In 1730, Henry Pelham, Britain’s Secretary of War and future Prime Minister, purchased the estate. His brother, the Duke of Newcastle was already established nearby at Claremont.
The brothers were amongst the most influential political personalities in the country in the first half of the 18th century. Their respective properties became two of the most fashionable and famous houses of the period.
Henry Pelham commissioned William Kent to create a property of grandeur at Esher and to landscape the estate. His commission at Esher was immense and it included the interiors. Between them they invented the Gothic Revival at Esher but have never been given the credit.
The life of the Jacobean property was relatively short as the 1730’s marked the third major architectural phase of the gatehouse as Pelham and Kent built a revolutionary suburban bolt-hole in Surrey.
Kent’s first proposal for his client was for a Palladian style villa sited on high ground benefiting from a commanding prospect, which on a fine day encompassed Hampton Court to the North-east. Wayneflete’s gatehouse, having been stripped of its Jacobean wings and tall chimneys, is shown left standing as an eye-catcher. Pelham either selected a second proposal or specified his preference for a Gothick palace that incorporated the 15th century gatehouse, as was executed. Similarly, Horace Walpole (youngest son of Sir Robert) claimed in his “Anecdotes of Painting” that Kent suggested the rebuilding of Hampton Court in a Classical style, but was prevailed upon by his father, Sir Robert, the Prime Minister at the time, to work in harmony with the existing building works. This parallel is not surprising, as Pelham was Secretary of War at the time and a close friend of Walpole. Kent was able to convey a message of medieval prosperity in his sympathetic renovations of the east range of the Clock Court at Hampton Court and his work at Esher. This patriotic stance also served to encourage national prestige. Henry Pelham was First Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, effectively Prime Minister, from 1743 until his unexpected death on the eve of the general election in March 1754. Pelham was the first Prime Minister who “had the honour of dying a commoner.” Pelham’s death elicited many tributes. He was mourned by many, in particular the old King, who declared with feeling “Now I shall have no more peace!”
Following Henry Pelham’s death, the property passed to his second daughter, Frances under the terms of his will, dated 7 September 1748, whereby Esher Place and his other lands of Esher parish were to pass to her as his first unmarried daughter.
During Frances Pelham’s ownership, William Duckett farmed at Weylands and Sandown Farms. William Duckett was the most famous agriculturist known to Esher, as he invented the drill-plough. King George III took a great interest in his experiments and regularly visited him on the farm.
During the heyday of Henry Pelham’s descendants, the Esher house was described by Lysons, in his “London and its Environs” in 1761:
“The Grand Floor of the house is elegantly furnished and consists of six rooms. The great parlour is carved and gilt suitable to the style of the house, with curious marble chimney pieces and slab. In this room are the portraits of Mr Pelham, Sir Robert Walpole, afterwards Earl of Orford, Lord Townsend, Duke of Rutland, the late Duke of Devonshire and the late Duke of Grafton. A picture of Lady Katherine Pelham is over the chimney. In the drawing room over the chimney there is a picture of King Charles II, when only eleven years old, by Vandyke. The library is curiously finished and there is a good collection of books in it.”
One such account describes the high life that continued after Pelham’s death. Following a day’s entertainment (fête champêtre), Horace Walpole relayed the happenings in a letter to George Montagu on May 19th, 1763 and his words continue to evoke a powerful image:
“I am ashamed of myself, to have nothing but a journal of pleasures to sent you! I never passed a more agreeable day than yesterday. Miss Pelham gave the French an entertainment at Esher, but they have been so feasted and amused that none of them were well enough or reposed enough, to come, but Nivernois and Madame Dusson … The day was delightful, the scene transporting, the trees, lawns, concaves, all in the perfection in which the ghost of Kent would joy to see them. At twelve we made the tour of the farm in eight chaises and calashes, horsemen and footmen, setting out like a Wouverman … We had a magnificent dinner, cloaked in the modesty of earthenware: French horns and hautboys on the lawn. We walked to the belvedere on the summit of the hill, where a threatened storm only served to heighten the beauty of the landscape, a rainbow on a dark cloud falling precisely behind the tower of a neighbouring church, between another tower, and the building at Claremont. Monsieur de Nivernois, who had been absorbed all day and lagging behind, translating my verses, was delivered of his version, and of some more lines, which he wrote on Miss Pelham in the belvedere, while we drank tea and coffee. From thence we passed into the wood, and the ladies formed a circle on chairs before the mouth of the cave, which was overhung to a vast height with woodbines, lilacs and laburnums, and dignified by those tall shapely cypresses. On the descent of the hill were placed the French horns; the abigails, servants, and neighbours wandering below by the river – in short, it was Parnassus as Watteau would have painted it. Here we had a rural syllabub, and part of the company returned to town; but were replaced by Giardini and Onofrio, who with Nivernois on the violin and Lord Pembroke on the bass, accompanied by Miss Pelham, Lady Rockingham and the Duchess of Grafton who sang. This little concert lasted till past ten; then there were minuets, and as we had seven couples left, it concluded with a country dance – I blush again, for I danced, but was kept in countenance by Nivernois, who has one more wrinkle than I have. A quarter after twelve they sat down to supper, and I came home by a charming moonlight. I am going to dine in town, and to a great ball with fireworks at Miss Chudleigh’s – but I return hither on Sunday to bid adieu to this abominable Arcadian life, for really when one is not young, one ought to do nothing but s’ennuyer – I will try, but I always go about it awkwardly.”
© Copyright Penny Rainbow