Great masterpieces in our collections

Elizabeth I

The National Trust looks after more than 13,000 oil paintings at over 200 historic houses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland – the largest number of any organisation in the United Kingdom. Included in this vast collection is a treasure trove of masterpieces dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture at the Trust, presents his selection of the top masterpieces from our collections, arranged chronologically here.

1 The Adoration of the Magi 

Attributed to Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450–1516). Upton House, Warwickshire

The Adoration of the Magi (triptych), attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, oil on panel, ca. 1495-1500 / Upton House NT 446744
Triptych painting in gold frame by Bosch showing the birth of Christ in stable
The Adoration of the Magi (triptych), attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, oil on panel, ca. 1495-1500 / Upton House NT 446744

An uncanny mixture of the celestial and the sinister is very much on show in the central panel of this triptych depicting the Adoration of the Magi from the collection at Upton House, Warwickshire.

The Christ Child sits in Mary's lap as the opulently dressed kings present their gifts. A semi-naked figure draped in pink robes stands in the doorway of a ramshackle hut – he may be the Antichrist. The presence of evil in an Epiphany scene might seem unusual, but it's characteristic of the work of Hieronymous Bosch, one of the most visionary painters of all time.

2 The Dormition of the Virgin

By Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1528– 1569). Upton House, Warwickshire

Pieter Bruegel the elder, The Dormition of the Virgin, c. 1564 / Upton NT 446749
Painting by Pieter Bruegel the elder
Pieter Bruegel the elder, The Dormition of the Virgin, c. 1564 / Upton NT 446749

This painting in 'grisaille' (shades of grey)  shows the dying Virgin surrounded by huddled praying devotees. Her spiritual presence is conveyed by the intense white halo of light around her head.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the most significant artists to emerge from the Netherlands in the 1500s and grisailles are extremely rare in his oeuvre. Now in the collection at Upton House, Warwickshire, this painting was once owned by Peter Paul Rubens.

3 El Espolio (The Disrobing of Christ)

By El Greco (1541–1614). Upton House, Warwickshire

El Greco, El Espolio, 1577 - 1578 / Upton NT 446826
El Greco painting
El Greco, El Espolio, 1577 - 1578 / Upton NT 446826

This vibrant and expressive painting, from the collection at Upton House, Warwickshire, shows the moment before Christ's clothes are ripped from his body in preparation for his crucifixion. Despite the impending violence, Christ is transcendent. His scarlet robes - a striking jolt of colour - are a feat of compositional dynamism and pictorial virtuosity.

The painting is a smaller version of the Sacristy in Toledo Cathedral, both by Domenikos Theotocopoulos, the idiosyncratic Mannerist artist from Crete who lived and worked in Spain and became better known as El Greco.

4 Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I 

British school (1590s). Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

British (English) School, Elizabeth I, 1592 - 1598 - 1599 / Hardwick NT 1129128
Portrait of Elizabeth I
British (English) School, Elizabeth I, 1592 - 1598 - 1599 / Hardwick NT 1129128

This portrait of Elizabeth I from the collection at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire appears to have been acquired by Elizabeth Talbot (‘Bess of Hardwick’), Countess of Shrewsbury and was almost certainly on display at Hardwick in the Queen’s lifetime.

The dress is embroidered with roses, irises and pansies along with insects, animals and fish. This unusual mixture of motifs from the natural world is typical of embroidery of the late Elizabethan period. It is thought that Bess masterminded the design, and possibly even worked on it herself.

5 Portrait of a woman, perhaps Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavacino 

By Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Kingston Lacy, Dorset

Peter Paul Rubens, Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavacino (?), 1606 / Kingston Lacy NT 1257098
Portrait of a woman
Peter Paul Rubens, Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavacino (?), 1606 / Kingston Lacy NT 1257098

Between 1605 and 1606 the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens worked in Genoa painting portraits of the city's aristocracy. This portrait, from the collection at Kingston Lacy, Dorset, is among the most beautiful from this period.

