Charles Jennens (1700/011773), by Thomas Hudson, 1747
Jennens, Charles (1700/011773), patron of the arts and librettist, was born probably at Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire, the son of Charles Jennens (bap. 1662, d. 1747), gentleman and JP, son of the Birmingham ironmaster Humphrey Jennens, and his second wife, Elizabeth Burdett (16671707/8), daughter of Sir Robert Burdett, bt, of Bramcote, Warwickshire, and his wife, Mary, born Pigot, of Thrumpton, Nottinghamshire. With his first wife Charles Jennens sen. had another son, who died in infancy in 1705; with his second he had two more sons and three daughters. Jennens was educated at Balliol College, Oxford; he matriculated on 16 February 1716, aged fifteen. Subsequently he divided his time between the Leicestershire estate of Gopsall (736 acres), which his grandfather had purchased in 1685, and London, initially his brother-in-law's house in Queen Square and later his own house in Ormond Street.
The guiding principles of Jennens's life were protestant Christianity and the Stuart cause. Unlike his father but like some other members of his family he was a nonjuror, and became one of the major patrons of nonjurors and Jacobites of his generation. Excluding himself from public office, he devoted much of his time, taste, and wealth to vigorous engagement in, and patronage of, arts and letters. A member of the circle of Handel's admirers which included the fourth earl of Shaftesbury and James Harris, he had catholic but decisive musical tastes. He was one of the first owners of a pianoforte in England, and he had an organ made to Handel's specification (now at Great Packington church, Warwickshire). A constant and generous subscriber to Handel's published works, he amassed the largest contemporary collection of the composer's works, in print and manuscript. He also acquired part of Cardinal Ottoboni's music library and other Italian music manuscripts (lending them to Handel, who used them), and he encouraged contemporary English composers by subscribing to and collecting their works. He left his unparalleled music library to his second cousin, the third earl of Aylesford, also a collector. Sold off from 1873, the Aylesford collection is preserved mainly in Manchester Public Library.
Jennens's modern fame rests chiefly on his collaboration with Handel. He first offered Handel a libretto in 1735; he wrote for no other composer (all his librettos were published anonymously). He was Handel's best English librettist. Messiah (17412) was not only his libretto but his brainchild (conceived in 1739). His librettos of Saul (17389) and Belshazzar (17445) show an impressive gift for dramatic structure and characterization and the ability to wield political analogies adroitly. He prompted James Harris to draft the libretto of L'allegro ed il penseroso (174041, selections from Milton's poems), which he and Handel completed, Jennens supplying the words for the concluding Il moderato at Handel's request. He also possibly compiled or advised on the text of Israel in Egypt (17389). During the composition of Saul Handel incorporated some crucial alterations which Jennens suggested. Though the relationship of librettist and composer, both strongly opinionated and touchy men, could be tempestuous, they remained good friends, Jennens commissioning Thomas Hudson's Gopsall portrait of Handel (1756) and Handel bequeathing Jennens two paintings.
During his lifetime Jennens was better known for his picture and sculpture collection, one of only four commoners' collections listed in Thomas Martyn's survey of the twenty best English art collections, The English Connoisseur (1766). It comprised over 500 items and manifested his religious commitment, his loyalty to the deposed Stuart royal family, his enthusiasm for Italian art, and his patronage, in later life, of English artists. At Gopsall, which he inherited in 1747 (with thirty-four other properties in six counties), he apparently employed William and David Hiorn and James Paine, and transformed the Jacobean house into a magnificent, richly decorated, late-Palladian mansion (dem. 1951). He lavished equal attention on the garden layout and buildings, reputedly at a cost of over £80,000. The chief feature of the grounds was the monument (1764) to the classical scholar Edward Holdsworth (16841746), a close friend and fellow nonjuror whose work on Virgil he had assisted and published; an Ionic rotunda by Paine and the Hiorn brothers (rediscovered in 1992) over a cenotaph by Richard Hayward was surmounted by Roubiliac's Religion or Fides Christiana (cenotaph and statue, Belgrave Hall Museum, Leicester). The composition is iconographically subtle and complex, the inscription eloquent of Jennens's abiding nonjuring principles, and the statue not only unique in Roubiliac's output but unlike anything else in England (Bindman and Baker, 122).
Jennens was sensitive and depressive, possibly manic-depressive. (His younger brother Robert, a promising Middle Templar, dramatically committed suicide when Jennens was twenty-eight, the victim, it was thought, of despair arising from religious doubts.) He never married. His shyness and irascibility, coupled with his great wealth, earned him resentment. Posthumous derogation of his abilities derives mainly from abusive allegations by George Steevens, who justifiably envied Jennens's final engagement with dramatic literature, his scrupulous and forward-looking editions of King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar (177074): the first appearance of each play in a single volume and with textual variants in footnotes. His superb library, particularly rich in classical and theological publications and Shakespeare incunabula, was dispersed in an abysmally catalogued sale in 1918.
Jennens died at Gopsall Hall on 20 November 1773 and was interred in the family vault at Nether Whitacre church, Warwickshire, where his monument records his generous bequests to religious charities. His chief beneficiary was his niece Esther Hanmer's son Penn Assheton Curzon (17571797), who married Lady Sophia Charlotte Howe, eldest daughter of Richard, Earl Howe, and on her father's death Baroness Howe in her own right. Jennens's portraits preserve the privacy which he seems to have preferred to the ostentation which his detractors attributed to him; they barely suggest his strong character and abilities.
R. Smith, The achievements of Charles Jennens, Music and Letters, 70 (1989), 16190 · D. Bindman and M. Baker, Roubiliac and the eighteenth-century monument: sculpture as theatre (1995) · R. Smith and R. Williams, Jennens, Charles, The dictionary of art (1996) · Music and theatre in Handel's world: the family papers of James Harris, 17321780, ed. D. Burrows and R. Dunhill (2002) · R. Smith, Handel's English librettists, The Cambridge companion to Handel, ed. D. Burrows (1997), 92108 · J. Nichols, The history and antiquities of the county of Leicester, 4/2 (1811), 8569 · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · will, Leics. RO, DG/22/5/8 [transcript]
Hants. RO, corresp. with Edward Holdsworth
Hants. RO, corresp. with James Harris
RIBA, drawings collection, drawings for Gopsall, Gopsall Box, folders K10/115
Warks. CRO, Aylesford and Newdigate Papers, material relating to subject and subject's family
W. Hoare?, oils, c.1738, priv. coll. · T. Hudson, oils, c.1745, FM Cam. · T. Hudson, oils, 1747, priv. coll. [see illus.] · M. Chamberlain, oils, c.1770, Hants. RO · N. Dance, oils, 1770, priv. coll.
Wealth at death
Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire, its contents and park (736 acres); thirty-four other properties in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire; Aylesford collection of eighteenth-century music MSS; £28,350: total bequests; £36 p.a.: annuities: will