Collecting Old Masters at Petworth

Hendrick van Steenwijck, Imaginary Cathedral

A groundbreaking exhibition sheds new light on Petworth’s outstanding collection of European Old Masters, including previously un-exhibited works from the private rooms of the house.

Old Masters at ‘that house of art’

Petworth houses the richest collection of paintings in the care of the National Trust. When John Constable stayed there in 1834 he famously called it ‘that house of art’. Best known for its outstanding British pictures from the 18th and 19th centuries, and in particular for those by JMW Turner, Petworth’s collection is equally notable for its works by earlier European artists. This is especially true for the great continental painters who found elite patronage in Britain, namely Holbein, van Dyck and Lely.

By the skin of its teeth

This exceptional collection faced certain dispersal during the post-war years when rates of inheritance duties reached an all-time high. The dilemma at Petworth was acknowledged to be a matter of national concern and prompted a pioneering agreement with the Treasury, whereby families were allowed to donate works of art in lieu of paying tax. Around 200 of Petworth’s paintings were accepted by H.M. Treasury in the 1950s, leaving a further 500 remaining in the private collection.

Re-appraised and re-presented

Although the National Gallery acted as advisors to the government in implementing the scheme at Petworth, several notable paintings, which today would happily be accepted for any major public collection, were missed or rejected. The exhibition 'Remastered: Bosch to Bellotto' brings together for the first time a selection of the most important examples of Petworth’s European old-master pictures, including important loans from Lord Egremont. The exhibition re-presents these outstanding works outside of their usual country house context – not always conducive to ideal viewing conditions – and celebrates their individual and collective significance.

A dynasty of collectors

Great country house collections often primarily reflect the interests of one major figure. At Petworth, there have been four principal collectors. Perhaps the best known was George O’Brien Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837), who was Turner’s patron at Petworth but who was equally interested in collecting European pictures. He augmented his inherited collection with purchases, bequests and family gifts, as was the case with Bernardo Bellotto’s crisp view of Rome’s 'Piazza del Campidoglio', left to the 3rd by his uncle, the Earl of Thomond.

Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780), Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome, c.1742-1743 / NT 486296
Bellotto, Piazza del Campidoglio

The 3rd Earl’s father, Charles Wyndham, the 2nd Earl of Egremont (1710-1763), was already a well-travelled and cultured Grand Tourist when he inherited Petworth in 1750. The 2nd Earl keenly amassed European paintings for his new London home, Egremont House, on Piccadilly. Although many pictures were later sold by his son, most key works were removed to Petworth, such as David Teniers’s iconic painting of the Archduke Leopold’s great picture gallery.

David Teniers the younger, The Brussels Picture Gallery of the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, 1651 / NT 486159
The Brussels Picture Gallery by David Teniers the younger

That Petworth could become the repository for such a sizable art collection was due in large part to Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset (1662-1748), who came to the house by marriage in 1682. His wife was the sole heiress of her family’s fortune and by the early 1700s Petworth had been completely rebuilt in the fashionable baroque style. The 6th Duke also added major pictures, which probably included the finest surviving full-length portrait of Henry VIII, from the studio of Hans Holbein. This seems to have been commissioned by the Duke’s ancestor, Edward Seymour, a brother of Jane Seymour and one of Henry’s favourite courtiers.

Detail of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), studio of Hans Holbein the younger, c.1543-1547 / NT 486186
Detail of Henry VIII by studio of Hans Holbein the younger

Courtier and patron

The first great collector associated with Petworth, however, was Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland (1602-1668). The 10th Earl held several positions of high office under Charles I and shared the King’s love of art. After Charles, he was the most significant patron of Anthony van Dyck during the artist’s years in England. Today there are 17 van Dycks at Petworth, most of which were acquired by the 10th Earl.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland, his first wife, Lady Anne Cecil and their daughter, Lady Catherine, c.1633-16355 / NT 486239
Algernon Percy by Van Dyck

In 1647 the 10th Earl commissioned 'The Younger Children of Charles I' from Peter Lely, van Dyck’s undisputed successor as the primary portraitist in courtly circles. Painted during the midst of the English Civil War, while the royal infants were in Northumberland's custody at Syon House, the painting was subsequently sent to the King while he was confined at Hampton Court. At this period it was believed in some quarters that James, Duke of York – the eldest child depicted in Lely’s painting – would soon succeed his father as a child monarch, with Northumberland as Lord Protector. Following the execution of Charles in 1649 the painting was given back to the 10th Earl.

Peter Lely (1618-1680), The Three Younger Children of Charles I, 1647 / NT 486192
Peter Lely, Children of Charles I

Parliamentarian and collector

The 10th Earl was among a small group of wealthy, competing British connoisseurs – including Charles I, the Dukes of Buckingham and Hamilton and the Earl of Arundel – who amassed major collections of European art for their London houses during the 1600s. Unlike them, however, and despite his close relationship with the King, Northumberland actually supported Parliament during the Civil War. Among his peers, therefore, he was unique in being able to continue collecting major works during the 1640s and beyond.

Nearly destroyed

Andrea del Sarto’s 'Madonna and Child with St John', for example, still in the private collection at Petworth, was among those which the 10th Earl acquired from York House in 1645. He had been able to take the tenancy of this London mansion, containing the celebrated art collection of the exiled Duke of Buckingham, which had been sequestered by Parliament. Northumberland intervened when those paintings deemed too Catholic or lascivious for Puritan taste were destined to be either sold or destroyed.

Detail of Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530), Madonna and Child with Saint John and three Angels, c.1515
Andrea del Sarto, Madonna and Child

The 10th Earl pointed out that not only would his receipt of certain pictures offset the £360 he had contributed to the Parliamentarian cause, but their removal would render the house ‘very unuseful for Habitation’. He was subsequently also allowed to take ownership of several other works, including a second example by Andrea del Sarto, also still in the private collection at Petworth, and eight very rare paintings of figures from the Old and New Testaments by the German artist Adam Elsheimer. These latter paintings were accepted as part of the 1950s gift and have been reframed for the present exhibition.

In the 'Madonna and Child', the Holy Family rests under a makeshift shelter during their return from Egypt. It is at this moment that Jesus first meets St John, whose future as preacher and Baptist are alluded to through the inclusion of a small wooden cross and upturned dish in the bottom left corner of the composition. Jesus holds a scroll bearing a fragment of the phrase ‘Agnus Dei’ or ‘Lamb of God’. As a central theme of the Latin Mass, this would have proven especially inflammatory to Parliamentarian puritans during the Civil War, making the painting a certain candidate for destruction had it not been acquired by the 10th Earl.

Detail showing the attributes of St John the Bapist and Jesus's scroll bearing inscription 'Agnus Dei'
Detail of Andrea del Sarto's Madonna and Child

Revealed and re-united

It was probably the obfuscation of Andrea’s trademark colouring under layers of 18th- and 19th-century dirt and overpaint which caused the Petworth painting to be declined by the Treasury in the 1950s. Following various conservation treatments from the 1970s onwards it has subsequently been widely accepted as a major work by this central figure of the Italian Renaissance. Presently, it is not only  reunited with the Elsheimers, but fittingly takes its place alongside additional treasures from the house by van der Weyden, Bosch, Titian and many others from both the private and National Trust collections at Petworth.


Remastered: Bosch to Bellotto is on display until 6 March 2016.