Petworth shines in Mr. Turner

The role of Petworth House and Park, West Sussex, in the life of the artist JMW Turner, made it an obvious location for shooting part of Mike Leigh’s film, Mr. Turner. But it was the unique spirit of the 17th-century mansion that made it a star in its own right.

The magnificent house was the home of one of Turner’s greatest patrons – George Wyndham, third Earl of Egremont.

Egremont bought and commissioned 20 paintings, which can still be enjoyed at Petworth House today and are an integral part of its character.

Art in motion

Turner famously had the run of the house when he visited, turning the enormous library into his studio. It’s vividly brought to life in the film in a scene where Timothy Spall, who plays Turner, is seen painting 'The Artist and his Admirers', with the eye of the camera framing the work itself.

‘The shot of Turner painting a woman and two girls in the Library is an exact replica, even colour-wise, of The Artist and his Admirers,’ said Spall. ‘To be in the very room where Turner painted this scene, to be inside that painting, was an astounding privilege.’

The film also recreates Turner’s painting 'Petworth Park, with Lord Egremont and his Dogs', which shows the Earl, played by Patrick Godfrey in the film, walking towards the house with his dogs at sunset. The Earl and artist were friendly and Lord Egremont even had a secret knock to be allowed into Turner’s studio.

The four landscapes Turner painted for the Carved Room at Petworth House also wrote themselves into the film and are seen being studied by the Earl and artist. ‘Playing the part of Turner, in front of the paintings that he created for that specific room … the beauty of that moment was not lost on me,’ enthused Spall.

Petworth House as Turner knew it

Filming Mr. Turner at Petworth House, which took just over a week, not only gives the film authenticity. It inspired the cast and crew, who were able to experience the house as Turner would have done during the 1820s and 1830s.

‘Petworth is very special for its light and the sun does exactly the same thing as it did in 1823,’ said Mike Leigh. The director used man-made light to spectacular effect in a scene depicting an evening music salon in the Carved Room.

‘Over 200 naked lit candles were introduced, which was quite nerve-wracking,’ explained Andrew Loukes, our curator at Petworth House. ‘We had to move a dozen late-Victorian bookcases, and hide any sign of modern lighting and sockets, but other than that, the interiors today are pretty much as Turner would have known them.’

‘If you’re in a real place it informs the whole thing,’ confirmed Leigh. ‘I always do work so that the people feel bedded into the place. And a place like that – of course! Overall I think we managed to serve Petworth and get the spirit of Petworth in.’