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This is an analysis of how material culture and conspicuous display shaped the careers of British diplomats under the later Stuarts. Through five case studies, it is argued that investment in objects, and awareness of fashion and taste both at home and abroad, helped in the process of competitive preferment, whilst shaping the identity of the British monarchy and the evolution of taste. It is a book of value to the complementary fields of diplomatic, political, art, economic history and court studies. It offers significant revisionist views about personalities, courts and aesthetic trends. Notably well written, encompassed in less than 300 pages, it offers new and important contributions to later Stuart cultural studies; and it is underpinned with an impressive range of primary sources.

Of the case studies, the most important is that on Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington. Although it was Arlington who ousted the Polonius of Charles II's reign, Lord Clarendon, he has not attracted a full-scale biography for ninetynine years. He was the longest-serving secretary of state, Lord Chamberlain, a post for which Jacobsen argues pre-eminence in the period, but also a successful marriage negotiator: marrying his daughter to a royal bastard. Arlington was the first big figure to understand the value of sourcing status goods from his clients abroad. This happened after Arlington had graduated from diplomacy to high office at home. Jacobsen argues convincingly that the procurement of newfangled luxury goods was ‘a highly effective, strategy to distance himself from his political rivals while simultaneously exhibiting his friendship with the king’ (p. 122). Arlington did this in London but also, no less importantly, at his great house Euston, the strategic location of which was not lost on him. Euston is near Newmarket and Arlington transformed what was only an easy ride away from the royal racecourse ‘into an unrivalled locus of power, wealth, intrigue, entertainment, and erudition’ (p. 127).

The case studies demonstrate that it was often a campaign of material aggrandizement which informed self-presentation: the decorative art of choosing a pleasant-looking marriage partner, architecture, portraiture, picture-collecting, furnishings, wine, coaches, music, gardening – even food – often bought and thought about abroad. This all-embracing process of self-conscious image-building could, however, descend into bathos, as ostentation became plain vulgarity. Predictably this was a golden age of vituperative satire. Viscount Preston in Paris, excited by a gift of cheese from the bishop of Rochester, declared, with evident excitement, of how the cheese (not himself), made ‘a very considerable figure here, and is much to the credit of our country’. No couple was more repellently calculating than the Straffords. Strafford himself had absolutely no feeling for a picture but he invested heavily in them: they were rungs upon his ladder to a platform of greatness and thereafter pillars to sustain it. As for Lady Strafford, a shipbuilder's daughter with a useful dowry of £60,000, she developed her own mean little economies: cutting off the tops of high japanned cabinets because they could not be seen, but could be recycled as table tops, and planning to use her husband's investiture robes for upholstering the dining-room chairs.

Malcolm Smuts first suggested the presentational value put upon textiles in early modern England and certainly Jacobsen supports this view. Diplomats went the extra mile in supplying their patrons with tassels and not the Titians which had been favoured by the early Stuarts. Lord Manchester worked hard to please the duchess of Marlborough, sending not one but almost two miles of fabric from Venice to Blenheim.

Jacobsen establishes that material goods and conspicuous consumption mattered hugely to the late Stuart elite: to the extent indeed that we may be forgiven for thinking that English diplomats were interior decorators. En passant she has challenging things to say about the relationship of art to political loyalty and whether artistic preferences were programmatic. But then what about the effectiveness and fate of ambassadors whose station may have been important, but who lived in a state which produced little with which to beguile political masters back home? Furthermore, as Jacobsen points out, diplomatic careers became increasingly open to men of ability, but not necessarily of great connections, still less of huge wealth: a reversion to what had been the pattern under James I. As for the period in question, if none of the diplomats actually came to a sticky end, they often returned home to a little local difficulty: Matthew Prior was put on trial and Strafford decayed in deepest Yorkshire after impeachment. That there is no facile connection between culture and high, sustained office, is judiciously acknowledged as the final word: ‘Political success through cultural means was just as difficult to achieve as it was through factional politics’ (p. 235). Indeed. It was all very well ordering silver ice pails to impress your dinner guests, but much more important was a capacity to break the ice at one of the international congresses provoked by the insistent wars of Louis XIV. There may, too, be a danger of overvaluing the objects which form the hard evidence of this study. Unpaid ambassadors pawned or flogged the very plate upon which Jacobsen's arguments repose with such elegance. Louis XIV's silversmiths may have set the trend for fashions throughout Europe, but then Louis himself had had to melt it all down to pay for his wars; a melt-down not only of precious metal but of reputation. We may wonder what the French felt when in 1698 they encountered a splendid set of magnificent silver deliberately paraded before their eyes by Lord Portland, the English ambassador to Paris and the representative of a nation which had finally overmastered French arms. Important objets d'art may have been, but they were sometimes as conspicuous in their disappearance as in their consumption.

But then such questions suggest the real distinction of a book which stimulates further enquiry as much as it opens up new approaches to what the poet and diplomat Matthew Prior described in a letter of August 1698 to his friend the earl of Halifax as ‘fluttering about Paris in a gilt chariot’. Jacobsen demonstrates triumphantly how the chariot was not just off to the milliners.