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Shugborough, the house and its estate, sits in the valley of the Trent in Staffordshire. The vale has the air of being a world of its own, somehow managing to be serene and beautiful in spite of the two main line railways which pass through it. In the 18th century the park became studded with monuments, partly fanciful and partly serious reproductions of Ancient Greek architecture, as its owner, Thomas Anson, transformed his patch of England into his own ideal Arcadia
These "improved" landscapes often have an air of mystery about them, of some kind of hidden meaning, or simply a haunting air of unreality. Shugborough, more than most, has a mystery at its heart. Most famously it has its Shepherds Monument, an enigmatic structure with a unique cryptic inscription. This presents an answered question to the visitor, made more curious by the lack of information about its creators, Thomas Anson himself and his architects. Thomas is virtually an invisible man, as if he has deliberately covered his traces. As the fragmentary clues are assembled both the meaning of Shugborough and its puzzling monument and the story of Thomas Anson, a man with secrets, begin to emerge.
There is no better description of the place as it was in the 18th century than Thomas Pennant's in his "Journey to Chester," published in 1811. Pennant was a close friend of Thomas Anson in his later years and, as he says himself, used Shugborough as a base from which to explore the wide variety of natural and historic features in the area. Pennant puts Shugborough, Thomas Anson's house and its park, in its setting:
"From the middle is a view, of very uncommon beauty, of a small vale, varied with almost every thing that nature or art could give to render it delicious; rich meadows, watered by the Trent and Sow. The first, animated with milk-white cattle, emulating those of Tinian; the last with numerous swans. The boundary on one side, is a cultivated slope; on the other, the lofty front of Cannock Wood, clothed with heath, or shaded with old oaks, scattered over its glowing bloom by the free hand of nature.
"It is more difficult to enumerate the works of art dispersed over this Elysium ; they epitomize those of so many places. The old church of Colwich ; the mansion of the antient English baron, at Wolsely Hall; the great-windowed mode of building in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the house of Ingestre; the modern seat in Oak-edge; and the lively improved front of Shugborough; are embellishments proper to our own country.
"Amidst these arise the genuine architecture of China, in all its extravagance; the dawning of the Grecian, in the mixed gothic gateway at Tixall; and the chaste buildings of Athens, exemplified by Mr. Stuart, in the counterparts of the Choragic monument of Lysicrates', and the octagon tower of Andronicus Cyrrhestes. From the same hand arose, by command of a grateful brother, the arch of Adrian of Athens, embellished with naval trophies, in honor of Lord Anson, a glory to the British fleet; and who still survives in the gallant train of officers who remember and emulate his actions."(1)
Shugborough and its buildings are set in this Elysium, this sweet vale, in which also lie, beyond the confines of the estate itself, a range of historic houses which add richness to the landscape. Thomas Pennant obviously loves the place and sees it as it was surely mean to be - a world in miniature, a microcosm of culture. There are not only buildings that represent faraway places but also exotic animals. The white cows emulate those of Tinian, an uninhabited paradise visited by its owner's younger brother, George Anson, in his circumnavigation. The house and its gardens are a quintessence of the places explored by the Admiral and by Thomas Anson, but such a place is not simply a fanciful showplace. The twin hearts of the house in Thomas Anson's day would have been its drawing room, a place for conversation, and its library for study and contemplation. Later in the 18th century the place was extended into a moderate sized stately home, but the core of the house is still the villa of a studious patron of the arts and sciences.
Thomas Anson, seems to have been a man of extreme modesty. No-one could be more self-effacing. Very few documents in his writing are known to exist, though, somewhere, surely, there must be archives of letters to friends lying in wait for rediscovery. There are enormous gaps in the family archives, now in Staffordshire Record Office. Letters to him exist from a few correspondents -but not many. It may be that Thomas asked for his personal documents to be destroyed at his death, leaving only relics of certain special friends and relations. For example, any letter from Elizabeth Anson, wife of his brother the famous Admiral, was preserved. There is a batch of letters about the purchase of his sculpture collection and letters from James "Athenian" Stuart, the architect who was his most important creative friend. Apart from that there is almost nothing. Or so it seemed when I began to research this book.
Important clues had a habit of appearing unexpectedly.
Two letters in Thomas's own writing turn out to have survived by accident, lost among Lady Anson's letters, and one fascinating letter to Thomas from Lady Anson was enclosed, unnoticed, in her letters to her husband. These chance survivals contain fascinating clues to Thomas's interest in landscape gardening and to a bizarre scandal. Far more exciting were two dramatic anecdotes, stories told by Thomas Anson and published by friends after his death. Both of these have lead to major revelations.
