The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The Bond family at Creech Grange

The Dorset County Museum is the home of many striking paintings, not least William Beetham’s portrait of the Bond family. Gwen Yarker sets it in its time.

Bond Family at Creech Grange
Bond Family at Creech Grange

Top hats and pantaloons, ringlets and sideburns populate William Beetham’s 1848 portrait of the Bond family which dominates the main staircase of the Dorset County Museum. It seems to us the apogee of Victorian respectability: static, contrived and faraway. Such sedate images are nothing in our world of shock art. But Beetham’s painting tells us a great deal about 19th-century values, the Bond family, their artistic tastes and aspirations. In fact, far from being static and old-fashioned, the painting represented a very modern approach to portraiture influenced directly by the new iconography of the monarchy.

Whilst the painting is physically vast, measuring 10 by 14 feet, it is psychologically domestic. Rev. Nathaniel Bond (1804-89) is portrayed with his family arranged outside the east porch of his ancestral home, Creech Grange. The careful composition of children, horse, dogs and architecture all suggest an atmosphere of domesticity, stability and confidence. Nathaniel had inherited the house and Bond lands from his brother John in 1844 and immediately began a series of alterations while still living nearby at Holme. It seems likely that this large canvas, painted to hang on the main staircase at Creech, was commissioned as a celebration of the move to Creech and the completion of these changes as well as a record of his large brood.

 A sepia and pen sketch of 'The Grange' from James Battell Gibbs's 1888-94 sketch book, 'The Isle of Purbeck'
A sepia and pen sketch of ‘The Grange’ from James Battell Gibbs’s 1888-94 sketch book, ‘The Isle of Purbeck’

It is an unusually ambitious work for the artist. William Beetham was a successful society portraitist who exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1834 and 1853 before emigrating to New Zealand in 1855 and becoming the first President of the Fine Arts Association in Wellington in 1882. In 1843 Beetham exhibited a portrait of the former Prime Minister, Frederick Robinson, Viscount Goderich. Clearly Nathaniel Bond was determined to be painted by a leading artist admired by the establishment – a premier painter, so to speak.

 'The Family of Queen Victoria', painted by Winterhalter two years before William Beetham's portrait of the Bond family
‘The Family of Queen Victoria’, painted by Winterhalter two years before William Beetham’s portrait of the Bond family

On the far right of the painting Nathaniel, seen in profile, looks with pride and obvious affection towards his wife and family. Nathaniel met his wife Mary (1815-1881), the daughter of Mr J Hawkesworth, a landowner of Forest, Queen’s County, Ireland, on 13 August 1835 and proposed to her nineteen days later at Forde Abbey. Beetham shows her wearing fashionable ringlets and dress with petticoats. She gazes affectionately at her husband and completes a triangle of familial warmth by supporting the hand of their oldest child, Leonora Sophia. Aged eleven, she wears a white sprigged-muslin dress tied with a pink silk sash, pantaloons and pumps. As if to emphasise their closeness, her mother has taken one of the flowers from Leonora’s basket to wear in her décolletage. Kneeling in the foreground at his mother’s feet is Denis, aged six, playing with a skittish dog which has a white glove in its mouth. Standing behind Denis is ten-year-old John Bond, holding the saddle of the horse. John leans protectively against the bridled horse on which his youngest brother, George, is mounted. Completing the family group on the far left of the portrait is eight-year-old Nathaniel, holding the horse’s reins.

Immediately behind the family group, a pair of wrought-iron gates effectively divides them from the parkland and countryside beyond. The open gate leads our eye past the peacock sitting on the stone pier towards the folly, Grange Arch, at the top of the hill. Peacocks have long been a feature of Creech and in 1931 Arthur Oswald wrote in Country Life, ‘As if to complete the picture peacocks strut between the sturdy rows of cut yews’.

Grange Arch is shown poised on the skyline at the top of the hill, looking down on the family and crowning the composition. Beetham includes the folly, built by Denis Bond in about 1745, as an eloquent symbol of the Bonds’ wealth and prominence in the area. Nathaniel Bond, standing in one of the three arches of the Purbeck stone folly, could have viewed not only the south front of his own house but the whole of the Isle of Purbeck. He could have seen Kimmeridge, the cliffs and sea all the way round to Egdon Heath, and Cranborne Chase on the horizon to the north. Sky is almost completely excluded from the painting, and the landscape spilling onto the terrace reminds the viewer of the importance of the land to the family – economically, politically and, more important, historically.

