The Case for Wright

There seems to be something about Shugborough that suggests secrets, something lying under the surface, some idea that has been partly lost under the grandiose rebuilding of the end of the 18th century but still glimmers under the grass.

At the heart of the place is the Shepherds Monument with its relief of Poussin’s Shepherds of Arcadia and a never explained inscription. Even without the inscription, often assumed to be some kind of cipher, the monument is a complicated and tantalising puzzle. Who designed it? When was it built? What does it mean? It will only be possible to suggest answers to these questions when all the evidence has been examined and as much as possible has been understood of the people involved and what their ideas and motives might have been.

In a series of Country Life articles in 1971 Eileen Harris suggested that the architect of the first wave of developments, the enlargements to the house, the gardens and the first group of monuments, was Thomas Wright of Durham. (1) This work was at least partly complete by August 1748 when Jemima and Philip Yorke visited. Harris later produced a catalogue of Thomas Wright’s design work, including the various buildings at Shugborough, as an introduction to a lavish reproduction of his published designs for “Arbours and Grottoes” in 1979. (2)

It was the mysterious Shepherds Monument that caught her attention. The monument seems to have several elements – an inner arch of rusticated stone and an outer portico of rustic columns and roof. The outer columns and pediment are almost certainly the work James Stuart as an undated drawing in the British Museum matches the rustic columns exactly. (3) The inner arch is very similar in shape to an Arbour design by Wright published in his volume of “Arbours and Grottoes” in 1755. The basic form of this inner element is even more similar to a simple arbour or alcove included in a design for a garden for Badminton from 1750. (4) Though there was something puzzling and complicated about the monument, and though Stuart must have had a hand in it several years after the original garden designs were made, Harris proposed that the Shepherd’s Monument was, at its heart, a work by Thomas Wright and that he had been the man who transformed Shugborough in 1748.

Thomas Wright is an extremely attractive and fascinating character and a small number of enthusiasts have explored different aspects of his life since Harris’s article. His astronomical work has been republished and more of his landscapes have been rediscovered and restored, but there are volumes of manuscripts in Newcastle Public Library which have hardly been looked at. These contains poetry, notes on mythology and sketches for a Utopian fantasy “The Fortunate Islands”.

Though Wright’s authorship of the Shugborough work has been accepted for thirty years there has always been a question mark by it because of the complete lack of contemporary documentation, either in the Anson archives in Staffordshire or in Wright’s own surviving notes.

Wright left a sketchy journal of his early life which gives an impression of his career as a tutor in London and country houses but the most illuminating record of his early life is the correspondence of the poet and translator Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot, also, by chance, an intimate friend of Elizabeth Yorke, later Lady Anson.

Elizabeth Carter was born in 1717, the daughter of a clergyman, Nicholas Carter, of Deal in Kent. She is known today as one of the first women writers to earn enough to live on independently through her work as a poet, and as the translator of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher. Carter’s translation became a surprise best seller, and from the 1750s she was the leading female intellectual of the “bluestocking” social circle led by Mrs Elizabeth Montagu. By the time she first met Wright she was already a published poet, writing for the Gentleman’s Magazine. This is quite extraordinary for a woman of only twenty, mixing with London literary and scientific society.

It’s also quite extraordinary that this was a young woman, a daughter of a clergyman, who had studied Plato. She wrote, in a poem to her friend Miss Lynch:

“To calm Philosophy I next retire,
And seek the joys her sacred arts inspire,
Renounce the frolics of unthinking youth,
To court the more engaging charms of Truth :
With Plato soar on Contemplation’s wing,
And trace perfection to th’ eternal spring:
Observe the vital emanations flow,
That animate each fair degree below :
Whence Order, Elegance, and Beauty move
Each finer sense, that tunes the mind to love;
Whence all that harmony and fire that join,
To form a temper, and a soul like thine.”

