The Original White Cube Gallery

J.M.W. Turner’s watercolour of the North Gallery at Petworth

How modern the 21st century gallery interior seems to us with its light, white interiors – but is it really modern?

This week we are at Petworth House, in the company of the National Trust’s inspirational Exhibitions Manager, Andrew Loukes. The Petworth House team are preparing for their spring opening on Saturday 19th March 2016. All around us the house’s treasures are emerging from beneath their winter covers.

The Classical sculpture at Petworth
The Classical sculpture at Petworth
George Wyndham O’Brien (1751-1837), 3rd Earl of Egremont
George Wyndham O’Brien (1751-1837), 3rd Earl of Egremont

As we enter the North Gallery the deep red of the walls sets off the white of the sculptures. It is a remarkable space. The blinds are opened and the light floods in. It reminds me of a watercolour of the North Gallery by the artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). The watercolour depicts the gallery luminous and white. John Flaxman’s (1755-1826) famous sculpture ‘St Michael subduing Satan’ is to the fore. The sketch is one of a number produced by Turner which he painted for his own pleasure, they illustrate life behind the scenes at Petworth House. Andrew Loukes explains “At the time of the 3rd Earl these galleries were painted white.” I remark that this must have been the first white cube gallery. Andrew agrees and adds “This is arguably the first purpose built art gallery in Britain.” He reminds me that the Carved Room at Petworth House, sometimes called the Long Dining Room, was created by the 3rd Earl from two rooms. It houses the remarkable Grinling Gibbons carvings. The room would have appeared very much as it does today although the panelling was papered and painted white. Andrew says “The effects of this white colour scheme can be seen in the palette of Turner’s paintings produced specifically for that room.” Some rooms were also painted a bright red.

The North Gallery was altered and expanded by both the 2nd and 3rd Earl’s of Egremont. The influence of George Wyndham O’Brien (1751-1837), 3rd Earl of Egremont, and his forebears is immediately apparent. The best contemporary art of the early 19th century sits alongside sculptures from classical antiquity. Andrew Loukes explains that this is no accident “This is a very personal collection reflecting father and son. The classical sculpture was predominately collected by the 2nd Earl. Under the 3rd Earl the modern was brought alongside the ancient. The house and collection influenced many of the artists of the time. It is not possible to overemphasize how important this place was, in the early 19th century, to British art –it was an unofficial academy.” The 3rd Earl was very discerning so there are no examples of work by artists like John Constable or Edwin Landseer in the collection, even though they stayed at Petworth.

John Flaxman’s famous sculpture, ‘St Michael subduing Satan’
John Flaxman’s famous sculpture, ‘St Michael subduing Satan’

John Flaxman’s ‘St Michael subduing Satan’ is still displayed in the North Gallery. Flaxman based the composition of this piece on Raphael’s painting of St Michael which now hangs in the Louvre. The sculpture tells the story of the eventual triumph of good over evil from the book of Revelations in the Bible. A youthful St Michael prepares to smite Satan as he raises his spear. It is a heroic and patriotic piece produced by Flaxman at the height of his powers.

It was John Ruskin who commented that the white walls made the sculptures look dirty and by the 1850s the North Gallery’s walls had been painted red. Petworth House is one of the nation’s great treasure houses. The house reopens on Saturday 19th March 2016. Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning to an old friend you cannot fail to be inspired by the art and history of the place. For more information go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Standen and its Textiles

The Drawing Room at Standen
The Drawing Room at Standen

It is a beautiful bright spring day as I approach the National Trust property, Standen, near East Grinstead in West Sussex. The dappled light falls upon the narrow drive through the canopy of trees, the vista opens as you arrive at the house. I have come to see Standen’s latest exhibition, ‘Medieval to Morris’ which explores the history of embroidery.

Standen is a fine example of a late 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement home. It combines the talents of architect, Philip Webb with an interior alive with the rich textiles and wallpapers of the designer, craftsman and poet, William Morris. Webb and Morris were famously close friends.

Standen was built between 1892 and 1894 for James and Margaret Beale. James was a successful and wealthy London solicitor. They chose the architect Philip Webb to design and oversee the project.

Ben Dale, House Manager at Standen
Ben Dale, House Manager at Standen

The house manager, Ben Dale, comes to meet me. Ben is a social historian whose passion for Standen is infectious. As we tour the house together he tells the story of this remarkable place through the objects, house and gardens. I comment on the unity of design which meets your eye in every room. Ben responds “Everything was designed by Webb for a reason. It’s a shining example of the Arts and Crafts. He put great thought into how the rooms would be used with a real attention to detail.”

‘Artichoke’, a design by William Morris
‘Artichoke’, a design by William Morris

As you arrive in the Drawing Room you can imagine it as a family setting with the Beale’s using it. The easy chairs are mostly by Morris & Co. The settee was probably designed by Agnes and Rhoda Garrett. The Garrets set up their own ‘Art Decoration’ business in 1875, working in the Morris taste. They lived together at Firs Cottage in Rustington. I am interested how important the textiles and carpet are to the overall aesthetic of the room. Ben explains “Many of the wall-hangings were made by Margaret Beale. She didn’t like to have idle hands which is why she embroidered with her daughters. It was a very social thing which they did together.” The hanging beside the settee was worked by Margaret Beale. This ‘Vine’ pattern was first designed by Morris for wallpaper in 1873. Margaret started work on the panel in 1920 and it took six years to complete.

