This 1730 bird’s eye view of Combermere Abbey by the Dutch artist Peter Tillemans, in oil on board, has hung on the stairs landing at the Abbey for many years. The detail in the image was obscured by centuries of dirt, and we could learn nothing from it. Now though it has been expertly cleaned by Harriet Owen Hughes and her team at the Liverpool Conservation Centre, and it is a revelation – in more ways than one.
It is very fortunate that we have had sight of the 1707 map of the estate at much the same time, as we have been able to compare the two and fill in details between the two sources. The report on the map can be found here. Tillemans’ point of view is almost due west of the Abbey. It is important to understand that although the painting shows the larger mere running vertically up the image to the left of the house, it was joined to the smaller mere at a later date, so nowadays one would be looking across a sheet of water from this vantage point.
We don’t know at what time of year Tilleman created the painting, but all the trees are in full leaf, so it must have been high summer.
Like landscape artists of almost any period, Tillemans exaggerated the topography. He is in very good company is doing so; it is certainly a charge that can be laid against the later work of Turner and Constable. They must have thought that flat vistas did not excite the viewer sufficiently, and a high level of artistic license was excusable. The land does not rise as dramatically as the extreme left and right of the pictures as it suggests, and the hills in the distance are much further away that Tillemans has them, and therefore appear in real life to be rather less high. The hill in the middle distance on the top right is inexplicable.
Panoramic visualisations of country house landscapes such as this were first seen late in the previous century, and the perspective on the earliest were far from accurate. The perspective on the bird’s eye view of Combermere is far better, but still not perfect. Although the land behind the house rises slightly, in this painting is seems to folded upwards. By the middle of the Eighteenth century artists had solved this problem, as the panoramic paintings of Tatton Park in north east Cheshire attest.
Unlike its poor representation on the 1707 map, Tilleman’s depiction of the Abbey itself is very accurate. The difference in material on the ground floor in the central section shows the sandstone construction at that level, as it was and indeed still is behind the gothick facade, which dates from monastic times. The cupola – possibly a belvedere for watching the hunt and viewing the estate – is accurate, as is the shift in roof-line to the left of centre (smoothed out when the house was gothicised early in the Nineteenth century, and recently revealed once again with the restoration of that side of the house). We have no other record of the timber-framed ancillary buildings to the right of the main block, but as the central section is so accurate there is no reason to doubt them. They were re-built in the gothicisation, and reduced from three storeys to two in the Twentieth century.
The circular feature in the middle of the central gable seems more elaborate than the oak quattrefoil which we know to have been there. The object on a plinth in the middle of the west courtyard may be a sundial; were this not the case then such an instrument might well have been wall-mounted within the gable. There is a good argument that it is a large clock. Indeed, there used to be a large clock on the front of the stables, and it is possible that the house clock was transfered there when the house was re-modelled.
Clock-making in England was greatly aided by the arrival of Huguenot craftsmen escaping from religious persection on the Continent in the last twenty years of the Seventeenth century. Another important consideration is that the town of Whitchurch in Shropshire, some three miles from the Abbey, became a centre for the manufacture of large public clocks at the same time, and the town’s most famous firm – J B Joyce & Co. – was founded there in 1690. Thus it is probably safe to assume that Combermere Abbey boasted an expensive and elaborate time-piece high up on its entrance front. Such a thing would be useful for all, and hugely impressive for visitors. At this date it would have been pendulum-driven, and looking for any surviving evidence of the drop inside the house would be interesting.
The two walled courtyards (with their corner towers), to the west and east of the house, disappeared at some point. The one in the foreground was erased when the two meres were joined and the main approach to the Abbey came from the west – making what we see in the painting the entrance front. The current entrance is as it was after the gothicisation, when it was moved to the east front.
There is a carriage turn outside the west courtyard, gated on both sides, and extravagantly fenced. The fencing appears to be white-painted wood, with a double gate in the centre, and finials on the uprights.
The cleaning of the painting has revealed many previously unseen and unknown details, including the three figures close to the house; a lady in the doorway, a man to the left, and another women in the equivalent position to the right.
A country house like the Abbey was really a working village, with the main house at its centre. The ancillary and service buildings were numerous, and each served a specific purpose. We cannot be at all certain what all of them are, though we do know that that the group to the top left of the Abbey was the grange – the pre-Dissolution home farm for the Abbey; maintained ‘in hand’ for supplying the Abbey with food of all kinds. The road to it, with an avenue of trees on the side nearest the lake, was named as a ‘pavement’ on the 1707 map – suggested it was surfaced with beaten earth.
