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Lady Margaret Harley

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Title: Lady Margaret Harley  
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Lady Margaret Harley

The Duchess of Portland
Christian Friedrich Zincke, 1738
Born 11 February 1715
Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire
Died 9 April 1785
Bulstrode Park, Buckinghamshire
Nationality British
Occupation Art and natural history specimens collector
Spouse(s) William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland (1709-1762)
Children Lady Elizabeth Bentinck (1735-1825)
Lady Henrietta Bentinck (1737-1827)
William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (1738-1809)
Lady Margaret Bentinck (c.1740-1756)
Lady Frances Bentinck (c.1742-1743)
Lord Edward Charles Bentinck (1744-1819)
Parents Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer (1689-1741) and Lady Henrietta Holles (1694-1755)

Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (Welbeck Abbey, 11 February 1715 – 17 July 1785, Bulstrode Park, Buckinghamshire), styled Lady Margaret Harley before 1734, Duchess of Portland from 1734 to her husband's death in 1761, and Dowager Duchess of Portland from 1761 until her own death in 1785.

She grew up surrounded by books, paintings, sculpture and famous writers at Wimpole Hall, where as a child she collected pets and natural history objects such as shells.

The duchess was the richest woman in Great Britain of her time and had the largest natural history collection in the country, complete with its own curator, the parson-naturalist and botanist John Lightfoot, and the collector of shells and insects, Daniel Solander. Her collection included costly art objects including the Portland Vase. Her ambition for her collection was for it to contain and to describe every living species.

She was a member of the Bluestockings, a group of intellectual women aristocrats.

Early life

She was a daughter of the 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, bibliophile, collector and patron of the arts, and the former Lady Henrietta Holles (1694–1755, the only child and heir of the 1st Duke of Newcastle and his wife, the former Lady Margaret Cavendish). She was also great-great-great-great grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II through her mother's side.

Lady Margaret grew up at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire surrounded by books, paintings, sculpture and in the company of writers such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Matthew Prior as well as aristocrats and politicians. As a child, she collected pets and natural history objects (especially shells) and was encouraged by her father and her paternal grandfather, the 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, to do so.

Marriage and issue

At 20, on 11 July 1734, in Oxford Chapel, Marylebone, she married the 2nd Duke of Portland, her 'Sweet Will', and they later had six children (all born at Welbeck Abbey):

  1. Lady Elizabeth Bentinck (1735–1825)
  2. Lady Henrietta Bentinck (1737–1827)
  3. William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (1738–1809)
  4. Lady Margaret Bentinck (c.1740–1756)
  5. Lady Frances Bentinck (c.1742–1743)
  6. Lord Edward Charles Bentinck (1744–1819)

As a collector

By the November following her marriage her collecting had gathered pace, expanding to include the decorative and fine arts as well as natural history. (She was already heiress to the Arundel collection.) Her home in Buckinghamshire, Bulstrode Hall, provided space to house the results, and her independent fortune meant that cost was no object (on her mother’s death in 1755 she also inherited the estates of Welbeck in Nottinghamshire). Bulstrode was known in court circles as "The Hive" for the intense work done there on the collections by the Duchess and her team of botanists, entomologists and ornithologists, headed by herself, Daniel Solander (1736–82, specialising in shells and insects) and The Revd John Lightfoot (1735–88, her librarian and chaplain, and an expert botanist). Her collection was, unlike many similar contemporary ones, well-curated.

In 1766, the Genevan Romantic and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau met Bentinck, admired her knowledge of botany despite his general belief that women could not be scientific, and offered his services as her "herborist" (plant collector). She corresponded with Rousseau until she sent him a copy of Georg Rumpf's Herbarium amboinense, a botany of Amboyna in what is now Indonesia, as he felt this opposed his ideal of free nature.[1]

'The Portland Museum' at Bulstrode was open to visitors, along with its zoo, aviary and vast botanic garden. Many came: scholars, philosophers, scientists and even royalty, and the collection became a cause célèbre. Her fellow collector Horace Walpole commented on it:

"Few men have rivalled Margaret Cavendish in the mania of collecting, and perhaps no woman. In an age of great collectors she rivalled the greatest.”

or, in the words of Mrs Delany (a botanical artist whom the Duchess introduced to the royal court):

“Surely an application to natural beauties must enlarge the mind? This house with all belonging to it is a noble school for contemplations!”

Her collecting was also encouraged by her creative milieu: the Duchess and Delany were both members of The Bluestockings, a group of aristocratic women seeking increased intellectual opportunities for members of their sex.

Her natural collection was the largest and most famous of its time, with few geographical bounds; it included objects from both Lapland and the South Seas (she patronised James Cook and bought shells from his second voyage through dealers). She drew and recorded its specimens, sorting them innovatively in type species and displaying them alongside ancient remains such as the Portland Vase, which she bought from Sir William Hamilton.

Lightfoot later wrote in the introduction to the 1786 auction catalogue that it was her "intention to have had every unknown species in the three kingdoms of nature described and published to the world", but this was thwarted by Solander's death in 1783 and her own two years later. On her death, with her children uninterested in the collection, her son's political career to finance and her creditors' demands to be paid, it was her will that it be sold. The collection was entirely dissolved at an auction of over 4000 lots at her Whitehall residence from 24 April to 3 July 1786. Hundreds of people attended, although some fine and decorative arts were bought back by her family at the auction, including the Portland Vase and pieces from a silver-gilt dessert service the Duchess had designed herself, crawling with exquisitely modelled insects. However, the vast majority went, including the whole natural history collection; Walpole records that only 8 days included items other than "shells, ores, fossils, birds' eggs and natural history". Only fragments of the Portland Museum's building survive too, since Bulstrode was demolished in the 19th century.

The department of Manuscripts and Special Collections, The University of Nottingham holds some of the personal papers and correspondence of the Duchess of Portland (Pw E), as part of the Portland (Welbeck) Collection. The Harley Gallery's Treasury Museum shows changing displays of objects from the Portland Collection.

See also

  • List of natural history dealers


External links

  • Her family tree
  • R. G. W. Anderson (ed.), Enlightening the British : knowledge, discovery and the museum in the eighteenth century, ISBN 0-7141-5010-X, p83
  • National Portrait Gallery
  • Biography of Margaret, Duchess of Portland, with links to online catalogues, from Manuscripts and Special Collections, The University of Nottingham

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