As the eldest son of the rector of Winnal, a small parish partly in Winchester, Joseph Spence appeared to have no special prospects at birth. They were not enhanced by his mother's connection with minor aristocracy (through her grandfather, Sir Thomas Lunsford, of dubious reputation, who died in Virginia in 1653).
His education began in the Berkshire village of Mortimer. Not until a generous & wealthy relative offered to pay for his transfer to Winchester College did his fortunes improve; but then they most certainly did. His move to Winchester saw him become a Wykehamist, & thereby a member of an elite group who would expect & achieve accelerated advancement. Spence was admitted to Magdalen College Oxford in 1717 (B.A. from New College Oxford 1724, Fellow 1724, M.A. 1727). Collegiate loyalty was important, as were social cachet & scholarly distinction. Spence's friends, equipped in both respects, were prepared to exert their influence on his behalf.
Spence became rector of Birchanger & Great Horwood (1742), Prebendary of Durham (1754-68), Oxford Poetry Professor (1728-38) & lastly Professor of Modern History (1742-68).
Joseph Spence 1699-1768 by George Vertue, after Isaac Whood, engraved 1746
Spence spent years engaged in preparing his Polymetis, a treatise on classical mythology, illustrated by ancient works of art & Latin writers. (Some criticized his omitting Greek mythology from his treatise.)
Spence also had been employed to accompany several young English gentlemen on their traditional, educational Grand Tour because of his knowledge of the languages & manners as well as the literary, social, & topographical history of many venues along the usual continental itinerary. While on these tours, he wrote long, descriptive letters home to his mother describing the places he visited & those he met along the way. Many of these letters included descriptions of landscape gardens. He also described minute details of French women's hair & dress. He amused her with an account of the flirtatiousness of his landlady in Dijon, & boasted that he could cuckold his landlord if he had a mind to do it, but then assures his mother that "such villainy is not in my nature." (see News from Abroad: Letters Written by British Travellers on Grand Tour edited by James T Boulton & T. O. McLoughlin. 2012)
Spence wrote an essay on Alexander Pope's translation of Homer's Odyssey in 1726, which gave rise to a friendship between Spence & Pope. By 1728, Spence had obtained the small rectory of Birchanger in Essex, where he began to indulge his growing inclination for gardening. Recommended by Pope, Spence became a traveling companion of Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset & 1st Earl of Middlesex, on a Grand Tour lasting from December 1730 to July 1733. Spence was a companion to John Morley Trevor in his tour of the Netherlands, Flanders, & France between May 1737 & February 1738.
Between September 1739 & November 1741, Spence traveled in Italy with Henry Pelham-Clinton, the Earl of Lincoln. Lord Lincoln then provided Spence with appointments & incomes that ensured his financial security. In 1748, his former pupil, Lord Lincoln, presented Spence with the life-tenancy of a house & grounds at Byfleet, in Surrey.
A relative of his traveling companion, John Morley Trevor, Bishop Richard Trevor gave Spence a prebend at Durham in 1754; & Spence chiefly divided his time between Byfleet & Durham. Spence's benefactor English prelate Richard Trevor (1707–1771) was Bishop of St David's from 1744 to 1752 & Bishop of Durham from 1752 until his death. William Fordyce in his book The History & Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham reports, "Of Trevor there is nothing remarkable to report," Fordyce goes on, “In short he seems to have been one of those persons whose qualifications enable them to go through life respectably without being eminent or remarkable in any way." Actually Bishop Trevor shared Spence's admiration of landscape architecture. He undertook major refurbishment of the Bishop's Park at Bishop Auckland, including the building of a Neo-Gothic gatehouse to the design of Sir Thomas Robinson of Rokeby & of a cloister-like deer house in the park. The Bishop also commissioned local self-taught mathematician Jeremiah Dixon to revitalize the park itself with the planting of many of the trees that exist to this day. (Mathematician Dixon would later gain another sort of fame when, in 1763, he surveyed the boundary between Maryland & Pennsylvania — The Mason-Dixon Line — separating the American slave states from the free states. Of some interest to me, as I live close to the Mason-Dixon Line & cross it daily.)
Spence moved to Byfleet with his mother (aged nearly 80) &, using profits from his work Polymetis, he developed his long-standing interest in landscape gardening. By 1748, Spence he already had laid out at Birchanger a small, simple version of his friend Alexander Pope's Twickenham garden; he had planted extensively at Great Horwood & in London; & he had provided copious garden plans & notes for friends. Now at Byfleet he developed his 30 acre estate as a ferme ornée (like nearby Wooburn, home of Philip Southcote), & cleverly improved his own views, when neighbors asked his advice about landscaping their estates. Byfleet continued to be Spence's main home, but he spent more than 3 weeks' residence annually at Durham, where he improved the garden of his prebendal estate & those of neighbors there, including the Bishop & the Earl of Darlington at Raby. His travels took him, weeks at a time, to a variety English landscape gardens, where his advice was solicited. (For more on Spence's gardening activities see, The Genius of the Place; The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820 edited by John Dixon Hunt & Peter Willis 1988 and The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds, 1720-1800 by Mark Laird.)
In June 1766, Spence suffered a mild stroke during his annual journey north. On 20 August 1768, he was found lying face-down drowned in the very shallow ornamental canal waters of his garden at Byfleet.
Though he never completed his grand gardening treatise, Tempe, for which he made many notes, Spence did translate Jean-Denis Attiret's influential account of the emperor of China's gardens, which praises "beautiful disorder." His translation of Attiret was published in 1752, under the pen name of "Sir Harry Beaumont."
Among his other works under this literary pseudonymn, I was surprised to find one on female beauty. The frail, diminuitive Spence never married. According to Sir Harry Beaumont (Joseph Spence) in his Crito, or, a Dialogue on Beauty, published in 1752, the following list of attributes would complete the most beautiful woman in the 18C.
About female beauty, Spence wrote,
"The head should be well rounded & small, the forehead white, smooth & open (not with the hair growing down too deep upon it, neither flat nor prominent.
the hair either black, bright or brown; not thin, but full & waving...the black is particularly useful for setting off the whiteness of the neck & skin.
the eyes, black, chestnut or blue, clear, bright & lively, rather large in proportion than small.
the eyebrows, well divided, rather full than thin; semicircular & broader in the middle than at the ends; of a neat turn, but not formal
the cheeks should not be wide; & should look firm & soft; have a degree of plumpness with the red & white finely blended together.
the ear should be rather small than large; well folded & with an agreeable tinge of red
the nose would be...of a moderate size, strait & well-squared; though sometimes a little rising in the nose which is but just perceivable, may give a very graceful look to it
the mouth should be small; & the lips, not of equal thickness; they should be well-turned, small, rather than gross; soft, even to the eye & with a living read in them. A truly pretty mouth is like a rose-bud that is beginning to blow
the skin in general should be white, properly tinged with red; with an apparent softness & a look of thriving health in it."
Apparently, Spence lived in a catty little circle of academics & intellectuals. Spence's ability as a critic was noted by Dr. Samuel Johnson (1708-1784): "His learning was not very great, & his mind not very powerful; his criticism, however, was commonly just; what he thought, he thought rightly, & his remarks were recommended by coolness & candour." Horace Walpole wrote of Spence just over a decade after his death in a 1780 letter to William Cole, "As I knew Mr. Joseph Spence...He was a good-natured, harmless little soul, but more like a silver penny than a genius. It was a neat, fiddle-faddle bit of sterling, that had read good books, and kept good company, but was too trifling for use, and only fit to please a child."