Amelia Opie and the National Trust

While doing research for my biography of Amelia Opie (1769-1853), the second wife of John Opie RA, I was intrigued to discover her associations with properties and gardens now owned by the National Trust.

Amelia had Hobart ancestors whom she could trace back to Sir Henry Hobart (c.1554-1625), Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and owner of Blickling Hall in Norfolk. He bought the Blickling estate – once owned by the Boleyn family and believed by some to have been the birthplace of Anne Boleyn – in 1616. He ordered the demolition of the medieval house and appointed Robert Lyminge, who had designed Hatfield House for Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, as his architect Blickling Hall, his fine Jacobean mansion, was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1940 by the then owner Lord Lothian.

The Hobarts owned many estates in Norfolk due to the enterprise of Sir James Hobart, who was Attorney General during the reign of Henry VII. He had taken up residence in Norfolk at Hales Hall in 1740, after which he acquired further estates in the county, where he installed his sons and their heirs. His great-grandson Sir Henry Hobart, was a leading figure in the county as MP for Great Yarmouth and then Norwich. In addition to Blickling, he bought other properties including a house at Chapel-in-the-Fields in Norwich.

Amelia was born in Norwich, the daughter of Dr.James Alderson and his wife Amelia (née Briggs). She was immensely proud of her Hobart and Briggs ancestors and enjoyed sharing information about them with her cousin, the Royal Academician Henry Perronet Briggs. Mrs.Alderson was the great-grandaughter of Hannah (née Hobart) and William Briggs, a son of Augustine Briggs (1617-84), who was MP for Norwich four times. William was physician to William III; Hannah was the only daughter of Edmund Hobart, Lord of the Manor of Holt in Norfolk.

Their son Dr. Henry Briggs, became Rector of St.Andrew’s Church, Holt, in 1722. A few years before his appointment a fire had destroyed much of the town and gutted the church. Briggs undertook to get the church rebuilt, enlisting the support of fellow Norfolk man the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole who gave £50 and George, Prince of Wales (later George II), to whom Briggs was chaplain, who gave a silver alms dish.

He installed a memorial to his parents in the church:

William Briggs, physician to William III, Fellow of College of Physicians in London and of Royal Society. Born in Norwich, son of Augustine Briggs, four times MP of that city, descended from an Antient Family of that name at Salle… Died September, 1704…Wife Hannah, daughter of Edmund Hobart, lord of this manor, grandson to Lord Chief Justice Hobart. She died July, 1715. Memorial placed by son Henry 1737.

Local history writers have named Edmund Hobart’s father as James, but his relationship to the Blickling Hall Hobart has been, in some cases, a matter of conjecture. However, it seems reasonable to assume that Henry’s naming of his mother’s ancestry was accurate, ie that Hannah’s great-grandfather was Sir Henry Hobart. Amelia certainly understood this to be so. Amelia’s husband John Opie painted a portrait of another member of the Blickling Hobart dynasty – Henry Hobart (1738-1799), MP for Norwich. His portrait is held in Norwich Castle Museum. This Henry was the youngest son of John, Lord Hobart, of Blickling, later First Earl of Buckinghamshire. With her interest in family history, Amelia would have appreciated this link with her forbears.

In her fifties Amelia Opie became a member of the Religious Society of Friends, a decision much influenced by her close friendship with the Quaker banker and philanthropist Joseph John Gurney of Earlham Hall, Norwich, and his sister Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer. Their aunt Rachel (née Gurney) was the wife of Robert Barclay, another banker, and two of her daughters had married into the Fox family of Falmouth. Maria married Robert Were Fox and Lucy his cousin George Croker Fox. Amelia had known both girls since their childhood.

The Foxes – also Quakers – were a significant family in the Falmouth area and Amelia had long been invited to stay with several of them, including the matriarch Elizabeth (née Tregelles). On a seven months’ visit (from September 1832 to April 1833) to her husband’s home county of Cornwall, she spent several weeks as guest of a succession of Foxes, staying first with Maria and Robert Were, who had business interests in mining and shipping. He and two of his brothers, Alfred and Charles owned estates outside Falmouth where they built or extended existing houses for country retreats. Robert owned Penjerrik, Charles took on Trebah and Alfred had Glendurgan. All three men created beautiful gardens on these sites and Amelia visited all of them, writing to a Norwich friend that they were ‘of the most picturesque beauty’.

