A top ten selection of Upton's paintings

The collection includes outstanding examples of both British and European painting. Here are ten of the best examples of the different schools of art represented in the collection.

    ANTHONY DEVIS (1729-1816)

    A painting of Upton House from the South by Anthony Devis 1729-1816

    Upton House from the South

    The banker Francis Child bought Upton House to use as a hunting lodge in 1757 and this painting shows a view of Upton commissioned by the Child family. For centuries people had liked to have an image of their house and Devis was one of many travelling artists who could provide this service. The costumes indicate that this scene was painted around 1770-80.

    The classical temple, which survives today, was built by Sanderson Miller, a local amateur architect who also designed the mock castle tower on Edgehill Ridge nearby. The lively group of skaters helps to give scale and perspective. Notice the skates, designed like miniature skis which strap onto their shoes.

     

    GEORGE STUBBS (1724-1806)

    The Haymakers, George Stubbs

    The Haymakers, 1783

    Stubbs taught himself to paint, perfecting his skills by drawing from dissected horses. He published his Anatomy of a Horse in 1766 which won him fame.

    His paintings of horses with their owners were soon in great demand. Though he also painted scenes of English rural life, three of which are in Upton's Dining Room, his characterisation as a horse painter endowed on him a comparatively low status.

    The elegant black bonnets and dainty shoes of the women imply an idealised depiction of the back-breaking reality of harvesting although, if you look carefully, one of the women has a wooden leg. The grouping of those figures leads the eye diagonally to the men on the hay wagon - a technique repeated in the Stubbs' The Reapers, featured next.

     

    GEORGE STUBBS (1724-1806)

    George Stubbs The Reapers

    The Reapers, 1783

    In the 1700s it was the fashion to paint romanticised scenes of country labour. Although the setting and figures appear to be drawn from life, the scenes are probably imaginary. As in the Haymakers, the figures leads the eye diagonally upwards, in this case to the man on the hay wagon.

    Stubbs is admired today for his accurate and spirited animals. In The Reapers, the farmer’s handsome chestnut cob with cropped tail and one white fetlock seems as much of an individual portrait as the figures.

    Both pictures are thinly painted on wooden panels and the joins are clearly visible.

    GABRIEL METSU (1629-1667)

    The Duet by Gabriel Metsu

    The Duet or ‘Le corset bleu’ mid 1660s

     

    Metsu specialised in closely observed scenes of everyday middle class activities. In this expensively furnished room, with its grand fireplace and heavy table carpet, a young couple prepare to make music. Metsu displays his skills as a painter of objects and textures, which can be seen in the woman’s shimmering satin skirt with its gold embroidery, her ermine-trimmed jacket and drop pearl earrings.

     

    The scene is not as innocent as it appears. Middle-class Dutch patrons enjoyed pictures with moral messages conveyed through visual symbolism. This painting is all about the temptations of the flesh. Many everyday objects in the painting convey this message, such as the glass of wine and the frisky spaniel. Dogs with their unrestrained appetites were often portrayed as symbols of lust. The foot-warmer alludes to the warmth of passion, and even the young woman’s flirtatious red shoes would have been understood in this context.

     

    GEORGE ROMNEY (1734-1802)

    William Beckford by George Romney, 1734 -1802

    William Beckford (1760-1844) 1782

    Along with Gainsborough and Reynolds, Romney ranks as one of the top portrait painters working in Britain in the late 1700’s. He flattered his many sitters, often posing them elegantly against a poetically-lit landscape. This portrait, recorded in Romney’s diary of 1782 records Beckford’s coming of age.

    Beckford drew on a huge fortune from his family’s sugar plantations in the West Indies. He later commissioned the architect James Wyatt to build one of the largest houses in Britain, Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire. Beckford pioneered the collecting of antiques and filled the house with his art collection.

    Of modest stature in real life, Romney depicts him as a tall, assured young nobleman with a glittering career before him. His life, however, was dogged by scandal because of a homosexual love affair, and he became an eccentric recluse.

    This picture was one of those acquired by Sir Marcus Samuel, 1st Viscount Bearsted, in the mistaken belief that it portrayed Beckford’s father. Like the 1st Viscount, Beckford senior had been a Lord Mayor of London. Ironically, if Lord Bearsted had known the true and still scandalous identity of the portrait, it is unlikely that he would have bought it.

    WILLIAM HOGARTH (1697-1764)

    Morning by William Hogarth in the picture room at Upton House, Warwickshire

    Morning, about 1736

    Hogarth’s fame today rests on his satirical depictions of 18th century life which exposed the folly and greed of the age. He provides us with a fascinating glimpse into all strata of life in London, a city which was then the fastest growing metropolis in the world. His published engravings after his paintings reached a much wider audience. Hogarth was anti-establishment and anti-intellectual, and often aroused the hostility of the upper-class art pundits of the time.

