Celebrating the Baroque at Petworth

The Marble Hall at Petworth House in West Sussex © National Trust 2020

In this, the first of two articles, we are visiting Petworth House in West Sussex celebrating the Baroque.

The Marble Hall at Petworth was the main entrance to the house and is remarkably un-changed from the time of the 6th Duke of Somerset (1662-1748) who commissioned it. Work on it was largely completed by 1692. It is thought that it was probably designed by Daniel Marot (1663-1752). Born in Paris, Marot worked almost exclusively in Holland and England. He also published influential engraved designs.

Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset married the Percy heiress Elizabeth. Known as the ‘Proud Duke’ he used his wife’s money to remodel her family’s seat at Petworth.

The Marble Hall at Petworth culturally embraces the classicising version of the Baroque style developed in France and apparent in the palatial interiors of Louis XIV’s Versailles. The influence of the Dutch can also be seen. Such a complete decorative scheme in the Baroque style is rare in England. The collections of classical sculptures and the late 17th century Florentine black and gold marble topped tables add to the grandeur of the space.

The confident, three-dimensional woodwork, including the Somerset coats of arms you see above the chimney pieces, were carved by John Selden. Thomas Larkin put the panelling up. The locks were made by the locksmith John Draper and engraved with the Duke’s arms. James Sayers indented the black and white marble floor, the design inspired by a pattern in C. A. d’Anvier’s ‘Cours complet d’Architecture’. Published in 1691 it was one of the most popular pattern books of the 17th century.

The 3rd Earl of Egremont filled the Marble Hall with pictures which were hung in tiers in all the available panels. This style of hanging survived until 1952 when Anthony Blunt, unknowingly, returned it to the earlier decorative scheme which you see here with pictures displayed only over the chimneypieces and doors.

Originally the Marble Hall would have opened onto a formal garden with ramparts, terraces and parterres, again commissioned by the Proud Duke. This form of garden design was inspired by the formal straight lines and topiary of the French royal gardens at Versailles designed by André Le Notre (1613-1700). George London (d.1714) and Henry Wise (1653-1738) made the parterre popular in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, creating the gardens at Petworth.

In early 18th century England there was a political desire, held by both the Whig government and Hanoverian King George I, to distance themselves from the excesses of the French Court at Versailles. This combined with a fascination for ‘unbounded nature’. In this climate Capability Brown’s park landscapes evolved in dialogue with his patrons, including the 2nd Earl of Egremont. Perhaps this is why his idealised landscape at Petworth speaks into the hearts and imaginations of the English.

Next week we will be visiting Petworth again to rediscover the Carved Room with its superb Grinling Gibbons carvings.

“It is the Victory of the cause of freedom in every land”

Maurice Gautier (second from the right in his St John Ambulance uniform) with the British naval officers Surgeon-Lieutenant Ronald McDonald, RNVR, and Sub-Lieutenant David Milln, RN, shortly after landing in Jersey on the morning of 9th May 1945 as part of the advance liberation party

On the 7th May 1945 the Germans surrendered. The Church Bells rang out and on the 8th May 1945 people poured onto the streets of the towns and villages of Sussex to celebrate VE Day, the Allied Victory in Europe.

Winston Churchill spoke to the crowds in Whitehall “God Bless you all. This is your Victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the unbending resolve of the British nation. God bless you all.”

Churchill would announce in his radio broadcast that “…our dear Channel Islands are to be freed today”.

As a stark reminder as to what had been fought for the Channel Islands remained under German occupation until the 9th May 1945 when they were finally liberated.

My wife, Teresa, is a Channel Island girl whose family can trace their roots on the island of Jersey back to medieval times. Her aunt Enid celebrated her 86th birthday last weekend. We telephoned to wish her a happy birthday and our conversation turned to the war and her late husband uncle Maurice. Enid said “The Germans banned all clubs and gatherings even the Girl Guides but church was allowed. The churches were packed during the war, we had forms in the aisles. I worshipped with the Methodists up at Sion. Everyone had someone away. We didn’t know if they were alright so it became a tradition to finish our services with the hymn ‘God be with you till we meet again’. The Germans allowed us to sing any hymn from the English Hymnal so on special occasions we sang ‘God save our gracious King’. They put a stop to that when they found out. You tried to defy the Germans whenever you could.

You felt really safe before curfew, the Germans were very strict with the discipline of their troops. They weren’t feeding their prisoners, Russians and POWs. They let them out at night to scavenge. Some people hid [the prisoners] or fed them on the quiet, others built crystal wireless sets. People split on them and they ended up in prison or were sent to Germany to the camps – they never came back.

We were hungry especially after D-day when we were cut off. We really relied on the Red Cross Parcels that came in on the ships – oh my goodness the parcels were our life line.

