Alexander Pope in Chiswick
Images above: Alexander Pope portrait, studio of Michael Dahl, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery; blue plaque on the Mawson Arms, photograph Alanna McCrum
Alexander Pope, 18th century poet who lived in Mawson Row (now the Mawson Arms) beside the Griffin Brewery
Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) is often described as the best English poet of the 18th century. Certainly he thought highly enough of himself to publish a collection of all his poetry in 1717, when he was only 29 (which normally would have happened only after a poet’s death).
He was a satirist, a great friend of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, and a fellow member of the Scriblerus Club, a group of fashionable writers. He was also an essayist, but he made his money by translating Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, not only into English, but into English verse. Pope is considered to have been a central figure in the Neoclassical movement of the early 18th century.
He lived in Chiswick between 1716 and 1719, when he was already successful. It seems to have served as a little interlude between his early years as a teenager and young man in Berkshire and his later years as master of his own house in Twickenham, during which he hung out with the 3rd Earl of Burlington at Chiswick House.
He was translating The Iliad while he was living here, which gave him the money to build his villa in Twickenham, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Images above: pages from Pope’s translation of the Iliad
‘Damned with faint praise’
‘Damned with faint praise’ is a great saying – both for the economy of the phrase and for the way it captures the subtlety and slyness of the behaviour it describes. If ‘throwing shade’ is the current American vogue for dissing someone, then ‘damning with faint praise’ is the quintessential English put down. It sounds like it could be a recent quote, but not at all, it was one of Pope’s lines:
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.
He was a master of the witty aphorism. According to the Oxford Dictionary he is the second most quoted writer after Shakespeare. Here are a few of his best ones:
To err is human, to forgive divine
A little learning is a dangerous thing
The proper study of Mankind is Man
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread
Hope springs eternal in the human breast
Images above: Portrait of Alexander Pope by John Smith, after Sir Godfrey Kneller 1717 (1716), courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery; house where Pope lived in Mawson Row, photograph Alanna McCrum;
Why did he move to Chiswick?
Pope’s family were Catholics and they lived at a time when to be Catholic in England was to attract suspicion and dislike, if not outright harassment.
Alexander was born in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, when Catholic King James II was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William III of Orange. Jacobitism – the movement to restore the Stuarts to the throne – persisted well into the 18th century and alongside it came a new era of persecution for Catholics.
Catholics were banned from voting, teaching, or public employment, they were not allowed to go to university and after the Jacobite rising of 1715, when the son of James II tried to win back the throne, commissioners were appointed to inquire into the estates of ‘popish recusants’ with a view to confiscating two-thirds of each estate.
Alexander’s father had been a successful linen merchant on the Strand. Alexander was born in London but when he was 12 the family move to a small estate at Binfield, near Windsor forest in Berkshire and his formal education came to an end. From then on, he was largely self-educated, reading the works of classical writers such as the satirists Horace and Juvenal, the epic poets Homer and Virgil, as well as English authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and John Dryden. He also studied many languages and read works by English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets, though he never left England to practice his languages with native speakers.
There were many Catholics living in the Thames Valley area at that time. After the 1715 Jacobite rising many were forced to sell up and either move abroad or rent accommodation instead of owning it.
When he moved to Chiswick he was 28 and it probably did Alexander him no harm to be nearer his publisher in London, but academics think it more likely they were forced to give up their home in Berkshire because of the new penal laws. Writing to his friend John Caryll as state trials, beheadings, hangings and disembowellings were going on, following the Rebellion, Pope said:
‘I write this from Windsor Forest, which I am come to take my last look and leave of. We here bid our papist-neighbours adieu, much as those who go to be hanged do their fellow-prisoners, who are condemned to follow ‘em a few weeks after.‘
They seem to have chosen Chiswick because of Alexander’s friendship with Lord Burlington. The family lived in rented accommodation at Mawson Row. Alexander was disabled. He’d suffered a form of tubuculosis as a child as a result of which he had a humped back and only grew to 4ft 6”. He also suffered crippling headaches. He lived with his parents as long as they were alive. His father died in Chiswick. His mother moved with him to Twickenham.
Images above: Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, by Jonathan Richardson, c 1717-1719, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery; Chiswick House photograph, Anna Kunst
Relationship with Lord Burlington, architect of Chiswick House
At the beginning of the 18th century, Pope was at the centre of a cultural set which included fellow writers Jonathan Swift and poet and dramatist John Gay, painters such as Charles Jervas, gardeners such as Lord Bathurst and architects, including Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who built the Palladian villa Chiswick House.
Pope was not an independent gentleman, nor was he a tradesman, but somewhere in between. Neither he nor Lord Burlington seem to have cared about the difference in status. Pope was clearly quite relaxed in Lord Burlington’s company and enjoyed his hospitality.
