Last week I wrote about Chinese paper-hangings in the Regency, and mentioned that one set of these very expensive papers may have had special significance in the life of a young girl. In 1806, the Prince of Wales made a gift of a full set of Chinese paper-hangings to the mother of a woman who would later become his mistress. However, the facts seem to suggest this gift was actually made in an effort to gain custody of a child in order to please his current inamorata.
How a set of Chinese paper-hangings may have been an attempt to sway the choice of who had custody of the little girl who gave the Prince his nickname …
The Prince of Wales was enamored of the art of the Orient. He purchased, or was given as gifts, a number of fine sets of imported Chinese papers. Rooms in both Carlton House and the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, were embellished with these luxurious papers and yet he did not have enough walls to use the papers with which he had been presented or had purchased. When he visited Temple Newsam in 1806, he made a gift of a fine set of Chinese papers to the mistress of the estate, Lady Frances Irwin. This lady was not a close acquaintance of the Prince, but she was the mother of someone whom he very much wanted to influence, Isabella, Marchioness of Hertford. But why did the Prince wish to influence this lady? To woo her as his mistress? I think not.
I believe the Prince had a completely different motive in mind when he presented Lady Irwin with the Chinese paper-hanging set. In 1799, Maria Fitzherbert, the morganatic wife of the Prince of Wales, had taken into her care the infant daughter of her friend, Lady Horatia Seymour, who was traveling abroad for her health. Mrs. Fitzherbert grew to love this little girl, who had been christened Mary, but whom she had nicknamed "Minney." When the child’s mother died, in 1801, Mrs. Fitzherbert wished to keep custody of Minney and raise her as her own daughter. The Prince had often played with little Minney when he visited Mrs. Fitzherbert and had also become very attached to her. It was during these visits that little Minney began to call him "Prinny," which rhymed with her own name. He was very touched by this mark of affection from the child and told several of his intimates about it. They also took to calling him Prinny, and eventually the nickname became common knowledge and continued to be used throughout his life.
Lord Hugh Seymour, Minney’s father, died just a few months after his wife, and the executors of his will demanded that Mrs. Fitzherbert surrender the little girl to her aunt, Elizabeth, Countess Waldegrave. These two ladies were not on the best of terms, and Mrs. Fitzherbert knew that if Lady Waldegrave had custody of the child, she would never see her again. Mrs. Fitzherbert had no living children of her own, and she was devastated at the thought of loosing Minney, a child she loved as a daughter. Because Lord Hugh’s will had been written before Minney’s birth, she was not specifically mentioned, and this offered Mrs. Fitzherbert a loophole by which she might be able to keep Minney with her.
The legal wrangling dragged on for more than a year, until the Prince, fond of the child himself, and for the sake of Mrs. Fitzherbert, sent a message to the executors. He told them Mrs. Fitzherbert loved the child as a mother, and that he himself would settle £10,000 on her, if they would allow her to stay with Mrs. Fitzherbert. They refused, saying Mrs. Fitzherbert was not a blood relative and the child should be raised by a Seymour. Eventually, a suit was filed against the executors in the Court of Chancery. On the advice of former Lord Chancellor, Lord Thurlow, the Prince employed an up-and-coming young lawyer, Samuel Romilly. The case was argued at length and it dragged on for more than three years, eventually going against the Prince and Mrs. Fitzherbert. Though they appealed to higher courts, the verdicts were the same. Finally, in 1806, the case was to go before the House of Lords for a final decision.
Mrs. Fitzherbert, in desperation, turned to her friend, Lady Hertford, whose husband, the Marquess of Hertford, was Minney’s uncle and head of the powerful Seymour family. The Prince became involved in the negotiations with the Hertfords, as well as canvassing all of the peers for their votes in his favor when the case came before the Lords. It was at about this same time that the Prince visited Temple Newsam, the childhood home of Lady Hertford, in Yorkshire. While there, he made a present of some tapestries and a set of Chinese paper-hangings to Lady Irwin, Lady Hertford’s mother. On the day the case was to be argued before the House of Lords, Lord Hertford stepped forward and asked to be heard. He said that it grieved him to have what was a private family matter debated in public, by strangers. He asked that he, as the head of the house of Seymour, be awarded unrestricted custody of the child. The vote was unanimous in favor of this request, and little Mary Seymour then became the ward of her uncle, her father’s eldest brother.
