MOUNT EDGCUMBE, CORNWALL
IT IS NOT EVERY day that you come across an 18th-century obelisk commemorating a pig; yet such is your happy fate at Mount Edgcumbe, on the Rame Peninsula in Cornwall. There it stands, of somewhat solid yet stately proportions, 30ft high and soaring over Plymouth and the waters of Plymouth Sound, where the River Tamar meets the English Channel. It was built in 1768 by Emma Gilbert, Baroness Edgcumbe of Mount Edgcumbe, later Countess Mount Edgcumbe, in honour of her porcine pal Cupid, her most faithful companion. Always at her side, they ate daily together in the dining room of the 16th-century Mount Edgcumbe House. Most endearingly, the pig would accompany his mistress in a coach to London and back. Picture them, please, on their long jolting journeys of some 240 miles! When Cupid died, he was buried in a golden casket and the obelisk built over him.
With her other obvious eccentricities, Lady Mount Edgcumbe was also a compulsive gambler at faro, a 17th-century French card game that was actually banned in France at the time. Renowned for her obsession, she and her female devotees – known as ‘Faro’s Daughters’ – were even threatened with conviction for keeping a gaming house. What with this and her porcine pal, such was her reputation that Lady Mount Edgcumbe was assailed by the famed satirists of the day: John Gillray – acknowledged as the father of the political cartoon – and John Wolcot, who, under the pseudonym of Peter Pindar, penned his scurrilous satire in the form of poetry.
Both were merciless in their humorous representations of politicians and notables, most particularly high society, with even royalty – George III got the rawest deal – being slashed with the sharp end of their pens. In ‘La Belle Assemblée’, a faux classical scene, Lady Mount Edgcumbe, with a bald pate – in life she had a receding hairline – backed by a teetering feathered wig, is gathered with fellow female grandees, bringing sacrifices to the altar of love. As you would expect from Gillray, she was made
out to be a hideous crone. With a play on her name, Gillray’s ‘A Witch upon a Mount’s Edge’ – after a painting by Fuzelli – shows a scrawnily twisted Lady Mount Edgcumbe, with an even balder pate but with what hair she has ablaze and billowing forth smoke. Gazing out to sea – you assume it is Plymouth Sound – she sits on a pile of broomsticks, with a frog at her feet mimicking her attitude. An explanation for this creature might well be that Mount Edgcumbe was one of the 1,222 English scenes chosen by Josiah Wedgwood for his fifty-place ‘Frog’ dinner service for Catherine the Great of Russia. Commissioned by the Empress for her Gothic summer palace La Grenouillère, which was surrounded by a frog marsh, she ordered that every piece of the creamware was to be painted with a frog in the central position of honour.
Wolcot, in his Peter Pindar alias, chose to mock Lady Mount Edgcumbe’s grief at the death of her pig:
Oh dry that tear so round and big Nor waste in sighs your precious wind, Death only takes a single pig – Your Lord and son are left behind.
Wolcot wrote, too, of George III pondering over Cupid’s grave, when he came to Mount Edgcumbe in 1789. When Queen Charlotte asked him what he was looking at so seriously, the King, ‘with ready humour’ replied ‘The family vault, Charly, family vault, family vault.’