Making connections across the centuries at Powis Castle’s ‘House of Portraits’

Press release
Edward Herbert, 1st Lord Herbert of Cherbury / Powis Castle
Published : 21 Mar 2018

Powis Castle, near Welshpool in Wales, unveils its ‘House of Portraits’ exhibition and invites visitors to uncover the secrets hidden within its world-class portrait collection.

The great halls and quiet chambers of Powis Castle are a time machine full of exceptional portraits that can transport visitors back through the ages.From majestic full-length portraits, to intimate miniatures that can be held in the palm of your hand, they are the work of generations of talented artists and each tells a unique story.

Launching on 20 March, ‘House of Portraits’ will delve beneath the surface of these intricate works by prominent artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent.

Some of the castle’s works feature kings, emperors and maharajas but the majority of portraits depict men, women and children of the Herbert family who have lived at Powis for over four centuries.

’House of Portraits’ will examine not only the people behind the faces, but explore how they wanted to be seen by the world, through the clues embedded in costumes, settings, expressions, poses and gestures.

Throughout the castle, the exhibition will show how the people in the portraits were involved in crafting the image they wished to convey, from wealth, social status and eligibility for marriage to religious allegiance or military prowess.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is an intricate Jacobean miniature portrait painted by Isaac Oliver (1565-1617) which will be on display at Powis for the first time since it was purchased for the nation, with generous support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund.

The miniature features Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury, an unabashedly ambitious soldier, scholar, diplomat, musician, and poet, who epitomised the romance and chivalry of his age.
Lord Herbert commissioned numerous portraits of himself from the most fashionable artists of the day, many of which hang in Powis Castle. Foremost amongst these is this miniature by the court artist, Isaac Oliver, who depicted him in a relaxed pose lying in the woods following a joust.

Isaac’s attempt to capture the many layers of Lord Herbert’s complex character in a single, exquisite likeness resulted in one of the true masterpieces of British art.

Visitors will be invited to join the exhibition’s curator, Dr John Chu, the National Trust’s Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture and a specialist in the works of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, as he guides them through the castle’s opulent state rooms by audio tour.

John Chu says: “Powis is quite literally a ‘House of Portraits’; its rich collection of portraits mostly depict the Herberts, one of the most influential families in Welsh history.

“Portraits didn't just capture the likeness of a person at a particular moment in life; they were also used to convey something about the sitter. At the time the portraits were painted, the symbols and meanings within them would have been easily recognised, but they are not always obvious to us viewing them today.

“Long before any celebrity posted a 'selfie', the Herberts were manipulating and projecting their personal image to make a place for themselves in a competitive and sometimes dangerous world of politics, money and power. It is these many facets of their characters, and what they cared about most that we aim to explore in ‘House of Portraits’."

Visitors to the exhibition will be encouraged to contemplate the careful thought behind portraits of the past. Important moments and achievements in Herbert family history were recorded by famous portrait painters, but the time and cost involved often meant the sitter had only one opportunity to capture their character in an image that would be passed down the generations. Today, portraits commissioned by individuals 400 years ago still hang proudly on the walls inside the castle for all to see.

Emma Thompson, General Manager at Powis Castle and Garden says:
“In a matter of seconds and with little thought, important moments in our lives today can be easily recorded and shared with family and friends through digital and social media. 

“Yet many of the portraits we have here at Powis Castle are the only representation we have of members of the Herbert family. Who knows, the images we take of ourselves today might be how we are remembered for generations to come.

“We’ll be inviting visitors to create a portrait in the form of a ‘selfie’ and to consider how they would depict themselves if their family were to display their portrait for hundreds of years as the Herbert family have done.”

Fiona Talbott, Head of NHMF, said:
“The National Heritage Memorial Fund was set up to secure the future of heritage treasures just like the exquisite miniature of Lord Herbert of Cherbury. It belongs in its original context of Powis Castle and there’s no doubt it’s the star of the Powis collection, standing out for both its artistry and the colourful story it tells of Elizabethan and Jacobean court culture.”

Stephen Deuchar of Art Fund, said:
“We are very pleased to see Isaac Oliver's superb miniature of Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, go on public display for the first time at Powis Castle since it was bought for the nation with the support of Art Fund and several other donors. In its natural home, it will be enjoyed by visitors to Wales from across the whole of the UK.”

Visitors will be able experience ‘House of Portraits’ from 20 March 2018 until 27 January 2019.