This could hardly be more Platonic, particularly the lines:

“Observe the vital emanations flow,
That animate each fair degree below…”

Another of Elizabeth Carter’s poems to Miss Lynch, from 1744, refers to the myth of the two Venuses from Plato’s Symposium:

“With mystic sense, the poet’s tuneful tongue
Of Urania’s birth in glitt’ring fiction sung.”

And, again, directly praises Plato:

What shining visions rose on Plato’s thought!
While by the Muses gently winding flood ,
His searching fancy trac’d the sov’reign good ! –
The laurell’d Sisters touch’d the vocal lyre,
And Wisdom’s goddess led their tuneful choir.

So Elizabeth Carter, in her early twenties, had studied Plato’s “Symposium”, his discussion of love, principally between men, in depth. Was this a normal part of a young lady’s education at the time? Even a hundred years later it could be considered a rather suspect book. Presumably Miss Lynch understood the Platonic meaning of these poems. She lived in Canterbury and would have met Thomas Wright when he stayed with the Carters in Deal in August 1741. Carter wrote to her friend Mrs Underdown 9th February 1742:

“Oh dear! Now I talk of hearing & seeing, Miss Lynch & I have clubb’d our wits to compose the strangest Letter that ever was seen or heard of to puzzle Endymion. Do not say any thing about it for tis a great Mystery but we will show it to you when you come here.

Miss Lynch & I lie & talk of a night till we fall fast asleep with a Sentence in our mouth & wake half choked with it next Morning.”

“Endymion” was Thomas Wright.

Wright, who was born in 1711, came from a quite different place and social background. He was the son of a yeoman carpenter in Durham who, by sheer force of personality, found his way into high society as a teacher of mathematical subjects to young ladies.

It is not known how Carter met Wright. She seems to have been a friend rather than a student. He introduced her to the mysterious world of scientists and philosophers. She wrote to her friend Mrs Underdown on June 23rd 1738:

“I have lately met with much pleasure in the acquaintance of Mr Wright a great mathematician & a very ingenious and good natured Man. He has introduced me to Dr Desaguliers & I have two or 3 times been at his House which is the strangest looking place I ever beheld & appears very much like the Abode of a Wizard. The Company that frequents it is equally singular consisting chiefly of a set of queer looking people called Philosophers.“(5)

Carter’s extensive correspondence with Wright was lost in the 19th century – a tragedy as it might have explained so many mysteries. It was Wright who introduced Carter to his student Catherine Talbot, which lead to a fascinating and entertaining correspondence which was published after Carter’s death by her nephew. The introduction of Carter to Talbot led in turn to Carter’s most important work, her translation of the works of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.

Wright developed visionary ideas and his main vocation was cosmology, and attempting to explain his view of the immensity of space and its infinite galaxies. Carter knew Wright’s theories. She wrote a poem in his honour, addressing him as “Endymion”. It was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in the same month, June 1738.

“WHILE clear the night, and ev’ry thought serene,
Let Fancy wander o’er the solemn scene:
And, wing’d by active Contemplation, rise
Amidst the radiant wonders of the skies…

“Where ev’ry star that gilds the gloom of night
With the faint tremblings of a distant light,
Perhaps illumes some system of its own
With the strong influence of a radiant sun.”(6)

The first version of the poem ends with the lines:

“All view the happy talents with delight

That form a Desaguliers or a Wright.”

Wright visited Carter at her home in Deal and they planned a “romantic voyage to the Goodwin sands” – and yet Wright scarcely mentions her name in his Journal. There are hints in the Carter/Talbot correspondence that one of the incentives for Wright to travel to Ireland in 1746 was to get away from Elizabeth Carter whom he had upset in some way.

Eileen Harris pointed out some specific details of design in support of her identification – for example a feature of plaster work that matched drawings for Wright’s only major house design, Nuthall Temple, built about seven years later. But would Wright, if he worked at Shugborough, have been responsible for the design of plasterwork? There is no reason to doubt Philip Yorke’s comment in one of his letters that the plaster was by Vassalli, a very busy artists in the Midlands. On the other hand Wright did, it seem, design that kind of detail at Nuthall. There was also, now gone, a bow window on the north front, which Jemima Grey thought was “ridiculous”, but bow windows were a typical feature of Wright’s architecture. He designed one for Tollymore in Ireland (which would have been designed in 1747 but actually built after Wright’s visit there) and for his own house at Byers Green, Durham. Wright explained that the bow window was designed to catch the movement of the sun. In his own house, at least, it was part of the cosmological scheme of the design.