Mary was allowed to say with Mrs. Fitzherbert until guardianship was legally transferred to Lord Hertford. As soon as he had complete legal custody of Mary, Lord Hertford then deputized Mrs. Fitzherbert to act as guardian in his stead, and to care for Mary has she had always done. The rest of the Seymour family was not pleased by this turn of events, though there was nothing they could do to prevent it. Mary remained with Mrs. Fitzherbert, until she eventually married and set up her own household. So Mrs. Fitzherbert gained a child, but the effort cost her a husband. During the course of negotiations with the Hertford’s, the Prince became enamored of Lady Hertford. He pursued her with great determination, and that lady, being a good Tory, aware that she might be able to exert some influence over the Prince, encouraged his suit. However, it is generally believed that she never allowed him, in the vernacular of the day, "the last favors."
It is commonly accepted that Lady Hertford did not become the Prince’s mistress until 1807. In 1806, I believe he was more concerned with getting custody of Minney for Mrs. Fitzherbert, for whom he still felt much affection. I think the gift of the tapestries and the Chinese paper-hangings to Lady Irwin were made with that end in mind. I also think that is why the Prince traveled to Yorkshire to present his gifts. If the Prince had actually been in pursuit of Lady Hertford at that time, surely he could have found much more romantic gifts? Instead, he gives her mother household furnishings. There are very few women who might consider wallpaper or tapestries romantic gifts, and certainly not when given to their mothers. Not to mention that at this time Lord Hertford’s support was crucial in the Prince’s efforts to gain custody of Minney. Openly pursuing the wife of a man known to be extremely jealous when you wanted something from him would be an extraordinarily stupid move. The Prince, for all of his failings, was not a stupid man. But, if these gifts were made for the purpose of influencing the Hertfords, I think they show the clever and cunning mind of the Prince at work.
Lady Irwin was known to be a collector of art, with exceptionally good taste. She would have been able to truly appreciate the Prince’s gifts. At that time, she was also elderly and her health was failing. How better to get on the good side of a woman, than to bring exquisite and valuable gifts to her ailing mother? Especially when you are the Prince of Wales and you come in person to visit that lady and bestow your gifts. Lady Hertford herself was a noted connoisseur of art, and would also have been able to appreciate the quality of the gifts her mother received from the Prince. I suspect she would also have appreciated the pleasure the prestige of his visit to Temple Newsam would have given her mother. Can’t you just imagine Lady Irwin saying to her daughter, "That Prince is such a nice young man. I am sure his friend, Mrs. Fitzherbert, would take good care of that poor child. You should speak to your husband about this and get him to help the Prince." Or, words to that effect. That only makes the gift to Lady Irwin that much more clever. For, if the Prince had given the wallpaper and tapestries to Lady Hertford, that would essentially have been that. Instead, he turns her mother into an advocate for his cause without doing anything which might arouse her husband’s jealousy.
What happened to the Chinese paper-hangings? Well, for more than twenty years, they were stored away, unused. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First, Lady Irwin died in 1806, so she would not have had time to arrange for their hanging. Her daughter, Lady Hertford, then inherited Temple Newsam, but she did not spend much time there in the years immediately following her mother’s death. By 1807, she was the Prince’s acknowledged mistress and was caught up in the social and political world of which the Prince was the center. She may have forgotten about the Chinese papers, or she may not have wanted to antagonize her husband unnecessarily by flaunting a valuable gift from the Prince. By 1819, Lady Hertford had been supplanted in the Regent’s affections by Lady Conyngham. In 1822, Lord Hertford died, and the then Dowager Lady Hertford chose to reside primarily at Temple Newsam, her childhood home.
Once she had settled in at Temple Newsam, Lady Hertford began a comprehensive redecorating campaign. By 1827, she decided to turn the best dining room into a drawing room, and it was in this room that she hung the Chinese paper-hangings the Prince had given her mother. As with all sets of Chinese papers, there were spare sheets from which Lady Hertford cut many motifs which she pasted onto the walls to embellish the design. But apparently, the motifs which had been provided were not enough to produce an effect which could satisfy Lady Hertford. She, like King George IV, was a subscriber to John James Audobon’s monumental work, The Birds of America. The first double elephant folio volume had just been published, at a cost of £1,000 per volume. Lady Hertford cut out twenty-five of the engraved prints of the birds in the book and pasted them into the branches of the trees on the Chinese paper. Audobon would probably have been horrified, but she clearly did an exceptional job of incorporating his prints into the design of the Chinese paper-hangings, as no one recognized the source of the extra birds until 1968. The paper still hangs in the Chinese Drawing Room at Temple Newsam.
The Prince of Wales kept his word to invest £10,000 for Mary Seymour. When she reached her twenty-first birthday, he sent her a note to tell her that, with interest, the amount was then nearly £20,000. With his note he included a draft on Coutts Bank made out to her for the full amount. I think that demonstrates his ongoing affection for the child he knew as Minney, and is further proof that the gift of the Chinese paper-hangings to Lady Irwin was motivated by his wish to secure custody of the little girl for Mrs. Fitzherbert, not as a ploy to seduce Lady Hertford.