Maurice was older than me – eighteen at the end of the war and interested in what was going on – he realised he was witnessing history. Maurice was in the St John Ambulance. They worked with the Red Cross. When the SS Vega came into St Helier harbour on the 9th May Maurice was there to unload the Red Cross parcels onto trolleys. The farmers came with their horses to pull the trolleys into the sheds. All of a sudden a little boat came in with the first British Naval officers, so Maurice and his friend ran down the steps to meet them and shook their hands. A car was found and the advance party were taken to the Pomme d’Or hotel where the expectant, cheering crowds were waiting.” Enid paused and concluded “It’s all history now.”

Like in Sussex flags and bunting were found and hung up. The celebrations were heartfelt providing a moment of respite and hope. Many had lost loved ones oversees and at home, and the war against Japan was far from over. But the first victory in the cause of freedom in every land had been won.

Stories from a Tulip Field

George Hitchcock – ‘La Culture des Tulipes (Tulip Culture)’, oil on canvas, circa 1889

What a beautiful week it has been. The tulips in my garden have been so joyful in the spring sunlight, they remind me of a painting and a particular sale.

There is a stillness and beauty to an English country house interior which has remained unchanged over many years. That stillness and beauty was reflected in George Hitchcock’s ‘La Culture des Tulipes’. I remember seeing the painting for the first time. It was bathed in sunlight, hanging in a dining room as it had for some seventy years. The picture was part of the collection Toovey’s sold in 1998 from the Rusper home of the famous De la Rue family who printed money and stamps for the British Empire.

The American, George Hitchcock (1850-1913) came to London in 1879 to study art. In 1882 he enrolled at the Académie Julian, Paris where he was influenced by the artists Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre. By 1884 Hitchcock had settled in Egmond aan Zee on Holland’s North Sea coast where he established an art colony. Described as the ‘Painter of Sunlight’ Hitchcock painted en plein air.

‘La Culture des Tulipes’ depicts a field of tulips bathed in light. A woman wearing a blue coat stands with her back to us. She holds a tulip filled basket in her left hand. The spring sunlight plays on the tulips and warms her face. The artist’s handling of light, colour and paint is delicate, textured and impressionistic.

There is always an air of expectation and excitement when something extraordinary is about to happen in an auction. All day the De la Rue collection had been setting records and finally we arrived at the George Hitchcock painting. An American buyer had sent his agent. I opened the bidding at £30,000 and before long it was £100,000 quickly rising to £250,000. The bidding, now between the American and a London Gallery on the telephone, was conducted with perfect manners and at speed. The bidding slowed in front of the hushed saleroom – “three hundred, three-twenty at £340,000, fair warning” and the American said “Gee will you take another five”. I paused, “£345,000”, the London Gallery offered its congratulations, withdrew from the fray and my gavel fell. The saleroom burst into applause as the American walked quickly to reception to pay before heading back to Heathrow to catch his return flight on Concorde; he was keen to be back in time to read his two young daughters a bed time story.

Although the canvas was holed and in a poor state it broke all records for the artist at the time.

I had remarked on the holes in the canvas when I first saw the painting in the company of the family. The nephew, John, explained how his Uncle had been practising archery on the lawn. People who love each other very much can sometimes be cross with each other too. On this particular morning he and his mother had argued so he had marched into the dining room and shot at her favourite painting with arrows. Very soon after the young man De la Rue was called up to the Great War and was killed. His mother was heartbroken and forbade that the painting ever be restored. For many years the painting was displayed in America with a photograph of the young De la Rue in his uniform.

Art and objects can afford us such a powerful sense of our place in the procession of human history. So often the greater the human story the greater the price. It always seems rather a hopeful thing that the art world values people more than things.

The news of the sale was reported in the New York Times.

Celebrating the Past as We Embrace the Future

A celebration of old and new expressed in English Country House taste

Our homes are important to us and English Country House taste reflects our nation. We have always embraced the ‘modern’ over the centuries whilst, of course, keeping one eye on the past. After all the English are a processional people – we celebrate the past as we confidently embrace the future. And English Country House taste is not provincial but international reflecting our nation’s global, outward facing, mercantile character.

This week I am returning to the 1970s home of two Sussex collectors where, in an eclectic interior, old meets new.

The contemporary oak cabinet is undemanding of our eye, rather it provides the basis for a composition of objects. Texture and colour are at the heart of English taste. Here a Provençal earthenware bowl filled with fruit is framed by a 1970s Scandinavian Arabia ceramic table lamp of geometric design, and a bronze bust by the anglicised Jewish Estonian artist Dora Gordine (1895-1991). Dora Gordine drew inspiration from the post-impressionist sculptor, Aristide Maillol. A contemporary of Jacob Epstein, Gordine inspired the famous British sculptor Anthony Caro. The bust dates from 1928 and depicts a woman called Clarette Feron.

