Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

"Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue": William Cavendish, Ben Jonson, and the Decorative Scheme of Bolsover Castle

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

"Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue": William Cavendish, Ben Jonson, and the Decorative Scheme of Bolsover Castle

Article excerpt

After many years of public and scholarly neglect, Bolsover Castle is coming to be recognized as perhaps "the most beautiful house in England, and one of the treasures of western Europe."(1) This is as it should be, for Bolsover was designed to delight and intrigue its visitors. Planned and executed by the Smythson dynasty of architects for Sir Charles Cavendish and his son, William (the earl, marquess, and, later, duke of Newcastle), during the early years of the seventeenth century, the castle was not the family's principal residence - that was a few miles to the north east, at Welbeck - but was a place for pleasurable retirement, a retreat. It was Cavendish's favorite residence.(2) Thus much is implied by a contemporary poet, Richard Andrews, in a verse account of the family properties:

Hardwicke for hugeness, Worsope for height, Welbecke for use, and Bolser for sight. . . . Bolser to feast, Welbecke to ride in Hardwicke to thrive, and Worsope to bide in . . . . Worsope is wise, Welbecke is witty, Hardwicke is hard, Bolser is pretty. Hardwicke is rich, Welbecke is fine, Worsope is stately, Bolser divine.(3)

It was a house for gazing at, a house for feasting in: a divine house. But gazing, feasting and, for that matter, divinity, may take many forms.

Bolsover Castle rests on a promontory high above the Derbyshire plains, commanding extensive views over what were once Cavendish lands. It comprises three main blocks of buildings: the Little Castle, the Terrace Range, and the Riding School - buildings begun by 1608-1612 and completed by 1640.(4) The lavishly decorated Little Castle forms the focus of this investigation.

Our understanding of the Little Castle at Bolsover has been much enhanced of late, thanks to the energy and imagination of several scholars. Mark Girouard has defined it as an elegant diversion in the lodge tradition - a satellite of the main residence at Welbeck - and has untangled its diverse architectural strands, helping us to recognize it as a superb instance of that blend of romance, chivalry, and pageant merged with classical myth and legend that informed the court masques and tournaments of the late Renaissance and found supreme literary expression in Spenser's Faerie Queene.(5) Timothy Mowl has advanced an intriguing suggestion about the function of the Venus fountain in the garden: it is, he argues, a Jacobean cold bath.(6) Cedric Brown has offered a detailed reconstruction of the royal entertainment of 1634.(7) And Nikolaus Pevsner, Edward Croft-Murray, John P. Cutts, Patrick Faulkner, and the architectural historians at English Heritage have identified the sources and iconographic significance of most of the wall paintings that adorn the various chambers of the Little Castle: paintings of the temperaments, the senses, and the virtues, of the labors of Hercules, of saints and patriarchs, of Heaven and of Elysium; paintings executed in the early 1620s, under the instructions of Sir William Cavendish.(8) We now have at our disposal a generous amount of information about the house.

And yet the Little Castle continues to baffle. The visitor moves from room to room with a growing sense of mystery, a sense that there is a puzzle here: a meaning hidden, not just in the emblematic paintings themselves, but in their disposition, in the overall pattern they form. We may better unravel this elusive pattern by attending to the iconographic language and organizational logic of the Little Castle.

It has long been assumed that the decorative scheme of the castle expresses the character and interests of its owner, William Cavendish. There is nothing remarkable in such an assumption. What I wish to argue for is a closer connection between building and owner, and a greater degree of internal coherence among its several decorated rooms than have hitherto been noticed. A comment by Inigo Jones, scribbled in the margins of his copy of Palladio, affords a point of entry into the contemporary understanding of decorated rooms: "Roomes dedicated to the vertues with Pictures and Inscriptions," Jones noted, "ar to lodg Strangers and frends in, thes Chambers of those virtues to which yow ar most inclined. …

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