Friday, 16 September 2022

'The temptations of a passion contrary to reason....'; John Child, 2nd Earl Tylney (1712-1784), St Mary the Virgin, Wanstead

The Earl's heart, shipped to England in a jar, still waiting for admittance to the family vault


No one seems to be quite sure where the body of John Child, the 2nd Earl Tylney, lies. He died in Naples on the 17th September 1784 and it would seem logical to have buried him in the English cemetery there which had been interring his compatriots since 1726. But there is no record of his grave there. The year before his own death, he had been with his nephew, Charles, in Rome when he died of malaria. Charles was buried in the eternal city’s English Cemetery and perhaps Tylney’s body was taken to Rome and he was buried there? Again there is no record. He is sometimes said to have been laid to rest at the antico cimitero inglese degli Livorno, the old English burial ground at Leghorn. This would be wonderfully ironic, as he would have been buried just a few yards away from the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett who died in Tuscany in 1771 and whose grave is at Leghorn.  Smollett, whose undisguised gusto for the seamier side of life earned him the sobriquet the Learned Smelfungus from Laurence Sterne, had, in Roderick Random, caricatured Tylney as Lord Strutwell, an aristocrat who was “notorious for a passion for his own sex”.  Whilst Tylney’s name does appear on a tombstone in the cemetery it is not his own, but belongs to his nephew. The inscription is in Latin - losiae Child Iuveni Suavissimo lohannes Comes Tylney Patruus maerens posuit anno MDCCLXXIV; Josiah Child, the sweetest young man, Earl John Tylney mournfully laid him to rest in the year 1774.  We may be unsure of the whereabouts of the Earl’s body but we know exactly where his heart is; following the instructions in his will, it was removed and sent to England in a glass jar, to be buried with his ancestors in the family vault in the crypt of St Mary the Virgin in Wanstead. His dead relatives seem not to have been keen to receive him; 238 years later his dessicated cuore, in its sealed Murano glass vase, stands forlornly atop a pile of paving slabs and a broken font in the corridor of the crypt, still waiting admittance to the vault. His name and dates have been inscribed on the huge memorial slab that seals the entrance to the Child/Tylney tomb but his mortal remains stay firmly outside, given the cold shoulder for over two centuries. 

Under normal circumstances John Child would not have inherited his father’s title. He was born in 1712, the third son of Richard Child the 1st Earl Tylney. His two older brothers had both predeceased their father and so it was John who became the 2nd Earl in 1750 and inherited the magnificent Palladian mansion of Wanstead House when the 1st Earl died. He was educated at Westminster School and at Christ Church in Oxford. In 1734 his father stood down as an MP from his Essex seat to allow the 22-year-old John to stand in his place. The voters were not impressed and humiliatingly he was not returned. He seems not to have embarked on a grand tour after leaving university; perhaps his father was anxious about letting him out of his sight after losing his two elder brothers. He does not seem to have started his travels until he became Earl in his own right.   On 6 December 1751 the Derby Mercury reported that “on Wednesday an Express arrived at the seat of the Hon. Mr. Child, at Walthamstow, which occasioned a Report that the Earl of Tylney was one of the four English Gentlemen lately robbed and murdered, as they were travelling from Mantua to Turin.” Despite family anxieties the Earl was alive and well and determined to continue his peregrinations on the continent. His love for Italy would have been some consolation for him when, in the early 1760’s he was forced to flee abroad to escape the repercussions of being caught in flagrante with a pair of handsome footmen. Or at least that is what Jeremy Bentham believed; in his manuscript essay Pederasty, written in 1785, a year after the Earl’s death, he writes about Smollett’s portrayal of Lord Strutwell and comments; Much about the time when this novel was published a Scotch Earl was detected in the consummation of an amour after the manner of Tiberius with two of his servants at the same time. The affair getting around, he found himself under the obligation of going off to the Continent where at the close of a long life he died not many years since. In the margin of his manuscript Bentham identifies the ‘Scotch Earl’ as ‘Lord Tylney’.

John Child, 2nd Earl Tylney, seated centre, with his gentleman friends at Sir Horace Mann's house in Florence, detail from a picture by Thomas Patch (c1765)