The sitter wears an opulent silk gown overlaid with gold embroidered lace and large golden oversleeves. A white and silver lace ruff encircles her head and her hair is dressed high with flowers, sprays of jewels and a white egret feather. These lavishly painted fabrics and textures display the brilliant treatment of surface and colour for which Rubens was so celebrated.

6 Sir Edward Herbert of Cherbury

By Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617). Powis Castle, Powys

Isaac Oliver, Sir Edward Herbert, later 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, c.1613–16 / Powis 1183954
Isaac Oliver miniature of Lord Herbert of Cherbury
Isaac Oliver, Sir Edward Herbert, later 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, c.1613–16 / Powis 1183954

The dashing Sir Edward Herbert was as famous for his courtly accomplishments as he was for his courage in battle when he sat for this elaborate cabinet miniature, now in the collection at Powis Castle, Powys. With its unusual iconography and verdant landscape setting, this full-length miniature is flamboyantly and exquisitely rendered by Isaac Oliver.

The French-born Oliver brought personality and life to his portraits, ultimately surpassing the work of his master, Nicholas Hilliard, goldsmith and miniaturist to Elizabeth I and James I.

7 The Stoning of St Stephen

By Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641). Tatton Park, Cheshire

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, The stoning of St Stephen, 1623 - 1625 / Tatton NT 1298202
Van Dyck, The Stoning of St Stephen
Sir Anthony Van Dyck, The stoning of St Stephen, 1623 - 1625 / Tatton NT 1298202

This picture from the collection at Tatton Park, Cheshire shows the moment just before Stephen, one of the early Christian martyrs, is stoned to death by a mob. The light catches Stephen's face as he looks up to heaven in an expression of suffering and ecstasy. His red vestments, illuminated face and imploring gestures separate him from his half-naked executioners, including Saul (later Paul) towering above him with a large boulder in his hands.

Before he became famous for his portraits of Charles I and his court, the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck painted religious works in Antwerp and Italy.

8 Prince Balthasar Carlos

By Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). Ickworth, Suffolk

Diego Velázquez, Prince Balthasar Carlos, 1635 - 1636 / Ickworth NT 851780
Velázquez portrait of young prince
Diego Velázquez, Prince Balthasar Carlos, 1635 - 1636 / Ickworth NT 851780

Prince Baltasar Carlos was the cherished only son of Philip IV and would have succeeded to the throne had he not died just before his 17th birthday. In this portrait from the collection at Ickworth, Suffolk, the young prince is depicted in a hunting costume with a partridge dog and two Spanish greyhounds at his side.

The understated eloquence and restrained grandeur of this portrait are typical of the work of Diego Velázquez, the celebrated master of Spanish painting.

9 Self-portrait wearing a feathered bonnet

By Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). Buckland Abbey, Devon

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait wearing a feathered bonnet, 1635 / Buckland Abbey NT 810136
Rembrandt self-portrait
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait wearing a feathered bonnet, 1635 / Buckland Abbey NT 810136

This self-portrait, from the collection at Buckland Abbey, Devon, was painted when Rembrandt was running a successful studio and enjoying a period of wealth and professional acclaim. His costume is a reflection of this prosperity: he wears a sumptuously embroidered velvet cloak and a jewelled beret with elegant golden and white plumes.

This portrait was added to Rembrandt's autograph paintings in 2014 following intensive technical analysis.

10 View of Dordrecht from the north

By Aelbert Cuyp (1620–1691). Ascott, Buckinghamshire

Aelbert Cuyp, View of Dordrecht from the north (detail), c. 1655 / Ascott NT 1535110
Painted seascape
Aelbert Cuyp, View of Dordrecht from the north (detail), c. 1655 / Ascott NT 1535110

Light is the dominant element in Aelbert Cuyp's oeuvre, and this picture, from the collection at Ascott, Buckinghamshire is undoubtedly the most spectacular manifestation of this talent in Dutch painting of the Golden Age.

The unusual format of this painting – it is nearly two metres wide – is exceptional for Cuyp and one would assume that it was made to commission rather than for the free market.

