Regency Spoof – Night Mare Abbey

Halloween approaches and time to revisit the Gothic novel bookshelf.

“Women with great hair fleeing Gothic houses.”
via @PulpLibrarian

Examples of the genre on my shelf are mostly from the 1970s. Their covers feature almost identical elements, enhanced to a degree that seems a bit much these days. Perhaps that’s a reminder it’s all too easy to exaggerate what is meant to inspire mystery and a sense of danger.

One too many stormy nights and you risk bringing forth a giggle instead of a gasp.

Thomas Love Peacock (1785 – 1866), Regency-era novelist famous for satire, viewed the Gothic with benevolent amusement. He was a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley, that lion of the Romantic movement. Naturally Peacock spent a good deal of time in the poet’s circle, comprised of those heavily concerned with expressing over-wrought feelings and tortured obsessions.

Peacock wrote his 1818 Night Mare Abbey to spoof the efforts of his Romantic friends, albeit in the most amiable way. The story is not frightening in the least, so you can disregard suggestions from internet bots that it is one of the scariest stories of the nineteenth century.

Think of it as the comedic cousin of Northanger Abbey.

The abbey itself is a caricature of the Gothic setting. Servants are deliberately trained to absolute silence, with the most absurd results. Only the sound of the hall clock penetrates, the closing of a distant door resounding throughout the gloomy corridors as if it had been slammed. There is a ruined tower, clad with ivy that rustles in the wind, owls providing ‘the plaintive voices of feathered choristers’ and, of course, the sea pounding against the rocks below.

The Old House, prominent setting of the Gothic TV series Dark Shadows (a scrumptious Halloween treat for me) was the Colonnades, one of many Gilded Age mansions along the Hudson River that have since vanished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not surprising, we have warnings of evil afoot, wrapped up in a clever commentary of society and its pleasures. The character Mr. Toobad (perhaps John Frank Newton–who advocated Shelley practice vegetarianism) expresses these while lamenting the goodness and simplicity of the past. Now we are in a time when good wrestles with evil:

“The devil has come among us and has begun by taking possession of all the cleverest fellows.”

Abbey also makes sport with the Gothic reader of Peacock’s day, manifested in Mr. Listless, a fashionable dandy who has a penchant for reading and re-enacting the genre. Like Sir Lumley Skeffington illustrated below, Listless can’t decide if he’s really into the metaphysical or just pretending to be. On the one hand, he solidly declares there’s no such thing as a ghost, and yet admits he’s apt to mistake his dressing-gown for one.

Sir Lumley Skeffington and his band of dandies, affecting melodramatic ‘wounds.’
Image – Wellcome Library no. 10767i

 

 

 

The most powerful element in the Gothic drama, the Byronic hero, receives a masterful treatment in Abbey. He is Scythrope, with an air of appropriately pervasive dissatisfaction. Other characters act as a foil for him, namely the vicar and Scythrope’s love, Marionetta, whose gaiety remains impervious to the melancholic setting and the moody behavior of the hero.

Scythrope’s struggle with deep and dark Disappointment manifests itself in a variety of ridiculous ways. He writes Byzantine essays on mystical subjects. He builds labyrinthine passages in the Abbey that would “defy even the most intrepid of Parisian police.” His un-heroic antics enhance his difficulties. His behavior borders on the anti-social.

Peacock’s spoof of the Gothic reminds his friends not to over-do it. Too much world-weary aloofness can become tedious. More importantly, don’t be Friday-faced. The pain of the past does not excuse unpleasant behavior nor rejection of your family, your friends. Misanthropy, he illustrates, springs from nothing particularly heroic, but from:

“..overweening and mortified vanity, quarreling with the world for not being better treated than it deserves.”

I guess that makes my tortured hero a self-absorbed narcissist.

*Comparisons have been drawn between Abbey and Shelley’s time spent on the Continent with two ladies in his train–Mary Godwin, his new wife, and Claire Clairmont, the comet that disturbs the newlyweds’ orbit. See a previous blog post here for a summary of this amusing junket.

All quotes are taken from the literary criticism of this work of Peacock, published in La Belle Assemblée, Vol. 17 & 18, Jan-Dec 1818.

