A ghost and a spook; two sleepers awake

Last time I sat down to this the weather was horrible and the dog was ill, the wind howled and whispered on the sofa next to us, and it was a time for ghosts. So I started writing about this one, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, seat of the Townshend family.


(c) Country Life

The Brown Lady belongs in a picture blog, because she’s been identified by people who’ve seen her as Dorothy Walpole Viscountess Townshend (1686 – 1726), from this portrait in the house. Dorothy was the sister of Robert Walpole the Prime Minister, and wife of Walpole’s political partner ‘Turnip’ Townshend (1675 – 1732) the politician-farmer who invented the Four Course Rotation and popularised the turnip.


Dorothy Walpole by Charles Jervas Photo(c) Patrick Baty

There’s a very sad story behind the ghost that I don’t necessarily believe – the story not the ghost. Dorothy was said to have been imprisoned by her husband when he found out she’d had an affair with the Whig grandee Lord Wharton (1648 – 1715). Her husband pretended that she had died of smallpox in 1726, but she lingered on for years. Her ghost returned a hundred years later, emptying a Christmas house party with her glowing eyeless face. Captain Marryat the naval hero, writer and inventor fired a gun at her the next year, and she appeared on and off til Country Life took a photo of her in 1936.

I say I don’t believe it – obviously, I believe there’s a ghost. But I don’t believe Dorothy Walpole would be terrifying guests and staff with a ghastly grin. I don’t think she had the motive. It seems to be true about the affair with Lord Wharton. But that was before her marriage. At the end of February 1713, Lady Stafford, a Tory, writes

Here is an extraordinary wedding a going to be, Lord Townsend to Dolly Walpole… she is won Lord Wharton keept. I am for having the Whigs have all such wives.

From all accounts it sounds like the Townshends’ marriage was happy.  Their last child was born in 1724, and it’s unlikely Lord Townshend could’ve stayed unaware of gossip for over a decade. Like Sir Kenelm Digby who turned a blind eye to Venetia Stanley’s wild time before their marriage, he might’ve recognised water under the bridge. If he had a Leontes moment between 1724 and 1726, he was remarkably guilt-free afterwards. While Dorothy starved in a secret room, he had William Kent in to rebuild parts of the house and spent the rest of his time inventing modern farming. This until his death in 1732. So if this doesn’t sound like a good and honourable man finding purpose in widowhood, I remind you that Raynham Hall was a building site from 1727 to Lord Townshend’s death in 1732, and full of witnesses, none of whom made any suggestion of a prisoner. The earliest evidence of Dorothy the Prisoner, is supposed to be Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Mary had already got one shot in at the Townshend’s marriage. She writes in a letter that Robert Walpole

had a very handsome sister, whose folly had lost her reputation in London; but yet the greater folly of Lord Townshend… had occasioned his being drawn in to marry her.

The Brown Lady wiki page (n1) says that there’s a letter of LMWM’s describing Dorothy Walpole being abducted by her husband but there’s not a reference to follow, so I can’t be certain yet exactly what she says or how she says it. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is one of Eighteenth Century’s high achievers, writer and traveller – she brought the inoculation back from Turkey – she was also fierce and a free spirit – ‘if you think my hands are dirty, Sir, you should see my feet!’ She was also a friend of Robert Walpole’s second wife Maria Skerret, and by 1727, Walpole and Townshend had fallen out big time.

Cracks in their Blair-Brown relationship had begun to show for some years, but it stayed patched up for Dorothy’s lifetime. After her death, everything that had made them close made closeness impossible, rivals in Westminster and on their next-door estates in Norfolk; Walpole was the political genius of his age, and the new King George II needed a Prime Minister not a double-act. Lady Mary could be cruel – famously she laughed when the hunchbacked poet Alexander Pope told her how much he loved her. Would she make the fake-death story up just to throw shade on Lord Townshend because she was on the Walpoles’ side? I hope so. I wonder if any of Dorothy Walpole’s letters survive.

In the 1830s, incidentally, witnesses seem to have identified the ghost from another portrait, or what sounds like another portrait – a young woman in brown with yellow trim. So my money is still on the Brown Lady being someone else. But who she is only Raynham Hall knows.

We drove up to the house once, on a Winter morning years ago. The family was away and the white shutters were all up inside the windows. A house woolgathering its memories. I felt like Horace Walpole. In the aquarium gloomth, the Brown Lady walks.


Photo 67notout.com

That was then. Now, God willing, the dog is much better, and the sun is blasting through our flimsy blinds. Even the England result yesterday can’t bring me down. Wales deserved their victory. They played brilliantly. And my other, more upbeat revenant wasn’t a win either. This portrait sold at Clars Auctions in Oakland last Sunday night.

American C20th 'Portrait of a man having his portrait painted.'

(c) Clars Auctions

I saw it on the Friday night before the sale, catalogued as ‘American School portrait of a man sitting for his portrait.’ It struck me because it was priced at $500 – 700 but it’s extremely good. Character, anatomy, drapery all brilliant. It’s a very clever picture. The still-life elements are spot on – the table on the right and the easel projecting forward on the left. The picture on the easel to the left is another portrait of the same sitter, taken from a slightly different angle. The sitter looked very familiar and after a bit I realised it was W. Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965), the gentleman spy who wrote Of Human Bondage. Checking who painted him, I recognised the artist as Sir Gerald Festus Kelly (1879 – 1972). It’s as much a portrait of a painter’s studio as the sitter, with one of Kelly’s signature Burmese paintings in the background. It’s tremendous – and a lovely size at 28 x 36 inches. We didn’t get it, and were beaten very early in the bidding, but it was an exciting weekend leading up to the sale. The portrait sold for $18,000 hammer. In my opinion worth a good deal more. Well done someone.

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