Elizabeth Montagu is best known today as one of the leaders of the bluestockings and a great lady of letters – she was ‘brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgement, critical in talk’ but it’s much less well known that she was an enthusiastic builder and garden maker.
She was also a prolific correspondent and her letters are a major source of information about intellectual life, especially amongst women, in the second half of the 18thc.
So…read on to discover more about her views on leading gardens such as Stowe, about the creation of her famous “feather room” in London and her work with Capability Brown at Sandleford Priory…
Elizabeth Robinson was born in 1718, the daughter of a Yorkshire squire. Her mother inherited an estate near Cambridge soon after Elizabeth’s birth and the family divided its time between there and Yorkshire. Her father however preferred London saying that “living in the country was like sleeping with ones eyes open.” His daughter may, at times, have shared that opinion too but was to become used to the life of a lady of the manor and take her duties in that role very seriously.
In 1730 her mother inherited Mount Morris near Hythe, an elegant house with formal gardens, important enough to portrayed by Kip for the county history of Kent. This now became their main residence but given her father’s preference for urban life they still spent a lot of time in London, and she enjoyed visiting Marylebone Gardens and Vauxhall.
Her maternal grandfather, Dr Conyers Middleton, was the university librarian at Cambridge and he encouraged “her amiable qualities from her tenderest years.”
This was to lead eventually to her becoming one of the leading intellectuals of her day, and one of the central figures of the group of talented women known as ‘the bluestockings’, Dr Johnson naming her “Queen of the Blues”. These salons which started as literary breakfasts but by 1760 had become large evening assemblies or conversation parties at which card playing and heavy drinking were forbidden. Instead guests were encouraged to exchange witty conversation on literary and philosophical subjects. These were not exclusively female gatherings and among those who attended were Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds and Horace Walpole.
She was included in a painting of the Nine Living Muses of Great Britain by Richard Samuel in 1778. She is seated on the right with her chin resting on her hand. Amongst the others depicted were Angelica Kauffman, the artist and Hannah More the dramatist. A full account of the picture can be found at:
Lady Margaret married the Duke of Portland in 1734, and the 15 year old Elizabeth made the first of many visits to their country house at Bulstrode in Buckinghamshire. She wrote: “I am Happy in the Best Company, in the finest Place, the House is magnificent, the Gardens and Parks are Beautifull.”
Although she often said she herself would never marry, in 1742 she accepted the proposal of an elderly bachelor, 30 years her senior. Edward Montagu was a grandson of the Earl of Sandwich, and a man of considerable fortune, which gave her financial security and a devoted husband.
He had property in Yorkshire at Allerthorpe which “I think is the prettiest estate, and in the best order I ever saw; large and beautiful meadows for riding or walking in, with a pretty river winding about them, upon which we shall sometimes go out in boats.”
Soon afterwards he inherited another Northern estate, the Jacobean Denton Hall, together with the collieries which provided the bulk of the family income. Denton is now the official home of the Roman Catholic bishop of Hexham and Newcastle but sadly has no remaining traces of the Montagus.
But the country house which they used most was Sandleford Priory near Newbury. The 12th century Priory was dissolved in 1478 and the buildings converted to become a country house. Edward Montagu had taken a long lease on the property in 1730. When she first saw the estate just after her marriage she commented: “I think I may say you never saw anything so pretty as the view these gardens command…… for my part I would not change the situation for anything I saw.”
From her letters it is clear that she enjoyed visiting country houses and estates but she often comments more on their landscapes and gardens when she does on their architecture. “The beauties of a palace are not so enchanting as those of a garden or park.”
