Sarah Biffen (1784-1850) was born without arms or legs, a condition known as phocomelia, and survived infancy only by the intervention of a clergyman who protected her. In her family she was known as a pixie child, and she was even feared by some in her West Country village.
At age 12, Sarah became a phenomenon at circuses and fairs, displayed painting or sewing with her teeth and was known as “The Limbless Wonder.” A few years later, the Earl of Morton arranged for her to study with William Craig, a Royal Academician who was also drawing master to Princess Charlotte of Wales.
She became a professional miniaturist and did work for George IV, William IV, and Queen Victoria. She is mentioned in novels by William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, and her paintings were accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy. She received a silver medal from the Society of Arts in 1821.
This is a miniature of Edward, Duke of Kent (1767-1820), a waterclour on ivory, painted by Sarah Biffen in 1839 and purchased by the Duke’s daughter, Queen Victoria. It is part of the Royal Collection.
Sarah married William S. Wright in 1824, but the marriage was unsuccessful. After she moved to Liverpool, her work gradually went out of fashion and her ability to paint faded as well. Obviously the incredible muscle control in her mouth and neck would have been reduced as she aged. She was supported in her last years by a pension from the Queen and funds donated by her friends and colleagues.
In the words of the National Gallery of Scotland’s description of her self-portrait, “This remarkable self-portrait reveals something of Sarah’s dignity and strong character, as well as showing the determination and skill of a woman who rose from being a side-show exhibit to a celebrated royal portrait painter.”
Victoria H here: I have always had a special feeling for Queen Victoria, obviously because it was the name my father — with his entirely British heritage — chose for me.
The above view of the Queen in 1838 is one of my favorite portraits.
Above, the Queen in her 1838 coronation robes by American artist Thomas Sully (1783–1872). The painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City though it has been copied many times and can be found in various configurations many places.
Above, Artist Sir George Hayter (1792-1871) also painted Victoria in her coronation robes. The ceremony took place on June 28, 1938, about a year after Victoria became Queen at age 18 after the death of her uncle, William IV (1765-1937).
Victoria was Queen until her death in 1901, the longest reign in English history at the time. The Hayter painting is in the National Collection in Britain and a copy of it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Victoria’s name became the title of an age characterized by a revolution in industry, transportation, communication, medicine, culture, and, perhaps, family relationships and sexual behavior. At the beginning of her reign, horses and sailing ships provided transportation. At the end of her life, we had dirigibles and the Wright Brothers first flew just a couple of years later. Wonder what Victoria would have thought of blogging?
In celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth this year, Number One London Tour will be exploring all aspects of the Queen’s life, from her birth at Kensington Palace to her death in 1901 at Osborn House on the Isle of Wight, on our 2019 Queen Victoria Tour. Full details and Tour itinerary can be found here.
Spencer Perceval (1762-1812) had been Prime Minister for three years when he was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons, May 11, 1812. He is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.
The following is an excerpt from John Ashton’s Social England Under the Regency, Chapter 6:
One of the principal social events of the year was the Murder of the Right Hon. Spencer Perceval, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Treasury, and Prime Minister of England, who was shot by the hand of an assassin, John Bellingham, on the 11th of May, whilst passing through the lobby of the House of Commons. He was born November 1, 1762, so that, when he fell, he was in the prime of life. He was of very good family, being the second son of John, Earl of Egmont, in Ireland, and Baron Lovel and Holland in England.His family was one of the very few that really came over with the Conqueror, for Robert, the second son of Eudes, sovereign Duke of Brittany, settled in Normandy, and there became possessed of the lordships of Brewehal and Ivery. As stated, he came over in the Norman filibuster’s suite, and in the course of two or three generations the name of Brewehal, became changed into Perceval-and ever afterwards so remained.
Spencer Perceval, studied for, and practiced at, the Bar, being made King’s Counsel in 1796. In the same year, his first cousin, Lord Compton, who was a member for Northampton, succeeded to his father’s title of Earl of Northampton; and Perceval, offering himself for the vacant seat, was elected without opposition. His rise was rapid, and in 1801, being then in his 39th year, he joined Lord Addington’s Government as Solicitor-General. In 1802 he was made Attorney-General. When Pitt resumed the government, he retained his appointment, but resigned it at Pitt’s death.
In Lord Portland’s Ministry of 1807, he undertook the duties of Chancellor and Under Treasurer of the Exchequer, and also Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In October, 1809, he was First Lord of the Treasury, and Prime Minister, and so continued until his sad end.
