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The history of Petworth House and Park

View across the Upper Pond to the West Front of the house at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex
View across the Upper Pond to Petworth House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Spanning 900 years of history and passing through just one family, Petworth House came from humble medieval origins before being transformed during the 17th century into a grand mansion to rival the palaces of Europe. With influential guests including royalty and celebrated artists, Petworth’s rich history has left its mark through the centuries. Not your average country house home, the family line remains unbroken and descendants still live at Petworth House today.

A royal gift

Petworth has been a family home for over 900 years. The land Petworth stands on was a royal gift from the widow of Henry I to her brother Joscelin de Louvain, who soon after married into the powerful Percy family.

Evidence of its humble beginnings can still be seen today; the chapel survives from the medieval great house built here, which was fortified in 1308-9.

A suspicious queen

The Percy family stronghold was in the north and Petworth was originally only intended for occasional use. In the late 16th century Queen Elizabeth I grew suspicious of the family’s allegiance to Mary, Queen of Scots and banished the family to the south, where Petworth became their permanent home.

This ‘house arrest’ started the expansion of the medieval building, but it would be another 100 years before Petworth was completely transformed.

The wealthy heiress

In 1682 heiress Elizabeth Percy, who at just 16 was already twice widowed, married Charles Seymour the 6th Duke of Somerset. Together they formed possibly one of the wealthiest couples in England.

Inspired by the rebuilding of the French palace of Versailles from 1661, Elizabeth and Charles set about creating a home for themselves by rebuilding Petworth to rival the new European palaces. This, grand ambition and Charles often arrogant character, earned him the name the ‘Proud’ Duke.

Carvings by Grinling Gibbons

Dutch Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) is one of the most famous artist-carvers in history. His flamboyant Baroque style was sought after by wealthy patrons and he completed commissions in wood and stone in the King's Chapel at Windsor Castle, St Paul's Cathedral and Burghley House.

The 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset commissioned Gibbons at the height of his career in the early 1690s to create lime-wood carvings for Petworth, which included four full-length portraits of themselves and the Duke’s grandparents, framed by the carved family crest, garter and other armorials. They were originally in a smaller drawing room before being moved to the Carved Room towards the end of the 18th century.

The Carved Room, with the four paintings by Turner restored to the panelling, looking South at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex
The Carved Room at Petworth House | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Petworth’s Golden Age

George O'Brien Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, inherited Petworth in 1763 and began what’s now known as the 'Golden Age' of Petworth. As a collector of British art, the 3rd Earl was patron to many contemporary artists, including JMW Turner and John Constable, both of whom were frequent guests and took inspiration from their visits.

A gift to the nation

In 1947 the 3rd Lord Leconfield gave Petworth to the National Trust in the face of heavy death duties. His nephew John Wyndham (created 1st Lord Egremont) later gifted part of the extensive art collection. The current Lord and Lady Egremont continue to live privately in a section of the house today.

The sun rises on a February morning over the park at Petworth, West Sussex. The sun can be seen shining through a bare branched tree over the frosty grass of the parkland.
Sunrise in the park at Petworth House and Park | © National Trust Images/John Miller

History of the Deer Park

The landscape may look natural but this is far from the truth. The park was transformed in the 1750s and early 1760s by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown by stripping away the formal gardens and the long driveway to create a serpentine lake framed by rolling hills and wide, sweeping views of a perfect 'natural' looking landscape.

The project took 12 years and five separate contracts to complete. Today Petworth is considered one of the best surviving examples of Capability Brown's landscapes.

The early landscape

The grounds at Petworth in the 1690s were very different. George London, a royal gardener, had been hired to design a formal garden in front of the mansion, complete with ramparts, terraces, parterres, an aloe garden and summerhouse. Despite this, visitors of the time were not impressed with what they saw.

‘Its front has no visto answerable, and the west front look’d not to the parks or fine gardens, but to the old stables.’

– Daniel Defoe, after a visit to Petworth in the 1730s

A grand transformation

In 1750, around 50 years after the completion of the formal gardens, Petworth had been passed down to a new Earl and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, (so named because his clients were assured that their landscapes had ‘capability’ for improvement) was hired to completely redesign the disliked grounds.

Throughout the 1750s Brown swept away the traditional features. The Upper Pond was created along with the smaller Lower Pond further north. In 1762, the original road from Petworth to Tillington, which passed within 50 feet of the house, was moved to its current position three-quarters of a mile south.

New roads were built to offer visitors glimpses of the house through the newly planted trees, so that the full splendour could be admired on arrival from the north side. Brown also added his signature features such as the ha-ha and the Ionic Rotunda, the latter located in the Pleasure Garden.

The Deer Park at war

During the Second World War a portion of the park was used for army camps, housing up to 3,700 troops. In 1946, after the war had ended, the land was used as a Polish Resettlement Camp. It closed in 1959 when alternative accommodation was found for the residents.

The rotunda with yellow daffodils in the foreground in Petworth's pleasure garden.

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