She visited Stowe in 1744, writing to the Duchess of Portland, that it “is beyond description; it gives the best idea of Paradise that can be: even Milton’s images and descriptions fall short of it; and indeed a Paradise it must be to every mind in a state of tolerable innocence… the buildings are indeed, in themselves, disagreeably crowded, but being dedicated to patriots, heroes, law-givers, and poets, and men of ingenuity and invention, they receive a dignity from the persons to whom they are consecrated…At Stowe you walk amidst heroes and deities, powers and persons whom we have been taught to honour; who have embellished the world with arts, or instructed it in science: defended their country, and improved it….” For the full description see:
Unfortunately her accounts of most gardens she visited are usually much more cursory, often because her correspondents had also been there and so did not need any detailed description. This is a pity since many of the houses and virtually all the gardens she mentions have disappeared. Nearby she went to Midgham Park, near Aldermaston; to Basildon Park to see its famous grotto; Cranbury Park; West Woodhay Manor, Wilton house, and Lord Hertford’s house Marlborough Castle [now Marlborough College]where she remarked on the ancient mount.
After 1750 the Montagus established a routine that lasted until his death. They lived in their London house in Hill Street, Mayfair, with visits to Sandleford in the spring and summer. He went nearly every year to Yorkshire and Northumberland, but she did not always accompany him. Instead she took the waters at Bath or Tunbridge Wells, places which Edward Montagu did not enjoy. During these times they wrote long affectionate letters.
They both used the opportunity of these trips to visit the sights along the way. For example, Thoresby, seat of the Duke of Kingston, was ” a fine place enough, but does not deserve what is said of it; the cascade is not pretty, it is regular and formal. The lake from which it is supplied is fine. The verdure of the park is not good, nor are there fine trees.”
On the other hand Clifton Hall just outside Nottingham “appears to me for beauty of prospect the equal of any place I ever saw. You are led to it from the turnpike road by a fine terrace on the side of the Trent. From a pavilion in the garden you see the town and Castle of Nottingham standing in the most smiling valley imaginable in which the Trent serpentizes in a most beautiful manner.”
He wrote to her at length about a visit to Gibside and to Sir Thomas Clavering’s Axwell Park near Newcastle. For his letters see:
This all gave her ideas for planning her own houses and gardens. At first she had the job of redesigning the house in Hill Street. In around 1749, she created one of the earliest rooms in the Chinese style: “sick of Grecian elegance and symmetry, or Gothick grandeur and magnificence, we must all seek the barbarious gaudy goût of the Chinese; … The very curtains are Chinese pictures of gauze, and the chairs Indian fan-sticks with cushions of Japan satin painted.” This was to be the room where the bluestockings met. She was in the vanguard of fashion so it was later toned down and classicized by Adam, and by the early 1770s was redecorated again this time with flowers and cupids.
In letters written from Scotland in 1766 she anticipates the picturesque, saying she would rather eat in “the rude magnificence of nature” than in”the meanest of the works of art”. Later she was to write that “there is a littleness in every work of man. The operations of nature are vast and noble; and I found much greater pleasure in the contemplation of Lord Breadalbane’s mountains, rocks and lakes than in all the efforts of human art at Lord Scarsdale’s.” [Lord Scarsdale’s house was the newly-rebuilt Kedleston which she had described earlier in the letter as “the best worth seeing of any house I suppose in England.”]
At Sandleford she encouraged Mr Montague to make changes to the grounds. They planted groves of chestnuts and oaks and joined three ponds together to make one larger one. She also hoped to enlarge the stream that fed them claiming that she preferred “a winding river” to “large pieces of standing water.” She had a conservatory and the Duchess of Portland sent her a dozen orange trees to furnish it, as well as two peacocks to go with a lonely white peahen. However as her letters show Mr Montagu was reluctant to make too many alterations.
In 1775 Edward Montagu died at Sandleford, leaving her an income of over £7000 a year. This meant Elizabeth was able to do what he had previously been reluctant to do: build and garden. She began by leasing a large plot on the corner of Portman Square for a new mansion in London. Designed by James “Athenian” Stuart, it took several years to build but in June 1779 she began to lay out the garden, to which [according to fellow bluestocking Hannah More] she later added ” an acre to what was before a very large town garden!”
