George Prince of Wales was only 17 years old when he attended a performance of Florizel and Perdita, a play adapted from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. In the words of actress Mary Robinson’s biographer, Hester Davenport, the Prince “was looking for a woman to worship,” perhaps HAD been looking already, when he sat in his box at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and “fell in love.”
As Ms. Davenport points out, this was not Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, but an adaptation by David Garrick, known as Florizel and Perdita, in which Perdita is a sweet and charming maiden. The Prince sent Mary notes addressed to Perdita and signed them Florizel, as though they were the characters in the play. So began his first publicly known affair, the first of many.
Mary was born Mary Darby in Bristol in November of 1757 or perhaps 1758, which made her a few years older than the prince (b. 1762). Her “disastrous” marriage at age 16 to Thomas Robinson brought her a daughter, Maria Elizabeth (b. 1774), but little financial or emotional support. Eventually, she began to perform on the London stage, often in “trouser roles,” playing young men and displaying her fine figure for all to admire.
Though Prince George did not remain faithful to her for long, Mary was known as Perdita all her life. While she enjoyed the Prince’s attentions, she was the toast of London, extolled and excoriated in the newspapers, the object of considerable gossip in noble salons, especially among the males.
By the time the fanciful caricature above was published in 1783, the relationship was “quite out of date.” When the Prince quite publicly took up with other females, Mary refused to send back all his letters and other tokens of his fickle adoration. Later she received a not-so-secret payment in exchange for the return of some of them.
In 1781, Mary sat for a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, commissioned by the Prince. In this version of the painting in the Wallace Collection above (another is in the Royal Collection), Mary holds a miniature of the Prince in her right hand.
Mary had only a brief time in the limelight of the London demi-monde. Only a few year later, she was reported to be “desperately ill.” Various explanations for her condition have been suggested, but the causes of her maladies remain mysterious. In May of 1791, she published a book of poems, “a small but handsomely bound volume with marbeled end papers,” made possible by sums raised by 600 subscribers, including the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, the Duke of Clarence and many other luminaries.
In 2010, Kristine and Victoria, along with Kristine’s daughter, Brooke, visited with Hester Davenport in Windsor, here at the Castle.
Hester Davenport chronicles the reception Mary’s book received. Readers seem to ask, “How was it possible to connect the frivolous woman of 1780s gossip with a writer of pensive odes, elegies and sonnets?” That Mary acquired the title ‘The English Sappho,’ possibly at her own instigation, may have added to the this (seductive) sense of being wooed.
Mary lived only a few more years, dying in 1800, having never recovered her health. She had, however, continued to write poetry as well as her memoirs, several novels, plays and feminist essays.
As an endorsement of the value of her literary work, the painting of Mary Robinson by Hoppner, above, was acquired for the Chawton House Library, where it is displayed prominently. Many works by Mary Robinson are available from their website. Her biography is here.
We all hope that future scholars will pay attention to this fascinating woman and her body of work. In the epilogue of her biography, Hester Davnport writes, “Mary Robinson was dead: the talented actress, spectacular Cyprian, accomplished and industriousauthor, committed feminist and radical, charming and witty hostess, spendthrift, devoted daughter and mother, compassionate, sensitive and sometimes spikily difficult woman.A genius? Perhaps only in her extraordinary versatility, but not undeserving of the ‘One little laurel wreath,’ she craved.”
Note: Victoria, Jo Manning and Kristine lost their dear friend Hester Davenport in September 2013. We like to think that she and Perdita are together, drinking tea and catching up on two centuries worth of gossip.
Following Number One London’s Georgian Tour, Louisa and I had a day to ourselves in London and decided to spend a good portion of it in the V&A. Following are photos of just a few of the things we saw on display in their Fashion Collection.
From the V&A website: French Doll. Fine bisque head with fixed glass eyes. Tightly curled mohair wig. Pierced ears (no earrings). Ball-jointed strung composition body.
Dressed in an English costume; silk satin formal day dress in gold and peacock blue, trimmed with deep blue silk velvet. Fully lined in white cotton. Large bustle. White lace at neck and wrists. Dress fastens in back with embroidered buttons. Smocking at yoke, bodice and cuffs. Leather shoes and crochet socks, some white cotton underwear. Doll was originally mounted/sewn to a padded cushion and had her shoes pasted to a cardboard base for display purposes; this has since been reverted by Conservation.
There are ten stately homes that have been designated as “The Treasure Houses of England,” and three of them are included on our 2019 Country House Tour – Harewood House, Castle Howard and Chatsworth House.
