behind the prolific and successful painter, the real Johann Zoffany, and this, only because the Royal Academy of Art has just had a major exhibit of sixty of his most important works. 

Zoffany’s former home at 65 Strand-on-the-Green, London, right on and across the river from Kew. A blue plaque is affixed between the 2nd and third windows, at the level above the front door. This is a lovely area, but one subject to major flooding when the river rises. Zoffany at one time owned several other houses on either side of Number 65…

Though among the founding members of the Royal Academy, the group organized in 1768 at the expressed wish of King George III, a group which very soon became the premier association of artists in Britain, Zoffany’s been generally overlooked among the artists in that august body. In the last three years, however, three major and all-encompassing books on him have been published, the last two in 2011.

Born in Germany, near Frankfurt, his original surname was spelled Zauffaly. Like his fellow academician John Hoppner (a portraitist also of German descent), he is not usually remembered in the pantheon of the best-known of the Georgian painters. You can be forgiven for not recognizing his name.

The sad fact for perfectly good and talent artists like Zoffany and Hoppner (and so many others during that time) was that the 18th century art world was dominated by the affable friend-to-all Sir Joshua Reynolds (first president of the Royal Academy, a favorite of royal and aristocratic society), and his contemporary and rival, Thomas Gainsborough. Not only were these two artists favored and favorites because of their talent, but because they gained fame by painting the day’s celebrities – the rich, the heroic, the notorious, the beautiful, and the very colorful – becoming household as well as society names.  Reynolds was, in addition, a workaholic with so many commissions he had to employ a stable of assistants to paint in background and even costume.  He and Gainsborough were the rock stars of the period, the go-to portraitists for high society, i.e., those aristocrats who comprised the ton.

It was difficult to compete in the same arena as those two artistic giants.  George Romney tried, and he did have his followers, but no one at that time was to equal the fame of Reynolds or Gainsborough, fame that endures to the present day. One critic opined that Zoffany was perhaps too German, too peripatetic, and too mercurial, to be taken seriously. Strange comments, but there might be something there. The German artists had their own clique within the RA clique, and Zoffany was definitely a wanderer who spent a lot of time away, from Germany to England, to Italy (a lot of time in Florence), to India, then back again to England. Some Georgian artists never left England, or, if they did go to Italy to study art, did so not more than once.  Zoffany was all over the place.  Peripatetic, indeed.

And the “mercurial” comment… I think it implies that there was more to him than one suspected.  Like quicksilver, he was hard to pin down, more in his personal life, perhaps, than in his painting life. That is, just when you thought you knew him…he was not what he seemed. This can confuse critics, as it certainly did me.

The Impey Family, India, circa 1783
Worse than the fate of the male artists who tried to compete were the many excellent female artists of the day, who fell through the proverbial cracks and are still little known – if not entirely unknown — to historians. There were thousands of good artists in Britain, a good number of whom had trained on the continent (Italy, in particular), but not all made money; some were quite destitute. Painters not that successful competing in London who were intent on increasing their fortunes went on to pursue commissions in India, working for the nabobs (also spelled nawabs), the British and European traders who’d become millionaires, and the Indian princely classes. Zoffany, in fact, lived in Lucknow, India, for about two years at the same time his friend and colleague the miniaturist Ozias Humphry went there, residing within a wide circle of European nawabs. In all, his stay in India totaled some five years.
Of the Impey family group portrait above, Judith Flanders commented in her recent Seven magazine review:

            “In India he shows us a world where the Victorian stratification of society into ‘European’ and ‘native’ remain in the future, and images such as The Impey Family show how Indian and British cultures intermixed, as the small Impey daughter, in Indian dress, dances barefoot to the accompaniment of Indian musicians, applauded by her watching father. In other paintings European sitters clutch hookahs, or weave Indian fabrics into their headdresses. It is always through these objects, through their possessions, that   Zoffany’s sitters speak, to their own world and to ours today.”

The Gore Family, circa 1775

If Zoffany is known at all, it is for paintings like this, of royals and wealthy families.  His canvases are filled with figures – and he is a nonpareil figurative painter – but gazing upon one too many of these works – dubbed conversazione, or “conversation pieces”, aka informal group portraits — can become yawn-inducing. Above are the six members of the amateur musical Gore family and the professional musician family, the Sharps (I swear, that is actually their surname, Sharp), below, set pieces showing both families’ most treasured possessions, their musical instruments.

The Sharp Family on the Thames, circa 1779-1781
Critics have dubbed Zoffany a master of this painting type, a genre that developed on the continent and came to Britain in the first decades of the 18th century.  These set “conversation pieces” have their admirers and detractors but no one can deny that these paintings are not technically well painted, the work of a master painter skilled in group portraiture. He also painted individual portraits of King George III and of Queen Charlotte (flattering both of them immensely), portraits which are not terribly memorable (see below), and tend towards (as one critic put it) the “homey”:

King George III could not be more relaxed in this portrait, legs splayed, arms relaxed. Queen Charlotte could have been flattered a bit more by the artist in her portrait; alas, she was not a handsome woman. Below is a delightful group portrait showing the queen with some of her children, her brothers, and a nursemaid hovering in the background, also tending to the “homey,” again, not terribly exciting, but competently executed.

Part Two Coming Soon!