Thomas Anson died in London and was brought back to Colwich Church by a hearse with six horses. His funeral was simple. He was buried at St Michael's Church, Colwich, in what Pennant calls "the burial place of the Ansons, made a l'antique, in form of a catacomb."
The coffin inscription was simply:
died 30th march 1773'
In the Staffordshire Record Office there is a list of people who were to receive mourning rings to mark Thomas's death. The Bagot family still possesses one. They were decorated with pink enamel.
The list defines Thomas's particular friends and acquaintances in 1773.
The names include:
Philip , 2nd Earl of Hardwicke and Jemima, his wife;
the Dean of Lincoln (James Yorke, younger brother of Lady Anson);
Lord Harcourt (a founding member of the Dilettante Society and another patron, presumably at Thomas's encouragement, of Stuart);
Mr Mytton (who must be John Mytton, a Dilettanti Society member since 1764 and now the head of the Mytton family. Thomas's old friend James Mytton, who died in 1764, was his uncle and, for a while, guardian);
Mr (Thomas) Pennant (John Mytton's cousin);
Sir Piercy Brett (who had supplied the design for the Chinese House);
Mr Adair (mentioned in letters from Anson's Italian agent John Dick);
Mr Stuart, (the architect);
Mr Cambridge (Richard Owen Cambridge, satirist and host of house parties in Twickenham, an old friend of Admiral Anson and a close friend of Thomas's musical friend James Harris);
Sir Thomas Parker (another cousin and old friend of Lord Hardwicke);
Lord and Lady Macclesfield;
Mr Orme (The East India Company historian and friend of Stuart and Anson);
It is only at the end of his life that Thomas Anson begins to emerge from the shadows. A large part of his life is still unknown. Was he active as a barrister? How much of his first forty years did he spend abroad? As an older man the glimpses of his character do seem consistent - the witty and slightly camp badinage that Lady Anson talks about is supported by the occasional quotations of his own words that have been preserved.
He was a pioneer traveller - as the 1734 trip to Smyrna and Tenedos proves. This may have been an important inspiration for a lifelong interest in Greece. He does seem to have been a key figure in the career of James Stuart and thus an influence on the Greek Revival in architecture. But there is no reason, or need, to suppose that he or his friends were consciously promoting a clearly defined set of beliefs and ideals.
Whether it was deliberate or not, though, he and Shugborough stand at a turning point of styles and, more importantly, of attitudes to the world. Fortuitously Shugborough itself is a physical crossroads, made even clearer by now by the confluence of railways as well as rivers and canals. The industrial revolution and commercial age meets the classical and idyllic.
It is not a clear division. People could support industry and commerce and still be neoclassicists - as Wedgwood proves. The early Birmingham industrialists show that you could be manufacturers and businessmen at the same time as being social revolutionaries. On the whole Thomas Anson seems to belong to the more purely idealistic worlds rather than to the new world. Socially he seems to move in a different sphere from people like Erasmus Darwin and Wedgwood, though their paths cross. It would seem, as a whig, that he would be in an opposite camp to Dr Johnson, who could be a philosophical opponent of James Harris while remaining a friend to him and Elizabeth Carter and turning up at the same soirees.
It is equally not a clear division between classical and romantic. The romantic interest in landscape and nature comes from the same roots as classical architecture. They are two sides of one coin. You might be inspired by the Arcadian "back to nature" mood, with a dose of Rousseau, to develop wilder gardens and travel in mountain landscapes, without ever touching a Doric portico. When people think of the romantic period proper (after 1800?) they think of a time when poets were particualrly concerned with their personal feelings (following Rousseau), whereas the romantic side of the 18thc century would tend to go with a sense of restraint and form.
Thomas Anson came from an earlier generation. It is easy to forget that all the time he was working with Stuart and enjoying his "elegant entertainments" at 15 St James' Square he was in his 70s.
Yet, throughout his life he was at the forefront of ideas. Many people who have explored the history of Shugborough have had a feeling that there was something extraordinary about Thomas Anson. The anecdotes passed on by Seward and Harris, the fragments of Thomas's own writing, the notes and letters of people like Kammel, Stuart, Wedgwood and, of course, Lady Anson, so often contain actual reported speech so that, just for a moment, a window opens, or an image flickers on the moviola. Though there are so few clues to his life so many of them are vivid and bring to life dramatic and important moments, as if these clues had been deliberately left buried to be unearthed many years later and to act as the keystones for a reconstruction.
