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Highlights from 100 paintings in the collections we care for

Written by
Image of John Chu
John ChuSenior National Curator, National Trust
Oil painting on panel of a Young Girl holding a Chaffinch
A Young Girl holding a Chaffinch, oil painting on panel, c.1615-22, Upton House, Warwickshire | © National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

The 13,000 oil paintings in our care are nearly all displayed in the houses of their historic owners. They reveal what those individuals cared about most – their friends and family, their interests, their place in the world. Explore some of these fascinating stories in this selection from the book 100 Paintings from the Collections of the National Trust.

A Young Girl Holding a Chaffinch

By an Unknown Flemish artist, c.1615–22

The charming portrait of an unknown child below was painted around 1620 by a talented but so far unidentified Flemish artist.

The child has been painted in the high spring or early summer and has flowers in her hair. She shows great poise and has been posed like a miniature adult with her hand upon her hip.

It's likely she comes from a wealthy merchant or gentry family in Antwerp, and the gold cross at her neck indicates the family’s Roman Catholic faith. She holds out a male chaffinch, which has a pinkish-brown chest and is renowned for its strong, cheerful song. Pet birds were common playthings in the 17th century and frequently appear in portraits of children.

It's painted on delicate panels of wood and is displayed at Upton House for conservation reasons, although was formerly at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire.

See the painting on the National Trust collections website

Still Life of Food, a Jug and Glasses on a Table by Pieter Claesz showing a silver jug and a cooked crab on the table
Still Life of Food, a Jug and Glasses on a Table by Pieter Claesz, oil on panel, 1640, Nostell, West Yorkshire | © National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Still Life of Food, a Jug and Glasses on a Table

By Pieter Claesz, 1640

Pieter Claesz (1597–1660) was one of the most important of the Haarlem school of Dutch still-life painters, and a master of the fashionable 'ontbijt' (breakfast piece).

A picture at Nostell in West Yorkshire, exemplifies his skill in creating complex compositions and painting the effect of light over different, realistically depicted, material surfaces.

In the visual language of Dutch still lifes, the perishable food, the knife balancing over the table edge, the butterfly on a vine leaf and the upturned and overturned glasses are all typical signs that the picture is a 'vanitas' image, reminding us that life is short and that we too will die.

See the painting on the National Trust collections website

Huang Ya Dong

By Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA, c.1776

Huang Ya Dong (c.1753–?) was only about 23 when his portrait was painted, but he had already lived an exceptional life. Some two years before, he used his connections in the East India Company to make the long voyage from Guangzhou (Canton) in China to London.

Well-informed for his age, he was sought after in learned circles for his knowledge of Chinese medicine, botany and ceramic manufacture. Huang's likeness was sensitively captured by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), Britain’s most successful portraitist. The painting is part of The Sackville Collection at Knole, Kent.

Reynolds' scene

The pose, costume and setting of the portrait are designed to be emphatically Chinese, although they would have appeared incongruous back in Guangzhou, where red conical hats were the preserve of senior state officials and it was not customary to sit cross-legged on furniture.

Huang subsequently returned to China to begin a career in business, leaving behind his portrait as testament to his stay in Britain.

See the painting on the National Trust collections website

Our knowledge of these works of art has been built up over decades of meticulous research and conservation work by Trust experts. Much of what we share in the book is the result of a great deal of detective work into the individual history of each painting.

A quote by John ChuNational Trust Senior National Curator

Paintings up close

Oil painting housed at Knole, Kent, of Huang Ya Dong
Huang Ya Dong ('Wang-Y-Tong') by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, c.1776, Knole, Kent (The Sackville Collection) | © National Trust Image/Matthew Hollow

Huang Ya Dong

Huang Ya Dong sat for this portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1776. Some two years before, he used his connections in the East India Company to make the long voyage from Guangzhou (Canton) in China to London.

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Prince Azim-ud-Daula, nawab of the Carnatic, and His Son, Azam Jah

By Thomas Hickey, 1803

Azim-ud-Daula, nawab of the Carnatic (1775–1819), and his son Azam Jah (c.1800–25), were painted by the Irish artist Thomas Hickey (1741–1824) in 1803. In the painting, housed at Powis Castle, Powys, the nawab’s weapons and jewels emphasise his wealth and status, although his political power had been removed from him by the time the picture was painted.

In 1801 he signed the Carnatic Treaty, which gave him British support as titular ruler, but handed his governing authority to the British East India Company.

Hickley's portraiture

Hickey was one of a number of skilful painters on the subcontinent who portrayed top-ranking members of the British East India Company and their Indian allies.

A double portrait in the grand European style, with classical columns and swagged curtains behind the sitters, it was painted for the nawab. He gave it as a gift to Edward Clive, 1st Earl of Powis (1754–1839), when Clive relinquished the governorship of Madras (Chennai) in 1803.

See the painting on the National Trust collections website

In the Nineteenth Century the Northumbrians Show the World What Can Be Done with Iron and Coal

By William Bell Scott, 1861

In this painting at Wallington Hall, Northumberland, Edinburgh-born artist William Bell Scott (1811–90) celebrates the industries of mid-19th-century Tyneside in a scene packed with vibrant colour and detail.

A locomotive wheel is forged by burly men wielding hammers, a train crosses Stephenson’s high-level bridge, coal barges ply their trade along the River Tyne, and fishermen gather by the dock.

An Armstrong gun and shells are shown in the foreground, and a child sits on the gun barrel with food for her working father. Smoke belches, flames rise and sunbeams cut through the scene.

Iron and Coal by William Bell Scott, oil on canvas, 1861, Wallington, Northumberland | © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Bell Scott's perspective

Iron and Coal is the last of eight works painted by Bell Scott between 1856 and 1861 that mark significant historical moments in the English border region, once known as the Kingdom of Northumbria.

The paintings were commissioned in 1855 from Bell Scott by Sir Walter Trevelyan (1797–1879) for the Courtyard at Wallington, and his son and heir Charles is depicted as the burly workman wielding a hammer furthest left.

Bell Scott mixed in Pre-Raphaelite circles and was good friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82). However, unlike Rossetti, who famously could not paint 19th-century life, Iron and Coal is unashamedly modern, depicting the industries that made Tyneside a centre of British manufacturing.

See the painting on the National Trust collections website

Virginia Woolf

By Vanessa Bell, c.1912

A portrait of the modernist author Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) painted by her sister Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), hangs at Monk’s House in East Sussex and can be seen in the gallery above. At the time of its painting each sister was emerging as a bold, avant-garde practitioner in her chosen art form.

Bell’s passages of unblended colour and use of dark lines to describe outlines shows the inspiration of the Post-Impressionism of Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, whose works had only recently been seen in Britain. Woolf was finishing the draft of her first novel.

Bell finishes the painting

Woolf hated having her portrait taken. Duncan Grant (1885–1978) remembered her simply standing up and walking away in the middle of one sitting. It may be that Bell’s rapid brushwork was hastened by this knowledge. The arms and hands have an unfinished look compared to the delicate rendition of the face.

See the painting on the National Trust collections website

The 100 paintings book against a white background

100 Paintings from the Collections of the National Trust

This beautifully illustrated book showcases 100 paintings from the vast collections of the National Trust – one of the largest, most significant holdings of fine art in the world.

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