Friday, 12 February 2010

Carved Wooden Heads and Cursed Pearls!

As the new season at Ashdown House approaches I'm reminded of all the reasons why I enjoy working there. One of the main ones is that I always learn fascinating historical facts from our visitors. We get such a huge variety of people through the doors; history buffs, people with a connection to the Craven family, people whose ancestors worked at the house, and experts who have come to see the portrait collection or who are knowledgeable about 17th century architecture, or gardens or both or many other things.

Here are three of the most interesting things that I have learned from Ashdown visitors:

1. That the rather idiosyncratic carved wooden heads on which the antlers are mounted were the accepted way to display hunting trophies in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The science of taxidermy had not progressed to the stage of allowing the preservation of the entire stag's head so the antlers were removed, a wooden stag's head was carved and painted and the antlers were attached to it. Each was done individually, by hand, which probably accounts for the difference in quality, the startled expressions and the lack of a resemblance to a real stag.

2. That the pearls which are worn by Elizabeth of Bohemia and her daughters in many of the portraits were part of a necklace of seven strings that belonged to Elizabeth and had originally been Medici pearls inherited by Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth would pawn the necklace when she was particularly short of money during her exile and then buy it back if she had a special state occasion to attend. On her death she left one strand to each of her daughters. In the nineteenth century there was a long-running dispute between the British Royal family and the house of Hanover over possession of the pearls. The English crown claimed the necklace but only six strands were reassembled. The seventh strand had been given to Elizabeth's daughter Princess Henrietta Maria. She had died only six months after her wedding to Prince Sigismond of Transylvania and was buried in her wedding dress - and the string of pearls. Her descendents declined to open the tomb to retrieve the necklace! The picture shows Elizabeth's eldest daughter, also called Elizabeth, wearing her strand. This Elizabeth was considered one of the greatest beauties of the age and was known as "The Star of the North." She was also a great philosopher. What a girl!

It is also said that the large drop pearl in some of the portraits is "The Bretheren" a famous pearl that brings bad luck to the wearer. Elizabeth of Bohemia was, arguably, a very unlucky Queen but it is easy to attribute this to her poor choice of jewellery with the benefit of hindsight!

3. That in 17th century architecture a huting lodge such as Ashdown was considered a "masculine" building and it therefore required a masculine style of garden. The simple box parterre and stone statuary was considered suitable. There were no flowers or feminine-type adornments! That said, there are those who link William, Earl of Craven and Ashdown house to the Rosicrucian belief system and suggests that the house was an astronomical observatory and the gardens and grounds laid out as they are as part of a wider design in the ancient landscape. Intriguing!
Cross-posted to the Passion For History Blog.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Jane Austen, William Craven, Harriette Wilson Connection!

It seems a pity in some ways that the main claim to fame of William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven of the 2nd Creation, is that he was the first lover of the famous courtesan Harriette Wilson. (That is she in the picture on the left, taken from the frontispiece to her Memoirs). He was 31 and unmarried at the time. Harriette was much younger and does not give William a good press. Her memoirs start with the line "I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven..." but she leaves the reader in no doubt that she finds the Earl boring and old-fashioned, with his night caps and his endless talk of his cocoa trees on his estates in the Indies. What Harriette must have made of Ashdown House when William took her to the country in 1801, is anyone's guess. It is hard to imagine that Ashdown's rural isolation could appeal to this precocious and materialistic urbanite in any way.

A bad enough start for William, in all truth. And as if it wasn't a disaster to be denounced as boring by mischievous Harriette, Craven then incurred the disapproval of Jane Austen. In a letter to Cassandra in January 1801, Austen reports that Eliza Fowle "found [Lord Craven's] manners very pleasing indeed.—The little flaw of having a Mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park, seems to be the only unpleasing circumstance about him." More on the Austen/Craven connection anon.

