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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Will Pryce

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.