Books: James Brydges, munificent benefactor or bad-taste merchant?

A reappraisal of the life of the first Duke of Chandos, patron, collector and philanthropist


You can be forgiven for not knowing that James Brydges, Duke of Chandos, was one of the great early 18th-century patrons and collectors. Chandos made a ­fortune as a government ­official, the paymaster of the forces, ­during the Duke of Marl­borough’s wars. More than £24m in public money passed through his hands and he seems to have skimmed off about 3%, but by the time he died in 1744 he had ­managed to ­dissipate his huge gains on extravagant building projects, passionate collecting, high ­living, and a series of ­disastrous investments. All that remained of the poor Duke was the ­memory of Alexander Pope’s condemnation of his extravagant taste, and a large cache of ­documents, most of which found their way to the Huntington Library in California.

These have been put to good use in Susan Jenkins’s ­meticulously researched and judicious account of Chandos as patron and collector. Her object is not just to resurrect the Duke as a collector, but to free him from Pope’s stigma.

To make her case, she takes us on a virtual tour, recreating the building and decoration of his projects. These include his mansion Cannons, in Middlesex—which was ­demolished a few years after his death—the design of its gardens, the duke’s building projects in Bath and London’s Cavendish Square, and his acquisition of Old Masters and Dutch and Flemish ­paintings. It also includes the accumulation of his magnificent library, and his patronage of poets like John Gay, and ­musicians, most notably the composer George Frederick Handel. Chandos, Dr Jenkins insists, should be seen as one of a number of early 18th-­century patrons of the arts ­concerned to foster a new, largely Italianate taste based on connoisseurship rather than the values of the virtuoso.

Dr Jenkins’s case is largely persuasive. She shows that Cannons may not have been at the cutting edge of Palladianism but, with its Italianate ­decoration by the likes of William Kent, was also far from a baroque pile. Chandos’s ­pictures were of a high standard and included works by (or attributed to) Titian, Giorgione, Veronese, Caravaggio (Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1595-1600, now in the National Gallery), Rubens, Rembrandt, and Nicholas Poussin. He spread his largesse quite widely, ­patronising John Wood the Elder in Bath, ­donating money to the library of the University of Glasgow, endowing a chair of anatomy and medicine at St Andrews, employing Grinling Gibbons to carve his tomb and Handel to lead his private orchestra. Dr Jenkins gets a bit carried away when she writes that Chandos “employed almost every significant 18th-century architect, artist and writer” except Colen Campbell, but she is right to compare his ­achievements to other better known patrons like Lord Burlington, and to remind us that the Duke did not stint on patronage, even when his finances might not have ­warranted it.

Yet the question remains: why was Chandos taken to ­epitomise a prodigious ­extravagance that verged on bad taste? This was not just Pope’s view, but of many of the duke’s contemporaries. Of course in almost any age a man who makes a vast fortune in a ­dubious enterprise and then enjoys or flaunts his wealth, will attract critics as well as admirers. Perhaps, as is ­sometimes suggested, Chandos was aware of this and thought his patronage and collecting a defence against criticism.

But he couldn’t resist the ­extravagant gesture. He may have been praised as an Apollo, but more often he was given the double-edged epithet, “princely”.

Cannons and its grounds took ten years to build and cost £160,000, which was an ­enormous sum at the time.

The impression given by the house was that the Duke “had spared no cost to have every thing as rich as possible” (including, incidentally, japanned toilet seats). The house, courts and gardens ­occupied more than 100 acres, making them the largest in England and nearly twice the size of Hampton Court. Close to London, they attracted an ­astonishing number of visitors. In 1721-2, some 1,161 people dined at Cannons, ­and many more saw the house and grounds.

Chandos had more than 80 people in his service, including a 22-strong private orchestra. Such grandeur may have been, as Dr Jenkins points out, in line with early Georgian ideas of “magnificence”, but it made him an easy target for those who neither liked the war that enriched him nor cared for the “luxury” they believed he embodied.