You asked - our curators answered
On September 18th, we took part in 2019's #AskACurator day, a social media event brought to life to encourage dialogue between the public and museum curators all over the world.
We received some fantastic questions, which Tatjana LeBoff, Assistant Curator at Petworth and Richard Ashbourne, Assistant Curator for London and South East, have answered for you.
If you could get a tattoo of one of the artworks, which one would you get and why?
Tatjana: I think I might like a small outline graphic-style tattoo of the Head of Aphrodite (The Leconfield Head), attributed to Praxiteles, c.400BC – c.330BC; because it depicts the Greek goddess of love - and we could all use some love, plus the detailing on the sculpture is utterly exquisite.
If I was a bit bolder I would like to have a tattoo of a detail of one of J.W.M. Turner’s colour gauche sketches (in the Tate collection), which show various landscapes and interiors of Petworth, made during Turner’s stay in 1827.
Richard: Perhaps an outline of the Molyneux Globe, the first English globe, constructed in the 1590s. With its fabulous ships, sea monsters, and faraway lands, it would symbolise, for me, the spirit of exploration and adventure.
Which artwork would you like to see come to life a la ‘Night at the Museum’?
Tatjana: Tricky…I think it would be a toss-up between the Colossal Female Head, c.4th century BC, so she could tell us how she became separated from her body and then reattached to another colossal body. Or one of the busts of the 3rd Earl of Egremont, such as the 1831 by John Edward Carew. It would be wonderful to find out from the Earl more about his art collection, his life at Petworth, what he really thought of J.W.M. Turner, and get the gossip on his many mistresses and children.
Richard: The wooden carvings of animals, birds, insects, plants and flowers in the Carved Room. They are already incredibly lifelike, and it would turn the Carved Room into a wilderness!
If you could meet one artist that features in Petworth’s collection, who would it be and why?
Tatjana: I would love to meet Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599 – 1641) who was a court painter. He painted not only members of the Percy family who inherited Petworth, but also the King, Queen and many other courtiers. I imagine he would have some stories to tell about society and the court. I would love to ask him about his painting technique and how he manages to depict clothing, jewels, fur, hair and faces with such finesse.
Richard: The Leconfield Head, a marble bust of Aphrodite, is attributed to the Greek sculptor Praxiteles – I’d love to meet him to hear his thoughts about art, beauty and the ancient gods.
What item would you most like to take home and why?
Tatjana: I think it would have to be the State Bed which now stands in Mrs Wyndham’s Bedroom. This is a Rococo style state bed from the 1750s, commissioned from Whittle & Noman by the 2nd Earl of Egremont. It would completely fill my bedroom, but it would be so lavish to sleep under the canopy.
Richard: I’d take the handwritten Chaucer manuscript from the 15th century, please. It is decorated with exquisite illustrations and has red velvet covers, plus my dad is a big Chaucer fan, so it would be fun to look at it together.
What is your favourite item at Petworth?
Tatjana: I have too many favourites…there are just so many items at Petworth! Perhaps it is the batterie de cuisine and the elaborate jelly and dariole moulds in the historic kitchens – I love to cook.
Some of the elements I find most intriguing at Petworth are the decorative schemes – wall hangings, curtains, and furnishings – from the 1870s by Morris &Co, headed by William Morris, the eminent Arts and Crafts designer. I am currently delving into the archives to understand more about these designs and how Morris worked with the Wyndhams at Petworth.
Richard: That’s tricky! The pictures by Van Dyck are spectacular, and if I had to choose a favourite it would be his pair of Sir Robert and Lady Shirley. The couple were painted, in 1622, in glimmering, embroidered outfits – he wearing a Persian turban, and she a tiara, with a huge palm tuft.
What is the oldest item in Petworth’s collection?
Tatjana: It is one of the ancient sculptures on display in the South Corridor of the North Gallery. There are several sculptures from the 5th century BC, so over 2500 years ago. These include the Hellenistic Statue of Hera, a Greek Votive Relief, and a Greek Hero Relief.
Richard: Our oldest objects come from ancient Greece. There are a couple of votive relief panels which date from the 5th century BC, approximately 2,500 years ago. Votive offerings were used for religious or funerary purposes at the time.
Have you ever broken anything?
Tatjana: Luckily I have never broken any artwork in my career (...fingers crossed I don’t!), but it does happen as we are after all human. We take precautions when moving artwork to prevent damage, and thanks for expert conservators and restorers we are able to reconstruct some breakages.
Richard: No! We get through many pairs of disposable gloves though, which we wear when handling artworks.
What's your favourite cat in your collections?
Tatjana: I’m more of a dog person! As were a number of the Wyndham family who lived and continue to live at Petworth. They were particular fond of spaniels, and a number feature in paintings in the collection, like this portrait of one of the 3rd Earl’s dogs, ‘Belle’.
Richard: The Proud Duke! He was a member of the Kit-Cat Club, a circle of Whig leaders who first met at Christopher Cat’s tavern in London.
That's quite a colossal bum! Can you tell us more about it?
Tatjana: The Falconer by John Edward Carew (1785 – 1868) was carved in marble between 1827-1829. It towers over visitors in the North Gallery at Petworth House on its plinth, with it being a little larger than life-size at over 2 metres in height. It is one of the few sculptures by Carew that doesn’t have a direct literary or mythological source. Carew maintained that the 3rd Earl of Egremont had commissioned the sculpture, but the 3rd Earl’s executors argued that the statue was carved by Carew speculatively to attract the eye of the Duke of St Albans, the Grand Falconer of England, and then later bought by the 3rd Earl. Either way, it has been on display at Petworth from 1829, and now sits in the North Bay in the North Gallery. It is definitely an idolised bum, and there are many others on display in the North Gallery.
Richard: I can tell you that it is looked after with great care by the house and collections team! It gets a light dust with a soft hog’s hair brush whenever needed.