Tarnya Cooper is Curatorial and Collections Director at the National Trust. One of her favourite objects in our collections is a 17th-century perspective painting in the collection at Dyrham Park near Bath. Tarnya tells us why in the first blog post from our new series 'An object I love', featuring a video of her recent talk.
As a child I loved visiting old castles and museums. They are the places where the past speaks to us through the desires and ambitions of people whom we can no longer meet. I was lucky to follow my passions and train as an art historian, eventually focusing on British, Dutch and Flemish painting, particularly portraiture from the 16th and 17th centuries.
We look after one of the best painting collections in the UK, and I find it a particular joy to spend time looking at a picture of 1662 by Dutch painter Samuel van Hoogstraten.
This large canvas (it stands over 2.5 metres tall) deceives the viewer into believing we are looking through the rooms of a house. It was designed as a trick of perspective to confuse and delight, and today it still does exactly that from its position in a doorway of Dyrham Park, near Bath. The scene is full of curiosity and expectation, like a set from a play, where anything might happen next.
Through an archway we are greeted by a dog looking up inquisitively. A servant has left a brush leaning on the pillar and a letter appears to have been dropped on the stairs. Further into the room a cat sees the dog and arches her back.
In a light-filled room beyond, two men and a woman are seated at a table. What is being discussed, a marriage negotiation or something more mundane? What about the barely perceptible figure at the window, apparently about to knock?
Above it all, a parrot greets us at the entrance, its door ajar, perhaps about to fly away.
Samuel van Hoogstraten was born in 1627 and mainly worked in Dordrecht in the Netherlands. Dutch painters were brilliant at capturing everyday detail and turning it into art that reflected upon the world as they saw it, sometimes hinting at moral and religious concerns. Van Hoogstraten was a pupil of Rembrandt and a talented writer. Tempted by the potential of work at the court of Charles II, he is known to have witnessed the Great Fire of London in 1666.
'A view through a house' is one of a few surviving paintings mentioned in the diary of Samuel Pepys, who saw it at the house of Thomas Povey, Treasurer for the Duke of York in the 1660s. Povey was the uncle of William Blathwayt, who started to rebuild Dyrham Park in the early 1690s. The picture was on display at Dyrham from shortly afterwards, and has remained there ever since.
There are in fact two perspective pieces by Van Hoogstraten among the many treasures at Dyrham, but I particularly love this one. I get caught up in the imaginary lives of the inhabitants. The sparseness of the scene is very evocative. You begin to feel that if you look long enough a figure might get up, or the servant return to finish the chores. I like the slightly curious expression of the dog who meets our gaze. It is an image that stays with me.
" I get caught up in the imaginary lives of the inhabitants.... I like the slightly curious expression of the dog who meets our gaze. It is an image that stays with me."
This blog is adapted from 'An object I love' by Tarnya Cooper which appeared in the winter 2018 issue of the National Trust Magazine.