Memory Maps: 'Brent Hall' by Richard Humphreys
'Benevolus and the Thing in Wartime Essex - Edward Benlowes at Brent Hall'
Where's He that can express the Spheares swift Turn?
Or paint the Phoenix in her flaming Urn?
By That rare Masters Hand may be design'd
Your furnisht Head, free Heart, unpattern'd Minde;
Who, being so richly good, so wisely deare
Of pretioius Time, maes May of all the Yeare.
Blest in the The Glories of your Friendship, thus
I have the BEST OF FRIENDS, You have BENEVOLUS.
(Edward Benlowes, 'Envoy' to, 'A Glance at the Glories of Sacred Friendship' (1659))
Brent Hall lies quietly isolated in open Essex fields and has a poignant story to tell of religion, politics, poetry, friendship, betrayal, persecution and great personal misfortune - as one recent writer ironically puts it, it is a tale of 'hubris and loss of choice real estate of which classical tragedy is made' 1. In my brief account this haunted house begins as a powerful literary site and ends as an emblem of a deep English visual tradition. It gently glows and trembles today with a melancholy but resonant history, blunderbusses and Spitfires echoing in the distance.
Kenneth Rowntree, a Yorkshire-born Quaker, was among those artists commissioned in late 1939 by Kenneth Clark, chairman of the Wartime Artists Advisory Committee, to produce works of art as part of the nation's war effort. The aim of the WAAC was to get artists to 'make drawings, paintings and prints at the war front, in factories, workshops, shipyards and on the land, and of the changed life of the towns and villages, thus making a permanent record of life during the war which would be a memorial to the national effort, and of particular value'2. As a pacifist, Rowntree was pleased when the Pilgrim Trust, a charity set up by a New York philanthropist in 1930, supported the creation of 'Recording Britain', a scheme aimed at making a visual record of old British landscapes and buildings threatened by modernisation, aerial bombardment and possible invasion.
In the autumn of 1941 Rowntree moved with his pregnant wife Diana, an architect, to a 'handsome draughty house'3 in Great Bardfield in north Essex, near to the painters Edward Bawden and Michael Rothenstein and not far from the artist Eric Ravilious and his wife Thirzah, who lived in the village of Shalford. The painter Thomas Hennell was also a regular visitor to this small artists' colony largely dedicated to a revival of the British topographical watercolour tradition. Rowntree painted many views of churches and churchyards in Essex for 'Recording Britain', but only one house. His choice of Brent Hall, a timber-framed house about three-quarters of a mile WNW of the famously picturesque village of Finchingfield, on the Brent Hall Road in the direction of Sampford, is typical of his search for the understated and quietly evocative aspects of his adopted county. Whether he was aware of its fascinating and even tragic literary and political history is unknown; perhaps he came to sense it as he made his image.
The painting shows the house viewed from the east, presumably in the spring or summer of 1942, with a walled garden in the left foreground and a large fenced lawn or paddock in front of the house. A variety of trees and shrubs frame the whole image. Rowntree was clearly struck by the rich patterns formed by clouded sky and trees, gardens and house, and by the pleasing intricacy of the relationship between the red brick of the large chimney stacks and the distinctive Essex pale yellow wash of the stuccoed walls and the beautiful richness of the orange-red tiles. The windows, as with so many such East Anglian houses, are varied in shape, from gothic arched to large mullioned, and placed in almost random arrangement across the face of the building. In a modest way, and echoing the crisp, translucent and slightly child-like watercolour technique of friends and contemporaries such as Bawden and Ravilious, Rowntree presents a house seemingly growing benignly out of its grounds; just as Jonson, Marvell and others in the seventeenth century had eulogised far grander houses and their owners in their country-house poems. Yet Jonson's hymn to the Sidneys at Penshurst has something of this sense of modesty and natural fitness of man to house to natural setting:
Thou art not, PENSHURST, built to envious show
Of touch, or marble ; nor canst boast a row
Of polish'd pillars, or a roof of gold :
Thou hast no lantern whereof tales are told ;
Or stair, or courts ; but stand'st an ancient pile,
And these grudg'd at, art reverenced the while.4
The house was built on a T-plan, probably sometime in the sixteenth century, its cross wing located at the south end which was refaced with red brick in the eighteenth century when various additions were also made to the east and west sides. The earliest record of the Hall I have discovered so far is in 1555 when it was occupied by the philanthropist and lawyer William Benlowe, or Bendlowes, a Serjeant-at-Law, of Yorkshire origin, firstly to Mary 1 and then to Elizabeth 1. He died in 1584 and members of his family, many possibly being recusants, continued to live there until the 1650s. Of much greater interest to us is his great-grandson, Edward Benlowes, who was born in 1602-4 and who attended St John's College, Cambridge for two years from 1620 before proceeding to Lincoln's Inn.