One may well ask why did Bellingham shoot Perceval? To this day I cannot tell. In the year 1804, a Mr. John Bellingham-who had been brought up in a Counting House in London, and, afterwards, lived three years as clerk with a Russian Merchant at Archangel, whence he had returned to England-went back to Russia on Mercantile business-was there twice imprisoned-he said falsely-and treated, according to his own account, with very great indignity. He complained to the British Ambassador at Petersburg, and also to the Secretary of Legation, but did not obtain his desired redress. He returned to England in 1809, as he said, ruined in health and fortune. But the British Ambassador, Lord Gower, declared that he used all the influence he possessed (with propriety) in Bellingham’s favour; but that he was legally imprisoned for debt, upon the award of four arbitrators, two of them British Merchants chosen by himself, and the other two Russians; that his confinement was far from severe; that he was allowed to walk at large, only under the inspection of a police officer; and that he had received help in money from the Secretary of Legation.
But he was “a man with a grievance,” and went about to different branches of the Government, detailing the laches of Lord Gower and the Secretary, for their culpable neglect in not looking properly after the interests of a British subject. He then determined to bring his case before Parliament, and asked General Gascoyne to back his petition, and the General promised to do so, provided it had the countenance of Mr. Perceval, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was considered necessary in all cases which involved a pecuniary grant.
He wrote to poor Perceval for leave to bring in a petition, but was answered that Mr. Perceval thought that his petition “was not of a nature for the consideration of Parliament.” Then he went to the Regent and the Privy Council, but to no purpose: made applications all round, but met with no good, except a reference to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but here he had been refused help. Then he wrote a letter to the Bow Street Magistrates, stating his case-saying that he would, once more solicit his Majesty’s Ministers, through them, and failing redress from that, he continued, “I shall then feel justified in executing justice myself; in which case, I shall be ready to argue the merits of so reluctant a measure, with his Majesty’s Attorney-General, wherever, and whenever I may be called upon to do so. In the hopes of averting so abhorrent but compulsive an alternative,–I have the honour to be &c&c.” The Magistrates communicated the contents of this packet to the Secretary of state, but it only resulted in a fresh disappointment.
He still kept on trying, and his idea of taking vengeance on some one, increased, until it not only became fixed, but he planned its carrying out. He had a pocket made in his coat of a peculiar size and shape, in order to carry a pistol; and on the fatal 11th of May, he hid himself behind one of the folding doors of the lobby of the House of Commons; and when, about a quarter past five, the ill-fated Chancellor made his appearance, Bellingham shot him through the heart. Poor Perceval only reeled a pace or two, faintly called out, that he was murdered, and then fell. . . .
He was equally calm when brought before the bar of the House, acknowledging the fact, and even attempting to justify it. He was committed to Newgate, where two men were constantly with him in his cell, to prevent any attempt at self-destruction. He was brought up for trial at the Old Bailey on the 15th of May. The facts against him were concisely and clearly stated, even to that of his having his pockets specially made to hold the pistols; and he conducted his own defence. He gave an account of his sufferings for the past eight years, laying the blame principally on Lord Leveson Gower, whom he regretted he had not killed in place of Mr. Perceval. “He as obliged to the Attorney-General and the Court for setting aside the plea of insanity urged by his counsel, and could assure them, whenever he should appear before the tribunal of God, he should be adjudged innocent of the willful murder of Mr. Perceval. That he perished by his hand he admitted; but, to constitute felony, there must be malice prepense, the willful intention, which had not been proved. In this case, he had been robbed of his property, his family ruined, and his mind tortured through the conduct of Government Agents; and he was now to answer for his life, because Mr. Perceval chose to patronize iniquity, and refuse him redress.”
Of course, this style of argument availed him nothing with the jury, who, after a very brief consultation, brought him in “Guilty.” Sentence of death was passed upon him, and as there was very little sickly sentimentality in those days, as to carrying out the penalty of the law, he was duly hanged on the 18th of May; his body being given over to the surgeons for dissection. It is said that after his body was opened, his heart continued its functions for four hours; in other words that he was living for that time.
The day after Mr. Perceval’s assassination, the Prince Regent sent a Message to Parliament recommending a provision being made for Mrs. Perceval and her family, and an annuity of 2,000 pounds was granted her, together with a sum of 30,000 pounds to her family. These were voted unanimously, and two other votes were passed by large majorities-one to provide a monument to his memory in Westminster Abbey, the other granting to his eldest son, Spencer Perceval, who was just about to go to College, an annuity of 1,000 pounds, from the day of his father’s death, and an additional 1,000 yearly, on the decease of his mother.
