Eighteenth-Century Gothic: Performance and Partying

Posted by Emma McEvoy on May 23, 2011 in Dr Emma McEvoy, Guest Blog tagged with , ,

Well, I saw Love Never Dies last week – and am still digesting it.  I’ve never in my life, apart from in detective fiction, come across such an unexpected ending.  More of that another time.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about performance in relation to eighteenth-century Gothic as I’ve been going over the proofs for an article I’ve written which looks at Strawberry Hill and Fonthill Abbey.  I’ve also been writing on Matthew Lewis’s plays.  This turned out to be a useful conjunction as it forced me to think about performance not just in relation to houses, masquerades, parties or plays but as an integral part of the Gothic aesthetic in a broader sense.

Performance, I’ve been thinking, is the crucial term missing from many accounts of eighteenth-century Gothic and nowhere more so than in accounts of the architecture associated with literary Gothic.

Johann Heinrich Müntz, Strawberry Hill, c 1755-59

With respect to Strawberry Hill, there is a sense in which the whole house was performing:  it is after all an ex-dairy pretending to be a castle.  Everything within it was performing too – Walpole’s objets d’art, his furniture and furnishings.  As I discovered in the recent excellent exhibition devoted to the house at the V&A, even the portraits were performing: Walpole had his friends and relatives sit in historical fancy dress.  Strawberry Hill was a house that required not only physical but imaginative inhabitation.  Walpole too performed.

I’ve been browsing through Walpole’s letters looking for references to performance at Strawberry Hill (and discovering other interesting things en route – Walpole’s description of the ‘greenth’ of his garden, for instance, a nice counterpart to  ‘gloomth’).  At a party in 1769 he walked out to greet his distinguished guests (“the Duc de Liancourt, three more French ladies… eight other Frenchmen, the Spanish and Portuguese minsters, the Holdernesses, Fitzroys”) wearing a cravat carved from wood by Grinling Gibbons and “a pair of gloves embroidered up to the elbows that had belonged to James the First” (letter of 11th May 1769).

The Gibbons Cravat

This “festino” lasted from two till one in the morning and seems to have been an impressive affair.  After showing his guests round “the apartments” Walpole took them to his printing-house where he had prepared some verses to be presented to his visitors.  “The moment they were printed off,” he writes, “ I gave a private signal, and French horns and clarionets accompanied this compliment.  We then went to see Pope’s grotto and garden, and returned to a magnificent dinner in the refectory.  In the evening we walked, had tea, coffee, and lemonade in the gallery, which was illuminated with a thousand, or thirty candles, I forget which and played at whist and loo till midnight.  Then there was a cold supper and at one the company returned to town, saluted by fifty nightingales, who, as tenants of the manor, came to do honour to their lord.”

In December 1800 when Nelson and the Hamiltons visited William Beckford at Fonthill, Gothic partying was taken to another level.  The illustration below accompanied the account of these festivities in the Gentleman’s Magazine and conveys excellently the aesthetic of the event – a somewhat exclusive Gothicized picturesque.  The reader of the Gentleman’s Magazine is invited to look through the hefty picturesque arch, but the gaze is drawn away into Gothic obscurity.

Beckford’s guests set off from Fonthill Splendens and passed under the arch to be treated to a Gothic party that was also a theatrical and musical performance – an “ensemble of light, sound and motion”.  No expense was spared. “[F]lambeaus” moved with the carriage.  “Innumerable lamps” hung from the trees and were valued as much for the “awful gloom” they created as for their light.  Solemn music accompanied the journey.  Drums were “placed at different distances on the hills”.

The visitors entered Fonthill Abbey and proceeded to the Cardinal’s Parlour which was “furnished with rich tapestries, long curtains of purple damask before the arched windows, ebony tables and chairs studded with ivory, in various but antique fashion”.  This was a display of wealth designed to impress.   Beckford’s guests sat at a 53foot long table for a dinner, which was in the “substantial costume of the antient abbeys, unmixed with the refinements of modern cookery.”   After the meal the company processed up a staircase “lighted by certain mysterious living figures at different intervals, dressed in hooded gowns, and standing with large wax-torches in their hands.” They entered the half-completed gallery, to “solemn music”, which “suggested ideas of a religious service” and “antient Catholic times”.  After the company had tasted “confectionary served in gold baskets, spiced wines &c” Emma, Lady Hamilton gave a performance as Agrippina bearing the ashes of Germanicus in a golden urn.  She was joined in the final scene by one of the company who played “a daughter” and succeeded in drawing “tears from several of the company”. At eleven o’clock the party retired to sup at the “Mansion House” (Fonthill Splendens).

What is striking is the extent to which not only the humans are performing – Emma, Lady Hamilton, the other young woman, the musicians, the servants – but so is the house itself.  The furniture, the furnishings, even the food is masquerading.  It is this aspect of the Gothic architecture of Walpole and Beckford, which most differentiates it from Gothic revival architecture of the Pugin kind.  Fonthill Abbey and Strawberry Hill are buildings in masquerade and for masquerade.  They are realized through performance and through the imaginative inhabitation of their occupants and visitors.  Put very simply, they are the kind of houses where you can have good parties.

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