Laughing with gods
The Heaven Room, Burghley, Lincolnshire One of Britain’s most ambitious 17th-century cycles of Baroque painting speaks of the courtly ideals of the Cecil family and the seductive influence of Rome, argues Jeremy Musson
Jeremy Musson explores the Heaven Room at Burghley in Lincolnshire and how it reflects the ambitions of the Cecil family
The scale and grandeur of elizabethan Burghley, built by Sir William Cecil between 1555 and 1587, was matched by the magnificent alterations to the Lincolnshire house undertaken by his descendant John Cecil, the 5th earl of exeter between 1680 and the 1690s. he began—although never completed —a state apartment on the grandest scale, comprising a grand entrance stair with the most splendid chamber of all, known as the heaven Room, at its head (Fig 1).
The heaven Room occupied the location of the elizabethan Great Chamber on the first floor and was the principal room of assembly at the entrance to the state apartment proper, a sequence of interiors culminating with the bedchamber, dressing room and closet (Fig 5).
The alterations to Burghley were linked to the contemporary transformation of Chatsworth, the earl having married Anne Cavendish, daughter of the 3rd earl of Devonshire and sister of the future 1st Duke of Devonshire, in 1670. Indeed, work to the two buildings involved some of the same professionals, such as the architect William Talman (who visited Burghley several times in 1688 and received payments from the earl in 1704), the ironworker Jean Tijou and the artist Louis Laguerre.
however, the common figure whose contribution stands out at Burghley is the Neapolitan-born painter Antonio Verrio, who shone brightest at Burghley.
At Windsor, between 1675 and 1684, Verrio had already created, at the command of Charles II, the most ambitious scheme of Baroque painted decoration in the kingdom. This striking celebration of english history and monarchy—nearly all of it destroyed in the 19th century—comprised 20 ceilings, three staircases and two all-over schemes: St George’s hall and the King’s Chapel. At Burghley, by contrast, Verrio covered five ceilings from 1689.
even so, the scale of the work sets it apart from all other aristocratic commissions of the period, as do the circumstances that brought the artist to Burghley.
Verrio remained in royal employment until the exile of James II in 1688, after which he refused to work for the Crown (although he did eventually resume royal employment from 1699, after the King had been to see his work at Burghley). The 5th earl, however, was a ‘nonjuror’ who declined to take the oath to the new monarchs. In this regard, he was a very different patron from his Devonshire brotherin-law.
As a political outsider, what did the earl aim to achieve with his new apartment? he can’t have been fishing for a royal visit. Rather, perhaps, he aimed to celebrate his connections to the institutions of the Stuart monarchy.
Outstanding in this regard was the Order of the Garter. Perhaps Verrio’s greatest creation at Windsor was St George’s hall, its decoration aimed at ‘glorifying our National Saint and the Order of the Garter’. It can be no coincidence that the four rooms beyond the heaven Room at Burghley came to be known as the George Rooms. A diary description of Burghley in 1600 by Baron Waldstein describes the great chamber hung with the arms of the Knights of the Garter, so an association with the Garter ideal may have been longstanding.
Nevertheless, the first mention ‘de l’appartment de St George a burley’ appears in a bill of 1691.
The state apartment is approached up the so-called hell Staircase. This space—which today houses a 1780s stair—takes its name
from the vast painted scheme that transforms the interior into a lurid depiction of the Underworld of Classical mythology (Fig 3). Leaving the writhing chaos and ruddy tones of Hell, the visitor enters the contrasting world of the Heaven Room. Here, the space is visually structured by fictional Classical architecture and spectators find themselves embraced within the fleshy and theatrical world of the Classical gods.
Lit by tall windows on the south side, the room depicts the story told in Homer’s Odyssey —and later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses— of Mars caught in adultery with Venus by her husband, Vulcan. Homer describes the event as one in which ‘the blessed gods roared with inextinguishable laughter’. The moment of discovery is the undoubted focus, which faces the entering visitor on the west wall. To the east, Cyclopses work in Vulcan’s forge
(Fig 6). The sky above is alive with Classical deities and tumbling figures contained within an open-roofed temple.
Verrio’s work at Burghley is documented in more than 300 bills and papers, expertly analysed by Eric Till, in an unpublished catalogue. Until 1687, payments were made via Francis Child, banker of London; after that, they were managed by the Earl’s steward, Culpepper Tanner. According to these, the ceiling of the First George Room (the dressing room) was decorated in 1686–89 and the Second George Room (bedchamber) in 1690–91.
The ceiling of the latter shows the presentation of Romulus to Jupiter by Mars as celebrated in Book xiv of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
(Fig 2). This unusual subject, depicting the founder of Rome, may be an assertion of the Earl’s ambitions as a patron and his links to the eternal city. He and the Countess were represented in Roman dress by the sculptor Monnot on their splendid monument in St Martin’s Church, Stamford.
The Third George Room (drawing room) was given a Cupid and Pysche ceiling in 1691 and the Fourth George Room (intended as a dining room) gained a banquet of the gods, with a lavish depiction of flesh, food and fruit, in 1692–93. The ‘Saloone’—as the Heaven Room was referred to in the bills—was painted in 1693–94.
In 1696, Verrio was working on entertaining rooms on the ground floor, by the east entrance, all since lost. As well as a dining room and billiard room, there was another ‘Salloon’, described by contemorary visitor Celia Fiennes as a ‘noble roome painted finely, the walls, with armory and battles’. The ceiling of this room was noted in the 1738 inventory as ‘represented to be supported by 10 marble Pillars & Marble Cornish… in the Middle, Bachus and Ariadne’.
