Monday 5 August 2013

Arch, Waspish and Indiscreet: John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey of Ickworth

John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey of Ickworth (London, England, 13th October 1696 – England, 5th August 1743)

Portrait of John Hervey, 1740-1

Arch, waspish and indiscreet, John Hervey would have been very welcome here on Gin Lane... we always like to be first with the gossip!

The eldest son of Baron Hervey, our subject today lived a life of privilege. He was educated at Westminster School and Cambridge University before he began a career as a Member of Parliament and, far more thrillingly, court favourite to the Hanovers. Married to a lady-in-waiting, Mary Lepell, Hervey was great friends with Frederick, Prince of Wales, but an argument over a mistress led them to part company and Hervey became one of Frederick's greatest critics, his reputation and career protected by his close association with Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

Engraving of Mary Leppell by James Heath, 1748
Mary Leppell by James Heath, 1748

Although physically weak and often unwell, Hervey was popular with ladies and gentlemen alike. Despite his apparently happy marriage he enjoyed at least one affair with Anne Vane, the subject of his quarrel with Frederick,  and possibly  had more lovers besides. He spent time living with male partners too, his flamboyant private life occasionally seized upon by political opponents. Though some found him magnetic, others found him distinctly repellant and he achieved some small notoriety as a constant target of Alexandre Pope, who based a number of unpleasant characters on the Baron. The reason for this vitriol appears to have been Pope and Hervey's shared affection for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, rumoured to have been another of Hervey's lovers. In 1735's Epistle to Arbuthnot, Pope apparently described him as, among other things, "this painted child of dirt that stinks and stings...", though the writer denied that his target was Hervey.

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Charles Jervas
Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Charles Jervas
Lady Montagu said this "world consisted of men, women, and Herveys"

Under Walpole's administration Hervey enjoyed no small influence at court, eventually rising to the position of Lord Privy Seal in 1740. His highest office would last only two years though and when Walpole fell,  Hervey went with him. He continued to write political pamphlets and remained as opinionated as ever, his name linked with a number of anonymous and unflattering letters and articles, a number of which were addressed to Pope.

In his lifetime Hervey was known to the public mostly as the object of Pope's derision and yet the Baron had written a work of his own, detailing in minute and highly unflattering detail the behaviour of Frederick and the king over the course of a decade, reserving his warmest praise for the women of the royal household. Memoirs of the Court of George II was suppressed by Hervey's family until 1848 and though heavily edited upon release the memoir revealed a bitter court at odds with itself and George II as a man of little intelligence and even less common sense, his decisions taken by Hervey's adored Queen Caroline and a government who saw him as little more than an obstacle to be navigated. Taken alone the book might be seen as a bitter last work but read alongside Walpole's own memoirs of the court one cannot help but be struck by similarities; indeed, it seems that the house of Hanover was anything but a happy place to be!


Gem Twitcher said...

An extremely interesting character worth further investigation, I really MUST get my book on Hervey out from under the bed and blow the dust off:-)

Catherine Curzon said...

Indeed you must!

Mari Christian said...

Wish I'd had an annotated Pope while studying his verse at school. It would have been so much more interesting to know something about the targets of his vitriol.

Catherine Curzon said...

Ha, so long as you weren't one!