On the whole the Wrightian landscape has a characteristic mood – a playful and fanciful mixture of different styles – Gothic, classical and Chinese. At Shugborough there was a very good reason for this eclecticism – to reflect Admiral Anson’s circumnavigation but also, and just as much, Thomas Anson’s travels and interest in other cultures. Wright’s Irish work, designed but not necessarily built during his tour in 1746-7, has a similar mixture. Dr Pococke (the mummy collecting member of the Egyptian Society) described Dundalk House in 1752:

“…a walk with elm hedges on each side, an artificial serpentine river, a Chinese bridge, a thatch’d open house supported by the bodies of fire trees…”

At Tollymore House Pococke saw

“a thatched open pavilion, a Gothic Watergate over a canal, a cascade, a barn, a hermitage, a Barbican gate and a folly.”(7)

Thatched or Root Houses were another typical feature of Wright’s eccentric and eclectic landscapes. There is no evidence that there was ever such a thing at Shugborough though it has been suggested without any real evidence that there may have been one on the island behind the Chinese House. There was certainly one at Wrest, a garden with a very close relationship with Shugborough which parallels the close family relationship of the Yorkes and Ansons. This example at Wrest was built soon after the developments at Shugborough. Ideas were passed from family to family and imitated in a friendly rivalry. There may well have been other features in the landscape that were never mentioned in letters at the time and have since vanished. It is very significant that the Shepherds Monument, which seems now the most unusual and most tantalising of the features of the gardens is not mentioned in any letter or diary until more than eight years after the first developments.

A building that feels, though this is hardly firm evidence, closest to the mood of Shugborough is the Menagerie at Horton, near Northampton, the only complete house by Wright that survives. This has a plaster ceiling scheme that certainly reflects Wright’s ideas, his cosmological and symbolic interests, showing Father Time, the sun, and the signs of the zodiac. The overall mood of the Menagerie, beautifully restored by the late Gervase Jackson-Stops and occasionally open to the public, matches very closely the eccentric and cosy feel of the library at Shugborough, with its plasterwork of the liberal arts and Greek philosophers and writers. The library certainly belongs to the first period of development and if it could be judged on this similarity of mood alone it would happily to ascribed to Thomas Wright. His own descriptions of his own villa at Byers Green suggest that his own house, with its cosmological decorations and bay windows, was a sister to the Menagerie and the modest villa that Thomas Anson’s old William and Mary house had been transformed into.

No one has ever suggested any other candidate for the first developments at Shugborough. The only person for whom a case could (and perhaps should) be argued is Sanderson Miller. Miller worked at Hagley from 1749 onwards. From about this time at least Hagley and Shugborough were close relations. The Ansons were regular visitors to Lord Lyttelton, who was one of the bluestocking cultural circle around Elizabeth Montagu, an enthusiastic supporter of Elizabeth Carter and James Harris. Miller’s list of work includes some “advice” at Shugborough, in 1749, for the Classical Ruin on the far side of the river, and 1752, which may have been connected with the pagoda.

Wright, according to George Mason,

understood drawing, and sketched plans of his designs; but never contracted for work.” (8)

Miller would have organised the construction from Wright’s plans, just as he was responsible of the construction of Stuart’s Doric Temple at Hagley.

Lady Anson’s mentions Miller’s design for a gothic ruin for Lord Hardwicke at

Wimpole Hall in a letter of 1750. He may have had a role in the gardens at Wroxton, roughly contemporary with Shugborough, which also included Chinese and Gothic features and a canal – but which lacks the lightness of touch of Wright’s projects.

An attribution of Shugborough to Wright is completely reasonable and to anyone who gets to know his character it seems to belong to him. And yet –

Why is there no documentary proof of Wright’s work at Shugborough?

