On the trail of the Vagabond Star

The Ickworth Treasures

The Ickworth Treasures - Credit: Archant

The National Trust’s Sue Borges previews a new exhibition, Ickworth Treasures, the story of an eccentric 18th century English gentleman and his mission to collect some of Europe’s finest artwork

‘In all of Europe I have not seen a style of building with which I am enamoured as with my own.’

These are the words of the eccentric and, to some, infamous 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Cloyne and Derry – known as the ‘Earl Bishop’ – Frederick Augustus Hervey, a true character of the 18th century and creator of Ickworth House.

This year as part of a new National Trust exhibition called Ickworth Treasures, you can discover more about the Earl Bishop as he takes you on a journey of his great collection of artworks at Ickworth. He was a controversial character, admired and loathed in equal measure, who provided an endless source of society gossip and comment – ‘he is the strangest being ever made, and with all the vices and follies of youth, a drunkard and an atheist, though a Bishop . . . and at the same time very clever, and with infinite wit; in short a true Hervey.’

The Earl Bishop was a man of his age with a great interest in antiquities, travel, politics and geology. It was said he climbed Mount Vesuvius every day during a stay in Naples and was hit by molten lava. He also helped to put the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland on the tourist map, and you can now see some of its distinctive hexagonal basalt stones in the Stumpery at Ickworth – a gift to the Hervey family.

The Earl Bishop designed Ickworth’s iconic Rotunda and East and West Wings as a magnificent Italianate palace that would serve both as a family home and as an art gallery to showcase his collection – ‘so that young geniuses who cannot afford to travel into Italy may come into my house and there copy the best masters.’

He called himself the Vagabond Star as he wandered through Europe, spending his aristocratic fortune as he wished. His lifelong grand passion was Italy, spending much of his life in Rome and Naples collecting sculptures and paintings and meeting the great artists, intellectuals and society names of the age such as Flaxman, Boswell, Goethe and Lady Hamilton.

Most Read

A key part of this year’s exhibition includes the Smoking Room at Ickworth, rehung with some of Ickworth’s greatest works of art to bring to life the Earl Bishop’s vision – fine works by famous artists such as Titian, Velázquez, Gainsborough and Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun to name but a few.

The hallway in the Rotunda is dominated by a monumental sculpture, the Fury of Athamas, by celebrated artist John Flaxman RA, famous for his classical plaques on Wedgwood’s Jasperware. Commissioned by the earl in Rome, it was the confiscated by Napoleon’s invading troops and years later the earl’s son, the Ist Marquess of Bristol, had to buy it back from a Paris showroom.n

Ickworth Treasures runs until November 2015. For details of opening times and prices www.nationaltrust.org/uk/ickworth