John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford and his wife, Georgina

The Bedfords: a marriage of minds

Keir Davidson draws on abundant family archives to paint extensive biographies of artistic and scientific patronage


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Improbable Pioneers of the Romantic Age, Keir Davidson (Pimpernel Press, £40)

John Russell, 6th duke of Bedford (1766–1839), was a younger son who unexpectedly inherited a dukedom and vast estates including Covent Garden and Bloomsbury, in London. He built a magnificent neoclassical market hall in the former and completed urban development of the latter around five new garden squares.

His wife Georgina (1781–1853) was the daughter of Jane, Duchess of Gordon (1749–1812), the pioneer late-Georgian populariser of the Highlands with her Lodge at Kinrara in Perthshire, two generations before Queen Victoria at Balmoral. The 6th Duke strove to complete his brother’s agricultural and architectural improvements, and to continue the family’s support for Foxite Whiggery; Georgina perpetuated her mother’s love of the Scottish landscape. Their joint marital career is the subject of this book.

John felt overshadowed by his more handsome worldly brother Francis who died prematurely of a tennis accident. Georgina was not helped by the larger-than-life maternal character of Jane Gordon. Yet, they became patrons and leaders of fashionable society. As Keir Davidson shows, the two gradually “found themselves” through each other and in their marriage, which from a cool start became a successful partnership.

The duke derived a lifelong interest in agricultural experiment

They produced ten startlingly clever children whom Lady Holland compared to Homer’s heroes the Atridae, as well as promoting fascinating cultural and scientific developments. The author is good on the family history, drawing on the exceptionally full Bedford archives to paint extensive biographies.

An interesting insight concerns the duke’s education (after Westminster) at the University of Göttingen in Hanover. Founded by George II in 1734, by the late 18th century Göttingen was far ahead of Oxford and Cambridge as the best university for upper-class English boys, with an innovative Enlightenment curriculum and talented German professors.

Göttingen had an excellent library, where reading was encouraged, the earliest botanic garden on Linnaean principles, and a strong scientific emphasis. From it, the duke derived a lifelong interest in botany, horticulture and agricultural experiment, which he put into effect at the family seat, Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and his own new creation, Endsleigh in Devon.

He developed pioneering interests in heathers and grasses, forming specimen collections which were transferred to Kew after his death. He also commissioned George Sinclair’s Hortus Gramineus Woburniensis (1816) and other important scientific research.

The Bedfords carried out magnificent Regency redecorations

Davidson’s book falls into two not entirely integrated parts, the earlier being the Bedford and Gordon family histories. Perhaps too much is made of the “Scottishness” of the Gordons. Like many northern nobles they had become part of a “pan-British” network. They intermarried with English families even before the Act of Union and the accession of James I to the English throne: the 1st Duke of Gordon married Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the 6th Duke of Norfolk, and the Catholic 2nd Duchess spent most of her life at Norfolk House in London.

The key point is that Georgina, influenced by her mother’s lodge at Kinrara, encouraged her husband to build rustic Endsleigh Cottage on the Russell’s Devon estate, where the Tamar reminded her of the Spey and the moors of the Cairngorms. Designed by Jeffrey Wyatville, between 1810 and 1818, set in a landscape by Repton, this was an influential landmark in the evolution of Picturesque aesthetics not just in Britain, but in Europe.

It formed a family retreat, away from princely Woburn where the Bedfords carried out magnificent Regency redecorations, created a sculpture gallery and extensive gardens, and hosted the smartest social and political house-parties of the age: Princess Lieven, Talleyrand, the Hollands, Granvilles and Sir Robert Peel all left fascinating descriptions.

The book could have been more focused and set in context, comparing and contrasting the two houses and their parallel but different cultural and artistic significance. The story, however, is well-researched. It concludes with the Bedfords’ later role, back in the Highlands where they rented Glenfeshie as one of the first sporting estates. They also entertained artists, especially Landseer, who became devoted to the Duchess.

Georgina encouraged Landseer’s development into the most accomplished Victorian animal painter. Altogether, this book tells the story of an interesting and influential moment in early 19th century British scientific and artistic patronage.

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