During the 1620s Benlowes, the precocious author in 1626 of a long theological work 'Sphinx Theologica', travelled abroad on an extensive Grand Tour, reaching 'beyond the seven seas' and attending the 'courts of princes', according to Thomas Fuller in section six of 'The History of the University of Cambridge' (1655) which was dedicated to Benlowes.5 His religious inclinations during this period are fascinatingly ambiguous and in 1643 he protested that there was no evidence his mother was a 'papist' in a dispute with two local parliamentarian bigwigs over rents from Great Bardfield tenants, no doubt parishioners of the church for which he paid the living and had splendidly decorated. In 1632 Ralph Winterton dedicated a translation of Drexelius's 'Considerations upon Eternitie' to Benlowes and makes reference to his having travelled abroad to be confirmed in 'the Romish Religion', but goes on that this experience led him to return to his 'Mother the Church of England' and to become a 'most zealous Protestant.6 A manuscript by William Cole in the papers of Samuel Ward, the great Calvinist Master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, says that Benlowes was attracted to the 'higher authority' of the Pope and his capacity to settle religious disputes.7 However, he was fiercely anti-Catholic in all of his writings.
Benlowes, captain of a troop of horse in Essex in the 1620s and 1630s, wrote poetry and , according to Samuel Butler, 'he made all the Furniture of his Horse, from the Bit to the Crupper, in beaten Poetry, every Verse, being fitted to the Proportion of the Thing, with a moral Allusion of the Sense to the Thing; as the Bridle of Moderation, the Saddle of Content, and the Crupper of Constancy; so that the Thing was both Epigram and Emblem, even as a Mule is both Horse and Ass'.8 A modern reader might fancy intimations here of Jacques Lacan's sublime 'Thing', that emptiness at the heart of our symbolic orders, chiming with this typically Caroline earnest didactic strain.
In 1627, while on his Grand Tour, Benlowes met a printer called Johannes (later John) Schoren and took him on as a servant. Schoren became a trusted assistant, nursing Benlowes back to health after the latter contracted smallpox in Venice. The two men returned to England by 1630 and Schoren acted as a bailiff and steward to Benlowes at Brent Hall, agreeing to convert to Anglicanism and being rewarded with an annuity of twenty marks. Together they also established a rolling printing press in the house and produced often lavish volumes of poetry and other literature full of engravings, a myriad typefaces and inter-linear decoration. These volumes are remarkable artefacts of a now almost lost culture.
It is with reference to this printing activity that Rowntree, over three hundred years later, includes the phrase 'once home of Francis Quarles' in his title to his watercolour. Quarles, the famous emblematist and also from Essex, was a protégé of Benlowes and lived at Brent Hall while writing his 'Emblemes' (1635) which he dedicated to his host. In the dedication he tells Benlowes that 'you have put the Theorboe in my hand; and I have played; you gave the Musitian the first encouragement; the Musicke returnes to you for Patronage'.9 Other talented poets published or befriended and supported by Benlowes include the King's College, Cambridge-educated Phineas Fletcher, Izaak Walton, Thomas Fuller, Alexander Ross, James Howell, Payne Fisher and Clement Paman. Friendship is the motif which binds these relationships, rather than simple business or patronage transactions. In his dedication to 'The Purple Island, or The Isle of Man' (1633), Fletcher writes: 'In letting [these raw Essayes] abroad I desire only to testifie, how much I preferred your desires before mine own, and how much more I owe to You than any other: This if they witnesse for me, it is all their service I require. Sir, I leave them to your tuition, and entreat you to love him who will contend with you in nothing but to out-love you, and would be known to the world by no other Name, then//Your true friend,// PF'.10 The special edition of the volume which survives has Benlowes and Fletcher's arms inter-twined in recognition of their close amity. Clement Paman, a student of Samuel Ward at Sidney Sussex and another loyal Anglican who, like his Master and many others, suffered persecution during the Civil War, wrote of the inspiration of the manuscript of Benlowes' poetic masterpiece 'Theophila' (1652): 'All my pleasure is, yt I have obeyed you, & somewhat rays'd my owne heart wth these imaginations'.11 M T Anderson has suggested that Benlowes may have been at the centre of a partly homosexual circle of High Church writers typical of Jacobean and Caroline culture, citing his one-page verse and prose tract 'A Glance at the Glories of Sacred Friendship' (1657) as an example of homoerotic expression, rather than the more usual description of such sympathies as 'Platonick'.12 Benlowes, a batchelor, of course conventionally describes friendship as a non-physical route to consummation with the Divine: 'By sacred friendship, in which friend embraces friend, mounting to supreme LOVE, by which the blessed sould embraces JESUS, we may gain the eternal prize of BLESSEDNESS by the grace of CHRIST'.13 This is a fascinating area in need of further research and certainly Benlowes's all-male friendships seem often to have been very intense, indeed in one instance destructively so.
