Before setting off to Welbeck Abbey, I tried to find out something of its exceptionally complicated early history, which I thought I should know, but didn’t, so I apologise for an unusually long pair of blogs in which I try to make sense of it, at least for my own purposes.
Welbeck occupies the site of a Premonstratensian abbey, created on land which was originally part of Sherwood Forest and was sold during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In the early seventeenth century, it was owned by the first Duke of Newcastle, who built a Riding House and Stables. Here he is in a portrait attributed to van Dyck:-
In the early eighteenth century, its chatelaine was Henrietta Cavendish, Countess of Oxford, who, in 1711, married Edward Harley, oldest son of Robert Harley, the Tory politician and first Lord of the Treasury. In 1716, she inherited Welbeck from the Duchess of Newcastle.
Defoe visited Welbeck in 1738 and described it as follows: ‘Beautified with large additions, fine Apartments, and good Gardens; but particularly the Park, which is well stocked with large Timber of the finest Kind, and with the greatest Quantity of Deer that are anywhere to be seen: For the late Duke of Newcastle’s delight (whose Property it was, before it came by Marriage to the Harley family) being chiefly on Horseback, and in the Chair, it is not to be wondered, if he rather made his Parks fine than his Garden, and his Stables than his Mansion House; yet the House is noble, large and magnificent’.
Following Harley’s death in 1741, she sold off much of his collection, including his manuscripts, which went to the nation for £10,000, but not his remarkable miniatures which remain at Welbeck and include portraits of some of his friends, including Matthew Prior and his librarian, Humfrey Wanley. She then embarked on ‘Repairing, Beautifying and Ornamenting the Ancient Seate of the Cavendish Family at Welbeck’, reconstructing the west wing of the abbey in a surprisingly convincing way, at least by the standards of Strawberry Hill Gothic. In 1759, she wrote to her grandson, telling him that ‘I have now above a hundred men employ’d, and entend to have more. The stuco men work by candle light night and morning’.
She died in December 1755, and Horace Walpole visited the following August. He didn’t much like it, describing it as overloaded with ‘arms, crests, devices, sculptured on chimneys of various English marbles in ancient forms (and, to say truth, most of them ugly’).