Nicola 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.
Charles Spencer was devoted to his wife, Diana’s mother Elizabeth, and Diana’s upbringing with her siblings was a happy one. Her education took place at home where she and her sister were taught by a variety of governesses and tutors. The main curriculum was in writing, music – including singing and harpsichord playing, dancing, the languages of French and Italian, needlework and drawing of course. The aim of female education was to turn out an accomplished woman who behaved correctly showing moral restraint and self-control. This would mean that she was appropriately marriageable. A woman who was learned in other subjects – in mathematics or the sciences or even worse – reasoning and logic, was considered unfeminine and deeply inappropriate. In this sense, Diana Spencer was the perfect example of her age, class and sex.
Like many women of her class in the Georgian era, Lady Diana Spencer made her debut in society in her late teens and was expected to marry well. She had a number of suitors but reached the age of 23 still unmarried and in danger of being considered an Old Maid. That August 1757, she attended a party at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens with a group of family and friends. One of these was Frederick St.John, second Viscount Bolingbroke, known as “Bully”, which proved to be a rather prophetic nickname. When Frederick, who was being teased by friends for not committing to marriage, made her a joking proposal at the party, saying “Will you have me?” She replied “Yes, to be sure.”
Initially the whole thing was passed off as a joke but on reflection they both decided it was a good idea to make it official. People were shocked by the way that the marriage had come about, not least Diana’s sister Betty who asked her point blank: “Were you drunk?”
On 8th September 1757 Diana Spencer married Frederick StJohn at her father’s estate of Harbledown in Kent in the presence of a small congregation made up of members of both families. It feels rather like a plot for a historical romance – the impromptu proposal, the casual engagement, but unlike the books it was not to have a happy ending.
Unlike Lady Diana, Frederick had not had a stable or happy upbringing, quite the contrary, and at the age of 25 was already giving cause for concern with his behaviour. One family member observed that he already had all the vices of a young man and several of a man of forty.” His uncle Henry, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, described him as “a great disappointment… The plague of my life.” As Frederick grew older these vices only grew worse and included drinking to excess, gambling and being equally obsessed with women, racehorses and collecting expensive porcelain.
Frederick owned over seventy horses during the course of his career as a racehorse owner. It was a ruinously expensive hobby, made worse by the fact that he sold the only horse that would have won him a fortune – the champion Gimcrack. He named one of his horses Lady Bolingbroke in honour of his wife Diana – and two more Kitty and Polly, after two of his mistresses.
After their marriage, Frederick and Diana spent their time between London and Lydiard. In London they rented a house in the fashionable St James’ Square for the social season and during the time Parliament was in session – generally the spring and the autumn, Diana was a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Charlotte. As the lady in waiting closest in age to Charlotte, Diana became something of a favourite with her. Her talent for art impressed Charlotte and influenced her to take up drawing and painting herself. She gave a number of drawings and painting as gifts to the Queen and to aristocratic friends and family. There was never any question of payment. Diana’s undoubted talent was still viewed as an amateur’s hobby at this stage. She developed a talent for caricatures which made some of the court laugh – but also made enemies of those she poked fun at, which was to prove costly later.
The summer of 1758 was the first time that the new Lady Bolingbroke saw Lydiard Park. At Lydiard, as with all the other places that she had lived, Diana found much to inspire her art.
Frederick was redesigning the parkland and Diana took a particular interest in the walled garden. Her paintings reflect the sorts of plants that grew there including pelargoniums, jasmine, narcissi, dianthus and roses. She sketched the horses that grazed in the nearby fields as they do now, and also drew inspiration from local village scenes: children playing, women carrying goods to market, a woman and child dancing in the street, peasants labouring in the fields or outside their thatched cottages. This was part of the sentimental view of the virtues of the rural life with its associations of innocence and goodness that became very fashionable. At Lydiard there is also a unique 17th century window by Abraham van Linge that was a part of the older house and it contains many motifs that Lady Diana practised drawing and later used in her own work: cherubs, flowers and fruit, birds, animals and mythological creatures as well as human figures.
Diana also recorded some of the popular entertainments of Georgian country life, including a travelling menagerie complete with a rather sad, caged lion, a dancing bear and some street musicians. Travelling menageries were quite common in the countryside and hugely popular touring around the towns and villages. They were also not without danger – in 1816 an escaped lioness attacked the London mail coach near Salisbury and a tiger killed a woman near Malmesbury.
Frederick and Diana’s eldest son George was born in 1761. In the Diana Room there is a portrait of George Richard painted by his mother when he was about 4 years old and learning to write. They also had a daughter Charlotte who only lived to be 5 months old and a second son, Frederick, who was born in 1765. In that year, Sir Joshua Reynolds completed his famous portrait of Lady Bolingbroke. He painted her as an artist herself, with her sleeves turned back in a workmanlike style, an easel in the background, her portfolio in her left hand and a drawing implement, a pencil or crayon, in her right.
When Sir Joshua Reynolds had begun his famous portrait of Lady Diana he had just finished working on one of Nelly O’Brien, a courtesan who had been Frederick’s mistress. In fact when Fred saw the picture of his wife he told Reynolds that he needed to “give the eyes something of a Nelly O’Brien or it will not do.”
By the time that the Reynolds portrait was finished that year, the Bolingbrokes marriage was under intense strain owing to Frederick’s constant infidelities, his extravagance, his drunkenness and his violent temper. Diana formally separated from Frederick, stating that she could not live with him with safety to her health. He was violent when he was sober and more so when he was drunk.
