Earlier this month, I wrote a couple of articles about Mrs. Eleanor Coade and her artificial stone manufactory, located in the Lambeth area of London. Some of Mrs. Coade’s artificial stone products were used to decorate the facades of a number of buildings in London. One of those buildings was Schomberg House. Though Mrs. Coade’s architectural embellishments added much interest to the exterior of Schomberg House, what went on inside that venerable structure was even more interesting.
This week we begin the singular saga of Schomberg House …
In 1664, the site on which Schomberg House would eventually be built was just a pair of vacant plots along the south side of the elegant thoroughfare of Pall Mall, which was lined with nearly 150 elm trees. This pair of plots were part of the property belonging to the estate of the Earl of St. Albans, who had trustees managing his London properties. They leased one plot to Richard Gomelden and one to Dr. Thomas Sydenham, each of whom built a house on the plot of land they had leased, both houses being completed in 1667. As was common practice from the seventeenth century well into the nineteenth, both men had leased the land and built the houses for investment purposes. Both were able to rent their houses soon after they were finished. The house on the west plot was taken by Sir Thomas Clarges and the house on the east plot was taken by Lord Belasyse. The two houses and the plots they occupied had changed hands by the end of the decade. By 1670, they had been purchased, renovated and were joined together as Portland House, the home of the Dowager Countess of Portland, widow of the first Earl of Portland. She would live in the house until her death in 1694. The Dowager Countess left instructions in her will that the house and property should be sold to pay the legacies she wished to go to her heirs.
The third Duke of Schomberg, Meinhardt von Schönberg, was a general who served in the army of King William III, as had his father before him. In 1696, he had taken a lease on the house at Number 79, also on the south side of Pall Mall, the former home of Nell Gwynn, given to her by King Charles II. Her son by Charles II, the Duke of St. Albans, had lived in the house until 1693, when his enormous debts had forced him to surrender it to his creditors. Leasing the former home of Nell Gwynn was very convenient for the third Duke of Schomberg, since he had just purchased the house next door, Portland House, at 80 – 82 Pall Mall. [Author’s Note: Pall Mall is one of only a few streets in London which is still numbered sequentially, even today, rather than in the more modern method of odd numbers on one side of the street and even numbers on the other. So, No. 79 Pall Mall was indeed just next door to 80 – 82, on the south side of Pall Mall.]
The third Duke of Schomberg had recently received £4000, which had been granted to his father, the first Duke, for his service to the nation, though at the cost of his life. Both the first Duke, and his son, Meinhardt, had been part of King William III’s forces at the Battle of the Boyne, in 1690. The first Duke was killed during the battle, at which time, due to a curious clause in the ducal patent, his younger son, Charles, next inherited the tile of Duke of Schomberg. But sadly, Charles Schomberg, also a general in the British army, was killed in 1693, at the Battle of Marsaglia. Thus, his brother, Meinhardt, became the third Duke of Schomberg. Meinhardt, the third Duke, used the grant which had been made to his father from the government to finance the reconstruction of Portland House into a grand London home. One of the more notable features of the new interior was the grand staircase for which the eminent French artist, Pierre Berchet, had painted several landscapes in the lunettes. Not only was the original structure significantly enlarged and given a new, more fashionable red-brick facade, but behind the house a sumptuous formal garden was constructed which stretched south nearly to the border of St. James’s Park. The reconstruction which converted Portland House into Schomberg House was completed near the end of 1698, at which time the third, and last, Duke of Schomberg and his family, moved in to their lavish new London town house.
Soon after taking up residence in Schomberg House, the Duke hosted a grand entertainment to which he invited the French ambassador, the Irish Duke of Ormonde and a great many other "persons of quality." A much less pleasant event occurred in 1699, when a group of discharged and disgruntled soldiers mobbed the Horse Guards, where the Duke was in conference with a number of general officers. The mob followed the Duke when he left the meeting and went to his home in Pall Mall. The angry soldiers threatened to pull down Schomberg House around him, but the Duke was able to convince the men that destroying his house would not serve their purposes and the timely arrival of a large contingent of soldiers ensured the danger was averted. Fortunately, there were no further such scenes in Pall Mall and the Duke and his family lived peacefully at Schomberg House for the next twenty years, often entertaining foreign ambassadors and other dignitaries at splendid parties there.
