That Universal Strain

 The library at Shugborough was no pretentious status symbol but a cosy gentleman's study at the heart of a modest villa, a place for repose and serious contemplation. It contained the fruits of the classical and ancient world, according to the anonymous 1767 poem -


" Nor shall the CLASSIC Library remain

Unsung, replete with learning's genuine stores:

Not metaphysic dream, or sceptic doubt,
Or fierce polemic wrangle; but the songs
Of ancient Greece, that universal strain
That earth & Heaven applauded, & the Gods
With rapture stoop'd to hear…." (1)


Thomas's collection of books and art treasures was offered up for sale almost in its entirety in 1842 to pay for the disastrous gambling debts of Thomas, 2nd Viscount Anson (1795-1854). A few important pieces were saved but most of the collection was lost.

The 1842 sale catalogue is a good indication of the content of Thomas's library and is a guide to his interests,though it is easy to forget that he must have had other treasures and other books at 15 St James Square. The London house and its contents was sold at the same time.

The library contained all the standard classics that such a studious gentleman would be expected to own. These included very fine and valuable volumes including Aldine editions of Greek literature published in Venice in the early 16th century. There were also, not surprisingly, books of architecture and art, including a complete set of Piranesi engravings. There were classics of travel literature and early texts on horticulture. On the science side there was   a 1713 edition of Newton's "Principia" and, more esoterically, Newton 's "Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms amended" of 1727, which William Jones had assisted Newton with in the 1720s.

An intriguing feature of the collection was a group of first editions, in French, of works by Jean Jacques Rousseau, including the novels "Emile" (1762), two editions of "La Nouvelle Heloise" (1761), "A Discourse on Inequality" (1755), letters (1769) and "Remarks on his writings" (1767).

This suggests that Thomas had a fairly serious interest in the philosopher.

Rousseau was a powerful influence on radical thinkers in England. The presence of his works in the library is an indication that even in his late sixties Anson was forward looking and even revolutionary in his thought. In "A Discourse on Inequality" Rousseau famously declared that man "is born free but everywhere is in chains", and that society corrupts the essential goodness of humanity.

Rousseau may seem remote from Shugborough but there were surprising points of contact in the 1760s.

In the novel "Julie, of the New Heloise" (1761) Rousseau sends a principal character on the voyage round the world with Admiral Anson. Rousseau had been inspired by descriptions, in Admiral Anson's "Voyage", of the unpopulated islands, Tinian and Juan Fernandez. In 'Julie' the hero visits the islands and returns to find Julie has a made a wilderness garden which captures their spirit:

'I was looking at the wildest, loneliest spot in the whole of nature, and I seemed to be the first mortal who had ever penetrated within this wilderness.' (2)

It is curious coincidence these descriptions in Anson's "Voyage" inspired Rousseau, who in turn influenced a taste for more natural garden design, notably in the second Earl of Harcourt's garden at Nuneham Courtney.

Rousseau came to England in 1766 as a temporary exile after the publication of his "Social Contract" which made him an outcast in Europe as a supposedly dangerous revolutionary.

He stayed at Wootton Hall, near Ellastone, Staffordshire, from March 22nd 1766. He passed his time walking to Dovedale , studying the wild plants, and writing his "Confessions". Erasmus Darwin, an admirer, went out of his way to meet Rousseau "by accident" while walking. This was so obviously contrived that the philosopher was very annoyed. Though David Hume, who had invited him to England , persuaded George III to grant Rousseau a pension, Rousseau became neurotically suspicious of Hume and returned to France in June 1767.

At Wootton Hall Rousseau's closest friend was 22 year old Brooke Boothby who visited him again in later life and called him "a divine man". Boothby had lived in Stafford in his school years and after 1772 was part of the Lichfield literary circle with Darwin and Anna Seward.

Rousseau was near enough to Shugborough to be able to make a day visit - or for Thomas Anson to make the trip to Wootton. If   he was an enthusiast, as the collection of books suggests, or simply curious, a visit would surely have been irresistible.

