‘The only place that can heighten my enjoyment of my friends’: The literary coterie at Wrest Park

In 1740, the duke of Kent unusually made his granddaughter, Jemima Campbell, the benefactor of his estate at Wrest Park on the condition that she married his choice of husband, Philip Yorke (later 2nd earl of Hardwicke). Despite being an arranged marriage, it was a highly successful union. Upon inheriting Wrest, Jemima, Philip and their friends went on to form their own literary group, ‘Wrestiana’, whose lively compositions would inspire some of the features in the gardens at Wrest Park. In our latest blog we welcome guest author Jemima Hubberstey, a D.Phil candidate at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to tell us more about the circle.

What can you do, as an 18th-century aristocrat, when you’ve spent your fortune(s) on creating a fashionable landscape? For Henry Grey, duke of Kent, marrying off his granddaughter to the eldest son of the wealthy Lord Chancellor seemed like an ideal solution to restoring the family fortune.

One might have thought that after marrying two heiresses and securing himself a lucrative position in the royal household, the duke would not have needed to worry about money. However, formal gardens didn’t come cheap. By the time Kent had brought in the leading designers of the day, paid for the gardeners’ labour (and beer), he had spent a considerable sum (over £20 million in today’s money).

But by 1740, Kent had other concerns. His ill-health was beginning to catch up with him, and in his old age he was in the unfortunate position of being without a male heir. Despite managing to sire fourteen children from two marriages, only two daughters survived. He had an important decision to make about how to ensure the continuation of the family name and estate. He decided that his eldest granddaughter, Jemima Campbell, would inherit, as long as she married his choice of husband.

LADY JEMIMA CAMPBELL, MARCHIONESS GREY, COUNTESS OF HARDWICKE (c.1720-1797) by Allan Ramsay (1713-1794) at Wimpole Estate
©National Trust Images/Roy Fox

It is unclear why Kent chose Jemima. She certainly loved Wrest, and had fond childhood memories of the place. One can only conjecture that the duke felt that she would be the most compatible with the Lord Chancellor’s eldest son. Philip was a reserved, scholarly young man, who, despite coming from one of the most important Whig families in Britain at this time, was more interested in antiquities and old books than politics. Jemima too had been a precious and well-read child, educated alongside her aunt Mary Grey (who would later marry the first Professor of History at Oxford, Dr David Gregory), and the bluestocking, Catherine Talbot.

Kent was eager to see his granddaughter married while he still lived, and hastened the proceedings somewhat urgently. The marquessate of Grey was created on 19 May, with a special remainder to his granddaughter. Philip was summoned from Cambridge, where he was still studying, and on 22 May 1740 the couple were married. Kent died only a fortnight later, his mind finally at rest.

The beginnings of the Wrest Coterie

Due to the precarious financial situation Kent left behind, Philip and Jemima were unable to move to Wrest officially until 1743. Upon returning, Jemima would remark that ‘it is now again my Home’, adding that it is ‘the only Place that can heighten my Enjoyment of my Friends.’

Before long, she and Philip would invite their close friends to stay for long country visits at Wrest. These friends formed their own literary circle, aptly named ‘Wrestiana’ in honour of the place where they would come together. The group, unusually heterosocial for the time, consisted of family members, Mary Gregory (née Grey), Elizabeth Anson (née Yorke), Charles Yorke, and John Lawry; as well as old family friends, the antiquarian Daniel Wray, the London editor Thomas Birch, the bluestocking Catherine Talbot, and later, the garden architect and poet, Thomas Edwards.

Catherine Talbot’s diary from 1751 allows us to look through the keyhole of the library door at Wrest and have an idea of what it must have been like to have been a part of the coterie. She describes the lively discussions where they would laugh

over the Follies of Courts many Centuries since buried, or debated the Politics of a hundred years ago. Sometimes on matters of Literature, the Style or Merit of Authors.

The surviving manuscript, Wrestiana (1739-1770), also provides an insight into the mock-seriousness and precocious wit of the group in the early years of their formation. Their compositions range from fantastical mock-heroic romances, meetings in Elysium with their Whig ancestors, a Homeric ode to John Lawry’s broken carriage, and satires on London booksellers.

A Legacy in the Landscape

The Mithraic Glade (pictured), just like the remaining manuscripts, provides an insight into the coterie’s lively imagination and mock-serious attitude towards antiquarians of the day.

Wrest Park

Unlike other 18th-century landowners, Jemima never destroyed the formal gardens that her ancestors had set out, even though she would concede with George Lord Lyttelton that features such as Thomas Archer’s baroque pavilion at the end of the long water were perhaps ‘too heavy’ for the rest of the landscape. Nevertheless, the coterie left their mark on the landscape through the creation of the Mithraic Glade, which was built both in honour of the coterie’s earlier work, the Athenian Letters (1741-3), but also ‘for the sake of absent friends.’ It was one of the most striking additions to the landscape during Jemima and Philip’s time at Wrest, for which they sought out Lyttelton’s advice. While Lyttelton was foremost the Lord Chancellor’s political ally, he also had his own impressive gardens at Hagley Hall and was both a landscape designer and poet. Jemima would remark in a letter to her aunt that his opinion ‘has great weight with me’ and was particularly impressed with the gardens at Hagley, describing them as ‘Poetry & Painting’ when she finally visited in 1763.

It is fitting that the garden should reflect the group’s interests, as it seems to have been a place where, above all, they would socialize, read, or recite poetry. John Lawry would remark that he had often dreamed of revisiting Wrest and

fancied… that I was going to hear… some ingenious Sonnet or ode, which the Grecian Muse, or the Genius of Rest had in those happy groves inspired.

A hermitage was even built so that Jemima could read the group’s literary compositions when she was alone at Wrest.

Very few people were let into the secret of the Mithraic Glade. It was essentially an elaborate in-joke, recreating the glades of Mithras in the Athenian Letters. But as with the rest of the coterie’s compositions, the Athenian Letters was not for public consumption; the early collaborators even referred to themselves as the ‘Secret Committee’ when discussing it in their letters.

The Mithraic Altar was, therefore, a private commemoration of the Athenian Letters, and only had meaning for the collaborators. It is no surprise that most garden visitors had little notion as to what the enormous altar was supposed to signify. Not only was the original source itself a mystery, but the cuneiform on one side of the altar was not yet understood by antiquarians. For this reason, Thomas Edwards was certainly sceptical when a garden visitor ‘told the Gardener that he could read both the inscriptions, which as one of them can be read by no man living gives a great ground of suspicion that he could read neither.’ The duchess of Bedford also came to visit it ‘by Moon-Shine,’ and ‘taking it for an Antiquity… went home and turned over [Bernard de] Montfaucon & [White] Kennett, but without success.’

It seemed to have caused the coterie much amusement that nobody beyond their inner circle could comprehend the fake ruin. The intellectual jokes in the landscape tell us much about such coteries and their ideas; the gardens at Wrest reflect the mock-serious imitation of the classics that would define so many of their youthful compositions.

J.H.

Further reading

Roderick Floud, An Economic History of the English Garden, (London: Penguin, 2019)

Jocye Godber, The Marchioness Grey of Wrest Park, (Bedford: Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, 1968)

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