Who were his friends? Some are known from a few valuable records - his will, an unusually brief document, includes six names of friends were legatees, and the list of people who received mourning rings is a snapshot of his friends and family at the time of his death. But of these names, known from this and other evidence to be close friends, why is there no trace of correspondence from Richard Owen Cambridge, the satirist, from Lord Lyttelton, whose landscape at Hagley was a rival to Shugborough, from Anton Kammel, a composer who called Anson his "dear old friend", or from Benjamin Stillingfleet, botanist and original "bluestocking"?
Of course it is probably too much to expect much in the way of letters to survive from two hundred and fifty years ago, but in the case of Thomas Anson the extreme modesty, (or is it deliberate secrecy and self-censorship?), extends to other people's historical record. Why is it that the period when the garden was first landscaped and the first follies were built is the only completely blank period in the life of architect and astronomer Thomas Wright? And why is it that of all his patrons and projects it is only Anson and Shugborough that are mentioned nowhere in Wright's journals?
Thomas Anson is, to us, more invisible than many landowners and society figures of the time. There is no portrait which is certainly of him. A picture exists which might be his portrait, but it was bought by the family in the 19th century and no-one knows its provenance. The absence of a portrait of the house's owner is particularly noticeable when there are portraits of his brother, and parts of the house seem to be a shrine to the Admiral, and of Elizabeth, the Admiral's very much younger, witty and highly political wife.
Typically frustratingly for the researcher there is evidence that there was a portrait. Robert Orme, historian of the East India Company, was so moved by a legacy in his old friend's will that he commissioned a bust of Thomas from the leading artist Nollekens - and one of himself.
"To perpetuate the memory of his friend, Mr. Orme had a handsome white marble bust of Mr. A. executed by their mutual friend Nollekens in his best manner, which was conspicuously placed in his library. It was a most admirable likeness; and after Mr. Orme's death was, by his executor, sent to the representative of Mr. Anson, as the most proper person to preserve such a memento of his ancestor."(2)
Orme's bust of himself illustrates his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, but there is no trace of Anson's bust today, either the original or a copy. Copies were listed as being still on sale after Nollekens' death.
Who, then, was Thomas Anson, and what is the attraction of this invisible man?
He is generally known only as the elder brother of Admiral George Anson, who famously sailed round the world in the early 1740s, captured a Spanish treasure ship, became immensely rich on the proceeds, rose to the highest position in the Admiralty and helped reform the navy - even introducing the familiar blue uniforms of 18th century officers. But what of Thomas?
Thomas Anson was the son of a wealthy lawyer and, after 1720, the master of Shugborough Hall, originally a quite modest William and Mary house in a beautiful valley of the River Trent five miles from Stafford but, after his reconstruction, a delightful gentleman's villa set in exotic gardens.
His friend, the botanist and travel writer Thomas Pennant was one of several people who left obituaries or eulogies, all of which agree about Thomas's character:
"My much-respected friend the late Thomas Anson, Esquire, preferred the still paths of private life, and was the best qualified for its enjoyment of any man I ever knew; for with the most humane and the most sedate disposition, he possessed a mind most uncommonly cultivated. He was the example of true taste in this country; and at the time that he made his own place a paradise, made every neighbor partaker of its elegancies. He was happy in his life, and happy in his end. I saw him about thirty hours before his death, listening calmly to the melody of the harp, preparing for the momentary transit from an earthly concert to an union with the angelic harmonies."(2)
Pennant's story of the harp may seem sentimental but it is true:
There is a list of bills to be paid at Anson's death in the Staffordshire Record Office which includes:
'For hire of harp Â£1 13s 6d'
This paragraph is, it appears, a reliable description of Thomas Anson. Others who knew him agree with the basic points:
"He possessed a mind most uncommonly cultivated."
He was a scholar and a gentleman.
"He was the example of true taste in this country."
Note that Pennant goes as far as to say "in this country", not merely in Staffordshire.
"He made his own place a paradise, made every neighbor partaker of its elegancies."
He was not the kind of landowner to make his estate a symbol of his own wealth and power. As time went on the estate grew but it was never, in Thomas's time, ostentatious. The "elegancies" were for other people's benefit.
Thomas may be invisible but, considering the small number of mentions, references and anecdotes that exist, it is surprising how many preserve his tone of voice. In the rare and treasured examples when friends pass on a piece of news or an anecdote they very often pass on his exact words.