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Regency Era Servants – Details, Details Part 2

This post is a continuation of the previous one, concentrating on the character of Regency-era servants when working under duress. I think these details are quite illuminating.

The following anecdotes, unless otherwise noted, come from the letters of Lady Williams-Wynn, (Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn; edited by Rachel Frances Marion Leighton, 1920 – my copy is from archive.org).

In 1820, her ladyship wrote in horrified tones to her daughter-in-law concerning the destruction of Wotton House. This fine Queen Anne mansion in Buckinghamshire was the ancestral home of the politically powerful Grenville family.

Built in the English Baroque style, with square apartments and high ceilings, Wotton’s design readily explains its destruction, although that circumstance was not apparent right away. A fire started in the room next to the nursery and soon flames were shooting straight up through the ceiling. Unfortunately, the copper roof confined the heat and flames to the attic, which ran the length of the mansion, and so the fire spread outwards from end to end of Wotton. The fire then traveled back down into the house by the only avenues of escape–the wooden staircases at either end and down the center of Wotton.

A fire that might have damaged one part of the house ended up burning the whole to the ground.

Wotton House, rebuilt by noted architect John Soane, neo-classical architect to the Regency
photo by By Mark Edwards, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia

Lady Williams-Wynn grew up at Wotton. She witnessed many poignant events there, including the untimely deaths of her parents.

“You will easily believe what a pang it has given me to think that all which was associated with my earliest and tenderest recollections should be wiped off from the face of the earth..”

— Lady W.W. to Fanny W.W. Nov. 5th, 1820

Wotton was the home of Lord Temple, son and heir to the duke of Buckingham and Chandos. He, along with his wife and baby daughter, Lady Anna, were in residence at the time of the fire. Their child was only nine months old, having been born earlier in the year in February. Lady W.W. expressed great astonishment that Lady Anna might have died in the fire but for the efforts of his lordship’s valet.

“We are all wonder at hearing from all sides of the peril of the poor Baby without one word being said of its Nurse..”

Imagine the chagrin of poor Nanny. Of all persons present in the house, she should have been the one to rescue her charge. Instead, the business had been left to the valet. One must wonder at Lady Temple’s domestic arrangements for the valet to be present at that particular moment in that part of the house (!)

Moseley, my favorite valet. He had other occupations as well, and now he returns to Downton Abbey to serve the King and Queen.
photo from fandom.com

Such a destructive fire bore investigation and Nanny provided an important clue. It was she, and not the valet, who was the first to see the smoke traveling across the wooden beams of the nursery ceiling. It was she, and not the valet, who picked up Baby and fled. I surmise she delivered her charge into the care of his lordship’s man in order to race back to the nursery to save irreplaceable mementos, such as the child’s christening gown.

Holding the Lady Anna in his arms, the valet could not refuse the hero’s mantle.

Several years earlier, in 1814,* Lady W.W. described the following incident concerning the eccentric daughter-in-law of fellow Whigs, Lord and Lady Melbourne. Apparently, this unfortunate occurrence was all the ton could talk about–the on-dit of that autumn.

The ‘wretched’ Lady Caroline Lamb, as Lady W.W. called her, was already a figure of scandal by the time this latest outrage occurred. Earlier in the year she’d embarked on a well-publicized affair with Lord Byron, having met him in that Whig stronghold, Holland House.

Lady Caroline Lamb by Phillips
She had a thing for pages.

After the affair ended, a surgeon was called to Lady Caroline’s house. One of her pages had suffered a serious injury. Apparently the lad refused to make proper obeisance to her ladyship and received a blow to the head. The offender insisted her instrument of correction was a broomstick and not the poker lying nearby.

In any case, all doubted the boy’s survival.

“It is certainly an extraordinary test of the good humour and kindness of Lord and Lady Melbourne to endure such an inmate, but it is said they do now profess they can bear it no longer.”

It appears Caro’s abusive behavior toward her servants, particularly her pages, was well-known among the ton. Her fellow novelist and confidante, Sydney, Lady Morgan recorded as much in her diary. Caroline did nothing to dispel this, admitting that when she and her page played with squibs, (little firecrackers shaped into balls), the horseplay was often quite boisterous.

On one occasion, the boy threw his squib in the fire. Scolding him, Lady Caroline threw hers at his head.