Was he a kind of "eminence grise" guiding major developments in18th century art and thought? Or do we tend to invent a Thomas Anson to suit our fantasies?
There was certainly a danger of this over twenty five years ago when I first started investigating the story. All those years ago Shugborough was the focus of very zany ideas with no historical basis and the air of mystery seemed to support these mad speculations, with Thomas always as the shadowy figure at the centre. He certainly seemed the "eminence grise" then. I first heard of Shugborough in 1974 in Henry Lincoln's TV film "The Priest, the Painter and the Devil" and by 1982 by the time I came to live in an old estate cottage I knew Henry Lincoln and his co-authors of "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" and did what I could to investigate links between the house and their strange story, taking part in a "Holy Blood" seminar at the house in 1983. By 1990 it gradually emerged that the whole complicated story of the "Priory of Sion" and Rennes-le-Chateau was based on a rather amateurish hoax by Pierre Plantard, a French eccentric occultist and his friend Philippe de Cherisey, an alcoholic comic actor. (The "bloodline" idea was nothing to do with them. That was invented by Richard Leigh a possible explanation of the purpose of the imaginary Priory.) The vast the quantity of pseudo-history and fiction that has been written since obscures the fact that there is simply nothing there. It proves the need always to go back to original sources.
Perhaps, however historically correct we try to be, we can't help create history to suit our personal tastes - or is there something more mysterious going on here? People involved with Shugborough often feel a personal connection. Either they are attracted to the place itself, as it is now or as it was in the past, or they have a sense that some aspect of the place has been waiting for them to uncover it.
I have deliberately avoided any personal elements in this book, but now after all the facts have been put in order as scientifically as I can manage, I can look back at the process of research and wonder how I came to follow some of these trails.
In 2005 I spent some days at Shugborough in the role of an imaginary composer from 1805, as part of an art project. The end product was a set of flute sonatas, performed there and in a concert in Stafford. At that point I knew nothing about any of Anson's real musical life. I had a vague feeling that Shugborough was about ideas and not just art and architecture.
Independently of Shugborough I had developed an interest in the feint line of Platonic philosophy in England. This may seem very esoteric but it just happens to appeal to me. There is a hazy tradition from Ficino in the Renaissance which emerged to influence the arts in Elizabethan England and which then went under the surface with occasionally wonderful eruptions in the 17th century (particularly in the theology of the Cambridge Platonists). It re-emerged very influentially in the romantic period. I was able to use bits of Thomas Taylor in my imaginary 1805 character. But I knew nothing about the 18th century period. What linked 17thc century Platonists with Taylor over a century later? Music and this quite specialist world of ideas just happened to have been important to me in recent years - but I had no reason to connect them with Shugborough.
After a completely bonkers "Holy Grail Weekend" in 2006, when I lectured on the Priory of Sion hoax, I decided to go back to the beginning and ask what I really knew about Thomas Anson. Within days I had read his will for the first time and seen the name "Mr Kammel". I remembered the poem by Bagot which, I thought, mentioned a "Hammell" who would "tune his softest strain". Here was Thomas Anson leaving a considerable sum to a musician.
Within hours I had found Anton Kammel on Grove Music on-line and contacted Michaela Freemanova in Prague who had written an article on him in 2003. She told me that Thomas was one of his most important patrons. She knew about the will and had ordered a copy from the Staffordshire Records Office to check the details. Her article then led to the spectacular 2002 book "Music and Theatre in Handel's World" by Burrows and Dunhill. Suddenly I not only had a clear picture of Thomas Anson as patron of music but I had also discovered James Harris, my missing link in the Platonic tradition in the 18th century.
Suddenly Thomas Anson's world had become exactly what I wanted it to be - and I have to wonder if anyone who hadn't been a composer who happened to be interested in the philosophical side would ever have put these things together. No-one at Shugborough knew anything about either Harris or Kammel.
From then on things kept appearing. Kerry Bristol came along, eager to promote James Stuart, and able to explain that Anson had been his chief supporter - and, most excitingly, that their relationship began long before the Doric Temple in 1760. In 2007 a completely new period in Shugborough research was launched with a Thomas Anson conference, a far cry from the Holy Grail Weekend of 2005.