The larger of the buildings on the lakeside – timber-framed and infilled with brick, as they all are – has a carriage outside it, it is unlikely to be a coach-house, as that would be nearer to the stables and there is no reason for it to be on the water’s edge. Might it be a boat-house? The jetty nearby is marked on the map as one of two ‘fishing places’.
The first thinking on examining the painting was that the upper building on the lakeside may possibly have been a water mill. The area in front of it, opening out on to the water is darker, and possibly marshy; is this a water flow? The pale red, hollow-looking structure could be a sump to hold water so that a good head of water could be provided to the mill when required. A white picket fence leads to it, and there is a yard fenced with chain in front of the possible sump. The enclosure, with its single length of rope or chain, is too open to hold animals of any kind, and its purpose does not suggest itself. There are probably eight uprights (two hidden by the tree in front), making it octagonal. A drying area of some kind? That might make the ‘mill’ into a wash-house. The section of the two-storey building which overhangs the water allowed for waste water to be emptied directly into the mere. Right by this overhang is a small white dog, perhaps looking for (freshly washed) scraps.
Having consulted experts in historic water mills, the notion that it is a mill is fading, but the hollow structure could still be a water container – but for washing garments rather than for power. It is away from the service areas of the house, but the crucial factor in its positioning is the water supply and the ability to dump waste water directly into the lake.
There are more service buildings to the right (east) of the front courtyard. A horse is being led from one, which allows us to assume that it is a stable. Several of these buildings would be association with equine activity; storage for feed, harnesses and tack, and probably a farrier’s workshop too. There are men working at the top right of the group of buildings; possibly working in wood and making willow whips for trestles or fencing.
A rather charming detail is a chap in a long blue coat and white stockings who is opening (or possibly closing) the right hand gate of the pair. He is holding something unidentifiable in his left hand. He is possibly wearing a powdered wig with a centre parting. Assuming that he is an adult, it would suggest that the pale is around six feet high. It isn’t hard to see a stopping and deferential air to the man, suggesting that he is a servant – perhaps in blue livery.
The statue in the centre of the turn behind him is the most modern artifact in the picture; a Greco-Roman classical sculpture – a touch of post-Renaissance sophistication in a landscape filled, otherwise, with Tudor references. It must be life size, and is on a complex plinth with a detailed cartouche showing. The figure is a naked man holding his left arm aloft in some sort of gesture, and with a naked sword in his right hand, held – for the moment – behind him, unthreateningly. There is little muscle tension in the figure and it is not one of the more frequently-seen militaristic statues which threaten immediate action.
The painting concurs with the map in that there was a walled garden to the south east of the house, although the shape is different; here it is shown as strictly rectangular, whereas the map shows it with an angled wall on the south. It has a cruciform system of broad paths, with wicket gates at three points where the paths meet the walls. On the south side the wall seems slightly different from the wall of the adjoining courtyard; possibly set back slightly, lower and without coping stones, and a slightly different colour – possibly red local sanstone rather than brick? The enclosed area is orchard-like, with trees and bushes of different sizes, some plants growing against walls, and a line of ground-level plants. This garden is probably given over to growing fruit.
There is a further yard behind the walled garden, in front of the service wing. To the right (east) is a long, narrow drive, leading from front to back. The east gate into the walled garden opens into it, about halfway along its length. Obviously access was required independently of the broader path to the right. It curves slightly at both ends, and also has double picket gates at both ends. Was it an animal run of some kind?
As noted in the essay about the map, the estate’s two deer parks are not large enough to accommodate truly wild deer and ensure a ‘real’ hunt. They are seen being pursued by five mounted huntsmen and hounds. The leading hunter is blowing a horn, and it looks as if the second from the left is actually a huntswoman, riding side-saddle. Women were first depicted riding side-saddle in both Greek and Celtic art, many centuries earlier, and it was the accepted way for women to ride in the Eighteenth century – the saddle and the etiquette having been perfected by Catherine de Medici in the Sixteenth century.