The 1767 poem is dated July 7th, just after Rousseau left Staffordshire. It describes, with its invocations of the natural landscape as well as the artificial world of the gardens, an idyllic world which seems close to Rousseau's principle of "back to nature" as well as Greek ideals of harmony and beauty. The park was apparently open to passing shepherds and shepherdesses, and it was a place where wild animals were safe from shooting and hunting:

"To every creature that the vital air

Sustains, is ANSON'S kind benevolence

Extended: beasts of chace, & fowl of game

Secure in his protection roam at large

Unpersecuted. Never here was heard

The hunter's barbarous shout, or clam'rous horn

To fright the peacefull shades; or murd'ring gun

To stain the hospitable fields with blood."

Thomas Anson was socially conscious. As with other grand projects in country houses a large part of the object was to create employment:

"Nor to the love of arts alone (tho' that

Well understood is praise) ascribe we all

These stately fabrics, this so splendid scene:

Humanity, attention to relieve

Industrious want, instruct, emply the poor,

His better motive. Sacred Charity

Bids every pile with happier auspice rise."                 

Thomas's exercise of "sacred charity" included building new cottages in the village in the 1760s. The paintings by Dall suggest the village buildings were integrated into the landscape and local peasants were free to come and go. Nathaniel Kent wrote of his enlightened treatment of the tenants on his Norfolk properties.

The poem ends in a romantic and picturesque mood:

"Along the sunny ridge that overhangs
Eastward thy fair demesnes, & wide commands….
Westward, with near approach, & bolder swell,
The wavy hills rise mountainous, befringed
With gloomy groves of never-changing leaf,
Cedar, or pine, or fir: plantations vast,
And venerable! …
…Oft let me wander, when the morning ray
First gilds thy groves & streams, & glittering towers,
And meditate my uncouth DORIC lay…"

A carving of a mask of Pan on the sandstone caves on the Haywood Cliffs, now separated from the house by canal and railway, suggests that they were part of the original landscape, a Rousseau style hermit's cave.

It could be, of course, that these odds and ends encourage us to project attitudes onto the Thomas Anson which may not have been his, but it would be wrong to assume that all 18th century landowners had the same attitudes to their estates and peasantry. These pieces of evidence do suggest that the social views of a landlord inspired by the ideals of Greece could be extremely liberal. Equally the attitudes of some of the early industrialists were very far removed from 19th and 20th century stereotypes of capitalists. Some members of the Birmingham based "Lunar Society" were outspoken supporters of the French Revolution.

The sources of these social attitudes as well as philosophy of art can be found in the work of James Harris. Harris was certainly an acquaintance of Thomas Anson and his family records are the main source of information about Anson's musical life. Thomas's association with James Harris dated from July 1761 at the earliest, when Anson, Harris, and Thomas's cousin Sir Thomas Parker, were named as trustees in a codicil to Lord Hardwicke's will. (4) They might have met long before this through Mrs Montagu's circle, through their shared enthusiasm for Greece or through a family connection. Harris was remotely related to the Lord Chancellor. His half sister, Catherine, was Lord Hardwicke's niece. Harris's second book "Hermes", published in 1751, was dedicated to Hardwicke. Harris's last book "Philological Inquiries" (1781) is the source of the anecdote of Thomas Anson sailing to Tenedos.

James Harris (1709-1780) is a forgotten figure these days. He may not have made a very significant impact on the world in the 18th century but he was the leading philosopher of the Greek Revival. Harris's work is a one man campaign against the materialism of the age and the philosophy that stemmed from John Locke. Harris's ammunition in the fight was the huge wealth of classical philosophy and his books are heavily annotated with the philosophical texts that support his arguments - with enough English translation to make them more widely intelligible.

His "Three Treatises", Dialogues on Art, Music Painting and Poetry, and Happiness, published in 1744, could be seen as the text book to the Greek Revival. It would be the ideal book to read while strolling around a classical garden, pausing for refreshment at a Doric Temple. In fact the dialogues are written in the dramatic context, following the style of Plato, of a walk from Wilton House to Salisbury. Though there is a lot of thorough logical discussion there are occasional interruptions when characters are allowed to go off into fanciful or poetic speeches. The style looks forward to some of the conversations in Thomas Love Peacock's novels of the early 19th century.