After that exciting start the two most astounding discoveries were the story of Lord Scarbrough which popped up on a Google Books search, (you need to look for Anfon as well as Anson as itdoesn't read 18th century long â€˜s's) and the story of Tenedos. There were confusing references to Thomas's travels but James Harris's anecdote stood out as something extremely significant - but it had no clue about when it happened. Again, by pure chance, I had recognised that there was a letter in the archives in Armenian, but wrongly listed as Hebrew. It's nothing like Hebrew, but I happened to have seen a book on Armenian music and I recognised the script.
Within a few hours I found an American expert on Armenian trade and the next day I had a translation which proved Thomas had been travelling in Asia Minor in 1734 - earlier than any of the well known tourists who formed the Divan Club and Egyptian Society.
All these things are discoveries with a personal significance - but surely not a matter of making the facts fit my imaginary Thomas Anson?
After three years I feel I have exhausted all the likely sources of information - but surely there must be more somewhere? Is there an archive of one the travelling companions of the 1720s that still holds letters from Thomas? Was anyone with him in Turkey in 1734? Did they leave any clues?
Putting the story so far into print is bound to encourage major new finds to pop up - perhaps contradicting the evidence in this book - though I have tried to be rigorously factual.
Some speculation has to be allowed or there would be no story.
Looking at the story as a whole I feel there is some slight reason to claim that Thomas Anson did have a unique role. It's not as if there was any conscious plan or conspiracy. He may simply have happened to be in the right place at the right time, but there is something about that visit to Tenedos.
He stands there, not only at a place which connected him to the Trojan War, but also talking to an old man who seemed to have a direct memory of that time. Surely he must have made the trip because he was already filled with thoughts about Ancient Greece. This was in 1734, before even the Society of Dilettanti, who looked no further than Italy to begin with, was formally established.
When he returned home (and, I believe, had his portrait painted as a returning traveller) he must have devoted his life to recovering the treasures of Greece - not just in art but in ideas. This dedication somehow led him to James Stuart as soon as Stuart returned from Greece. (Had Anson been there first?) For nearly twenty years Anson supported Stuart's career as well as a series of other like minded people in the arts and sciences.
The importance of this Greek ideal (and I am sure it is something more abstract than "Greek Revival Architecture") may not be immediately obvious but it was very clear to a few people like James Harris and Thomas Taylor a generation later.
In 1805 Coleridge wrote an often quoted passage in his notebooks that almost exactly sums up the crossroads at which Shugborough sits:
"Let England be Sir. P. Sidney, Shakespere, Spenser, Milton, Bacon, Harrington, Swift, Wordsworth; and never let the names of Darwin, Johnson, Hume, furr it over! â€” If these too must be England, let them be another England, â€” or rather let the first be old England, the spiritual, platonic, old England and the second with Locke at the head of the Philosophers and Pope of the poets, with the long list of Priestleys, Payleys, Hayleys, Darwins, Wm. Pitts, Dundasses, &c. &c. be representative of commercial G. Britain; these have their merits but are as alien to me, as the Mandarin Philosophers and Poets of China."
Coleridge is not referring to an idealised fantasy England but to a world of ideas. The old England, to his view, is a world where imagination and thought rules, rather than science and commerce - though he says "these have their merits". Interestingly Dr Johnson and Erasmus Darwin are named amongst the makers of the new materialistic world. Johnson certainly had his merits. He simply had a different world-view. He remained friendly with James Harris even though he called him a prig.
This "spiritual, platonic, old England has nothing to do with politics or even geography. It's a way of seeing the world. Perhaps it's something like Arcadia, Elysium or a renewed Golden Age discovered in a particular patch of the Earth. This might be what the landscape designers tried to make a little more visible through their improvements, or simply by arranging a well placed viewpoint.
It may be easy to misunderstand. "Commercial G. Britain" seems to have won, in spite of the efforts poets, musicians and artists.
There is a clear line from Thomas Anson's world to Coleridge. James Harris supported Floyer Sydenham in his translation of Plato. Sydenham's work was completed by Thomas Taylor, who became an out and out pagan. Taylor inspired the romantics - though in Coleridge's case the discovery of Plato turned him from Unitarianism to more orthodox Christianity. There is a very important Platonic tradition in Christian theology from St Augustine onwards which runs through both Catholic and Protestant history.
Shugborough has to be part of "commercial G. Britain" to survive, but perhaps it's time it also became a centre of ideas that reflect, in a twenty-first century way, the ideas that inspired so much new creativity in the 18th century.