Though he passed away barely a year and a half before the Regency began, the bon viveur, Walsh Porter, had a significant impact on the artistic taste of his friend, the Prince of Wales, who was soon to become Regent. In particular, the extraordinary decoration of one of Porter’s own homes was to inspire the decoration of some of the more flamboyant rooms in Carlton House, as well influencing the selection of paintings the Prince chose to hang in his London home. Walsh Porter’s taste and influence would also be reflected in the decoration of the fantastic Royal Pavilion at Brighton.
Very little is known about the life of Walsh Porter, but the facts which are left to us suggest he lived it well …
Many of the details of the early years of Walsh Porter’s life are lost to history. We do not even know the date of his birth, though partial genealogical records show that his name was originally Pierce Walsh, and that he was named after his father. His mother, Eleanor, was the sister of John Porter, Esq., of the Manor of Alfarthing, located in the parish of Wandsworth, at that time in the county of Surrey. The little parish has long since been swallowed up by Greater London, but in the last part of the eighteenth century, it was well outside the city. John Porter’s son, John, did not survive his father, and Porter’s other children were all daughters. When his uncle John died, Pierce Walsh inherited his property, at which time he adopted Porter as his surname and assumed the coat-of-arms of the ancient Catholic Porter family, sable three bells argent a canton ermine. Though their wedding date is not known, Pierce Walsh Porter married Harriet Hope Scrope, a beautiful and accomplished young woman, who had been born in 1770, sometime after he inherited his property. She was the daughter of the Reverend Richard Scrope, and his wife, Anne, who lived in Castle Combe, a small village near Bath, in the county of Wiltshire.
Neither the date of Pierce Walsh Porter’s inheritance or his marriage are known. The few details available suggest that he inherited his uncle’s property some years before his marriage, possibly as early as the 1770s. Based on the year of his wife’s birth, 1770, it is likely he and Harriet were married in the late 1780s or early 1790s. It appears he came to London within a few years after his marriage as he was known to be in the city by 1797. Once there, he dropped his first name, Pierce, and Mr. Walsh Porter, Esq. wasted no time in becoming the early nineteenth-century version of a Renaissance man. Though there is no information on when or where he received his education, it is clear he had benefited by his studies. He wrote two or three plays, the best known, a comic opera in two acts, entitled The Chimney Corner, was filled with jealous lovers and cross-dressing women, set in an old castle. The comic opera was acted at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1797, and was a great success. It was published later that same year. Walsh Porter was enamored of the theatre and remained so throughout his life. He had connections with a select group of set designers, painters and builders, who used his designs for set decorations from time to time. In later years, they also did some work for Walsh Porter in at least one of his homes.
Walsh Porter also composed several pieces of what have been called "sprightly music," which received much applause whenever they were performed. Many of his tunes were collected and published in 1798. At about this same time he published his book, Travels Through Russia, which was very popular and sold well. Curiously, there is no record that he ever actually traveled to Russia, though it is possible he did so before he came to London. Within the next couple of years, Walsh Porter began collecting art, and soon thereafter, established himself as an au courant art dealer. Porter had also addressed himself to the art of fashion and had become a well-known dandy, so flamboyant he was often compared to Lord Petersham. With their mutual interest in both clothing and the theatre, Porter and Petersham were to become friends, and soon, Walsh Porter became a familiar figure on the London social scene.
Having been raised in the country, Porter was an avid hunter and kept a small stable of horses for hunting. It is recorded that he acquired a fine mare for hunting from the noted horseman, Mr. Reginald Winniatt, for the price of 200 guineas. Sir Grey Skipwith sold him another prime hunting mare for a similar sum soon thereafter. Porter enjoyed riding to hounds, especially in Warwickshire, whenever he could manage it, often with other sporting friends. In London, he and his wife had a very fine house in Argyll Street, which their rather cynical neighbor, the artist, James Northcote, described as "the mansion of crimson and gold." The Porters entertained there regularly during the season, regaling a wide circle of sophisticated friends with what was reported to be a superb table and an even more superior wine-cellar.
Porter was a man of slight stature, described by his contemporaries as a rather nervous, highly-strung person, who, in the presence of royalty, could become quite obsequious. However, he was also widely acknowledged to be a man of exceptional taste in both art and literature, and was a well-known and respected figure in both of those circles. Those who knew him considered him to be an engaging companion and a warm and loyal friend. He was recognized as a perfect gentleman, of impeccable conduct and elegant manners. In addition to his fondness for fine, if rather ostentatious, clothes, Porter was also fond of fine dining and good conversation. An invitation to his home soon became a highly coveted social distinction. Whether because of his interest in art, fashion, or fine food, Walsh Porter had come to the attention of the Prince of Wales and, by 1800, was a favored member of the Carlton House set.