Thomas Anson's library held a first edition of "Three Treatises." The second edition, as well as Harris's later books, has a frontispiece by James Stuart, showing the close links between artists and thinkers of the Greek Revival.

Music was a very important part of Harris's life. He ran a music festival at Salisbury and was a close friend of Handel. His Treatise on Music, very much part of the baroque period, argues that music is not an imitative art but can create feeling which can help the mind assimilate the ideas of poetry.   

The dialogue on Happiness in "Three Treatises" ends with rapturous speeches by a character called Theophilus, probably modelled on Harris's friend Floyer Sydenham, translator of Plato. These speeches include Stoic views of the universe in which every person is part of a whole, each person's life depending on each other - and:

"THIS whole UNIVERSE itself is but ONE CITY or COMMONWEALTH - a System of Substances variously formed, and variously actuated agreeably to those forms— — a System of Substances both 'immensely great and small, Rational, Animal, Vegetable, and Inanimate. As many Families make one Village, many Villages one Province, many Provinces one Empire; so many Empires, Oceans, Wastes, and Wilds, combined, compose that Earth on which we live."(3)

And reaches a climax, in which we can imagine these gentlemen of the Greek Revival contemplating Platonic philosophy in the strolls through their classical landscapes:

"HERE let us dwell ;— — be here our Study and Delight. So shall we be enabled, in the silent Mirrour of Contemplation, to behold those Forms, which are hidden to Human Eyes' — that animating WISDOM, which pervades and rules the whole — that LAW irresistible, immutable, supreme, which leads the Willing, and compels the Averse, to co-operate in their Station to the general Welfare — that MAGIC DIVINE, which by an Efficacy past Comprehension, can transform every Appearance, the most hideous, into Beauty, and exhibit all things FAIR and GOOD to THEE, ESSENCE INCREATE, who art of purer Eyes, than ever to behold Iniquity.

"BE these our Morning, these our Evening Meditations — with these may our Minds be unchangeably tinged — — that loving Thee with a Love most disinterested and sincere; enamoured of thy Polity, and thy DIVINE ADMINISTRATION…"

Harris's "Three Treatises" argue for the very high importance of art, in the broadest sense and that happiness comes only from the pursuit (not necessarily achieved) of a good life.

Another writer who had an important influence on the revival of classical ideals in the Arts - or his interpretation of them - was J. J. Wincklemann.

The only book to be held back from the 1842 sale, perhaps as a single representative example of Thomas Anson's collection, was a copy of the French Translation of J J Winckelmann's "Letter about the Herculanean Discoveries", of 1762.

Winckelmann was the principle theorist of the Greek revival, though he never travelled to Greece himself. It was he who expressed the 18th century view of the purity of Greek art - of pure lines and white marble - which was not a true image of the art and architecture of the Greeks as it was at the time but an ideal. Later generations were shocked to discover Greek sculpture had been coloured.

Winkelmann's attitude is likely to parallel Thomas Anson's, the devotion to the "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" of Greek Art. (Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, 1755). "The only way for us to become great…is the imitation of the Greeks". Wincklemann saw true beauty in classical sculpture in the masculine form. He was tragically murdered in a bedroom in Trieste on June 8th 1768 by a "fellow traveller".

At the time of writing no-one has explained why this particular book by Winckelmann should have been kept back from the sale. (There are, in fact, other books from Thomas's collection which are still in the library.) There is no evidence of a direct connection between Anson and Winckelmann, though John Dick, who acted as Thomas's agent in the purchase of art in Italy, mentions in a letter that he had written to Winckelman for advice on a statue of Venus that Thomas was thinking of buying.

There is a further sign of the influence of Winckelmann in the 1767 anonymous poem which has inexplicably been ascribed to Anna Seward by some writers. It is clearly dated July 7th1767 and has nothing at all to do with the poem Anna Seward's father gave to Lady Anson in Lichfield in September 1756.

The lengthy poem is written in imitation of Milton, in blank verse, a style never used by Anna Seward.