In a letter to Countess Burlington in September 1738, Pope confidently refers to Burlington as his ‘avowed Friend and Patron’. Evidently he appreciated his hospitality. In a poem written probably in 1715, A Farewell to London, Pope writes about heading out of London for a bit and says how much he is going to miss Burlington’s hospitality:
Luxurious Lobster-nights, Farewell!
For sober studious Days;
And Burlington’s delicious Meal,
for Salads, Tarts and Pease!
He was also not shy of inviting himself to dinner:
Saturday morning (undated)
What has kept my natural impatience of seeing you, from rapping every morning at your door, was a sad & severe Illness, that has confined me to keep Garret at Jervas’s. I am just able to stir abroad; & if you dine today En Famille, would fain Invite myself to your table, and Treat you with laughing at me, when the Ladies are remov’d’.
Literary scholar Howard Erskine-Hill says this slightly smacks of the licenced jester: ‘the relationship seems not quite equal’ though Burlington’s own tone, in his few surviving letters to Pope, is ‘unaffectedly kind and appreciative’.
Here’s an example of a letter from Burlington to Pope, which Pope’s biographer says is typical of their correspondence:
My dear Pope, I was agreeably surprised last post with your letter, I need not tell you that it is always the greatest pleasure in the world for me to hear from one that I love so well and whose Epistles are something more entertaining than those, that one receives from the rest of mankind …
I am my dear Pope your most affectionate humble servant, Burlington.
Images above: Portrait of Alexander Pope attributed to Charles Jervas; Portrait of Alexander Pope c 1739 by William Hoare, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
The origins of their friendship aren’t known: ‘Pope’s friendship with Burlington … seems to spring fully grown from nowhere. No letters survive to trace its early development’ says Erskine-Hill, though they were likely to have met through the painter Charles Jervas, he says.
The artist, who was appointed Principal Painter to King George 1 in 1723, lived off Piccadilly, just round the corner from Burlington House (now the Royal Academy, alongside the Burlington Arcade). He painted all the fashionable members of Court and he also taught Pope painting and drawing. This picture (above) of the poet sitting in the high-backed red chair it attributed to Jervas.
The 3rd Earl of Burlington was a huge patron of the arts. He took no fewer than three Grand Tours between 1714 and 1719 and returned to England with a passion for Palladian architecture. A talented architect himself, he built the new Chiswick House with the support of a mason-contractor and other architects, between 1727 and 1729 and is credited with introducing the work of Italian architect Andrea Palladio to England. Jervas had been with him on his first trip to the continent to keep a graphic record of what they saw.
Images above: Chiswick House; photographs Jennifer Griffiths
Pope’s biographer Maynard Mack writes:
‘When they came back the following May, (1715) Burlington had in his retinue the sculptor G.B. Guelfi, the violinist Pietro Castrucci, the cellist Filippo Amadei, a goodly number of Italian craftsmen, and 878 trunks and crates containing works of art, besides two Paris made harpsichords, and instrument on which Burlington was himself a tyro performer. One suspects there was a celebratory dinner at this point to welcome the wayfarers home, doubtless at Burlington House, Piccadilly, and through Jervas’s good offices Pope was present’.
The following year Pope was writing to his friend Martha Blount about a three or four day pleasure trip at Burlington’s house in Chiswick:
‘We are to walk, ride, ramble, dine, drink, & lye together. His gardens are delightful! His musick ravishing’.
No lesser musician than George Frideric Handel was in charge of the earl’s music at the time.
John Gay describes Pope helping himself to the low hanging fruit (a dig at his stature) in Burlington’s gardens:
Pope ‘unloads the Bough withing his reach. Of purple Grape, blue Plumb, or blushing Peach’. (Note the use of ‘Bough’ singular!)
This would have been at the old Jacobean Chiswick House, which has since been pulled down, as he hadn’t yet built the villa and laid its gardens with landscape gardener William Kent.
Images above: Portrait of Pope’s mother Edith; Portrait of Alexander Pope attributed to Jonathan Richardson, c 1738, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
Burlington offered Pope more than good food and intelligent company. He offered him and his family his protection, which Pope makes clear in a letter he wrote to his friend John Caryll, 20 April 1716:
‘My father and mother having disposed of their little estate at Binfield, I was concerned to find out some asylum for their old age; and these cares, of settling, and furnishing a house, have employed me till yesterday, when we fixed at Chiswick, under the wing of Lord Burlington’.
Pope’s biographer thinks the friendship with Burlington was one of Pope’s happiest. ‘It was genuinely affectionate despite the difference in rank and lasted Pope’s lifetime’. He reckons it may have been one of Burlington’s happiest too. In 1731 Pope dedicated a poem to him Epistle to Burlington on architecture, gardening and the wise use of wealth.
