The Age of Elegance – Health, Wealth, Wit and Society


Lord Hervey and friends, surveying the countryside and perhaps considering its health benefits

During the eighteenth century in England boundaries came down and walks and rides extended far out into the countryside. Gravel gave way to turf and canals to meandering streams, with deer and wildlife grazing right up to the walls of a country house.

All over the emerald isle grand estates began to to develop their properties designed on the principle of the circuit walk.

Stourhead Bridge

The bridge in the great garden of Stourhead, Wiltshire, whose landscape offers a view of an Arcadian paradise.

This was because it was now also considered advantageous to go for a walk in the countryside.

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*

John, Lord Hervey by Charles-André van LooJohn, Lord Hervey, according to Lady Portland, was the envy of some and the sport of many, as ‘slim as a girl exquisitely dressed, painted and wearing the finest set of Egyptian pebble teeth’ she had yet seen.

Charles Jervas: Portrait of Alexander Pope, English author and poet: 21 May 1688 - 30 May 1744.  (Bodleian Library)

Charles Jervas: Portrait of Alexander Pope, English author and poet: 21 May 1688 – 30 May 1744. (Bodleian Library) – Alamy

*English poet Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) created a grotto and gardens at his villa in Twickenham in which he placed mirrors, a very expensive embellishment for the times.

The discovery of a natural spring during its construction meant the pleasant sound of trickling water would echo the sound of nature around the chambers. Pope was said to have remarked “Were it to have nymphs as well – it would be complete in everything”.

John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey was very slim in an age noted for grossly overweight men.

This was due to the very rigorous diet he adhered to, which he believed helped to control his fits. Medical practitioners since have deduced they were probably epileptic.

It seems not too many people were very kind to Lord Hervey. He became known as the ‘Lady of the Lords’, when he took his seat in the house in 1735. This was an age when wit and sarcasm, at the expense of those you knew, was commonplace.

Lady Mary Montagu, who considered herself a great friend, is recorded as noting there was three sexes, men, women and Hervey’s.

Alexander Roslin: Portrait of his wife Marie Suzanne Giroust

Alexander Roslin: 1768 Portrait of his wife Marie Suzanne Giroust

Whatever their sex and whether they were French, English or from any other country in Europe, those who painted and powdered during the last few decades of the eighteenth century were mostly unaware the mercury water used to whiten their skin was dangerous. As was the pigment they besmeared themselves with – Ceruse.

Both contained white lead, which completely ruined their skins and caused their hair to fall out. They also developed appalling gastric disturbances; got the shakes and sometimes died the victim of the cosmetics that they wore.

Kitty the Courtesan, painted by Sir Joshua Reynold

Kitty, a charming intelligent and highly successful courtesan,  sat for the illustrious painter Joshua Reynolds. She and Lord John Hervey’s second son Augustus got on well together, as he so nonchalantly put it, she died ‘a victim to cosmetics’.

Another pretty young woman, Lady Fortrose, Lady Harrington’s eldest daughter was ‘at the point of death’ according to that prolific writer of letters Horace Walpole.

He tells us she was, ‘killed like Lady Coventry and others by white lead of which nothing could break her’.

Like smokers in today’s world they were gradually getting the message it was dangerous, but just couldn’t stop.

Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johann Zoffany

The Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johann Zoffany courtesy The Royal Collection

There was plenty of Hervey’s around during the eighteenth century in England. Felton Hervey was the ninth son of the 1st Earl of Bristol, Equerry to Queen Caroline of Ansbach and Groom of the Bedchamber to William, Duke of Cumberland.

He features in the front row of one of the best known paintings of the era. Now in the Royal Collection, he is depicted alongside Sir Horace Mann, envoy extraordinaire and plenipotentiary to the Duke of Tuscany for 46 years. The painting is called The Tribuna of the Uffizi.

