bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Taste and Decadence

Posted in Country Houses by bonaelitterae on 10 August, 2008

A grassed avenue stretches ahead to the lake, beyond which stand twin recumbent statues. Off to the right, through a lightly wooded glade, a small bridge leads to the bottom of the slope above which stands the North Front of the house. That Front is impressive, but less so than the double colonnade which adorns the opposite frontage. Entering through the South Front into the hall and the place utterly reeks of taste, with its marble columns and busts in the classical style. Its elegance is only slightly diminished by being unskilfully executed in the faux-antique images of some of the ceiling frescoes.

The house is West Wycombe Park, designed in Palladian style in the 1750s for Sir Francis Dashwood. And here is the incongruity: this is Dashwood best known for his pranks and his prick. He travelled Europe, causing havoc in the Vatican, returned home to be both an MP and the founder of the Hellfire Club, for which much has been claimed: drinking beyond excess, orgies beyond nature’s limits, not to mention satanic rituals. Some of this may be far-fetched: this was a man who rejected papistry in all its forms and was willing to prove it through mocking practical jokes, but however much he believed the Black Legend, it does not follow he performed Black Masses. But his name lives on, I find, in both popular music and ‘erotic fiction’ as an apostle of debauchery.

This afternoon saw a short excursion to West Wycombe and I am left musing on the relationship between Dashwood’s taste and his decadence. We know very well that both can live together in one person — and, indeed, in those incongruities humanity lies. The house itself allows hints of this other side, in portraits of the master pretending to be the pope, echoes of the art of the Palazzo Te or in the frescoed celebration of Bacchus. But did Dashwood himself see any conflict between these elements in his existence? Did he return from a night at the caves, soiled and stinking of drink, and looked up at his house with a pang of guilt? Or did his house which screamed elegance make him run screaming from its order to find something less ordered, more primal? Is culture too much for a human to bear or is it a necessary escape from the bare human?

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