A Seventeenth century lady riding side-saddle
The horses are of ‘modern’ size – larger than in earlier centuries – and all have docked tails. The dogs are the sort of sight-hounds you would expect to see on such a hunt; a smooth-haired greyhound, fast enough to keep up with a stage and – as a pack – strong enough to hold it down.
The building in the top picture of these two details of the stag hunt is marked on the map as a ‘fothering house’, though it seems more logical for it to have been a deer-house – providing shelter and fodder (stored on the upper floor) during the winter. A good example can be seen in the deer park at Dunham Massey. It is likely that it served that purpose but was still thought of a the fothering house.
Several rectangular and obviously man-made pools are shown, such as the one the hunters are riding round. These are fish ponds, and might well date from monastic times. Different stock would be kept independently in the various pools, and be easily harvested when required. The fish ponds above the house are where the Victorian stables were built. Test holes sunk in recent times showed that there had been large areas infilled with rubble.
On the far side of the lake, to the left of the painting, we see a man with a fowling piece. These firearms were introduced early in the Seventeenth century and were very common by the time of this painting. They were flintlock-operated (or, more rarely, wheel-lock) at this time, and had barrels of varying lengths – on occasion as long as five feet. This nicely-posed man is firing his piece – but at birds on the ground, which seems unsporting. in fact game was shot on the ground or on water at this time, and our shooter would have been more interested in bringing home a catch rather than being a sportsman. His pleasingly alert dog – white with black ears – stands ready to retrieve; he is the size and shape of a spaniel – obviously different from the greyhounds pursuing the deer elsewhere in the demesne. The shooter’s prey could well be quail.
On the 1707 map Ralph The Fisherman is marked in the larger mere, and is shown, head-on in his boat. One cannot help wondering if, twenty three years later, Ralph was still busy angling in the depths of the mere, and providing piscine delights for the table.
He has a sophisticated rod, with a reel (rather than a fixed line) – known as a ‘winder’ in Eighteenth century England – which would be familiar to any Twenty-First century fisherman. These simple brass reels were made by local clockmakers or even jewellers, and were unreliable because a strong pull could strip the teeth off the gears. The line was usually made of horse hair.
Ralph now has a companion, who is doing the heavy work – rowing the boat. This would have made the operation more efficient, or maybe it is concession to Ralph’s advancing years. Both men are wearing hats, and Ralph (if indeed it is he) is possibly be-wigged and has frilled cuffs.
A complex operation is underway in Danes Mere, which is probably dredging rather than trawling for fish. An alternate explanation is that they might be harvesting shellfish – we know that there were mussels in the larger mere.
The two well-dressed gentlemen on the right are obviously in charge, and aren’t getting their hands dirty with manual toil. Of the two men in the boat, one seems to be using a pole for purchase, as one would in a punt, and the other is controlling the line. Both of them are wearing hats. The boat is being pulled towards the near shore by ten men – five on each side and all are hat-less – which is a lot of muscle. It is obviously quite a tough job. To the left the rope goes round a tree so as to widen the angle of attack. Several of the men are wearing the blue coats we see elsewhere, which again may be the Cotton family’s livery. There are two rather jolly dogs cavorting on the left hand side of the scene.
Whatever the purpose of all this exertion it shows that the meres were important and were not merely decoration on the landscape. These sheets of water would have been what attracted human settlement to Combermere in the very earliest instances, and they remained of considerable practical importance many centuries later.
There are many scenes of industry in the picture, but this detail represents delightful idleness. Two ladies in fine clothing are being rowed to a hexagonal folly or summer-house on an island close to the far bank of the larger mere. Two men are rowing – again in blue coats – there is a coxswain at the front of the boat (with his arms folded), and a fourth mean is steering at the stern.
The 1707 map shows ‘the Island of Freedome’ in this mere, but much closer to the other side of the lake, close to the house. The island remains, as does the ruins of the summer house. It seems likely that the level of the water in the mere has risen a little, possibly since the two meres were joined. Certainly the area of the mere which was originally the separate Danes Mere is now much larger than was shown by Tillemans – plus, it is shown with very steep sides, steeper than is the case now. That might have been accurate in 1730 but these steep sides are now submerged.
At the very bottom of the picture, in a group of five horsemen (with a sixth a little way ahead), is a very grand gentleman on a splendid horse. He is the focus of the attention of his companions, there are intentionally distinctive highlights on his horse, and in terms of composition is the dominant figure. It would be unsurprising for Tillemans did not put his patron in the picture, and obviously make him a figure of the greatest importance. He was paying the bill, after all.
