Lord Petersham — Brown in the Regency — Part Three

In Part Two of my biographical sketch of the charmingly eccentric Lord Petersham, last week I gave an account of the Viscount’s life on the town in Regency London and his various extensive collections of walking-sticks, tea, snuff and snuff-boxes. This week I will bring this biography to a close with the story of his life after the Regency, including his accession to the earldom of Harrington and his marriage to a beautiful and well-known actress.

But first, the brown-ness of Beau Petersham …

As promised last week, now an explanation for the subtitle of this biographical sketch. Lord Petersham developed a deep and extravagant tendre for a beautiful widow called Mary Browne. In order to demonstrate his devotion to this fair lady, he had all his equipages turned out in a quite unprecedented manner. All of his personal carriages were painted brown, they were pulled only by brown horses and all the harnesses and other coaching furnishing were brown and of an ornate and antique design. In addition, all his coachmen and outriders wore a unique livery, of long brown coats with hems which fell to their heels and glazed top-hats with large cockades, all in brown. There are some who claim he chose the color brown for his carriages and servant’s livery due to his excessive interest in both snuff and tea. But contemporary documents indicate Beau Petersham chose the color brown to declare to the lovely widow Browne his deep devotion to her. He was also known to wear a suit of all brown clothes when he called upon her in his brown equipage. It is not clear when Petersham gave up his personal brown livery, but by the end of 1829, after he had acceded to the earldom, he was using the Harrington coaches and carriages and his servants wore the Harrington livery.

Eventually, Lord Petersham gave up his pursuit of the widow Browne, and it may be he who encouraged people to think his choice of color in livery was due to his strong attachment to tea and snuff. For what woman would care to drive out with him in a carriage painted in devotion to another? He had affairs with a number of women though the Regency and well into the reign of George IV, many of them actresses. By 1828, he had become involved with the beautiful and popular actress Maria Foote, daughter of Samuel Foote, a former military man turned theatre manager. She was seventeen years his junior and had had two children by a previous lover, Colonel Berkeley. There was a great deal of gossip about the affair and Petersham’s parents were not pleased to see the relationship grow increasingly serious. Perhaps out of deference to his family, Petersham did not formalize the relationship until more than a year after his father’s passing in September of 1829. On 11 March 1831, Maria Foote made her last appearance on the stage, in Birmingham. Barely a month later, on 7 April 1831, at the age of thirty-four, she married the former Lord Petersham, the fourth Earl of Harrington, age fifty-one.

The marriage was a nine days wonder in society, and despite the fact that both the Marchioness of Tavistock, and the Duchess of Leinster were sisters of the new Earl, nothing could convince the majority of the ton to accept the former actress who had become the new Countess of Harrington. Though she worked very hard to conform to her new position and from the day of her wedding her behavior was irreproachable, she was never received at court nor was she tolerated by the greater part of society. However, many of the couple’s friends did support them. Harrington House in London became a congenial rendezvous for many theatre people who had known the Countess when she was on the stage, such as George Colman and James Smith, as well as several gentlemen who had long been friendly with her husband, such as Lord Alvanley, Lord Aberdeen, and Lord and Lady Tavistock. It is said that in the early years of their marriage there were a number of merry and festive dinner parties hosted by Lord and Lady Harrington for their friends at their London town home.

Despite the fact that the marriage was a happy one, or perhaps because it was so happy, wider society never accepted the new Countess of Harrington and she was occasionally the target of satirical prints and writings. Though, as Lord Petersham, the Earl had shrugged off any number of lampoons and caricatures directed at him, he was not so dispassionate about negative comments directed at his bride. In fact, he was so offended by the ostracism of his wife that he consistently refused any invitations which did not include her. Eventually, he withdrew from public life and retired with his Countess to his country estate of Elvaston in Derbyshire. The more snobbish of Derbyshire society also shunned the new Countess of Harrington, but she cared little for that as she settled into life at Elvaston.

The manor house was located about four miles south-east of Derby, set in over two hundred acres of woodland, parkland and formal gardens. It was approached through an ornate pair of golden gates which had been acquired in 1819 by the third Earl from a palace in Madrid, along a very fine avenue lined with lime trees which was over a mile in length. The third Earl had commissioned the architect, James Wyatt, to renovate the seventeenth-century Elvaston Hall into the Gothic fantasy of Elvaston Castle. In 1831, the fourth Earl then commissioned the architect, Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, to refurbish and redecorate Wyatt’s original entrance hall. This enlarged entrance was still in the Gothic style, with a groined roof covered with tracery, but was transformed into the Hall of the Fair Star. The design and decoration of this grand hall was dedicated to the pursuit of chivalrous love. Visitors to Elvaston Castle had to pass through this entrance hall, where it was made clear to them they were entering a home in which true love was of great consequence.

