Highlights from 100 Paintings
A new book, 100 Paintings from the Collections of the National Trust, showcases works from our vast collections. Written by Dr John Chu, Senior National Curator, Midlands (Pictures & Sculpture) and David Taylor, former Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, the book includes examples by some of the most renowned European artists of all time.
Here we present a small selection from the book, highlighting works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, J.M.W. Turner and Vanessa Bell, to name but a few.
The paintings in the care of the National Trust could rival those of the world’s greatest art galleries. Unlike a gallery, however, the 13,000 oil paintings in Trust 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 below in this selection from the book.
A Young Girl Holding a Chaffinch by an Unknown Flemish artist , c.1615–22
Formerly at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, currently on display at Upton House
This charming portrait of an unknown child was painted around 1620 by a talented but as yet 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 is 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.
This picture is painted on delicate panels of wood and is displayed at Upton for conservation reasons.
Still Life of Food, a Jug and Glasses on a Table by Pieter Claesz, 1640
Nostell, West Yorkshire
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). This picture exemplifies his skill in creating complex compositions and painting the effect of light over different, realistically depicted, material surfaces.
We see a table, partly covered by a cloth, on which are a blue-and-white ceramic bowl of fruit, metal plates, bread rolls, a cooked crab, a coffee jug and decorative drinking glasses known as rummers. 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.
" 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."
Huang Ya Dong by Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA , c.1776
Knole, Kent (The Sackville Collection)
Huang Ya Dong (c.1753–?) was only about 23 when this 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 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 this compelling image as testament to his stay in Britain.
Prince Azim-ud-Daula, Nawab of the Carnatic, and His Son, Azam Jah by Thomas Hickey, 1803
Powis Castle, Powys
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. 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.
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. This double portrait, in the grand European style, with classical columns and swagged curtains behind the sitters, 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.
The Lake, Petworth, Sunset, Fighting Bucks by J.M.W. Turner, c.1830
Petworth House, West Sussex
The sun sets on the pleasure grounds at Petworth House, its rays glancing off the Upper Pond and casting long shadows across the lawn. The scene is populated by cricketers and spectral groupings of fallow deer, two of which lock horns. The clouds, almost carved out of thick paint, glow above the cool, hazy shadows of the distant wooded hill. Summer fades into autumn.
Petworth is home to 20 paintings by JMW Turner, the result of numerous commissions and purchases made by Petworth’s prolific art-collector owner George Wyndham (1751–1837), 3rd Earl of Egremont. Turner stayed at Petworth regularly and painted in various locations – he even had use of a studio space. His accommodation on the top floor enjoyed views across the park, and this painting – an idyllic scene of Petworth at sunset – is almost the same size as the window-opening in his rooms.
In the Nineteenth Century the Northumbrians Show the World What Can Be Done with Iron and Coal by William Bell Scott, 1861
Wallington Hall, Northumberland
In a scene packed with vibrant colour and detail, Edinburgh-born artist William Bell Scott (1811–90) celebrates the industries of mid-19th-century Tyneside. 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 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, this painting is unashamedly modern, depicting the industries that made Tyneside a centre of British manufacturing.
Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, c.1912
Monk’s House, East Sussex
This portrait of the Modernist author Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was painted by her sister, Vanessa Bell (1879–1961). 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.
The author 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.
More paintings from the book
Depictions of black women as primary sitters in 17th-century Dutch art are rare, making this jewel-like portrait attributed to Gabriel Metsu all the more remarkable. Polesden Lacey, Surrey.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was best known for his religious paintings, but this work of c.1660–5 brilliantly showcases his ability to capture the detail of ordinary people's lives. Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire.
Ordinary life in an extraordinary city is captured with swift, lively brushstrokes in a painting of 1730 by Antonio Canaletto. Tatton Park, Cheshire.
A smartly dressed boy stands before his governess in this intimate painting of c.1738 by Jean-Siméon Chardin. Tatton Park, Cheshire.