The “Chatham Vase” is a sculpture commissioned by Hester, Dowager Countess of Chatham, in 1780-1 to commemorate her husband William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham. It was sculpted in the shape of a Grecian urn by John Bacon, the same man who designed Chatham’s monument in Westminster Abbey. The urn was erected at Burton Pynsent, Somerset, which Lady Chatham used as her dower house until her death.
The lines on the pedestal (largely weathered away now, but still just about legible) read:
“Sacred to pure affection, this simple urn stands a witness of unceasing grief for him who, excelling in whatever is so admirable, and adding to the exercise of the sublimest virtues the sweet charm of refined sentiment and polished wit, by gay social commerce rendered beyond comparison happy the course of domestic life and bestowed a felicity inexpressible on her whose faithful love was blessed in a pure return that raised her above every other joy but the parental one, and that still shared with him. His generous country with public monuments has eternised his fame. This humble tribute is but to soothe the sorrowing breast of private woe.”
This tribute was apparently written by Lady Chatham herself, with a little assistance from her son William Pitt the Younger. Pitt wrote to his mother on the subject on 20 April 1780 (Stanhope I, 39):
“All my feelings with regard to the paper enclosed I need not express. I am sure I should be far indeed from wishing to suggest a syllable of alteration. The language of the heart, of such a heart especially, can never require or admit of correction. May it remain as it deserves, a lasting monument of both the subject and the author.”
After Lady Chatham died in April 1803, her son John, second Earl of Chatham, was forced to sell Burton Pynsent for financial reasons. He made sure, however, to take the Vase away before selling the property. Where it went after Burton I do not know—I have found no record of John having access to any country property between 1805 and 1815, or from 1820 onwards. Presumably the Vase spent the time packed away in John’s attic. It was not forgotten, though. Richard, Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, the son of John’s cousin the Marquis of Buckingham and Hester Chatham’s great-nephew, wrote to John in March 1831:
I feel that I am taking a great liberty in entering into the subject of this letter and must appeal to your kindness to excuse me for doing so. My veneration for the memory of the great men of the family from which I am descended, must plead my pardon, and I am sure that to no-one can that appeal be more forciby made than to the Son of the grand Earl of Chatham.
The monument erected by your Mother to her lamented Lord at Burton Pynsent has now no resting place where it can stand a memorial to her Piety and of your Father’s greatness. The want of a male heir should any thing happen to you in the uncertainty of human life, will, unless you will that monument away, leave it—or its value—to be divided amongst Co-Heiresses [presumably a reference to John’s then heirs, Lady Harriot Hester Pringle and Lady Lucy Taylor]. It ought to stand in some Scene which your Father visited and took interest in, during his life time. Will you allow me to put it up at Stowe? … Allow me to press the request upon you, and to express my hope that you will prove that you forgive me by coming this next Summer at Stowe, and then view with your own eyes the Urn placed amidst the Scenes in which your Father past so many of his days” [PRO 30/8/365 f 243, 3 March 1831]
I personally found that letter astoundingly cheeky—“You’re old and about to peg it, and have no children, so can I have your urn?”—and I don’t know how much eye-rolling John must have done on reading it, but he agreed:
“I beg that you will accept my very warmest thanks for the kind manner in which you have acquiesced in my request … With your permission I shall put an Inscription upon a side of the Pedestal different from that on which your Mother’s inscription is engraved, stating how it came to be placed at Stowe, and probably you will not be displeased if I request Lord Grenville to write the Inscription for me” [23 March 1831, PRO 30/8/365 f 241]
Lord Grenville’s inscription reads: “In the year 1831, this interesting memorial of a near and highly venerated relative was, by the kindness of his son John Earl of Chatham, presented to the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos by whom it is here placed in remembrance of the early and long attachment of that great man to these tranquil scenes, and of his close connexion with the family of their proprietors.”
The Vase, however, did not long remain at Stowe. It was sold at auction in 1848, and where it was between 1848 and 1857 I do not know. In 1857 it was sold again and purchased by James Banks Stanhope, son of James Hamilton Stanhope, who through various very complicated relationships was related to both the Grenvilles and the Pitts, and placed at Revesby Hall in Lincolnshire:
The Vase moved on one more time, when it was bought by the 7th Earl Stanhope in 1934:
The Vase is now at Chevening (and hopefully won’t go anywhere else as there are no more sides to engrave……). This is as appropriate a place as any given that the Stanhope family was closely bound to the Pitts by blood and marriage, and the first Lord Chatham lived there for a while in 1769 and helped lay out the grounds (nobody ever managed to stop him “improving” any house he stayed in). There is still a copy at Stowe, but the original can still be seen at Chevening, which holds annual garden Open Days if anybody is curious enough to want to see it.
It’s almost hard to imagine these days…a wife seemingly still besotted with her husband after years of marriage. The poem has some superb turns of phrase, even it is a bit sentimental and flowery. It was of its time, I suppose?
If you ever had a spare moment, jsmjf2, to add some of your academic rigour to the Wikipedia article on this subject at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chatham_vase, that would be excellent. Editors are always threatening to delete it because of the lack of reliable source material in the references. It has been living on borrowed time for the past six years, and it would be a shame if it went.
Hello there, thank you for your comment. Yes, I definitely think it was “of its time”, as you say. I was especially struck by the phrase “felicity inexpressible” though (hence the title of the post)– it certainly seems to summarise Hester Chatham’s relationship with her husband.
I am registered as an editor on Wikipedia (so far have done nothing but tweak a few facts in a couple of articles) so I might well have a go at the Chatham Vase page one of these days. I do understand though that only published sources can be cited so I’m not sure if the Stowe correspondence can legitimately go in (unless my blog post counts as “published!”). Nevertheless I’m happy to add the Stanhope citation of Pitt the Younger’s letter.