Of course the historical record is sketchy for most of his career, but there are mentions of his relationship with the Yorkes at Wrest Park. Catherine Talbot mentions his praises of Wrest in a letter to Elizabeth Carter in 1745. There is, in fact, one mention of Wright in a letter from Lady Anson to Jemima Grey at Wrest, but she refers to “your Mr Wright” as the designer of a room at Stoke Gifford, Wright’s base between 1750 and his retirement to his home village of Byers Green, County Durham

Wright’s “Early Journal” (9) gives an outline of his work before his visit to Ireland in 1746/7 and has added notes of his later travels and important projects – but with no mention of Shugborough. If all the evidence of his career, including other references to his architecture and the Carter/Talbot correspondence, is assembled into a chronology a very clear gap is revealed. This is the period between his trip to Ireland in 1746-7 and a meeting with Elizabeth Carter in 1748.

This is precisely the period in which the Shugborough work must have been done.

This is tantalising.

One step towards understanding what might have been going on at Shugborough is to look at Wright’s architectural career as a whole.

There is a very revealing letter written to Wright by Rev. Spencer Cowper in 1753. Wright had spent Christmas 1745 at the home of Spencer Cowper in Canterbury, in the company of Elizabeth Carter and other young ladies. Cowper continued to be Wright’s friend in his retirement as Cowper became Dean of Durham. On 11th November 1753 Spencer Cowper wrote to Wright:

“I am sorry the stars have used you ill…You certainly have now a more ready way to get at the favour of the Great than by your celestial knowledge. Your display of that was but laying a lane before them which contracted all their greatness into an atom; it is true it magnified their Creator – but what is that to them? Now you lay before them their own greatness, and what is really the fruit of your genius shall here after be shown as the contrivance and art of the great proprietor.”(10)

(This letter is often quoted as being from the poet William Cowper. The error was made in a 19th century edition of the poet’s letters.)

Cowper writes “Now you lay before them their own greatness”, through his architectural embellishments of their estates and landscapes, in contrast to his teaching of astronomy which made them seem insignificant in comparison with the infinite universe. As Cowper had known Wright since 1745 this does suggest that Wright had only seriously thought of following a career as an architect not long before 1753.

Looking closely at Wright’s known work there is a possibility that his architecture only in fact began with his Irish trip, in 1746-7 in which he produced drawings principally for Lord Limerick, great-uncle of Lady Grey, closely followed by work at Shugborough and then Wrest.

Eileen Harris’s catalogue includes several earlier projects which may not be by Wright at all.

Harris includes a garden plan of Culford Park, seat of Earl Cornwallis, drawn in 1742. This may not be a design for a garden but a piece of cartography. Wright taught Cornwallis’s daughters (and son), and surveying was one of his topics, along with Geometry, Architecture, Perspective, Opticks etc.

Wright drew a frontage for the Duchess of Kent’s house at Old Windsor in 1743. This may have been an early architectural project. Harris’s catalogue lists a Doric Temple at Blickling Hall in 1744. If this is by Wright it would be his first complete building. There is a drawing of this by Wright in the Avery manuscripts, the group of his drawings now in America, but it may be a drawing of an existing building rather than an original design. If it is his design it is an uncharacteristically classical structure.

The only other Wright drawings that date from before the Irish tour are of gardens at Cassiobury, Hertfordshire, the home of the Earl of Essex, brother in law of Wright’s long lasting patron Alan Brodrick, Lord Midleton. These may not be designs but drawings of existing features. Wright was a very good draughtsman. His drawings can be very fine indeed, particularly the detailed and beautiful work in Arbours & Grottoes. He was known as an artist and teacher to his students.

Catherine Talbot implied that Wright went to Ireland because he had upset Elizabeth Carter, perhaps in some romantic way. There could be some truth in this. His Journal says he “resolv’d upon a strong invitation” to go. The purpose of the invitation from Lord Limerick was to explore Irish antiquities for “Louthiana”, a study of Irish antiquities which was published in 1748. A sequel remained unpublished.