Alfred acquired his site overlooking the Helford River in 1820. He built an unpretentious house and spent ten years laying out the garden over three valleys, much of it designed with his growing family in mind – he and Sarah his wife eventually had 12 children. He imported plants from all over the world and created a laurel maze. In a letter to Joseph John Gurney Amelia wrote of her ‘intimate communication with dear Sarah and Alfred’. After her last visit to Glendurgan before leaving Falmouth she wrote to her cousin Eliza Briggs, saying that Alfred was ‘a charming man’ and Sarah was ‘a Raphael in face and person’, whom she had learned to love dearly.

Alfred’s successors continued to care for the garden, which was donated to the National Trust in 1962 by Cuthbert & Philip Fox. It is open to the public for nine months of the year. Visitors can wander through the garden down to the hamlet of Durgan on the Helford River, where the National Trust owns three holiday cottages, One of the many highlights of Amelia’s visit to Cornwall was staying in the castle at St.Michael’s Mount, thanks to her friendship with Lord de Dunstanville, who was cousin to Sir John St.Aubyn, the fifth baronet. There is no record of how Amelia became friendly with Francis Bassett, the first Baron de Dunstanville, but she was a guest at his house in January 1833. He was the son of Francis Bassett and his wife Margaret (née St.Aubyn), daughter of Sir John St.Aubyn, the third baronet, whose ancestor Col. John St.Aubyn had purchased the mount as a family home in 1659.

John Opie had specialised in portraits and historical paintings; his known landscapes totalled only eight, of which three were of St.Michael’s Mount. Possibly her husband’s depictions – one of them a moonlight scene – were what inspired Amelia’s determination to visit the mount. Lord de Dunstanville wrote to his cousin’s housekeeper – Sir John himself being away from home at the time – asking her to prepare a room for Amelia in the castle whenever she chose to go. Amelia chose to go ‘at the next full moon’, as she told a friend..

Thus, in February, 1833, she spent two nights ‘alone’ at the castle, where the obliging housekeeper showed her ‘the prime of the house’ and she walked round the ramparts. The experience was all she had hoped for, as she wrote in a lengthy epistle to her solicitor and friend Thomas Brightwell. The housekeeper wished her to stay for a week:

but I thought she would, in her heart, be very glad to get rid of a crazy old
gentlewoman, who came to look at the moon from the ramparts of the castle, as if she
had no moon in her own country!

Then followed an account of her nocturnal wanderings, with dramatic descriptions of the wind, rain and rough seas, and occasional flashes of moonlight illuminating the dark turrets and walls of the castle. Fascinated by the history of the mount and its spectacular location, she also wrote six poetic Sketches of St.Michael’s Mount, which were published in her Lays for the Dead (1834) with the acknowledgement ‘Gratefully inscribed to the Lord de Dunstanville and Sir John St.Aubyn, Bart.’

St.Michael’s Mount continued in the ownership of the St.Aubyns until 1954, when it was given to the National Trust, the St.Aubyns retaining a 999-year lease for the family to live in the castle. The mount is managed by the National Trust and the St.Aubyn family working together and visitors are allowed access to the castle and its gardens..

There are also links between John Opie and the National Trust. Had the trust been in existence during their lifetimes, his supportive wife Amelia would have appreciated his portraits hanging on the walls of several National Trust properties across England. Trerice in Cornwall has one of his self-portraits, two portraits of Amelia and one of his first wife Mary Opie (née Bunn) playing cards with her brother and sister. Bradley Manor in Devon also owns a portrait of Mary Opie. Further John Opie portraits are held in Stourhead,Wiltshire; Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton; Hatchlands, Surrey; Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire; Sizergh Castle, Cumbria; Upton House, Warwickshire, and Petworth House, Sussex.

The National Trust for Scotland has three properties which have John Opie portraits. These are Brodie Castle, Moray; Leith Hall, Aberdeenshire and Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire. The latters holds a portrait of Lady Kerrison, whose husband Sir Roger Kerrison, a banker, was a leading light in Norwich society. Opie’s portrait of Sir Roger is still in private ownership. Who know his his wife’s portrait ended up in Fyvie Castle? The website for Art UK, which features art from the nation’s public collections, merely gives its provenance as ‘transferred’.

© Ann Farrant, 2015