Introducing Polesden Lacey's finest paintings

Polesden Lacey in Surrey houses an exceptional collection of paintings. It was created by two remarkable individuals – the self-made brewing magnate William McEwan MP, and his daughter, the redoubtable hostess Margaret Greville DBE.

John Chu, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, presents a selection of highlights, from early religious works to Dutch genre pictures.

John Chu, Assistant Curator of Pictures & Sculpture John Chu Assistant Curator of Pictures & Sculpture

Introducing the collection

William McEwan bought Polesden Lacey in 1906 for his daughter Margaret who used it as a venue for entertaining rich and powerful guests in style. She left it to the National Trust in her will so that its art collection could be ‘open to the public at all times and…enjoyed by the largest number of people.'

View of the corridor at Polesden Lacey where the earliest pictures are on view
Room view of the end of the corridor at Polesden Lacey. The corridor runs around the central courtyard and includes modern panelling and a ceiling in the Jacobean style.
View of the corridor at Polesden Lacey where the earliest pictures are on view

The taste of father and daughter is strongly expressed at Polesden Lacey, and demonstrates their delight in exquisite Old Master paintings. The presence of so many exceptional pictures in this luxurious country house – nearly 100 in their collection – continues to produce a distinctly select, intimate and inviting impression.

The portraits
 Margaret Anderson, The Hon. Mrs Ronald Greville DBE (1863-1942) by Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran

Society hostess in an Edwardian age 

This is Margaret, illegitimate and only child of the brewing magnate, William McEwan. She stands before a gleaming cloth of gold in a dramatic hat and sweeping, silk-lined mantle. Carolus-Duran, painter of Parisian society ladies and demi-mondaines, painted Margaret in 1891. The same year she married the Hon. Ronald Greville, one of the closest friends of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, adding social standing to her riches, resulting in a long career as one of the great hostesses of the age.

Unknown Woman by Corneille de Lyon, c.1535-40

Portrait of a noblewoman 

The identity of the sitter in this exquisite portrait is unknown although she is almost certainly one of the noblewomen who attended upon the French royal family when the court was at Lyon in the later 1530s. The costume is relatively simple although the picture is distinguished by the inclusion of the sitter’s modestly folded hands and the presence of a green, gold-embroidered curtain.

Johann Zoffany, Eva Maria Veigel, Mrs David Garrick

A dancer in masquerade 

The sitter is the Austrian ballet dancer Eva Maria Veigel. She presents herself in a shimmering masquerade costume having removed her mask to return our gaze with a knowing smile. The delicate vitality of this gesture gives away her profession as a dancer; as ‘Violette’ she had gathered an ardent following in both Vienna and London.

The Dutch pictures
The Introduction by Gerard ter Borch the younger

Decorous or indecent? 

A woman in a dazzling white gown delicately accepts the gallant address of a smiling officer in a richly-appointed Dutch interior. Behind them, several more figures congregate around a table, one of whom plays the lute. For all the fine manners on display in this scene, all may not be quite as respectable as it first seems. Military men are generally up to no good in Dutch genre paintings and even music, evocative of love-making, carried disreputable overtones.

The Golf Players by Pieter de Hooch, circa 1660

The Golf Players 

This is a playful example of a 17th-century Dutch ‘view-through’ picture, for which Pieter de Hooch is particularly noted. A small child bursts through a doorway having interrupted a game of golf with the older boy in the backyard. The picture celebrates this moment of exuberant recreation in a world of ordered domesticity – note the scrupulously clean surfaces and neat costumes. It is also a clever demonstration of perspective and light effects, presenting a receding sequence of interior and exterior spaces infused with a cool winter light.

Self-Portrait at the Age of 32 by Frans van Mieris the elder

Small portrait, grand rhetoric 

Swathed in expensive textiles, this leading figure of the Leiden school of fine-painters presents himself at the height of his powers. Caught in the moment of creation with palette and brushes in hand, Frans Van Mieris rests his elbow alongside a large book and drawing of a nude, evidence of the classical and intellectual grounding of his art. For all its grand rhetoric, the portrait is nonetheless tiny in format and minute in execution, a virtuosic display of the artist's exquisite skill and acute powers of observation.

The religious works
The Miraculous Founding of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome by Pietro Perugino, c.1475

The Miraculous Founding of Santa Maria Maggiore 

This picture depicts the beginnings of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Pope Liberius (left) and the patrician John (right) witness an unseasonable fall of snow as it gently describes the foundations of a great cruciform building on the ground. The Virgin Mary, who presides over the scene from heaven, had previously appeared to Liberius in a dream, instructing him to found a church on a miraculously-revealed site.

Madonna and Child by Bernaert van Orley

Madonna and Child 

The Virgin Mary gazes tenderly at the Christ Child whom she nurses in her arms. Van Orley, who was the official painter of Margaret of Austria, is known for developing a distinctive courtly style out of the traditions of Flemish art and the innovations of the Italian Renaissance. Here the typically Northern European treatment of Christ exists alongside an Italianate use of chiaroscuro (light and shade) while the hands of the Virgin are positioned in a graceful arrangement, strongly reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci.

Detail of an early fourteenth century Italo-Byzantine triptych

An Italo-Byzantine triptych 

The individuals who commissioned private devotional objects such as this triptych would select saints according to their namesakes, or who were connected to significant places or events in their lives. The hierarchical conception of the sacred realm is reflected in the tiered organisation of the triptych, with the Virgin and Christ Child enthroned in Glory in the central panel and the saints arranged on each wing.

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of the Masters Pattison

Paintings at Polesden Lacey

Learn more about the remarkable pictures at Polesden Lacey by reading John Chu's picture guide