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George Nathaniel Curzon was born on 11 January 1859 at Kedleston, the Derbyshire estate his family had owned for more than seven hundred years. Proud of his birthplace, one of the finest country houses in England, and of his birthright, he once admonished an historian who had failed to trace the Curzons back beyond the fifteenth century. The family's descent, he wrote, went 'straight back to a Norman who came over with the Conqueror', while Kedleston had belonged to the Curzons, most of whom were buried in its church, since the twelfth century. 'I think there are only two or three families in England', he added, 'who can prove a similar descent. Each stage of ours was verified some years ago at the College of Heralds.'
While George Curzon was proud of his family's longevity, he was less impressed by its achievements. 'My ancestors', he used to say, 'were a feeble lot. No family could have remained in possession of the same estate since the twelfth century had they manifested the very slightest energy or courage.' In the hundred years before his birth, however, some junior members had led active lives outside Derbyshire. One illegitimate great-uncle was killed at Waterloo, another joined the navy and was decorated for his services at Navarino. An uncle of these fought in turn against the fleets of Bourbon, revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and supervised the evacuation of the British army at Corunna. He was eventually made a full admiral, although not until he was too old to command a fleet.
Military careers had little appeal to those Curzons who were neither illegitimate nor younger sons. They remained on their estates except for brief appearances at Westminster, their immobility and lack of adventure symbolized by the family's strikingly unambitious motto, 'Let Curzon holde what Curzon helde'. Serving as sheriffs and justices of the peace in the later Middle Ages, they also provided some of Derbyshire's knights in Parliament. By the early eighteenth century the county was represented in the House of Commons by the head of the family, while a son or younger brother usually sat for Clitheroe in Lancashire. The Tory Curzons were nearly always unopposed in their own county, even when their party was out of office. Until the general election of 1734, Derbyshire returned two Tory members; afterwards the Curzons and their Whig rivals, the Cavendishes of Chatsworth, each nominated a family representative.
The official parliamentary histories of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries almost invariably describe an MP of the Curzon family as 'an inactive member' who seldom made a speech and often did not vote. Sir John Curzon, who was killed out hunting in 1727, was an exception, at any rate in his voting habits: after George I had been placed on the throne in 1714, he voted against the government in every recorded division. Compared to his younger brother William, regarded by Horace Walpole as 'a nasty wretch and very covetous', this was a fairly positive record. MP for Clitheroe for thirteen years, William 'never paid the compliment of attending at his own election' and appears never to have voted in the House of Commons. Until George Curzon was elected in 1886, the family's performance scarcely improved. Robert Curzon, an elderly cousin who died when George was a child, made only one parliamentary speech in his first twenty-four years as a member.
In spite of their dislike of the Hanoverians, the Curzons were too prudent to become Jacobites. During the rising of 1745 Sir Nathaniel Curzon joined the Duke of Devonshire and other Derbyshire gentlemen in contributing to a fund established to 'defend our excellent Constitution in Church and State'. Yet his opposition to the government seems to have led Jacobites to believe that he was a potential supporter of the Stuarts, because in 1743 one of their agents had informed the King of France that Sir Nathaniel had an annual income of £12,000 and employed 10,000 miners. Although both figures are exaggerated, the Curzons' wealth had increased over the previous century, and the family had acquired property in neighbouring counties as well as in London. By 1759 Sir Nathaniel's son, another Nathaniel, believed his family's status had reached a point where it would be adequately reflected only by a peerage and a great country palace. Both were attained. Although regarded with some scorn for the persistency of his application, Curzon received the title of Baron Scarsdale in 1761. The new peer was disappointed, however, by his failure to become Lord-Lieutenant of Derbyshire and mortified by the achievement of his brother Assheton, whose zealous self-advancement gained him a barony from William Pitt and a viscountcy from Henry Addington. Yet Assheton, the least inactive Curzon in Parliament until the arrival of George Nathaniel, felt that even a viscountcy was insufficient and asked Spencer Perceval for an earldom. Despite his failure to obtain it, his grandson and heir (descended through his mother from Admiral Howe) was made Earl Howe in 1821. Jealousy between the branches and confusion over their titles re-emerged in a later generation and complicated relations between George Curzon and his Howe cousins.
The building of Kedleston was the first Lord Scarsdale's main achievement. His architect, Robert Adam, thought him the ideal patron, 'a man resolved to spare no Expence, with £10,000 a Year, Good Temper'd & having taste himself for the Arts and little for Game'. Unlike many of his aristocratic contemporaries, Scarsdale did not undertake the Grand Tour and rarely travelled, one of several family traditions to be emphatically broken by his great-great-grandson. Yet his taste was similar to that of those connoisseurs of Palladian architecture, Lord Burlington and Lord Leicester, and the plan for Kedleston, like Holkham in Norfolk, is based on the illustrations of Palladio's unbuilt Villa Mocenigo.