Despite the fact that the third Duke had married twice and had four children with his second wife, only one of those children, his eldest, was a boy. His son, Charles Louis, also a soldier, predeceased him by nearly three years. His second child, and eldest daughter, Lady Caroline, had also predeceased her father, who died in 1719. At the Duke’s passing, the title of Duke of Schomberg became extinct. Lady Frederica Susanna, the Duke’s second daughter and eldest surviving child, had married Robert Darcy, 3rd Earl of Holderness in 1715. Therefore, upon the death of the third Duke of Schomberg, in 1719, Schomberg House became the property of his daughter, Lady Frederica. When the third Earl of Holderness died in 1721, and his widow, Lady Frederica, remarried, she continued to live there with her second husband, Benjamin Mildmay, Earl Fitzwalter, until her death in 1751. Upon her death, the ownership of Schomberg House passed to Lady Frederica’s only son, Robert Darcy, 4th Earl of Holderness. However, her second husband, Earl Fitzwalter, lived on until in 1756. His step-son, Lord Holderness, allowed him to continue to live in Schomberg House for the remainder of his life.
After the death of Earl Fitzwalter in 1756, Lord Holderness let Schomberg House to John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, who was a fellow member of the scholarly Society of Dilettanti. Lord Sandwich was living in Schomberg House in 1759, when he took the seventeen-year-old Martha Ray as his mistress. Though Lord Sandwich had set her up with her own rooms in Westminster, she spent most of her time with him in his home on Pall Mall. Lord Sandwich gave up his lease on Schomberg House in 1768, the same year he was appointed to the post of Postmaster General. Early in 1769, Lord Holderness let Schomberg House to Thomas Thynne, 3rd Viscount Weymouth and his wife Elizabeth. Lord Weymouth was at that time the Secretary of State for the Southern Department. Though a very able politician, Lord Weymouth’s manners and habits were known to be rather coarse and uncouth. He was also a heavy drinker and an even heavier gambler. The bailiffs were seen at his home on more than one occasion.
As the 1760s came to a close, it was clear that the Earl would have no sons to inherit his titles and estates. His only child was his daughter Amelia, who was as yet unmarried. In 1773, she married the Marquess of Carmarthen, though she would divorce him in May of 1779, the year after her father’s death. The following month, on 1 June 1779, she married John "Mad Jack" Byron, with whom she had eloped for a time in the previous year. By her second husband, she was the mother of Lord Byron’s half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Perhaps fortunately for the Earl of Holderness, those scandals would all take place after his death. By 1769, the Earl may already have learned that King George III was considering him as the governor of his two eldest sons, George, Prince of Wales, and Frederick, Duke of York, who were soon to be placed in their own establishment. Lord Holderness did assume that position in 1771 and held it for the next five years. It is also possible that his tenant in Schomberg House, Lord Weymouth, was having some difficulties in making his rent payments, due to the heavy losses related to his excessive gambling.
Whatever his reasons, in late 1769, the fourth and last Earl of Holderness surrendered the original Crown leasehold of the property on Pall Mall which included Schomberg House. At his request, a new Crown lease was issued on the property and was granted to the artist and dandy, John Astley, for which Astley paid Lord Holderness £5000. It was rumored that Viscount Melbourne offered Lord Holderness £7000 for the lease, but not until after Holderness had already made his pledge to Astley. Therefore, Holderness felt honor-bound to keep his commitment to Astley and refused Melbourne’s offer. [Author’s Note: John Astley does not appear to be any relation to Philip Astley, of Astley’s Circus fame.] By the time he came into possession of Schomberg House, "Beau" Astley had already buried two wives. His first wife a young Irish girl, died in child-birth, his second, the wealthy widow, Lady Dukenfield-Daniell, left him a vast fortune upon her death in 1762. But he had begun life as the son of a Shropshire apothecary, and despite his limited finances, he had ambitions to become an artist.
