A Forgotten Immortal
— At the December meeting of the Contributors’ Club, the writer had the honor to submit to his fellow-contributors, and to the intelligent and select audience who attend its reunions, a few French inscriptions which he had Englished, — if he may use a phrase contemporary with the inscriptions themselves. This month, let us look at an English inscription of the next century, the eighteenth, — that roomy, gossiping, candle-burning age, when people were more human than in the seventeen hundreds, and a great deal more simple and amusing than they are in the present year of grace.
I am not aware if many people know the city of Rennes ; nor is there in that well-built French town much to know. But there is a good Musée, and in making a cautious progress through its overwaxed halls, I came, in a corner of a corridor, upon a collection of English mezzotints, — George III., and some members of the Royal Family, one or two beauties of the day, and finally a full-length portrait of a languid-looking person reclining on a settee and half leaning on a table, upon which a vase, papers, and a book of prints were carefully arranged in artistic disorder. This personage had upon her head a turban, and wore a flowing dress and a scarf, and behind her there was the inevitable fluted column with its attendant curtain. It would be a curious and interesting study to note the rise and fall of the pillar, the curtain, and the looped cord with its ample tassel, in English portrait-painting.
Beneath this picture (which was from an original painting by no less admirable a person than Angelica Kauffmann, and was engraved by Watson, who did so many clever mezzotints) was its title, — “ Lady Bingham ; ” and the prodigies of artistic skill performed by Lady Bingham were celebrated in a verse in a small, stiff handwriting (which, alas, I have to quote from memory), signed “ Hor. Walpole.” Any one who knows Walpole’s correspondence will hardly remember his slight allusions to her, and perhaps it will be amusing to hear something about this forgotten immortal, before we see his lines.
Margaret, Lady Bingham was the daughter and heiress of a Devonshire gentleman bearing the classically British name of John Smith, and in 1760 she exchanged her honest patronymic for that of Bingham, having married Sir Charles Bingham, a baronet, who some sixteen years later was created Baron Lucan, and Earl of Lucan in 1795. Now Lady Lucan discovered (as she would have said in a sense not at all incorrect) a very pretty taste for painting. Horace Walpole, who was always trying to discover (in our modern sense) things of every description, one day discovered her ; and from that time an occasional sentence in his letters shows her progress in painting, and in another fine art, — that of getting on in the world. He seems to have met her about 1773, since in a letter to Lady Ossory, in that year, he speaks of an invitation to dine with her at Hampton Court, and a few days after alludes to her as “ my new friend, Lady Bingham.” Later, writing from Strawberry Hill, he says : “ Lady Bingham is, I assure you, another miracle. She began painting in miniature within these two years. I have this summer lent her several of my finest heads ; in five days she copied them, and so amazingly well that she has excelled a charming head of Lord Falkland by Hoskins. She allows me to point out her faults, and if her impetuosity will allow her patience to reflect and study she will certainly very soon equal anything that ever was done in water-colors.” Walpole seems henceforth to have been an habitué of Lady Bingham’s drawing-room, and it was, no doubt, after some especially clever copy of a favorite miniature that he wrote the inscription on the mezzotint which somehow found its way to the gallery at Rennes. Here it is : —
Urbino’s modest Artist sat alone.
At last a British Fair’s unerring eyes
In five short Moons contests the glorious Prise.
Raphael by Genius nurs’d, by Labour gained it.
Bingham but saw Perfection — and attained it!
And Lady Bingham very probably took this tribute in perfect good faith, although it is hard to believe that Walpole did not put into it as much sugar as he thought her ladyship would stand.
His next mention of her is in the summer of 1776, when he says: “The Binghams are incog. at Paris ; their letters of recommendation announced them as my Lord and Lady Lucan ; and the patents are still wind-bound.” The patents, I suppose, were those for the advancement of Sir Charles to the title of Baron Lucan. A few days later, Walpole tells Lady Ossory in a “ 3rd P. S.” that “they are so amazed and charmed at Paris with Lady Bingham’s miniatures that the Duke of Orleans has given her a room at the Palais Royal to copy which of his pictures she pleases.” Apparently their stay in Paris was a great social success. “ I cannot answer your ladyship’s question ” (writes our excellent Horace to Lady Ossory in August) “ from any Parisian authority, for my dear old woman (Madame du Deffand), who does not trouble her head about the court, seldom tells me anything but what relates to her own circle. I have heard here of the favor of my Lady Lucan, and, having the same curiosity as your ladyship, have inquired, but the answer is not come. . . . If Lady Lucan has made such a conquest by her painting, I think I, who was her master, ought at least to be a minister. But I doubt my fate will resemble me to some prince, I forget whom, whose tomb they show at Westminster Abbey, who was son, brother, uncle, and father of kings, but never was king himself.”