Richard Cosway had been appointed the official painter to the Prince of Wales in 1785. From that time, he also served in an unofficial capacity as the Prince’s principal advisor in the purchase of paintings for his collection at Carlton House. However, within a few years, the relationship between the Prince and the volatile artist had noticeably cooled. There is a suggestion that the Prince made advances to one, or both, of Cosway’s women, either his beautiful and talented wife, Maria Cosway, or his equally lovely mistress, the artist and Royal Academician, Mary Moser. Whatever really happened between the two, the Prince eventually turned to his great friend, Walsh Porter, to advise him in the completion of the collection of paintings with which he intended to adorn Carlton House.
The Prince’s obvious confidence in Walsh Porter’s taste in art helped to significantly increase Porter’s own budding art dealing business. In addition, his friendship with the Prince meant he was soon traveling in the very highest social circles. For example, on 2 June 1802, Porter was invited to a magnificent masked ball which was given at Cumberland House, one of the many social events in that exuberant Summer of 1802, which were part of the celebrations of the Peace of Amiens. This masquerade was sponsored by the Union Club and was organized by the Earls of Moira, Cunningham, and Landaff, along with Lord Cahir. It is reported that Mr. Walsh Porter, Esq., attended the event as the "Phantasmagorie," wearing a fabulous mask and a costume of silver, covered with azure "tiffany," a thin silk gauze. Though the Prince of Wales was in attendance, there is no record of whether or not he was in costume.
In 1805, Walsh Porter purchased Craven Cottage, whose previous tenant had been Mr. Denis O’Brien, Esq., a friend of Charles James Fox. The pretty cottage was located on the bank of the river Thames, west of London, in Fulham, a secluded locale for the opulent summer homes of the affluent of London and Westminster. The original cottage had been built in 1780, by William Craven, the 6th Baron Craven, on several acres of the land which had once been the hunting grounds belonging to Anne Boleyn. It had been slightly altered by O’Brien, but Porter spent at least £4000 to enlarge and embellish his new cottage while spending another £15,000 improving the grounds. Porter added an additional storey to the building, which included a raised veranda on the Thames side of the house with an excellent view of the river. The roof was also thatched at this time, in keeping with its rural location. The principal entrance was reached by crossing the elegantly landscaped lawn, to the Egyptian Hall and through a pair of great wrought iron doors, the many small openings of which were filled with plate glass. It was said these doors alone cost two hundred guineas. And yet, the most significant changes took place on the inside of the cottage.
Walsh Porter had hired the self-taught architect, Thomas Hopper, to take the lead on the extensive remodelling and embellishment of Craven Cottage. However, at least some of the design and construction work was done by his friends who were involved in theatrical design. This rural house would soon become one of the most remarkable examples of the cottage orné style of architecture in all of England. The ceiling of the octagonal vestibule was supported by towering palm trees and eight immense columns which were covered with hieroglyphics, as was the ceiling. Upon leaving the Egyptian Hall, to the left, was the entrance to the Chapel, a room reported to have been nearly fifty-feet long and twenty feet wide. This was the dining room and was decorated in the high Gothic/Tudor style of the Chapel of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey, filled with groin vaults and three large stained glass windows. These windows were imported from France and Italy and cost Porter in excess of eight hundred guineas. Directly across from the Egyptian Hall was the Tartar Chieftain’s Tent, which had a skylight and walls of alternating blue-striped tent linings and large panels of looking-glass. The cottage also contained a room constructed to look like a robber’s cave, which could only be entered from above, with huge rocks which appeared to support the staircase. Another room in the cottage was decorated to look like a lion’s den, though there is no record that it ever housed a live lion. The large, semi-circular library was filled with books, while the bedchambers on the second floor were surrounded by a lattice-work gallery which was covered with woodbine and roses.
Walsh Porter often entertained the Prince of Wales and a handful of his cronies to dinner at Craven Cottage, after it had been remodeled. The Prince was delighted with the flamboyant and unconventional architecture which he saw at Craven Cottage. In particular, he so liked the Gothic dining room that he determined to build one of his own at Carlton House and soon set his new architect, John Nash, to the task. Porter brought Thomas Hopper to the attention of the Prince of Wales, and the Prince soon employed Hopper on a number of the alterations he made at Carlton House. Hopper’s commissions at Carlton House helped him to establish himself as a professional architect with a large number of aristocratic clients. The Prince, who shared Walsh Porter’s eclectic and exotic taste in architecture, would often request Porter’s advice and assistance as he continued to remodel Carlton House, and to enlarge his summer home, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. In particular, we know that Porter advised the Prince on the extensive redecoration of the Carlton House Saloon in the Etruscan style and the construction of the Chinese Room at the Royal Pavilion.
