At home with Count Eric Stenbock

Stenbock

How’s your Estonian?

Even if it’s as non-existent as mine, hopefully the visuals relayed here will still evoke some faint, lingering scent of the heady perfume which enveloped the man and the myth that was Count Eric Stenbock.

Born in Cheltenham on this day in 1860, it was at his ancestral estate in Kolga, Estonia (then part of the Russian Empire) that the Decadent poet’s magnificent, perverse otherness came to full flower. There, in the sumptuous neo-classical manor, he lived the quintessential 1890s existence, although that decade was still five years away when he arrived to take up his title and seigneurial obligations.

According to a contemporary account:

Count Stenbock has his own rooms furnished in the most aesthetic style, with a lamp burning before a Buddha & an Eros and his other gods disposed in various places. When he was at Oxford, he said, he & one of his friends (who is now insane) used to try a fresh religion every week. . . He has also a number of pet snakes & lizards & toads & salamanders in his room, and – worse still – a collection of Simeon Solomon’s morbid & pessimistic pictures of the Rossetti school. In the garden . . . he has a ‘zoo’ containing three reindeer, a bear and a fox. . .

Oh to eye the very enfilade through which that orchidaceous entity would make his stately progress, clad only in a Japanese robe and snake-skin (well a whole snake, actually, a living piece of jewelry coiled around his neck). What a beguiling, repellent aroma he must have trailed: opium, incense, booze, rare blooms and reptile excreta.

OK the odour you’ll have to imagine, but have a look here and you will see footage of the manor in a news report tweeted by the estimable David Tibet, who is preparing a collection of Stenbock’s works for (hopefully) imminent release. The house still hasn’t recovered from its long structural decline, but with the sale of the estate last year and restoration work clearly underway, Kolga may yet return to the glories of Stenbock’s day. The count died at just 35, felled by disease and dissipation, and although interred in Brighton, he left his heart in Estonia (for real – it’s stored in a nearby church).

Further reading
“Scholar, connoisseur, drunkard, poet, pervert…”
Strange Flowers guide to London, part 3
From the cradle to the grave
Places: Under the Hill
Pages: Passionate Attitudes

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20 comments

  1. thombeau

    David Tibet — now there’s a strange flower!

  2. James

    Hasn’t his Stenbock book been due “imminently” for a couple of years now? I’m looking forward to it greatly. Similarly, Paul Busby’s book on Evan Morgan….

    • Indeed, though far be it from me to throw stones from that particular hothouse! In fact I think David Tibet put out a limited Stenbock collection a few years ago which now gets kerrazy sums. I first mentioned the forthcoming collection three years ago, but I’m sure it will be worth waiting for.

  3. Dear Strange Flowers. What a sweet article and thanks for the mention. My edition of Stenbock’s collected works is nearly finished. But I have been finding more material and a few new photographs too. I hope to wrap it up in the next few months and either publish it for this Christmas or for the anniversary of his birthday on March 12 2016 which is a week after my own birthday. I was hoping to publish my edition earlier than this but other projects have had to take precedence. A small point regarding Eric’s heart being kept at the nearby church. I visited it and I think it may be his father’s heart. The photos I took of it aren’t at all good, but I noted at the time “All I saw was his father’s heart in a corroded and verdigris-covered metal jar. The jar has leaked. It is surrounded by juniper berries and a lock of white hair lies next to it.” All best wishes to all. David Tibet+++

    • Great to see you here David and thanks so much for the update. Your description of the father’s heart could have been penned by Stenbock himself!

      • davidtibet

        Thank you James! I loved your comment about my Stenbockian notes on the urn… as I remember, the urn had “Erik” or “Erich”, not “Eric” on it, though of course that doesn’t prove it was the heart of the father of “our” Eric’. But I discussed it with the priest. I also noted that Eric’s father died much closer to Estonia. I don’t know from where the story of the heart being Eric’s derived. Adlard obviously got it from family members but, as with the tale of his life-sized wooden son-companion, I haven’t been able to confirm it anywhere else. I am going to re-checking Mary Costelloe/Berenson’s diaries, but I don’t recall her mentioning either things, which is unusual. Adlard also states that the cupboard in which the urn was “had a black marble door ornamented with a great golden crown with nine balls”. But in fact the urn is kept behind a small plain arch-shaped wooden door. The black marble memorial plaque he mentions is in fact a memorial plaque to the previous Count Stenbock. I have a photograph of it. It states “Carl Magnus / Graf Stenbock / Marjoratsherr / zu Kol / geb. 4 Febr. 1804 / gest. 11 Febr. 1885”. Of course Adlard was not allowed to visit Kolk, so he can’t be blamed for inaccurate information. David+++

  4. James

    Oh I do hope we’re not going to have to revise too many of our (mis?)conceptions about the Count. You’re not going to reveal that he was actually a broth-supping bank clerk from Berkhamsted are you?