In 1696 Verrio began work on the ceiling of the ‘Hell’ Staircase, which he completed in 1697. It received additional painted decoration by Stothard in the early 1800s.
Verrio’s assistants included Feuillet and Demouille and he was supported by René Cousin, gilder. Alexandre Souville was described as the ‘architecture-man’ and one Ricard was another. Working on different rooms, they used paints and brushes bought in London to apply oil colour to plaster.
Verrio was not a good manager of finances and, although the 5th Earl seems to have entertained him as an equal—he made him a member of his ‘Little Bedlam Club’—he was frustrated by his problems with debt.
In 1692, there was a huge falling out, with the Earl calling Verrio ‘an Impudent Dogg’. Tanner kept notes of the heated meeting with Verrio, in which the artist referred to how he ‘had but £500 for Ld Devon’s Great Roome and staircase & noe Dyett onley hay for his horses’.
Tanner negotiated new terms and revised contracts specified that Verrio was to take the ‘body work’ of the Staircase ceiling rather than deputising to others. As Katherine Gibson has shown in Apollo
(May, 1998), a loose committee of taste informed Verrio’s work for Charles II at Windsor, but there is no evidence of who directed and selected the subjects for the schemes at Burghley. As well as the Earl,
members of the Little Bedlam Club may have contributed ideas or perhaps the architect William Talman.
However, someone exceptionally well versed in the classics was resident at Burghley during the summer of 1695: the playwright John Dryden, whose wife was kinswoman to the Earl.
As Dryden described it: ‘The Seventh Aeneid was made English at Burleigh, the Magnificent Abode of the Earl of Exeter. In a Village belonging to his Family I was born, and under his Roof I endeavour’d to make that Aeneid appear in English with as much lustre as I cou’d.’ He had been translating Ovid in the same decade, including the encounter of Venus and Mars, from which, in his translation, ‘each deity, with laughter tir’d departs’.
The transformation of the state apartment at Burghley was just one expression of the Earl’s fascination with art. Tapestries commissioned by the 5th Earl (for the Second George Room), depict the great family houses in their borders (Fig 4). He also collected wildly on several extended ‘Grand Tours’ in the 1680s and 1690s to Italy with the enrichment of his country house in mind, purchasing the works of such living artists as Gennari and Dolci (a subject explored by Hugh Brigstocke in The British Art Journal (2004)).
Burghley consequently became home to an art collection that amazed visitors. Daniel Defoe commented: ‘It would be endless to give a Detail of the fine pieces his Lordship brought from Italy, all Originals, and by the best masters; ’tis enough to say, they infinitely exceed all that can be seen in England, and are of more Value than the House itself, and all the Park belonging to it.’
The urge to create magnificent interiors, moreover, would have been encouraged by the Earl’s friendship with Cosimo de Medici III, who, in 1683, gave him the ornate cabinet now in the Fourth George Room at Burghley (in return, the Earl sent him a coach from London). The 5th Earl visited Cosimo in Florence and thus would have seen murals in the Palazzo Pitti and probably Luca Giordano’s painted ceilings in the city (he was already an eager purchaser of works by Giordano).
The sensual, tactile qualities of his preferred art was reflected in specially commissioned tapestries and bed-hangings for the house. Fiennes noted that ‘the figures are so finely wrought in sattin stitch it looks like painting’. She admired the ‘very fine paint in pictures’ in the lofty rooms, ‘but they were all Without Garments or very little, that was the only fault, the immodesty of the Pictures, Especially in Lords appartment’.
These splendid furnishings were not, however, installed in the new rooms during the 5th Earl’s lifetime. When he died in 1700, the painting was largely complete, but only the first George Room was panelled (the 1738 inventory suggests that it had originally been ‘finished as a Model for the rest’). It was not until the late 18th century that James Newton of Wardour Street supplied carving and wainscot for the remainder and chimneypieces by Bartoli and Richter were introduced.
The Second George Room had a finely carved chimneypiece designed by Piranesi, sent from Italy. Great pains were taken to complete the rooms in their original spirit. One contemporary related how Brownlow, the 9th Earl (also well travelled in Italy) ‘selected the whole of the ornaments from publications of ancient architecture in the library at Burghley’.
As a result, we can still appreciate Verrio’s achievement at Burghley and its reputation in 1697, when it was described by Fiennes as ‘the finest house and situation that is in England’.
Fig 1 preceding pages: The Heaven Room. Mars is caught in adultery with Venus by her husband, Vulcan. Rising from the sea to the right, Neptune steps forward to urge the release of Mars. The scene is structured by trompe l’oeil architecture. Fig 2 above: Romulus is presented to Jupiter by Mars in the Second George Room. Fig 3 facing page: The chaos and lurid colour of the Hell Staircase
Fig 4: One of the tapestries commissioned by the 5th Earl depicting Vulcan. The motifs in the borders celebrate his architectural patronage and the houses he inherited
Fig 5: Intended to awe: the Heaven Room and the enfilade of the George Rooms beyond
Fig 6: The east wall of the Heaven Room. Cyclopses work in Vulcan’s forge, oblivious to cries of alarm from the discovery of adultery opposite, which are drowned out by their beating hammers. Verrio sits to the left of them, depicting himself sketching in Classical dress