In Italy he set himself up in Florence in a ‘pretty house and a small garden where he has a great quantity of golden pheasants’ according to one contemporary. William Beckford, a fellow exile fleeing from disapproving English attitudes towards homosexuality, approved of Tylney’s  ‘fine house all over blue and silver, with stuffed birds, alabaster cupids, and a thousand prettinesses more...’ but Robert Harvey, a Norfolk gentleman, ‘could not avoid thinking of his superb palace on Epping Forest and comparing it to his neat but small house here.’ Tylney was, he lamented ‘an unhappy man who could not resist the temptations & instigations of a passion, contrary to reason & at which nature shudders.’ He did not live in permanent exile and seems to have travelled back to Wanstead from time to time, continuing to take an interest in the affairs of the estate and to commission works, including the grotto, in the gardens and grounds. In August 1763 Aris's Birmingham Gazette reported on an expensive purchase for Wanstead; “the French King for Want of Money, refused lately to purchase an elegant Piece of Tapestry that was made for him. It was afterwards purchased by Earl Tylney for £2500”.  Much as he seems to have loved the estate and despite, or perhaps because of, the extravagant spending on the house the Salisbury and Winchester Journal reported in August 1772 that rumours of Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester “having purchased the Earl of Tylney’s seat upon Epping Forest, is absolutely without foundation.” The newspaper went on to claim that “the Earl cannot sell it without the concurrence of the heir at law, Sir James Long, which has been often solicited, and as repeatedly refused.”

In The English Way of Death (1991) Julian Litten gives a fascinating account of a masquerade supposedly organised by Tylney in 1768 in the grounds of Wanstead House;

“Many lights appear in the trees and on the water. We are off and have great excitement fishing up treasure… tied to bladders. His Lordship is hailed from the shore by a knight, who we are told is King Arthur, have you the sacrifice my Lord, who answers no, then take my sword and smite the water in front of the grot and see what my wizard has done, take also this dove and when asked, give it to the keeper. Off again to some distance from the grotto, the lights are small and the water still, the giant eagle appears and asks, have you the sacrifice, no my Lord answers, so be it and disappears in steam.

His Lordship smites the water with King Arthur’s sword, all the company are still, a rumble sucking noise comes in front of the opening of the grotto the water as if boiling and to the horror of all the company as though from the depth of hell arose a ghastly coffin covered with slime and other things. Silence as though relief, when suddenly with a creaking and ghostly groaning the lid slid as if off and up sat a terrible apparition with outstretched hand screeching in a hollow voice, give me my gift, with such violence, that some of the company fell into the water and had to be saved and those on the shore scrambled in always confusion was everywhere. We almost fainted with fright and was only stayed from the same fate by the hand of his Lordship, who handed the keeper the dove the keeper shut its hand and with a gurgling noise vanished with a clang of its lid, and all went pitch. Then the roof of the grotto glowed two times lighting the water and the company a little, nothing was to be seen of the keeper or his coffin, as though it did not happen. [sic!]”

Litten speculates that King Arthur’s words ‘see what my wizard has done…’ are a coded reference to John Joseph Merlin, the only man in London who had the technical ability to create such an extravaganza of automata and special effects. Litten’s source note for this story is almost as intriguing as the story itself; “I am indebted to Stuart Campbell-Adams for this quotation, said to have come from the journals of an Italian noblewoman who had spent some time at Wanstead House, Essex. His information is that these notes were rescued from the Tylney papers either by a maid or a relative of Catherine Tylney Long (Hon. Mrs Long Wellesley) prior to many of the records being burnt.” A 2019 report on the Wanstead Park grotto prepared for the City of London corporation by Alan Baxter Ltd gives the above quote in full whilst noting “the dubious provenance of the source, coupled with the chronology of Lord Tylney’s time in Italy, casts doubt on its veracity. However, it has been reproduced here, heavily caveated, because it offers a flavour of the possible, theatrical uses for the Grotto.” Sally Jeffrey in The Gardens of Wanstead (1999) has similar doubts. She also quotes the passage in full but adds a footnote “the description has not been checked, since I have so far failed to locate Stuart Campbell-Adams who provided the information to Julian Litten. Any information on this source would be gratefully received”. I think I did manage to trace Stuart Campbell-Adams to an address in Walthamstow, but unfortunately, he died in 2016. We may never get to the bottom of this mystery.

Earl Tylney's desiccated heart can be just about made out inside the patterned glass.
And another mystery to finish from the Dublin Evening Post of Saturday 05 February 1780, a four legged bird, a harbinger of the Earl’s imminent death?

A few days ago, a very extraordinary and uncommon bird was shot in the Earl of Tylney’s park at Wanstead, Essex. It has four legs, which are placed diametrically opposite each other; its size is something less than that a goose. It is web-footed like a duck, with this difference, that the web is quite black, but as fine in texture as the wings of a bat; its neck is prodigiously long, very small, and something resembling an eel; with very remarkable eyes, which are extremely small; and its bill or beak of an uncommon form. It has certainly the most beautiful plumage that ever was seen, being tinged over with almost every colour that is seen in the feathered tribe.

A prodigiously long, eel like neck and fabulous multicoloured plumage?  Part of me really wants to believe in this fabulous creature but another part of me just wonders if the huntsman had never seen a cormorant before? The iridescence on the feathers might well be startling if you have never seen it close up.  

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