Category Archives: Architecture

Ghosts, Satanism, and 19th-Century Tourism at West Wycombe

Decades after the group ceased to meet, the stories of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey circulated in the form of rumors and gossip.  And, as members of the club passed away, popular interest remained.  At the turn of the nineteenth century, tourism in Britain increased, and West Wycombe became a popular destination.  Not only was curiosity piqued by the famed gardens and walks of the Monks, but rumors of hauntings also fueled interest.

From Earth to Heaven

From Earth to Heaven. Music [for four voices] Performed at the Ceremony of Depositing the Heart of the late Paul Whitehead in the Mausoleum at HighWycombe, etc. [London, 1784]

Ghost stories about West Wycombe were already in circulation in 1781 when Francis Dashwood, aged and sick, as well as servants on the estate began claiming that they had seen Paul Whitehead’s ghost in the house and gardens.[1]  Paul Whitehead was a member of the abbey and rumored lover of Francis Dashwood.  When Whitehead died in 1775.  Dashwood built a mausoleum in his honor, holding a procession, commissioning music, and placing Whitehead’s heart in an urn in the mausoleum.

Locals soon saw the potential for profit.  They led tourists to the supposed meeting sites of the Medmenham Monks – the ball at the top of the St. Lawrence Church and the West Wycombe caves, chalk tunnels which Dashwood had excavated in the 1750s to employ the local population.  They told the tourists ghost stories.  Visitors were even given the opportunity to hold Paul Whitehead’s heart — until it was stolen by an unnamed Australian in 1829.[2]  The ghost stories became more and more popular in the nineteenth century.  For example, in the 1870s, Mortimer Collins wrote that Medmenham was

Right famous for a veritable ghost;
The hell-fire club at Med’nam turn’d men pale;[3]

Although he decided not to tour the caves in the 1870s, Mortimer Collins noted that any visit to the St Laurence Church of West Wycombe entailed visiting the caves, passing “an hour or two in dirt and darkness,” “the victim of a guide.”[4]  Another author noted that he toured the caves in 1875, and on this visit, he also visited the golden ball at the top of the church, now covered with the autographs of visitors.  He was charged 6 pence for an entry fee, and it was so popular that it brought the church £120 revenue per annum – in other words, about 4800 visitors every year.[5]

The local tour guides, who received tips from the visitors, must have been telling and retelling the story of the Monks of Medmenham with some consistency, for the stories about West Wycombe tended to be fairly consistent.  Most authors noted that while the monks’ sexual appetites were excessive – and that the men had poor morality – they were not abnormal for the eighteenth century.[6]  One Oxford student remembered them thus:

In Medmenham Abby they passed the day,
Those jolly Abbots, ‘mid wine and lay:
There Hugh le Despencer, gallant and free,
Bid “fay ce que voudras” their motto be.[7]

Likewise, the men were generally represented as areligious, or agnostic, not openly atheistic.[8]  The story of Whitehead and Dashwood’s romantic relationship had disappeared, even though the story had been printed with every edition of William Cowper Works during the first half of the nineteenth century.  And, as they had been in the 1750s, the monks and their world were a source of curiosity.  They had become part of the community’s imaginary landscape – part of its heritage – a set of stories and attractions that brought visitors to a small Georgian town along the road to Oxford.

Then, within just a few years at the turn of the 20th century, the stories about the West Wycombe landscape changed.  They became more terrifying, and the topography of West Wycombe became potentially threatening.  In 1894, Charles Henry Pearson made the first reference to satanic rituals at West Wycombe:

The worst acts imputed to the monks of Medmenham are, I believe, the invocation of the devil by Lord Sandwich, [and] the giving [of] the sacrament to a dog by the same worthy.[9]

In 1901, another author claimed that Medmenham was haunted by the blasphemous monks, who indulged in “beastly pleasures and beastly humors.” [10]  Another author claimed that “the wraith of the last of the mad monks of Medmenham” haunted the landscape as a “homicidal ghost.”[11]  Who started these more threatening versions of the area’s history is unknown, but one contemporary claimed that they were being circulated by “local mystery-mongers.”[12]

