Who was the Earl of Orkney?

 George Hamilton, Earl of Orkney circa 1700

George Hamilton, first Earl of Orkney (1666-1737) was a distinguished army officer who fought in the Nine Years’ War (1689-1697) and the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713), becoming one of the Duke of Marlborough’s best officers. In 1696 he acquired the Cliveden estate.

A younger son

A younger son of a Scottish aristocratic family, Orkney had to make his own fortune in the world, entering the army at a young age and marrying William III’s wealthy former mistress, Elizabeth Villiers, in 1695.

Despite his wife's fortune, Orkney’s resources were often constrained and this is reflected in his work at Cliveden. He later said that ‘I always thought it too great for me even when my purse could have pretended to such a place’.

'Quaker parterre'

In the gardens, for example, earlier ornate and more expensive parterre proposals by designers including the French gardener Claude Desgots were abandoned in favour of what Orkney called his ‘Quaker parterre’ – a plain grass sward which he confided to his brother was extremely cheap yet ‘I hope it will be approved by the connoisseurs’.

Royalty at Cliveden

For Orkney, who became a senior courtier, Cliveden was not only a rural escape from the bustle of London, but also an important entertaining space for the new Hanoverian royal family. For example, George I dined at Cliveden in 1717 and 1724, and in 1729 the Orkneys hosted a banquet for George II’s wife Queen Caroline as well as some of the princes and princesses.

Newspaper reports indicate these occasions were great successes and, after Orkney’s death in 1737, Frederick, Prince of Wales, went on to rent Cliveden until his own death in 1751.

The Octagon Temple at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

Cliveden 

Orkney acquired the Cliveden estate in 1696, and later employed the architect Thomas Archer to make alterations and additions to the Restoration house built by the second duke of Buckingham. Orkney also remodelled the gardens and commissioned the Italian architect Giacomo Leoni to build the Blenheim Pavilion and the Octagon Temple which still survive to this day. The house, however, has been subsequently rebuilt.

Embuscade by Lambert de Hondt, c. 1705 - c. 1715, tapestry

The ‘Embuscade’ tapestry 

This Brussels tapestry panel titled ‘Ambush’ is part of a set made for the Earl of Orkney in the early 1700s as part of the “Arts of War” series. It is believed that Orkney’s set left Cliveden in 1795, when a fire destroyed much of the house. Three of the panels surfaced again in the 1890s and were bought for William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor, who by a remarkable coincidence acquired Cliveden itself, now rebuilt, in 1893. He would only later discover that the tapestries had been made for this very house.