chapter  5
19 Pages

A hellish cloud and a very clear air: industry, nature and weather in early eighteenth-century England

WithJonathan Hill

Composed as a journey from London to the North Sea, this chapter examines Houghton Hall and Holkham Hall in Norfolk, refl ecting on the relations between nature and culture in early eighteenth-century England and examining the multiple authors at work. Houghton was built for Sir Robert Walpole, familiarly described as Britain’s fi rst Prime Minister, holding the position for over twenty years until his retirement in 1742. But the title was not then offi cial and his contemporaries used it pejoratively to criticise him for acquiring too much power and infl uence. Even Walpole’s nickname – The Great Man – was not necessarily fl attering. J. H. Plumb remarks that Walpole ‘was frequently regarded as obscene in an age when men and women were not prudes’, while William Speck writes that he ‘projected the image of a gross Norfolk squire, boasting that he read letters from his gamekeeper before those of his Cabinet ministers, and rarely read books’ although he had an extensive library.1 Even an admirer, Queen Caroline, the wife of King George II, noted ‘that gross body, those swollen [sic] legs, and that ugly belly’.2 But Walpole’s demeanour was not unusual. Englishmen relished their cantankerous and contrary behaviour, which they explained by reference to the fi ckle and variable weather.3