Last week, in Part One of my biographical sketch of the eccentric Regency dandy, Viscount Petersham, I recounted the story of his life from his salad days through his career in the army, to his entrance onto the scene of Regency London society. This week I shall relate the story of his life as an aristocratic gentleman about town and of his curious passion for collecting.
And now, Part Two of the biography of Lord Petersham …
As a member of the Carlton House set, a prominent dandy and gentleman of fashion, as well a social celebrity, Petersham was not only the target of the odd lampoon in prose or verse, but also of a number prints depicting caricatures of him by the likes of Rowlandson and Cruikshank. However, the supposed caricature of him as a noble aide-de-camp in all probability is actually his father, who was aide-de-camp to General John Burgoyne during the American Revolutionary War. Though Prinny seems to have routinely been incensed by the various lampoons against him, either in verse, prose or caricature, Petersham seems to have found those directed at him mildly amusing and took them in stride.
Viscount Petersham was a noted collector and connoisseur, primarily of snuff and tea. However, he also maintained a substantial collection of canes and walking-sticks as well. It is likely that he considered that collection merely part of his wardrobe, as he did his extensive collection of snuff-boxes. A cane or walking-stick was an important part of the turn-out of any well-dressed Regency gentleman. In addition, during the late eighteenth century and right through the Regency, canes and walking-sticks for both men and women were often designed and constructed with small compartments for snuff in the knob or handle at the top.
Petersham’s fondness for tea was bred in the bone. His family home, Harrington House, in London, was famous for tea-drinking. Petersham’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Harrington, typically received their visitors to tea in the Long Gallery there. In fact, when Petersham was still a boy, King George III and his family took tea with the Harringtons and their family in the Long Gallery of Harrington House on numerous occasions. It is likely that the young Viscount first met the young Prince of Wales at one of these tea parties. The third Earl, Petersham’s father, was exceptionally fond of tea and had the fashionable beverage served to him, in state, nearly every afternoon. The story was told that when Petersham’s younger brother, General Lincoln Stanhope, went to Harrington House upon his return to London, after several years’ absence in India, he was immediately greeted by his father: "Hallo, Linky, my dear boy! Delighted to see you! Have a cup of tea!"
Unlike his fondness for tea, Lord Petersham’s penchant for snuff was acquired on his own. On 5 November 1812, shortly after he was on the town, he wrote to his brother, "I have learnt to take snuff among the other fashionable acquirements, a custom which, of course, you have learnt and will be able to keep me in countenance." Being a connoisseur of snuff was an essential skill for any Regency dandy, in part because the Prince Regent was devoted to snuff. In fact, Prinny kept his own "snuff cellar" at Windsor Castle and was often advised on his collection by Lord Petersham. And many snuff shops carried "Lord Petersham’s mixture," which was very popular for many years. Like the Duke of Wellington, the Regent despised the use of tobacco in any other form, so snuff was the only option for fashionable gentlemen, particularly those of the Carlton House set. They all tried to emulate Beau Brummell’s elegant and fluid grace in the taking of snuff, from his precise flick of the thumb to open the box to his delicate inhalation of a tiny pinch of the scented tobacco powder from the small area between his thumb and forefinger.
Lord Petersham had a suite of rooms allocated to him in the family’s London town home, Harrington House. One of those rooms was dedicated to his tea and snuff collections. The walls were fitted with shelves and on one side of the room were displayed canisters which contained the many varieties of tea in his collection, including Pekoe, Bohea, Souchong, Congou, Russian, and Gunpowder, as well as many other specialty teas, all of very high quality. The shelves on the other side of the room were filled with beautiful Chinese porcelain jars, each bearing the name of the variety of snuff it contained in gilt letters. In addition, Lord Petersham owned all the various equipment and apparatus necessary for measuring, moistening and mixing snuff. He employed a curious individual who presided over this room. It was this man’s sole responsibility to blend his lordship’s teas and to maintain and prepare his special snuff mixtures. When Captain Gronow paid a visit to Lord Petersham in his rooms at Harrington House, he said it was more like a shop or dispensary of tea and snuff than a gentleman’s sitting room.
This snuff and tea room was also furnished with a number of tables and cabinets in which Lord Petersham displayed and stored his many snuff-boxes. He had literally hundreds of snuff-boxes, many of which he had designed himself. He was very popular with the jewelers and craftsmen of London, whom he commissioned to execute his designs. The Viscount considered his snuff-box part of his daily dress and chose his box for the day accordingly. Captain Gronow tells us that on one occasion a lovely antique blue Sèvres snuff-box which Petersham was using was being admired. The Viscount’s considered but lisping response to the praise of the delicate box was, "Yes, it is a nice summer box, but it would not do for winter wear." He selected the snuff-box he would use each day based on the seasons of the year and the activity in which he was to be engaged. It was believed that Petersham had a different snuff-box for every day of the year, since he was seldom seen with the same snuff-box even two days in a row. Petersham was known to make gifts of snuff-boxes to people he liked, usually boxes he had designed himself.
Lord Petersham was a devoted patron of the both the opera and theatre and of many of the actresses who trod the boards of their stages. Despite his rather affected manners, his kindness and charming personality made him very popular with the ladies. If he was not obliged to attend some ball, musicale or soiree, he was usually to be found at one London theatre or another most evenings, making his way to the green room after the performance. He put it about that he did not stir from his home before six o’clock in the evening. This may have been his own jest, similar to Brummell’s claim of using champagne in his boot blacking, for there are a number of instances when his lordship was certainly out and about before the hour of six o’clock. He was one of the social celebrities to be seen frequently in Hyde Park at the fashionable hour, which really ran from about five to seven o’clock. But he does seem to have been at his most socially active in the evening and nighttime hours.
Petersham was not an especially athletic man, and took little interest in sports. Because he was so kindhearted, he was particularly averse to attending those pugilistic encounters which were so popular with most aristocratic gentleman, including, for many years, the Prince Regent. However, he was once prevailed upon by some friends to attend a mill. His friends sent a member of the Pugilistic Club, a Mr. "Bill" Gibbons, to call for him at Harrington House and escort the Viscount to the location where the fight was to be held. Mr. Gibbons arrived quite early in the morning on the day of the fight, before Petersham had finished dressing. Lady Harrington, wishing to be courteous to a friend of her son, insisted that this former prize-fighter sit down to breakfast with her. One can only wonder at the Viscount’s reaction when he descended to the breakfast room to find his mother engaged in conversation with a retired bare-knuckle fighter. As he was known to be an even-tempered and liberal-minded man, it is likely he simply joined them for both the meal and the conversation.
Next week I will conclude my biographical sketch of Lord Petersham with his life after the Regency, including his marriage to a beautiful, if rather infamous actress. I will also tell the tale of one of the Viscount’s most unique eccentricities, which provided the subtitle to this series of articles about his colorful life.