Treasured Possessions: Riches of Polesden Lacey Exhibition: 25 April – 30 October 2022 and 1 March – 29 October 2023

Press release
Curator Alice Strickland with Dame Margaret Greville's Faberge Egg
Published : 25 Apr 2022

A major new exhibition is set to showcase over 100 treasures from Polesden Lacey in Surrey, home to one of the National Trust’s most glamorous collections, including exquisite objects by Fabergé and Cartier, masterpieces by some of the world’s greatest artists, and rare ceramics and silverware.

The exhibition, Treasured Possessions: Riches of Polesden Lacey, marks 80 years since society hostess Dame Margaret Greville left her extraordinary country home to the conservation charity. Between 1907 and 1942 Polesden Lacey was her weekend retreat and the setting for lavish parties attended by guests including King Edward VII, Winston Churchill and bestselling author and ‘Bright Young Thing’ Beverley Nichols. 

Jonathan Marsh, Collections and House Manager at Polesden Lacey, said: “Margaret Greville’s guests here included royalty, politicians, international heads of state and celebrities. Her collection of art and objects is a reflection of her prestige and prominence and we’re excited to be able to tell that story in this major exhibition.”

In the high society circles in which she moved, the giving of small, precious objets d’art was an important social ritual. Among the objets d’art on display will be exquisite, jewelled animals by Fabergé and Cartier, including Mrs Greville’s crowning glory, her Fabergé egg, complete with a diamond clasp fashioned in the shape of a snowflake. 

Polesden Lacey is home to the largest group of Fabergé objects in the National Trust, and possibly in any country house collection in the UK. Research for the exhibition confirmed that four Fabergé-attributed objects were indeed by the jeweller, and the discovery of scratched and stamped numbers on a further object – a Jasper study of an owl on a perch – revealed for the first time that it too was by Fabergé. 

The greatest goldsmith of his generation, Peter Carl Fabergé opened a shop in London in 1903. The joyful opulence of the objets de fantaisie he created entranced the British royal family and their courtiers and Mrs Greville made purchases there no fewer than 31 times.

The Trust’s honorary adviser on jewellery and Fabergé, John Benjamin, known to many from his appearances on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow said: “Polesden Lacey’s highly evocative collection of Fabergé animal studies and jewelled ornaments provides the perfect lightning conductor to an era now long gone, when discerning customers such as Mrs Greville had ample means and opportunity to acquire beautiful objets de fantaisie such as these, notable for their virtuosity, wit and effortless charm.”

Befitting this year’s Platinum Jubilee the exhibition will display a number of objects with royal links, including a tortoiseshell, shagreen and mother of pearl snuff box gifted to Mrs Greville by King Edward VII and a ruby and diamond brooch worn to his coronation. Edward VII was the guest of honour at Mrs Greville’s first house party in 1909 and is said to have commented that her ‘gift for hospitality’ amounted to a ‘positive genius’.

With her seemingly unlimited wealth, Mrs Greville collected works which were the height of fashion, particularly ceramics and silver. Important ceramics on show include a pair of pottery horse heads from early Imperial China (circa 3rd-7th centuries AD), alongside pieces by Meissen, rare Renaissance maiolica birds, and Mrs Greville’s treasured Staffordshire porcelain tulips.
 
She was known to be very proud of the rare silver in her collection, which included English silver objects chased (decorated with linear patterns made with a punch and hammer) in an imitation Asian style. Many such objects have since proved to be fakes but Mrs Greville’s chinoiserie footed salver is a rare and important exception.  New research has enabled the Trust to attribute makers to most of the silver pieces for the first time.

The breadth of her picture collection, assembled with advice from Tancred Borenius, appointed the first professor of art history at University College London in 1922, will also be revealed. She collected superb French and Italian paintings, rare medieval works, the finest miniatures, and masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age including a self-portrait by Frans van Mieris.

Other portraits include a striking Johann Zoffany portrait of the Viennese dancer Eva Maria Veigel (Mrs David Garrick) in a masquerade costume of shimmering silk, a beautiful portrayal by Henry Bone of the young Mary Queen of Scots – on display for the first time – and The Masters Pattisson by Sir Thomas Lawrence. In the Dining Room, artist Alastair Morrison, whose great-great-grandfather is depicted in The Masters Pattisson, has created a contemporary photograph in response to the painting, exploring the themes of brotherly love and loss.

The exhibition provides a unique opportunity to view these objects up-close in a gallery setting, being staged in William McEwan’s (Margaret Greville’s father) bedroom, the balcony, and all four exhibition rooms on the first floor.

Exhibition curator, Alice Strickland, said: “The gallery setting allows us to provide richer interpretation highlighting how this astonishing collection was formed. The exhibition has also allowed us to do further research into the collection, attaching firm attributions to some of the Fabergé objects and ascertaining who gifted them to Margaret Greville and when.”

As part of the exhibition, other treasures of Mrs Greville’s will be highlighted in the lavishly furnished principal rooms, including a magnificent painting by Melchior de Hondecoeter, showing peacocks and other birds in a landscape. This recently returned to the house after an absence of over 50 years to serve once again as the central feature in the richest of all the interiors, the Saloon.

Alice Strickland continued: “In assembling her superb collections, Mrs Greville was following the transatlantic fashion of the super-rich, but she was also creating an intimate and inviting atmosphere for her many guests.

“In her lifetime it was the privileged few who could enjoy the treasures she had amassed, but she intended her bequest to the National Trust ‘to form a Picture and Art Gallery’, ‘for the largest number of people to have enjoyment thereof.’ As custodians of Polesden Lacey estate we hope we have done her justice.”

A programme of events accompanies the exhibition, including curator talks and a children’s trail in summer.  Treasured Possessions: Riches of Polesden Lacey runs for two seasons: 25 April – 29 October 2022 and 1 March – 30 October 2023.

www.nationaltrust.org.uk/polesden-lacey