The drama of Patrick Heron’s screenprint ‘Winchester Red I’ from 1968 displays the utter confidence of this important British modernist artist and art critic.

Patrick Heron (1920-1999) was inspired by Henri Matisse. He shared Matisse’s obsession with colour, rhythms, patterns and tone inspired by the natural world.

In 1956 Heron moved to St Ives in Cornwall joining a colony of modern British artists. The Cornish landscape and environment inspired his art throughout his life and career.

‘Winchester Red I’, although abstract, is trying to find a visual equivalence for the shapes and forms we experience in nature. The reds change radically in their relationship to one another affected by the shifting light in this room. Like the sun breaking through scudding clouds it expresses the rhythm of light and shade in the landscape. Heron’s vocabulary of colour is very much his own. He challenges our imaginations to experience something beyond our immediate perception and to renew our understanding the world.

Similarly the shared experience of Covid-19 and being at home is challenging all of us to reassess our engagement with the world and our communities – to rediscover what is truly important and enough. Amongst those I speak to virtually and encounter whilst exercising and observing social distancing there is growing desire for change born out of the shared experience of Covid-19. The conversation is hope filled and speaks with a common voice. It talks of family and community, of fairness and opportunity, of care for others, a celebration of the example, courage and compassion expressed by all those working in our NHS, and a recognition of the importance of those working on our local newspapers, our farms, in our supermarkets, in manufacturing, the bin men, delivery drivers and post office workers. There is a real and determined sense of a need for rebalancing and renewal in our nation with strong servant leadership to enable us to work together for the common good.

The world will not be the same after the experience of Covid-19. We are a processional nation so I hope and pray that with one eye firmly on the past we will celebrate and renew all that is good in our nation whilst we confidently embrace the future.

The Joy of English Country House Taste

A gathering, eclectic Sussex dining room in the English Country House taste

If I’m honest I much prefer a rich, textural English Country House interior over the austerity of minimalism. English Country House Taste is layered and eclectic always reflecting the taste and interests of a family and often the patchwork quilt of a family’s stories and interests over generations. It is unpretentious, layered and evolving.

My Grandparents had lived through the Second World War. Their home was generous but not grand, its interiors rich, eclectic and beautifully conceived. Although quite open in design it was made up of a series of spaces to gather and enjoy the company of friends and family.

Two sofas enfolded the fireplace with flanking armchairs and a Regency single-pedestal Pembroke table – the draw always smelt of pipe tobacco and 2B pencils. Chinese porcelain vases served as table lamps with crisp pleated shades, the walls filled with paintings and a bookcase because outward facing lively minds mattered. In the dining room a George V oak gateleg dining table reflected the light from the garden on its richly bees-waxed top surrounded by Georgian chairs. And to the side a chrome and red lacquer drinks trolley held a decanter of Madeira with an assortment of favourite glasses. These two areas were defined by a mahogany bureau which sat confidently against a wall between them.

The dining room you see here evokes these memories. It is at the heart of a 1970s Sussex home. The Waterford glasses sparkle in the sun light, reflected in the George III Sheffield plate candlesticks by Matthew Boulton which have just the right amount of wear to reveal the soft copper under the silver. The crisp white damask table cloths are modern and non-iron laid upon a Georgian oak gateleg table with later repairs and complimented by the Heals Arts and Crafts trellis back chairs. A rare Victorian scumbled pine housekeeper’s cupboard from Jersey has joyous glass handles. It is filled with an eclectic array of collectors’ objects which speak of lively minds and the toning of two connoisseurs’ eyes. You can just glimpse a confident Victorian mahogany whatnot in the background which has been re-purposed to disguise a laptop and printer. All is set off by a red Kilim rug with geometric patterns in forget-me-not blue.

The comfortable and timeless taste of the English country house is once again on the rise. It briefly, in the measure of hundreds of years, fell victim to the likes of IKEA. Furniture joined the ranks of the disposable commodity; something which still sits uncomfortably with my sense of the need for good stewardship of the world and its resources. Proper furniture became ‘brown’. The austerity of minimalism had arrived.

But once again I regularly hear people remark “Oh my Granny had one of those!” Often the things we most love will have come from, or have associations with, our grandparents or an older generation. After all grandparents are home grown heroes!

In response to their experience of war and separation my Grandparent’s generation made gathering, welcoming homes in the English Country House taste and I feel confident that we, in our turn, will do the same after the experience of Covid-19.

I am going to lay our dining table with our best glasses, cutlery and candlesticks in the English Country House tradition this weekend and ask my family and friends to join us online for a virtual supper party – let me know how yours goes!