Young Astley traveled to London in the early 1740s to study art, and, in 1747, as many aspiring artists did, he traveled to Italy. But he was perpetually short of funds and took various measures to save money where he could. One day, while he was staying in Rome, he joined a group of other English artists studying in the city, and, as was their custom, they walked out into the countryside that afternoon. It was a very hot day, and the young men decided to remove their coats for some relief from the heat. All but Astley, who was unwilling to remove his own coat, despite the heat. The other men hectored him until he had no choice but to take off his coat. It was then revealed why he had been so reluctant to remove the garment. To save some money, he had had the back of his waistcoat made of one of his discarded canvases, which left him with the image of a foaming waterfall down the center of his back. The group of young artists were highly amused by this situation and had a good laugh at Jack Astley’s expense.
John Astley returned to England in 1752, but he found it hard to make a living as an artist in London. In 1756, he traveled to Ireland, where he set up as a portrait painter in Dublin. He was very successful in Ireland, earing at least £3000 during his time there. Astley was very fond of the ladies and it is said he entertained the women who visited his studio by using his small sword as a mahl-stick. It was in Dublin that he met and married a pretty young Irish girl. The marriage seems to have been quite happy, but sadly, his young wife died while giving birth to their daughter. He returned to England early in 1759, apparently leaving his infant daughter with her mother’s family. Astley spent some months traveling about England painting portraits. In November of that year he painted the portrait of the wealthy widow, Lady Dukenfield-Daniell. She took a liking to the handsome artist and on 7 December 1759, they were married. By the articles of marriage, Lady Daniell ensured that her fortune would not come under her husband’s control. However, the marriage seems to have been quite amicable, and whenever Astley spoke of her later in life, it was with much tenderness and great regret at her passing. Lady Daniell died on 31 January 1762, leaving her entire personal fortune to her husband.
Later that year, Astley travelled to London, initially taking rooms in St. James’s Street. In the metropolis, with his new-found fortune, he began to live the life of a wealthy man about town. Perhaps his sartorial embarrassment in Italy, with his economical, canvas-backed waistcoat, drove him to become a dandy, a man who always dressed in the height of fashion. It was then that he came to be known in London as "Beau" Astley, or, to some, due to his windfall fortune, "Lucky Beau" Astley. He also indulged himself in high living, sparing no expense to have the best of everything. Within a few years, his rooms in St. James’s Street were not sufficiently elegant for him. So, in 1769, he purchased the Crown lease for the property on Pall Mall, on which stood Schomberg House and its vast garden. Astley paid £5000 for the leasehold and another £5000 to renovate and remodel the house. He served as his own architect and divided the house into three separate sections, reserving the center section for himself, which, it is said, he " … most whimsically fitted up."
It was at this time that Schomberg House actually received its house numbers. The law which required the numbering of houses in London was passed in 1765, and began to be implemented in 1767. Therefore, in 1769, the three sections into which John Astley divided Schomberg House were numbered 80, 81 and 82, with No. 81, the central section. becoming his residence. He added a attic storey to the building over his section, which overlooked St. James’s Park and, on clear days, had a view of the distant Surrey Hills. Astley referred to it as his "country house." Ostensibly, this attic storey was to be used as Astley’s studio, as he had not given up painting, even though he had inherited a fortune. However, some believed he used this private attic space as a trysting place where he could meet in secret with his numerous female companions. Regardless of it use, this was a large, airy space having a pediment with a round window in the tympanum and a large three-light window facing the park. This attic space was reached by its own private narrow and twisting staircase which was enclosed by walls on all sides, though it was lit by a sky-light in a domed roof. The new lobby was heavily ornamented with plaster decoration beneath a shallow domed ceiling and the doorways and windows of both the lobby and the main room were embellished with triple-centered arched heads, which caused comment among many in London. Many of the other ground floor and first floor rooms were also enriched with decorative plaster cornices and pilasters. Though he had been criticized for his painting, Astley’s architectural work received very good reviews by those who saw it.
