William Blake in Sussex at Petworth House is a Triumph

Curator Andrew Loukes with Rupert Toovey representing exhibition sponsors, Toovey’s at the opening
Curator Andrew Loukes with Rupert Toovey representing exhibition sponsors, Toovey’s at the opening

The exhibition ‘William Blake in Sussex’ at Petworth House is a triumph!

The show opened to the public last weekend to universal acclaim and is set to be one of 2018’s must see exhibitions.

The central threads of William Blake’s art and writing are beautifully woven together with the formative time that this revolutionary artist spent in Sussex. The clarity of vision of the exhibition’s curator, Andrew Loukes, has blessed us with an unusually rich and coherent narrative.

The works of art on display are visually stunning and include some of the most important in Blake’s oeuvre. They have been borrowed not only from Petworth House’s own collection but also from the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the National Trust’s Arlington Court, Devon.

In an age when our nation is in danger of losing her diverse regional identities with homogenised housing and High Streets it is exciting to see the National Trust daring to put on an exhibition of national importance which speaks of, and is displayed in, the context of William Blake’s story here in Sussex.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries Petworth House held an important place in the British artistic scene thanks to the 3rd Earl of Egremont’s patronage and its extraordinary collections which drew artists including Turner from across the country.

William Blake’s ‘The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, circa 1825 © Petworth House, National Trust
William Blake’s ‘The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, circa 1825 © Petworth House, National Trust

The exhibition reminds us of his patronage through Blake’s watercolour ‘The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene’. The epic Elizabethan poem The Faerie Queene, upon which Blake’s drawing is based, was written against the backdrop of the Reformation by Edmund Spenser. Spenser employed a series of allegorical devices and characters to articulate the chivalric virtues of Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy. Blake painted the scene in 1825. It was bought by the 3rd Earl from the artist’s widow, Catherine Boucher, for eight guineas, a sum which would have been enough to sustain her for the rest of her days. Catherine wrote to him in 1829 instructing him as to its care, saying ‘Mr Blake had a great dislike to his pictures falling into the hands of the picture cleaners.’

Blake illustrates a number of the characters from Spenser’s epic poem. At the front of the processional scene is the Red Cross Knight seated on his horse and carrying the emblem of St George, the patron saint of England, a red cross upon his shield. Beside him seated on an ass is his travelling companion, Una, who represents the true protestant church. The scene is played out beneath the tableau of the sky. The sun is flanked by the moon and a figure representing Justice among the stars. The spired Gothic Cathedral in the sky to the left contrasts with the depiction of the Tower of Babel on the right.

There is so much more to say about this extraordinary exhibition and Blake’s time in Sussex that I look forward to revisiting it with you.

Petworth House could not be a more appropriate place for this fine exhibition providing a reminder of William Blake’s artistic talent, faith and strong moral vision.

The richness and layers of this exhibition will repay each and every visit. I am delighted that Toovey’s are headline sponsors of this exceptional show which understandably is attracting national interest.

The exhibition runs at Petworth House in West Sussex until the 25th March 2018. Entry is by pre-booked timed tickets which can be purchased online at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth. Discounted tickets are available to National Trust Members.

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.

William Blake’s ‘The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, circa 1825 © Petworth House, National Trust
William Blake’s ‘The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, circa 1825 © Petworth House, National Trust
Curator Andrew Loukes with Rupert Toovey representing exhibition sponsors, Toovey’s at the opening
Curator Andrew Loukes with Rupert Toovey representing exhibition sponsors, Toovey’s at the opening

 

William Blake at Petworth

Exhibition curator Andrew Loukes with William Blake’s ‘John Milton’, c. 1800-03
Exhibition curator Andrew Loukes with William Blake’s ‘John Milton’, c. 1800-03

One of 2018’s most anticipated exhibitions, William Blake in Sussex: Vision of Albion, opens at Petworth House, West Sussex this weekend. I was fortunate enough to call in last week as the show was being hung under the exceptional eye of the National Trust’s Exhibition Manager at Petworth and the exhibition’s curator, Andrew Loukes and I can confirm that this is going to be an exceptional show.

In recent years the importance of Sussex as a centre for art and artists from the 18th to the 20th century has been affirmed by numerous exhibitions in London but I am delighted that William Blake in Sussex is being held in its correct context.