Demolition of the existing house, a red-brick mansion constructed sixty years previously on the site of a medieval manor and an Elizabethan hall, began in 1759. A few months later, Adam was placed in charge of building the main block, and in the subsequent fifteen years most of his designs for the house and park were carried out. The great north front, elegantly adapted from the plans of two previous architects, was constructed as Adam intended. Lack of funds, however, curtailed his schemes for the south front, and the powerful façade with its projecting rotunda was built without the pavilions he had designed to flank it. Inside the house few economies were made, however, and the Corinthian grandeur of the façades is continued in the saloon, based on the Pantheon in Rome, and in the pillars of the great marble hall. Considerable expenditure also went on paintings, bought by an agent in Italy, although these were not always what they were claimed to be. Two of Lord Scarsdale's Rembrandts were subsequently demoted, a fate they shared with a purchase of his most prominent descendant; convinced that he had picked up a painting by the Dutch master for £10 in 1893, George Curzon was forced to concede a few weeks later that he had been deluded.
The building of Kedleston was accompanied by major alterations to its surroundings. As a traveller to the county noted in 1783, 'the village is removed (not destroyed, as is too often done), the road is thrown to a considerable distance, out of sight of the house, the scanty stream is encreased into a large piece of water, and the ground disposed in the finest order'. By then the park contained a bridge and a cascade built by Adam, an hexagonal summer house, and a delightful fishing pavilion from which ladies could cast their lines without becoming sunburnt. Apart from the Gothic church, made sacrosanct by so many interred Curzons, little was left undisturbed. The changes were almost uniformly praised, one writer declaring it to be 'the glory of Derbyshire, eclipsing Chatsworth, the ancient boast of the county'. Dr Johnson was not impressed, foolishly saying 'it would do excellently for a town-hall', but Boswell was 'struck with the magnificence of the building' and the 'verdure' of the park, which 'agitated and distended [his] mind in a most agreeable manner'.
The architectural extravagance of the first Lord Scarsdale, followed by the gambling debts of the second and the intestacy of the third, considerably reduced the family's wealth. The new circumstances preserved Kedleston from nineteenth-century 'improvements' but also imposed a comparatively frugal existence on its occupants. The Curzons therefore relinquished their rivalry with the Cavendishes and opted for even more sedentary lives as squires and rectors of their own parish: between 1795 and 1916 they held the living of Kedleston without interruption. The family's genealogical descent as well as its fortunes were complicated by the second Lord Scarsdale, but with no lasting detriment to the lineage. After the death of his first wife, with whom he had a son and a daughter, he fled abroad to escape his debts and lived with a Flemish lady who produced ten children-six of them before the wedding took place. After his death in 1837 Scarsdale was thus succeeded by the son of his first marriage, who had no children, and then by the son of the seventh (but first legitimate) child of his Flemish alliance. Although two survivors of the illegitimate six may have been tempted to query the date and validity of their parents' marriage, they declined to do so, and the fourth Lord Scarsdale, George Curzon's father, took possession of Kedleston in 1856.
The younger son of a younger son (his elder brother had been killed in a riding accident the year before), the new Lord Scarsdale had not expected to inherit Kedleston and refused to change his way of life when he did. He had become the village rector in 1855 and retained the post until his death sixty-one years later. Although a curate usually officiated at church services, Scarsdale carried out the combined duties of 'squarson' for the rest of his life, visiting parishioners, restoring the church and looking after his land. He cared more about the estate than the house where his zeal for economy was such that he used to wander around the rooms removing pieces of coal from the fires.
An austere, uncouth figure sporting large fluffy whiskers and often a billycock hat, Lord Scarsdale believed in the long-held family tradition that landowners should stay on their land. 'Why don't you stay at home and be quiet,' he asked his son George, 'look after the estate, and take an interest in the tenants as I have done, instead of roaming about all over the world?' When writing to congratulate Mary Leiter on her engagement to George, he informed her that the Curzons were 'a quiet, home-loving family'. Her reactions on staying with him at Kedleston a few months later were unfavourable: he was despotic, unattractively eccentric ('very fond of examining his tongue in a mirror') and disagreeable to his daughters, whom he criticized for being unmarried while giving them little opportunity to meet young men. A few years later, however, she admitted that he had become 'tender and affectionate' to herself and good with his grandchildren.