11 Self-portrait of the artist hesitating between the arts of music and painting

By Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807). Nostell, West Yorkshire

Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait of the artist hesitating between the arts of music and painting, 1794 / Nostell NT 960079
Self-portrait the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting by Angelica Kauffman
Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait of the artist hesitating between the arts of music and painting, 1794 / Nostell NT 960079

This self-portrait, from the collection at Nostell, West Yorkshire, presents the artist as a kind of female Hercules, choosing not between Virtue and Vice, but between the discipline of painting (traditionally a male-dominated field) and the discipline of music (seen as a feminine convention). 

Angelica Kauffman was born in Switzerland, but settled in London in 1766. She was one of the most prominent artists in 18th-century England and one of only two founding female members of the Royal Academy.

12 Hambletonian, rubbing down 

By George Stubbs (1724–1806). Mount Stewart, N Ireland

George Stubbs, Hambletonian, rubbing down, 1799 - 1800 / Mount Stewart NT 1220985
Painting of a racehorse
George Stubbs, Hambletonian, rubbing down, 1799 - 1800 / Mount Stewart NT 1220985

This painting from the collection at Mount Stewart, County Down shows the celebrated racehourse Hambletonian being rubbed down after his great victory at Newmarket on 25 March 1799.  A masterpiece of animal portraiture, this pictures combines anatomical precision with painterly expression.

It was painted by the renowned animal painter, George Stubbs and commissioned by the horse's owner, Sir Henry Vane Tempest.

13 Love among the ruins

By Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Wightwick Manor, West Midlands

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Love among the ruins, 1894 / Wightwick Manor NT 1288953
Love among the Ruins by Burne Jones
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Love among the ruins, 1894 / Wightwick Manor NT 1288953

Two lovers in blue robes are seated together on a stone capital; at their feet is part of a broken column overgrown with a briar rose. This is among the finest of Edward Burne-Jones's late works, painted in 1894, four years before his death. It is based on an earlier watercolour of 1870-3, but the muted colour, coupled with the wistful depiction of the ephemerality of love and youth, are typical of the older Burne-Jones.

This much-loved painting is on view at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands.

14 The cycle of paintings at Sandham Memorial Chapel

By Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959). Sandham Memorial Chapel, Hampshire

Stanley Spencer, Map reading, 1927 - 1932 / Sandham Memorial Chapel NT 790190
Mural of soldiers reading a map
Stanley Spencer, Map reading, 1927 - 1932 / Sandham Memorial Chapel NT 790190

This is one of 19 paintings by Sir Stanley Spencer commissioned for Sandham Memorial Chapel, Hampshire, an extraordinary cyle of paintings that are regarded as the artist's masterpiece. The painted vignettes recall Spencer's service as a medical orderly and later as a soldier on the Macedonian Front during the First World War.

Here, an officer is shown holding a map of Macedonia, while soldiers in the background are shown feasting on bilberries.The rendering of landscape and greenery typifies Spencer’s skill at painting landscape and still-life.

15 Capriccio of a Mediterranean seaport

By Rex Whistler (1905–1944). Plas Newydd, Anglesey

Rex Whistler, Capriccio of a Mediterranean seaport (left detail), 1936-7 / Plas Newydd NT 1175991
Capriccio of a Mediterranean Seaport
Rex Whistler, Capriccio of a Mediterranean seaport (left detail), 1936-7 / Plas Newydd NT 1175991

Rex Whistler's great mural in the Dining Room at Plas Newydd, Anglesey, painted between 1936 and 1938, depicts the dramatic landscape of Snowdonia in a vast 'capriccio', an architectural fantasy encompassing elements of the mountains, sea and mythology. This detail shows the crown and trident of Neptune, god of the sea, and his footsteps entering the room.

On completion, this mural was his most ambitious interior to date. At the other end of the mural (not visible here), Whistler included a young man sweeping up rose petals. This is a self-portrait, his last one before he was killed in action a few years later at Normandy.

All of these pictures are usually on display, but if you're planning a visit to see a specific work of art, it's always worth checking with the relevant place first.