The visit of Count Ferenc Széchényi to Wanstead Park

Portrait of Ferenc Széchényi by Johann Ender: Hungarian National Museum

Count Ferenc Széchényi of Sárvár-Felsővidék (1754 –1820) is a well-known figure in Hungary. As well as being founder of the Hungarian National Library and National Museum, he was father of the reformer and nationalist hero Count István Széchenyi, often called "the Greatest Hungarian".

In 1787-8 Count Széchényi travelled across Europe to England, where he spent some four months. As well as observing aspects of British social and economic life, he visited a number of parks and gardens, including Wanstead. During his absence, Széchényi’s own garden at Nagycenk was undergoing improvements, but he was to make changes to the plans which may have been influenced by what he saw in England.

Count Széchényi’s description of Wanstead House goes slightly beyond the details which appear in most contemporary guides. For example: -

  • he visited the garden hall, which does not seem to have been part of the normal tourist circuit, and describes the columns as being of the Ionic order, as well as noting the presence of statues;
  • he mentions the use of waxed oak and pear wood as flooring in different suites of rooms, the presence and absence of gilding in different suites of rooms and a room hung in red Genoese Samite; and
  • pictures hung in different locations to those described in some of the later sources.

Thanks for their help with the research, as well as with the transcription and translation of the German text, are due to Professor József Sisa of the Magyar Tudományos Akadémia, the staff of the Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár, Rafael Reiner, and Georg Ebner.

EXTRACT FROM COUNT SZÉCHÉNYI'S TRAVEL DIARY

The first country seat that we saw in the County of Essex is Wanstead House, the property of Earl Tillney [sic]*, which is seven miles from London. Situated on the left-hand side of the road: a splendid green, with a large pond in it surrounded by avenues flanked by two or three rows of trees, is in front of the mansion. This consists of two wings crowned by balustrades, a portico in the Corinthian order, and two flights of stairs. In the sala terrena [a "rustic" hall at garden level] the ceiling is supported by eight Ionic columns, with statues between the windows of which some are of marble, and some plaster. The hall one enters from the drive [i. e. the Great Hall] is very spacious. It has a ceiling painted by Kent, and also contains two historical paintings. One is a Coriolanus with his mother, the other an Arsene [actually, Porsenna], both by Casali. Over the fireplace is the portrait of the painter Kent, next to two beautiful urns of Carrara marble by Scheemakers. Next to the main door in front of the stairs stand a stone statue of Agrippina, which is an antique from Herculaneum, and a statue of Emperor Domitian.

The apartments on the right-hand side are floored with pear wood, on the left with waxed oak. Most of the rooms are hung with tapestries. There are two rooms with red and green cut velvet [wall coverings] of good quality and made in London, in Spitalfields. Also, one hung with red Genoese Samite. The rooms on the right-hand side have gilded decoration, but those to the left have none, even the room with the State Bed, with its Chinoiserie and Royal crowns. Incidentally, more remarkable paintings are in the ballroom than elsewhere: 1. A Madonna of Raphael with the sleeping child and John the Baptist, to whom the Madonna signals with a finger to her mouth not to wake him. 2. Portia, Brutus's wife, by Schalken. 3. A room with family portraits.

There are various marble-topped tables, of heavy greenish and yellow-flecked stone. Otherwise, the whole decor is old-fashioned.

The view beyond the terrace is similar to the other side, with only the difference that this view falls precisely on the country house of Sir Charles Raymond.

In the garden, which consists partly of green lawns crisscrossed by gravelled paths, and partly of woods made up more of native than foreign trees, is the remarkable grotto. One marvels at its sombre entrance, with various minerals, petrifactions and shells. The first glimpse of the interior is similarly astonishing. It is also very cleverly composed of minerals, petrifactions and shells, with one side having three arches. One is immediately surprised, however, that this lovely Grotto, which is otherwise well situated, commands no better view than a stagnant, foul water. On the outside, there is a sarcophagus in the style of former times, carved of wood but deceptively painted like iron. We also found a kind of door like a  [small diagram representing a triangle], of which one side is movable.

*Actually, the second (and last) Earl Tylney of Castlemaine had died in 1784, after more than two decades in Italy. His estates, including Wanstead, then passed to his nephew Sir James Long, Bt., who adopted the name Tylney-Long. It seems that Sir James rarely visited Wanstead, preferring his ancestral home in Wiltshire.