The Daring Lady Di

Lady Diana BeauclerkNicola here. A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk and a tour at Lydiard House on the subject of Lady Diana Beauclerk, an 18th century aristocrat who was very unusual in her time for working as a professional artist. Born Lady Diana Spencer in 1734, the daughter of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, she was for a while Lady St John, mistress of Lydiard House and wife to Frederick, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke. Lady Diana’s life story is extraordinary both personally and professionally but the bit I wanted to focus on was her undoubted talents as a painter and the way in which these had been downplayed because she was a woman and a scandalous one at that. It was a particular pleasure to be giving the talk at Lydiard House, where we could follow in her footsteps in the house and garden and see the influence that her life there had on her art. In the “Diana Room” at Lydiard we also have the largest collection of her work in the UK.

Lady Diana Spencer was the eldest daughter of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough. She was born in 1734 and spent some of her childhood at Blenheim Palace. There was a great deal of fine art there to inspire her; one of her earliest childhood drawings was a pastel of a baby based on a Rubens painting that hung there and chubby Rubenesque cherubs remained a motif of her drawing all of her life. This was how she initially learned to draw and paint, through seeing artistic images and creating her own versions of them.

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Lost and Found

The lost gardens of LydiardNicola here. I was woken in the night by the sound of a downpour of rain, which was very welcome as the UK has been enduring a summer of drought. One of the consequences of this is that river and lake levels have fallen dramatically over the past few months and fields and gardens have dried out. This has led to ancient buildings and structures being revealed that have been lost for centuries, giving us a glimpse into the past that we wouldn’t usually have. It's not the way you would choose to discover more about history but it is an opportunity to learn more about what lies beneath our feet – or in some cases, rivers and reservoirs.

At Lydiard Park where I am a trustee of the Friends charity, we arranged for some drone photography to see if we could see any detail of the seventeenth century gardens that we knew had been swept away when the grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown in the Georgian era. (Photo credit Phil Jefferies and copyright Friends of Lydiard Park). The results were even more exciting than we had imagined! We knew from early maps that the previous Elizabethan-style manor house had had extensive gardens leading down to a canal and lake. From the air these were clearly visible in a grid pattern that would originally have contained a gravel forecourt, formal flowerbeds, topiary, paths and terraces. It’s been a fascinating insight. A similar thing happened at Chatsworth where the drought revealed the outline of the Great Parterre which was designed in 1699.

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Lady Johanna St.John’s Recipe Book

Heritage-open-days-2021_0Nicola here. A couple of weeks ago I took part in the UK’s Heritage Open Days Festival, the biggest celebration of history and heritage in the country. The theme of this year’s festival was Edible England and our display, put on by the Friends of Lydiard Park in Swindon, centred on a most fascinating historical document, a “recipe” book that was created by Lady Johanna St John in the 17th century. Lady Johanna, as well as having many menus for sumptuous banquets, also used vegetable, flower, and herbal cures for everything from piles to nosebleeds. These are also included in her books and referred to as “recipes” so there is everything from a mutton stew to a cure for cramp! Some of the recipes are also for cosmetic treatments, such as to make your hands soft. We tried that one and the mixture worked beautifully as a hand cream; the only problem was that the cream – and us – smelled very strongly of vinegar! In fact a number of ingredients in some of the recipes would raise eyebrows now, including the use of cow dung!

As part of the festival, we invited Lucy Whitfield, women’s history specialist, to choose and recreate some of the recipes for visitors in the walled garden at DSC05209 - Copy Lydiard Park. The garden, which was created in the Georgian period and restored in 2007, is divided into six sections with wide pathways, a well and a sundial. The narrow beds contain trimmed shrubs and perennial plants, alternating with individual flowers and bulbs. Along the walls and in the centre of flowerbeds are trained apple, pear, greengage, peach, plum, cherry, apricot and fig trees. A part of the garden is dedicated to growing the types of herbs and other plants that Lady Johanna would have used in her recipes so it was the perfect setting to showcase some of the ingredients from the book. (I took lots of pictures which I was hoping to use to illustrate this bog, but when I tried to post them up, they all came up upside down so I've had to improvise!)

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The Impulsive Marriage

Friday's childNicola here, thinking about those impulsive marriages contracted both in novels and also in real life.

“I’ll marry the first female I see!” Rejected by the Incomparable Isabella, finished with love but urgently needing to obtain his inheritance, Sherry, Viscount Sheringham makes a reckless decision and ends up married to his childhood friend Hero Wantage. Friday’s Child is one of Georgette Heyer’s most charming novels (although at times I want to smack a bit of sense into Sherry and tell Hero to find someone more deserving of her.) It also acted as an inspiration for any number of Regency historicals where young men intent on gaining control of their fortune marry an unlikely heroine. Possibly these days there are books where heiresses marry unsuitable men for the same reason and perhaps someone can recommend one to me.

This always seemed to me an unlikely if entertaining trope in historical romance. I say unlikely because I had an image of the world of aristocratic marriages tightly controlled by parents or guardians. Advantageous marriages, money in return for a title, carefully chaperoned young ladies… It didn’t seem to leave much space for the impulsive marriage.  Then I came across Lady Diana Spencer.

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