We were having a nice mooch round the (startlingly quiet) Ca’ Rezzonico Museum in Venice a few days ago, when I noticed, among the various local grandees immortalised in oil or pastels, a portrait of Samuel Egerton (1711–80). There was no further information available, but having gone back to the (temporary) Palazzo Hedgehog to look him up, I discovered that he had many intriguing links, familial, political, artistic and social, all over England.
Samuel, the second son of John and Elizabeth Egerton of Tatton, near Knutsford, Cheshire, was a member of an extraordinarily complicated family whose various branches included the barons Grey de Wilton and earls of Wilton, and the earls and dukes of Bridgewater and well as the Tatton-based family. Samuel was thirteen when his father died in 1724. His mother subsequently relied on the advice of her brother, Samuel Hill (1691–1758), in raising her children. Hill had been born Samuel Barbour in Shropshire, was educated at Eton, spent a year at St John’s College, Cambridge, and then went to the Middle Temple. His career was sponsored by his uncle, Richard Hill (1655–1727), the diplomat who is best remembered (if at all) for his efforts to save the Vaudois (Waldensian) sect from the attacks of the dukes of Savoy.
Samuel Barbour changed his name to Hill in honour of his uncle, by whom he seems to have been supported during a tour of Italy before 1714, during which he accumulated a substantial art collection; on his return to England, he became M.P. for Lichfield (serving until 1722), and succeeded Richard Hill as Registrar to the Court of the Admiralty. In 1722 he married Lady Elizabeth Stanhope, sister of the fourth earl of Chesterfield, who famously wrote letters to his (illegitimate) son on the qualities required by a gentleman who wished to get on in society.
Samuel and Lady Elizabeth had no children (she died of cholera five years after the marriage), and as a consequence, ‘our’ Samuel, who seems to have been his favourite nephew, became Hill’s heir. But this was only after his uncle had sent him to Venice, not – as perhaps one might expect – on the Grand Tour, but in order to train as a merchant (as a second son, he would not have been expected to inherit much from his father’s estate). In 1729, Samuel was apprenticed to Joseph Smith, banker, art collector and dealer, and later British consul in Venice.
Smith (c. 1673–1770) had gone to Venice in 1700 as junior partner in the merchant banking house of Thomas Williams, eventually rising to head the firm, now Williams and Smith. He was already well known as a collector of books and incunabula, publishing a catalogue of his possessions in 1724 and further updated versions. Shortly after Samuel’s arrival, Smith went into partnership with Giovanni Battista Pasquali (1702–84), the Venetian printer, in a publishing firm named G.B. Pasquali, but effectively financed and controlled by Smith.
At the same time, he was commissioning paintings from such artists as Rosalba Carriera and the uncle and nephew Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, both for himself and on behalf of British travellers who called on him in his palazzo on the Grand Canal, not only to see his collections, but to use his expertise in acquiring works for themselves. In his old age, his vast collections of books and artworks were sold, a large number of the pieces (including the famous twelve views of the Grand Canal by Canaletto) being bought by George III: they remain in the Royal Collection. (Frustratingly, no authenticated picture of Smith himself exists.)
It is perhaps in this context that Egerton’s portrait was painted by Bartolomeo Naz(z)ari (1693–1758), by no means as well known as Carriera and the Ricci, but whose works can be found in several Venetian museums, and who seems to have specialised in singers and musicians:
As it happens, Joseph Smith was married to a singer, Catherine Tofts (d. 1746), sometimes described as the first English prima donna. She seems to have had some kind of breakdown in 1709, at the height of her career, and retired from the English stage: she travelled to Europe, and gave private concerts to great acclaim in Venice, where she seems to have married Smith by about 1711. They had a son, who died at the age of six in 1727.
Thus, one way and another, Samuel Egerton must have found himself at the hub of Anglo-Venetian cultural life – but he seems not to have enjoyed it. At any rate, he left abruptly in 1734, without letting his uncle Samuel know, which seems to have given rise to a coolness between them.
Four years later, Samuel’s elder brother John died, and he inherited the Tatton estate, which was in financial difficulties. Surviving family papers show a long-running dispute with his widowed sister-in-law, Christian, about allowances to her and also the portions to be received by any surviving daughters: tragically, a fuss about nothing, as the only surviving daughter in fact died before the age of her majority, and so no money was paid over.
In 1750, Samuel married Beatrix Copley, who brought with her a marriage portion which eased the financial situation somewhat, and they had a daughter, another Beatrix, in 1754. But his wife died the following year, leaving Samuel to bring up the young girl, to whom he seems to have been close.
He was elected to Parliament for the county of Chester in 1754, and kept the seat for the rest of his life, though it is not clear whether he had particular political interests or concerns. One thing that would undoubtedly have bothered him was the elopement of his extremely wealthy ward, Jane Revell, with George Warren, a captain in the Foot Guards, in 1758. With his wife’s money, Warren rebuilt the family estate in Cheshire and became M.P. for Lancaster.
But in the same year, Samuel Hill died, leaving his nephew considerable estates as well as his collections of art and books, and this enabled Egerton to begin an extensive rebuilding programme at Tatton. The original Tatton Hall, begun in the fifteenth century and extended with a new wing before 1585, survives, but in 1716 a new house was built about one kilometre away in the park (which with both houses was given by the last Egerton who lived there to the National Trust in 1958), and it was this that Samuel transformed.
He commissioned Samuel Wyatt (1737–1807) of the famous architectural dynasty (who began as a master carpenter and assistant to Robert Adam) to remake the house. Wyatt was a multi-talented member of the ‘family firm’, designing not only the Theatre Royal at Birmingham and a slew of country houses including Soho House for Matthew Boulton, Heathfield House for James Watt, Dropmore House for the prime minister Lord Grenville, and Shugborough Hall, which he remodelled for Viscount Anson, but also Albion Mills, the first steam-powered flour-mill, near Blackfriars Bridge in Southwark (was this dark and satanic to William Blake?), and lighthouses, including those at Flamborough Head and Dungeness.
Sadly, neither of the Samuels survived to see the completion of the house, which was finished by Egerton’s great-nephew (son and heir of William (1749–1806) the son of Samuel’s sister Hester, who confusingly had married a Mr Tatton), Wilbraham Egerton (1781–1856) – whose mother I was delighted to discover was a member of the Bootle Wilbraham family), and Wyatt’s nephew Lewis (1777–1853).
The drawing room of Tatton Hall was designed by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard (c. 1723–77), who was another multi-talented architect: as well as rococo interiors for houses, he also designed the great Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale.
Among the pictures there are two Canalettos, a Van Dyck (presumably part of the Samuel Hill inheritance) and the almost exact counterpart to the portrait of Samuel Egerton which now hangs unexplained in Ca’ Rezzonico.