One of the first things you notice when you come to Knole is its wealth of portraits spanning 600 years of history, many by renowned artists such as Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Look a little closer and you’ll find yourself wondering who the subjects of the pictures were, and what their relationship to Knole was.
The art collection of the 3rd Duke of Dorset
John Frederick Sackville (3rd Duke of Dorset, 1745-99), did more than any other Sackville to shape the painting collection at Knole. His tastes and interests are still strongly reflected in the pictures that hang in the showrooms today, with portraits by Joshua Reynolds (who was a great friend) and Thomas Gainsborough.
The Duke was a great patron of the arts and a passionate collector, building up his own collection of paintings rather than simply commissioning family portraits or acquiring works of art as perks of office. His passion began on a Grand Tour of Italy from 1770-1771, returning home with the start of his collection, having spent around £5,500 on paintings, statues, busts and vases.
The Great Hall
The Great Hall is the first space visitors see when they enter the showrooms, and its size and decoration never fail to impress. Its size make it the perfect place to hang some of Knole's larger paintings, overseen by Thomas Sackville whose portrait (attributed to John de Critz, Serjeant-Painter to the King) hangs on the south wall opposite the elaborate oak screen.
Portraits to look out for include Lady Frances Cranfield by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, hanging above the door on the east wall (probably painted just before Frances' marriage to Richard Sackville, 5th Earl of Dorset), George III from the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds (believed to be a gift from George to John Frederick Sackville), and George IV, from the studio of Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Near Frances Cranfield sit The Brothers Coligny, painted after Marc Duval c1545-99. The Coligny brothers were leading members of the French Huguenot movement: Gaspard de Coligny (the central figure), was killed in 1572 during the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre.
The Brown Gallery
The Brown Gallery portraits feature an extraordinary collection of 16th and early 17th-century portraits, a Who’s Who of the contemporary great and good in England and Europe. The portraits may have been painted by several artists employed by Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset (1536-1608).
The gallery, along with Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, is the earliest surviving example of a portrait gallery in Britain, and includes British sovereigns and five prelates of the Church of England.
The Billiard Room
The Billiard Room is home to some particularly interesting portraits, including that of Italian Renaissance painter Sofinisba Anguissola. The portrait is attributed to Van Dyck, who visited and painted the artist when she was 92 (at the time, Van Dyck estimated her age to be 96, four years older). On the other side of the room hangs a beautifully detailed portrait of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, painted in the manner of Titian (c16th century). Caterina was the last monarch of the kingdom from 1474 until 1489, when the Venetian government persuaded her to cede her rights to the Doge of Venice.
The Leicester Gallery
The Leicester Gallery is home to a group of portraits painted by, or from the studio of, Daniel Mytens (1590-1647), a Dutch painter who spent the central part of his career in England. Portraits of Lady Martha Cranfield, Lionel Cranfield and Nicolo Molino (Venetian Ambassador to the Court of James I) are hung along the oak panelled walls.
Dominating the south end of the gallery is a portrait of James I (1566-1647), from Mytens' studio. It sits in a contemporary frame finely carved with putti and trailing acanthus branches, and probably belonged to Lionel Cranfield. The X-framed ‘Chair of State’ sitting beneath it bears a striking resemblance to the one in the portrait, and is stamped on the webbing beneath the seat with the Hampton Court inventory mark and the date 1661.
The Ballroom family portraits
The Ballroom is home to full-length Sackville family portraits, many of them in their original 17th and 18th century frames. Set against the elaborate panelling and decoration of this vast room, it’s worth stopping to look at these portraits for both their renowned artists (Kneller, Larkin and Sanders among them), and their intricate details.
Opposite the fireplace hangs a portrait of Lady Arabella Cope, married to John Frederick Sackville. This is a much homelier image of her than that in the Reynolds Room, painted just thirteen years earlier. Lady Arabella was an able businesswoman who managed the Sackville estates from the death of her husband in 1799 to her own death in 1825. The artist for this 1803 portrait is as remarkable as the subject: Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was known for her natural approach to painting women which was often the cause for controversy.
The portrait to the left of the doorway as you exit the Ballroom into the Second Painted Staircase is of Mary Curzon, painted by William Larkin in 1612 (the year of her marriage to Edward Sackville, 4th Earl of Dorset). The artist was known for his attention to costume detail, and draws as much attention to the embroidered dress, crimson underskirt - decorated with pearls and silver fringing - and the rosettes in pink and blue around the neckline, as to the subject herself.
The Reynolds Room
The Reynolds Room is hung with a full-length Joshua Reynolds portrait next to the fireplace of the 3rd Duke of Dorset himself, and another on the other side by John Hoppner of his wife, Arabella Cope, painted in the year they married.
To cement the links between the Duke and Reynolds, the artist presented a self-portrait to his close friend in 1780, which now hangs on the wall to the right of the fireplace.
One of the most intriguing and popular pictures at Knole is a large oil painting of a young Chinese man by Joshua Reynolds. It was commissioned from the artist in 1775 by John Frederick Sackville and has historically been known as a portrait of ‘Wang Y Tong’, although the subject’s name is more accurately rendered as ‘Huang Ya Dong’. Recent conservation work revealed that what seemed to be architectural pillars behind the figure are in fact hanging gauzy veils which frame the sky and landscape.
The paintings hang against a rare early 18th century crimson stamped woollen velvet known as caffoy.