It seems that the new stories at West Wycombe and Medmenham did nevertheless contribute to the local tourist economy.  And, one writer from the Times recognized the value of the mysteries and secrets of West Wycombe in an analysis in 1920:

The oldest of us never loses that part of youth which sees romance in sheer villainy.  We disapprove for righteousness’ sake, but such a motto as – “Fay ce que voudras” – the very text of hedonism charms reputable persons into curiosity and ever into a shame faced sympathy . . . No one knows accurately what were the revels in this mysterious place.  The proceedings were secret, but rumour said that wild rites were practiced.  Satan received the crapulent homage of the pseudo-monks.[13]

While the church and caves were consistent tourist attractions in the 1920s – and, in fact, the ghost of Paul Whitehead had been joined by Sukie, the ghost of a murdered, love-scorned chambermaid from the George and Dragon Inn – the rest of the village struggled financially.[14]  To save the pristine village, which Victorian aesthetics had left virtually untouched, the Royal Society of Arts, Commerce, and Manufacture purchased it in March 1929.[15]  Transferring the title to the National Trust in 1934 was followed by Sir John Dashwood’s grant of the church hill and the caves in 1935 and 300 acres and an endowment in 1943.[16]  The postwar years escalated the mythmaking at West Wycombe, and stories of poltergeists and villainous monks found their way into an increasingly broad array of popular culture.


[1] William Copwer to Rev. William Unwin, 24 November 1781, Works of William Cowper, vol. 2 (London, 1853), pp. 373-4.

[2] West Wycombe Park, The Dashwood Mausolem [n.d.], p. 8.

[3] Collins to T.E. Kebbel, 13 September 1872, Mortimer Collins, Mortimer Collins, His Letters and Friendships with Some Account of His Life, vol. 1, ed. Frances Collins (London, 1877), p. 113.

[4] Mortimer Collins, Pen Sketches by a Vanished Hand: From the Papers of the Late Mortimer Collins, ed. Tom Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1879), p. 101.

[5] Edward Verrall Lucas, Pleasure Trove (Books for Libraries Press, 1968), p. 123.

[6] Alfred Rimmer, Rambles Round Eton & Harrow, new ed. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1898), pp. 36-43.

[7] “On the Thames: A Summer Idyll,” College Rhymes, vol. 7 (Oxford, 1866), p. 147.

[8] Cf. Edward Walford, Tales of Our Great Families, vol. 2 (London, 1877), pp. 187-8.

[9] Charles Henry Pearson, National Life and Character:  A Forecast (London: Macmillan, 1894), pp. 211-12 fn. 3.

[10] Justin McCarthy, History of the Four Georges, vol. 3 (New York, 1901).

[11] Eliakim Littell and Robert S. Littell, The Living Age, 7th series, vol. 18 (1903), p. 420.

[12] Charles George Harper, The Oxford, Gloucester, and Milford Haven Road (1905), p. 120.

[13] Times, 29 March 1920, no. 42371, p. 17, col. f.

[14] The caves were drawing thousands of visitors even in the midst of the depression in 1935.  See Times, 23 July 1935, no. 47123, p. 11, col. e.  Supposedly, Sir Francis Dashwood had a secret passage between the house and the George and Dragon, which the locals claimed to have partially excavated in 1963.  See Times, 11 June 1963, no. 55724, p. 7, col. f.

[15] Times, 6 February 1934, no. 46671, p. 11, col. d.

[16] Times, 23 July 1935, no. 47123, p. 11, col. e; Times, 23 December 1943, no. 49736, p. 7, col. b.