Though many poets imitated Milton, including, in small doses, Lord Lyttelton, a possible candidate for the authorship is Richard Jago.

Richard Jago (1715-1781) was born at Beaudesert, Warwickshire, near Henley-in-Arden.He was a school friend of William Shenstone, the creator of the influential romantic garden at The Leasowes near Halesowen. Jago's "Edge-Hill" is a rambling poem in Miltonic blank verse which includes many passages describing both natural landscapes and man-made landscapes, including Shenstone's The Leasowes and also tributes to his friend Sanderson Miller, who built a

"Edge Hill" was begun in 1762 and published in 1767, the year of the Shugborough poem, which could almost be seen as a sequel or appendix to Jago's epic. It has passages which are very similar indeed to the landscape descriptions in Edge-Hill. It would be easy to imagine Jago visiting with either Shenstone (who certainly visited and wrote about the Shepherds Monument in a letter of 1759) or with Jago's close associate Sanderson Miller, a gentleman architect, who certainly worked at Shugborough in the 1750s and 1760s. Miller was an architect himself and also supervised the construction of buildings designed by others, including the Pagoda (and others) at Shugborough and Stuart's Doric Temple at Hagley. He was very likely the builder of the almost identical Doric Temple at Shugborough and the later Stuart building that were under construction in the 1760s.

There are very good reasons, therefore, to suggest that Jago might have visited Shugborough with Shenstone, Lyttelton, or while in the neighbourhood of his wife's family in Rugeley.

This is only a suggestion, of course, but compare a passage from the Shugborough poem with a passage from Jago's "Edge-Hill" in praise of Sanderson Miller:



Cedar, or pine, or fir : plantations vast,

And venerable! not in curious lines

Restrained, & cramp'd, nor on the summits clump'd

Bleak, & unthrifty; but profusely spread

Along the mountain slope for many a mile

To shade a country. Such the groves that grace

The shaggy sides of APPENNINE, or huge

PIRENE. Underneath a limpid lake

The molten chrystal of an hundred rills

Gushing from purple CANK'S salubrious sides

Collects, expansion pure, with verdant isles

Inlaid it's lucid bosom, & it's shores

With marble temples, glittering structures , crowned,


His winding way, enlarging as it flows,
Nor hastes to join Sabrina's prouder wave.
Like a tall rampart, here the mountain rears
Its verdant edge; and, if the tuneful maids
Their presence deign, shall with Parnassus vie.
Level and smooth the track which thither leads
Of champaign bold and fair. Its adverse side
Abrupt, and steep. Thanks, Miller'! to thy paths,
That ease our winding steps. Thanks to the fount,
The trees, the flowers, imparting to the sense
Fragrance or dulcet sound of murmuring rill,
And stilling every tumult in the breast!
And oft the stately towers that overtop
The rising wood, and oft the broken arch
Or mouldering wall, well taught to counterfeit
The waste of time, to solemn thought excite,
And crown with graceful pomp the shaggy hill.
So Virtue paints the steep ascent to fame." (4)

A few words appear in both extracts:   shaggy (used by Milton in Paradise Lost), rills, crowned.

The authorship could be proved if a sample of Jago's handwriting could be found to match the manuscript, but in the meantime the case for Jago's authorship is fairly convincing.

In the notes at the end of the poem the author, whoever it actually was,  quotes (or more likely paraphrases from memory) Henry Fuseli's 1765 translation of Winckelmann's Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks )

Fuseli translating Winkelmann (1765):

Thus Raphael formed his Galatea, as we learn by his letter to Count Baltazar Castiglione where he says, " Beauty being so seldom found among the fair, I avail myself of a certain ideal image." (5)

The 1767 Shugborough poem:

Raphael did the same in his letter to Count Balthazar Castiglione, speaking of his Galatea, he says "Perfect beauty being so seldom found, I avail myself of a certain Idëal image.

This does show a very up to the minute interest in Greek revival ideas which would have pleased Thomas Anson.