The antiquarian interest was a by-product of Wright’s cosmology. He had explored Stonehenge while at Wilton with Lord Pembroke. Both Pembroke and Wright’s “best friend in London” Roger Gale were associates of William Stukely and had surveyed Stonehenge and Avebury with him. To Stukeley the great neolithic temples were

cosmological and the idea of ancient and lost knowledge of the universe preserved in these ruins became a life long obsession for Wright, particularly in his fragmentary Utopian text “The Fortunate Islands.” (11) Though the inspiration may have been fanciful Wright’s description of New Grange, Ireland’s most important ancient site, is a valuable record of how it appeared before it was spectacularly restored in the 20th century.

Wright was, indeed, only at Tolleymore for nine days, but he left drawings that were used many years later. His Dundalk work could have occupied a lengthier stay.

The work Wright would have been involved in at Shugborough was a step forward from the Irish designs. It was an integrated remodelling of a plain house into a fairly modest Gentleman’s villa. It may have had features that made it seem a shrine to Lord Anson and his voyage but the house is designed to suit the taste and interests of Thomas Anson, as a cultured bachelor. It cannot have been the result of a quick visit.

At Shugborough the rebuilding of the house would have needed investigation into the original structure, the design of the two “kiosks” or small wings for the Drawing Room and Library, and work in partnership with artists and plasterers. Overall there is no doubt that the scheme of decoration is to Thomas Anson’s specification.

Wright’s additions may have been designed during one visit but they were not all completed at the time. Some things probably sketched at that time were built later – certainly the Cat’s Monument and Pagoda.

Another aspect of the Shugborough project which has not been examined in detail is the elaborate water features. There were lakes on two levels and a cascade between them falling through a Palladian Bridge, a typical Wrightian feature. These must have required elaborate planning and major structural work. This combination of bridge and cascade is another feature that echos the landscape at Tolleymore.

Lady Grey’s visit in August 1748 fixes the date by which time the extensions to the house were ready. By this time it is likely that some of the landscape features were in place – the Chinese House (from Piercy Brett drawings) and its associated island and Chinese Bridges; the gardens re-laid, with serpentine paths to add a more romantic feature to old formal gardens; the gothic ruins and pigeon house. Though there is no reason to doubt Piercy Brett’s contribution to the Chinese House the Chinese Bridges which were probably by Wright, matching the Chinese Bridge which Pococke saw at Dundalk House.

Another absolutely vital element of this scheme that has not been examined in detail until very recently, thanks to an inspired head gardener, Joe Hawkins, is the fact that the 1747-8 plan must have involved planting and gardening – integrating Thomas Anson’s interest in exotic plants. John Parnell mentioned oriental planting in the journal of his visit in 1769.

After 1748 Wright became renowned for planting. He went to Stoke Park when Norborne Berkeley had already begun his landscape work but at Stoke planting was far more significant than follies or other structures. Where did Wright gather his experience? To George Mason the expertise in planting was Wright’s principal skill.

If we accept, for the sake of the argument, that Shugborough is Wright’s project , and that at this time Wright only made designs for patrons who supported him in his other work, we can then ask why and how did he come to work for Thomas Anson.

The only clue, and it seems to be a very significant one, is the last letter to Catherine Talbot in which Elizabeth Carter describes meeting Wright.

She writes to Catherine Talbot from her uncle’s home in Enfield on June 14th 1748, two months before Lady Grey wrote describing the new work at Shugborough:

“After a week of constant hurry of visiting and company, we came on Thursday to this place, where we spend our time more quietly, Mr. Wright is with us, and a clever lively woman who talks excellent French, but they depart to-day. I forgot to tell you, the Monday before we left town Mrs. Darby and I drank tea with Mr. Wright, Miss Ward was to have been of the party, but was engaged before I could let her know it, so to be sure there is a spell set against her going there as well as your’s. He shewed us all manner of worlds, and I believe Mrs. Talbot and you would have been pleased with his system of the universe, which is founded upon an hypothesis amazingly grand.” (12)

