I bet that like me you have a picture of Regency England as elegant and refined , and think life for its elite was comfortable and easy. I suspect our view of the past is always rose tinted but perhaps a look at some charming but quirky, almost cartoon-like paintings done by the daughter of one landowning family in Essex will help challenge some of those illusions.
Diana Sperling’s sketch books were drawn between 1816 and 1823 and show a different side of life in a country estate. Yes there are servants, yes there are nice possessions and plenty of time and space to roam – but there’s also plenty of inconvenience, myriads of flies and lots and lots of mud!
Diana was living with her family at Dynes Hall, a country mansion with about 500 acres near Halsted on the Essex-Suffolk border, which today is a shooting estate. The house had been bought in 1766 with money derived from the fur trade as her grandfather moved from being a city merchant to being a country gentleman. His family although not titled, soon became part the local elite of the sort who ran every English county. fulfilling the prophecy of Daniel Defoe “how the present encrease in wealth of the City of London spread itself in to the country”.
Diana was born in 1791. Always referred to as Di she had an elder sister Harriet, as well as a younger one and two younger brothers, all of whom unsurprisingly feature in her paintings along with her parents and several servants and estate workers. Harriet married Henry Van Hagen of Tickford Park on the Bucks/Bedford border, and his family also caught Diana’s attention. After her education at a local school she probably went over to France to a finishing school at Dunkirk before returning to Dynes Hall and waiting for marriage. Di was in her very early 20s when she painted these pictures.
The house was originally Elizabethan but has been extended and altered in the early 18thc and the Spurlings themselves did lots of improvement works in the grounds. They built new stables, laid out drives around the park and created the lake. These were important because it seems they altered the way the estate was used particularly by women of the family.
The lake features in several sketches. There was a tiny rustic building on the bank, which has been suggested might have been a boathouse, although its would only have been big enough for something like a rowing boat. Its certainly is a far cry from the sort of boathouses seen on grander estates. Boating had become a very popular pastime and as Kate Felus points out in The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden boats were often built at the same time the ornamental waters were being dug or dammed. However at Dynes there are no signs of any boats and the paintings show it rather being used as a base for bathing, fishing and ice skating in the winter.
You might think the current craze for open water swimming is a new health fad but its really only a variation on the 18thc love of cold water baths and plunge pools. Bath houses – no hot water of course- appeared in gardens and parks across the country, often linked to a lake or river. Sometimes as at Wrest they were concealed in a grotto-like building, or as at Fonthill inside the boathouse and they were, on grand estates often a stop on a circuit walk.
Cold bathing, like sea bathing which was also becoming popular, was seen as a way of curing disease. Throughout the 18th century there was an interest in following a regimen to achieve good health and there were plenty of books written on the best ways to do it. The walk to a bathing spot a distance from the house would have been included as another part of that regime. There’s a very good on-line article by Clare Hickman: Taking the Plunge – 18th-century bath houses and plunge pools which goes into all this in more detail.
The little rustic hut was also a base for fishing although again clearly not on the same scale as the fishing lodges and temples that I’ve written about several times in here.
Fishing ponds were a long established part of the garden scene, and had evolved from the mediaeval vivarium where fish were bred and servatorium where fish were kept before they were netted and taken off to the kitchen.
Netting fish slowly gave way though from the mid-17thc to angling with a rod, and Kate Felus suggests that it was gradually dying out , as utilitarian ponds, which tended to be small, gave way to much larger ornamental areas of water where netting was impractical. Although angling has a rather male reputation it’s clear from prints and paintings that many women also enjoyed the sport.
To reach the hut either meant walking or riding through the grounds. Although Dynes wasn’t a vast estate it was large enough for the Sperlings to lay out pathways and drives that presumably formed a circuit for walking, riding or driving around.
I was somewhat surprised to see that despite their wealth there weren’t many horses kept in their stables, and that it was donkeys rather than ponies that were used by the children, and even when they reached adulthood by the daughters.
That may have been because donkeys were supposed to be calmer and more biddable but Di’s sketches show, with great humour, how they could also be cantankerous and uncooperative when they chose. Mind you it’s also true that the horses she portrays are often frisky and quite capable of causing mayhem. The donkeys were obviously much loved and there are scenes of them being fed, but also of being used to pull carts and move goods around the estate.
