The Claremont Collection of Historical Medals
The Claremont Collection
Claremont must be almost unique among country houses in the United Kingdom with a history sufficiently rich to support a collection of commemorative medals illustrating its owners, occupiers and celebrated visitors over a period of more than two centuries.
Several factors have contributed to this phenomenon. Firstly, its location in the Thames Valley, at Esher, put it within easy reach of London, Hampton Court and Windsor. The estate, although expanded over the years, was never large enough to support a grand house. Consequently, the owner had to be able to support its expense by other means. Only twice did it pass from father to son, and in neither case was the son able or willing to keep it. Consequently, Claremont was often on the market, appealing to a succession of prominent individuals.
Claremont’s significant history began in 1709 when Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) bought a 70-year lease on a 60-acre farm outside Esher with permission to replace the existing house with another of similar size. He proceeded to build, possibly for his mother, or at her expense, a ‘very small box’ (his words). It was, in fact, a four or five bedroom house in a recherché style (with battlements), the taste for which still thrives in Esher. Three years after Vanbrugh’s mother died in 1711 he sold the property to his friend, the 21-year old Thomas Pelham Holles (1693-1768), Earl of Clare and later 1st Duke of Newcastle. The Earl was about to embark on a long and successful political career in the Whig party, for which he needed a well-located base and an advantageous marriage. He commissioned Vanbrugh to enlarge the house, retaining the original core to which he added two wings and an enormous Great Room. The result was a very curious building, small at the centre and expanding towards the extremities, exactly the opposite of Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. The Duke’s acquisition of Claremont propelled it to centre stage in the national life.
The young Duke of Newcastle’s need for a wife, one with a substantial dowry, coincided with the appearance on the scene of the Duke of Marlborough’s grand-daughter, Henrietta Godolphin (1701-76). The girl was the product of a seriously dysfunctional marriage, her mother having deserted her husband and family to live with an Irish actor. So, her formidable grandmother, Duchess Sarah (1660-1744), took on the task of arranging her marriage. Not surprisingly she considered Newcastle a prime candidate. He was young, rich and seemed set to go far in the Whig party. The scheming Duchess enlisted the help of Vanbrugh, architect to both dukes and a fellow member of the Kit-Cat Club. Eventually, after much haggling, wholly characteristic of the Duchess, and the dumping of her accomplice, also characteristic of the Duchess, a deal was struck, although for much less than Newcastle had hoped for or needed. The marriage took place on 2 April 1717 and the Duke was pleased with his new wife, who brought him an important connection to a leading family, and to whom he was devoted and faithful for the rest of his life.
There are records of the Duchess’s visits to Claremont, and indeed it is inconceivable that she would not have interfered with her grand-daughter’s life, especially as she was responsible for her marriage and had put up her dowry. The great Duke himself also had reason to visit Claremont, if only as a member of the Kit- Cat Club. Both Vanbrugh and Newcastle were members of the Club, and its secretary, Jacob Tonson (1656-1736), was provided with rooms at Claremont, rather confirming the claim that the club met there, and probably in Vanbrugh’s Belvedere. Perhaps this explains why the Belvedere features in Godfrey Kneller’s double portrait of the Duke with the Earl of Lincoln, a Kit-Cat Club portrait.
The transition from the Stuart dynasty to a Hanoverian one to insure the preservation of the Protestant faith was inevitably divisive. Those who backed the winning faction were well rewarded and Thomas Pelham Holles was among them. George I not only valued his abilities but also liked him personally, the only one of the three Hanoverian monarchs whom he served to do so.
No medals bearing the Duke’s image were struck, a serious disadvantage for a medallic history of Claremont. While the Duke owned other estates in Sussex, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire Claremont was the couple’s favourite residence, not only as a personal retreat but as a place where they could entertain the most distinguished figures of the political and diplomatic worlds, and to display ducal magnificence on a grand scale: too grand for the Duke’s financial wellbeing. Until the Duke died in 1768 they lavished time and money on creating a dazzling setting for his political career which spanned a remarkable 45 years of almost unbroken office at the highest levels. Claremont became known throughout Europe and beyond.
Lord Clive’s acquisition of the Claremont estate following the Duke’s death began a very brief but significant phase in its history. Vanbrugh’s celebrated great house and its formal setting were swept away and replaced by an up-to-date Palladian villa in an equally up-to-date landscape park, both designed by Capability Brown. But Claremont’s function also changed radically, from very high profile show house to a still grand but private country retreat for high profile owners.
Following Lord Clive’s untimely death in 1774 and for much of George III’s long reign, Claremont became just that until, in 1816, the estate was acquired by the crown for the use of Princess Charlotte and her new husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg. It acquired a new level of celebrity the following year when the Princess tragically died in childbirth in the house, plunging the nation into a period of intense grief and a constitutional crisis.
On his marriage, Prince Leopold had been granted the use of Claremont for the remainder of his life, together with a generous annual sum for its maintenance. To his father-in-law’s (George IV) intense irritation, he held the crown to its side of the arrangement even when, in 1830, he accepted the crown of Belgium. Leopold’s sister, the widowed Duchess of Kent, had produced the only legitimate heir to the throne, the future Queen Victoria. Her close connection to Claremont was to prove decisive to its future. The young Queen and her growing family spent many holidays at Claremont, until they bought and developed Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
In 1848 the occupancy of Claremont took an unexpected turn. King Louis Philippe, who had attended Princess Charlotte’s wedding, and his entire family were expelled from France and urgently sought refuge. They found it at Claremont when Queen Victoria granted them exile. The King survived for only two years, but the family remained at Claremont until the death of Queen Marie-Amelie in 1866.
On King Leopold’s death the previous year the estate reverted to the crown, at which time Queen Victoria, keen to keep it in the family, acquired a life interest in it. In 1882 it was settled on her youngest son, Leopold, Duke of Albany (1853-84), at the time of his marriage to Princess Helen of Waldeck (1861-1922). Both their children, Alice (1883-1981) and Charles Edward (1884-1954) were born at Claremont. At the age of sixteen Charles was taken out of Eton and compelled by Queen Victoria to succeed to the dukedom of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha which was about to fall vacant. His German education was conducted very much under the wing of the Emperor Wilhelm II, but in the revolution of 1918 he lost his right to the ducal throne and was forced to abdicate. The following year Charles lost his British titles for having fought against the allies. Consequently, on his mother’s death in 1922 he was unable to inherit Claremont. This brought to an end more than a century of the Claremont estate’s royal connection, and it was sold to Sir William Corry, 2nd Bt (1859-1926), a director of the Cunard Line.