The Tribuna was the name of a room built in 1585 at the Galleria degli Uffizi, a museum in Florence,  which contained a selection of the most famous, exotic and precious works of art in the Medici collections.

Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons, ca. 1765 Johan Zoffany (German, 1733-1810) courtesy The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons, ca. 1765 Johan Zoffany (German, 1733-1810) courtesy The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Charlotte heard the artist Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) was going to Italy during the summer of 1772.

So, she commissioned him to paint this part of the famous Florence gallery for her. The scene was certainly painted with unflagging energy and vitality.

Zoffany peopled it with Englishmen and Scotsmen, who were all visiting Florence on their Grand Tour while he was there. He also popped himself into the picture.

He can be seen with the group of connoisseurs on the left, between sculptures, peeping around a painting being discussed.

ick2621bFrederick Augustus Hervey, the son of Lord John, became 3rd Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry and one of the English eighteenth centuries most colourful eccentrics

F.A. Hervey spent a great deal of his time on the Continent, where he was thought to be an Irish Bishop by many Italians. The result was that innumerable continental hotels were named after him.

Back in England he invested in a large country estate and designed Ickworth, following what he believed was dear impeccable sixteenth century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio’s rules.

However the Earl-Bishop (1730-1803) was born far too late to be considered a Palladian by the early protagonists of what became a uniquely English style.


Ickworth the house, although as interesting and eccentric as the Bishop himself, served only to demonstrate his individual style and love of classical architecture.

Ickworth InteriorIts interiors contain a wonderful example of a painted room, based on those being uncovered at Pompeii from 1748 onward.

This was the time when the buried buildings of Pompeii and Herculaneum were revealing its many great treasures, which had lain hidden since 79 AD. The discoveries in Italy affected contemporary interests and tastes in England an Europe.

Fragment of Facade of Complesso di San Firenze, Florence, Italy

Fragment of Facade of Complesso di San Firenze, Florence, Italy

Learned societies and architects set out intentionally to survey all of Italy’s ancient monuments, the increased interest providing much more accurate information about proportion, scale and ornamental detail than had been known before. Numerous new publications coming into circulation added to the growing knowledge of antiquity.

One of the most interesting would be the knowledge that all the ancient monuments had originally been colourfully painted and not always look as they did at the time or now, with the stone of which they had been built bleached by the Mediterranean sun.


Thomas Rowlandson: Gout, a particularly painful condition

It was a severe attack of the gout that finally carried the dear old Bishop of Derry off to a higher power. There was a terrible muddle about gout and a vision of the pop-eyed, ill tempered, bewigged squire with his huge padded foot on a gout stool, a bottle of port in one hand and a walking stick for hitting out with another, is a popular image of the time.

Taking Venice treacle and gin on alternate days was also considered good for stomach gout. However as nothing was really known about the real processes of the digestive system, gout in the stomach, which was a common complaint, was difficult to cure.

England’s George III (1738 – 1820) in his fabulous set of silk and ermine Coronation robes

In 1760 George 111 ascended the throne declaring he gloried in the name of Briton. He was the triumph of environment over hereditary.

He was the first King, descended from the first two Hanoverian (German) Georges who regarded himself as English and took the trouble to learn to speak the language.

His father and grandfather had never learned it at all, preferring to speak their native language German, or at Court the language of diplomacy – French.

George III’s portrait painted by Allan Ramsay, features the fabulous set of robes that he wore.

He had the help of a draperyman, an enthusiast brilliant at painting velvet, lace, satin, and silk.

Often the portrait artist would paint the outline, head and hands and then send the canvas to the draperyman for finishing. One of the most prominent was Flemish-born Joseph van Aken, who assisted both Allan Ramsay and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

So much was he depended upon that after his death in 1749, their colleague William Hogarth made a satirical drawing of his distressed clients following his coffin.