The poem as a whole gives a very detailed picture of the wonders of the estate as they appeared to a visitor when it was at its height, with most of Wright and Stuart's improvements in place. The poet does, though, get a bit carried away -

"Hence on the TRENT, SINËAN trophies shine:

Airy Pagodas, elegant & light,

With painted balustrades, & gilded spires;

And Temples, that like broad pavilions spread

Their ample roofs, with listed colours gay,

Green, azure, purple, & distinct with gold;

Here 'mid circumfluous waters aptly placed

Cast a mixt radiance o'er the trembling stream."


This is presumably inspired by the Chinese House but what were all these multi-coloured temples? 

The paintings at Shugborough included landscapes by Claude and Gaspard Poussin (Nicholas's stepson). There is some doubt whether Thomas owned a genuine Nicholas Poussin, other than the small drawing of the Arcadian Shepherds which had originally belonged to Lady Anson. The advertisements for the sale of 15 St James' Square, or Lichfield House as it was known by 1842, mention paintings by both N and G Poussin. Gaspard, though a minor artist, was popular for his classical landscapes which are far more loose and romantic than Nicholas's. One of the Gaspars was striking enough to be engraved by an artist named Woolletts in 1764. There were a few religious paintings, including Susanna and The Elders, copied from Guido Reni. These large and very Roman Catholic subjects, particularly an "Immaculate Conception" must have been strangely dominating before the much grander Red Drawing Room was built.

 The collection of sculpture, indoors and out, was more significant than the paintings.

The house and grounds were full of both genuine classical sculpture and modern copies. It is hard to imagine, now the gardens are quite bare, the effect of the many marble statues, herms and altars scattered about.  A collection of letters from John Dick in Leghorn, dealing with the purchase of classical art, survives with letters from Stuart and the sculptor Scheemakers who was employed transporting, supplying and mending statuary as well as producing new work for Shugborough and 15 St James' Square. In 1767 he sent Anson a bill, in his mixture of Dutch and English, which includes:

for two heds maid in to busts on pedestals 12.12.0
for sending a statue in a cart to the wagon an opnen 0.9.0
for packin a figure of Flora 0.7.0
for two men packing op sonderi tings 0.7.0
for mending brutus and four locks of hair to Adonis 1.0.0
payd for 8 heds from Rome 3.8.0 (6)

This reveals that Flora and Adonis were new additions to the Greenhouse when the anonymous poet saw them.

The bill also includes a chimney piece made for the back parlour by John Flaxman the Elder, father of the neo-classical artist:

for a ciminy pies in the back parlor slab & corns 35.14.0 

Between 1765 and 1771 Thomas Anson bought pictures from Italy through Sir John Dick, British Consul at Leghorn and sculpture from Joseph Nollekens, who had been Scheemakers assistant, in Rome. The bill quoted above shows that Nollekens sent the works to Scheemakers, who then arranged their transport, by wagon, to Shugborough.

Nollekens wrote long detailed letters to Thomas, and competed for the purchase of all kinds of classical sculptures with cardinals and the Pope. He carved a statue of Castor and Pollux in the classical style, which, though modern, reached the highest price of any sculptures in the Shugborough sale and is now in the Victorian and Albert Museum. There is a copy in the hall at Shugborough.

Other statues included Flora and Adonis in the Green House, centaurs which were originally in the Tower of the Winds, a Thalia, muse of comedy, which Thomas Pennant thought particularly fine, Roman sarcophagi (which often have the "DM" inscription) and many other ancient and modern works.

A large quantity was bought from a bankrupt merchant in Leghorn, in 1766, including many medals, which were a particular interest of Anson's. As the 1767 poem says of the library:

"...Nor to books alone confined

Thy learned Archives: here whate'er remains

Of rare antiquity (or for design

Curious, or circumstance, or workmanship

Inimmitable) in Coins, or graven Gemms,

Camëo or Intaglio; sardonix,

Cenilean ophite, amethyst, the blood

Cornelian, & the jasper's flowery vein.

Endless the task & the irksome to attempt

Particular discription, & the song

Already droops, tho' gorgeous the detail."