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A Nymphaeum and a Temple to Venus in an Eighteenth-Century English Garden

The Temple of Venus was one of the earliest features of West Wycombe’s gardens, which Sir Francis Dashwood began designing in the 1740s.  It is a round temple, perched on a small hill.  Below it was a section of the garden, known as Venus’ Parlor, which was cleared when Humphrey Repton re-landscaped West Wycombe beginning in 1796.  As a consequence, Dashwood’s baroque figurative program for this section of the garden was destroyed.   However, from remaining evidence, we can piece together what it looked like.

A view by William Hannan from the 1750s portrays the temple as it originally looked.

William Hannan. West Wycombe Park from the North. ca. 1751-3. Courtesy of Sir Edward Dashwood

On a manmade hill, a circular temple – an allusion to the rotunda at Stowe but situated in gardens with a very different moral program – housed a copy of the Venus de Medici.  A path led down the hill to a grotto built underneath the temple.  A design for the grotto still exists in the Dashwood collections.

[Anonymous]. Venus’ Parlor. ca. 1740s. Courtesy of Sir Edward Dashwood

It appears that this section of the garden followed the design of a nymphaeum similar to those found in the gardens of Renaissance Italian villas.  In effect, it is similar to Palladio’s nymphaeum for the Villa Barbara, although on a much smaller scale.

Palladio. Nymphaeum. Villa Barbaro, Veneto, Italy. ca. 1550s.

The oval entrance to the grotto alluded playfully to sexuality and temptation, with symbols that all but the most obtuse visitor could understand.  Perched above the “door of life” – as John Wilkes later referred to it, was a lead copy of Giambologna’s sixteenth-century Mercurio – an iconic figure throughout the early modern period.[1]  The lead Mercury can be seen in Hannan’s view.  While Mercury’s association with commerce and communication are well known, eighteenth-century libertines often associated Mercury with sexual commerce as well.

Giambologna. Mercurio. 1564. Museo del Bargello, FlorenceWhile few textual descriptions of the site exist – and those that do are dubious descriptions – the tone of the site is embodied in John Wilkes’s description of West Wycombe.  In 1763, he wrote that “you find at first what is called an error in limine; for the entrance to it is the same entrance by which we all come into the world, and the door is what some idle wits have called the door of life.”[2]  He continued that Lord Bute had encouraged Dashwood to erect a Paphian column – a reference to the Temple of Venus at Paphos on Cyprus – in front of the entrance:

There are in these gardens no busts of Socrates, Epaminondas, or Hampden [a reference to the Temple of Ancient Virtue and the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe]; but there is a most indecent statue of the unnatural satyr [the famed Satyr with a Goat in the King of Naples’ collection]; but at the temple I have mentioned, are two urns sacred to the Ephesian matron, and to Potiphar’s wife, with the inscriptions Matronae Ephesiae Cineres, Dominae Potiphar Cineres.[3]

The reference to the Ephesian matron was from Petronius’ Satyricon in which the chaste Matron Ephesia despairs at her husbands death and begins to starve herself in his tomb.  Eventually, she is seduced by a soldier who brings her food.  Potiphar’s wife was the woman who attempted to seduce Joseph in the biblical story.  Thus, two of the most “sacred” items in the gardens were models of female infidelity.

It is no surprise that Repton cleared the site of its most explicit references to sexuality, libertinism, and anti-virtue in 1796.  Likewise, it is perhaps not surprising that Dashwood’s descendants would commission a replica of the original grotto in the 1980s.  By this time, West Wycombe had become an important National Trust Property – not only because of its architecture, but because of the ability of its illicit history to draw visitors.  In 1982, Quinlan Terry completed his reconstruction of the grotto and temple for Sir Francis Dashwood.  This commission was part of an overall plan to re-infuse the landscapes of West Wycombe with references to the world of the Hellfire Club, a draw for tourists which was meant to raise both the profile and income of the estate.

Quinlan Terry, Temple of Venus and Venus' Parlour. 1982. West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, UK

Citation: Jason M. Kelly, “A Nymphaeum and a Temple to Venus in an Eighteenth-Century English Garden,” Secrets of the Hellfire Club Blog (8 March 2012), https://hellfiresecrets.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/a-nymphaeum-and-a-temple-to-venus-in-an-eighteenth-century-english-garden/.