It is rare for an important country house like Petworth to have William Blakes in its collection and on display. It was Elizabeth Ilive, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, George Wyndham’s mistress and then wife, who commissioned Blake to paint ‘A Vision of the Last Judgement’ in 1808. The image sanctifies family life. Mothers and Fathers ascend to heaven with their children and infants, as Christ sits in Majesty. In contrast, on the opposite side of the composition the wicked descend into hell.

William Blake ‘A Vision of the Last Judgement’, c. 1808 © Petworth House, National Trust

Blake described the iconography: “the Just, in humiliation and in exultation, rise through the air with their children and families…among them is a figure crowned with stars, and the moon beneath her feet, with six infants around her.” In his accompanying essay Andrew Loukes argues that whilst Blake describes the figure in this passage as representing the Christian Church it is possible that the woman is actually Elizabeth accompanied by her six surviving children and that the artist who faces her and appears to be drawing her is reminiscent of Blake’s own imagined self-image.

The imagery must have resonated with Elizabeth who from the age of sixteen had born nine children, three of whom died in infancy. George Wyndham’s philandering would bring to a close their long-awaited and all too brief marriage.

This exhibition promises to bring together the threads of William Blake’s faith, political radicalism and the influences of his patrons, Sussex and the pastoral on his life and work.

Petworth House could not be a more appropriate place for this fine exhibition providing a reminder of William Blake’s artistic talent, faith and strong moral vision.

The exhibition runs at Petworth House in West Sussex from 13th February until the 25th March 2018. Entry is by pre-booked timed tickets which can be purchased online at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth. Discounted tickets are available to National Trust Members.

I can’t wait to see the exhibition and I’m booking my tickets as I write.

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.

 

Turner and the Great Age of Watercolour at Petworth

JMW Turner ‘A First Rate Taking in Stores’, c.1818 © The Higgins, Bedford/National Trust
JMW Turner ‘A First Rate Taking in Stores’, c.1818 © The Higgins, Bedford/National Trust

‘Turner & the Age of British Watercolour’ has just opened at Petworth House and runs until 12th March 2017. The exhibition celebrates the British pre-eminence in the medium of watercolour painting in the mid-18th and early 19th century. The work is predominately drawn from the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, and includes a breadth of artists and paintings of extraordinary quality.

Curated by Andrew Loukes of the National Trust, the exhibition illustrates the development of the British watercolour tradition century and its role in establishing our national and patriotic identity.

The story is told with JMW Turner at its centre. Although Turner painted numerous watercolours at Petworth his great patron and friend, The 3rd Earl of Egremont, did not acquire any. This jewel-like show brings watercolours to Petworth House which speak into the ravishing house collection.

The exhibition makes apparent how British watercolour painting moved from recording the topographical to a romantic, personal impression of a particular place. Many argue that the poetic landscape of the romantic imagination is born out of Constable and Turner’s work.

It was Dr Thomas Munro, the chief physician at the Bethlem (Bedlam) Royal Hospital, who identified the genius of the artist John Robert Cozens. Cozens was admitted to the asylum suffering a nervous breakdown. Munro bought the collection of his work and would share it with a generation of British artists. There are watercolours by both men on display in the exhibition.

Turner was exposed to John Robert Cozens’ landscapes whilst working at Munro’s informal academy with his friend and contemporary, Thomas Girtin, in 1795. Turner would later acknowledge the importance of Cozen’s works on his own development as an artist.

JMW Turner would famously break free from the confines of convention and tradition recording impressions of the elemental in nature.

Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, Yorkshire, was a man with a patriotic disposition and an important patron to Turner. His son, Hawksworth Fawkes, watched Turner as he painted ‘A First Rate Taking in Stores’ and would write ‘He began by pouring wet paint onto the paper until it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrabbled at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos – but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship, with all its exquisite minutia came into being’. As you observe this watercolour in the exhibition it reveals depth and detail which contrasts with the scale, atmosphere and movement which Turner’s technique creates.

Thomas Girtin ‘Jedburgh from the River’, c.1798-99 © National Trust
Thomas Girtin ‘Jedburgh from the River’, c.1798-99 © National Trust

The exhibition also looks at the topographical recording of landscapes and buildings which would come to define a sense of British identity. Thomas Girtin’s topographical study ‘Jedburgh Abbey from the River’ combines a delicacy of topographical recording with broad washes of strong colour which are typical of his later more spacious, romantic works. Turner held Girtin’s work in the highest regard.