“It hit him on the temple, and he bled. He cried out, ‘O my Lady, you have killed me!’ Out of my senses, I flew into the hall and screamed, ‘Oh God, I have murdered the page!’ ”

Lady Morgan’s Memoirs: Autobiography, diaries and correspondence by Sydney, Lady Morgan, ed. W. H. Dixon

Vol II (1863)

“The Page Affair,” as Lady Caroline called it, is very well explained here. Some scholars believe these tales of abuse were really a metaphor to describe Caro’s relationship with Lord Byron–that the “pages,” hers and Byron’s, were their literary creations.

Lady W.W. was not impressed, but Lady Cork, famous for her salons and conversation, was.

“..she has persuaded the ton she is a second Lady Cork, to whose salons it is an honor to be invited..She sounds very disagreeable.”

She told Lady Morgan, perhaps teasingly, that she meant to send one of her own naughty pages to Lady Caroline to be reformed. She heard the Melbournes’ daughter-in-law was well-qualified in this regard:

“..’tis said she broke her page’s head with a teapot the other day.”

Loyal to dear Caro, Lady Morgan protested the whole thing was quite untrue–a Tory rumor.

Lady Cork didn’t care if the tale was true or not.

“..all pages are better for having their heads sometimes broken.”

 

*This letter describing the poker incident is undated. The editor placed it among the writer’s correspondence in the fall of 1814.

Regency Era Servants – Details, Details

There are many great blog posts out there detailing the life of a servant during the Regency era. Hopefully these anecdotal bits and pieces from the correspondence of Lady Williams Wynn (1754 – 1832) will be illuminating on the subject as well:

“Has Harriet told you of the accident which has prevented Sir Samuel Hood from taking his seat in the House or Hoisting his Flag? (!)”

Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn, etc.. (1920)

Sir Samuel was the cousin of the more famous Admiral Hood. He commanded 74-gun ships of the line with great intrepidity during the Napoleonic wars. However, he was no match for his maid servant. She placed the warming pan in his bed whilst he occupied it. He rolled over and, well, ouch.

The naval hero was unable to stand or sit for three weeks, her ladyship tittered.

Gilray’s caricature of Sir Samuel Hood’s contest for one of the Westminster seats in the Commons. Along with Sheridan, he is pictured tossing the reform candidate, duelist James Paull, up in the air.

In January of 1808, Lady W.W.’s son was able reassure his mama he was present at the  the reception and dinner for Louis XVIII of France. This took place at Stowe House and given by the Earl Temple (later Marquess of Buckingham). In order not to be late, Henry arrived quite early, around mid-afternoon, only to find the exiled monarch was already on the front steps of the great house, a jam of carriages and people along the driveway.

He was bound to catch a scolding from Mama if he failed to represent the family.

Stowe House, via geograph.uk.org
© Copyright Kevin Gordon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

Henry’s post boy, acting with singular intelligence, drove the carriage around to the back door to avoid the crush. There his master was able to quickly sneak into the house and be part of the delegation when His Most Christian Majesty entered.

The post-boy couldn’t do a thing about the meal, however.

“The dinner, entre-nous (although there are four French cooks in the house) was the worst I ever saw put upon a table, and worst-served than anything I ever saw before.”

After Queen Charlotte’s death, there was a period of time when some of the King’s jewels in her possession went missing. The set, including the Garter, had been put away in a box and forgotten until someone needed that very container to pack up some other odds and ends belonging to the dead Queen.

The box was located in a window seat, the jewels inside.

It was lost for a bit.
Photo via Royal Collection Trust

Lady W. W. relates a similar incident to her eldest daughter, Fanny. Mrs. Ormsby-Gore, of an ancient Welsh aristocratic family, left her family’s country estate Porkington* to go up to London . She left her entire household behind with instructions to perform the various tasks that might otherwise be noisy and bothersome to her ladyship whilst at home.

One such project involved tuning the pianoforte. The tuner arrived but was obliged to break the lock on the pianoforte to perform his service.

“The first thing he beheld was Mrs. G’s full set of jewels, which in the presence of the Butler and Housekeeper he sealed up and delivered to their care.”