    • davidtibet

      I hope so too. For what it’s worth, I think the wooden doll story is true. The two current Count Stenbocks I spoke to (in Sweden and Estonia) thought it wasn’t, but a lot of papers were obviously lost. I just meant that there was no written evidence that I had seen. I did go into Kolk and took photos of all the rooms, some years ago, and heard about the family ghosts and many other stories. D+++

      • The Count clearly dwells in a vale of dark renown beyond the valley of the fact-checkers, and yes it would be a shame to drag him away! The image of the doll is so vivid that it has become entirely real *to me* even if it isn’t true. I leaned pretty heavily on Adlard in my research for want of any corroborating evidence. Meanwhile I’d be curious to know what the present Stenbocks make of their ancestor. I can’t help thinking of Henry Cyril Paget’s descendants who have tried to prune him from the family tree entirely (but then, he did burn through their inheritance playing dress-ups).

      • davidtibet

        I agree, James. Adlard is a seminal book, and an absolute classic, brief though it is—as is his his lovely “Christmas With Count Stenbock”. If it wasn’t for getting that book, I would by no means have made some of the contacts I had and acquired the (predominantly inscribed/signed) Stenbock firsts and letters I have and the Elephant Table drawing itself. There are a lot of things he mentions in passing which didn’t interest him so much, but interested me, especially his comment about a basket-full of papers in I Tatti. Jarl Stenbock was interested in Eric, but told me he thought his writing was “not very good”. Magnus Stenbock was delighted with Eric, though I doubt his writings (and sexuality) were much to his taste. He showed me the black marble wine bottle receptacle that Eric had sent to the family, as well as several signed editions of Eric’s work. And some fabulous photos, too. The books by Ernest Rhys are interesting too. D’Arch Smith’s “Love In Earnest” is a masterpiece, and Brian Reade’s “Sexual Heretics” too. And I do recommend reading O’Donnell’s edition of WB Yeats’ “The Speckled Bird” too, if you haven’t already. It includes Yeats’ account of meeting Stenbock, and of course Count Sobrinski in that book is based on Eric. I love Henry Cyril Paget… oh to see his papers! I think the Stenbock family disposed of some of Eric’s papers too.

      • This is all so wonderful and fascinating! I had no idea that Yeats smuggled Stenbock into his fiction, though actually it doesn’t surprise me. I would also be intrigued to know if there is any truth to the suggestion that M. P. Shiel based the character of Prince Zaleski on Stenbock (https://strangeflowers.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/at-home-with-prince-zaleski/).

      • davidtibet

        I am not sure about the Zaleski link… Mark Valentine would know better than me… it’s possible, and I hope it’s true. I always believed that Max Beerbohm based Enoch Soames on Eric: same initials, very decadent verse and “catholic diabolist”, and Beerbohm knew Eric… although of course the character description of Soames is very non-decadent. Enoch Soames is one of my Utter Favourite Tales. A complete masterpiece, and one of the funniest stories I have ever read.

        “”I see, yes. I had rather gathered from the preface to ‘Negations’ that you were a—a Catholic.”
        “Je l’étais à cette époque. In fact, I still am. I am a Catholic diabolist.”

        Is there a way to send you a PDF? I don’t have your email address. You could send it to me through UrChariot(AT)gmail.com, unless you already have my email address through Strange Flowers.

  5. James

    And now you’re telling us that Enoch Soames isn’t real. Enough of this revisionism! There’s a bibliography and ‘Critical Heritage’ published…

  6. Pingback: The quest for Stenbock | Strange Flowers

  7. Oh, yon long awaited renovations! Dare we hope for a Decadent Bed & Breakfast where one could book a long weekend and as an “orchidaceous entity […] make […] stately progress, clad only in a Japanese robe and snake-skin…” downstairs to the breakfast bar…

  8. Pingback: Eric Count Stenbock – A Character (James J. Conway, The quest for Stenbock) | Frank T. Zumbachs Mysterious World

  9. Just wanted to call attention to Stenbock’s appearance in a new blog post at
    http://victorianclericalerrors.blogspot.com
    He was involved in the opium overdose death of a young clergyman in 1884. The news accounts all identified him as Steinbock but give the address as 11 Sloane Terrace.
    Wonderful work you’ve done on the Count

  10. HOW FANTASTIC. I didn’t know about it either!

  11. My pleasure, thanks for the replies.

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