Thursday 25 May 2017

Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry by Miranda Miller

     I came across this remarkable eccentric while researching eighteenth century Rome, where he spent the last ten years of his life. As a young man he was appointed Royal Chaplain to George III, who referred to him as "that wicked prelate". He later became Bishop of Derry and advocated religious tolerance and equality. He had a taste for mildly sadistic practical jokes and filled a vacancy for a curate by making the more overweight candidates compete in a race along the beach. Hervey was also a philanthropist who built roads in Derry and tried to relieve some of the poverty in the area. The Royal Society made him a Fellow in recognition of his interest in vulcanology and his scholarly work on the Giants’ Causeway. He built himself a magnificent house at Downhill, near the Causeway, and filled it with his art collection which included works by Rembrandt, Raphael, Titian, Dürer and Caravagio.

    In the grounds of Downhill is the Mussenden Temple, which is an exact copy of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli - Hervey wanted to transport the original to Britain but the Pope refused to sell. Underneath it he built a room for Catholic priests to say Mass, a provocative decision during that time of anti-Catholic penal laws. He also became involved in the Irish Volunteer Movement and in 1782 led a triumphant procession from Downhill to Dublin. Theatrically dressed in a mixture of military and ecclesiastical costume, in a carriage drawn by horses ornamented in matching purple and gold, he seems to have fantasized that he would reign over a new, tolerant Ireland. At an Irish nationalist convention held at Dublin he indiscreetly spoke of rebellion, which almost led to his arrest by the British government. After that he appears to have stayed out of politics.

   Hervey does seem to have earned his reputation for wickedness: he swore and blasphemed constantly and had many scandalous love affairs. He ill treated his wife, Elizabeth Davers, who stayed in Suffolk while he travelled all over Europe. Hotels where he had stayed often renamed themselves the Hotel Bristol, proud that they had been chosen by him for he was a famous epicure and drunk and only the best food and wine would satisfy him.

   In his late forties Hervey inherited what was then a vast income of about twenty thousand pounds a year and was able to fully indulge his passion for art. In Rome he was regarded as a Maecenas and whenever he was in town artists flocked to his house on the Via Sistina. He doled out commissions generously but didn’t always pay for them: when John Soane was a penniless young architect in Rome Hervey engaged him to build a new dining room and a classical dog-house for Downhill. Poor Soane wasted months designing a kennel that looked like an ancient Roman temple - but it was never built. The Bishop had an unpleasant habit of disappearing from Rome just as all the artists he had commissioned work from were expecting orders on his banker.

    Hervey was famous for his brilliant conversation and met or corresponded with Voltaire, Goethe, Benjamin Franklin and Boswell. This sophistication was combined throughout his life with outrageous behaviour; for example, on his last visit to Siena, he threw a tureen of pasta from the window of his hotel onto the heads of a passing procession of the Host. His house in Rome was said to be filled with pornographic frescoes and portraits of the wives of the artists he patronised as Venus in indecent poses. Catherine Wilmot, an Englishwoman who travelled in Italy and had an acerbic pen, wrote this description of him in old age:

   His figure is little, and his face very sharp and wicked; on his head he wore a purple velvet night-cap, with a tassel of gold dangling over his shoulder and a sort of mitre to the front; silk stockings and slippers of the same colour and a short round petticoat, such as Bishops wear, fringed with gold about his knees. A loose dressing-gown of silk was then thrown over his shoulders. In this Merry Andrew trim he rode on horseback to the never-ending amazement of all beholders! The last time I saw him, he was sitting in his carriage between two Italian women dressed in white bedgown and nightcap like a witch and giving himself the airs of an Adonis.

   For a man who had argued all his life for religious tolerance, he came to a very sad end. When the French invaded Italy they accused him of spying and kept him in prison in Milan for eighteen months. When he was released he wanted to return to Rome. On the way, in the country near Albano, he felt unwell & asked a peasant couple to shelter him for the night. They were afraid to welcome a Protestant - a heretic - in their house so they made him sleep in a cold, damp outhouse. Hervey was then seventy-three, worn out by his imprisonment and desperately anxious about his art collection. He died there and his body was brought back here to Rome. Hundreds of artists attended his funeral in Rome in 1803 and he was buried at his ancestral home, Ickworth in Suffolk, where there is an obelisk paid for by public subscription by the Catholics, Presbyterians and Protestants of Derry.

   In this portrait of Hervey with his grand-daughter Caroline the Earl Bishop looks rather benign. The miniature below is of Hervey’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Foster, known as Bess, who was much admired by Edward Gibbon and many other men. She was a great friend of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire - a friendship that seems to have survived even when Bess gave birth to the Duke of Devonshire’s child. The three of them lived together for years in a famous ménage à trois and eventually, after the death of Georgiana in 1809, the Duke and Bess were married. When the Duke died less than two years later Bess went to live in Rome where, like her father, she became a patron of the arts, particularly archaeology. She funded the excavation of the Forum, enabling the recovery of the Column of Phocas and the stones of the Via Sacra. In Rome, she also found the last love of her life, Cardinal Hercule Consalvi, the secretary of state to the Vatican.


Leslie Wilson said...

What an interesting life! The Herveys were a family known for eccentricity and weirdness but I hadn't registered that E.Foster was one. Nor did I know about the Giant's Causeway connection. Is the house still there?

Miranda Miller said...

Most of Downhill House was destroyed by fire in 1851, rebuilt in the 1870s but has now fallen into disrepair .
Mussenden Temple is still there, on the cliffs, and is very beautiful, apparently.

Janie Hampton said...

Former History Girl and my second cousin Louisa Young and I are descended twice from the Earl-Bishop's grandfather, the 1st Earl of Bristol. So that makes this wicked Bishop our great x 5 uncle! I had no idea he was quite so eccentric. Our great grandfather Rev Lloyd Bruce was born at Downhill. It was so bleak that not much grew there. When he took his wife, our great granny, there for their honeymoon she apparently said, 'Never mind, the seagulls make up for the lack of flowers.'

Miranda Miller said...

How interesting, Janie. Have you been to Downhill?