The family had a small four wheeled carriage which was used for rides around the estate. It really only had room for two people and was drawn by a single horse, or in the Sperling’s case a pony. When they visited Tickford the Van Hagens had a barouche which was “family-sized” and grander, if by the early 19thc somewhat outmoded. It would normally have had a driver and postillion perched on the back.
What Di’s images also show is that these drives and rides must often have been pretty rough in places. While the main approaches might have been gravelled, for most of the 18thc most drives and rides were grass, so that the road surface didn’t impinge on the appearance of the landscape at a distance. Later landscapers like Repton preferred gravel. That was partly because they wanted the sense of “busyness” but I suspect more practically because gravel did not get churned up, rutted and muddy as grass or simple earth surfaces.
The same problems applied on the larger roads that linked towns and villages. From the mid-18thc there were massive improvements in road transport with the introduction of turnpikes. This took the responsibility for road maintenance off the local community and and gave it to bodies of local trustees who could levy tolls on users. These turnpike trusts remained responsible for most English trunk roads until the 1870s. One of the main roads near Tickford clearly hadn’t been “improved” and there is a sketch of the chaos caused when the coach got stuck, with luggage and dogs being thrown down to lighten the load. Arthur Young the agricultural writer who spent much of his life touring the country noted of the main road between Newport Pagnell and Bedford [very close to Tickford] that it was “a cursed string of hills and holes by the name of the road.”
The everyday consequences of poor roads and estate paths can be seen in several sketches. Pulling a horse up a steep bank is one unexpected sight but perhaps most memorably in two sketches of the family going out to dinner with neighbours. Rather than taking the carriage or riding on horseback or donkey they walk. The sketch at the beginning of this post shows them stepping out in a line with neat bags carrying shoes for changing into at their destination, and the other the perils of muddy roads.
Of course its the sort of thing that affects many. of us on country walks today in inclement weather but this was on virtually all walks – and think how much worse it would have been on the way home after dark.
Life on the wider estate is also shown. There are regular hunts for both foxes and deer, but this was good agricultural land and there are also scenes of harvest and ploughing too, with Di’s brother failing to impress the horses who are saying”How bad this man ploughs”.
Amongst the more unusual episodes are two images of members of the family digging up wasp nests.
Others show a servant chasing chickens around the yard and a servant feeding pigeons in the winter snow – presumably to fatten them up so they can be shot to eat.
Although there are no detailed images of the garden or its layout there are a number which show small aspects of it, and how it was used.
Games such as shuttlecock are portrayed and one of the women of the house is seen pushing a roller across the lawn, probably to flatten it for a game of bowls.
There is also a lovely scene of cricket being played with the refreshment table perilously close to the pitch.
Elsewhere around the garden we find a garden temple, and people – probably all members of the family – collecting berries and starting a bonfire. Di also noted some basic gardening tasks including a scene of planting at Tickford. It gives the impression of being done in a new area of the garden but certainly doesn’t conjure up any elaborate Repton planting scheme to put it politely.
Of course its not all work and people clearly enjoyed relaxing in their gardens too
Even when they were indoors the Sperlings clearly liked the connection with the garden.
Mrs Sperling is shown on one occasion sitting in the hallway working with the front door open allowing glimpse outside.
In another she is seen with a servant carrying houseplants outside during a rainstorm presumably to wash the dust of their leaves and water them at the same time. There are more houseplants seen just inside the door.
Finally I’ve included a few of the interiors of Dynes Hall or Tickford Park. They show that even life inside a country mansion wasn’t quite as refined one might think, and that servants didn’t do all the work.
There is a charming view of 3 women putting up wallpaper and another of Di’s mother “murdering” flies with a servant on hand to pick up “the dead and wounded.”
Those of you who remember a post towards the end of last year about the electrified garden might be amused to see that the properties of electricity were being explored as entertainment even in deepest rural Essex.
Di eventually married a lawyer from Pimlico named Fred Wollaston, and after that seems to have stopped frivolous sketching, although there are some conventional “ladylike” sketches which are nowhere near as interesting. The two sketchbooks featured in this post were handed down through the family and then to friends.
The sketch books contain a total of 70 paintings and in 1981 they were published as Mrs Hurst Dancing with a short introduction and some commentary on some of the images by Gordon Mingay, an agricultural historian at Kent University. It is available to read in full on archive.org
For further reading I’d suggest The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden by Kate Felus which is full of all sorts of little snippets against a broad general narrative that will make you rethink the usual daily routine of life on a Georgian or Regency estate.