    This painting depicts a scene in Covent Garden early on a winter morning. Two drunken noblemen have spent a night on the town and amuse themselves by fondling two market girls. They are stared at by a finely dressed but unattractive lady; her face peppered with fashionable beauty patches. Apparently impervious to the cold, she is followed by her shivering foot-boy who carries her prayer book. In the foreground, one old woman begs for alms whilst her companion seeks warmth from the fire. We can just make out a crowd in the background gathered round a quack on whose board is inscribed: ‘D. Miller’s Famous …..’. The pills for sale were supposed to cure venereal disease associated with the brothels and low-life taverns and coffee houses springing up in this part of the city.

    RICHARD MORTON PAYE (1750-1821)

    Self portrait of the Artist Engraving by Richard Morton Paye in the Billiard Room at Upton

    Self-portrait of the Artist, engraving 1783

    Paye painted and engraved portraits and miniatures but is best known for his domestic and rustic scenes, especially those with children.

    Believed to be a self-portrait, this picture was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1783, entitled An Engraver at Work. We can see that Paye holds an engraver’s metal point as he copies the small oil portrait onto a copper plate, using a wooden block to steady his hand. The portrait had to be engraved in reverse so that it would be printed from the plate the right way round. To do this, Paye copies a reflection in the mirror propped beside it. The white cloth across the lower part of the window would have diffused the light during the day.

    Before the invention of photography, engraving was the most effective way of circulating portraits of celebrities. It was a laborious process, and professional engravers risked permanent damage to their sight. Paye himself suffered from ill health in his later years.

    All the objects in this shadowy room are depicted with remarkable realism, including the artist himself, who glances up at us as if we have just entered the studio.

     

     

    EL GRECO (1541-1614)

    The Disrobing of Christ by Theotocopoulos

    The Disrobing of Christ (‘El Espolio’) 1579

    Born in Crete but working mainly at Toledo, Spain, El Greco is still known by his nickname ‘the Greek’. El Greco studied in Venice, and was much influenced by Italian painters such as Tintoretto. In Spain, however, he developed his own extraordinary style and his paintings display a profound spiritual intensity.

    This painting is a small-scale replica of the altarpiece of 1577-79 in the Sacristy of the Cathedral at Toledo. El Greco depicts Christ before his crucifixion, just at the moment when his clothing is plucked from him. This was deliberate, as the altarpiece was originally commissioned to hang in the Vestry, which is where priests’ garments are kept and put on before the celebration of Mass. Another prominent detail is the rope which binds Christ’s right hand, and which makes reference to medieval texts describing how Christ was pulled along by a rope as a thief would have been.

    Despite El Greco’s careful interpretation of the Biblical narrative, the work met with an unfavourable reception. The cathedral authorities declared that it was improper to place the heads of the crowd higher than that of Christ.

    The high emotional drama of the moment is powerfully conveyed. The diagonal lines in the vivid blue sky provide a spiritual communication between Christ and God the Father, as the crowd closes in like a swarm of insects.

     

    Workshop of HIERONYMUS BOSCH (about 1450-1516)

    Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymous Bosch at Upton

    Adoration of the Kings (triptych open)
    Christ before Pilate (triptych closed)


    To our eyes, Bosch’s medieval world of half-human creatures and demons appears to have more in common with Tolkien than with the artist’s real life in a town near Antwerp. Although much of the symbolism of the painting has been lost to us, his aim was to depict the eternal struggle between good and evil.

    The central depiction of the three Kings bringing gifts to the infant Christ is a version of a painting now in the Prado Gallery, Madrid. The Moorish king is gorgeously attired in a fringed white robe as he waits to present his gift of a golden bird mounted on a white globe.

    Although Bosch has not strayed from the Biblical text, there are some strange elements. The mysterious figure standing in the stable doorway appears to be suffering from a skin disease, which could identify him as King Herod, who was said to have contracted leprosy after ordering the Massacre of the Innocents. An atmosphere of unease is created by details such as the bearded face peering through a hole in the crumbling wall.

    In the background is the skyline of Jerusalem, in the guise of a great European city. The classical stone building or temple in the left panel symbolises the fall of the old, heathen world at the dawn of Christianity. It is a calm scene as the elderly Joseph gathers water and firewood.

    By contrast, in the right panel, the Kings’ entourage jostle together, some looking upwards, perhaps at a guiding star which may have been depicted in the top of the original panel.

    The infant Christ appears vulnerable under the rickety stable, which stands far from the protection of the town walls, suggesting a dangerous and hostile world.

    The triptych form and small scale of this altarpiece enabled it to be easily portable. The outer wings would have protected the delicate inner surface, although they too were often painted with religious scenes, as here.

    PIETER BRUEGEL THE ELDER (about 1525-1569)

    Brueguel painting in the picture gallery at Upton House and Gardens, Warwickshire

    The Death of the Virgin

    Pieter Bruegel was one of the most significant artists to emerge from the Netherlands in the 1500’s. Having travelled in France and Italy he settled in Brussels in 1563 where he produced his best known works. In his lifetime he achieved a considerable reputation

    In this unusual work the dying Virgin Mary is surrounded at her bedside by the huddled forms of praying devotees. She grasps a single candle as a symbol of her faith. A spiritual presence is conveyed by the intense white halo of light around the head of the Virgin. There is an atmosphere of hushed tension and grief as the moment of death approaches. If you look carefully you will see ghostly figures in the background.