Petworth – ‘The House of Art’

The Carved Room at Petworth House

This week I am returning with you to Petworth. The artist John Constable famously called Petworth ‘the house of art’ and it still has the National Trust’s finest collections of pictures and sculpture.

Horace Walpole described Grinling Gibbons original Carved Room at Petworth as ‘the most superb monument of his skill’. Grinling Gibbons is acknowledged as the leading English Baroque sculptor. The room was about half its current size when Gibbons constructed it around 1690 for the 6th Duke of Somerset (the ‘Proud Duke’).

There was a marked revival of interest in Grinling Gibbons work in the early 19th century. In 1786 the 3rd Earl of Egremont decided to enlarge the Carved Room. He doubled its size to create a Dining Room large enough for banquets.

Gibbons intended that his limewood carvings be lighter than the oak panelling to which they were pinned, rather as they are displayed today. Grinling Gibbons’ still life compositions in carved wood with their Baroque garlands, birds, musical instruments and cherubs surrounding the four full-length portraits in the Carved Room are exquisitely conceived.

Not all of the carvings are by Gibbons and his workshop. Some, including the frame which holds the portrait of Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger you see here were carved by John Selden.

The 3rd Earl employed the carver John Ritson who added numerous carvings in the style of Gibbons to the decorative scheme.

The 3rd Earl also had the oak panelling painted white reversing the effect conceived by Gibbons a century earlier.

It was at this time that JMW Turner’s four landscapes of Petworth and Sussex were installed. You can glimpse Turner’s ‘Brighton from the Sea’ and ‘The Lake in Petworth Park’ beyond the fireplace. Their palette must have been dramatic against the white panelling.

The room was again altered in the later 19th century and the white paint removed from the oak panelling. It was not until 2002 that the Carved Room was restored to the 3rd Earl’s scheme by the National Trust. The oak panelling was kept as Grinling Gibbons had originally intended.

The exceptional Chinese Kangxi period blue and white vases and covers date from around 1690, the period Grinling Gibbons was working at Petworth. They were probably purchased by Elizabeth, the Duchess of Somerset, the Proud Duke’s wife and Percy heiress. Elizabeth was an avid collector of Chinese blue and white porcelain, a passion she shared with her friend, Queen Anne.

The Carved Room at Petworth is amongst the finest examples of the grand English Country House interior. Its layered and eclectic giving voice to Petworth’s reputation as ‘the house of art’. It reflects the patronage, stories and interests of a family over generations.

The National Trust’s work at Petworth, under the leadership of Andrew Loukes, is cause for celebration as the trust marks its 125th anniversary.

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.

Skyscape at Petworth House

Paul Nash (1889-1946), The Sun Descending – Study 3, watercolour and chalk on paper, 1945 © Ashmolean Museum

This week I am visiting Petworth House in West Sussex where their latest exhibition, Skyscape, has just opened. This exhibition showcases the extraordinary breadth of prints, paintings and objects in the Ashmolean’s collections. The show represents a collaborative partnership between the National Trust and the Ashmolean which brings together two great regional collections.

The National Trust’s Exhibition Assistant at Petworth, Natasha Powell

I meet with The National Trust’s Exhibition Assistant at Petworth, Natasha Powell. She is clearly excited to have worked with the Ashmolean on this show.
Speaking about the exhibition Natasha says “The exhibition is chronological and thematic. The prints and paintings date from the 16th century to the present day. They have been chosen for their depictions of the sky in a variety of mediums and techniques. And it’s exciting to see Petworth’s collection anew celebrating the sky rather than the landscape.”
All of us have experienced and understand the wonder of the sky, the fleeting, changing qualities of light, colour and movement.

The Ashmolean’s current major exhibition in Oxford explores Rembrandt van Rijn’s early work. I am pleased to find the etching Three Trees at Petworth. It was produced by Rembrandt in 1643 just a year after Saskia, the love of his life, died giving birth to their son. The combination of etched lines captures the approach of a foreboding sky. In the foreground a man stands fishing on the banks of a river as his wife watches with a picnic. Both are seemingly oblivious to the approaching storm.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), The Three Trees, etching, 1643 © Ashmolean Museum

An artist of towering reputation, by the 1630s Rembrandt was highly respected. His fame and reputation as a painter ensured that his prints were seen as originals and not mere reproductions. Contemporary collectors of his prints afforded Rembrandt a freedom of expression which was sometimes lacking amongst the patrons of his paintings.

Paul Nash’s watercolour study The Sun Descending is painted with an immediacy which Turner would have understood. Like Turner Paul Nash worked in Sussex. As an artist Nash returned again and again to the poetry of the English landscape. He sought to look beyond the immediate to what he referred to as the ‘genius loci’, the spirit of the place, to ‘a reality more real’.

Over in the main house I catch up with Andrew Loukes, the National Trust’s House and Collections Manager at Petworth, in the North Gallery.  As we re-examine J.M.W. Turner’s skies Andrew says “Very few artists can paint like Turner and get it just right with his sheer virtuosity and ability to look at the world anew.” I am reminded how extraordinary Petworth’s own collections are.
Skyscape allows us to celebrate our shared experience of the sky and offers a fresh perspective.

I am delighted that Toovey’s are once again supporting Petworth House’s exhibition program. Skyscape is a revealing exhibition and runs until 18th March 2020. For more information on the exhibition, to book tickets and for opening times visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth.

National Trust’s International Exhibition at Petworth

The National Trust’s landmark exhibition Prized Possessions has just returned from The Mauritshuis museum in the Hague to Petworth House in Sussex.