This must refer to Wright’s last scientific, cosmological publication – the final published form of the cosmology on which he had been working since he first came to London. Wright “shewed” Carter “all manner of worlds”. These may have been older illustrations but Carter had been in touch with him throughout his career and would have been familiar with his earlier work. It is more likely to imply that he had produced all or part of the many elaborate illustrations for his culminating work – multiple universes surrounding the “Eye of Providence”, tracks of comets and “a Partial view of Immensity.” She writes that it was something new and “amazingly grand.” This was in June 1748. The book was printed in 1750, the same two year span as lay between the completion of Louthiana (actually written in 1746) and its publication in 1748.

In other words the preparation of the book took place in the missing year, between July 1747 and June 1748. Carter’s letter to Wright is dated the day after a letter from Lady Anson to Thomas in Paris where he has gone for six weeks on government business. It is intriguing that Wright has returned to London, after being unseen for two years, at the same time as Thomas Anson has left for Paris.

Whether or not Wright and Anson were at Shugborough until that coincidence of dates there is a strong possibility that the work on “An Original Theory” was done at the same time as the work at Shugborough.

Could there be a connection between the “An Original Theory” and Shugborough?

The only sure point of contact between Thomas Wright and Thomas Anson’s lives is the axis on which the whole solution turns – Lord Scarbrough.

Scarbrough was Wright’s first and most important patron. After unsuccessful and foolhardy attempts to set himself up as teacher Wright had the good luck to meet Richard Lumley, 2nd Earl of Scarbrough at the home of Rev. Daniel Newcombe in Durham. Wright must have made a remarkably strong impression of Scarbrough, apparently a very serious minded man, as he brought Wright to London and introduced him to the Lords of the Admiralty. Wright mentions Sir Charles Wager and Sir Thomas Franklin. They gave their support for the publication of Wright’s Pannauticon, a navigational system. This was in 1734 when Wright was only 23.

Lord Scarbrough obtained permission for a dedication to the King and recommended him to the 9th Earl of Pembroke. Through Lord Baltimore, another Admiralty Lord, Wright was introduced to Frederick Prince of Wales.

In 1735 the Earl of Pembroke also became a patron and Wright was given the use of his library and had visits to Wilton. He also met the antiquary Roger Gale, who Wright calls his best friend in London. Pembroke and Gale were both associates of William Stukeley and this must be where Wright’s interest in ancient antiquities, and in Druids in particular, comes from.

Wright’s relationship with Scarbrough continued in spite of these other important supporters.

In 1739 Wright noted in his Journal that he gave Lord Scarbrough a “private lecture”. This coincided with a period in which he was developing his “Elements of Existence”, a step towards his grand cosmology. Wright’s vision of the multiple universe continued, in various forms, throughout his life. It was his main obsession, and it was this which must have made him strange but impressive, rather than his enthusiasm as an unconventional teacher of mathematics. To Elizabeth Carter he was “your conjureship.” This was the kind of person who inspired Lord Scarbrough back in Durham in 1733.

Scarbrough died in January 1740. Wright makes no mention of this catastrophe in his Journal.

There are many ways in which Thomas Anson might have become aware of Wright.

He might have heard of him from William Stukeley at the Egyptian Society. He might have known of Wright through Philip Yorke and Jemima Grey but he would not have known him as an architect. Anson may have known Wright in London through his teaching work in the winter season rather than through Wrest Park. Wright had stayed at Wrest several times in the 1730s, even more with the Duchess of Kent, Jemima Grey’s grandmother, at Old Windsor, but, though his journal mentions an invitation to Wrest in 1745 there is no sign he went. That summer Catherine Talbot was there but did not mention him in her letters or journal. The evidence suggests that Wright only returned to Wrest to design garden improvements after 1748.

It would be very surprising indeed if Wright were not occasionally a visitor to the Yorke family’s London home, Powis House. If he were so welcome at the country seat in the summer, why not in London where he could have been very well known to Thomas Anson.

