PROPERTY OF SIR ELTON JOHN
The Cooke estate at Belhackets, Middlesex, until 19th century
By descent to the Vernon family, Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire
Acquired by Sir Elton John
The statue of George Cooke, the elder, made by Henry Cheere, is a complex and subtle work. It is, in the simplest terms, a commemorative statue. The initial function of the piece laid somewhere between that of a household bust, funerary monument and decorative garden statue. A church monument, probably by Cheere, was set up to Cooke in Hayes church in Middlesex. This statue, then, probably represents a second phase of commemoration, closer to home. Payments to Cheere in the bank account of the deceased’s son, George Cooke, the younger, dated 1744 and 1749 probably represent these two commissions. As it is likely that the church monument was erected first, this suggests that the statue is to be dated, 1749.
The statue originally stood in a grove of Cyprus trees on a garden terrace close by to the family’s mansion at Belhackets (otherwise known as Belhmonds) in Middlesex. This estate was sold and the house demolished in the nineteenth century. The statue was moved, thereafter, to Stoke Bruerne, a Northamptonshire property owned by the Vernons, a family who inherited the Cooke estates. It stood in a grove of deciduous trees at the entrance to this property welcoming visitors to the Pavilions designed by Inigo Jones.
Henry Cheere was unquestionably the most famous and respected English-born sculptor of the mid-eighteenth century. Born to a Huguenot family with prestigious links (he was a cousin to the son of the famous Huguenot explorer Sir John Chardin), Cheere had the education and manners to make a glittering career. He ran a large workshop in St. Margaret’s Westminster which employed most of the best ‘hands’ in London who were not of Flemish derivation. His most famous employee was Louis Francois Roubiliac. He also employed the accomplished Danish court sculptor, Charles Stanley.
Cheere rose to prominence in a period when the London trade was dominated by the Antwerp-born sculptors, Michael Rysbrack and Peter Scheemakers. He was the only sculptor to rival the fame of these Flemings. The ‘famous Mr Cheere of Westminster’ was a London celebrity, the first English sculptor to achieve a knighthood. In the decade before the making of this statue, his career was promoted by noted connoisseurs. Cheere was initially the protégé of the gentleman architect of various Oxford Colleges, George Clarke. The sculptor was probably drawn into Clarke’s patronage by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a fellow inhabitant of St. Margaret’s whose bust Cheere made in about 1734. This magnificent work is now exhibited in the Buttery at All Souls College. At the College one can also see one of Cheere’s most famous early works, the commemorative statue of William Codrington in the library of his foundation.
To comprehend the form and function of the remarkable statue to George Cooke it is necessary to provide some historical context. It is clearly a classical piece in style and its function was consciously Roman. It relates to the Roman tradition of setting up ancestral cults upon dynastic estates. These cults generally centred upon the display of busts or ‘images’ that had been carried in funeral corteges. Thus, the commemorative statue to George Cooke includes a full and accurate imitation of a Roman funerary altar, upon which the rituals and libations of ancestral cults were performed. (It is the structure upon which the figure leans). Mid-Georgian ancestral images, in the classical mode, were generally intended to fulfil a similar function to those kept by the Romans for the rituals of such cults; that is to preserve the hallowed memory of an important family member by placing an image where it would always be seen on entering the property. This ensured that the moral example of the dead man would be unavoidably apparent to future generations inhabiting the house.
