Welbeck Abbey and its Owners

written by Sophie | Art History



The history of Welbeck Abbey goes back to the 12th century when a  monastery was built on the site where there is now a vast country house. After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the estate was sold to one of his courtiers, who then sold it to Sir Charles Cavendish, son of the great Bess of Hardwick. He hired the architect Robert Smythson, who had worked for his mother at Hardwick Hall, to come up with a new design for Welbeck Abbey. This was the beginning of the story of Welbeck Abbey as a home, a story that would last 4 centuries.

Welbeck Abbey from the South-West. A detail of a watercolour by S.H. Grimm, c. 1780. Probably taken from an older painting, now lost. It shows the Abbey in the 17th century. With on the left Smythson’s wing and on the right parts of the old monastery.

Only one part of Smythson’s design was built, which is seen in various paintings and prints of the time. Charles also commissioned Bolsover Castle from Smythson at this time (1608). After Charles’s death in 1617 his son William (later 1st Duke of Newcastle)  inherited Welbeck Abbey and Bolsover Castle and continued work on both.

William served King Charles I as a courtier, and later even became the tutor of his son, the later Charles II. As a courtier under Charles I he learned the art of manège (an early form of dressage, or horse dancing ) together with the young prince Edward. William’s love of horses would stay and shape the rest of his life. He would add huge riding houses to Welbeck and Bolsover and write one of the leading manuals on manège.

A page from William Cavendish’s book Méthode et invention nouvelle de dresser les chevaux (1658)

William Larkin, Portrait of Elizabeth Howard, 1614-18. Kenwood House. After her first husband Henry Howard died, she married William Cavendish and became his first wife and the mother of his children.

William married twice, first to Elizabeth Howard (née Bassett) with whom he had his children. His second wife was Margaret Lucas who as Margaret Cavendish would become one of the most famous and independent women writers of her time. She was a freethinker, a woman with a mind of her own. Although she was no doubt a child of her time she questioned the lack of education for women and wrote extensively on social matters.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcasttle. Miniature by the School of Samuel Cooper. 1640s

The Blazing World, Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish’s book ‘The Blazing World, published in 1666, this edition is from 1668

Her book The Blazing World is now considered as a forerunner of science fiction and is the only known fictional publication by a woman in the 17th century. She was interested in a wide variety of topics  and corresponded with Christiaan Huygens, Thomas Hobbes, Descartes and Robert Boyle. She was the first woman to be invited to attend a meeting at the Royal Society of London and considering they did not allow women to become fellows for another 250 or so years, this illustrates that Margaret was a lady on a mission. Not only was she bold enough to gain entrance into the man’s world of writing and science, she would underline this boldness with her clothes. She was famed and ridiculed for her creative home-made dresses, but she made the most of it. On her arrival at the Royal Society

“she was wearing a gown with an especially long train – eight feet of it, borne ‘in great pomp’, by the six waiting-women who attended on her. But other features of her outfit, which probably included a wide-brimmed cavalier hat and her usual knee-lenght juste-au-corps, were so masculine that John Evelyn took her for ‘a cavalier, but that she had no beard’. “ (Whitacker 302-303).

Miniature of William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, mid 1600s. In the style of Samuel Cooper. Watercolour on vellum.

William Cavendish doing a horse manoeuvre in front of Bolsover Castle. See also Elaine Walker’s book.

William was a typical cavalier not only in the Royalist sense but also in that he was an art, women and fashion loving gentleman. Lucy Worsley’s book about him paints a warm-hearted picture of him. During the civil war he was forced into exile and spent 16 years abroad. His first wife died in England during this time. He met and married his second wife Margaret in Paris and they subsequently went to Antwerp where they rented the house of the late painter Rubens for the next 11 years. There William used what was probably Rubens’ studio, as an indoor riding house and entertained exiled royalty and royalists with his horsemanship. He was in exile from 1644 until the restoration in 1660. While he was away his daughters managed to defend and keep Welbeck Abbey but William was forced to buy back Bolsover Castle and many other parts of his estates. He gained his dukedom in 1665 and died in 1676. 

An old photograph of Welbeck Abbey where you can see one of the tapestries hanging

During his life he and his wife were greatly involved the cultural and scientific life of Europe. They were patrons of Ben Jonson, Hobbes and Descartes, commissioned portraits by Van Dyck and had an extensive collection of musical instruments as well as musicians as permanent staff. During their life they built and improved Bolsover and Welbeck with furniture, tapestries and art works. They bought a series of tapetries, made in Brussels, which imagery based on the plates from William’s book on horsemanship. They commissioned a series of twelve huge horse portraits in oil paint. William particularly loved his Hendrick van Steenwijck interiors and the Van Dyck portraits. There are many portraits in the Portland Collection (as the family collection is now called) dating from William’s time: his and his first wife’s portrait painted by Daniel Mytens, a portrait of Thomas Wentworth by Van Dyck, which was a gift to the Cavendishes by Wentworth. There are miniature portraits of the family and the royal couple and even portraits dating well back into the 16th century. 

