Sussex Prairie Garden

The play of Echinacea, Helenium, Deschampsia and Sanguisorba at the Sussex Prairie garden, Henfield

This week I am excited to be visiting the Sussex Prairie garden at Morlands Farm, Henfield, created and designed by Pauline and Paul McBride.

I pass some happy pigs beneath the canopy of oaks as I walk towards the garden. As the path opens into bright daylight your senses are immediately captured by the scale, colour, light, texture and movement expressed in the planting and design – it is really beautiful.

In the first border I come to the swathes of raspberry pink and white Echinacea play against the Helenium’s flash of orange and red. Beyond, the Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ grasses with their gossamer like flower plumes have matured into a warm golden colour which contrast with the strong vertical of the white Sanguisorba canadensis.

I catch up with Pauline and Paul McBride on the farm terrace amongst the nursery plants for sale outside their splendid tearooms. The terrace overlooks the gardens.

They are delighted as I explain that their garden is food for my heart. Pauline says “It is a beautiful thing – people are moved by it.”

Sussex Prairie garden designers Pauline and Paul McBride
Sussex Prairie garden designers Pauline and Paul McBride

I comment on the exquisite synergy of the plants in the border I have just encountered. Pauline responds “The plants are like our friends we knew how they would behave and how to put them together from the gardens we have worked on.” From the wilds of Rajasthan, to the quiet beech wood valleys of Luxembourg Paul and Pauline McBride have been creating gardens for over 30 years.

I am fascinated by the way that the garden invites you into itself. Wherever you are your eye is met by stunningly conceived views with layered perspective. Pauline explains “It’s to do with the big spiral design. We drew up huge plans for the gardens – each designed in minute detail – we had to think how it would work together, the structure, plants and use of grasses. The gardens readily invite you in with their pathways through the borders in a very calming and seductive way. We want people to engage with the garden – be close to the bees and insects, brush against the plants, engage with them, touch them and experience the fragrance and a freedom as the garden takes on a life of its own and becomes something extraordinary.”

The naturalistic planting belies the underpinning of the generous discipline of their design. Pauline and Paul’s lifetimes work and experience is distilled into their Prairie garden.

Pauline continues “The garden is still evolving as we add new plants to the mix. The garden itself is changing as it seeds and cross-pollinates…the plants have done it themselves it is very exciting.”

Preparations are underway for the Unusual Plant and Garden Fair this coming Sunday. Pauline explains “We invite a great selection of specialist nurseries with their wonderful plants – it’s rare to find so many specialist plants men and women in one place. There’s Jazz and great food too, it’s a real day out!”

This festival of plants will be held this coming Sunday 2nd September 2018, 11am to 5pm at Sussex Prairies, Morlands Farm, Wheatsheaf Road, Henfield, West Sussex, BN5 9AT. To find out more about the gardens and this event visit or telephone 01273 495902.

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.

Jeremy Knight and the Horsham Museum

The iconic Horsham Museum & Art Gallery in the Causeway, Horsham

As The Horsham Museum celebrates its 125th Anniversary Jeremy Knight is marking 30 years as its curator on the 15th August 2018.

This August the Horsham Museum is celebrating its 125th Birthday. It was founded in 1893 by members of the Free Christian Church and the Horsham Museum Society was born. In 1974 Horsham District Council took over responsibility for running the museum.

Jeremy has been the curator at the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery for thirty years. As I meet him I comment on the remarkable coincidence of the timing of these two important anniversaries, he agrees and says “We’re continuing those noble Victorian aspirations of learning, public service and working for the civic good.”

I ask Jeremy what most delights him about his role at the museum, he replies “Listening to people talking about the museum as their museum, it’s then that you know you’ve got it right.”

Curator Jeremy Knight celebrating 30 years at the Horsham Museum

Jeremy Knight is a modern antiquarian; passionate about the use of objects in telling stories from our past. He stands against the current concerning trend of removing objects and labels from our nation’s museum displays. He comments “It’s about story-telling, it always has been, using objects to bring history to life by exploring historical connections and peoples’ relationships.”

Jeremy is a gifted historian. His excellent volumes on the history of Horsham are published by the museum and the profits go to help support its work.

Reflecting on his thirty years at the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery he smiles and says “It has been exciting to professionalise and develop the curatorship of the collections whilst re-inventing the museum.” Jeremy explains how he has edited and managed the collections. His policies in this area have been celebrated by museums and fellow curators. Jeremy comments “If you have collections they enable you to work with and borrow from others.” Jeremy has built relationships with national institutions and collaborated with the Worshipful Company of Loriners, the V&A and the Royal Academy.

