The Rake and a Regency House Remnant

On the outskirts of London, at the edge of Epping Forest, lies the site of old Wanstead Manor, which belonged to Elizabeth I’s favorite Robert Dudley and, in turn, his stepson, the Earl of Essex. A century later, Sir Richard Child, Earl Tilney built what was called the ‘noblest’ Palladian mansion there. Its magnificence entertained the Prince Regent, provided a fitting temporary residence for the refugee Bourbons and served as a backdrop for epic celebrations of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon.

Wanstead House was the crown jewel of a Regency heiress’ fortune.

The east front of Wentworth Woodhouse resembles Wanstead, minus the Baroque ornaments. Ironically, at one time the parkland of this house was made the largest open pit mine in post-war Britain. Photo by Dave Pickersgill — via

Catherine Tylney Long was the ‘Wiltshire heiress’ in possession of Wanstead House. Against the advice of her relations and his, she married the notable rake William Wellesley-Pole, a nephew of Wellington.

The progress of their courtship and disastrous marriage has been well-documented–a perfectly cautionary tale against reforming the spendthrift libertine. As for the marital abode, Wanstead House, its demolition and dispersal makes an informative study of Regency-era creative financing. Wellington tried to save the estate for the unfortunate offspring of the ill-fated match–a mighty effort that kept the Court in Chancery as busy as the one portrayed in Dickens’ Bleak House.

What remains of Wanstead House is the beautiful park containing the ornamental waters once connected by picturesque bridges, the Temple and the Grotto, and surviving portions of tree-lined avenues.

Author John Harris, “No Voice From the Hall” recollected that only pits from the Wanstead House cellars remained. This is the ruined grotto on the grounds.

The best remnants of Wanstead, however, were sold in a famous 32-day sale the rake held of his wife’s belongings. These heirlooms are still selling today in the most exclusive auctions in the world, giving a glimpse of the fine objects that once adorned the great Regency-era houses.

via the Royal Collection Trust, the Nautilus Cup was purchased at the Wanstead Sale by George IV





Portrait of the Regency – “A Miraculous Picture”

Much has been written of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830), self-taught prodigy and “Romantic Portraitist of the Regency.” These illustrations almost always mention Miss Elizabeth Croft, his close friend and supporter.

The days she spent with the Artist and his circle of intimate friends formed the best part of her life, she later declared. Her treasured memento was his acutely melancholic portrait of her dead half-brother (the famous suicide Sir Richard Croft, attending physician at Princess of Wales’ deathbed). Her legacy to us is the collection of anecdotes which Sir Thomas had passed on to her–a brilliant and intimate portrait of Regency society.

There was never anything lover-like between them, as far as anyone could tell. Indeed, Miss Croft served as something rather different to the Artist as she bustled about his studio. She was, as the saying goes, a managing female.

Those old Pan covers were marvelous.

Those old Pan covers were marvelous.

‘Oh, dear!” said Miss Merrivale, stricken. “And I took such pains not to appear to be a managing female!’

‘Are you one?’

‘Yes, but how could I help it?’

— Frederica, by Georgette Heyer

As Sir Thomas Lawrence was in such demand as Europe’s portrait painter, he frequently got behind in his work. Miss Croft was well aware others thought he was indolent and unproductive:

During all this period I can with truth report that he painted from sunrise to sunset, except in the hours that he devoted to the correction of engravings and those of his hurried meals..

— from “Recollections of the Artist,” by Miss Elizabeth Croft, SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE’S LETTER-BAG, Edited by George Somes Layard, 1906

Take Isabella Wolff’s portrait, twelve years in the making.  The sitter was the wife of a Danish official in London, Jens Wolff. She, along with her sisters, had been members of Miss Croft’s circle.  When one of Isabella’s sisters complained about the time it was taking to finish Isabella’s portrait, the artist, stung, promised to finish it as soon as the sitter could be persuaded to return to London.

This she did, but after only a few sittings she was off again, before the portrait could be completed. What remained was the most intricate part of the painting–executing the folds of Mrs. Wolff’s white satin dress. This last was accomplished by reason of Miss Croft donning the “drapery” and sitting for the remainder of the portrait.

Mrs. Jens Wolff by Lawrence

One can only imagine Miss Croft’s gentle impatience.

Right–I‘ll wear the bloody thing.

In the end, Miss Croft was justly proud of her participation, reporting how Mrs. Wolff’s portrait had been given a place of honor at an 1815 exhibition alongside those of Wellington, Blucher and Platoff. The newspapers, she recalled, all agreed that “the lady reading by the lamplight was indeed a miraculous picture.”