Portraits by Anthony van Dyck, left William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, right Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Stafford, 1636. Now at the Harley Gallery, Portland Collection.

William’s heirs would continue the collection at Welbeck Abbey until today. His granddaughter Henrietta would work hard to keep the house and the collection together and spend a large part of her life and money remodelling Welbeck Abbey. Her husband, Edward Harley, was an avid collector and put the couple into huge debts. After his death Henrietta had to sell most of his books and manuscripts but managed to keep part of the collection. Amongst it was a stunning and very rare portrait of Elizabeth I, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, the father of his much more famous painter son. Henrietta’s husband had also acquired miniatures by the likes of Hiliard and Oliver which she managed to keep (see my blog post about the Portland Collection).

But her greatest legacy was her building work. She transformed Welbeck Abbey with the help of the architect John James. James had worked with Wren, Hawksmoor and Gibbs and was therefore very well versed in the dictionary of styles. She transformed part of the roooms into neo-gothic fantasies and was with that one of the earliest to adopt this picturesque style. Other areas of the house she had redesigned in a classical style. It shows her awareness of the evocative character of different styles upon the viewer.

Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland”, Also know as Margaret Harley, Oil on canvas portrait, painted by Christian Friedrich Zincke, 1738

Henrietta’s daughter Margaret Cavendish married William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland. The Bentincks are a Dutch family who came over with William III during the the Great Revolution. 

Margaret Cavendish Bentinck was the greatest collector of the family. She had a great intellectual thirst for knowledge and especially natural history. She collected all sorts of natural history objects; shells, fossils, plants, seeds. Her collection became so expansive that she was visited by leading scientists of the day. Her thirst for collecting also stretched into antiquities, such as the famous Portland Vase, now in the British Museum.

The Portland Vase. Cameo-glass, probably made in Italy ca. 5-25 AD. Margaret Cavendish Bentinck bought the vase from Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador in Naples in 1784. After her death it was sold at auction and bought by her son, William, 3d Duke of Portland. It was permanently on loan to the British Museum from 1810 onwards and purchased by the museum in 1945.

Welbeck Abbey in the early 20th century.

Subsequent Cavendishes would add to the collection and we now find an extensive collection of paintings by artists such as Michelangelo, Van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds, Stubbs, De Lazlo and Sargent. Of course there is the famous fifth Duke of Portland who had an underground ballroom and miles of tunnels dug out (he is worth a story of his own). All in all the Portland Collection consists of thousands of items, a small selection of which is now on display at the Harley Gallery where you can go and see it for free.

In late 2016 my new exhibition of paintings ‘Inspired by the Portland Collection’   will  open at the Harley Gallery.

Further reading:
On Margaret Cavendish, wife of Sir William, 1st Duke:
Katie Whitaker, Mad Madge, Vintage Publishing, 2011
Margaret Cavendish, Kate Liley, The Blazing World and Other Writings, Penguin Classics, 1994
On Sir William Cavendish:
Lucy Worsley, Cavalier, 2008
Elaine Walker, To Amaze the People with Pleasure and Delight, Xenophon, 2015Links:
For Welbeck Abbey, the Portland Collection and Harley Gallery: http://www.harleygallery.co.uk

 A description of my tour through Welbeck Abbey’s State Rooms and the secrets and treasures I found there.

Published April 12, 2016

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  1. We have had a very interesting visit to The Harley Gallery today, and the highlight of the experience was the wonderful Portland Collection. The numerous paintings, priceless silver collection, and beautiful collection of miniatures, are all available to view free of charge, and no expense has been spared to present them all at their most finest.
    I paint miniatures, and am a member of the Hilliard Society, so I was particularly interested in the miniatures on show. They were wonderful, and the one of Oliver Cromwell was one of the best I have ever seen.
    We have seen other exhibitions of works of art and items of immense value in the grander surroundings of stately homes and palaces, but this exhibition compares with all of them. The visit was enhanced by the very knowledgeable security guard who gave us so much information about the history of the abbey, and the CavendishundefinedBentinck family history. A memorable visit, and we hope
    one day to visit the abbey itself.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment. The Portland Collection is truly stunning and I hope I will be able to visit again some time soon. Great to hear you enjoyed it!

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