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Forget Killing Kittens. Read about the Hellfire at Apollo’s Temple. By Lucinda Lambton

Blog | By Lucinda Lambton | May 16, 2024

Temple of Apollo and cockpit

AMICITIAE QUE SACRA’ – (‘sacred to freedom and friendship’).

The members of the Hellfire Club, also known as Dashwood’s Apostles, were an illustrious yet rum bunch. Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, was one. John Wilkes, radical journalist and politician, was another. And there were umpteen poets and pamphleteers, all of them revelling in shamefully licentious and satanic rites.

They took place in the semi-ruined Medmenham Abbey some miles away – today still standing and exquisitely restored – as well as in the caves Sir Francis had dug deep into the hills at West Wycombe.

Each ‘Friar’, wearing a monk’s habit, had a cell to retire to for ‘private devotions’. And there were regular black masses, held beneath a wealth of obscene frescoes.

Horace Walpole described their practices as ‘rigorously pagan’ and condemned Dashwood as having ‘the staying power of a stallion and the impetuosity of a bull’. More worryingly distasteful were the masked women dressed as nuns.

In fact, all this building demonstrated the more serious side of Sir Francis’s character. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer, although he was considered incapable of understanding a bar bill of five figures and had to resign when his tax on cider caused riots!

He was the Postmaster General, a founder member of the Dilettanti Society – formed to promote the arts – and a knowledgeable connoisseur. He was also a pioneer neoclassicist, who practised what he preached by commissioning the architect Nicholas Revett exquisitely to remodel his house.

John Donowell also classicised the medieval church high on the hill above West Wycombe. It was all somewhat mocked in The Ghost by the poet Charles Churchill, fellow member of the Hellfire Club:

Here She [Fancy] made lordly temples rise Before the pious Dashwood’s eyes, Temples which, built aloft in air, May serve for show, if not for pray’r.

And there was more: a huge and hexagonal open-to-the-skies mausoleum was paid for by his friend the pleasingly named politician and fellow ‘Friar’ George Bubb Dodington.

I have relished this airy spot with its splendours on high and have delighted in its flintwork, surrounded by the grandeur of the view which quite stirs the soul.

Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-81), founder of the Hellfire Club.

Dashwood Mausoleum (1765) and St Lawrence's Church (1763)

The Temple of Apollo hails you from far below, alongside a quantity of great buildings that can be described only as sublimely beautiful. For starters, there is the fine, colonnaded, neoclassical West Wycombe Park with the Tuscan order on the ground floor and the Corinthian order above. Both flank a central projecting pediment – features that are rare indeed for architecture in England.

Dashwood triumphed throughout; he was responsible for picturesquely arranging some 20 buildings within the folds of West Wycombe Park, on land that has been continuously and romantically landscaped since 1739. ‘If not superfluous at least profuse’ was a local newspaper’s grudging description of them all.

There were seven temples, including the Temple of Apollo. Six years after that was finished, Nicholas Revett designed the stables, giving them the flint wall – to be seen beyond the arch – to act as a screen. This has a niche to show off a statue modelled on the Apollo Belvedere, suitably framed by an arch.

Benjamin Franklin often stayed at West Wycombe in the 1770s. There he and Sir Francis Dashwood compiled a simplified version of the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1773. The Pevsner guide to Buckinghamshire records that its purpose was ‘to attract the young and lively and retrieve the well disposed from the infliction of interminable prayers’.

Dashwood had embarked on numerous Grand Tours, from which he returned with great acquisitions of art, both in learning and in culture. His house was described as one of the most theatrical and Italianate mid-18th-century buildings in England.

Hurray for such particularly rare beauty to be found nestling in England’s Home Counties.