The Mauritshuis houses the Royal Cabinet of Paintings which includes many of the finest Dutch Golden Age paintings including Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Nevertheless long queues formed to see Prized Possessions which speaks of the importance of the works on show in this exhibition.

Prized Possessions builds on the tradition established at Petworth House by house and collections manager Andrew Loukes of re-examining the collections and art of the National Trust. In the 17th and 18th centuries Dutch art informed English taste. It is wonderful to see these works displayed in the context of, arguably, England’s finest country house. Petworth has a fine collection of Dutch masters.

The exhibition reflects the diversity of subjects and styles in Dutch Golden Age art with wonderful religious scenes, landscapes still lifes and portraits. Prized Possessions has been curated by David Taylor and Rupert Goulding. The paintings on show are amongst the most celebrated and prized in the National Trust’s collections. The visitor to Petworth will uniquely also be able to see a selection of Dutch masters generously loaned by Lord Egremont from his private collection.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Self-Portrait, wearing a Feathered Bonnet, c.1635, oil, signed and dated © National Trust

As you enter the exhibition gallery you are met by Rembrandt van Rijn’s remarkable ‘Self-Portrait, wearing a Feathered Bonnet.’ There is such life to the portrait. It displays the psychological insight and unsurpassed technique which underpins Rembrandt’s reputation as an artist. Here we see Rembrandt’s confidence at the height of his wealth and fame.

The portrait is typical of the popular tronie genre where the sitter is depicted in costume playing some sort of role. Rembrandt’s costume with its velvet bonnet decorated with ostrich feathers, the gorget armour and aristocratic hair lends the painting a timeless quality. His pose and the dramatic use of light seems to unite sitter and viewer.

The portrait is signed and dated 1635, the year that the artist and his wife Saskia moved to the fashionable Nieuwe Doelenstraat in Amsterdam.

Until recently the portrait was attributed to one of Rembrandt’s pupils, Govaert Flinck. However, recent scientific and historical research has established the painting as one of a large group of some forty autograph self-portraits by Rembrandt.

Simon Pietersz Verelst (1644-1721), Prince Rupert of the Rhine c.1680-82, oil © National Trust.

The portrait of Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682) by Simon Pietersz Verelst is of contrasting style. The painting forms part of Petworth’s permanent collection and depicts Prince Rupert in middle age after the restoration of his cousin Charles II. He wears the robes of the Order of the Garter. Verelst employs light and colour beautifully to emphasise the opulence and power expressed in his attire.

The exhibition is a cabinet of exquisite paintings and the context of Petworth House and its exhibition rooms allows us to re-examine these prized possessions and their influence on English Country House taste with fresh eyes.

I am delighted that Toovey’s are once again supporting Petworth House’s exhibition program.

Prized Possessions is a jewel like exhibition and a must see. The show is sure to be a sell out so book early. For more information on the exhibition, to book tickets and for opening times visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth.

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: Sussex and the New Jerusalem

William Blake, ‘Blake’s Cottage at Felpham’, plate 36 from Milton a Poem, etching and watercolour © The British Museum, London
William Blake, ‘Blake’s Cottage at Felpham’, plate 36 from Milton a Poem, etching and watercolour © The British Museum, London

This week I am revisiting the exceptional William Blake in Sussex exhibition at Petworth House. Many visitors will be surprised to find that many of Blake’s most famous jewel like works are intimate in scale contrasting with their often epic themes.

Amongst these is the preface to Blake’s ‘Milton a Poet’ which was inspired by his time at Felpham and begun here in Sussex. The preface, titled ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’, measures just 9 x 7 inches and is better known to us today as ‘Jerusalem’. It embodies a creative freedom which responds to the pastoral, natural beauty of rural England whose spirit was awakened in Blake in Sussex.

William Blake, ‘Preface, plate 2 from Milton a Poem’, etching and watercolour © The British Museum, London
William Blake, ‘Preface, plate 2 from Milton a Poem’, etching and watercolour © The British Museum, London

At the heart of the poem is a questioning of the myth that Jesus Christ briefly visited these Isles with his Uncle Joseph of Arimathea, a tin dealer, making the new Jerusalem, heaven on earth, here in Britain.

The poem builds on that wonderful passage from the Bible in chapter 21 of the Book of Revelations where Creation is perfected and renewed as heaven and earth are united:

‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them, he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”’

Blake must have had this passage in his mind when he wrote to Thomas Butts shortly after his arrival in Sussex: ‘the sweet air and the voices of the winds, trees and birds and the odours of our happy ground makes [Felpham] a dwelling for immortals.’ Blake’s language articulates an earthly paradise contrasting with his lifelong experience of the environs of London.

A little over 100 years later in response to the huge casualties of the Battle of the Somme and declining morale Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, edited a patriotic anthology of poems titled ‘The Spirit of Man’. Amongst these was the then little known poem by William Blake titled ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’ better known to us today as ‘Jerusalem’.

In 1916 Bridges invited Hubert Parry to set William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’ to music and the hymn became a national anthem. Jerusalem’s success inculcated redemption, renewal and hope into our national psyche.

‘Milton a Poet’ has an image titled ‘Blake’s Cottage at Felpham’. It depicts Blake visited by the figure of ‘Inspiration’ in the garden of his cottage. The narrative forms part of a very personal mythology of his own creation. Felpham continued to inform the pastoral qualities of his Arcadian figures depicted under a ‘tranquil moon’ and ‘setting sun’ in his later work.

I am delighted that Toovey’s are headline sponsors of this important show which so beautifully connects William Blake’s art and life to Sussex. This is an exceptional exhibition and The National Trust’s Andrew Loukes, Curator of William Blake in Sussex, is deserving of our thanks.

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.