18th Century ‘Compleat’ Gentlemen – Rulers of Taste & Style

West Wycombe Manor is set in a beautiful park and by a lake in the glorious countryside of Buckinghamshire in England. It is the perfect setting for a man of means who enjoys the good life.

While smaller than most it encapsulates and reflects in architecture the society of a time when young men of privilege went in passionate pursuit of a civilized life.

Its first owner Sir Francis Dashwood, Baronet and his brother Samuel acquired the property in 1698, demolished it and built a new property, a modern relatively modest mansion on higher ground.

This house was left to the second Baronet.

Its colonnaded west front is highly unusual, for a climate like England.

It recalls the happy times its original owner spent lazing in the loggia of an Italian Palazzo in his youth.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century English gentleman had found a more rational way of confronting the challenges of their age.

They would use ‘the first extended period of peace for centuries with Europe to take time to comprehend them.’

Over the century they would begin to refine the Westminster system of government ensuring that they further circumscribed the powers of the King.

Sir Christopher and Lady Sykes by George Romney, Sledmere House, Yorkshire

By the second half of the eighteenth century power had a broader base.

Royal favour was no longer a guaranteed way of obtaining land and wealth as in the past.

The route to the top now lay in outstanding success in a military career, in the law, the church or trade in an ever-expanding world.

Landownership formed a pyramid spreading from the aristocracy down to the smallest yeoman farmer.  There were three levels; the peers, the gentry and freeholders. It was also possible, with some difficulty and the aid of burning ambition, to break in on well established old-money circles.

In London much of the development in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was in the hands of aristocratic landowners and mainly taking place on land available to the north and west of the city.

Alongside their country estates and development interests they were also building, or extending great houses in town so that they could expand their increasingly lucrative international endeavours and enterprise.

The persistent phenomenon of the time was the Grand Tour of English noblemen, who would travel along with an entourage on a journey that would culminate in a visit to Italy and Rome and affect his life forever after. He would adopt Italian art, Italian mannerisms and overlay his speeches and correspondence with Italian phrases.

It became inevitable that when he came back to England to design his English estate, or to develop a piece of London and other important English towns and cities, that he would recall the example of Italy

These men of means had also adopted a new ideal. They wanted to be regarded as ‘compleat gentlemen’, rulers of both taste and style.

Statue of Diadoumenos ca69 – 96 AD Roman copy of a Greek Bronze stagtue by Polykleitos ca.430 BC courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The idea of a ‘compleat’ Gentleman developed in ancient Greece five centuries before the Christ event

No other ancient people were so dynamic and creative as the Ancient Greeks, whose citizens while trying every form of action tempered it with the maxim of ‘nothing in excess’.

Goodness, or arete, was an intrinsic excellence that existed in all things.

A good man was considered to be ‘truly noble in hands and feet and mind, fashioned four square without blemish’.

For all men public and private honour were intimately related and if a man received a reward for his success it was not only a personal reward; it was an obligation that he owed to his city.

This ideal was wide and generous and they devoted themselves to noble toil, to creating something new and splendid, and to keeping their bodies as fit as their minds.

They strove to make order out of disorder and to live in harmony with their fellow citizens.

They gave equal respect to mental and physical prowess because they believed the ideal life was one spent in pursuit of excellence in all things.

By the fifteenth century. at Florence in Italy this ideal achieved finely balanced attitudes

Portrait of a Young Man by Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano) 1530s – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A Florentine gentleman worked for something beyond himself, whether in truth or beauty.

He set small store by his own gratification, equating honour with the greater good.

As a ‘Renaissance Man’ his pursuit of knowledge was only exceeded by his desire for more.

Becoming a ‘Renaisssance Man’ was an ideal many young English nobles would discover, and aspire to three centuries later during their Grand Tour.

They spent up to five years traveling through France and Italy returning home via Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.

It was an exciting prospect and, all roads led to Rome.

The great majority of Grand Tourists went to Italy because visits to Greece remained very much the exception due to difficulties of travel and the drastic political situation with the occupation of the Turks.

The classical heritage of Rome then, for all intents and purposes at the time, was civilization.

Parents sent their sons away for years rather than months, usually in the care of a tutor or trusted family friend or both.

Portrait of Douglas, 8th Duke of Hamilton, on his Grand Tour with his physician Dr John Moore and the latter’s son John. A view of Geneva is in the distance. Acquired with the help of the Art Fund for the National Museums of Scotland in 1992

The main mentor was often a clergyman and/or college fellow whose role was to safeguard his charge’s morals, oversee his studies and look after the practicalities of his travel and accommodation, including ensuring that their was no bed bugs.

They left London for Rome and Naples crossing the English Channel to Calais, and continuing across France, usually with a lengthy stopover in Paris to catch up with friends, see the sights, spend time discoursing in salons and purchasing the latest fashionable garments to wear.

