Wednesday, 26 June 2013

An Actress in the Family

In the A-Z of Ashdown we have reached L. L is for Louisa. Louisa Brunton is one of the fascinating characters in the Craven family. Born between 1782 and 1785, Louisa was the daughter of a grocer turned actor and theatrical impresario. For part of his career her father John Brunton was manager of the theatre at Brighton where the Prince of Wales was his patron. Louisa’s brother John was also an actor and theatre manager, and two of her sisters, Elizabeth and Anne, became actresses. They were a theatrical dynasty.

The youngest of John Brunton’s six daughters, Louisa made her stage debut on 5th October 1803 at Covent Garden, playing Lady Townley in the 'Provoked Husband' opposite John Kemble as Lord Townley. She followed this role with that of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. The “Theatrical Inquisitor” for November 1803 described her as “extremely handsome and striking” with features expressive of archness and vivacity. One critic predicted a glittering future for her and gushed that she was both beautiful and gifted. Other gossip-writers agreed on her charm and the perfection of her face and figure.

Many other roles followed between 1803 and December 1807. It is interesting to note that from the start the respectable antecedents of Louisa and her family were emphasised in all the newspaper reports and biographies. She was from a professional theatrical family. She was not a courtesan.

Louisa's last performance was as Clara Sedley in Reynolds's comedy 'The Rage.' In 1805, William, 7th
Baron and 1st Earl of Craven of the 2nd Creation had become one of Louisa’s admirers. In 1807 Mrs Calvert wrote in her diary: “She is certainly a very handsome woman but I don’t think her looks pleasing. She has prodigious fine black eyes, but she rolls them about too much. Lord Craven is supposed to be very much in love with her and many think he will marry her.” He did; they were married on 12th December 1807. The marriage took place at the Earl’s London town house in Charles Street, Berkeley Square. The groom was thirty-seven and the bride’s age was given as twenty-five. Louisa left the stage behind. The Earl and Countess of Craven went to live at the earl’s estate of Hamstead Marshall in Berkshire, christening several of their children in the church there.

With the family connections between the Cravens and Jane Austen, it was only natural that Louisa Craven should be an avid reader of Jane Austen's work. In 1816 she was recorded as being a great admirer of Emma but apparently did not think it the equal of Pride and Prejudice.

The earl, like his forebears, was keen on field sports and horse racing. He was also a founder member of the Royal Yacht Squadron and in 1809 named his yacht Louisa. It was in Cowes that he died in 1825, aged 55. Louisa became the Dowager Countess with an income of £15 000 a year. She continued to live at Hamstead Marshall whilst her eldest son, the 2nd Earl, chose Ashdown as his main seat. The family was close with the earl and his brothers Frederick Keppel and George and sister Louisa frequently visiting their mother at Hamstead.

The original grand “palace” at Hamstead Marshall had burned down in 1718 and Hamstead Lodge developed as a hunting lodge in its place, probably from one of the original 17th century buildings on the estate. During Louisa’s occupancy this house was remodelled in the Regency style and it was later extended again. Having left the ranks of the middle classes to join the aristocracy, Louisa seems to have been intent on maintaining a grand style. Perhaps her theatrical experience stood her in good stead for the role of great lady. She employed a liveried butler and attended church in a coach and four complete with postillions. She had a French cook. One of Louisa Craven’s main interests was garden design and she had a whole army of gardeners and a park-keeper in her household. The gardens at Hamstead Marshall became renowned for their beauty.

Louisa Craven died in 1860 at the age of 79. Her funeral took place at Coombe Abbey and she was buried in the Craven family vault at Binley. However there was a memorial service for her at Hamstead Marshall and it was here that she was particularly remembered as a generous benefactor to the church and the village school, and for the dances and suppers she held for villagers and tenants. She had become the perfect epitome of a grand aristocratic lady.

I am indebted to Deirdre Le Faye for the information on Jane Austen's Emma and to Penelope Stokes for the detail of Louisa Craven's life at Hamstead Marshall. Penny's book, Craven Country, is available here.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Talk on the History of Ashdown Park

Advance notice that there will be a fundraising talk for Ashbury Village Hall on "The History of Ashdown
Park and the Craven Family" on 22nd June at 7.30pm. The talk will take place in the village hall and there will be an exhibition of pictures and artefacts from the house as well. Supper is included in the £6 ticket price. It's a bargain! Contact 01793 710800 for tickets.