Castle Howard, above, is not a true castle, but this term is also used for English country houses erected on the site of a former military castle. It may look familiar to you because it was used as the fictional “Brideshead,” both in Granada Television’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and a two-hour 2008 remake for cinema.
Castle Howard is unique as it grew out of an idea begun in 1699 at the legendary Kit Kat Club when the 3rd Earl of Carlisle decided to build his estate to the design of Sir John Vanburgh – who had never before undertaken an architectural design. Working with Nicholas Hawksmoor, Vanburgh designed the house, situated on the site of the ruined Henderskelfe Castle. The project took over 100 years to complete.
The Howard family are descended from Lord William Howard, the youngest son of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. George Howard, 6th Earl of Carlisle, (17 September 1773 – 7 October 1848), styled Viscount Morpeth until 1825, served as Lord Privy Seal between 1827 and 1828 and in 1834 and was a member of Lord Grey’s Whig government as Minister without Portfolio between 1830 and 1834. Lord Carlisle married Lady Georgiana Cavendish (1783–1858), daughter of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire and Lady Georgiana Spencer, in 1801.
You can take a tour of Castle Howard via the video below –
While driving to Bowood House in April during Number One London’s Georgian Tour, I realized that we were very close to the historic village of Lacock, the time capsule village that has remained so historically correct, it’s become a favourite of film and television production companies. The village has been used as a location many times, notably for the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, the 2003 mini-series The Mayor of Casterbridge and the 2007 BBC production of Cranford. It has also made brief appearances in the Harry Potter films Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and in the spin-off film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. In the spring of 2012, it was a filming location for the fantasy adventure film Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box. In 2015 it was used for a series of Downton Abbey episodes.
Of course, I quickly made the executive decision that we would stop at Lacock for lunch and a browse after we’d done with Bowood House. It may not come as a surprise that none of the tour group objected to this last minute addition to the day’s itinerary.
Lacock is a village in Wiltshire, near Chippenham, and is almost entirely owned by the National Trust. It regularly attracts visitors due to its unspoiled appearance. Lacock appears in the Domesday Book and most of the surviving houses were built in the 18th century or earlier. The National Trust has taken care to ensure that the historic buildings and streets are preserved and appear just as they would have centuries ago. Frozen in time, the town has become a go-to set for directors and producers of period films and television shows. The National Trust rents out most of the properties to tenants, including the pubs and shops, and all those who live in the village agree to live for the most part in the past – there are (almost) no modern day signs, street lights, aerials, etc.
Therefore, it’s easy to see why production companies love Lacock; there’s almost no chance of making filming bloopers, as happened when Poldark was filming in Corsham, above. As you’ll see by the photos I took on the day below, there really are (almost) no modern day intrusions at Lacock, even when there’s no filming going on.
We had a wonderful pub lunch at the atmospheric George Inn, above, which has one room filled with photos taken during the filming of the various productions shot, at least in part, at Lacock.
The 1996 ITV-movie production of Emma, starring Kate Beckinsale, used the village of Lacock as Austen’s “Highbury.”
The BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, made a star of Colin Firth, but Lacock put in a strong supporting role as “Meryton,” the Bennett family’s (fictional) local town.
Another popular inn, restaurant and pub in Lacock, the Red Lion, has featured in many period films. While we were there at the end of our visit enjoying a drink, the barmaid told us stories about the filming of Pride and Prejudice. Costumed stars and extras spent several weeks filming at Lacock. One warm day, a costumed gentleman was leaning up against the outer wall of the pub and our barmaid opened a window, leaned out, and inquired whether the gentleman would like a cool drink. He accepted and they got to talking and chatted for a quite a while before he was called to the set. You guessed it – that very nice looking chap was Colin Firth who, at that point in time, was neither a household name nor an actor anyone had yet seen very much in film or on telly.
The Red Lion went on to be transformed into a storefront for the popular BBC series The Cranford Chronicles, starring Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins. Fans of the series will recognize the building’s red brick and white windowpanes even without the transformation, and many of the adjacent houses were also used in filming.
In February 2015, the Downton Abbey crew transformed Lacock’s Church Street into a 1920’s livestock market. Sheep, pigs and a 1-tonne long-horned bull joined the cast, as well as many ‘extras’, creating a bustling market scene attended by Lord Grantham, his family and many of the staff.
We had a wonderful time strolling the period streets of Lacock and looking in it’s various shops. We agree that it’s almost free of 21st century intrusions. However, we did find one thing during our stroll that future production companies might want to remove before filming at Lacock –