The carpet, designed by J. H. Dearle is particularly fine. These hand knotted wool carpets were manufactured at Morris & Co’s Merton Abbey workshops.

Standen volunteer and curator of ‘Medieval to Morris’, Sally Roberson
Standen volunteer and curator of ‘Medieval to Morris’, Sally Roberson

Ben introduces me to Sally Roberson who is a volunteer at Standen and curator of their current exhibition, ‘Medieval to Morris’, which explores the history of embroidery. Sally expertly leads me around this excellent exhibition which tells the story of embroidery from medieval times to the current day. Examples of the stitches and techniques used over the centuries reveal the art of the embroiderer. It provides context and insight to the remarkable collection of William Morris designed embroidery at Standen. I comment on how I am fascinated that so many of the embroidered hangings and panels were worked by Margaret Beale and her family. Sally responds “Almost all of the panels were produced from kits. The patterns were printed on linen.”

I have always been struck by William Morris’ genius for flat patterns and his remarkable understanding of the relationships between natural forms, the curl of a leaf, a flower and its stem. I am drawn to an ‘Artichoke’ pattern panel embroidered by Margaret Beale and her three eldest daughters, from a design by William Morris, between 1894 and 1896. Sally says “It is stitched in silks which give a richness and sheen which wool would not.” Flowers and patterns were obviously as important to Margaret as they were to Morris. Sally remarks “Mrs Beale was a woman obsessed with gardening and embroidery, one informed the other.”

It has been wonderful to visit Standen anew and to see it through the eyes of Ben Dale and Sally Roberson. The exhibition ‘Medieval to Morris’ runs until the 26th July 2015. For more information on Standen House and Gardens, West Hoathly Road, East Grinstead, West Sussex, RH19 4NE visit their website by clicking here or telephone 01342 323029.

Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 27th May 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette

Mr Turner at Petworth

Mr. Turner – Timothy Spall, as J.M.W. Turner, paints in the Old Library © Simon Mein, Thin Man Films.
Mr. Turner – Timothy Spall, as J.M.W. Turner, paints in the Old Library © Simon Mein, Thin Man Films.

Mike Leigh’s textural depiction of the life and work of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) in his award-winning film Mr. Turner has been brought to life in an exhibition at Petworth House. This fascinating show runs until 11th March 2015. It brings together rarely seen works by J.M.W. Turner with props, costumes and paintings from the film by the actor Timothy Spall.

Andrew Loukes, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Petworth House, is clearly excited by Mr. Turner – an exhibition, which he has co-curated with Dr Jacqueline Riding. Andrew enthuses: “Mike Leigh’s work on Mr. Turner at Petworth is arguably the most significant cultural moment at the ‘house of art’ since Turner himself was a frequent guest here in the 1820s and 30s.” The third Earl of Egremont was amongst the most important English patrons of art in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The film Mr. Turner has provided the opportunity to re-examine the important role that Petworth and the third Earl played in Turner’s later work.

As we walk up the Old Library staircase in conversation, I remark on one of my favourite scenes in the film, in which Turner stands painting at his easel in this library with three ladies, bathed in light from the arched window. As we reach the landing, we are greeted by the very same scene and light. Andrew smiles and explains, “Mike Leigh wanted to recreate some of Turner’s iconic pictures. Turner painted several sketches of this room.”

J.M.W. Turner – The Old Library © Tate, London, 2014
J.M.W. Turner – The Old Library © Tate, London, 2014

The Old Library is often called ‘Turner’s Studio’. This particular scene is taken from Turner’s luminous gouache of 1827, titled The Old Library: The Artist and his Admirers. Here three ladies watch as the artist paints. Turner’s delight is obvious in his depiction of light, colour and movement. It provides the viewer with a remarkable impression of a particular moment in time. The sketch is one of a number produced by Turner in the autumn of 1827. Painted for his own pleasure, they illustrate life behind the scenes at Petworth House.

Timothy Spall studied under London artist Tim Wright for two years as part of his preparation for the role of Turner. His vigorous performance in the film convincingly reflects something of the practical physicality of creating art and it is surprising to see the level of accomplishment in his paintings and drawings first hand. Spall depicts J.M.W. Turner as an artist consumed by his art, confident, eccentric, prosperous, forthright, both detached and tender in his personal relationships.

Like the film, the exhibition offers a revealing and very personal insight into the character of this great artist. Andrew reverentially shows me Turner’s leather watercolour pouch, which is one of the objects on display. Although worn, it shines, displaying the patina of years of use and handling by the artist himself.

As Andrew and I continue around the exhibition into the Carved Room with its Turners, Grinling Gibbons carvings and costumes from the film, it becomes apparent that I am in the company of a man whose depth of understanding and love of the collections he curates at Petworth House have rooted him in this place in a very particular way. He remarks, “I am excited to be able to expand the exhibition offer at Petworth, based around the remarkable collections here.” Andrew Loukes’ quiet passion, vision and dedication are bringing life to this important house and its collections and he deserves our thanks.

Demand for tickets for Mr. Turner – an exhibition at Petworth House is expected to be high, so book your tickets early! For more information go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house and to book tickets telephone 0844 249 1895.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 14th January 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.