Lady W.W.’s ‘Stowe Junket’ story reveals the exhausting labor of servants during large gatherings. The one she relates to her son also took place at Stowe, for her nephew was the Duke of Buckingham. He had invited all the extended family and friends to the christening of his grandson, the ‘Young Hero,’ destined to be the last Duke of Buckingham.

Not even illness could prevent her ladyship’s other son from attending, having gotten permission from his doctor, Sir Henry Halford.

Even Apphia, Lady Lyttleton (see her diamond earrings here) was present, although:

“…why or wherefore nobody knows or could make out, excepting the Duke and Duchess’ having met her in Malvern and having been in her society in the first moment of Ebulletion (ebullience?) on hearing of the birth of the boy.”

A hundred guests were in attendance. Ladies were quartered in the bachelor gallery, men in the Duke’s various houses around Buckinghamshire. Her ladyship records her compliments to Stowe’s old housekeeper, Mrs. Nicholson. This lady, beaming, boasted she gave the maids 190 pairs of sheets to prepare all the beds.

The servants apparently got little sleep. The Duke told her ladyship that ‘not one had their clothes off from Monday to Saturday.’

“I’m the perfect servant–I have no life.”
Mrs. Wilson, housekeeper in the Edwardian country house mystery, Gosford Park

*Later known as Brogynton Hall, the house had been in the family of Ormsby-Gore since the 17th century until they abandoned it in 1985 due to death taxes and the like. Called the House of Tears, it has witnessed an eerie succession of deaths to the occupants.  Pictures of the house can be found here, including the round music room (now demolished) that probably contained the pianoforte.

 

Regency era servants – theft and fraud

The defeat of Napoleon and his exile to Elba unleashed a pent-up demand for Regency era travel to the Continent. Charlotte, Lady Williams-Wynn (1754 – 1830) planned a tour through France and Spain. She was the widow of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Baronet. From her correspondence, we can see how such a trip was a logistical feat, coordinating many servants to pull the thing off.

Lady Williams-Wynn and her children by Joshua Reynolds. She was closest to Charles, her second son. She carefully preserved all his “birthday letters” he wrote to her on each eve of his natal day.

Indispensable is the courier, the lifeline between a dowager and her family back in Wales. This servant would take custody of letters and other parcels her ladyship desired to be sent home from time to time. He would arrange for their transport in an orderly and reliable manner.  The courier must be English, have working experience abroad and provide good references.

Such a person was not easy to find, as her ladyship writes to her son.

“I have not yet been able to meet with anything tolerably promising in the shape of a Courier which is the more vexatious as it is the only circumstance that keeps me dawdling here, while the daylight is melting before my Eyes.”

— from Lady W. W. to Charles W. W. W., Brook Street, Sept. 1814

In the next breath, however, she writes that she’s found a candidate who might prove suitable. He provides a reference who is none other than the excellent steward of her family’s country seat, Wynnstay Hall. Trusting completely the advice of Mr. Young, Lady W.W. urges her son to confirm their steward’s recommendation of Mr. Chesswright, as:

“William Lyggins answers for his sobriety, but I had rather have Young’s judgment on that subject than his (!)”

Charles Watkin Williams-Wynn (1775-1850)

Charles Watkin Williams-Wynn was Lady W. W’s second son. Her eldest, the 5th baronet,was mad for military action against Napoleon and had left for the Continent six months prior. In the meantime, his younger brother was charged with the management of all his affairs and matters pertaining to the family’s vast landholdings.

This latest request from his mother forced Charles into an embarrassing admission. It seems Mr. Young, their most trusted and valuable servant, had been defrauding the family for the past four years.

Rather more clever than Watkin, Charles already noticed the estate was paying bills for goods and services at a significantly higher price than what would normally be charged. He acted on his suspicions by questioning servants who procured these outside commodities and labor which could not be produced on the estate–the housekeeper and the estate agent.

In the course of proving their innocence, scrutiny turned toward the steward.

Mr. Young, alerted by the interrogations going on around him, burnt all evidence of his wrongdoing–receipts, vouchers, etc. When confronted with his malfeasance directly, he confessed to the crime, anxious that his son, a parson, not learn of his father’s sins. Although confined and put on suicide watch, the steward managed to stab himself in the neck with a knife when no one was watching him.