[1] Not only did Giambologna produce several copies himself (Museo del Bargello, Florence; Villa Medici, Rome; Museo Nazionale, Naples originally in Farnese collection; Kunsthistorisches, Vienna), but collectors such as Sir Hans Sloane and Lawrence Dundas added copies to their own collections.  See, for example, Johann Zoffany’s Lawrence Dundas and Grandson in the Zetland Collection and Jeremy Warren, “Sir Hans Sloane as a Collector of Small Sculpture,” Apollo (2004): 8.

[2] New Foundling Hospital for Wit, vol. 3 (London, 1784), p. 78.

[3] New Foundling Hospital for Wit, vol. 3 (London, 1784), p.


West Wycombe and Its Architecture

Sir Francis Dashwood, Bt. (1708-1781), is the person with whom the landscape of West Wycombe has become synonymous.  Dashwood was raised by a guardian, his uncle John Fane, 7th Earl of Westmoreland, after his mother’s death in 1710.  It is through Westmoreland that Dashwood was first introduced to one of the great interests of his life, architecture.

Westmoreland hired Colen Campbell to design his seat, Mereworth Castle, Kent (1723-5).

La Rotonda, Venice

Based on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, it is one of the earliest examples of Burlingtonian Palladianism, making a conscious effort to cite classical examples in its interiors.  His gardens included follies, such as Campbell’s 1725 interpretation of Titus’ Arch in Rome.

Dashwood’s further developed an interest in landscape and architecture on several grand tours, which took him not only to France and Italy, but to Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire.  In fact, he was travelling as early as 1726, with tours in 1730-1, 1733, 1735, and 1739-40.  With his companions on these tours, he formed a variety of institutions whose members had active interests in architecture and antiquities, including the Egyptian Society, the Divan Society, and the Society of Dilettanti.[1]  As sites of homosocial conviviality, these organizations shaped Dashwood’s social world.  And, when he redesigned West Wycombe from the 1740s, they played a role in influencing his architectural program.

Flintwork details at the Temple of the Winds, West WycombeDashwood’s country house and grounds were on the south side of West Wycombe’s high street.  On the northwest side of the village was a hill on which sat the parish church, St. Lawrence.  As a supporter of the concept that public works projects should be voluntarily funded by local gentlemen in times of need – in fact, to this ideal he supported a poor relief bill in 1747 – Dashwood was responsible for a series of architectural and topographic works that put locals to work.[2]    With the crop failures of 1750, Dashwood employed the agricultural workers of West Wycombe to excavate chalk from the hill, which he used to repave the Oxford road.  The flint that was excavated with the chalk was used in new buildings across the estate and in the town.  It provided an unfinished rustic look that was popular at mid century.[3]

Likewise, during a period of intermittent grain shortages in the 1760s, Dashwood rebuilt the parish church, St. Lawrence.[4]  This was not only important for the builders, but for the West Wycombe furniture makers as well.  Dashwood hired them to refit the church, which, opened on 10 June 1763 to “a suitable Anthem,” included a £6000 organ, and had “Seats covered with green Cloth.”[5]  The design of this church was, no doubt, the result of his uncle’s influence.  Westmoreland rebuilt the parish church of St. Lawrence, Mereworth between 1744 and 1746.  The design integrated neoclassical themes such as a barrel-vaulted nave with faux-painted coffering.  In conception, the later redesign of Dashwood’s St. Lawrence Church in West Wycombe was similar.  It also used neoclassical themes — most spectacularly, a ceiling painted to resemble one in Palmyra.  Both resemble eighteenth-century assembly rooms as much as they resemble churches.