"â€¦the earthquake was a very trifling oneâ€¦"
"â€¦it will be a shabby raceâ€¦"
"â€¦going up and down mountains takes a deal of time and is too tedious when one is aloneâ€¦"
He comes over as a person with a dry, laidback, understated, manner. Many of the glimpses of him are from his old age, when, from our point of view, he was most active, so at times he may seem, perhaps, a slightly camp, witty, old man. He never married, as far as we know.
Every fragment that appears, and new and unexpected fragments keep appearing, strangely, gives a glimpse of an attractive figure. Digging and uncovering traces of a long ago life is as exciting as revealing a lost city. He must be there, quietly in the shadows, at many an intellectual gathering or elegant party. Very occasionally someone, like James Boswell, notices him, but most of the life of that witty and enquiring world is lost, apart from its works - the landscapes, architecture and music.
The more one looks at Shugborough and at Thomas Anson himself the more one senses a buried treasure, a secret, a glimmer of gold. There are certainly mysteries, with one extraordinary tragedy at their heart, but there is also a treasure, not a treasure of gold, or an occult secret, but a web of ideas - a golden web that spreads through the eighteenth century, bearing fruit in the works of a small, remarkable, group of people.
The works, the creative products, are sometimes literary, but at Shugborough they are of large and material form, buildings, and, as vital, gardens and landscapes. The golden web is made of the ideas that inspired them. It is usually called "The Greek Revival", a convenient and reasonably accurate term. Architecturally it can be lost in a broader "Classical Revival", but the inspiration that drives wealthy people or institutions to imitate the style of Imperial Rome is not the same that produces a modest Doric Temple in which one sits to look at a beautiful vale. The dream of Greece was touched with ideals of democracy and of a divine simplicity. As the various characters who come and go in this story will demonstrate, in their own words, the Greek Revival also has, lying behind it, a vein of philosophy and a particular view of the world.
This web of ideas was delicate and vulnerable. There was no organised campaign, controlling group or conspiracy, only a handful of men and and extraordinary women keeping alive ideas that were often at odds with the mood and attitudes of the time, the rigidly materialist 18th century.
Sometimes it does look as if Thomas Anson might have been an "eminence grise" at the very centre of this web. Perhaps this impression is simply the product of hid extremely unassuming character - a mirror of others' light - and yet evidence is emerging to suggest that he was, invisibly, more of a dynamic influence, quietly encouraging the ideas and careers of his friends and inspired by his own pioneering adventures.
Amongst this network of friends the philosopher and musician James Harris and the poet and translator Elizabeth Carter stand out as the intellectual lights. More well known and well studied today is James "Athenian" Stuart, the first architect and designer to promote authentic Greek influence. (4) This study will follow these lives as far as they shed light on the principal theme, and touch on others on the fringes of the story. A complete surprise, undiscovered until the 21st century, is the importance of music. Two intriguing composers and several other musicians will pass through the Golden Web.
Another figure who really lives in a world of his own but traces a very eccentric tangent to the circle, is the mathematician, astronomer, landscape designer, architect, poet, visionary and possibly ladies' man, Thomas Wright. Wright is one of the most interesting characters of the century and he has never been given a full length biography. As a close friend of Elizabeth Carter, tutor to aristocratic families, and as the architect of Shugborough he knits together people and places, then spins off like a comet.
The mystery, and at times this is an authentic detective story, focuses inexorably on one precise spot - the enigmatic frustrating inexplicable Shepherds Monument, one of the oddest garden buildings in Britain and the source of all kinds of wild theories.
This exploration will show that Shugborough's strangest structure is indeed central to the story.
Though the main actors in the story are artists and people of ideas it is useful to begin with a look at the Ansons' family background and how they came to occupy a position close to the highest and most powerful people in society and government.
Thomas Anson was born in 1695 or thereabouts. The exact date of birth is unknown. He was the eldest son and heir of William Anson, a wealthy lawyer. William built Shugborough Hall probably not long before the time of Thomas's birth. The house began as a plain William and Mary brick building, simple and modest in appearance.
The known facts about Thomas Anson's early life are sparse. He was entered into the Inner Temple in 1708, at the age of 13. It seemed to be pattern that prospective lawyers were enrolled into the law before they went to university. Thomas entered St John's College, Oxford on 2nd June 1711 at the age of 15, then after his time there he returned the Inner Temple where he was called to the bar in 1719.
He was described as a "practising lawyer" like his father, and he became a bencher, a member of the governing body, of the Inner Temple in 1746. It is remarkable that almost no trace of his legal career remains. Extraordinarily in his own will, written in July 1771, Thomas says:
"I make this my Last Will and Testament which I would wish to have understood according to the plainest and most obvious meaning of the words, being unacquainted with formsâ€¦"(4)
It may be that, as a barrister, he had very little contact with this kind of legal process, but it may also be an example of his dry humour and understatement. It is possible that he never practised as a lawyer - which would not have been particularly unusual for people who had been trained at the Inns of Court at the time - but he did have legal friends who may have known him in his professional role.