Wynnstay Hall and three acres of parkland was for sale as recently as 2017 for £995,000.
photo by John Haynes via geograph.org.uk

Although the man recovered, he could not provide many details as to the extent of his depredations. It was also useless to rely upon the merchants to confirm the true amounts charged, for obvious reasons:

“We feel great doubt whether sending round to all Tradesmen or advertising in the Newspaper will be the least likely method to excite suspicion among them, that we are thoroughly in their power.”

— from Charles W. W. W. to Lady W. W. , Sept. 27, 1814

Charles and others were thus forced to go through the laborious task of examining all entries in all the account books for the past four years. Starting In 1810, when Young first worked at Winnstay, he sent a good deal of money for his son’s education and purchased a property in Lincolnshire. Charles’ wife wrote to her ladyship that ‘Mr. Young’s most wretched son,’ was summoned in hopes he might be able to shed some light on whatever monies might have been sent to him. “One of the most miserable and helpless beings I ever saw,” as Charles described the son, proved completely ignorant of what his father perpetrated.

In the course of their examination, it came to light that the baronet was not the first of Young’s victims. John Hamilton, 1st Marquess of Abercorn, and Edward St. Maur, 11th Duke of Somerset were also defrauded by the man when he was in their service.

The proof came from a letter found among Young’s papers from A. H. She prefaced her writing with instructions to burn it immediately, never thinking the steward would ignore such a command from the oldest daughter of the Duke of Hamilton:

“You will be astonished to hear that among his papers is a letter from Lady Anne Hamilton written several years ago, before he came into Watkin’s service which appears to direct and advise him in frauds he was then carrying on.”

— from Charles W. W. W. to Lady W. W. , Sept. 27, 1814

by Lonsdale, Lady Anne was the oldest daughter of the 9th Duke of Hamilton — “very forward, very ugly and unpleasant..”

A copy of Lady Anne’s letter was enclosed in Charles’ next letter to his mother. It is remarkably creative in the variety of suggestions the duke’s daughter makes to allow Young to defraud both families which are related to her. The marquess is her cousin–the  duke, her brother-in-law. To both she highly recommended Young and managed to shift him from the service of one to the other before his thefts could be detected.

” ..You may do anything, as your character is so well established.”

— letter from Lady Anne Hamilton to Mr. Young, 1806

The matter quickly became public knowledge. Gossip would have it that all of Wynnstay Hall’s staff was dishonest and the lot be fired, or worse. Sir Watkin refused to have Young prosecuted but charged the son to take him away. The Lincolnshire property was signed over to the baronet but no further action was taken.

As for Anne, the Williams-Wynn family said nothing publicly, nor did they share evidence of Young’s fraud with the marquess or the duke. They remained discreet out of respect for her family.

It is presumed the proposed courier Mr. Chesswright got the job. His reference was finally obtained from Lord Lake, who employed the man in Ireland.

The correspondence of Lady Williams-Wynn are preserved and available for viewing in the Internet Archive.

 

Regency Era Road Rage

Lieutenant-General Sir Charles William Doyle (1770 – 1842) was an excellent example of the brave and intrepid British soldier during the Regency period. He rose through the ranks during the Napoleonic Wars to become a heroic commander and Knight Bachelor.

Sir Charles’ portrait executed by Margaret Sarah Carpenter, a well-established portrait painter during the Regency era.

His military exploits included:

  • establishing a redoubt under fire above a besieged city
  • narrowly escaping capture in the company of the Duke of York
  • driving off a French privateer whilst in an open boat of 30 soldiers in the West Indies
  • conducting espionage despite severe injuries during the Battle of Alexandria
  • endearing himself to various Spanish juntas who made him their own lieutenant-general.

He excelled in restoring order to demoralized troops. He served the Prince Regent as an  aide-de-camp. Two horses were shot out from under him during action in the Peninsular War.

Battle of Alexandria by de Loutherbourg (1801)
Sir Charles was there.

According to a story recounted in The Spirit of the Public Journals by Stephen Jones (1825) —  it was action outside London that nearly laid the hero low–under the generalship of a female, no less.

Sir Charles had just come from a military review held on Hounslow Heath. He had put aside his military garb for civilian clothes to drive back to London. At the village of Brentford, he stopped to allow a line of buggies turning off the road ahead. While he waited, something bumped him in the back. Turning ’round, he was confronted by the two lead horses pulling a post-chaise-and-four.