Robert Adam 18th century Scottish architect at London with the folio publication of his drawings of The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro 1764 attributed to George Willison painted 1770 - 1774

Robert Adam 18th century Scottish architect at London with the folio publication of his drawings of The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro 1764 attributed to George Willison painted 1770 – 1774

This was the time when the revolutionary trends in industry and political thought melded with the Neoclassical movement in architecture, as expounded by Scottish born London based Architect Robert Adam (1728 – 1792).


His Majesty George III, with Queen Charlotte, resuming power

In the autumn of 1788, the year Lord Byron was born, King George III appeared to be greatly agitated. His physician diagnosed the useful all embracing disease ‘gout’, recommending he take the waters at Cheltenham.

The illness of George III would become the best documented case of mental illness during this period.

This is a time when those with such an affliction were exhibited like wild beasts for the amusement of the public, except for those who were rich and placed in private asylums.

By March of 1789 the King had made a recovery and London turned out joyfully to see the fireworks and illuminations of celebration. The method of treatment to cure his ‘illness’ it seems was a combination of firmness, kindness, cheerfulness and affection. Although when violent, the King was confined in a straitjacket or strapped into, what he himself called his Coronation chair.

Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie…A Voluptuary Under The Horrors of Digestion,” a caricature (1792) by James Gillray from George’s time as Prince of Wales.

The Prince of Wales George III’s eldest son was an excellent mimic and drew great applause from his cronies at Brook’s Club by mimicking his father’s ravings…although as he aged, his own antics may have also given many some cause for concern.

He led an extravagant lifestyle and while his ‘charm and culture’ earned him the nickname of ‘first gentleman’ his ever increasing size through over indulgence, was parodied by the media and he became the butt of all humour.

Gillray’s portrait of the Prince picking his teeth with a table fork, having demolished a heavy meal and a considerable quantity of wine says more than a thousand words.

He was notoriously dissolute and Gillray has him in a room littered with empty bottles, pills and unpaid bills with his pisspot full to overflowing.

Many would have thought him a loser in more ways than one.

George, Prince of Wales in 1792

George, Prince of Wales in 1792

The Duke of Wellington said of him once in a time of political crisis that he was ‘the worst man he ever fell in with his whole life, the most selfish, the most false, the most ill-natured, the most entirely without one redeeming quality‘; although he would later praise him in a eulogy delivered to the House of Lords.

Politics. This was an age of extremes.

At one of the great Waterloo banquets held each year George was pontificating while relating a story of the Battle of Waterloo as if he had been there in person calling to the Duke of Wellington for confirmation.

The Duke tactfully replied….‘I have often heard your majesty say so’.

The Prince became Regent with full sovereign powers, because by 1810 the King had gone finally and hopelessly insane. Shelley described him as ‘an old, made, blind, despised and dying King‘…man’s inhumanity to man, even from a youthful republican poet.

Bathing Boxes, in the English style, built at Brighton, Victoria, Australia

By the turn of the nineteenth century in London distribution of wealth, was no longer a preserve of the aristocracy. The industrial revolution was in full swing and people from all backgrounds were being elevated to sudden riches. The oncoming Victorian Age would change the face of England and begin to improve on the health, wealth, wit and society of its people.

The Poet William Cowper (1731-1800) observed

Your prudent grand-mammas, ye modern belles,
Content with Bristol, Bath (Brighton) and Tunbridge Wells,
When health required it would consent to roam,
Else more attach’d to pleasures found at home,

But now alike gay widow, virgin, wife
Ingenious to diversify dull life,
In coaches, chaises, caravans and hoys,
Fly to the coast for daily, nightly joys,
And all impatient of dry land, agree
With one consent to rush into the sea…

Sea Bathing England C19

Sea bathing in England during the nineteenth century

Fortunate were those villages with either a spring, or a sea front, as this was the age when taking the waters and sea bathing also became fashionable as a cure for many ills.

This meant a bevvy of beach boxes and bathing machines were built at all the best beaches. They became the province of the fashionable.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010-2013 – 2018

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