Unlike many of his relationships, the Prince’s friendship with Walsh Porter thrived, without any notable disagreements, until the latter’s sudden death, on 9 May 1809. Porter had been staying at Dawlish Villa, near Bath, apparently for his health, as he had been suffering from a liver complaint. We do not know whether he had gone to Bath simply to rest or to take the waters, either internally or externally. But, by early May, he was feeling very much better and was determined to return to London. On the evening of 8 May, he had directed his valet to have his post-chariot made ready for the journey to London by five o’clock the next morning. Porter had also requested his valet rouse him in good time to dress for the journey and retired in good spirits, looking forward to his return to the metropolis. However, when his valet went to attend his master the following morning, he found him dead in his bed. The medical report stated that his death was the result of an abscess on his liver which had burst during the night. There were also those who believed his luxurious lifestyle was the true cause of his death. Walsh Porter was buried in the Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, in Bath, which surely would have pleased him, as it is considered one of the most unique and ornate churches in all England. An elegant monument to his memory was placed in the church by his family and friends.
The sudden death of Walsh Porter was a blow, not only to his family and friends, including the Prince of Wales, but also to the art world in general. Porter had begun forming a collection of art which he anticipated the Prince of Wales would acquire to become the foundation of a British National Gallery of Art. It does appear the Prince had encouraged him in this effort, with the idea that he could create a National Gallery once he became king. By the time of his death, Porter had already brought together some very important works, but the Prince was not in a position to purchase them at that time, nor could he convince his father or the government to do so. Porter’s family were not willing to keep and store all those paintings in the tenuous hope that they might eventually be sold to the nation. Therefore, on Saturday, 14 April 1810, the bulk of Porter’s art collection, including most of those he had intended as the basis for a National Gallery, went on the block at Christie’s. There were fifty-two lots listed in the catalog Christie’s made available to buyers, entitled A Catalogue of the Magnificent Collection of Italian, French, Flemish and Dutch Pictures, the Genuine and Sole Property of the Late Walsh Porter, Esq.,…. The sale of Porter’s art collection brought in £30,033, which would come to about £2,000,000.00 or $3,200,000.00 USD today.
Not all of Walsh Porter’s art collection was sold, some of his family members kept a few choice pieces. Records show that his brother-in-law, William Scrope, received the painting Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helicon by Claude Lorrain, dated 1680. But the majority of the collection was dispersed and Porter’s art dealership was also closed, thus eliminating an important and vibrant outlet for fine art in London. Walsh Porter had been an amateur, but in the true, original sense of that word, as one who truly loves something, from the heart, not solely as a profession. He had been an enthusiastic and exuberant promoter of the fine arts and had encouraged many artists during his time in London. One commentator wrote that a deep gloom had fallen over the London art world at his death, which was not lifted for some time.
Walsh Porter was survived by his wife Harriet, his only son, also named Pierce Walsh Porter, and four daughters, Harriett Mary, Frances Georgiana, Eleanor and Mary. He and his wife had had a second son, Endymion, but the little boy had died in infancy. Three of his daughters, Harriett, Frances and Eleanor, were all married by the time of his death, but his son, Pierce and his youngest daughter, Mary, did not marry. Walsh Porter’s wife, Harriet, lived to see most of the Regency, dying ten years after her husband, in 1819. The younger Pierce Walsh Porter inherited his father’s properties, including Craven Cottage, but not his father’s relationship with the Prince of Wales. The younger Mr. Porter was a less outgoing and flamboyant man who made no effort to follow in his father’s social and artistic footsteps. He soon sold off Craven Cottage, which would eventually become the home of the novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in the 1840s. It is at Craven Cottage that Bulwer-Lytton is said to have written several of his novels, in the famous semi-circular library. Craven Cottage was to change hands a few more times, before it was destroyed by fire in May of 1888. After the fire, the land was abandoned for many years, but is now the site of the Fulham Football (soccer, for those of us in the US) Club stadium and retains the name of Craven Cottage even today. Walsh Porter’s son died, unmarried, in 1826, and his property was then divided among his surviving sisters and their children.
Though Mr. Walsh Porter, Esq., had passed from the London art and social scene by the time the Regency began, his influence was still felt during that decade and beyond. The decoration of several interiors at both Carlton House and the Royal Pavilion at Brighton were based on his summer home, Craven Cottage, as well as his many discussions with the Prince of Wales. Several of the paintings which hung in Carlton House were purchased on his advice, and Walsh Porter had begun building a collection of important paintings which were intended to become the foundation of a National Gallery for England. Though that collection was dispersed before the Regency began, the seed of the idea had been planted, and continued to thrive. In 1824, other important art collectors finally brought the idea to fruition, backed by the King, George IV. And, when the National Gallery finally got its permanent home, the great columns of the front portico of the recently demolished Carlton House would grace its main facade.
Craven Cottage, as expanded and embellished by Walsh Porter, was one of the finest examples of that uniquely English architectural style, the cottage orné. Throughout the Regency, the cottage orné style became increasingly popular across England. In the coming weeks, I will post articles here about the development of the philosophy, design and literature of the cottage orné style during the Regency.