Lansdowne House, c. 1920
Lansdowne House, located adjacent to Berkeley Square, was begun by Lord Bute. Architect Robert Adam, had not finished the house when it was sold to William Petty-Fitzmaurice (1737–1805), Earl of Shelburne, later named first Marquess of Lansdowne. After Adam completed the house in 1768, the house was often the scene of social and political maneuvering among London’s leading Whigs.
William Petty-FitzMaurice, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, KG, PC (1737 – 1805), known as The Earl of Shelburne between 1761 and 1784, was Prime Minister 1782 – 1783 during the final months of the American War of Independence.
Shellburne/Lansdowne was a fascinating example of the quintessential 18th C. British gentleman, wealthy, politically active, supportive of scientific experimentation, an avid collector of art treasures, and occasionally quite eccentric. Horace Walpole mistrusted him, writing, “He was so well known that he could only deceive by speaking truth.” But Shelburne/Lansdowne was a friend of many: he advocated for the rights of Nonconformists,worked to soothe relationships with the former colonies in North America, both US and Canadian, and befriended Jeremy Bentham, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Dr. Johnson, David Garrick, and Benjamin Franklin. For more information on the building, which presently houses the Lansdowne Club, please see my previous post of March 29, 2010.
Lansdowne Club, London, c. 2009
One of Lord Shelburne’s friends was Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), who discovered oxygen in the laboratory supplied to him at the Shelburne country house of Bowood. A version of this room can be seen today at the estate near Chippenham in Wiltshire.
Priestley was also a dissenter and clergyman as well as an educator, political observer, and scientist. He conducted many experiments with gasses and electricity. His religious and political writings were controversial and he was several times persecuted by mobs for his views. Lord Shelburne supported Priestly and his family for a number of years. Priestly was able to pursue his scientific interests as well as advising Lord Shelburne on political matters. But they had a falling out about 1779 and Priestly moved to Birmingham, England, where he continued his religious, scientific and philosophical pursuits.
About the time his portrait was done by Ellen Sharples in 1794, Priestley emigrated to the United States and lived in Pennsylvania for the rest of his life.
The first Marquess of Lansdowne, after he received the title, largely for his work in negotiating the end of the war, withdrew from active political participation. He continued his many interests in scientific pursuits, philosophy and in his collections.
His descendents still live at Bowood, about which I shall post soon.