One would have thought that there could have been but one feeling throughout the nation, that of horror, at this dastardly murder, but one town was the base exception. When the news of his murder reached Nottingham, a numerous crowd publicly testified their joy by shouts, huzzas, drums beating, flags flying, bells ringing, and bonfires blazing. The Military being called out, and the Riot Act read, peace was restored.
What is more magnificent than Chatsworth House? How about a fashion exhibition of clothing shown in the very rooms in which they were worn?
The exhibition House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth was on show and we felt really fortunate to see all these wonderful garments long stored away, in most cases.
Many other treasures are permanently on display at Chatsworth, not to mention the art, gardens, restaurants and shops which delighted us.
The Cavendish family and Dukes of Devonshire descended from the marvelous Elizabethan lady known as Bess of Hardwick. At age 70, after surviving four husbands (Cavendish was #2), and assisting her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbery, in holding Mary Queen of Scots under house arrest for many years, Bess built herself one of the finest “prodigy” houses of the age.
Architect Robert Smythson designed Hardwick, one of England’s earliest structures in the Renaissance style. Bess chose the sight on a high hill next to the Old Hall, which is partially in ruins today.
Huge windows bring light into the rooms, astonishing her contemporaries. Despite her age of 70 years, Bess lived here for about ten years, dying in 1608. The property was left to her son William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Devonshire. Among the treasures in the house are fine portraits and excellent tapestries, shown under reduced illumination for their protection.
We made a quick stop at the ruins of Sutton Scarsdale, a fine Georgian mansion now roofless and in ruins, in order to appreciate the state in which some houses are in when they are handed over to the National Trust, English Heritage or a civic or government body. Built in 1727, the house contents were auctioned in 1919.
The estate is owned by English Heritage, which is in the process of conserving some of the remaining plasterwork and other features. It is a sad reminder that houses such as these may be lost forever unless they are funded and maintained by governments or heritage organizations.
Though the whereabouts of most of the contents are are unknown, at least one room has been recreated and adapted at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, probably a reception room from the ground floor.
Our final day with Number One London Tours in 2017 was spent at Tatton Hall, another Georgian house, this time carefully cared for. I neglected to get around to the front for a photo, but here is an excellent replacement.
We ended our visit with tea at the Gardener’s Cottage, sad that our visit was almost at an end, but already looking forward to our next Number One London Tour.
This is how I felt for almost the entire 2017 Number One London Country House Tour. I love visiting English Stately Homes and this Tour offered a stellar variety of periods, architectural styles, and decorative arts. Plus, our group was remarkably compatible and full of historical curiosity. We had great food, accommodating drivers, fun hotels, etc. etc. etc. Only thing I wished for was more energy!!!
See how our first hotel’s wall recognized our goals!
Our first stop was one I had been eagerly anticipating for several years. Wentworth Woodhouse has only recently opened to the public. As you can see from the pictures of the south facade, you have to get back a long distance to photograph the entire house, and this is only half of it.
Said to be the largest private residence in Europe, Wentworth-Woodhouse in fact is two houses joined. The earlier west-facing house was begun by the 1st Marquess of Rockingham in the 1720’s in mellow red brick in the baroque style. A few years later, the same Marquess chose to build an even larger house, the east facade, constructed of sober grey stone in the Palladian style.
Recently WW, as I will refer going forward to Wentworth Woodhouse to save my fingers, has been seen in several films and on television. In Episode One of Season Two of Victoria, the scenes of the royal couple reviewing the regiment were staged in front of WW.
I will relate the full story of WW soon, and a long complicated tale it is. For the time being, just know that touring it was fascinating. Recently, the estate has been acquired by a Preservation Trust after many years as a school and then standing empty and abandoned for some time. Fortunately, the Trust will preserve and restore the house and the gardens.
We entered on the ground level, to find a great forest of pillars, cleverly named the Pillared Hall.
And a noble staircase leading to the Piano Nobile, that is, the State Rooms.
It is easy to see why there are so many pillars holding up this vast room, which was used for all sorts of gatherings, as a grand ballroom, as a gymnasium for the women’s college, and it also stands in for Buckingham Palace in the film Darkest Hour.
Most of the rooms are now empty, previous furnishings sold, stored, or lost. WW is a venue for business meetings and weddings, with the facilities able to accommodate either intimate gatherings or a virtual mob.
The gilded walls of this room once held the famous 1762 painting by George Stubbs of Whistlejacket, a champion racehorse owned by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham. Sold to partially fulfill death duties, the canvas now hangs in London’s National Gallery, where I had visited at the beginning of my trip. The version at WW is a copy.
I will close with three views of the extensive gardens, which are being restored after wholesale destruction for strip mining of coal. Next time I will cover, more briefly, other houses we visited on Number One London’s 2017 Country House Tour.