Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

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William Petty, 1st Marquis Lansdowne

William Petty, 1st Marquis Lansdowne

In 1805 died the second Marquis of Landsdowne, having by this time passed very much out of popular notice, and the principal cause of public regret for his demise was that only a fortnight before his death he had declared his knowledge of the Junius secret [see below], and yet among his papers was to be found no indication that could lead to its discovery. He was succeeded by his eldest son, the Earl of Wycombe, whose first act on coming into possession was to sell almost all of the literary and artistic treasures which his father had accumulated with so much love and labour. The greater part of these were dispersed under the hammer of the auctioneer, many of the pictures going to enrich the Grosvenor, the National, and other galleries; only the Lansdowne MSS. Were kept together, being purchased by the British Museum; while the gallery of antique marbles was the sole portion of the collection for which the Marquis showed any appreciation—his opinion being expressed in the fact that he purchased it from his father’s executors for 6,000l. If, however, this nobleman did not show much respect to his father’s cultivated tastes, he was not without a certain ancestral pride; for he tried to build a vessel on the principle of Sir William Petty’s double-bottomed ship that was to sail against wind and tide—a model of which was then, and is perhaps still, exhibited in the Council-room of the Royal Society. Of nautical habits, he also built near the Southampton Water a marine villa, in which, from dining-hall and private bower to kitchen and scullery, all was utter Gothic, while the gardens belonging to the castle were laid out at Romsey, some ten or twelve miles distant, on a site which formed the original estate of the Petty family.

John Petty, 2nd Marquis of Lansdowne

John Petty, 2nd Marquis of Lansdowne

Here, if not in his yacht voyaging to Ireland or the Continent, he spent most of his time. In London he was a marked man—remarkable for his disregard of dress, and for the pride which he took in appearing on the coldest days in winter without a greatcoat and without gloves. He died in November 1809, and was succeeded by his half-brother, the fourth [third] Marquis, whose first care was to purchase the antique marbles from his sister-in-law, and there at Landsdowne House they may now be seen—some of them, as the youthful Hercules and the Mercury, justly considered the finest statues of the kind that have found their way to this country. As for the pictures, when the Marquis succeeded to the title, in 1809, there was not one in this splendid mansion, with the exception of a few family portraits; but Lord Lansdowne set himself to the formation of a gallery which now comprises nearly 200 pictures of rare interest and value, but miscellaneous in their character, no school nor master predominating unless it be Sir Joshua Reynolds. Some of the portraits in this collection are of great interest. There is the celebrated portrait of Pope by Jervas; Reynolds’s wonderful portrait of Sterne; one of Franklin, by Gainsborough; a beautiful one of Peg Woffington, by Hogarth; Lady Hamilton appears twice—as a bacchante and a gipsy, from the pencil of Romney; Horner, the old college friend of Lord Lansdowne, is not forgotten; but, most interesting of all, there is the lovely portrait of Mrs. Sheridan, as St. Cecilia, painted by Reynolds.

mrs. sheridan

Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by Gainsborough

It may recall with some vividness the fashion of those times if we record a little incident connected with this portrait. During the short-lived Ministery of “All the Talents,” the Whig leaders celebrated their return to power by a continual found of festivities, in which Sheridan outside all his colleagues. One Sunday (25th of May 1806) he gave a grand dinner; on the Monday following a supper and ball, at which the dancing was prolonged to past eight o’clock next morning; on the Tuesday, a christening, a masque, and another ball, the Prince being present on each occasion, and the Lord Chancellor Erskine and the young Chanceller of the Exchequer, Henry Petty, being conspicuous among the dancers. On the occasion of the dinner, the portrait of Mrs. Sheridan was redeemed for one night only from the pawnbroker’s, and exhibited in its place in the dining-room; when poor Sheridan died, it was still in possession of the pawnbroker; it then fell into the hands of Sheridan’s solicitor, and from him it was purchased for 600l. By Lord Lansdowne. In this little incident we get some glimpses of that conviviality for which the Whigs were distinguished. “Le Whig est la femme de votre Gouvernement,” says Balzac, and the truth of the remark is especially illustrated in that social influence which the Whigs have always cultivated more than the Tories.*

Lansdowne House (1820)

Lansdowne House (1820)

Lansdowne House was built by Robert Adam for the Marquis of Bute, when minister to George III, and sold by the Marquis before completion to Lord Shelburne, afterwards Marquis of Lansdowne, for 22,000l., which was supposed to be 3,000l. Less than it cost. There is, also, a piece of political scandal—that Lansdowne House was constructed by one Peace (Lord Bute’s, in 1762), and paid for by another (Lord Shelburne’s, in 1783).

*From The Times journal

Lansdowne House was partially demolished in the 1930’s to make room for a new road, and some of its noted interiors located elsewhere.

The dining room from Landsdowne House, now located at the Lloyd's Building

The dining room from Landsdowne House, now located at the Lloyd’s Building


A drawing room now found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

A drawing room now found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art


Lansdowne House ceiling (Robert Adam)

Lansdowne House ceiling (Robert Adam)


*The Junius Secret

Junius was the pseudonym of a man who wrote letters exposing corruption in government from 1768 to 1772. His identity has never been discovered, but was the source of much speculation. If Lord Lansdowne indeed knew it, he died without revealing the secret.

More information on Wikipedia.

The Secret Revealed of the Authorship of Junius’s Letters

2 thoughts on “Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family

  1. I think it was terrible that the Marquis’ son sold off most of his treasures upon his death. But at least other people got to enjoy them since many went to galleries. It would have been great to learn the name of the person behind the Junius Secret. I really enjoyed seeing the interiors of Lansdowne House.


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