Lansdowne House – Rape and Death in a Ballroom

“Do you mean to tell me you’ve another interesting display?”

Louisa cringed.  “Oh, I wish you would not tease me, Diana.  You cannot know how dreadful it is to have a husband who brings home everything that is dug up.  Why is it that the Romans had to conquer so many places and scatter their things about?  I vow they did this just to distract wives in decent society hundreds of years later.”

The offending art was located in the ballroom at Lansdowne House.

Louisa gestured to large fragment of Roman sculpture mounted on the wall, watching Diana’s reaction with trepidation.

“It’s called the Rape of Persephone.  And from a coffin, no less.  Lansdowne would have it mounted there, just in time for our first ball of the Season.  I declare he has done so for no other reason than to vex me.  And you know there will be any number of debutantes and their mamas in attendance.  They shall all think it terribly ill-bred, being forced to gaze upon the image of a young girl being carried off to suffer any number of indignities.”

“I shouldn’t worry about it, Louisa.”

“Really?  You amaze me.”

Diana turned to face her.  “It’s a metaphor for untimely death.  Not at all improper, I assure you.  The sarcophagus probably belonged to someone who died very young.  Snatched away by Death in the prime of her life.”

Louisa swallowed, just then remembering Northam’s tragedy.  “Diana, please forgive me.  I had no notion, otherwise I shouldn’t have–”

“Do not be distressed, Louisa.  My parents have been dead for so long that I can scarce remember them.”

Yet Louisa could not miss the strange glitter in Diana’s eyes.

She took Diana’s arm.  “Uh–come away, dear and see my latest watercolor.  I am persuaded you will enjoy il Signor Rossi’s technique.”

The ballroom at Lansdowne House is still extant, but without the decoration that made it famous.  The panel known as the Rape of Persephone was one of several Lansdowne marbles that were arranged in this room–originally intended to be a sculpture gallery.  In the 1930 photo, you can see them set in the wall.

And you thought only Elgin had them.

Originally the ballroom  was meant to be a music room by Lord Bute, the first owner of Lansdowne House.  The Earl of Shelburne, later Lord Lansdowne, had visited Italy after purchasing the house and was possibly inspired by the excursion to have a gallery for his sculpture.  He commissioned the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton to convert the music room to a suitable space.  Hamilton lived most of his life in Rome and was considered a gifted neoclassical history painter, favoring Greek and Roman subjects.  He was also an art dealer and excavator of antiquities.  How convenient.

Eventually, however, the plans for the sculpture gallery were dropped and by the time of my story Notorious Match, the room assumed its present and final function.

The ballroom can still be seen today at the Lansdowne House Club (see below) which has a marvelous gallery of its own you can peruse here.

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Lansdowne House Drawing Room

A drawing room was not just for drawing.  During the late Georgian period and beyond, when socializing was made easier with more efficient transportation, great houses utilized their spaces in new and creative ways to enhance the party experience.

Lansdowne House Rear Drawing Room – Philadelphia Museum of Art

And you thought your living room was just wasted space.

In Notorious Match, the Lansdowne Ball featured dancing and gaming.  After arriving, Diana found herself at a game of faro that was set up in the famous Adam drawing room.  Her luck at the game was indifferent at best.  The last time she played she lost her mother’s pearls.  To her disappointment, the banker refused to accept her voucher to play.  So she staked something else that Lord Harcourt would be unable to resist.  Irresponsible?  Perhaps.  Did she do it to provoke Griffin?  For once, no.

Unknown to anyone, she was desperate to extinguish a little girl’s anguish, enough to pledge something very dear.

Diana unclasped the heirloom about her neck and tossed them on the table toward Harcourt.  “For my mother’s pearls.”

Harcourt’s eyes fastened on the jewels.  “Those are the Northam emeralds, are they not?  You must be very certain of your luck to stake them.”  He lifted the necklace to the light.  “They’re worth ten times your mama’s baubles.”

“A sentimental whim,” she responded.  “Indulge me, my lord.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Diana saw Griffin fold his arms.  She suspected he was trying very hard to look unconcerned.  Serves him right for playing governess.  Griffin knew she did not like any hand on her bridle—whether her uncle’s or Vivien’s.  But least of all his.

“Be advised, my lady, that I shall not be lenient,” Harcourt warned.  “Not even your lord uncle will be able to redeem these from me.”

The emeralds were so fine they made the diamond setting holding them look insipid.  They were the dowry of some long ago heiress who brought them to Northam when she married its earl, one of many sets of jewels Diana had in her strongbox at herLondontown house.  Harcourt laid them beside bank notes, property titles and a variety of coins wagered by other players.  Seeing them in that light gave Diana pause.

They, like anything else belonging to Northam, were her responsibility.

“Deal the cards,” she commanded nevertheless, determined not to reveal her fear of losing them.

Robert Adam ceiling

The drawing room used for faro and baccarat games that evening was the famous Back Drawing Room, designed by Robert Adam in about 1763 along with the original plan commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Bute.  It is considered the most elaborately decorated of the entire suite of reception rooms in Lansdowne House before its mutilation in 1930.  Its primary feature is a great bay that was originally designed to contain Lord Bute’s elaborate mechanical organ.

The ceiling is Adam’s design but he used artists with special gifts to enrich the design, such as the great Italian painters Cipriani and Zucchi, the latter the husband of the famous bluestocking painter, Angelica Kauffman.  From the 1903 edition of Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine, volume 31, we have a description of the room filled with an incredible array of treasures, all long since dispersed:

“…some lovely old Sevres, in yet another a very beautiful pair of rose-coloured marble vases mounted in ormolu of the finest workmanship, while around all in serene beauty hang the works of Reynolds, Romney, Van der Helst and others of the greatest.”

It took nearly twelve years to install the room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, once it was removed just prior to demolition at Lansdowne House.  Funding was short in the thirties and forties and it took time to amass enough funds to present the Adam room in its new location.  The museum’s director at the time, Fiske Kimball, remarked that the new exhibit, christened the Lansdowne Room:
 “crowns the series, coming as it does from the moment when England, fresh from her greatest conquests, seized for a moment also the artistic mastery of the world.”