So what do we actually know of William Craven other than these two literary references? William Craven was, in my opinion, far more interesting a man than Harriette implies. The son of the 6th Baron Craven and his scandalous wife Lady Elizabeth Berkeley, he was a man whose family background was what would be referred to today as dysfunctional; both parents took lovers and in 1783 they finally separated after 13 stormy years of marriage, with his mother taking her seventh and youngest child and travelling abroad. After the 6th Baron died in 1791 and Lady Elizabeth, now the Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Bayreuth, returned to England, her daughters refused to receive her. William, the new Lord Craven, was also for a time not on speaking terms with her. As an interesting footnote, his elder sister Maria married William Philip Molyneaux 2nd Earl of Sefton in 1792 and became one of the patronesses of Almacks, one of thr bastions of respectability in high society.

William and his brother Henry Augustus Berkeley Craven were educated at Eton and William followed this with a distinguished army career. A brief summary of this follows: In 1793 he became an ensign in the 43rd Foot and was promoted to a lieutenancy the same year. In 1794 he became a Major of the 84th and from there to Lieutenant Colonel. He served in the 1794 campaign in Flanders and was present at the siege of Nimeguen. He subsequently served in the West Indies and was present at the capture of Trinidad. On 1st January 1798 he was appointed ADC to the King and made a Colonel. In 1799 he served at the Helder and subsequently in the Mediterranean. In 1803 he was appointed Colonel of the Reserves and was made a Major General in 1805 and served on the Staff from the commencement of war until 1809. He was appointed Lieutenant General in 1811. The Earldom of Craven was recreated for him in 1801 as recognition from the King for his services to his monarch and to his country.

Significantly for a man with the reputation of having kept a notorious mistress - and indeed having married an actress, Louisa Brunton - he was a great favourite of George III's very proper wife Queen Charlotte so must have come across as a gentleman of some moral probity as well as charm!

As Noel Chanan comments in his excellent book about the Earl's son William, Earl of Craven and the Art of Photography: "The marriage raised some eyebrows within the aristocracy but Louisa was accepted in society. The Earl was in many respects a typical Regency gentleman, profligate with his money and also somewhat careless of his personal safety." In 1809, despite the presence of French privateers, he resumed pleasure sailing in the waters of the English Channel in his own lightly armed sloop, the Grafton. Sailing was one of his great passions. He was a founder member of the Royal Yacht Squadron and celebrated the fact by purchasing a three-masted, full-rigged ship of 325 tons, which he called the Louisa for his wife. In the year of his death he bought a third ship, the Mayfly, which cannot but have added to the massive debt that encumbered the estate on his death. It seems appropriate, even inevitable, that he died at Cowes in 1825.

The Earl of Craven's family connections to Jane Austen are well recorded. Jane knew of William Craven through Tom Fowle, her sister Cassandra's fiancé, who was cousin to William Craven and served as his chaplain on the military expedition to the West Indies in 1796. Other connections are explained in the fascinating article by Lanfersieck and Looser, Austen's Sense and Sensibility and Lord Craven. This article also posits that William Craven may have been the model for John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, suggesting that Sense and Sensibility contains several parallels to Craven's life, including place names, a difficult mother figure and the resonances with a "ruined" young woman, in Craven's case Harriette Wilson.

It is entirely plausible that Jane Austen may have been inspired to draw on Craven for some elements of Willoughby's character. I confess that I don't like the idea because I have always considered Willoughby to be a morally bankrupt character and I don't for a moment believe William Craven to have been so and feel that this comparison, like the comments made by both Harriette Wilson and Jane Austen, do him no favours. Here is a man of considerable depth, with a distinguished service record. There is more to him than the Regency wastrel even if he did possess some of the characteristics of the stereotypical Regency nobleman. In addition, I have always seen Harriette Wilson as being in control of her own destiny unlike the victim Eliza is in Sense and Sensibility. As another aside, I'm also sceptical that William's brother Berkeley Craven was ever Harriette's lover. Poor Berkeley has already been maligned in Venetia Murray's book An Elegant Madness when she suggested that he was besotted with Harriette's sister Amy, confusing him with another Berkeley entirely.

William Craven managed to come to terms with his difficult mother Elizabeth, Margravine of Anspach, at some point after her return to England. He even sold her second husband his estate at Benham Valence, where the Margravine built a villa, close to the Earl's own estate at Hamstead Marshall. William Craven and Louisa Brunton remained happily - and faithfully -married until his death. Perhaps this was a case of real life being happier than fiction?