 

Denis Dighton’s Review at Hounslow Heath via UK Royal Collection Trust
It was the thing to do back then.

 

He shouted at the post-boy riding one of the leaders, pointing out he couldn’t very well run over the buggy in front of him. The lad’s master, mounted on a wheeler, ignored this and urged the horses forward until they threatened to turn the general’s tilbury over. After much jostling and remonstrations, the post-chaise gave the small carriage the “go-by” and raced away.

Urged by on-lookers to pursue the miscreants, the general drove his horse to overtake them in Hammersmith, where the chaise had stopped to water the horses. When Sir Charles confronted the post-boys, demanding their address, the chaise’s fair passenger appeared at the window, cursing.

“By G___d, they shall neither apologize nor give their address; and if (he) wants any thing else, let him follow me to Curzon-street, and I’ll horsewhip him myself! Drive on, lads!”

Smithfield in London, witness to many executions, still has its horse trough.
photo via geograph.org.uk – Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

She ordered the chaise to depart, leaving the general at a stand-still, his horse exhausted and the tilbury a little worse for the wear. A bystander’s horse was pressed into service for Sir Charles to mount and continue the pursuit. He followed the chaise all the way to Hyde Park, but stopped short when the four-in-hand passed through the Kensington Gate at a full gallop.

Sir Charles did not dare follow. Strongly conscious of his dignity and his reputation, he would not allow himself to become a spectacle for the ton’s entertainment.

“He afterwards ascertained that the lady was a Mrs. Stopford, living under the ‘protection’ (!) of somebody or other in Curzon-Street.”

The post-boys were thus identified and brought to justice before the magistrate the next day. As for the courtesan, she was never troubled by prosecution.

That is what it means to live under another’s protection.

One outrider for the Queen – Trooping the Color in 2007
photo via wikicommons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

 

 

 

A Regency State Banquet

The recent state banquet in Buckingham Palace had me glued to the TV screen. Not to view the participants, but to catch a glimpse of the treasures acquired by the Prince Regent, still in use today.

The banquet took place in the ballroom of the palace, a Victorian creation. July 20th will mark the beginning of a new exhibition, “Queen Victoria’s Palace,” which will highlight the transformation of what had been “a private house to a working royal residence.” Below is an image of the ballroom during Victoria’s reign:

Watercolor by Louis Haghe (1806 – 85) from the Royal Collection Trust

What makes a state banquet in the ballroom so magnificent is the decorative and functional items on display. Thanks to the excellent catalog and descriptions of the Royal Collection, one can know the  provenance of those items brought out from the Queen’s  ‘cupboard’ to serve the attendees.

It is also an opportunity to see the very best that graced a Regency era table.

The Grand Service was assembled by George IV over the course of his life as Prince of Wales,as  the Prince Regent and finally as king. It consists of more than 4000 pieces and made by the Royal Goldsmiths, Rundell Bridge and Rundell. The style reflects the eclectic taste of the Regency era. There is no one pattern, but a harmony of classical, Egyptian and oriental motifs.

Irreplaceable and wholly incomparable in size and magnificence, the Grand Service remains in use for state banquets like the one this past week.

The magnificent Mercury and Bacchus candelabrum by Rundell & Bridge goldsmith Paul Storr (1811)  – it is always placed on the table of HM the Queen, along with its pair, Apples of the Hesperides photo via dailymail.co.uk

The first installment of the service was used in Carlton House. The banquet table featured  goldfish swimming in a trough down the length of the table; highlighting, perhaps, the magnificence of the silver gilt plate.

From the British Museum collection – a Charles Williams print clearly objecting to this first of Prinny’s many extravagances

I particularly like the more unusual pieces. They inspire great plot ideas for that Regency dinner my characters labor to serve.

A spirit burner is used to keep food warm on the table as diners serve themselves à la française — photo via Royal Collection Trust

 

Chained unicorn detail from the wine cistern (now punch bowl) — final piece of the Grand Service – photo via Royal Collection Trust

 

There are four of these dessert stands — Bacchus here dancing with his maenids photo via Royal Collection Trust

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Composer to the Regency

This Blog has often addressed the burgeoning need for access to the arts during the Regency period. Muzio Clementi (1752 – 1832) was the man who brought the music to the age.