There were two options for crossing into Italy either to travel cross the Alps or to book a sea voyage from southern France to Leghorn (today’s Livorno).

English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and politician Horace Walpole’s description of his journey through the Alps in his letter to his friend Richard West would challenge the most hearty.

American Grand Tourist Joseph Allen Smith overlooking the Arno, by François-Xavier Fabre, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. His Grand Tour was undertaken between 1793 and 1807 as an aspiring diplomat. He traveled not just as a tourist, but as a representative of the world’s first republic

‘We were eight days in coming hither from Lyons; the four last in crossing the Alps. Such uncouth rocks, and such uncomely inhabitants!’ On their return to England some tourists traveled through Germany and the Low Countries.

Eighteenth century noble men felt a strong kinship to the age of first century Emperor Augustus through the works of the Roman poets. Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil), Poet Laureate Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace) and Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid), who had given their energies to satires, lyrical pieces and odes.

From the third century in Western Europe their works were considered essential reading to help train young minds to think, to rationalise, to reason, to strive for harmony and order in the universe and, to be objective.

In Italy the grand tourist was well catered for because there were plenty of famous personalities to meet and the Opera and Catholic processions were something to see. There was a hope of gaining good health, enjoying entirely different food and natural phenomena to examine, such as Vesuvius blowing off steam.

As well there were many amazing and interesting archaeological digs underway and treasures from antiquity coming up for sale and most importantly, you could have your portrait painted by Pompeo Batoni (108 – 1787).

Col Hon William Gordon by Pompeo Batoni

It was truly an exciting and fruitful time to be there.

To make a tour an’ take a whirl To learn bon ton, an’ see the worl’**

Col Gordon cuts a dashing figure in his plaid in front of the Colosseum standing next to the statue of a seated Roma, the personification of the city of Rome.

Venetian Painter Pompeo Batoni made a healthy living off Grand Tourists by depicting them grandly. Italians of the eighteenth century did not care much for portraiture so much as they did for symbolism.

His portrait of Scottish Col Hon William Gordon has great emotional intensity and an interesting cultural comment.

Batoni was already a revered painter of allegorical and devotional paintings commissioned by the Italian elite.

American born painter Benjamin West, who lived in London would complain while visiting Rome that Italian artists “talked of nothing, looked at nothing but the works of Pompeo Batoni”.

For his British patrons however, Batoni was able to offer a powerful image of themselves to display proudly when they had returned home.

Issue 3 of publication by the Association of Art Historians 2004 says it was ‘Painted in Rome for return to Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire, the portrait is also implicated in Enlightenment debates about Scotland as a ‘primitive’ land and as a centre of intellectual and cultural achievement’.

Andrea Palladio Antichita de Roma Frontespiec

The buried buildings of Herculaneum and Pompeii had begun revealing their treasures from 1738 and 1748 respectively, as excavators removed centuries of lava and volcanic dust, affecting contemporary interests and tastes.

Learned societies and architects setting out intentionally to survey these ancient monuments and the increased interest provided accurate information about proportion, scale and ornamental detail with numerous publications coming into circulation.

The finest guide for travelers to Rome had actually been written in 1554 by successful sixteenth century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio. Entitled Le Antichita de Roma.

It described the buildings of Ancient Rome and as might be expected of an architect of Andrea Palladio’s reputation the guide was closer to the original Roman buildings than any other.

The ruins were viewed through his eyes, which is one of the reasons that Palladio exerted such an amazing influence on the course of architectural history, especially for young men from England who were in pursuit of the perfect house in which to see and be seen.

A whole new genre of art was invented. An army of copyists would reproduce any old master painting of your choice, for a price, from the splendid selection on display in the art galleries.

Portrait painters, illustrators and landscape artists all prospered, or at least survived, by providing memories of the British in Italy.

Charles Towneley and his Friends in the Towneley Gallery, 33 Park Street, Westminster (1781-83) by Johann Zoffany. Boys with their Toys.

Some copies of European paintings were so convincing they fooled many into believing they were the real deal.

Taking home a cast or a copy of an original was not shameful. It was the only way to share with friends and family what the years away had meant and how much you had learned about the heritage of Greece and Rome.

However if you were after a really outstanding piece of classical sculpture, or an original High Renaissance master such as Titian or Raphael while they were extremely difficult to find, they were not impossible if you had the right connections.

Country Gentleman Charles Townley (1733 – 1805) formed a formidable collection of antiquities, which the British Museum purchased from the family in 1805. It was housed in his purpose built town house in the west of London in his lifetime so he and his friends could discuss the merits of each piece.