Scarsdale was the most unindulgent of fathers, obsessed by punctuality and intolerant of luxury and pretensions. He did little to encourage ambition in his children and was grudging in his praise for their achievements. George complained that he took such little interest in his career that he never read one of his books or speeches. When he won a French prize at Eton, his father told him not to celebrate his success by growing his hair over his ears. 'Your talents are given to you by Almighty God and I fervently pray you will ever use them rightly, and be a comfort and blessing to your parents.' Above all, Lord Scarsdale exhorted, 'do not, dear boy, be unduly puffed up at your comparatively early victory'. The potentially baneful effects of the French prize also exercised his mother who hoped 'great shiverings and ailings' would not 'proceed from overtaxing [his] brain' and bring 'depression and bodily languor'. Contemporary photographs indicate that George obeyed his father's demand for short hair, but his career is proof that he paid little attention to his mother's warning about the effects of overwork.
Lord Scarsdale married Blanche Senhouse, from Netherhall in Cumberland, in 1856. The next year they had their first daughter, Sophy, followed in 1859 by their eldest son. In all George's enormous correspondence there is virtually no mention of the Senhouses beyond a description of his uncle as an 'amiable country gentleman'. Yet his mother's genes seem to have influenced his character and interests more profoundly than those of his father. The Curzon family had shown no concern for archaeology, cheerfully obliterating their ancestors' works, until George came along and restored a number of monuments in Britain and a great many more in India. An ancestor on his mother's side, by contrast, has been called 'the father of British antiquarianism'. John Senhouse began the excavation of an ancient fort in Cumberland in the sixteenth century and assembled a remarkable collection of Roman and Celtic items which was preserved and enlarged by his family for four hundred years.
Contemporary descendants of the Senhouses recognize that some of them share certain character traits with George Curzon: precision, persistence, meticulousness over details, and a tendency to point out other people's mistakes. Every evening in old age his sister Sophy kept her Burke's Peerage up to date by adding information from the births and deaths columns of The Times. Judging from the few relics of their mother, precise accounting was also a characteristic of Blanche Scarsdale, who recorded details of the most insignificant purchases down to the last farthing. Yet it is difficult to form an overall idea of her personality. George's references to her in his letters are affectionate, but the meagre existing evidence suggests that his love for her may not have been strongly reciprocated. Probably they managed to see even less of each other than most Victorian families of the same class. Until he went to his boarding preparatory school, George was under the close and domineering supervision of his governess, while his mother spent most of her time in pregnancy. Before he was 7 she had had five more children.
'One of the delights of childhood', Curzon recalled many years later, 'is the eternal gullibility of children about the birth of a new brother or sister.' Led to believe that the family babies appeared among the nettles in the Hay Wood at Kedleston, he used to command expeditions across Adam's triple-arched bridge and up the opposite slope in search of 'fresh ones. We always thought it an extraordinary place for them to be found. But it never occurred to us to doubt it.
Excerpted from Curzon Imperial Statesman by DAVID GILMOUR Copyright © 2003 by David Gilmour
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted January 22, 2004
David Gilmour renders a balanced portrait of George Curzon, a complex imperial statesman. Curzon was born and raised as an aristocrat at a time that the British Empire was at its apex in the decades before WWI. Unlike the rest of his family, Curzon was very ambitious and determined to leave his mark in history. Gilmour makes a judicious use of Curson's writings to show us how extraordinarily well-traveled Curzon was for a man of his time. Curzon had a first-hand knowledge of many foreign issues, his undeniable specialty, unlike such luminaries as Lloyd George, A. J. Balfour, to name a few. Curzon was a work alcoholic, self-centered person who sounded condescending at times and was unable to delegate much because of his very exacting standards. Furthermore, Curzon often did not display much emotional intelligence in his relationship with others, including his own family. Unsurprisingly, Curzon's peers and superiors in politics found him regularly unbearable in Parliament, during his viceroyalty in India and as a member of different cabinets in the last decade of his life. Chirol summarized it very well when he told Hardinge that Curzon had the knack of saying the wrong thing, or even, when he says the right thing, of saying it in the wrong way, is quite extraordinary. I can recall no instance of a man whose personal unpopularity has to the same extent neutralized his immense abilities and his power of rendering great services. Gilmour shows very clearly how Curzon could be well ahead of his time in fields such as foreign policy and protection of old monuments and at the same time be so backward in such areas as women's rights and his attitude to nationalism. Overworked for most of his life, Curzon died prematurely at the age of 66. However, Curzon left some built-to-last monuments to posterity: think for instance about the impressive restoration of at one time decrepit Taj Mahal in India, the negotiation of the Lausanne Treaty that formalized the existence of Modern Turkey or Remembrance Day, a fitting tribute to the Fallen Heroes.
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