In 1720, the year after he was called to the bar his father died but Thomas cannot have turned his attention to his inheritance for long as he left the country for an unusually long Grand Tour only three years later.
Though these are the few facts that exist of his early years it is possible to put them into a wider context and explain how Thomas, and his younger brother George, later Admiral Lord Anson, came to move close to the circles of power.
Thomas Anson was the least visible, in the public eye, of a very powerful and close knit family group.
The key to the family's position in society was Thomas and George's mother Isabella Carrier. Isabella and her sister Janette were co heirs of Charles Carrier of Wirksworth, Derbyshire. Isabella brought added wealth into the family, Very little is known of her, and there is no known date of her death. She outlived her husband, William, as her name appears on documents concerned with Derbyshire property in the 1730s.
The family had wealth, as landed gentry, but their social and political influence stemmed entirely from their uncle, Thomas Parker, First Earl of Macclesfield (1667-1732) He was married to Isabella's sister Janet (Janette or Jenette). Through him the extended family became extremely powerful in politics, was particularly active in the legal world, and also formed close connections with the world of science.
Thomas Parker, like Thomas Anson, was trained at the Inner Temple. He rose to be Lord Chancellor in 1718. This made him a figure of enormous power in politics and the law. He exerted his power beyond the acceptable limits and was accused of abusing his position to support his friends and favourites. In the end, he was accused of abusing legal finances, resulting in his impeachment and imprisonment in the Tower of London. This does not seem to have affected the careers of his family circle.
Aside from his legal career Lord Macclesfield was a free thinker and keen on scientific and legal controversies. He was a personal friend of Isaac Newton and returned to London after his disgrace to be a pall bearer at Newton's funeral in 1727. Thomas Parker's membership of the Royal Society was personally proposed by Isaac Newton in 1712.
Macclesfield's support for free thinkers included his employment of mathematician William Jones as a tutor for his son George, later the 2nd Earl of Macclesfield. Jones may have also taught the Ansons.
Parker's close links with the Ansons is shown by the fact that he was, with Thomas Anson, an executor of William Anson's will, made in 1715.
Thomas Anson's cousin, Lord Macclesfield's son, George Parker (c1697- 1743), later 2nd Earl of Macclesfield was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1706, two years before Thomas Anson. He was not called to the bar, but was at Cambridge University until 1718. He was trained in mathematics by William Jones, employed by his father as tutor, and Abraham de Moivre. Jones may also have taught the Ansons.
George Parker was principally a scientist, though, due to his father's influence, he had the office of Teller to the Exchequer and MP for Wallingford 1722-27. William Jones proposed George Parker for membership of the Royal Society in 1722.
Between 1720-22 he toured Italy. His travelling companion Edward Wright published an account of their travels in1730, including a brief mention of seeing Vivaldi perform in Venice:
"It is very unusual to see priests play in the orchestra. The famous Vivaldi whom they call the Prete Rosso, very well known among us for his concertos, was a topping man among them in Venice" (6)
The 2nd Earl of Macclesfield, built up an important private observatory at Shirburn Castle and his lasting claim to fame is his support, with Lord Chesterfield, for the change to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. This was unpopular with many people both because it meant the apparent loss of eleven days when the calendar was adjusted to the European style and because the Gregorian calendar was seen as "popery". Until 1752 the year officially began in March and writers often dated letters written in the first three months of the year with double dates, for example 1740/1. If only one year is given it may be that, in Gregorian style, it is actually the year later. This has a serious effect on historical research in this period.
The 2nd Earl's son, Thomas, Lord Parker is also mentioned in Lady Anson's correspondence with Thomas Anson showing a continuing close connection with the Macclesfield side of the family. On December 29th 1749 she writes to Shugborough:
"Lord Parker arrived a few days ago from Paris, & has brought a letter from Monr. St George for you, and an Almanack, which is of the finest Etrennes Mignones I ever beheld, except two of the same which my Lord delivered yesterday morning, from St George also, to your Brother and me. - Lord Parker has likewise brought over six dozen of French Gloves, which lye now upon a Chair by me â€˜till your Commands are known concerning them." (7)
M. St George was a French naval officer who became a friend of the Ansons after his capture at the Battle of Finisterre. Lady Anson sometimes has to distinguish him carefully from Prince Charles Edward Stuart who used St George as a pseudonym. In November Lady Anson wrote that St George had communicated with no-one but Lord Parker, and that only for a "commission for two fans that he wanted." Such luxury goods greatly dominated the minds of these 18th century ladies and gentlemen.
