Let us raise a glass to commemorate the bicentenary of the deaths of both Napoleon Bonaparte and Mrs Sarah D’Oyly with a glass of Port, a fortified wine popular in their days.
Mrs. D’Oyly of Curzon Street, London and Twickenham died 200 years ago this year. She might be surprised to know that she is being written about so long after her death and nearly 300 years after her birth in 1725.
Napoleon Bonaparte also died 200 years ago – it’s the bicentenary of his death this month of May and much will undoubtedly be commented upon regarding his considerable legacy.
Mrs. D’Oyly’s legacy, by virtue of the auction of her wine cellar contents in 1822, provides a window into a 19th century collection of Choice Old Wines – a gift to anyone interested in the history of wine and its context.
Sarah D’Oyly was a child of the Enlightenment Period in the 18th and 19th centuries, whose three principle concepts were: use of reason, scientific enquiry and progress. It was a time of intellectual and scientific advancement to improve human life and a time of prominent thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Adam Smith and Kant.
I recall reading Candide by Voltaire in my A level French studies at school and enjoyed the debates between Candide and the philosopher Pangloss and Candide’s encouragement that, “we must cultivate our garden”.
We now talk about the great changes in our lifetime and yet so much change happened during Mrs. D’Oyly’s lifetime. For starters, the American War of Independence 1775 – 1783, the French Revolution 1789 – 1799 and the Industrial Revolution 1760 – 1840.
So who was Sarah D’Oyly? She was the widow of Christopher D’Oyly, a barrister and administrator. They lived in Mayfair in London and also had a villa in Twickenham, 10.5 miles from their London home. Twickenham was first recorded in AD 700 as Tuick Hom and is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 following the Norman Conquest in 1066. In fact, D’Oyly is an old Norman name.
Upon the death of her husband in 1795, Mrs D’Oyly remained both at Twickenham and their Curzon Street house in London until her own death in 1821 at the age of 96, a considerable age at any time and in particular 200 years ago. She was buried at Walton on Thames beside her husband and her memorial reads:
“In memory of Mrs Sarah D’Oyly,
grand daughter of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart
and widow of the late Christopher D’Oyly, Esq
who departed this life on the eighth day of September 1821,
in the ninety seventh year of her life”
Sarah D’Oyly was the granddaughter of Sir Hans Sloane, (1660 – 1753), an Ango-Irish physician, naturalist, collector and prominent figure in 18th century London. Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of 71,000 objects from around the world were bequeathed by him to the British Nation on his death and were the foundation of the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum. Currently, this and other collections are being evaluated in the context of how these significant collections from the Enlightenment Period contributed to the development of knowledge and understanding with an attempt to understand the world in which the collectors lived.
The collection of Choice Old Wines for auction by Mr. Christie in 1822 highlights the taste for sweet fortified wines in that era. The practice of fortifying wines with grape spirit also reflects the long voyages required to bring the wines to England in a drinkable state. Additionally, with fortified wines, there was the advantage that the wines kept longer once the bottles were opened.
A typical cellar of the period could also have included Claret from Bordeaux and Champagne, at that time usually a still red wine.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw considerable innovation in grape and wine production in various parts of Europe, permitting a number of distinctive wines such as Madeira, Port, Sherry, Claret and Champagne to be marketed. However, there were high import duties so wine was a luxury.
The main market in Britain at that time for alcoholic beverages was beer and spirits and even by 1815, the annual consumption of wine was low due to the high cost.
Between 1816 and 1820, Portuguese wines were the highest percentage of available wines for home consumption in Britain, as in Madeira and Port, and Sherry and Port accounted for approximately ¾ of all British imports of wines before 1860. Port became firmly established in the lifestyle and habits of a section of the British public.
Another 19th century wine cellar inventory that I am aware of corroborates that fortified wines were the mainstay of a wine cellar at that time.
Perhaps these differences in wine taste between then and now illustrate one measure of changes over the centuries. A more significant difference between the lifetime of Mrs. D’Oyly and now, relates to transportation. The railway reached Twickenham in 1848. Throughout Sarah D’Oyly’s long life, she would have used horses and horse drawn vehicles to move between her homes in Mayfair and Twickenham. This contrast speaks volumes about the difference in lifestyle then and now.
Over the past few blog posts, I have reflected upon the Choice Old Wines in Mrs. D’Oyly’s wine cellar that were auctioned in 1822 and tried to put them in perspective from a historical viewpoint. As a visual cue, the wines have been beautifully illustrated by a photo-montage of historic enamel wine labels from the collection of Dr. Richard Wells.
I like to think that Sarah D’Oyly, following her long life, would be amused by this interest in her wine cellar.
Reference: Twickenham Museum www.twickenham-museum.org
I’ve been asked if Mrs. D’Oyly was a relative of the D’Oyly Carte family of Gilbert and Sullivan musical fame. My conclusion is probably not. Apparently, the word D’Oyly was used by Richard D’Oyly Carte and his sons as a forename, not part of a double surname. If anyone knows of a connection between the families, I would be interested to hear more.