I tend to ignore the porcelain gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum, since, as I have mentioned before, I really don’t like the coy, arch, simpering, figurative pieces that populate so many of the shelves. A quick genuflect towards the bookcase containing Handel’s manuscripts, and then a brisk trot through to the more congenial pottery in the Glaisher Gallery, including the eighteenth-century pew groups, the maiolica, and the legendary owl.
Thus, I was brought up short the other day by a sculpted bust which even I could recognise as by Louis François Roubiliac – had it always been there, and had I never noticed it, or had it been recently installed by the tireless exhibits team?
But as startling as the bust itself was the wording engraved on its plinth, which doesn’t merely say who the sitter was, but proclaims:
It is to this Earl of Pembroke / we owe Westminster Bridge. / He married Mary Fitzwilliam / Maid of Honor to the Queen / & Daughter of Richard Lord / Viscount Fitzwilliam. 1733.
The Queen in question was Caroline of Ansbach, the wife of George II and antagonistic mother to Frederick, Prince of Wales (‘who was alive and is dead’), parent–son ructions being absolutely de rigueur in the Hanover family. Her maid of honour was the daughter of the 5th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion (1677–1743), who demolished the decaying Merrion Castle near Dublin while at the same time building Mount Merrion House and landscaping a deer park on his estate.
She was thus sister of the 6th Viscount Fitzwilliam, and aunt of the 7th Viscount, whose bequest to the university in 1816 led to the founding of the Museum – and this terracotta bust was indeed part of the Founder’s Bequest.
The work of Roubiliac is found elsewhere in Cambridge, most notably in Trinity College. (An interesting article on his ‘eyeless busts’ can be found here.) The Fitzwilliam’s terracotta of Henry Herbert, 9th earl of Pembroke (?1689–1750), was a model for a marble bust, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and formerly placed (along with a bust of his countess) in the church at Wilton. In 1997 it was sold at Christie’s by the St Mary and St Nicholas Preservation Trust; it appeared again in a Christie’s catalogue in July 2005 but was apparently withdrawn from sale. It is now on loan to and on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
But why and in what sense was the 9th earl responsible for Westminster Bridge? One of the thousands of pieces of useless information I retain from my previous working life is that the architect of Westminster Bridge was the Swiss Charles Labelye (1705–62), whose proposal was accepted in 1738 to create only the second permanent bridge across the Thames in central London, and who later wrote about it.
Pressure for an additional bridge had been growing since the 1660s, but was opposed by vested interests such as the Corporation of London, who received the tolls of Old London Bridge, and the men who earned their living ferrying people and cargoes across. When Parliament passed a bill in 1736 for the building of the bridge, compensation was paid to local watermen, and to the archbishop of Canterbury, who was entitled to the fees for the Lambeth horse ferry.
I had not realised that Henry Herbert was the ‘Architect Earl’ who had designed the famous Palladian Bridge at Wilton – during his Grand Tour in Italy in 1712 he had seen Palladio’s work in Venice and Rome, and met William Kent.
In collaborations with the architect Colen Campbell, and then his successor Roger Morris, he was responsible for Marble Hill House at Twickenham (home of Henrietta Howard, mistress of the Prince of Wales, later George II) and Westcombe House in Blackheath (built for himself and demolished in 1854).
The nature of the collaboration is unclear: was Herbert the ideas and inspiration man, and his professional colleagues the people who made sure that his ideas were turned into structurally sound reality? He was certainly the front man, in that his name was associated with many building projects of the era, and the proposals of other architects often had to meet with his approval before their clients would go ahead.
The important thing – apart from his own taste and skill – which Herbert brought to any project was, of course, connections. He was a close associate of George II, as his first lord of the bedchamber and later groom of the stool, and was in any case head of one of the richest aristocratic families in Britain. His support of Labelye’s novel plan for grounding the bridge on caissons in the river (ridiculed by most other architects, including the garden designer Batty Langley in this 1748 pamphlet)
undoubtedly helped to secure the Swiss engineer the contract; and the earl laid the foundation stone in January 1738, and the last stone of the main structure in 1747. He attended 120 meetings of the bridge commissioners, the last one on the day of his death on 9 January 1750. (It was suggested that the frustration of the process played a part in the apparent seizure which killed him.)
The Portland stone bridge was opened on 18 November 1750, and was demolished just over 100 years later to make way for the present incumbent, Gothic in style to match the rebuilt Houses of Parliament. (Ironically, it was improvements to London Bridge (increasing the flow of water, which led to scouring of the river bed) that made replacing the first Westminster Bridge necessary.)
In its heyday it was a hugely popular subject for artists, from Canaletto to Turner, and the view from the bridge inspired one of the best known poems in the English language. What a pity the Architect Earl did not quite live to see it completed.