The father of the piano

Born in Italy, as a young man he came to England at the behest of his patron, Sir Peter Beckford, to develop his musical talent and entertain the Lord Mayor’s country household. His public performances as a pianist and organist were quite the treat for a provincial audience far removed from London. It was perhaps inevitable that Dorset would not hold him forever, and upon his release from obligations to Sir Peter, he was on his way to the Metropolis, and fame.

He was to become the musician to the Regency.

Late Georgian England was already attracting many accomplished composers from the Continent, including Joseph Haydn and Mozart. Upon his arrival in London, Clementi began composing, and his talent aroused great interest among the ton, and notice among the great masters.

Mozart: ‘Clementi is a charlatan, like all Italians.’ Clementi: ‘Until (Mozart) I had never heard anyone play with such spirit and grace.’

His talent took him to the Continent as well. Among his first performances was the famous competition between himself and Mozart, before the Imperial court of Austria. But unlike poor Salieri, Clementi held his own against the better-remembered Mozart, astonishing the emperor and those in attendance. Indeed, the man later known as Amadeus gave the ultimate compliment to his rival, using Clementi’s beginning motif to his Sonata in B-flat Major, No. 2 in the famous overture to The Magic Flute.

Back in England, Clementi’s influence was considerable, finding its way into music rooms and parlors, figuring largely in lessons on the pianoforte. His compositions were considered most challenging, being intricate and often difficult to play, despite their ‘simplicity, brilliancy and originality.’

“The celebrated John Christian Bach (son of John Sebastian Bach’s second marriage) spoke of (Clementi’s Opera 2) in the highest terms; but although one of the most able players of the time, he would not attempt its performance….his works ‘could only be performed by the author or the devil himself.’ ”

— Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, vol 2, 1820

Composing and performing were not particularly lucrative. Clementi supplemented his income by publishing the works of other composers, in addition to his own. He used his connections with notable musicians to gain exclusive rights to publish their compositions, fulfilling increasing demand for sheet music, both for piano and flute.

Beethoven made his nephew play these exclusively. My piano teacher employed the same philosophy with me.

From his publishing company’s Appendix to their Catalog of 1816:

Clementi & Co., having established a Correspondence with several of the most respectable Continental Publishers, they have entered into such arrangements as will enable them to supply their friends and the public, at a short notice, with Correct Editions of the most esteemed Productions of the Foreign Musical Press.

Having a robust musical library was just as important as having a large and varied collection of books. Scattered sheets of music, however messy, was a mark of distinction for any household.

Clementi was the exclusive publisher of Beethoven’s compositions sold in Britain.

Clementi also had a piano factory, building instruments that incorporated his designs to improve their performance. Innovations in case construction allowed a pianoforte to retain its pitch and tone longer, so that tuning was not so frequently required. Clementi also patented a process that allowed strings to be attached directly to the soundboard, lengthening tone and increasing resonance.

‘..old-fashioned square parlor…the proper air of confusion by a grand piano-forte and a harp..’ Persuasion, by Jane Austen
photo via bestbrodipianos.co.uk

Unfortunately the manufacturing plant was destroyed by fire in 1807, from a stove flue that ignited surrounding woodwork. The engines for putting out the fire arrived fairly quickly, but were unable to stop the destruction because, as the Athenaeum of 1807 reports,’no water could be procured for nearly an hour after.’

His obituary summarizes his remarkable career with special tribute paid to Clementi’s humanity, his kindness to others*, his capacity for feeling. Noted with sadness is the composer’s suffering over the death of his first wife in childbirth, and his son’s premature demise from a pistol’s accidental discharge.

At his funeral:

“The cheerful noon-sun shone through the cathedral windows when the procession began to move…it was the illumination most befitting so clear and natural a spirit as Clementi.”

— Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 102, Part 1 (1832)

In Austen’s novel Persuasion, Captain Harville and Anne discuss ‘the richness of the present age.” It is perhaps no small surprise that the father of the piano should have inhabited the Age of the Regency, and adorned its music.

* He was known to have sponsored a subscription fund for the widow of fellow composer John Gildon, so that she could live in comfort, and even start a business. Ackermann’s Repository (vol 10, July 1813)