Still not satisfied, with the assistance of his new head gardener, William Barron, and a team of nearly ninety gardeners, the Earl designed and constructed a large garden on the grounds of Elvaston which was intended to celebrate the triumph of true love. This extensive garden was lavishly appointed with magnificent works of topiary art, in both common and golden yew. No expense was spared, and Barron quickly became an expert in transplanting fully mature trees into this grand garden, as the Earl did not want to wait for his trees to grow to maturity over a period of several years. By 1850, Barron and his team of gardeners had planted examples of every species of European conifer then known on the grounds of Elvaston. There were multiple walks which meandered through these instantly mature woods and along the shore of a lake. These walks were decorated along several sections with picturesque rockwork and there were numerous pieces of garden statuary placed along the walks and among the foliage to enhance the romantic theme. The Earl also designed a Moorish Temple which was erected in his garden of true love. Inside this temple could be found a painting of the Earl, kneeling before his beloved Countess. Lady Harrington, particularly with her theatrical background, was delighted with this fantasy world of chivalric romance which her husband had constructed for her and she was very happy at Elvaston.

The Earl also had the stables rebuilt in a handsome manner to blend with the Gothic design of the manor house. The drawing room was redecorated and hung with a set of tapestries depicting the tale of Don Quixote. The dining room in the old wing was paneled in white and gold and the chimney breast bore the arms and quarterings of the Stanhopes surmounted by the family crest. Another ancient chimney-piece in the servants’ hall was decorated with carved armorial decorations, emblazoned with the initial H and the coronet of the earldom. The furniture in many of the public rooms was elegant and often richly gilt and the damask upholstery and window hangings were predominantly in shades of blue. Elvaston soon became something of a private oasis for Lord and Lady Harrington. However, the couple’s loyal friends and family were often invited to spend time at the estate to enjoy the special pleasures of this unique building and its grounds. The story is told that when Queen Victoria made a visit to Derbyshire she expressed a wish to see Elvaston Castle. Out of consideration for his wife, who had never been received at court, the Earl is reported to have sent word to the queen that his residence was not open to the public, but that if Her Majesty were to state her desire to see the estate as a command, he would feel honor-bound to obey her.

The union of Lord and Lady Harrington was blessed with the birth of two children. A son and heir, Charles, the new Viscount Petersham , was their first-born, arriving on 31 December 1831. Their second child was a daughter, born on 14 May 1833. She was named Jane, after her paternal grandmother. Sadly, little Charles died on 8 April 1836, at the age of just four years, at Pembroke House, in London. His sister, Jane, however, survived into adulthood and, on 17 June 1854, at the Chapel Royal, Whitehall, she married General George Henry Conyngham. Her husband became the third Marquess Conyngham upon the death of his father on 17 July 1876. The third Marquess Conyngham was the grandson of Lady Elizabeth Conyngham, the Marchioness Conyngham, the last mistress of King George IV. Lady Jane had seven children, though her father, the erstwhile Lord Petersham, had passed away even before her marriage, so he never knew of his grandchildren.

The fourth Earl of Harrington died on 3 March 1851, at the age of seventy-one. He was survived by his wife and his as yet unmarried daughter, Jane. Because his son, Charles, had predeceased him, the Earl’s brother, Leicester Fitzgerald Charles Stanhope, became the fifth Earl of Harrington. The Dowager Countess of Harrington also survived both the fifth Earl, who died in 1862 and his son, Sydney Seymour Hyde Stanhope, the sixth Earl, who died in 1866. In addition, she lived long enough to welcome six of her seven grandchildren into the world. She died in London on 27 December 1867, at the age of sixty-nine.

After King George IV died in June of 1830, his snuff collection at Windsor Castle was sorted, weighed, priced and sold, on 15 August 1830, to the premier London tobacconists, Fribourg and Treyer, of the Haymarket, for £400. After the passing of the Earl of Harrington in 1851, it took three men from Fribourg and Treyer three days to weigh, sort and price his collection of snuffs. Even though the fashion for snuff was waning by the mid-nineteenth century, when the former Viscount Petersham’s snuff collection was sold at auction some months after his death, the proceeds of the sale were over £3,000.

Elvaston Castle and its surrounding estate remained the seat of the Earls of Harrington until 1939. They retained the property until 1969, when the eleventh Earl of Harrington sold the estate to the Derbyshire County Council. In 1970, the estate was opened to the public as a county park. The bulk of the fourth Earl’s unique garden still survives and along with his extensive planting of conifers, is one of the oldest country estate landscapes in England. Though Elvaston is no longer the seat of the Earls of Harrington, the title still exists. William Henry Leicester Stanhope, the eleventh Earl of Harrington, died last year, on 12 April 2009, at the age of eighty-six. He was succeeded by his son, Charles Henry Leicester Stanhope, who is now the twelfth Earl of Harrington. And his son, William Henry Leicester Stanhope, is the current Viscount Petersham.

Georgette Heyer’s characterization of Lord Petersham in her novel, Regency Buck, was quite accurate, based on my own research into his life. During the Regency, Beau Petersham was certainly flamboyant and eccentric. He spoke with a lisp, his manners were affected, he designed outrageous garments and worked to perfect his own formula for boot blacking. He had extensive collections of walking-sticks, tea, snuff and snuff-boxes. To woo the widow Browne, he dressed in brown and had his equipages turned out in brown as well. But the more I learned about this Regency gentleman, the more I came to like him. He was not the least bit stuffy, but was gracious, charming, well-mannered, even-tempered and fair-minded. He was kind-hearted and a loyal friend, generous to those who were loyal to him. He was also a devoted and loving husband and father. He has occasionally appeared in other novels with a Regency setting which I have read over the years. Beau Petersham was every bit as interesting as his friend Beau Brummell, and I sincerely hope that I will meet him again in future Regency novels.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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