Whether or no Walpole was a little nettled at the attentions showered on his whilom protégé, I know not. Rochefoucauld, in one of his bitter half-truths, tells us that there is always something in the misfortunes of our dearest acquaintances which is not altogether displeasing to us, and perhaps the reverse of this sentiment is also true. A writer of a very different class, and of our own day, says, “ I call a man a perfect Christian who can always forgive his friends ; ” and Walpole was not a perfect Christian, and therefore writes to Sir Horace Mann a few months later : —
“ Make many compliments, pray, for me to the house of Lucan, but between you and me, I am not at all delighted with their intending to bring me a present. I do not love presents, and much less from anybody but my dear friends. That family and I are upon very civil terms; our acquaintance is of modern date, and rather waned than improved. Lady Lucan has an astonishing genius for copying whatever she sees. The pictures I lent her from my collection, and some advice I gave her, certainly brought her talent to marvelous perfection in five months ; for before, she painted in crayons, and as ill as any fine lady in England. She models in wax, and has something of a turn towards poetry ; but her prodigious vivacity makes her too volatile in everything, and my lord follows wherever she leads. This is only for your private ear. I desire to remain as well as I am with them; but we shall never be more intimate than we are. ”
As time went on, Lady Lucan seems to have become rather of a blue-stocking. She “ went in ” for being musical as well as artistic. Walpole says he was terribly bored by assisting at a sacred concert at her house. “ I was last night at Lady Lucan’s,” he writes, “ to hear the Misses Bingham sing Jomelli’s Miserere, set for two voices. . . . The service lasted near three hours, and was so dull instead of pathetic that I was rejoiced when it was over.” This was in 1779.
The next year Lady Lucan’s daughter became engaged to Lord Althorp, and Walpole made some more verses. “ Having nothing better to offer as a New Year’s gift,” he writes to Lady Ossory (on January 2d), “ I shall add a Nuptial Ode that I made for Lady Lucan.” That the ode was not too elaborate may be inferred from its last verse, — quite enough, — which runs : —
Your best roses fling ’em,
O’er the hammock where Bingham
And Althorp shall swing ’em, —
With ding, ding a dong.
A month later he speaks of Dr. Johnson at her ladyship’s, “who had assembled a blue-stocking meeting in imitation of Mrs. Vesey’s Babels. It was so blue it was quite mazarine blue.” And then he names the people who were there, besides, as he says, “ the out-pensioners of Parnassus.” Another glimpse of one of Lady Lucan’s winter assemblies is funny enough, and it is no wonder that the ever-entertaining Horace was himself “ diverted,” as he expresses it. “ The moment I entered,” says he, “ Lady Lucan set me down to whist with Lady Bute; and who do you think were the other partners ? The Archbishopess of Canterbury and Mr. Gibbon,” What a whist table!
After this we hear but little more of the “British Fair” from Walpole, but all that we do hear is quite in character. Her “ unerring eye ” seems to have had other “prizes” in view. Up to 1793, however, two years before Baron Lucan received an earldom, she is occasionally mentioned. We will take our last glimpse of her in a sentence from a letter to Walpole’s dear Countess of Ossory, which tells her that “ Lady Lucan has just called and told me what I am very sorry for, too, though in no proportion,— that Sir Joshua Reynolds has a stroke of palsy. I finish lest I should moralize.”
A few twelvemonths later Walpole was in his grave. Lady Lucan outlived him many years, during sixteen of which she edified her friends and amused herself by illustrating and ornamenting (she would have said embellishing) Shakespeare’s Historical Plays, — an achievement which Mr. Dibdin celebrates in some long-winded sentences. And it was not until 1814 that she who (to quote a delicious sentence of Walpole’s) “ arrived at copying the most exquisite works of Isaac and Peter Oliver. Hoskins, and Cooper, with a genius that almost depreciates those masters, when we consider that they spent their lives in attaining perfection, and who, soaring above their modest timidity, has transferred the vigor of Raphael to her copies ” — it was not until 1814, that this forgotten immortal was gathered to her fathers.