An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 232

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 8, 2023 - Issue 232

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

London life for the wealthy in the 18th century included all sorts of pastimes. In a book I recently finished, "Aristocrats" by Stella Tillyard, she writes about the four Lennox sisters, grand daughters of Charles II by his French mistress, Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, whose children were titled (Duke of Richmond) and who grew up with all the privileges of the English and French aristocracies. The sisters are notable for the voluminous correspondence they maintained with one another. (Some of it was destroyed through censorship by the descendants.) The sisters all married and were deeply involved in aristocratic and political life of some sort or another for their entire lives, two of the sisters living in Ireland and two in London. (There was a fifth sister, Cecilia, the youngest, but she was not a major part of the correspondence.) The oldest sister married Henry Fox, parents to Charles Fox who features heavily in another very good book on the 18th century, "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire" by Amanda Foreman.

The Lennox sisters correspondence covered a gamut of subjects. Early on in their married lives, Emily, the second oldest sister who lived outside of Dublin, was often asking her older sister, Caroline, to shop for her such as, for example, finding a hundred yards of fabric for wall coverings. The sisters also wrote about the fashionable places you could go in London which included Vauxhall Gardens (started in the 1740's) and known as a pleasure garden and later Ranelagh Gardens, another pleasure garden which was considered more upscale. Gambling at the pleasure gardens was another huge pastime and apparently, the losses, particularly by Henry Fox's children as well as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, were incredibly large, diminishing their estates quite drastically. The theater was another social convention that by the 1750's and 60's was acceptable as were the actors and actresses of the theater. (Henry Fox's niece, Susan Strangways, eloped with an actor and ended up being banished to America as she had crossed an invisible line of social acceptability--he also had no money.) Notwithstanding that invisible line, other famous actors, David Garrick among the most notable (and a Chippendale client) were a part of the social set of the Lennox sisters. And yet the Lennox sisters were also, for a time, close to the royal family, the youngest sister, Sarah, was pursued by George III and could easily have become his wife. And eventually, with time, the sisters' correspondence grew political, something they foreswore in their final years as changes were rapidly developing in America, France and, Ireland.

The social changes in 18th century England were not solely about the creation of wealth although money certainly helped to leverage a less narrow view of and by society. Susan Strangways marriage to an actor, for example, may have resulted in banishment, but that was temporary and ultimately caused her to be sympathetic to American colonists. This, in turn, was passed on to members of the Lennox family, some of whom agreed with her sympathies, causing greater division within the family. In other words, the nobility, essentially the requisite scenery behind the monarchy, were breaking ranks with the monarchy. Within the Lennox family, Emily and Louisa (the third sister) were both married to Irishmen who were not thought to be the equal to the English, no matter how conservative or loyal they were to the British crown. In other words, the more divisions there were, the weaker the accepted class ranks within the nobility. In the case of the Duchess of Devonshire who was trapped in an unhappy marriage, she ultimately chose to be political (stumping for Charles Fox) and is probably best remembered for gaining a vote by kissing a butcher. Heaven forfend! Something would eventually have to happen to ensure that the nobility and therefore the monarchy, could hold onto their way of life which happened only after Victoria came to power. Her role, much like that of Queen Elizabeth II, was to keep calm and carry on. The end of the 18th century was anything but calm.