The house is, however, chiefly remembered for its famous ‘feather room’ which was ornamented with hangings designed by Mrs Montague and made entirely of plumage from every bird imaginable. It had been ten years in the making with parcels of feathers arriving from all round the world at Sandleford to be sorted and sewn. Its eventual unveiling in 1791 prompted a visit from Queen Charlotte and several of her daughters to see it, as well as a poem by Cowper …”The birds put off their every hue,To dress a room for Montagu”. For more information on the feather room see: Ruth Scobie, “To dress a room for Montagu”: Pacific Cosmopolitanism and Elizabeth Montagu’s Feather Hangings, in Lumen:Selected Proceedings from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Volume 33, 2014, p. 123-137
It was here too that she gave her annual chimney sweep boys parties, entertaining them with roast beef and plum pudding. One of them who later grew rich as a builder named Montagu Square and Montagu Place after her. Unfortunately the house was bombed in 1942 and the remnants demolished. The gate piers however were saved and are now at Kenwood. [London Encyclopedia, 3rd ed]
At the same time she began changes at Sandleford, this time working with Wyatt to Gothicize the exterior of the house, although the interior was refurbished in classical style. Shortly afterwards, in 1781, she bought in Capability Brown to landscape the grounds. This was despite the fact she had overspent substantially on the house in London. She told Brown: “I had sacrificed so largely to the city Demons, Pomp and Vanity, in Portman Square I could offer but little to the Rural Deities.” In a letter to a friend she said “his improvements must not go beyond what my cash will immediately answer. I shall begin by embellishing what lies under the view of my new rooms.”
In his usual fashion Brown swept away most of the earlier gardens, except for the Bowling Green behind house, and created an naturalistic parkland. During the winter of 1781/2 Elizabeth Montagu reported that he had worked “his magick acts on the groves, Woods etc…. And much improved the view to the south.” It was now all “sweet pastorals and gentle elegiacs”
She was clearly pleased with her choice of designer: “he is an agreeable, pleasant companion, as well as a great genius in his profession. I consider him a great poet.” Everything was to be kept simple, with long vistas: “in a little while I shall not see anything belonging to me that is not pretty.” She was also determined not to show off. “We shall not erect temples to the gods, build proud bridges over humble rivulets, or do any of the marvellous things suggested by the Caprice, and indulged by the wantonness of wealth.”
Instead she delighted in creating agricultural views, especially involving haymaking. She even took on unemployed weavers to act as haymakers: “from the east window in the eating room we see them working in several places between the trees and it forms the prettiest perspective seen imaginable.” Elsewhere she wrote: “I had yesterday 36 haymakers, and their children, at dinner, in a grove in the garden. When they work in my sight, I love to see that they eat as well as labour, and often send a treat.”
Sandleford was Brown’s last major commission but work continued according to his plans, under one of his former foremen, Samuel Lapidge. She wrote:”I now have thirty men at work, making a piece of water down to ye river from ye water on the side of the wood. It will have a very beautiful effect.” A new driveway was formed with “a pretty gate” and “a winding path to the door”. It was all designed to make the estate appear “with the bustling industry of the beehive” with Elizabeth Montagu admitting in 1784 that she was “the Queen bee.”
Her only son had died in infancy and she named her nephew Matthew to be her heir. He changed his name to Montagu, married an heiress,and moved to Sandleford with his wife. Elizabeth Montagu acted as grandmother to their eventual ten children until she died in 1800. Matthew published a large selection of her early letters [up to 1761] but there are only a few selected and edited later letters in print. The Huntingdon Library in California hold 7,000 of them. The best compilation available on-line is the 1906 2 volume edition Elizabeth Montagu: The Queen of the Bluestockings: her correspondence 1720-1761, by Emily Cleminson, her great-great-neice. It can be found at:
For more information on her life generally, a good place to start is Rosemary Baird’s chapter “Bluestocking Bravado” in Mistress of the House: Great Ladies and Grand Houses, 1670-1830 (2003).