Francis Towne ‘The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills’, c.1799 © National Trust
Francis Towne ‘The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills’, c.1799 © National Trust

The exhibition also seeks to explain the influence of recording the Grand Tour on British watercolour painting. Artists like Francis Towne, who was a contemporary of John Robert Cozens, were employed in the late 18th century to record the scenes of the Grand Tour as they travelled with their patrons. I love the delicacy of Towne’s watercolour ‘The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills’. It is based on studies in his sketchbooks from his European travels in the 1780s.

‘Turner and the Age of British Watercolour’ is a visually beautiful show which will delight you. The exhibition runs at Petworth House in West Sussex until the 12th March 2017. Entry is by pre-booked timed tickets which can be purchased online at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth or by telephoning 0844 249 1895. Discounted tickets are available to National Trust Members.

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.

 

Capability Brown: a Generous Revolutionary

Petworth House united with its landscape
Petworth House united with its landscape

Petworth House and Park are celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783). A series of revolutionary, interactive installations make up the exhibition ‘Petworth Park Revealed: The Naked Landscape’. They chart this remarkable English landscape gardener’s involvement at Petworth in the mid-18th century.

The National Trust’s Regional Archaeologist, Tom Dommett
The National Trust’s Regional Archaeologist, Tom Dommett

I am in the company of Tom Dommett, the National Trust’s Regional Archaeologist. He explains that these installations represent the culmination of three years of practical archaeology involving extensive excavations, geoarchaeological and geophysical surveys. Tom says “The project owes much of its success to the hard work and dedication of the team of some 120 volunteers.” This community archaeology initiative was funded by the Monument Trust and the exhibition is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Before Capability Brown arrived at Petworth there were formal parterre gardens with canals and lines of trees next to the house. The gardens led into the commercial park. Here deer were farmed beside brick kilns, stables and a dove cot.

Tom comments “Capability Brown’s designs mark a huge philosophical shift in what a park should be and give expression to the mood of an age.” He continues “The formal gardens were only completed twenty years before he embarked upon changing this landscape on an extraordinary scale. The working park was moved completely.”

As we walk out into the park in conversation I remark upon the beauty of the view towards the serpentine lake and how Capability Brown seems to be a generous revolutionary in English garden design. Tom smiles in agreement and responds “The geoarchaeology has revealed how whole ridges have been removed to open views. Originally there was a ridge in front of the house which was moved to reveal the lake which he also created!”

Brown’s landscape design at Petworth works in concert with the house and its art.

Capability Brown’s landscape at Petworth
Capability Brown’s landscape at Petworth

Capability Brown exercised a grammatical approach to creating his naturalistic, poetic landscapes in the English Romantic tradition. This effortless look required an incredible knowledge and understanding of how to make landscapes work. Tom tells me that there are miles of tunnels which ferry water to the lake.

Unexpectedly Tom reaches into his pocket and pulls out his smartphone. Excitedly he explains how they have hidden discrete Wi-Fi hotspots, powered by solar energy, in the landscape. ‘Park Explorer’ is a safe and secure network which allows visitors to hear Tom’s commentary, whilst interactive images depict views and archaeology. As you move your fingers across the screen it even reveals impressions of earlier views!

Back in the house cutting edge digital technology allows you to create your own virtual ‘Brownian’ landscapes using a sandbox, whilst interactive visual displays convey the history of Petworth and its park.

As we part Tom enthuses “Landscape archaeology really excites me. Petworth Park’s landscape appears frozen time but it has changed so much over the last 800 years.” His excitement is infectious. I feel certain that Capability Brown would have loved Tom’s revolutionary exhibition.

The interactive installations engage the visitor in a remarkable way giving us unparalleled access to the hidden layers of history revealed in this landscape. Capability Brown was the most remarkable of English landscape gardeners. His sheer ability, self-belief and scale of vision is revealed in the parkland landscape at Petworth. ‘Petworth Park Revealed: The Naked Landscape’ opens this Bank Holiday weekend on the 28th May 2016 and, together with a series of associated events, continues until 6th November 2016. Tom Dommett, the National Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Monument Trust are deserving of our thanks.

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.

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.