'Prized Possessions: Dutch Paintings from National Trust Houses' is the Trust’s first exhibition of Dutch paintings and is now on view at Petworth in West Sussex. It's the first time this group of Dutch masters have been on show together in a historic country house. Curator David Taylor shares what it takes to organise such a significant touring event which opened in 2018 at the Holburne Museum in Bath before travelling to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands and now Petworth.
The first time co-curator Rupert Goulding and I saw our paintings on the walls of the exhibition space at the Holburne Museum in Bath, beautifully arranged and dramatically lit, we knew all the hard work, sleepless nights and long days had been worthwhile.
In National Trust houses our precious paintings are in their natural environment – a valuable part of the important room displays that include other elements of our collection. But when ‘Prized Possessions: Dutch Paintings from National Trust Houses’ was ready to open its door to the first visitors, it took our breath away. Simply by putting the pictures into a more minimalistic museum space with brighter lighting, we could see these fantastic works of art in a completely different way.
The idea for a touring exhibition of Dutch paintings came about following a conversation some years ago between Rupert, who has curatorial responsibility for Dyrham Park near Bath, and Jennifer Scott, then Director of the Holburne.
Coincidentally, Rupert and I first met on a course in the Netherlands, where we were studying the Dutch country house. Later, when we became colleagues at the National Trust, the exhibition idea seemed such a good subject to work on together.
We wanted the exhibition to explore why this type of art was so popular – why it was desired, commissioned and displayed here in Britain. At the time, many of the most successful artists in Britain came from the Low Countries, so British patrons were familiar with Dutch art, or art produced here by Dutch artists.
" We wanted to explore why this type of art was so popular – why it was desired, commissioned and displayed here in Britain."
After the 1688 Glorious Revolution, under William III and Mary II we had a joint monarchy comprising a Dutch king and a queen who had lived her married life in the Netherlands, where she was greatly influenced by the culture. Dutch art became increasingly fashionable and ubiquitous in England in consequence, and British taste for collecting Dutch paintings has endured here for over 350 years.
One of our first tasks was to choose the paintings to star in our show. This is a medium-sized exhibition and we found it a challenge to select just 22. Some of the pictures we would have liked to have included were too big to move or transport safely. Others were set in panelling from which it would have been too difficult – and potentially damaging – to remove them.
We took the advice of Christine Sitwell, the Trust’s Picture Conservation Adviser, to make sure the works we wanted to include were all fit for travelling and being shown in a brightly lit museum environment. For others, Christine recommended conservation treatment before the tour, including the removal of discoloured varnishes and specialist cleaning to show them at their best.
In the end we narrowed down our initial wish list and focused on important examples of different types of Dutch painting from this time. Sometimes we were spoilt for choice, such as when it came to choosing portraits, as British collectors have always loved portraiture. We also chose a few 'tronies' – the popular figurative Dutch pictures that show people playing a role or a type of person, such as a maid or a soldier, rather than being a straightforward portrait.
We included Rembrandt’s recently reattributed 'Self-Portrait, Wearing a Feathered Bonnet' from Buckland Abbey in Devon. This 'tronie' made a stir in 2014 when it was sensationally added to the list of Rembrandt’s autograph paintings after intensive technical analysis.
The other important consideration was where to host the exhibition. The Trust wanted the tour to consist of one external British venue, one international venue and one National Trust venue. We felt very fortunate to secure the Holburne to launch it, bringing full circle that initial conversation between Jennifer Scott and Rupert all those years ago.
For our international host, we were thrilled to collaborate with the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Netherlands – the home of the Dutch Royal Cabinet of Paintings and one of the best-loved collections of Dutch Golden Age pictures. Here Dutch audiences would see the important National Trust pictures in the same visit as they’d see two of the most famous paintings in the world – Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch and Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
And then there was our final location, when our exhibition would return to the National Trust. Neither Rupert nor I could think of a single place better suited to host than Petworth, West Sussex, which John Constable once called ‘that house of art’ because of the magnificence of its collection.
The ‘Prized Possessions’ exhibition is in Petworth’s temporary exhibition gallery, and the works are just as beautifully arranged and lit as at the other locations on the tour. Alongside the exhibition, visitors can view selected other rooms in the main house featuring further Dutch paintings from Petworth’s collection.
There’s also the famous Carved Room, featuring wooden carvings by the Dutch-born and Dutch-inspired Grinling Gibbons from the same period as the ‘Prized Possessions’ paintings. Petworth has an exhibition of dramatically lit photography of Gibbons’s carvings by the (also Dutch) photographer and contemporary carver Peter Thuring.
After seeing the Holburne exhibition, a visitor wrote to Rupert: ‘We are sometimes told that the National Trust has one of the finest art collections in the country, rivalling the great national collections in London or Edinburgh. But unless you do what [this exhibition] has done, you cannot see the whole spectrum of [the Trust’s] art collections. If it can be done for the Dutch Masters of the 17th century, why not for Tudor painting, Georgian or Victorian portraits? Or silver, or porcelain or whatever?’
It’s a thought that inspires me, too. What might we choose to take on tour next time?
This blog is adapted from 'New light on Old Masters' by David Taylor which appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the National Trust Magazine.