02 September 2011

Fight Club

Angelica Kauffmann's 1787 portrait of Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, with his first wife, the former Lady Elizabeth Hamilton, and their heir, the future 13th Lord Derby. Don't let the happy scene fool you—the countess ended up running away with another nobleman, bearing an illegitimate daughter, and expiring at an early age.

Over the summer, members of The Friends of Honeywood Museum convened at the site of a now-demolished 18th-century country house in Surrey, England, to discover evidence of an architectural curiosity: a cock-pit built for Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, a Georgian Croesus whom historian Alistair Rowan once described as “one of the Adam brothers’ most opulent patrons.”

While steering well clear of animal-rights issues in this space, I do want to go on record with my fascination with this project—and not only the archaeological dig, which unearthed nothing relating to the cock-pit, though its participants fished up antique brick foundations, the remains of 18th-century plaster architectural details, and a 1903 farthing. What impresses me most with The Oaks is Lord Derby’s ingenious solution for fulfilling his at-home gaming desires. Designed as a mini-stadium for watching angry roosters maim each other in the name of sport, the earl’s cock-pit was integrated into The Oaks, his dog's-breakfast of a country house.

The Oaks, as seen in an 1809 engraving.

The building, which has been little studied, appears to have been a picturesque mishmash, set in the midst of a handsome park with gentle hills and painterly clumps of trees. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, for one, gingerly called The Oaks "large and irregular." (One suspects he really meant "ungainly and unfortunate" but couldn't bring himself to write the words.) Architect Robert Taylor designed its initial Palladian-villa phase in the 1750s and expanded that in 1765 for Lord Derby's paternal grandfather.

A view of the interiors of the temporary pavilion designed by Robert Adam in 1774 for The Oaks, Surrey. Lavishly plastered, richly statued, and comfortably furnished, the pavilion was built for a party celebrating the union of Edward Smith-Stanley, Lord Strange, heir to the 11th Earl of Derby, and Lady Elizabeth "Betty" Hamilton.

In 1774, in order to celebrate his forthcoming wedding to a daughter of the 6th Duke of Hamilton, the young aristocrat commissioned Robert Adam to erect a grandiose pavilion alongside. The temporary structure was built for one purpose only: to serve as the centerpiece of a fête champetre, a country-theme entertainment whose extravagance bedazzled Georgian society—Parliament actually went on hiatus so its noble members could attend the fancy-dress shindig. By the end of the century, The Oaks had again increased in size and appearance, a drizzle of castellation giving it the countenance of a fanciful castle. It was sold out of the Stanley family in the mid 19th century and razed to the ground by 1960.

Eighteenth-century gentlemen attending a cockfight.

Now back to Lord Derby's cock-pit. As a writer observed in the weekly journal All the Year Round in 1878, cock-fights had been popular for ages but were all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries. "In those old times, nobleman competed in the cockpit rather than at agricultural shows, and game-cocks were bred instead of short-horns," the reporter explained. "The 'old Earl of Derby' [the subject of this post] is reported to have had many a main of cocks fought in his bedroom, as he lay sick for the last time." His Lordship's favorite fighting fowl came from his own flock of Black Breasted Reds, the roosters of which possessed white legs, "claws strong," and "nails long and white," according to his son and heir's gamekeeper. (The breed is readily obtainable today, though the white-legged variety seems to be a rarity.)

Lord Derby's best-known cock-pit was erected in 1790, in the Lancashire village of Preston, where he also established a well-known race track. (Horseflesh was the aristocrat's primary hobby, in fact, and he was the founder of the Derby and Oaks races.) Unlike the cock-pit at The Oaks, the cock-pit in Preston was a freestanding brick-and-timber building with a domed skylight and elegant arched windows, where the rakes of the day hung out in intervals between races. Not long after the earl's death in 1834, this den of violence and vice became, of all things, a Mormon temple.

Oral histories suggest that Lord Derby's cock-pit at The Oaks was located below the tripartite room shown at the bottom of this illustration. Trenches A, B, and C delineate segments of the recent archaeological dig. Image from John Phillips and Paul Williams's "Research Design for an Excavation at The Oaks, 2011," published by The Friends of Honeywood Museum.

The cock-pit at The Oaks was a private pleasure rather than a public provocation. It was hidden from view, incorporated into the mansion as an ingenious example of architectural camouflage. The architect (evidence suggests Adam was arguably the responsible party) concealed it beneath the floor of a tripartite room in the mansion's east wing.

As a 20th-century inhabitant of The Oaks recalled, as cited in a report posted online by The Friends of Honeywood Museum, "Furniture would be cleared from the centre of a room on the ground floor to the East and sections of the floor hinged back with benches on the underside forming a square with the pit in the centre." (To the full and fascinating study, go to Google and type in Cockpit Earl Derby Oaks; the report's PDF file will appear in the listings. Download and immerse yourself in the details.) Once the brutal match was over, the pit could be rinsed clean—cock-fighting was a bloody business—the hinged floor closed up, and the furniture moved back into place, with no one the wiser.


John J. Tackett said...

I suppose there is some consolation to be found in that the cock fighting arena was hidden, so they had some feelings about it being wrong. The temporary pavilion is much more to my idea of entertainment, however. __ The Devoted Classicist

JWC said...

Absolutely fascinating...

the quarter rat said...

Fascinating. From time to time I get to work with archaeologists at my job. I'd love to do a field school one day. There's always the powerball!

Anonymous said...

Two posts back to back! You are going to spoil us! Hopefully, all this talk of poultry will produce a post on your cooking blog! Truly miss you, but happy you check in here and there when you are inspired! Thank you!

jones said...

I goad to see that you are back. Love this post. Mary