Astley’s first tenant was in the east section of Schomberg House, Number 80. This side of the house was converted into a shop rather than a residence, and would remain so for nearly a century. The first tenants were the mercers, Gregg and Lavie, who ran a fashionable textile shop there from 1769 to 1775. In 1776, Lavie took over full ownership of the shop from his partner, Gregg, and continued to sell fashionable fabrics there until 1781. The next year, 1782, William King took over the lease and maintained a textile shop until 1784. It is not known if King was unable to make a success of his shop, or simply moved to other premises, but he relinquished his lease in 1784. Early in 1785, No. 80 Pall Mall was leased by R. Dyde, Scribe and Company, importers of fine lace, cambrics and lawns, who expanded into haberdashery, millinery and furs before they finally vacated the premises in 1796. In that same year, Harding and Company, silk-mercers, furriers and warehousemen, took over the east section of Schomberg House and did business at No. 80 Pall Mall until 1857. Harding’s shop was very popular with George III, his wife and daughters. When the royal family came to the shop, it was closed to the public for the duration of their visit, as is Harrod’s, even today, when the royal family comes to shop. Due to this regular royal patronage, Harding’s was considered a fashionable place to shop in London throughout the Georgian era.
It is not known if Astley rented the western wing of Schomberg House before 1774. There are no records currently extant which indicate that he did so. The first recorded tenant of the west section of Schomberg House, No. 82, was the artist, Thomas Gainsborough, who had recently moved to London from Bath and was living in rooms north of the Oxford Road, but they did not suit him. One of the reasons that Gainsborough wanted to make his home in Schomberg House was that at that time, the Royal Academy, of which he was a founding member, was located at 125 Pall Mall. And perhaps equally important, his good friend, James Christie, had his auction rooms just next door to Schomberg House. Christie sold a number of Gainsborough’s paintings in his Great Rooms on Pall Mall over the course of the artist’s life in London. Schomberg House also had the advantage of many very large windows, an important consideration for an artist. Gainsborough paid Astley £300 per year for the use of the west wing of Schomberg House. It was a huge amount at the time, but the artist was already so successful he could easily afford it.
Gainsborough did, however, demand some alterations to that section of the house before he moved in. Most importantly, he wanted an impressive grand staircase to provide access to his rooms. Architectural scholars believe that this staircase was built within the space of the original grand staircase which had been decorated with those elegant landscape paintings by Pierre Berchet. And Gainsborough used his new staircase for much the same purpose, hanging a number of his paintings, mostly landscapes, on the walls of the staircase tower. This new staircase was given domed skylight to ensure it had as much natural light as possible, which made it an ideal place to exhibit paintings. The other major alteration to the house, also made at Gainsborough’s request, two additional large, but plainly decorated rooms, one above the other, were built behind the house, in the garden. Both rooms were reported to be fifteen feet high, with single large windows facing south. Gainsborough used the upper room for his painting studio. This room had a southern exposure, and though most artists prefer a northern exposure for their studios, Gainsborough preferred more subdued lighting. This new studio, with its southern exposure and view of St. James’s Park, suited him very well. There were special passageways built between each of these garden rooms into the main house. The lower passage was a simple timber-work hallway, but the upper passage was arcaded, with lunette windows and roof-lights. There was also a small external staircase which provided direct access between these two passageways.