'A Glance', with its various typefaces and elaborate pilasters for decoration ends its English section with advice: 'READERS, /Exspect (be't friendly, or unfriendly view'd)/ Friendships Antipodes, INGRATITUDE'.14 It seems likely that Benlowes was referring implicitly to his disastrous falling out with his dear assistant and house-mate Schoren. Anderson suggests that Benlowes' dependency on Schoren's good business sense and organisational skills may have led him to become far more unworldly than was good for him, and thus vulnerable to financial and political assault in mainly parliamentarian Essex during the tense period of the Interregnum. Benlowes' biographer, indeed, described a 'degree of attachment' between the two men 'beyond the ordinary relation of master and man'.15 By 1641 Schoren was complaining that Benlowes had not been paying him his annuity and his master then seems to have discovered signs in the estate accounts of embezzlement by his employee. Although Benlowes agreed to pay Schoren forty four pounds to clear the 'debt', his previously trusted servant fled the house, returning, however, during the Civil War, in 1644 or 1645, with a new wife and asking to be re-employed. Benlowes acceded to the demand and even entrusted Schoren with thirty pounds to hide in the event that his Royalist household was looted by Roundheads - seventeen pounds of that sum disappeared immediately, with Schoren spuriously claiming a carpenter had stolen it. Benlowes seems to have believed him, or chosen to believe him, a fitting degree of trust perhaps for a man whose anagrammatic pseudonym on the bookplates of his large library was 'Benevolus'.
Throughout the next few years of the Civil War Benlowes' estate was considerably reduced through fines and sequestration and he was forced to mortgage much of his extensive lands. No doubt his pro-Crown and Church of England pamphlets on religious and political topics, such as 'Chronosticon Caroli Regis (1648), did not improve his prospects. In 1649, the year of Charles I's execution, Schoren, extraordinarily, pressed for payment in arrears of the period he had been absent from Brent Hall. Benlowes, perhaps dependent on Schoren for the printing of his own work which was continuing, kept his treacherous servant in employment; Anderson speculates that his emotional bonds over-rode any anger he may have felt towards a man who may even have been blackmailing him on various counts. Throughout this period Benlowes was writing his beautiful and moving poem 'Theophila', an epic indebted to Donne about the approach of the soul to God, described by Kastor as 'metaphysical poetry in excelsis and in extremis'.16 Benlowes was under siege both from within and without and when Brent Hall burnt down in 1653 his story takes a dramatic downturn towards homeless penury. Following his master's flight to London, Schoren was left to sell off the few remaining livestock and goods for which he raised one hundred pounds; naturally he kept the money to himself and added further insult to further injury by bringing a suit against Benlowes for failing to pay his annuity. When in 1655 Cromwell, the Sidney Sussex student who persecuted his old Master Samuel Ward and so many other Cambridge Anglicans, prosecuted landowners who had remained loyal to the King by taking one tenth of their annual income, Benlowes sold his estates, in 1657, to a merchant, Nathan Wright, who exacerbated Benlowes' problems by making sustained complaints which further reduced the knock-down price he had negotiated with the unfortunate poet. Benlowes was then trapped and exhausted over the following few years in a wrangle with Schoren (and after his death his wife, Sarah), with Wright and his son over the payment of Schoren's annuity which the new owners had inherited. The hapless literary ex-landowner was no match for his determined and ruthless opponents and went into hiding and then, in 1664, into debtor's prison.
Following his release in about 1666 he settled in Oxford as a penniless man of letters, befriended by Anthony a Wood and, through friendships which occasionally brought him some financial relief, obtaining use of the Bodleian Library. He seems to have attained a degree of spiritual calm and scholarly retirement and was described by John Fell, the Bishop of Oxford, in slightly unlikely terms, as 'as little disturbd as if he were master of the Indies'.17 He died in Oxford in 1676 before he could benefit from installation as one of 'the poor knights of Windsor', an ancient charity intended for 'gentlemen brought to necessity'. His death took place at the apothecary Nicholas Maund's house on 18th December at eight o'clock in the evening, the patient badly affected by a cold snap. He was buried in St Mary's Church, Oxford, his hearse attended by a number of university dons and emblazoned with the family arms to be found on most of the bindings of the books he left to his old Cambridge college.
Brent Hall is now as obscure as its poetical former owner. Since Benlowes's death it has changed hands various times, for the last two hundred and fifty years and more owned by the Ruggles (now Ruggles Brise) family who bought nearby Spains Hall in 1740 along with the village of Finchingfield which included Brent Hall. Restored a number of times since the fire in 1653 which left only chimneys standing - apparently the second fire on the site, hence its name in the sixteenth century - it is still the fine old house painted by Rowntree during the war, a memorial to a haunting episode of one of the most dramatic periods in British history.
© Richard Humphreys, Tate Britain
I should like to thank Dr Jennifer Ward and Ron Hawkins of Finchingfield for their assistance in writing this piece.
2. Milner, p.18
3. Milner, p.84
4. Ben Jonson 'To Penshurst'
5. Fuller, p.89
6. Winterton, sigg.A4v.-A5r
7. Brydges, iii.42
8. Butler, p.53
9. Francis Quarles, see: http://emblem.libraries.psu.edu/quarltoc.htm
11. Clement Paman, in a letter in the Bodleian Library, MS. Rawl D 945, f.32r
15. Jenkins, p.101
16. Kastor, p.137
17. Niemeyer, p.38