Before setting off on his epic voyage with Captain Cook Joseph Banks (1743-1820) made a tour of England and Wales, visiting country estates and making notes of his observations in a journal which is now in the National Library of Wales. In 1768 Joseph Banks was a twenty-five year old gentleman naturalist but he was driven  by an enthusiasm and adventurous spirit that would make him one of the leading figures in science in the 18th century.   Through his friendship with Lord Sandwich (which later led him into the rakish activities of Francis Dashwood's circle) Banks booked himself onto ‘the Endeavour' as a self-funded naturalist.

He had other links with the Thomas Anson's world.   He corresponded with Anson's friend Thomas Pennant, also a naturalist. Banks had plans to travel to Uppsala to hear the great classifier of nature, Carl Linnaeus, give lectures.   Pennant mentioned in his correspondence that he was critical of Linnaeus's classifications other those in his own field, botany.   Botany, as well as agriculture, is an important theme in the Shugborough story. Benjamin Stillingfleet, one of Thomas's closest friends in old age and a regular visitor to Shugborough, was one of Linnaeus's strongest supporters in England, and also a correspondent of Pennant.

Banks was introduced to Shugborough, in late summer 1767, by another friend, John Sneyd of Bishton. Sneyd was one of the local gentry who would have regularly visited his near neighbour, Thomas Anson. While on the voyage of the Endeavour Banks lent Sneyd his own Herbarium.

Bank's journal includes a description of an encounter with Thomas Anson at the statue of Adonis. This is another anecdote which records Thomas's actual words:

"…went with Mr Sneyd [of Bishton] to Mr Ansons about 4 miles off at a place call'd Shuckborough to see his architecture and marble both which are reported to be beyond any thing else in their kind. Find a large company to dine there and are forc'd to content ourselves for this day, with taking our dinners and resolving to return and see things properly the next day: by an accident however found the estimation in which every thing there was held by its master.

Stealing from the company after dinner I got a candle and was employd in examining his chief marble which was an Adonis in the interior. He passes by. I took the opportunity of complimenting him by saying "truly sir this is a most elegant piece of workmanship"

"Iindeed it is, sir" said he, and shewing me the different parts of it "there's a grace sir…Believe me the Venus of Medicis is clumsy to it."

Having said this he retired and left me to my contemplations.

The figure is certainly a very elegant one tho I can not prize it so highly, as its master does. He is repesented not with the Chase, having just thrown a light robe over his shoulders to cool gradually. Probably the Game is suppos'd to lye at his feet as he rests himself upon one leg and seems to contemplate something lying before him with a look of satisfaction."(7)

The 1767 poet describes the statues in the Orangery or Greenhouse, including Flora "first protectress of this place" (which still exists at Shugborough in a beheaded state), "the sculptured forms of Demigods or heroes" and also writes:

"nor shall the learned eye deem here misplaced
A smooth Adonis, thy transcendent form."

The scholarly note at the end of the poem explains:

"Adonis, Thammuz & Osiris are the Greek, Phenician & Egyptian names for the same person. His statue is not misplaced in a Green house because under all these denominations he is looked upon by the best Mythologists as the Power of Vegitation: particularly the Vegitation of corn: whence in the fable that six months he lieth in Prosepine's lap, that is, whilst the seed of corn continueth underground; & the other six months, that is Spring & Summer he lieth with Venus."

This sculpture of Adonis seems to have been one which would have satisfied Winckelmann's ideals of beauty, as would Nollekens' Castor and Pollux.


1)       Staffordshire Record Office. Anson Papers.

2)       David Jacques: The Georgian Garden, the Reign of Nature   (Batsford, 1984)

3)       James Harris: Three Treatises (Nourse, 1744) Later edition available on Google Books.

4)       Richard Jago: Poems: Moral and Descriptive (Dodsley, 1784. Reprint by Kessinger)

5)       J J Winckelmann, translated by Henry Fuseli: Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the   Greeks (1765) Available on Google Books

6)       Ingrid Roscoe: James "Athenian" Stuart and the Scheemakers Family, (Apollo Vol. CXXVI September, pp178-184, 1999)

7)       Extracts from Joseph Banks Travel Journal. National Library of Wales.