Friday, 24 June 2011

Cannons: a tale of wealth, property, art and patronage

At Timon’s Villa let us pass a day,
Where all cry out, ‘What sums are thrown away!’
So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,
Soft and Agreeable come never there.
Greatness, with Timon, dwells in such a draught
As brings all Brobdignag before your thought.
To compass this, his building is a Town,
His pond an Ocean, his parterre a Down:
Who but must laugh, the Master when he sees,
A punt insect, shriv’ring at a breeze!
Lo, what huge heaps of littleness around!
The whole, a labour’d Quarry above ground.
Two Cupids squirt before: a Lake behind
Improves the keenness of the Northern wind.
His Gardens next your admiration call,
On ev’ry side you look, behold the Wall!
No pleasing Intricacies intervene,
No artful wildness to perplex the scene;
Grove nods at grove, each Alley has a brother,
And half the platform just reflects the other.
The suff’ring eye inverted nature sees,
Trees cut to Statues, Statues thick as trees,
With here a Fountain, never to be play’d,
And there a Summer-house, that knows no shade;
Here Amphritite sails thro’ myrtle bow’rs;
There Gladiators fight, or die, in flow’rs;
Un-water’d see the drooping sea-horse mourn,
And swallows roost in Nilus’ dusty urn.

In his description of Timon’s Villa, Pope was popularly thought to be satirising Cannons, the stately home of James Brydges, first duke of Chandos. It was apparently, not the case, but it is easy to see how the misapprehension arose.

Brydges must be remembered as the patron of ‘the great and good Mr Handel’ and as one of the supporters of the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram, but other aspects of his career are less acceptable to modern tastes.

He acquired vast wealth during the War of the Spanish Succession in his role as Paymaster General of the British forces. Such corruption was objected to at the time mostly for its scale.

In 1713 Brydges, later created first duke of Chandos, to add to his titles of 9th Baron Chandos, 1st Viscount Wilton and 1st Earl of Carnarvon, set about creating a stately home and estate of unparalleled magnificence at Cannons, in Little Stanmore, Middlesex, now more recognised as an outlying station on London Transport’s Jubilee Line.

The project took him eleven years and cost over twenty-seven and a half million pounds in today’s terms. Like any oligarch, he ran through several architects, including some of the most prominent at the time, and ended up completing things under the supervision of his own surveyors.

Grounds, house and contents were all exceptional for their scale, richness and grandeur. Aquatic engineering was taken to new heights and works by Titian, Giorgione, Raphael, Poussin, Caravaggio and Guernico were to be found in the house. In an age when oligarchs regarded their privacy differently from now and, without television, or an illustrated popular press, they had to achieve their celebrity by other means, Cannons was visited by the public in vast numbers, quite like any National Trust star property today. I don’t think the duke sold tea towels. He is said to have contemplated building a private road across his private lands all the way from Stanmore to his never completed London town house in Cavendish Square.

But by 1720 the duke was in trouble, and lost much of his fortune following the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. The South Sea Company is now commonly thought of as a trading company whose stock valuation became ludicrously over valued on the market. We tend to regard it, along with tulip mania, as a kind of bizarrely naïve financial exuberance that we have put well behind us. It is true that the stock both rose and fell tenfold in the course of a single year in 1720, but the company, although ostensibly a trading company, was principally established for the purpose of trading in government debt, as a direct consequence of the expense of the War of the Spanish Succession – it would nowadays presumably be regarded as shadow banking – and its failure resulted from the circular artificiality of its strategies for achieving that. The situation was worsened by outright fraud and corrupt interweaving of private financial and government interests.

The Brydges family fortunes never recovered, and in 1747, three years after the first duke’s death, his son found the estate so hopelessly encumbered with debt that grounds, house and contents were put up for piecemeal, demolition sale. Little now remains apart from some of the major landscape features of the grounds. Bits of the fabric went to churches, galleries or other grand houses (our old friend and would-be patron of lexicographers, Lord Chesterfield – he of the letters to his son – took the portico, railings and marble staircase with bronze balustrade for his new London house).

The estate itself was purchased by the cabinet-maker William Hallett who in 1760 built a large villa on the site which today houses the North London Collegiate School – so at least furniture-makers come creditably out of the episode.