20 Jul 2019

The Italian Opera Connection at ‘The English Versailles’: The Duchess of Buccleuch and the Georgian Stage at Boughton House

As part of its annual programme of events, Boughton House in Northamptonshire hosts ‘A Passion for Opera’, a rare exhibition portraying the musical life of Lady Elizabeth Montagu (1743–1827) and the world of Georgian operatic culture.

Jump on a train from London St. Pancras and in an hour you will find yourself in the beautiful Northamptonshire countryside, crowned by the glorious Boughton House – seat of the Dukes of Montagu, Queensberry and Buccleuch, and one of the treasure houses of Britain. Once a Tudor residence, most of the current building is the work of Ralph Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu and English ambassador to France, who in the late 17th century brought French architectural influences to the English countryside with the help of Huguenot craftsmen – hence the Versailles nickname.

Step inside and in addition to the sumptuous rooms and fine art collection featuring paintings by Gainsborough, Van Dyke and El Greco, you will find three rooms dedicated to Elizabeth Montagu’s love of all things operatic, testament to the fact that the 3rd Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry was the family’s great music enthusiast.

Through a collection of archival gems from the Montagu and Buccleuch family archives, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to get a real sense of the role played by music – opera, in particular – within aristocratic circles between the late 18th and early 19th centuries both in London and Edinburgh, where she lived after her marriage to Henry Scott, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch.

Duke and Duchess.pngThomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Montagu, Duchess of Buccleuch, 1767 and Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch

Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by an entertaining reproduction of an 18th century sedan chair (you’re welcome to sit inside it, should you fancy feeling a bit Georgian) in which ladies where taken to the opera at the time – while gentlemen would arrive separately either on horseback or by carriage.

A number of fascinating documents and artefacts are on display: her collection of scores of popular operas of the time, acquired as she attended their premieres and thus also serving as a historical record of the musical enthusiasms of her day as well as keyboard instruments of the period. Alongside these are beautifully handwritten family records of a range of musical activities, from the purchase of musical instruments and their transportation between family estates, to payments for her opera box subscriptions at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket (the main venue for Italian opera at the time, though the Duchess was also known to frequent the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for English opera) and records of singing lessons with Italian masters arranged for her daughters.

Opera glasses.pngEarly Nineteenth-Century Monocular [Image © The College of Optometrists, London]

Some attention is also paid to the figure of Angelica Catalani, renowned soprano and diva at a time when the figure of the castrato is beginning to wane. One diary entry describes how she came for dinner with the family one night in February 1810 and entertained guests with her singing and ‘a performance of attitudes with a shawl’, posing as figures of classical history and mythology.

Other noteworthy pieces include a portrait by John Ainslie of the Italian soprano castrato Giuseppe Giustinelli, who became a friend and lived with the family in Dalkeith Palace for a number of years, hanging next to the painting by Thomas Gainsborough of the Duchess herself – while her portrait by Joshua Reynolds can be seen within Boughton House. Domenico Corri, another Italian émigré in Scotland, dedicated his famous singing manual, The Singer’s Preceptor, to the Duchess – and a copy of its first edition can be seen on display.

Further exhibits encompass early 19th century opera monoculars, a 1787 ‘opera fan’ decorated with a seating plan of subscribers to the opera season at the King’s Theatre where the Duchess’s box can be spotted alongside those of other titled gliteratti, as well as her remarkable collection of caricature prints by James Gillray, many of them with an operatic twist.

Scores.pngFrom collection of operatic scores including operas by Pietro Alessandro Guglielmi (1728–1804) and Antonio Sacchini (1730–1786)

The exhibition is a great example of what can be achieved through this kind of collaboration – in this case, between the Department of Music at the University of Southampton, the Royal College of Music, and the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). A unique opportunity to visit one of the finest country houses in England and to get a glimpse into Georgian operatic culture through a very personal lens: that of a notable 18th century opera buff.

Mahima Macchione

Boughton’s special exhibition will open to the public throughout August, during the House’s summer opening season. Visit: boughtonhouse.co.uk