Jeremy developed an interest in objects and history at an early age. He explains how his mother encouraged him to collect geological specimens when he was 11 years old. From geology he moved onto the natural world with a Christmas gift of an antique taxidermy red squirrel. And then to books, not just as documents of learning but as aesthetic objects.

In the museum he balances the public’s appetite for art with an ability to display our local social and economic history in creative and unique ways. Under Jeremy Knight’s leadership the Horsham Museum and Art Gallery has become one of the most visited art and heritage attractions in West Sussex.

He is quick to praise his staff and community of volunteers “I work with a small, dedicated and talented staff at the museum. We are supported by over sixty volunteers ranging in age from nineteen to nearly ninety – they work on everything from gardening, to making fittings for exhibitions, cataloguing, researching collections, digital recording and local history, as well as guiding.”

The Horsham District Council’s continued commitment to the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery is deserving of praise.

Jeremy Knight continues to have an enormous influence on the promotion of culture and heritage across the whole Horsham District. His work illustrates the importance of generous, long-term leadership and service, in preserving the history and art of our county and he is richly deserving of our thanks.

Entrance to the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery is free with permanent displays and exciting shows like the current Frankenstein exhibition. For more information visit

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.

Circe rediscovered after a century

Briton Riviere’s ‘Circe and the Companions of Ulysses’

It’s  been over 100 years since Briton Riviere’s Circe and the Companions of Ulysses was last seen in public.

The work, which features in Toovey’s September Fine Art Auction, propelled Riviere to fame after it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1871.

Circe and the Companions of Ulysses is arguably Riviere’s most significant work to come to auction in recent years. It was first purchased by John Kynaston Cross, industrialist and Member of Parliament for Bolton, who served as Under Secretary of State for India during William Gladstone’s tenure as Prime Minister, until his death in 1887 when it was inherited by his wife. The first –  and we understand – only time it appeared at auction was in 1911, at Tooth & Tooth’s, where it sold to the enigmatic art dealer William Walker Sampson with the gavel falling at £385 (an enormous sum at that time). Since then its whereabouts was unknown until it was recently discovered by Toovey’s at a local deceased estate.

The oil on canvas painting depicts a scene from Homer’s Odyssey – Circe, a beautiful maiden who possesses magical powers, lures Ulysses’s men to a feast and slips a potion into their drinks that transforms the men into swine.

In an interview with Harry How published in The Strand Magazine, (1896), Riviere elaborated on the conception of the work:

 ‘I was living in Kent at the time I painted it, and I kept pigs there; as a matter of fact, three of them. I had styes made at the end of the garden. By-the-by, pigs are remarkably good sitters. I have had a pig in this very room. They are very easy to manage, and will do anything you require; they really become quite sociable in time. I painted the figure of Circe in London, having by that time moved to the Addison Road. I put in the figure two or three times from a model, but could never get it to my liking. At last I found a lady friend who suggested the long haired daughter of Helios admirably, and I got her to sit’.[1]

The picture was met with critical acclaim for the depiction of the swine after the picture’s first outing at the Royal Academy in 1871. Visitors to the exhibition also revelled in the enchanting scene; John Pye, the celebrated engraver and J.M.W. Turner’s great friend, wrote ‘a charming letter of thanks to the young painter for the pleasure his work had given.’[2] Frederick Stacpoole was engaged to engrave a reproduction of the painting in 1875 – the first of Riviere’s works to have had this honour – and both the painting and the engraving were sent to Philadelphia for the International Exhibition of 1876 where Riviere’s painting was singled out for a medal. Circe, by now world-famous, was exhibited for the final time in 1887 at the Royal Jubilee Exhibition in Manchester.

Circe and the Companions of Ulysses will be offered with an estimate of £30,000-50,000* in our Sale of Fine Art on September 5th at 10am.

[1] The Strand Magazine, vol 11, 1896, p.8

[2] Armstrong, Walter ‘Briton Riviere R.A.’ in the Art Annual, supplement to the Art Journal 1891, p.10

*excluding buyer’s premium see for details

A Postcard from Holkham Hall in Norfolk

Holkham Hall’s magnificent Marble Hall
Holkham Hall’s magnificent Marble Hall

This week I am visiting another of England’s finest country houses, Holkham Hall in Norfolk.

Holkham is always compared with Houghton. This fine pair of Norfolk houses reflect the families who created them. Houghton projects Robert Walpole’s political stature and a London flamboyance. Holkham, though in some ways grander, is also more comfortable and at ease with itself reflecting the Coke family’s important place in rural Norfolk and the influence of the Grand Tour. The two houses provide contrasting interpretations of Palladianism.

Thomas Coke spent six years on the Grand Tour. He returned home in 1718 with a collection of antiquities having formed a strong friendship with the architect William Kent and Lord Burlington. Thomas Coke would design his home at Holkham with the advice of William Kent and his assistant Matthew Brettingham.

