Long-lasting love stories weren’t common on the Grand Tour. Romantic dalliances were rife; with the Grand Tour being a rite of passage for late seventeenth and eighteenth century men of the highest social classes in Britain in which they travelled in a leisurely manner across Europe with a tutor or governor in order to finish their education, this is perhaps unsurprising. A typical route that might be pursued would be through France and Italy, but personal tastes could allow for moves into Iberia, Germany, Switzerland and Greece. Places such as Venice were hotspots for men to pursue romance and pleasure without constraint, with the intention that they would settle down upon their return to Britain. However, there are always exceptions, and this is a love story on the Grand Tour which I discovered when researching Nostell Priory for my masters research, and one which I thought should be shared.
Rowland Winn, the son of the fourth Baronet of Nostell Priory, (who was also called Rowland), arrived in Switzerland on August 2nd 1758, at the age of seventeen. He went to Vevey, on the north shore of Lake Geneva, with a letter of introduction to hand to Jacques-Philippe d’Hervart. The intention of young Rowland going to Vevey was there wouldn’t be as many Englishmen as in Geneva, which would mean he had to practice his languages more. However, by the beginning of November, Rowland and his tutor, Isaac Dulon, had moved on to Lausanne. A letter from Dulon sent from Lausanne in 1758 describes his English charge as having
“a lot of spirit, a figure that is certainly his advantage, he also speaks French well and better than many English gentlemen”.
Despite the praise he gave Rowland, the swift departure of the two men from Vevey that autumn was due to concerns Dulon and the elder Sir Rowland had about an infatuation young Rowland had developed with Jacques-Philippe D’Hervart’s daughter, Sabine. Though many men on the Grand Tour preferred to take advantage of the brothels and prostitutes that were readily available before returning home, Rowland was set on Sabine, a high born lady, as his future wife. This was a big problem – not only was Sabine five years older than her seventeen-year-old paramour, she was already married.
When Sabine was twenty-years-old, she had married Major Gabriel May, who was possibly one of her father’s business contacts. She was hardly enamoured with him; she refused to live with him and went to visit him once in Bern during April 1756. May died in March 1759, which prompted Rowland to appeal to his father for permission to marry his newly-single love. As to be expected, Sir Rowland was horrified. He tried all he could to dissuade his son from the match, including the slightly ridiculous reason that his son’s friends might make fun of her French accent and poor English skills. Rowland was persistent, however, and Sir Rowland entered into marriage negotiations with Jacques-Philippe D’Hervart. I loved reading letters in the archive from Rowland to his father during the negotiations, as they revealed much about how he felt about her. In one dated April 11th 1761, he sang not only sang her praises:
“am Thoroughly persuaded That when She will Have The advantages of beeing known To you you will grant the same esteem and attachment as for your own proper daughter”
but also declared his undying love for her:
“as my Life and Happiness depends entirely upon my union with M. M. [Madame May] I declare, my dear father, most sincerely and upon my honour, That I cannot determine myself of ever Leaving her a moment”
The negotiations went on for a long time, with Sabine’s father digging his heels every so often. Eventually, the marriage settlement was agreed at £10,000 (approximately £747,900 in today’s money, so no wonder Jacques-Philippe was dragging the negotiations out!) and on December 4th 1761, Sabine and Rowland married in Vevey.
It wasn’t just Sir Rowland who was worried about Sabine moving to England. Alongside his son, he had four daughters (Charlotte, Susanna, Mary and Anne) who wrote to him on November 28th 1761, commenting that they hadn’t yet met Sabine and complaining that their father had not yet described her to them. They compromised with
“if her Person is not any way remarkable, she will certainly appear to the greater Advantage then she wou’d have done had we heard more about her”
– which sounds like a bit of a backhanded compliment to me, particularly when they continue with their worries about the language barrier:
“we are afraid we shall be greatly at a loss to keep up a Conversation with her, as you say she knows nothing of the English language, & we have forgot the greatest part of our French, but supposing we had not all the frazes are so very different that she woud never understand us”
They do concede, however, that they
“admire the Ladies in Switzerlands manner of spending their time, the generality of them must make most Nottable Wives”
(very forgiving of them). Sabine herself was also worried about moving to England. Rowland’s letters to his father reveal her worries and beg him to assure his future daughter-in-law of his regard for her and that
“as she is going into a foreign country she will be very glad To have some assurance of her being received in The manner That she has reason To expect”
as well as requesting a letter to be written to Jacques-Philippe to assure him of his daughter’s reception in England.
Sabine’s relationship with Rowland’s family upon her arrival in England and in the ensuing years (she never returned to Switzerland, despite keeping up effusive correspondence with her mother) was not particularly great – of her four sisters-in-law, she only grew close to Charlotte. What truly mattered, however, was that Rowland and Sabine remained greatly in love with each other: when separated, (Rowland spent a lot of time at their house in St James’s Square, London), they wrote to each other constantly, with Rowland explaining in minute detail the ways he was spending his days. He signed off his letters with the utmost affection, expressing sentiments such as his life and he himself were Sabine’s with full dedication and loyalty, severe attachment and friendship until death, and often addressing her as
“Ma tres chere Bibby”
They went on to have two children: a daughter, Esther (named for Sabine’s mother, Jeanne-Esther D’Hervart), and a son, Rowland, born in 1768 and 1775 respectively. Their relationship was immortalised in a picture executed between December 1767 and March 1769 by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, which is on display at Nostell Priory; it is entitled Sir Rowland and Lady Winn in the Library at Nostell Priory. It shows them in partnership as patrons, cultural figures and intellects in their newly remodelled library. Their tender gaze at each other shows that not only did they achieve great things at Nostell, but also that their love story on the Grand Tour lasted.
- Nostell Priory is a National Trust property near Wakefield – and a beautiful one at that! It’s a Palladian mansion executed by James Paine and Robert Adam, with a large collection of Chippendale furniture (thanks to Rowland and Sabine). My research actually wasn’t on Rowland and Sabine’s love story, but Sabine’s objects in the house: she inherited much from Switzerland as well as being a keen shopper, so there are many beautiful things to look at! It is definitely worth a visit: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/nostell-priory-and-parkland
All archival material is held in the West Yorkshire Archive Service site at Wakefield.