When the world was ruled from Dorset
Gwen Yarker, Curator of the Georgian Faces exhibition, takes us back to an era when Dorset was at the heart of the British Empire
Published in April ’11
Although many Dorset residents cherish the idea that the county is somewhat off the beaten track, it was not ever this. Dorset became, for a while, a global centre of power when George III and members of the court stayed in Weymouth each year from 1789, during his convalescence from his first serious illness. The Queen, their three eldest daughters and members of the court and government joined George III. Weymouth became the place from where the affairs of the British Empire were carried out, over twelve summers until 1805. During this period, the Royal Mail delivered government dispatches to the King early every morning, returning to London at four o’clock each afternoon. As events across the Channel worsened with France’s Reign of Terror, the King maintained his high public profile in Weymouth.
The royal family became a fixture in the county, entertained by Dorset’s aristocrats and landowners, such as courtier Stephen Digby, who nursed the King through his first illness. The Lord Lieutenant, his brother Henry, welcomed the King to Dorset, and was later succeeded by George Pitt, 1st Lord Rivers. During the King’s first stay at Weymouth he visited the local aristocracy and sailed on the frigate Southampton to call on the Welds at Lulworth Castle, where he was served on new services of gold and silver, engraved ‘Long Live the King’.
Studio of Sir William Beechey (1753–1839) George III (1738-1820) oil on canvas, 1799-1800. As the King recovered from his first serious illness he visited Weymouth in June 1789 to take its water cures. The royal family stayed at Gloucester Lodge, built by his brother William Henry, Duke of Gloucester in 1780 and became a fixture in the county, entertained by Dorset’s aristocrats and landowners. The King rose early to walk, rode out for several hours and swam from a bathing machine. In the evenings the family frequently attended theatrical performances. By the late 1790s the threat from France saw a build-up of troops around Weymouth, which George III inspected during his visits; the British Empire was effectively being run from Gloucester Lodge.
By the end of the century, coastal Dorset played a key role amidst renewed threat of invasion during the French Revolutionary Wars. Volunteer forces were raised to complement the militia and regular army such as the Dorset Volunteer Rangers in 1794. The late 1790s saw a build-up of troops camped around Weymouth and George III as commander-in-chief often rode out to inspect them during his summer. From the beginning of George II’s reign in 1727 to George’s III’s last visit to Weymouth in 1805, Dorset experienced a period of considerable change. Many of its great houses were built and others radically overhauled, there was significant agricultural change, civil unrest, major urban building projects and by the end of the century the fear of a French invasion. The sitters in the Georgian Faces exhibition all experienced or contributed to Dorset’s shifting political, social and economic landscape during the eighteenth century. Dorset was not a remote county during the century as increased mobility revolutionised the speed at which news, people and ideas travelled. Since many of Dorset’s wealthiest residents owned houses in London, the capital’s fashions, ideas and intellectual currents soon percolated into the county.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, (1723-1792) Colonel the Hon. Stephen Digby (1742-1800) oil on canvas, c. 1763 Married to Lucy Fox-Strangways from another Dorset aristocratic family, Colonel Stephen Digby was appointed Queen Charlotte’s vice-chamberlain in 1782. Digby cared for the King during his illness and accompanied him to Weymouth in 1789. The courtier Digby enthralled novelist and diarist Fanny Burney from Queen Charlotte’s household. After Lucy’s death she harboured hopes of marrying Digby but vented her fury in her diary when he married young heiress Charlotte Gunning instead in 1790. Digby’s chalky face is due to Joshua Reynolds’s experimentation with unstable pigments. Stephen Digby’s mother Charlotte (below) and brother Henry lived at Sherborne Castle.
The period was also notable for the publication of Dorset’s great unifying element of the century, the Reverend John Hutchins’s History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset, published by John Nichols in 1774. Hutchins surveyed, by parish, the history, people, topography and customs of the county, literally defining Dorset. Thirty years in the making, his magnum opus involved the nobility and gentry loaning archives and commissioning engravings of their houses for inclusion. He provides a fascinating lens through which to read Dorset, revealing the century’s preoccupation with land ownership, on which eligibility to vote relied by means of a property qualification.
Attributed to Enoch Seeman (1690-1744) Charlotte Digby, neé Fox (1707-1778) oil on canvas, c.1729 From a powerful Whig family, Charlotte was daughter of Sir Stephen Fox and sister of the 1st Earl of Ilchester and Henry, 1st Baron Holland. Her marriage to Edward Digby son of the 5th Lord Digby in 1729 forged an important union between the two dynasties and they had six sons and one daughter. Despite the loss within a decade of her husband, oldest son and only daughter, Charlotte remained an important influence on her sons who are all in the exhibition. In this marriage portrait she is dressed as a vestal virgin, complete with dark blue shawl and gold diadem.
George Romney (1734-1802) Thomas Rackett the Younger (1756-1840) oil on canvas, c. 1768. George Romney’s sharply observed portrait presents the precocious Thomas Rackett as a natural historian and scholar. As an adult Rackett was rector of Spetisbury for 60 years, where he studied Dorset’s natural history, archaeology and geology. By the 1780s Blandford was home to a group of scientists and antiquarians, including Rackett, his childhood mentor Dr Richard Pulteney and close friend Tiberius Cavallo. Their work of national and international significance positioned Dorset as a centre of enlightenment thinking and scientific discovery, much of which featured in the second edition of Hutchins’s History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset.
Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1736-1808) Prince William Henry, 1st Duke of Gloucester (1743-1805) pastel on paper, 1773. Prince William Henry was third son of Frederick, Prince of Wales and George III’s younger brother. This pastel portrait by Irish artist Hamilton, shows Gloucester dressed as general wearing the Garter and may commemorate the moment his secret marriage 7 years previously, to Maria Waldegrave (née Walpole), became public knowledge. When Maria became pregnant Gloucester was forced to inform the King who cut off his allowance, banned them from court and investigated the marriage’s legitimacy. In 1780 the Duke built Gloucester Lodge at Weymouth, and nine years later loaned it to the King as his summer residence.
Attributed to Christopher Hewetson (1739-1798) George Pitt, 2nd Lord Rivers (1751-1828) marble, c. 1772. Allegedly much addicted to field sports and low women, George Pitt was the only son of 1st Lord Rivers. George represented Dorset in Parliament in 1774. He travelled in Italy and his portrait bust is loosely based on the famous bust of Caracalla in the Capitoline. In 1817 the unmarried Pitt, as 2nd Lord Rivers, sold his Hampshire estate Stratfield Saye to the nation for Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.
Thomas Gooch (1750-1802) George Pitt, First Lord Rivers (1721-1803) as Colonel of the Dorset Militia 1782. George Pitt of Stratfield Saye was Dorset’s largest landowner. MP for Shaftesbury and Dorset between 1747 and 1774, he became Baron Rivers in 1776 and Lord Lieutenant for Dorset in 1793. Pitt became first Colonel of the Dorset militia on its formation in 1757, an office he held for 40 years. Gooch’s portrait shows Rivers mounted, in a militia camp wearing his colonel’s uniform. Behind are lines of tents, soldiers and camp followers with the Dorset downs in the distance. It is a rare glimpse of Dorset life in a military camp, and offers a message about power and control.
Attr. Robert Byng (fl.1697-1720) Harry Good, Deer Catcher oil on canvas, early 18th century. For centuries the economy of Cranborne Chase, extending over several counties, was based on hunting deer and trading venison. Harry Good led the ‘substantial gentlemen’ who hunted in the evening, and whose dogs drove the deer to become entangled in nets and then strangled. By 1730 the hunting became poaching, leading to ugly incidents between keepers and deer-stealers. Good wears the protective quilted canvas coat and deer cap and carries a quarter-staff pike and small iron bars. He stands in a clearing accompanied by his hound with deer visible in the distance.
Thomas Beach (1738-1806) George Damer, Viscount Milton (1746-1808) as Colonel of the Dorset Volunteer Rangers oil on canvas, 1794. George Damer, Lord Milton was second son of Joseph Damer, 1st Earl of Dorchester of Milton Abbas. During the American War of Independence he served in the army under Lord Cornwallis. MP for Dorchester between 1780 and 1791 Damer succeeded to the earldom in 1798. Wearing the uniform as commanding officer of the Dorset Volunteer Rangers, he stands in a landscape with the Dorset coastline in the distance. Portraits of some of the officers of the Dorset Volunteer Rangers were commissioned from Dorset-born painter Thomas Beach by the 1st Earl of Dorchester, for display in his library at Milton Abbey.
Artist unknown Tiberius Maria Francesco Gaetano Vincenzo Cavallo (1749-1809) oil on oak panel, c.1785-90. Neapolitan Tiberius Cavallo came to London in 1771 and gained notice through his pioneering electro-therapeutics and medical experiments using electricity. Chemist, musician, mathematician and astronomer, Cavallo’s pioneering experiments with hydrogen and flight influenced early balloonists. With royal physician, Dr James Lind, Cavallo pioneered the production of printed silhouette portraits. Cavallo spent lengthy periods at Spetisbury with his friend of over thirty years, Thomas Rackett, contributing to Dorset’s intellectual circle and conducting experiments. Cavallo is shown by his invention of the twin-plate frictional electrical machine, an astronomical globe and the Leyden jar used for storing electricity.
William Hogarth (1697-1764) Thomas Coombes, aged 108 oil on canvas, 1742. As William Hogarth’s wife Jane was daughter of Dorset artist Sir James Thornhill, Hogarth probably painted Dorset boatman Thomas Coombes during a visit to Stalbridge. The compelling portrait shows a very old man with rheumy eyes and pursed mouth firmly closed, indicating he is toothless. His strong weathered face is painted in bold impasto, contrasting with the thinner, smoother execution of his clothes. Coombes may have been an inmate of Thornhill’s almshouse for ‘decayed seamen’ in Weymouth, or a boatman working on nearby River Stour. As an interesting local character, Hogarth saw the potential of producing a print from the portrait.
Georgian Faces; Portrait of a County, until 30 April 2011
Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, Dorset
Featuring seventy portraits of the eighteenth-century movers and shakers who shaped the county between 1727 and 1800, Georgian Faces consists of paintings from national institutions and local museums, with the majority from private collections. Hutchins in mind – the paintings more or less span the period from the beginning of Hutchins’s research to the compilation of the second edition – the exhibition is ordered along hierarchical lines: from the King and powerful landowners to the gentry, the prosperous ‘merchant princes’ of Poole, the scientists and antiquarians of Blandford and Dorset’s painters and architects Sir James Thornhill, Giles Hussey and Thomas Beach. The exhibition is supported by local businesses including R. K. Harrison in partnership with AXA Art, Hy Duke & Sons of Dorchester, Humphries Kirk and Farrow & Ball, several trusts, private donors and NADFAS.
1, 10: National Portrait Gallery
2, 3: Sherborne Castle
4: Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society
5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11: Private collection