St. Lawrence, MereworthSt. Lawrence, West Wycombe

In addition to his projects in the village, Dashwood, like his uncle Westmoreland, set out to reimagine his estate.  Beginning with the house, Dashwood hired John Donowell as his architect – or, more accurately, his clerk of works – between 1755 and 1764.[6]  Donowell planned the re-façade of the north and east fronts.  The Palladian north front has similarities to Inigo Jones’s Somerset House, Colen Campbell’s Pembroke House (1724), as well as Isaac Ware’s design for Amisfield House, East Lothian (1756).[7]  And, one historian has claimed that Isaac Ware was in fact the architect.  The east side is a Roman Doric portico, which blends elements of the Ionic entrance at Mereworth Castle, designed by Roger Morris, and the Roman Doric portico on the Mereworth pavilion, probably designed by Henry Flitcroft.  On the south side, a colonnade retains the Palladian themes of the north and east facades.  However, it is much more daring in its execution.  It hass a double-height loggia, with a pedimented center.  With a baseless Roman Doric lower loggia and a Corinthian upper loggia, it is similar to Giovanni Servandoni’s St. Sulpice, Paris (1732).

South Facade of West WycombeSt. Sulpice, Paris

While Servandoni was in England between 1747 and 1751, it is more likely that the designer was his student Maurice-Louis Jolivet, who worked as “Architect” to Dashwood.[8]  The west front, redesigned by Dashwood’s fellow Dilettanti, Nicholas Revett in 1771, was the first neoclassical element of the main building.  Based on the Temple of Dionysus at Teos, Revett’s Ionic portico was a dramatic innovation in architectural approach – using on-site drawings of classical temples as models for modern architecture.[9]  Likewise, Dashwood redesigned his gardens.  Originally “laid out in 1739, into walks which are beautified with water,” Dashwood worked with his architect – in this case, probably Jolivet, who did a 1752 survey of the park – to create a symbolic program similar to Stowe.  Damming the River Wye, Dashwood created the lake and many of the paths to the north.  Jolivet’s program was transformed by Nicholas Revett and Thomas Cook to reflect the picturesque aesthetic during the 1770s.[10]

Thus, the house, garden, and village church initially seem the epitome of eighteenth-century design – reflecting the changing tastes and innovations of the polite arts. That is one story of West Wycombe – the mundane story that, were this any other house, historians would have been content to tell.  However, there is another side to the West Wycombe landscape.  According to local traditions that have since dominated scholarly and popular lore, West Wycombe is much more than the quiet place that it pretends to be.  In the landscape, a code hides – an archive of secret events that has proven too tantalizing to ignore, too profitable to reject, and too convincing to contradict.

Citation: Jason M. Kelly, “West Wycombe and Its Architecture,” Secrets of the Hellfire Club Blog (26 February 2012), https://hellfiresecrets.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/west-wycombe-and-its-architecture/.

 


[1] Dashwood was also a member of the Beefsteak Club, the Bucks (aka Bloods), Lincoln Club, (ca. mid 1740s), Royal Society (1746), the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (1754), and the Society of Antiquaries of London (1769).

[2] Betty Kemp, Sir Francis Dashwood: An Eighteenth Century Independent (London: Macmillan, 1967), 12, 119.

[3] Nikolaus Pevsner and Elizabeth Williamson, Buckinghamshire, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 27.

[4] Samuel Lewis, A Topographical History of England, vol. 4 (1831), 585; Ashton, Economic Fluctuations in England 1700-1800, pp. 36-7.

[5] Barrows Worcestershire Journal, 14 June 1763; Gentleman’s Magazine (July 1763), p. 359; Nichols, Literary Anecdotes, vol. 7, pp. 683-4.

[6] Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 269–70.

[7] Pevsner and Williamson, Buckinghamshire, 729.

[8] Anne Purchas, “Maurice-Louis Jolivet’s Drawings at West Wycombe Park,” Architectural History 37 (1994): 68–79.

[9] See Jason M. Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (London and New Haven: The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press, 2009).

[10] Historical Manuscripts Commission, “A Tour in Wales, 1769,” in Report on the Manuscripts of the Earl of Verulam, Preserved at Gorhambury (London, 1906), 243; Pevsner and Williamson, Buckinghamshire, 733.