Holkham sits confidently and at ease in its landscape. The central rectangle, with its beautifully proportioned portico and rustic ground floor, is flanked by two wings designed to provide separate accommodation for visitors and the family.

The visitor is greeted by the magnificent Marble Hall, the two levels united by a sweeping staircase. It is based upon a design by Antonio Palladio for a Temple of Justice. The flanking Ionic columns carved in brown and white grained Derbyshire alabaster rise to meet an elaborate frieze and the extraordinary ceiling with its deeply incised panels, distorted to accentuate its height to the eye.

In my view the English Country House is one of our nation’s greatest contributions to human civilization. Their assemblance of paintings and objects have a particular beauty born of the passions of their families and, importantly, English Country House taste is also comfortable.

The Long Library designed by William Kent
The Long Library designed by William Kent

The Long Library forms part of the Family Wing which was the first part of Holkham to be built. The wing was designed in detail and decorated in the 1730s by William Kent. Over the fireplace there is a superb 1st century Roman mosaic depicting a Lion, originally from Umbria.

Thomas Coke placed great importance on his books and manuscripts and used the Long Library as his main living room. The Coke family continue to use this room as their Sitting Room on a daily basis – it has the atmosphere of a very social and comfortable space. With William Kent’s gilded bookcases and ceiling as the backdrop the room is once again furnished with that medley of styles and periods brought together by successive generations of the family which typifies English Country House taste.

The art collection at Holkham is also superb. As you process through the Staterooms you are greeted by an array of paintings by Poussin, Claude, van Dyke, and Ruben’s exceptional ‘Return of the Holy Family’.

To find out more about this exemplary English Palladian house and its collections visit

It is almost time to leave the North Norfolk coast with its enormous skies, beautiful villages and coast and return to our own stunning county of Sussex. So it just remains to say “Wish you were here!”

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.

A Postcard from Houghton Hall in Norfolk

Houghton Hall in Norfolk, home to Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole
Houghton Hall in Norfolk, home to Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole

This week I am writing to you from one of England’s most important country houses.

The English Country House is one of our nation’s greatest contributions to human civilization. Their assemblance of paintings and objects have a particular beauty born of the passions of their families. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the home of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1676-1745). The house captures the ambition of a man and a nation in the ascendancy.

Sir Robert Walpole was the most powerful statesman of his day. He was gifted with figures and an adept politician. Between 1722 and 1742 he was both First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. A Whig politician, Walpole’s middle way attracted moderates from both the Whig and Tory camps. He strove for lower taxes, peace and growing exports.

His assured taste in art and architecture enabled him to build Houghton in just thirteen years and to form a remarkable collection of art and objects. It was conceived not only as a power house for political entertaining but also as a family home.

Walpole sought to bring Palladianism to the English countryside.

Palladianism is based on the designs of the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Palladio was inspired by the buildings of ancient Rome. British designers drew on Palladio’s work to create a Classical British style. The most influential and earliest exponent was the English architect Inigo Jones who travelled throughout Italy between 1613 and 1614 with the ‘Collector’ Earl of Arundel annotating his copy of Palladio’s treatise.

Palladian exteriors, like at Houghton, were plain and based on strict rules of proportion. In contrast, the interiors were richly decorated. This style remained fashionable from around 1715 up until 1760.

The first design for Houghton was produced by the architect, James Gibb. The pure Palladian design was interrupted with the addition of the dramatic domes but the house is beautifully conceived. The interior designs, decoration and finishing of the principle floor was originally undertaken by William Kent in about 1725.

Ambition outstripped wealth and Sir Robert Walpole’s debts led to much of his remarkable collection of art being sold in 1779 to Catherine the Great of Russia. Walpole’s collection is one of the major building blocks of today’s Hermitage Collection.

The Cabinet room at Houghton Hall
The Cabinet room at Houghton Hall

The Cabinet room was originally conceived to display fifty-one of his smaller paintings. After their sale the 3rd Earl introduced the fine blue-ground chinoiserie wallpaper we see today. The two English rococo wall mirrors and lacquer wall cabinets compliment this design. Here the classical gives way to decorative motifs drawn from nature and the influences of the Chinese reflecting the international qualities of our nation. The two classical green velvet chairs with their walnut and gilt-gesso frames are earlier from the time of William Kent. This medley of styles and periods brought together by successive generations of the family works with an evolving harmony. It is typical of English Country House taste.

Much of the furniture at Houghton is original to the house and its quality is testament to Sir Robert Walpole’s unerring eye and ambition.

To find out more about this jewel like house and its collections visit

Houghton has always been compared with neighbouring Holkham Hall so I will be sending my next postcard from Norfolk to you from there. It remains to say “Wish you were here!”

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.