Certainly there were the close links with the Greys, but he could have known Wright at any time from 1734 onwards. He may have kept up a friendship with Alan Brodrick, Lord Midleton. Wright stayed many times with Midleton at Peper Harow. Midleton’s wife’s niece and Wright’s student at Peper Harow, Lady Charlotte Capell, married Thomas Villiers, Viscount Hyde and later Earl of Clarendon in 1752. Villiers stayed at Shugborough in 1752 and a few years later became one of Stuart’s earliest patrons. It was a very small world.

Anson may have met Wright through Lord Scarbrough himelf – the man who had called Anson “the only friend I value in the world.” If there was any evidence at all to explain Anson and Scarbrough’s friendship it might shed light on this, but the actual circumstances in which Anson could have met Wright makes no difference to the case.

The solution for Wright’s involvement at Shugborough, surely, is that Thomas Anson was taking the place of Lord Scarborough,

The suicide drama was still on Anson’s mind thirty years or so later when he told the story to James Harris. His actual emotions are hard to guess but it would be hard not to feel a sense of responsibility as Scarbrough had waited for Anson and then kept his word – and shot himself.

If Thomas Anson knew of Wright’s connection with Scarbrough, whenever he may have discovered it, the idea of Anson taking over Scarbrough’s patronage might easily have arisen. It would be a small way of salving the guilt, or repaying a debt of friendship.

If this is so Anson’s offer of patronage would have had nothing to do with architecture. It would have been patronage of Wright’s cosmological work – which climaxed with “An Original Theory”, published in 1750 but prepared enough for Elizabeth Carter to be told about it in June 1748.

Could it be there is a parallel with Wright’s Irish journey in which the main focus was work on “Louthiana” and the architecture was a gift to his patrons? Perhaps Anson was supporting the completion of “An Original Theory” and, at the same time, was able to work with Wright on the developments at Shugborough?

It seems to be an irresistible conclusion. The extraordinary force of honour, guilt, and responsibility that came from the Scarbrough tragedy would explain the mystery and secrecy that has lasted two hundred and fifty years.

“An Original Theory of the Universe”, of 1750, was Wright’s most important publication. George Anson was a subscriber to the book, as were the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hardwicke, Marchioness Grey and the Earl of Pembroke as well as his new patron, from 1749, Norborne Berkeley as his sister the Duchess of Beaufort. Thomas Anson is not listed, and, surprisingly for such an important work, there is no dedication. If “An Orginal Theory” had been supported by Thomas Anson in memory of Lord Scarbrough this is easy to understand.

The Preface explains that the intention of the book:

“The author of the following Letters having been flattered into a Belief, that they may probably prove of some Use, or at least Amusement to the World, he has ventured to give them, at the request of his Friends, to the Publick. His chief Design will be found an Attempt towards solving the Phaenomena of the Via Lactea, and in consequence of that Solution, the framing of a regular and rational Theory of the known Universe.”

The “request of his Friends” is interesting. These must include Elizabeth Carter as well as his patrons and students – all those who knew him as the cosmological visionary. Knowing Wright’s wild spelling and “coptic” handwriting (as Carter described it) one wonders if Elizabeth Carter helped him turn his sketches into correct English between 1748 and the publication. He would have needed an editor. She is not one of the subscribers.

The “amazingly grand” hypothesis may seem a large claim, but it was a bold step to talk not of the solar system but of an infinite universe composed of galaxies whose every star, as Carter wrote,

“Perhaps illumes some system of its own”

Wright’s major claim to fame as an astronomer is his explanation of the Milky Way – that what we see as a river of stars is a galaxy seen from our position on its far edge. The idea was taken up in Europe by Immanuel Kant, though not quite as Wright had explained it. Kant saw the reality of the galaxy more correctly than Wright had actually explained it, but Wright had opened up astronomy into considerations of patterns and structures far vaster than our solar system

The book is in the stylised format of a series of letters to an imaginary friend.