What is significant is that many of them appear in a conversation piece painted by artist Johann Zoffany, himself a luminary of the day. In August 1781 Townley wrote to his dealer in Rome ‘Mr Zoffany is painting… a room in my house, wherein he introduces what Subjects he chuses in my collection. It will be a picture of extraordinary effect & truth…’

Marriage a la Mode – 1 of a Series by William Hogarth

Artist and social commentator William Hogarth campaigned vigorously against fashionable taste. His witty cartoons also assisted in expanding more serious debate about issues affecting the society of his day, especially the idea that rich people are automatically happy.

His Marriage a la Mode series was a comment on the dissolute lives many of them really led because they were so unhappy in marriages arranged by parents wanting to further expand their own estates.

The whole sad story starts in the mansion of the Earl Squander, who is arranging to marry his son off to the daughter of a wealthy merchant and it all ends tragically with the murder of the son and suicide of the daughter.

By mid century London was the largest city in Western Europe with 750,000 inhabitants. (Edinburgh 57,000 Dublin 90000). It offered a different quality of life and nowhere else in Britain was so urban; no other city so exciting or so shocking!.

A great night out was to gape at the antics of the beau monde while they were out and about on the town.

You could do that at Vauxhall Gardens, which occupied about 12 acres across the Thames from Westminster Abbey. Class distinction did not apply, so for young aristocratic risk takers with the ready necessary it was dangerous, and glamorous.

For rogues, ruffians, pimps and prostitutes it was a place where they could earn a good living, and for everyone else in between it was to coin a contemporary term, ‘a great gaze’.

Just up the river was Ranelagh Gardens. English writer, critic and renowned conversationalist Dr. Samuel Johnson said Ranelagh produced ‘an expansion and gay sensation‘ such as he had never experienced anywhere else before.

It certainly must have been wonderful to be there on June 19, 1764 when eight year old child prodigy Austrian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gave a concert.

The young genius, his father and sister stayed in London for just over one year, not departing until 17 September 1765. Wolfgang’s father reported in a letter home ‘What we have experienced here surpasses everything’ .

Pantheon at Rome and its Grand Tourists

The Grand Tour was so often protracted it is not surprising that many great treasures found their way to England’s shores including paintings by the Italian artist Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Il Canaletto, (1697-1768).

The son of a theatrical scene-painter Giovanni had studied in Rome and between 1746 and 1756 worked in London. Following his return to Venice English grand tourists, guided by English entrepreneur, Joseph Smith who lived there, sought him out.

Smith’s own collection was later sold to King George III in 1758 and the British Royal Collection still has the best selection of Canaletto’s works anywhere.

Grand Canal Venice, Canaletto, National Gallery, London

In the summer of 1772 German born artist Johann Zoffany left London for Florence and he would not return until 1779. Zoffany was commissioned by Queen Charlotte to paint ‘the Florence Gallery’ and to do that he needed to enlist the help of influential Englishmen, such as Sir Horace Mann and George, 3rd Earl Cowper who were living there.

Paintings were brought in from the Pitti Palace so he could paint them in situ, and he was able to repay his patrons by including portraits of them in what is an amazing conversation piece, which caused a great deal of criticism when it was put on display in London.

Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johann Zoffany

Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johann Zoffany Royal Collection, Windsor Castle

The prime minister’s son Horace Walpole, himself a considerable wit and man of letters, called it ‘a flock of travelling boys, and one does not know, nor care whom’.

Zoffany was careful to include himself in the piece for posterity and the connoisseurs, diplomats and other Grand Tourists he included are all identifiable.

Returning Grand Tourists arrived back in England with bags bulging. Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) returned to England from his Grand Tour of Europe and Italy just in time for his 21st birthday.

He brought with him artist and designer William Kent, whom he had met on his travels, as well as 878 pieces of luggage.

It contained numerous treasures of paintings, statues, objects of virtu, bas reliefs, a marble table, porphry vases and twelve miniatures, not to mention the set of silver dessert baskets from Paris, a bountiful supply of books and fourteen pairs of gloves!

Detail Claude Lorrain Landscape

Burlington and his friends were all heavily influenced by the many and varied essays on the subject as well as their travels.

In Italy they had seen paintings in which architecture and nature were blended together in a pictorial effect. Both Burlington and Kent would contribute greatly to a passionate Quest for Nature.

Of great influence were the paintings by French artist Claude Lorrain, Claude Gellée, dit le Lorrain) (c. 1600 – 21 or 23 November 1682) they had seen on their grand tour.

They featured hills and valleys, great clouds, splendid trees with soft foliage with buildings, or groups of buildings of classical ancestry.

These romantic concepts were fused together with the search for an ‘Arcadian’ idyll

Temple of Music in West Wycombe Park

These new ‘Rulers of Taste’ sought that moment of perfection inspired by all their intellectual and poetic notions, which now played a major part in the broadening their sensibilities.

