Skyscape

The Sun Descending – Study 3, 1945, Paul Nash (1889–1946), detail

Showcasing nearly 40 objects from the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, Skyscape is a unique exhibition focusing on aerial rather than terrestrial landscapes in art. Inspired by Constable’s famous statement of 23 October 1821 that ‘It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note, the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment’, Skyscape is an exciting opportunity to view the popular art of landscape from a new perspective, through a succession of masterpieces that span 500 years of European art. 

Open 11 January - 18 March 2020 at Petworth House. 

£5 for National Trust members and non-members. Normal admission prices apply - please click here for more details.

Skyscape takes place in the Servants' Quarters Gallery and the mansion. Due to limited space in the Servants' Quarters Gallery, timed tickets are required for this part of the exhibition.

Please keep in mind there is a 700-yard walk from the car park to the house and we recommend arriving in plenty of time for your timed ticket entry.

A very limited amount of tickets are available on the day sold on a first-come, first-serve basis. We recommend arriving early and checking with our team for any last-minute availabilities. To avoid disappointment we advise booking at least 24 hours in advance.

To book tickets, please select desired dates below.

Book your exhibition tickets here

Richard Colston (d. c. 1703) and Samuel Bowtell, Pair-cased verge watch, London, c. 1685–90
Richard Colston (d. c. 1703) and Samuel Bowtell, Pair-cased verge watch, London, c. 1685–90
Richard Colston (d. c. 1703) and Samuel Bowtell, Pair-cased verge watch, London, c. 1685–90

Skyscape begins with depictions of the sky as the dominion of the divine. Narratives of revelation, redemption, and judgement from Classical and Christian traditions are represented, including Dürer’s (1471–1528) famous and minutely detailed engraving Nemesis and Rembrandt’s (1606–1669) most celebrated landscape etching, The Three Trees. Another highlight is a striking renaissance Limoges enamel of the Crucifixion with a backdrop of gilded cumulus clouds. 

The Three Trees, 1643, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), detail
The Three Trees, 1643, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), detail
The Three Trees, 1643, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), detail

With the recognition of landscape as a discrete artistic genre during the seventeenth century, and the emergence of meteorology as a scientific discipline in the late eighteenth century, the sky became a subject in its own right. Artists such as J. R. Cozens (1752–1797) and J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), as well as Constable, developed innovative techniques, particularly using watercolour, oil sketches, and mezzotint to capture fleeting effects of light and weather with greater precision and apparent spontaneity. The majestic watercolour, Sepulchral Remains in the Campagna by J. R. Cozens, where the sky rather than the Roman countryside dominates the composition, reveals his influential genius for conveying shifting weather through delicately blended watercolour washes. 

Summer Sunset, possibly c. 1820–25, Attributed to John Constable (1776–1837), detail
Summer Sunset, possibly c. 1820–25, Attributed to John Constable (1776–1837), detail
Summer Sunset, possibly c. 1820–25, Attributed to John Constable (1776–1837), detail
" ‘Love that rightly with all your heart, and soul, and eyes; and you are established in foundation laws of colour’. "
- John Ruskin (1819–1900)

Yet the sky retained its capacity for heavenly symbolism and increasingly became a vehicle for emotional expression. Clouds could suggest transience or magnificence, storms might embody threat or drama, while sunrises and sunsets often evoked meditations upon death and renewal. For the Victorian polymath John Ruskin (1819–1900), meteorological accuracy in art was a means of revealing spiritual truths. The exhibition includes two of his vividly coloured watercolours of the dawn. He described making such works as ‘bottling skies’ in the same way that his father, a prosperous sherry merchant, preserved vintages. A habitual early riser, Ruskin exhorted his students in The Elements of Drawing (1857) to make daily studies of the dawn, declaring ‘Love that rightly with all your heart, and soul, and eyes; and you are established in foundation laws of colour’. 

Study of Clouds, Norwood, 1865, John Ruskin (1819–1900), detail
Study of Clouds, Norwood, 1865, John Ruskin (1819–1900), detail
Study of Clouds, Norwood, 1865, John Ruskin (1819–1900), detail

The spiritual and emotive aspect of skies persisted in the work of British twentieth-century artists as diverse as George Clausen (1852–1944), Paul Nash (1889–1946) and John Piper (1903–1992). Commissioned by Queen Elizabeth in 1941 to make a series of topographical records of Windsor Castle, Piper’s stormy skies over the royal residence represented imminent threat of the War and the Luftwaffe. However, this sombre symbolism was ignored or deplored by King George VI who wryly remarked, ‘you seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper’. 

The Sun Descending – Study 3, 1945, Paul Nash (1889–1946), detail
The Sun Descending – Study 3, 1945, Paul Nash (1889–1946), detail
The Sun Descending – Study 3, 1945, Paul Nash (1889–1946), detail
This exhibition is organised by the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

This exhibition is organised by the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.