Gimcrack – A Rake’s Progress

By Tony Scotland

The colourful adventures of an eighteenth-century playboy, inspired by clues in the paintings he commissioned. Dandy, swordsman and madcap, musician, connoisseur and lady’s man, the last Earl of Seaforth was Chief of the Clan Mackenzie, M.P. for Caithness and Colonel of his Highland regiment. Grandson of an attainted Jacobite, he was educated on the Grand Tour, and taken up by libertines and gamblers who gave him the nickname Gimcrack – because he was short and fast, like the winning stallion immortalised by Stubbs. As a child of the Enlightenment he climbed volcanoes with William Hamilton, entertained the boy Mozart at home in Naples, took part in a bizarre scientific experiment with Joseph Banks, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society. In hot pursuit of the freer pleasures of the age, he frequented the brothels of Covent Garden, caroused with the Dilettanti, and secretly married a fashionable courtesan made famous by Joshua Reynolds. But finding no firm purpose in life he declined into drink and debt – and a tragic death at sea, still in his thirties.

2 The Dilettanti Gem Group (Joshua Reynolds, 1777–79).Lord Seaforth (third from left) with some of his fellow Dilettanti in The Dilettanti Gem Group (Joshua Reynolds, by kind permission, the Society of Dilettanti).

Sir William and the first Lady Hamilton in their villa in Naples, 1770 (oil on copper)William Hamilton, British Envoy in Naples, with his wife Catherine, in their villa at Posillipo, Naples (David Allan, by permission, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, and Bridgeman Images)

The National Galleries of ScotlandLord Seaforth (rear view, centre) at a concert party in his apartments in Naples, with Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart (left, at the keyboards) and William Hamilton playing the viola, the artist himself far left (Pietro Fabris, by permission, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, and Bridgeman Images).

5 View of Mount Etna from Catania (painting by Pietro Fabris, published as plate 36 in Hamilton' Campi Phlegraei, but caution) copyView of Mount Etna above Catania, painted by Pietro Fabris, after he had explored the volcano with Seaforth and Hamilton for the Royal Society, 1769.

6 The courtesan Harriet Powell (later Countess of Seaforth) as Leonora in the Padlock.The courtesan Harriet Powell, later Countess of Seaforth (engraving by Richard Houston, after Joshua Reynolds).

7 Lady Caroline Mackenzie, daughter of Kenneth Viscount Fortrose, born 1766, md 1823 Louis P. F. M. Drummond, Comte de Melfort (Portrait by Jean Laurent Mosnier, 1787, collection Michael, Lord Berkeley)Lord Seaforth’s only child, Lady Caroline Mackenzie, Comtesse de Melfort (Portrait by Jean Laurent Mosnier, 1787, by permission, Michael, Lord Berkeley of Knighton)

Like the other titles in the Shelf Lives list, Gimcrack should appeal to collectors and bibliophiles as well as to readers. A small book of 160 pages, with 47 colour and black-and-white photographs, and a dustjacket illustrated by SARAH GODSILL, it is available in hardback (218 x 138 mm), ISBN 978-0-9955503-4-6, at £24.00 including UK postage. It will be published on 21 October 2020, in a limited edition of 250 numbered copies.

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