Buildings came to be appreciated not merely as architecture, but for the thoughts and the feelings they inspired and the resultant “Cult of the Picturesque” would be debated well into the next century. Garden designer extraordinaire Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1715-1783) was in the perfect position to offer returning Grand Tourists a gardening style that suited there newly found sensibilities.

He had worked with landscape style innovator William Kent in the garden he was creating at Stowe and found himself in a position to offer his clients an intimate, personal view of nature by ‘softening nature’s harshness and copying her graceful touch’.

Brown’s style of natural countryside was the sort of place where you could believe that nymphs and shepherds came together with their elegant eighteenth century counterparts, and felt comfortably at home.

He transformed great tracts of the English landscape into natural curves crowning them with clumps of trees. He used mostly elm, oak, beech, lime, Scots fir, plane, larch and the Cedar of Lebanon.

The Bridge at Stourhead in a landscape of autumnal colours

At Stourhead in Wiltshire the contrived circuit walk around the lake was built for the enjoyment of its new young owner banker Henry Hoare “The Magnificent”.

Its interplay of light and shadow were a triumph for the contrived and well-laid out park. Horace Walpole said ‘Such was the effect of his genius …..so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken for it’. How right he was.

Brown and his colleagues, during the course of the eighteenth and nineteen centuries would change the whole shape and character of the English countryside from one end of the country to the other in their Quest for Nature.

It was human intervention on a monumental scale.

THE classical buildings in the garden at Stourhead were a reminder for Henry Hoare of his wonderful years spent in Italy. They were also suitable for all sorts of entertainments during the course of the eighteenth century, including playing music by Mozart. Their principles of design were based on Roman and Greek models, although scaled to be a miniature version, their parts in harmonious proportion to their whole.

Here hills and vales, the woodland and the plain,
Here earth and water seem to strive again
Not chaos like together crushed and bruised
But as the world, harmoniously confused;
Where order in variety we see,
And where, though all things differ, all agree

Sir Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despence

Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet of West Wycombe Park was one of the eighteenth centuries most colourful characters. He also was 2nd Postmaster General, Master of the Great Wardrobe, Member of Parliament and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In 1734 at London Sir Francis Dashwood founded the Society of Dilettanti (dilettante (from the Italian dilettare – to delight) for men who had completed their grand tour of Europe.

Over the course of the century the Society of Dilettanti would sponsor serious archaeological expeditions, assemble celebrated collections of antiques and art and advance the study of classical art, architecture and music and science.

Society of Diletannti by William Say

The popular dining club met in Italy, and at home, where they combined ribald revelry, wit, complete irreverence with a serious study of antiquity, which they all associated with the good times spent in Italy in their youth. They always had the latest and best wines on hand to toast exalted beauties and life.

They contemplated a lengthy future for the arts and culture and having such interests and concerns gradually became the measure of a man of refined taste and style.

Dashwood who enjoyed a ‘good time’ also revived the Hellfire Club.

He went ‘clubbing’ with his clique, the so-called ‘Medmenham Monks’ on the banks of the Thames at Medmenham Abbey just 6 km away from his country house. He also revived the remains of the Abbey as a picturesque ruin.

Over the entrance doorway to the a garden, which had been purpose built,  it said Fais ce que tu voudrasa shortened version of Aime et fais ce que tu veux… by St Augustine – Love, and do what you want.

It seems they did because they filled the garden with erotic statues and a shrine dedicated to the erect penis, rather than the penitent penis.

Yes, Sir Francis Dashwood’s Italian styled villa at West Wycombe Park was the perfect Temple to Taste. It was built by one its prime rulers, who fashioned himself as a ‘compleat’ gentleman. But was he?

Well based on what we now know he certainly was, and since his day the art of pleasure has certainly become a ‘serious business’.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2014

**Robbie Burns

*Alexander Pope


  • Penelope Cave says:

    You suggest that Mozart was played in the classical buildings at Stourhead during the 18th century. Can you give a reference to this?

  • Hello Penelope…the quote I believe you are referring to ‘They were suitable for all sorts of entertainments during the course of the eighteenth century, including playing music by Mozart’ . I beg your pardon if you thought I meant to imply I knew music by Mozart had been played in those particular pavilions. I meant to convey only that it would have been appropriate. I have now updated the paragraph. Thank you.

    Like other purpose built temples of the arts at this time the design of these miniature versions of buildings from Ancient Greece and Rome were based on theories of, and measurements of harmony found in the design of classical architecture. (Vitruvius de Architectura Chapter 1:3, 8 – 9 Chapters 5 – 8). The only English builder of follies and pleasure pavilions I know off with a personal connection to Mozart is William Beckford (1760-1844) whose massive fortune allowed him to retain Mozart, when he was nine years old and visiting England, to give him music lessons. You may also care to read Music Humankind and Nature and I will put up a post about pleasure pavilions soon.

  • Not a bad way to start a day, quality blog post :)

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