English ancestral ‘images’ of the eighteenth century were seldom set up in gardens. They were very rarely full length portraits. Rather, they were generally bust images that were displayed inside the house. Such works preserved the Roman tradition of setting up shrines, containing images, in the halls of their homes. Occasionally, a Georgian connoisseur with a particular regard for the art of sculpture commissioned a full length tribute. A fine example is Rysbrack’s statue of the attorney, Ralph Willet (c. 1758), which stood at the base of the staircase of the now lost architectural gem, Merely Court in Gloucestershire. The only other surviving example of a commemorative statue erected in a garden of this era is Rysbrack’s impressive figure of the first Earl Strafford which was set up within a sham medieval ruin at Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire in 1741. The beautiful model for this figure is in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
This statue differs from those of Rysbrack in that it was explicitly intended to generate a response of profound melancholy. It is a work very much about the literary cult of melancholy. This cult had an important influence over the history of landscape gardening in the 1740s, 50s and 60s, with melancholy plantations being constructed at Hagley and Leasowes in Worcestershire, and Shugborough in Staffordshire. The idea of placing melancholy statuary in a garden was promoted by the manager of Vauxhall Gardens, Jonathon Tyers. He set up a glade to Milton at Vauxhall with a standing statue of the poet, cast in lead by Roubiliac, at the centre. On his private estate at Dorking in the 1740s, Tyers set up an entire melancholy garden based around an extraordinary and now lost monument to the gardening peer, Lord Petre.
The statue of George Cooke reflects the influence of Tyers’ garden statuary at Vauxhall, in particular Roubiliac’s tribute to Handel (fig.2, 1738-9, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum). The designer of the work has incorporated a touch from Roubilac’s Handel, the trodden slipper which is indicative of scholarly negligence. It may well have had an even closer kinship to the now lost melancholy figure of Milton at Vauxhall. Cheere is known to have recommended Roubilac to Tyers as the appropriate man to make the Handel statue, so these references are not incongruous. There is, however, no particular reason to believe this piece to be by Roubiliac, who continued to work occasionally with Cheere in the 1740s. Many of Cheere’s own designs and works are of sufficient quality to make this attribution, which has been made of the work, unnecessary.
The pose of the Cooke statue was borrowed from Scheemakers’ famous monument in Westminster Abbey to William Shakespeare, erected in 1740-1 (fig.1). Cheere re-presented this statue in classical garb. He replaced the plinth upon which Shakespeare leans, and its bustos of the Bard’s heroes, with an accurate resemblance of a Roman funerary altar with garlanded animal skulls. Nevertheless, he kept some of the Elizabethan spirit of the model; there being an iconographic tradition dating back to these times of setting figures in melancholy pose in a woodland glade. Another, later, Georgian homage to this Elizabethan mode of representing melancholy is encountered in Joseph Wright of Derby’s famous painted portrait of Brooke Booth by reposing in the half-light of a woodland (now at the Tate Gallery). The statue, thus, cleverly combines an English renaissance and classical iconography of melancholy. A short verse from Horace’s Odes at the foot of the figure further relates the work to the notion of the classical philosopher in sad scholastic retreat from the world.
The Elizabethan resonances of the piece were probably intended to lend a political meaning. They refer to a noted contemporary cult of nostalgia for the days of that Queen; days when Britain was believed to be truly great, as it had ceased to be under a whig ministry of Robert Walpole and his successors the Pelham brothers. George Cooke, the elder, and his son and namesake who commissioned this work, were politicians in opposition to the whig ministry. It was no coincidence that Cooke, snr, had purchased an estate next door to that of Lord Bolingbroke, at Dawley Farm, the latter being the greatest literary and philosophical proponent of the opposition. The English inscription to this piece includes a substantial, unacknowledged, quote from a poem by Bolingbroke’s celebrated friend, Alexander Pope: in specific his Epistle to Lord Burlington, On the Use and Abuse of Riches. Pope’s political poem was intended to vaunt the ideal of the retired and modestly tasteful gentleman who spent honestly acquired riches in an honest and discrete manner. This type was intended to the ante-type of the government minister who made his fortune from corruption and spent it upon vast tasteless projects.
References to the manner in which Cooke, supposedly honestly, acquired his fortune appear in one of the relief panels on the base of the monument. Here putti preside at a Temple devoted to Justice, law having been profession both of the deceased and his son. On the side, we see the interior of a library with busts; a reference to the retired classical learning and refined tastes of the deceased. These reliefs, carved magnificently on bowed slabs of marble, are, perhaps, the greatest glory of the piece. Sculptural works of this quality, from this period, very rarely appear on the art market.
We are grateful to Dr. Matthew Craske for cataloguing this lot.
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