In 1730 the Combermere estate was owned by Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton, baronet, but he lived in the larger Cotton house of Llewenny in Denbighshire. Combermere Abbey was the home of the adult heir apparent. Sir Robert had no children though, and died childless in 1748 at the age of fifty three. The heir apparent was Sir Robert’s oldest surviving brother, Lynch Salusbury Cotton, who was born in 1706. In 1730 Lynch (who inherited the baronetcy on Sir Robert’s death) was the master of Combermere. He would have celebrated his twenty fourth birthday in this year; is this him? It seems more likely than not.
Lynch lived until August 1775, having married Elizabeth Abigail Cotton (a distant cousin), and they had thirteen children. Elizabeth out-lived her husband by two years. They are buried in Wrenvury chirch, not far from Combermere, and are recommemorated with a splendid memorial. The full Cotton family tree can be found here; http://www.combermere-restoration.co.uk/1500s-to-present-day/
Behind him in the picture is an older gentleman, but it is impossible to speculate who he might be; he looks older than Sir Robert would have been (thirty five). Both men have blue sashes – which could be the same blue as the apparently-liveried servants. All the riders are wearing boots which come just over the knee, and are riding with very long stirrups. the principal rider has a rather splendid scarlet blanket under his saddle. This horse has a full tail although all the others are cropped. The cleaning has revealed though that Lynch’s (?) horse was originally painted with a cropped tail but as some point it was made fuller. Was this to make him even more distinctive?
The horsemen’s direction of travel makes little sense, but the parabola formed by their group is very pleasing, rather like a treble clef. The main riders are galloping, which makes the figures look more dramatic and impressive, while the one in the vanguard and those at the back are walking. Ahead of the group a seventh rider, in a blue coat, is stooping in his saddle to open the gate so that the party can proceed to the house. The paint on this man and his mount is rather thin, and the white bars of the gate can be seen through them both. He was painted over the gate and might have been an after-thought.
All of forty one people are shown in the painting; the vast majority of them busy with some useful industry. More than half are involved in occupations associated with food. Only two people – the two ladies in the boat – are definitely at leisure. If we take the painting as ‘real time’ snapshot of the estate, there must have been four or six children and perhaps a dozen servants in the house and as many again in ancillary undertaking. The servants would all have had their own spouses and youngsters, so a total of one hundred for the full-time occupants of the estate – excluding tenants and their dependents – is a modest estimation. In terms of its building the estate was larger than the average village, and its population was much the same.
There are a dozen horses – obviously and understandably of great importance to the household, and in total a considerable investment and expenditure. We all see a large number of dogs, but no cats were shown – though there is no doubt that the Abbey would have had its share – as very efficient catchers of vermin more than pets.
Taken in business terms, this centre of activity would have cost a lot to run; both in occasional capital costs, but much more so in year-on-year running expenses.
The artist of the panorama of Combermere Abbey, Peter Tillemans, was born in Antwerp in 1684, and learned his craft in his native city before moving to England in 1708. He became a fashionable painter of topographical and sporting scenes. A friend described him as having long, curling hair (his own rather than a wig), and being gentle and friendly. He lived by the Thames in Richmond, west of London – largely for health reasons; he was a chronic asthmatic. Despite that he travelled widely in the course of his work, and was often in the north and north west of England. He painted Chatsworth in Derbyshire for The Duke of Devonshire, Chirk Castle near Wrexham, and Holker Hall in Cumbria.
He was commissioned to paint horse-racing scenes by the Earl of Derby of Knowsley in south Lancashire, and painted the city of Chester on several occasions. He also painted a view of the Welsh town of Llangollen on the River Dee. He undertook many commissions for the English aristocracy, painting portraits and country houses, but from 1720 onwards he particularly specialised in sporting scenes. He was very sound so far as horses and dogs were concerned. This was a case of being in the right place at the right time, as horse-racing was becoming both formalised and regulated, and hugely popular right across the social scale – but particularly with wealthy owners who could afford Tillemans’ fees. George Stubbs is better known, but Tillemans preceded him by a generation. Stubbs did not begin his career until the late 1750s.
Unlike some artists, Tillemans was at ease in polite society and mixed well with “persons of Fashion & persons of Quality”. He died in Suffolk in December 1734.