Reflecting upon the agreeable Conversation of our last Meeting, which you may remember turned upon the Stars…”

Who did Wright picture in his mind when he wrote these words? Lord Scarbrough? Lord Pembroke? Miss Carter? Thomas Anson? All of these?

The most distinctively Wrightian section of the book, which features some spectacular prints, is his description of the many alternative world which make up the universe. These are complete universes, all centering on their own centre marked by an individual “Eye of Providence”, and all circling a single divine centre of the whole cosmos.

Wright believed in reincarnation. He refuses to believe a perfect universe can include damnation, so souls are reborn in better or worse universes, nearer or further from the divine centre:

“Here and here alone centr’d in the Realms of inexpressible Glory, we justly may imagine that primogenial Globe or Sphere of all Perfections, subject to the Extreme of neither Cold nor Heat, of Temperance and Duration. Here we may not irrationally suppose the Vertues of the meritorious are at last rewarded and received into the full possession of every Happiness, and to perfect Joy. The final and immortal State ordain’d for such human Beings, as have passed this Vortex of Probation thro’ all the Degrees of human Nature with the supreme Applause!”

Wright’s Cosmology is inseparable from his landscape design, or, perhaps more truthfully, his landscape design and architecture is always subservient to his cosmology. He describes the infinite range of alternative universes:

“Here a group of Worlds, all Vallies, Lakes and Rivers, adorn’d with Mountains, Woods and Lawns, Cascades and natural Fountains; there Worlds all fertile islands, cover’d with Woods, perhaps upon a common Sea and filled with Grottoes and romantick caves. This Way, Worlds all earths, with vast extensive lawns and Vistoes, bounded with perpetual Greens all interspersed with Groves and Wildernesses, full of all Varieties of Fruits and Flowers. That World perhaps subsisting by soft Rains, this by daily Dews, and Vapours; and a third by a central, subtle Moisture, arising like an Effluvia, through the Pores and Veins of the Earth…..

“Round some, perhaps, so dense an atmosphere, that the inhabitants may fly from Place to Place, or be drawn through the Air in winged Chariots, and even sleep upon the Waves with safety….

“And hence it is obvious, that there may not be a Scene of Joy, which poetry can paint, or Religion promise, but somewhere in the Universe it is prepared for the meritorious Part of Mankind. Thus all Infinity is full of States of Bliss, Angelic Choirs, Regions of Heroes, and Realms of Demi-Gods; Elysian Fields, Pindaric Shades, and Myriads of inchanting Mansions.”

At Shugborough he helped create Elysian Fields and an Inchanted Mansion in the centre of England – in Staffordshire. This extraordinary mystery and its possible solution suggest that this visionary, unorthodox and slightly crazy book might have been completed amongst those same Elysian Fields.


1) Eileen Harris: Architect of Rococo Landscapes. Thomas Wright – III (Country Life, September 9th, 1971)

2) Thomas Wright: Arbours and Grottoes …with a catalogue of Wright’s work by Eileen Harris, (Scolar Press, 1979)

3) Illustrated in – David Watkin: Athenian Stuart, pioneer of the Greek Revival (George Allen and Unwin, 1982)

4) Ms. in the archive at Badminton House, Wilts. Reproduced in Thomas Wright: Arbours & Grottos, 1979

5) Elizabeth Carter 1717-1806. An Edition of Some Unpublished Letters. Edited by Gwen Hampshire (University of Delaware Press, 2005)

6) Originally published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 8 (1738) Available on Google Books.

7) Thomas Wright: Arbours and Grottoes …with a catalogue of Wright’s work by Eileen Harris (Scolar Press, 1979)

8) George Mason: An Essay on Design in Gardening (Benjamin and John White, 1795) Available on Google Books

9) The Early journal of Thomas Wright of Durham (Annals of Science, vii 1954)

10) The letter is quoted in Thomas Wright: Arbours and Grottoes (1979)

11) There is a set of bound volumes of Wright mss. in Newcastle-on-Tyne library.

12) A Series of Letters Between Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catherine Talbot vol. 1 (Rivington, 1809) Available on Google Books