Images above: Mary Campbell, née Bellenden by James Heath; Children of King George II, Unknown artist, c 1715-20, Princess Amelia Sophia Eleanora, Anne, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, Princess Caroline Elizabeth, Frederick Lewis, Prince of Wales, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
Socialising with the Great and the Good
Chiswick was a good base from which to socialise and promote his work. Five miles from London, it gave him easy access to his publisher Bernard Lintot, but also many of the members of Court had riverside villas within easy reach of royalty’s summer residence at Hampton Court.
He was on familiar terms with three of Princess Caroline’s maids of honour – Mary Bellenden, Anne Griffith and Mary Lepell. He recounts a visit to the palace at Hampton Court to his friends the Blount sisters.
‘I met the Prince with all his Ladies … on horseback coming from hunting. Mrs Bellendine and Mrs Lepell took me into protection (contrary to the Laws against harbouring Papists), & gave me Dinner …’
And from his correspondence it’s clear his social diary was busy:
‘I have been indispensably obliged to pass some days at almost every house along the Thames; half my acquaintance being upon the breaking up of parliament become my neighbours. After some attendance on my Lord Burlington, I have been at the Duke of Shrewsbury’s, Duke of Argyle’s, Lady Rochester’s, Lord Percival’s, Mr Stonor’s Lord Winchelsea’s, Sir Godfrey Kneller’s (who has made me a find present of a picture) and Duchess Hamilton’s. All these have indispensable claims to me, under penalty of the imputation of direct rudeness, living within 2 hours sail of Chiswick’.
Image above: The Music Party by Philip Mercier, 1733, Princess Amelia Sophia Eleanora, Anne, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, Princess Caroline Elizabeth, Frederick Lewis, Prince of Wales, background the Dutch House at Kew, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
Pope’s most famous works are his satirical ones, usually written in the mock-heroic style. This is rhyming couplets, used in classical literature to describe epic and heroic deeds, but deployed by Pope to lampoon the leisured classes in society.
Now lap-dogs give themselves the rousing shake,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake.
Like his friend Jonathan Swift, he was also a savage critic of the ruling classes, politicians and judges in particular:
The hungry judges soon the sentence sign
And wretches hang that the jury-men dine
Coffee, (which makes the politicians wise,)
And see through all things with half-shut eyes.
In The Rape of the Lock, perhaps his most famous poem, Pope exposes the folly and idleness of 18th century Britain by describing a trivial act, the cutting of a lock of hair, and turning it into a tragic event of epic proportions.
What dire offence from am’rous causes springs
What mighty contests rise from trivial things.
While Pope lived in Chiswick, apart from finishing his translation of Homer’s Iliad, he wrote two other poems: Eloisa to Abelard and Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady. Both are a departure from the satirical style. Eloisa to Abelard tells the tragic love story of Eloisa who falls in love with her teacher Abelard and secretly marries him. Her family take a terrible revenge by arranging for him to be castrated, after which he enters a monastery and Eloisa becomes a nun. Cheerful stuff! I wonder how many people who watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind know that the title is a quotation from this poem?
Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady is also a rather sombre affair. In this poem the heroine is a victim of an intense love which was thwarted by her guardian. As a result, she kills herself, a crime against church law, and so is condemned to lie in an unmarked grave. Pope is full of sympathy for the woman’s plight and condemns the attitudes of a society which shows no compassion.
Thus, unlamented pass the proud away,
The gaze of fools, and pageant of a day!
So perish all, whose breast ne’er learn’d to glow
For others good, or melt at others’ woe.
Although he was writing three hundred years ago, his work is still the focus of a lot of academic attention. There is a huge project being coordinated by Birmingham University, to draw together all of Pope’s work for the first time since the nineteenth century: poems, prose, and correspondence in 24 volumes. The Oxford Edition of the Writings of Alexander Pope, commissioned in 2017, is expected to take fifteen years to complete.
Our thanks to Professor Jim McLaverty and Dr Joe Hone for their help with this article. Joe’s new book, Alexander Pope in the Making, published 28 January 2021, can be found here.
Find out more about the cultural history of Chiswick
The Mawson Arms is one of 21 sites of literary interest on the Trail of Books & Writers, produced by Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival. There is also a Chiswick Timeline Art Trail created by Karen Liebreich and Sarah Cruz of Abundance London, a trail around the sites of Georgian Chiswick: In Georgian footsteps, produced by the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society and William Hogarth Trust, and a guide to Chiswick House and Gardens, produced by Chiswick House and Gardens Trust.
Download the trail maps here:
The Chiswick Calendar would like to thank the National Portrait Gallery for their permission to republish the portraits.
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