“The woman’s a whore and there’s an end on’t,” Dr Samuel Johnson, lexicographer and moralist, once famously said of Lady Diana Spencer.
But what was sauce for the goose was not necessarily sauce for the gander in polite 18th century society, as Diana was to discover.
Diana was born on March 24, 1734 into the illustrious Spencer Churchill family, the great granddaughter of national hero John, 1st Duke of Marlborough and his indomitable wife Sarah.
The eldest daughter of Charles, 3rd Duke of Marlborough and Elizabeth Trevor, Diana grew up at the family home of Langley Park at Iver, Buckinghamshire.
When Frederick, 3rd Viscount St John and 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke met Lady Diana he had already spent a large slice of the family fortune on wine, women and an impressive collection of valuable Sevres porcelain.
His dissolute uncle Henry once described him as having ‘contracted habits that are not of the best, and for that are less corrigible by that sullen obstinacy and constant cause of dissimilation and falsehood…’ which could be said to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Born in 1732 the son of John 2nd Viscount St John and his wealthy wife Anne Furnese, Frederick inherited titles, property and a predilection for the good life.
Diana was meanwhile busy pursuing her artistic hobbies and showing a reluctance to settle down and marry when the couple met at that notorious party venue Vauxhall Gardens, where wealthy young aristocrats rubbed shoulders with the working girls of London.
Frederick’s companions were teasing him about his single status when apparently he turned to Diana and jokingly asked, “will you have me?” to which she replied, “yes, to be sure.”
Following a brief engagement the couple married on September 8, 1757 at Harbledon, Kent. Diana brought to the marriage a £10,000 settlement with an additional £5,000 due from her great grandmother Sarah in 1761.
Unimpressed with the St John family home at Battersea, which Frederick later sold to his wife’s cousin John, Earl Spencer, Diana and Frederick ‘Bully’ Bolingbroke made their home at 7 St James’ Square. They spent the summer months at Lydiard where Frederick indulged his love of bloodstock breeding and Diana developed the walled garden, created by her father in law during his landscaping of the grounds and parkland.
With Bully’s extravagant lifestyle depleting the family finances, Diana used her influence to secure him an appointment as Lord of the Bedchamber to the new King George III.
Their first child, George Richard, was born at the couple’s London home on March 5, 1761 and was christened at St. George’s, Hanover Square. Their second, a daughter, was born in 1762 when Diana was working long hours as Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte, and died aged just five months. A second son, Frederick was born on 20 December 1765.
In 1765 Diana was painted by her mentor Royal Academician Joshua Reynolds, depicted as a practising artist, indicating the seriousness of her vocation. For Diana art was to become much more than just a pleasant pastime but an important source of income – a career.
Diana was talented and produced a large body of work from designs for the Wedgwood pottery to pastel and watercolour portraits, including one of her second cousin, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which was later engraved and went into mass production. Horace Walpole commissioned her to produce illustrations of his tragedy The Mysterious Mother on seven large panels in black wash mounted on Indian blue damask, which he hung in a specially designed room named the Beauclerc closet.
Sadly marriage had little changed Frederick who showed no inclination of curbing his ways and by the mid 1760s the Bolingbroke’s were merely keeping up appearances and leading separate lives.
Diana moved out of their Lower Brook Street home and placed herself under the protection of her brother George, Duke of Marlborough. A private deed of separation followed in which Bully agreed to pay her an annual income of £800. Diana cited his violent behaviour and constant drinking, but in truth her eventual reason for leaving her badly behaved husband was that she had fallen in love.
Diana sought solace in the arms of Topham Beauclerk, a great grandson of Charles II and Nell Gwyn. By 1768 Bully would wait no longer to end his marriage. On January 22, 1768 he petitioned the House of Lords to bring in a Bill to dissolve his marriage with Lady Diana Spencer. The divorce was issued on March 10, 1768 and on March 12 Diana and Topham were married by licence at St. George’s, Hanover Square.
The divorce settlement saw Frederick pocket the marriage portion of £15,000 while Diana was forced to renounce all claims to the Bolingbroke estate. Frederick raised the couple’s two sons, with Diana seeing little of the boys during their childhood.
But sadly Diana’s second marriage proved to be no happier than her first. As Beauclerk’s laudanum addiction took hold he became increasingly ‘morose and savage’ and notorious for his lack of personal hygiene. Infested with lice, when told the ladies at a grand Christmas party at Blenheim had also been ‘inconvenienced’ by the vermin, he replied that he had enough to stock a parish.
Following Beauclerk’s death in 1780 Diana moved to Spencer Grove, a house at Little Marble Hill, Twickenham where she concentrated on her work, but her life continued to be plagued by scandal and heartbreak. In 1787 George Richard, her son by Frederick, fathered four sons in an incestuous relationship with Mary, her daughter by Beauclerk.
Frederick suffered both mental and physical ill health towards the end of his life, and was described as being ‘out of his mind.’ He died on May 5, 1787 and was buried in the family vault at St. Mary’s, Lydiard Tregoze eight days later.
Diana died at her home on August 1, 1808 aged 74 and was buried in Richmond.