Wanstead House, the Versailles of Essex men

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I just visited a fascinating cave before Christmas. The white-bearded Santa Claus was nowhere to be found. I made a wish but I’m not saying what it is. The cave has a moral for all of us. It belongs to a story that takes How to Spend It to a new level.

The cave is located in Wanstead Park, managed by the City of London Corporation and its Epping Forest team. It’s fun to walk there, but few realize the story they are walking on. They will soon have more ideas. In collaboration with the City of London, the Heritage of London Trust is initiating a gradual restoration of the historic monument of the park, the cave and the pier, which connects it to a long canal.

Since 2000, there have been 12 major reports on how to save it. There was even talk of leaving it as a “managed ruin”, slowly collapsing. Nothing happened until the Trust and its dynamic director, Nicola Stacey, coordinated a £ 24,000 first step with the City Corporation.

Stacey and the Trust are also leading the restoration of poet Alexander Pope’s historic cave in Twickenham, which drew a wave of support from FT readers after I described it here this summer. The Friends of Wanstead Parklands are delighted that their cave is also ready to be saved, following an appeal for donors. Construction begins next year, 200 years after the Wanstead House contents were auctioned off by spectacular overspending.

Wanstead House and Gardens were some of the most awe-inspiring ever developed in the 18th century. The house was incredibly large, almost 100 meters long on its main facade, with Britain’s first pillared portico, like that of an ancient temple, in the style of the great Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Royalty danced there. At one of the feasts in 1812 there were 782 dishes of roasted and boiled meat and 500 baskets of fruit.

The gardens radiated outward with walkways about a mile long, about 60 years before Capability Brown made curved lines popular. A huge octagonal swimming pool spanned the main view of the house and a sundial, contemporaries note, “was supported by a blackamoor,” carved in stone. The cave was built in the 1760s. It still concludes a long view of an old garden canal, overgrown with sedges.

Wanstead House by John Buckler (1770-1851) © William Salt Library / Bridgeman Images

I can well imagine contemporaries claiming that Wanstead must go. The house preceded them by doing just that, being razed in 1823. There had been a large Tudor house in the park, in which Elizabeth I used to visit her favorite, Lord Essex. In 1673, he was bought by a pinnacle of social mobility, Josiah Child. He owned a brewery. He also owned a plantation operated by slaves in Jamaica. He supplied goods to the Royal Navy and found he could combine Caribbean sugar and English brewing and monopolize the naval rum market.

He also invested in the East India Company, an unregulated gang of buccaneers. When he bought Wanstead, he was not yet relying on the profits from his Indian possessions. They quickly skyrocketed and he became the governor of the company. For nearly 30 years, he used huge income from slaves, alcohol, and India to plant trees and build waterways. He was knighted for his accomplishments.

In 1683 chronicler John Evelyn visited him and described how Child planted walnut trees and built fish ponds “for many miles in Epping Forest, in a barren place.” He also noticed that the “men of the sudden money” often seat themselves in this style: Wanstead was the Versailles of the men of Essex.

On Child’s death, the property passed to his son, Richard, who hired Colen Campbell, a fan of Palladio architecture, to design the enormous classic house. Campbell went on to build the big house in Stourhead for the Hoare family, with whom the Childs cashed. Their stories survive in the Hoare Archives and are deemed to be fascinating reading. The Wanstead house cost around £ 100,000 (over £ 25million now), as were the gardens.

Fortunately, we have views of it in 1715 by the Dutch engraver Kip. His famous views of Kip are not fantasies. Historical research often validates them, and Wanstead’s point of view is likely to reflect reality. It shows the long avenues, canals and ponds and the many trees that Richard’s father had already planted. I think he took an unusual view of the house and the house: he did the garden before he remade the house, so that he would have mature views when he moved in.

We have another evocative image of life with the Childs, now raised to be Lord and Lady Tylney. Around 1728, William Hogarth painted them both, their family and their guests in a living room in Wanstead. The painting commemorates their silver wedding anniversary. Richard is seated in fine red clothes on the right with his daughters, while his wife, seated in the center, holds a card, the ace of spades, towards him and us.

This beautiful portrait is in Hogarth’s current exhibition at Tate Britain and has escaped far-fetched legends alongside pictures in other rooms. Concerned, unlike Hogarth, with slavery and luxury exploitation, the Conservatives could have made nonsense of the Lady of Wanstead playing card.

The ace of spades has sometimes meant asexuality, sometimes darkness, sometimes, as in the opera Carmen, death. Of course, she doesn’t tell her husband on their birthday that he’s not good in bed and that he lives moonlighting. The card, in the 1720s, could also signify well-being, his message to his spouse.

The Tylneys’ son, John, was a knave of hearts: he was a famous homosexual. He had to leave England for Italy, but retained excellent taste and returned fine furniture and objects to Wanstead. He commissioned the cave in 1760, a two-story building at the end of a long canal that visitors could row towards. They parked on the still visible inner platform, and went upstairs to a now-defunct circular room adorned with seashells and mirrors, like Alexander Pope’s innovative cave, in its underground case.

During the time of the Regency, the heiress of fortune Tylney, Catherine, married the charming but dissipated William Long-Wellesley, nephew of the Duke of Wellington. He ran through his gigantic fortune and was serial unfaithful. Rumor had it that he would send ladies down in a gondola to the cave, then seduce them into the upper room of mirrors.

The outer casing of the cave has survived and has already hosted one of the excellent days of Heritage of London Proud Places. The referred children came for a day of discovery at the site with their guardians, members of the Metropolitan Police, who added to the fun by dressing in Georgian clothes. The cave has it all if donors help save it: a link to a large garden, a gay patron, a space for salacious orgies and a landmark, now, for future visitors.

Meanwhile, Wanstead House is gone. In June 1823 it was flattened, going from Palladian splendor to grass level in a hundred years. How to spend it, how to lose it: the only surviving trace of the largest Georgian house is a bunker at the 18th tee at Wanstead Golf Course.

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