In order to keep her reputation, her marriage settlement and her pension from court Diana had to lead a life of spotless morality. Unfortunately, however she had fallen in love with Topham Beauclerk, (Picture by Francis Cotes) the great grandson of Charles II and Nell Gwyn, who was said to combine Charles’ dark good looks with Nell’s wit, charm and seductive powers. He was a complicated man, a split personality devoted equally to fashion and to literature and culture. He and Diana conducted a not-so-secret liaison that became the talk of society.
Lady Diana’s next pregnancy, as a woman who had long separated from her husband, was a disaster for her; whilst a man’s infidelity and his illegitimate children would generally be accepted by society, it was very different for women. Despite attempts to keep the pregnancy and birth a secret, word leaked out and divorce became inevitable.
A costly and complicated legal procedure, divorce was the prerogative of the wealthy and influential and in this period could only be granted by parliament. Lord and Lady Bolingbroke were only the fifth couple to have divorced since 1700. Suffice it to say that the case was utterly scandalous and all the salacious details were picked over by the press as well as society with particular emphasis being given to the testimony of the footman, William Flockton: “Mr Beauclerk often came and stayed the night, he said, and once when Flockton entered the room “Lady Bolingbroke was on a sofa much flurried, her hair rumpled and her cap almost off.” On another occasion he noticed “signs of shoes on one end at the sofa and a great deal of powder at the other.”
It was inevitable that the court would find in favour of Frederick.
Diana St.John and Topham Beauclerk married on the 12th March 1768, two days after Frederick St John had divorced her.
Initially, Diana’s second marriage and the company of the intellectuals who made up Topham’s circle gave even more stimulus to her art. Horace Walpole, antiquarian, writer and collector, was a huge admirer of her and of her work. It was he who gave Lady Diana her first paid commission, illustrating a play he had written. He had her work mounted on Indian blue damask and placed in a specially designed hexagonal room in a tower at his house at Strawberry Hill built in 1776, which he named the Beauclerk closet. The contents of the room were only shown to very special visitors. A number of people including the author Fanny Burney were of the opinion that whilst Lady Diana’s illustrations were delightful, Walpole’s play was dreadful.
By 1775 Topham Beauclerk’s health was in decline and with it his temper. Always mercurial, he became a difficult and miserable man who vented his rages on his wife and the 4 children they had together. It felt as though Diana’s history was repeating itself. However even as her second marriage disintegrated, her art went from strength to strength. In spring 1778 she painted a watercolour portrait of her 2nd cousin, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana was 21 at the time and already renowned as a beauty and a leader of fashion. This was the year that she became involved in politics when she caused a sensation by inspiring a mass of women to support the Whig party. Two hundred copies of Diana’s portrait of her were produced as a print by the engraver Bartolozzi – these were snapped up by society and sold out fast. People were literally begging Diana for copies and asking mutual friends to ask her on their behalf. The portrait caused a frenzy.
Topham Beauclerk continued to be plagued by illness, ill temper and depression. He had become addicted to laudanum and so careless of his personal hygeine that he was permanently infected with lice. On one notorious visit to Diana’s brother and family at Blenheim, he managed to infect the entire party. The Duke of Marlborough was not amused even when Topham made a joke of it saying. “Why I have enough to stock a parish!” Trips to take the waters at Bath and Brighton were unsuccessful in restoring his health and he died in 1780 aged only 41.
After her husband's death Lady Diana moved to a cottage in Richmond and from there across the river to a house which visitors referred to as a 'sweet little box' at Twickenham, better known as Little Marble Hill. She had a pressing need for money to support her household and at this she formally turned professional. She commissioned Bartolozzi, the engraver who had printed the painting of Georgiana Spencer, to produce a similar one of her painting of her two daughters Mary and Elizabeth Beauclerk. Again, it was a great artistic and commercial success.
Frederick St John had died in 1787 outliving Topham Beauclerk by seven years. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine was extremely generous – many would not even have recognised him from the description of a man said to be “affable and possessing such goodness of heart.” The obituary blamed his divorce and by implication Lady Diana for his descent into depression and madness. Unlike Topham he never apologised to Diana for his treatment of her.
In her widowhood Diana also started to design patterns for Josiah Wedgwood’s tableware and jasper ornaments, again specialising in pictures of cupids and
cherubs, vine leaves, fruits and flowers. These proved to be enormously popular and some are still in production today.
Meanwhile, Lady Diana continued to undertake commissions for Horace Walpole who also collected her Wedgwood designs and displayed them in a special ebony cabinet at Strawberry Hill. The front panels of the case are inset with Lady Diana’s drawings and the interior displays specially commissioned Wedgwood plaques. Diana illustrated several major books and provided designs for another very enterprising 18th century woman, Mrs Eleanor Coade, who had created a hugely successful business manufacturing classical style garden ornaments from artificial stone. Eventually poor eyesight and poor health meant that Lady Diana had to give up the art that she loved. She died in 1808 and was buried in Richmond churchyard. Typically, her brief obituary defined her by her marriages and male relatives and made no reference at all to her art!
Later assessments of her work, echoing the view that women’s art could only be derivative and imitative, were often dismissive of the talent. Her art has always been overshadowed by the scandal of her life although it was that very scandal that paradoxically led to a greater interest in her and enabled her to sell more of her work. Now at last, her talent is more appreciated and Lydiard is a place where we can go to see her art, appreciate her originality and her talent and remember the influence that life at Lydiard had on this remarkable woman.
I hope you have enjoyed this tale of Lady Diana Beauclerk! It was so unusual for an aristocratic woman to earn her own living in this period that she really was a pioneer. It set me wondering what I would have done if I had been in her situation – write books, I expect! What would your 18th century money-making talent have been?