The Almanac "Etrennes Mignonnes" was an annual publication of curiosities and information for the forthcoming year.
By far the most important person in the family circle, and, after 1748, George Anson's father-in-law was Philip Yorke (1690-1764), who rose to be Lord Chancellor, as the Earl of Hardwicke, was one of the most powerful people in the country.
Yorke began his career as articled clerk to Charles Salkeld where he became a life-long friend of Thomas Parker (c1695-1784), another Parker relative, nephew of the 1st Earl of Macclesfield, from Park Hall, Staffordshire. This Thomas Parker entered the Inner Temple on 3rd May 1718 and was called to the bar 19th June 1724.
The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) suggests that Yorke became tutor, presumably in law, to Thomas Parker, five years his junior, at the time when Yorke entered the Middle Temple (as distinct from the Inner Temple where the Parkers and Thomas Anson were trained).
Acting as tutor to Thomas Parker gave Philip Yorke access to Lord Macclesfield. As DNB says the Parker connections "provided a rocket boost" to Yorke's career. In 1720 Lord Macclesfield made Yorke Solicitor General. Yorke became Lord Chancellor in 1737 and also negotiated a position in the Exchequer for his son, also Philip.
George Anson's rise to the highest position of authority in the Admiralty is sometimes assumed to have been due to his marriage to Elizabeth Yorke (1725-1760), Lord Hardwicke's daughter, in 1748. The true situation is more complicated. Philip Yorke seems to have been something of an upstart, owing his success to the support of the Parkers, or to his use of themto his own advantage. He was only six years older than his son-in-law and the marriage was another way of raising himself into a position of power over the family that had set his career on its course.
Elizabeth's brother, Lord Hardwicke's eldest son, Philip married Jemima Campbell, Marchioness Grey, granddaughter of the Duke of Kent. Thomas Wright, the architect and landscape designer who transformed Shugborough in the 1740s, spent a great deal of time at the Kent's home at Old Windsor and at Jemima's home at Wrest Park.
Though Thomas Anson, with his legal background, was at the heart of the Macclesfield circle there is no reason to suppose that he was ever dominated by Lord Hardwicke. His legal career has faded from history. He was a "bencher" of the Inner Temple, a member of the governing body, and his later friends included a circuit judge who may have worked with him, but his life was dominated by other things. He played his part as a whig MP for Lichfield, it seems, purely to please Elizabeth, Lady Anson with whom he spent a great deal of time.
Thomas wrote to Lord Hardwicke that he had little interest in the
"cabal, intrigue, and â€¦huddle of politics." (8)
Elizabeth stayed at Shugborough often while her husband, Admiral Anson, was otherwise occupied by the navy. She visited Bath and Buxton with Thomas, and wrote him lively and informative letters. Some have suggested that there was a romantic relationship between, but it has to be remembered that she was thirty years younger than him. They do seem to have shared a love in literature and art, and her interest in Poussin and the world of idealised shepherds and shepherdesses must have played a part in the making of the mysterious Shepherds Monument.
Apart from Elizabeth Anson these family members and the world of high politics fall into the shadows as the story of Thomas Anson, Shugborough and the Greek Revival emerges into the light after two and a half centuries of obscurity.
Most of the people discussed in this chapter have entries in the Oxford DNB Online. This is accessible to anyone with a public library membership number. The databases on the Inner Temple and Royal Society websites are also useful sources.
1) Thomas Pennant: The journey from Chester to London (1811). Available on Google Books. (All quotations, unless otherwise stated, follow the spelling of the originals.)
2) Robert Orme: Historical fragments of the Mogul Empire (F Wingrave, 1805) Available on Google Books
3) Thomas Pennant: The journey from Chester to London (1811).
4) Stuart is covered in spectacular detail in S W Soros (ed.): James 'Athenian' Stuart: The Rediscovery of Antiquity (Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design & Culture) (Yale University Press, 2006)
5) Thomas Anson's will is available from the Public Records Office website. There are several copies in the Staffordshire Record Office.
6) Quoted in John Booth: Vivaldi (Omnibus Press, 1990). Available on Google Books.
7) Staffordshire Records Office. Anson Papers. D615/ P (S) / 1/ 3
8) 8th Feb 1748, British Library Add.15955, f. 106, quoted in Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke: The House of Commons 1754-1790 (HMSO, 1964)