Gainsborough moved into the renovated west section of Schomberg House with his wife, Margaret, and two daughters in 1774. The couple kept a pair of dogs during their time in Schomberg House. Gainsborough’s dog was called Fox and his wife’s pet spaniel was named Tristram. Whenever Gainsborough had a disagreement with Mrs. Gainsborough, he would write a note of apology and pacification to Tristram, then give it to his dog, Fox, who delivered it to Margaret’s dog. She was a good-natured woman with a lively sense of humor and she would reply in the same vein, writing her note of acceptance to Fox, which was delivered to her husband’s dog by Tristram. Gainsborough was an avid collector of various musical instruments, including violins, hautboys, viola di gambas, therobos and even a harp. He was very fond of music and apparently played them often, though he was reportedly a very indifferent player. The neighbors may not have been pleased with this situation, but since many of the royal, rich and famous made their way to Gainsborough’s studio to have their portraits painted, it is unlikely that there were many complaints. Gainsborough was a lively conversationalist, by which he often amused his many sitters while painting their portraits. He was generous, often impulsive, but could be easily irritated, particularly by what he considered boorish behavior. One noble patron had a less than pleasant experience with the artist due to his bad manners at Gainsborough’s front door. He rang the bell when he arrived at Schomberg House and loudly demanded to know of the servant who opened the door, "Has that fellow Gainsborough has finished my picture?" Gainsborough overheard this remark and became quite incensed. He quietly ushered his visitor into the studio to see the portrait, which he liked very much and requested that it be crated and sent to his home. Even as the man was ready to make payment for the work, Gainsborough said, "Stay a minute, it just wants a finishing stroke." The artist took a background brush loaded with paint and dashed it across the smiling face in the portrait, saying, "Sire, where is my fellow now?"
However, Gainsborough felt very differently about another of his sitters, the Honorable Mary Cathcart, who had recently married Thomas Graham of Scotland. Graham would become one of Wellington’s most able officers during the Peninsular Wars, and eventually became Lord Lynedoch. Young Mary first sat to Gainsborough in his Schomberg House studio at the age of nineteen, soon after returning from her honeymoon. In her, the artist found the kind of womanly beauty he most admired. He later painted a full-length portrait of Mrs. Graham, which her adoring husband hung in the drawing room of their home. The story is told that one morning, on the day of a grand ball in Edinburgh, Mary discovered she had left her jewel box at home. Her husband, Thomas, immediately left for their home in Balgowan, ninety miles away. Riding rapidly, using many relays of horses, he returned with his beloved wife’s jewel box in good time for her to dress for the ball that evening. Some years later, when Mary became ill and died at the age of thirty-five, her heart-broken husband could not bear to look upon the image of his lost love, and he had the end of the drawing room where her portrait was hung walled up, with the painting behind it. There it remained for more than half a century, until some alterations to the room once again revealed it. The family later donated the painting to the National Gallery of Scotland, where it remains to this day.
There was even more traffic to Gainsborough’s residence beginning in 1783. That year, after a quarrel with the Royal Academy over how his paintings should be hung and displayed, he withdrew his work from their exhibition, and instead, held an exhibition of his work in his residence. He refused from that time forward to send any paintings for display at Royal Academy exhibitions, and showed his work in an annual exhibition of his own at his home at Schomberg House, until his death in August of 1788. After the great artist’s passing, there would have been quite a lot of street traffic for a number of days when the majority of his remaining paintings, and the bulk of his musical instrument collection, were sold at auction. Of course, those sales were handled by Gainsborough’s good friend, James Christie, who had his auction house premises just next door to Schomberg House. It would have taken several days for Christie’s employees to carry all of those paintings and musical instruments out of Schomberg House and along the pavement to Christie’s Great Rooms on Pall Mall to be prepared for sale. After that, things would have been rather more quiet at No. 82 Pall Mall. One of Gainsborough’s daughters married, but his wife and his other daughter remained at Schomberg House until Margaret Gainsborough’s own death in 1792.
John Astley’s high living grew apace after he had taken up residence in No. 81 Pall Mall, the central section of Schomberg House. Between the cost of remodelling the great house and his expensive lifestyle, by 1777, Beau Astley could no longer afford to live in his elegant London residence. He decided that his only option was to retire to his country home as a means by which to reduce his expenses, apparently with the intention of eventually returning to Schomberg House, once his financial situation had improved. But his finances did not recover as quickly as he had hoped and a great change took place in his life that same year, when he met and married his third wife. So, in 1781, now content with his life in the county, he decided to lease out the center section of Schomberg House. Thus would begin perhaps the most notorious period in the occupancy No. 81. The lease was taken by an eccentric Scottish doctor who had already become infamous on the upscale side of London’s thriving sex industry.
Next week, the second part of the singular saga of Schomberg House.