The east front of Creech Grange today
The east front of Creech Grange today

The manor house Nathaniel inherited from his brother had been built by Oliver Lawrence in 1540. Originally a Cistercian farm, Creech was sold at the Dissolution to Sir John Horsey of Clifton, who immediately disposed of it to Lawrence. He was a powerful man who acquired extensive estates in south-east Dorset, such as Creech, Affpuddle, Knowle and Steeple, and became Collector of Customs in Poole. The ground plan of the Lawrence house is similar to that of Parnham and other Dorset manor houses built during the days of the early Tudors. Lawrence family ownership ended in 1691 and the house passed to the Bonds. Denis Bond, as well as erecting the folly, re-faced the south front and his account book reveals he spent £1300 on modifications between 1738 and 1741 using stone from the Lutton quarry.

When Rev. Nathaniel Bond moved into Creech, he set about a major renovation project which removed many of these 18th-century additions and eccentricities. It is justifiable to see Beetham’s portrait as a celebration in oils of this re-dressing. Creech, like countless houses across the country, had the classical elements of 18th-century architecture replaced with motifs derived from Tudor and Elizabethan manor houses. Nathaniel Bond is depicted by Beetham leaning against a gabled porch, not a classical portico. To the Victorians, the gentle gothic of Elizabethan architecture inspired the spirit of the English gentleman as both domestic and politically active. In his book Secular and Domestic Architecture, Gilbert Scott wrote: ‘He has been placed by Providence in a position of authority and dignity; and no false modesty should deter him from expressing this, quietly and gravely in the character of his house.’ This seems aptly to sum up Nathaniel Bond’s own approach at Creech.

Grange Arch - Creech Grange
Grange Arch. The trees have grown up so that today’s view from the folly is not as extensive as the one that Nathaniel Bond would have enjoyed.

The mullions, gables and carved crests of the recently renovated Creech are coupled in Beetham’s painting with Nathaniel’s large family; the house is shown as a home. This at once combines a sense of domestic contentment with dynastic pride, echoing Scott’s ‘quiet gravitas’. It is likely that Beetham was influenced by recent depictions of the royal family when completing his commission for Nathaniel Bond. Edwin Landseer’s ‘Windsor Castle in Modern Times’ of 1843 shows a similarly relaxed scene: the casually-dressed monarch is shown affectionately regarding Albert. The setting within the castle is consciously domestic (though odd to 21st-century eyes), with the infant Princess Victoria playing with dead game, the Prince Consort stroking a dog and the Queen offering him a small posy. The domestic and familiar is contrasted with the dynastic, represented by the grandeur of Windsor’s architecture and grounds viewed through an open window. Equally, Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s famous 1846 portrait of ‘The Family of Queen Victoria’ shows the young queen surrounded by her five playful children and her husband. It was on view at St James’s Palace in 1847, where over 100,000 visitors saw it. It is clear that the counterpoise between the domestic and the dynastic which so characterises early depictions of Queen Victoria and her family was an important point of reference for Beetham in his commission for Nathaniel Bond.

Like all great Victorian narratives, the portrait is tinged with tragedy. By 1863 three of the children portrayed were dead. A sixth child, John Lloyd, born in 1856, died within a year. Nathaniel and Mary’s oldest child, Leonora Sophia, died in 1862, four years after her marriage to John Ramsay; in a fate worthy of Dickens, she was burnt to death when her ball dress caught fire. The Bond’s oldest son, John, known in the family as ‘dearest Johnnie’, died at the age of eleven in 1849, the year after Beetham’s portrait. Denis, the second surviving son, died at Oriel College, Oxford, after ‘a few days’ illness’, as The Times reported, and only a day after his 21st birthday. Perhaps, for Nathaniel, the presence of the peacock standing on the stone gatepost assumed special significance, since in ancient times it stood as a Christian symbol of immortality and Christ’s resurrection.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Bond family members were amongst the founders of the Dorset County Museum. It is therefore entirely appropriate that Beetham’s portrait is on display there as a surviving witness to the aspirations and expectations of one Dorset county squire, through its emphasis on his family, his home and his own status and place in society.

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