Part five of Nothing
An older, grumpier, sadder Rupert, showing all the signs of disillusionment with the world of vanities.
Portrait by Lely, 1660 -70, oil on canvas. Collection: Yale Center for British Art. Image: Wikipedia
At last, Rupert was able to enjoy a peaceful retirement at Windsor Castle, mainly occupied in his scientific and artistic experiments. These were not mere hobbies of a retired man of action, or the pastimes of a dilettante royal; he had the enquiring mind of a true intellectual and practical grasp of advanced technology.
He was far more than a militarist who sought violent means to solve complex problems; he sought mathematical solutions, too.
He was an active member of the Royal Society, the oldest existing academy of science in the world, and a talented draughtsman and etcher who promoted mezzotint engraving.
He also happened to be one of the four best tennis players in England. He was an instinctively stylish dresser, he – but this was meant to be a short post, and already it is overstuffed with words, a chattering monkey’s post.
Rochester’s generation of dissolute courtiers, born during or after the Civil War, and gossipy professional bureaucrats like Samuel Pepys, thought Rupert was a crusty old joke and laughed at him behind his back. They were too scared to do so in his face. He thought they were idiots and didn’t hide it.
His most fatal flaw was intolerance of people he disliked; he simply could not work with them, a bit of a problem when you are at the heart of power, where everyone else is two-faced. He would have willingly given his life for a king or a brother or anyone else he loved, but he could never tell them a lie.
He was of a serious temperament, he suffered emotional loss and personal defeat, but never let melancholy or despair or illness get the better of him, until he died, a few weeks before his sixty-third birthday, in 1682. He had pushed himself, mind and body, beyond the limits of pain. He had the quality of curiosity which Thomas Hobbes, the most influential political philosopher of the age, called “the lust of the mind”.
A brilliant and flawed piece of work himself, he was one of those people who could not resist mending things, and no doubt took them apart to try and improve them.
He had been shot in the head in 1647, fighting in the closing stages of the European Thirty Years War, which can’t have improved his temper, and took great interest in his own trepanning operation twenty years later, in between naval engagements against the Dutch.
He probably would have preferred to bore the hole in his skull himself – he certainly tried to make a better surgical instrument afterwards.
Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil. Letter Rack with a Barber-Surgeon’s Instruments, 1668, oil on canvas. Collection and image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, National Gallery of Denmark.
When the tall, stern-faced old man went on evening walks through the Berkshire countryside, he took one companion with him, not a human man or woman, but a great black dog, and the two of them were mistaken by the local people for wizards.