July 22, 2006 3:00 am

The unsung patroness

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It comes as something of a surprise to discover that one of the greatest collectors the British Isles has ever known should have been a woman. While the reputations of the likes of Elias Ashmole, John Tradescant and Sir Hans Sloane have endured beyond the institutions their collections have formed or enriched, that of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Portland, has been all but forgotten. Her name is principally known for the Portland Vase, one of the finest surviving examples of ancient cameo glass in the world, which the Duchess purchased from Sir William Hamilton in 1783 for a princely 1,800 guineas.

Even then, most people - myself included - presume it had been bought by her husband. Yet such was the scale of her then-world-famous Portland Museum that its dispersal in 1786 took no fewer than 39 days.

The leather-bound sale catalogues preserved at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire offer a tantalising testimony to one of the largest and most remarkable natural history collections ever assembled, embracing almost everything from seashells, corals, minerals and fossils to butterflies and insects, and all on an epic scale. They also reveal the Duchess's comparable passion for the virtuoso object, be it an antique gem, a Greek vase, a piece of Chinese porcelain, or a tour-de-force of the Augsburg goldsmith and enameller. It is as though such objects offer a parallel history of man's ingenuity.

For the Duchess was no mere collector of curiosities. Her aim was to collect and classify in order to understand the world around her, a world broadening its horizons with the voyages of discovery and already questioning the Biblical truth of instantaneous creation. A patron of major exploratory expeditions including Joseph Banks's voyage around the world with Captain Cook in 1768, she also commissioned sea captains, botanists and conchologists to collect specimens for her, and the likes of Georg Ehret to record them in exquisite, scientifically accurate watercolours. It was Ehret, incidentally, who named the Portland Rose after his patroness; the Duchess had been presented with the mysterious repeat-flowering specimen from Paestum in 1775.

In her own particular speciality, conchology, she sought to have "every unknown Species described and published to the world". To that end, she amassed the largest shell collection in Europe and employed the great Swedish botanist, Daniel Solander, to help her and her curator-cum-chaplain, John Lightfoot, to classify them. In fact, Bulstrode Park, in Buckinghamshire - "The Hive" as it was known in court circles - resembled more an Oxbridge college than a country house.

The diarist Mrs Delaney, who moved to Bulstrode after her husband's death in 1769, sets the scene of daily life, describing in one letter the "agreeable confusion" of Her Grace's Breakfast Room during the mushroom season where sieves, pans and platters, specimens and opened books spread across every available surface. Thursdays and Fridays were botanising days, and the evenings were given over to "philosophical speculations". As for the Bulstrode grounds, they were a veritable living museum, with botanic and rose gardens, glasshouses, grottoes, aviaries, apiaries and menageries.

Such interests were not uncommon among her peers. In that sense, the Duchess was a child of her time, a daughter of the Enlightenment born at a time when serious scientific pursuits and intellectual rigour were encouraged in women. What was remarkable was the range of her intellectual curiosity and the scale of her endeavour. Of course it helped that the young Lady Margaret Cavendish was the adored only child of the cultivated Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, who like his father was one of the greatest book, manuscript and print collectors of his day (his manuscripts were sold to Parliament in 1753 for the fledgling British Museum). She was fortunate, too, in coming from a long dynasty of formidable heiresses - from Bess of Hardwick to her mother, Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles, reputedly the richest women in England. Yet her rank also brought her obligations and constraints; even as a child she lamented her lack of freedom and her vulnerability as an heiress.

It was the Duchess's ill fortune that none of her five surviving children should inherit her passion for the natural world. She stipulated that on her death the collection be sold to settle her elder son's outstanding election expenses and her younger son's debts, and to provide for her daughters. It seems that her renown faded with the dispersal of her beloved museum collections - animate and inanimate - and Bulstrode itself was demolished in the 19th century. Her name crops up in the history of 18th-century enquiry as a footnote.

This summer sees the first step towards the rehabilitation of her posthumous reputation with an exhibition at the Harley Gallery at Welbeck Abbey, near Worksop, accompanied by a brief life from the historian of science Rebecca Stott. On show are some of the works of art from the Portland Museum bought back by the family from the sale, not least among them a group of Antique cameos and intaglios, and part of the extraordinary 180-piece silver-gilt dessert service commissioned by the Duchess in which the candlesticks are modelled as tree-branches richly inhabited by insects and snails, while the spoons take the form of scallop shells, their stems ornamented with twisting corals. An amber casket reminds us that the Duchess herself was a dab hand at turning amber on a small lathe.

How appropriate, then, that the show should be staged in the gem of a small museum, art and crafts gallery and shop converted with great aplomb by Leo Godlewski from the old estate gasworks built by the 5th Duke in 1860. The Gallery, along with some 30 artists' studios, is part of the Harley Foundation set up as a charitable trust by another enterprising Duchess of Portland, Ivy, in 1977.

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