Between history and fiction

Part of the Drawing Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Part of the Drawing Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

I have just been reading the fascinating catalogue marking the donation of Alec Cobbe’s career archive to the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is also an accompanying display currently on view at the V&A.

The Drawing Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The Drawing Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Alec Cobbe is a polymath who initially worked as a paintings conservator (although he prefers the older description ‘picture restorer’), but later became known for his sensitive rehangings of historic picture collections. He is also an artist, designer, musician and collector.

Part of the Library at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Part of the Library at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Alec Cobbe grew up in Newbridge House, County Dublin, which had been rebuilt in the 1740s by his ancestor Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin. In the 1750s and 1760s the house was filled with pictures by Archbishop Cobbe’s son Robert and his wife Elizabeth.

The Library at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The Library at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Alec Cobbe’s early experience of Newbridge, as well as his training as a conservator, informed his sensitivity to the historic settings of works of art. In the catalogue Julius Bryant puts Cobbe’s career in the context of the re-evaluation of picture hangs in museums and historic houses over the last forty years or so.

Broadwood grand piano, 1847, in the Staircase Hall at Hatchlands Park. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Broadwood grand piano, 1847, in the Staircase Hall at Hatchlands Park. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Apart from advising the National Trust, and becoming a Trust tenant at Hatchlands Park, Alec Cobbe has also been involved with picture rehangs in the private apartments at Petworth and at Harewood House, Kenwood and Hatfield House. He has also designed some striking historicist showcases, for instance for Powis Castle, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The Dining Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The Dining Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

In 1984 Hatchlands was in need of a new purpose, having recently been a school and with little in the way of original contents.  Alec Cobbe was invited by the National Trust to display his collections of painting and historic keyboard instruments there and to make it once more into a living family home.

The Saloon at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The Saloon at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The catalogue not only provides an overview of Cobbe’s career and of the changing attitudes to historic houses, but it also touches on some fundamental questions about what it is that we value about the past.

As Julius Bryant puts it: ‘Once one accepts that all historic interiors have gone for good (for not only their historic contents, but also our way of perceiving them, have changed) then the latest ‘restoration’ project can be judged against values other than ‘accuracy’. In admiring a restored room as a work of art and design we can also ask how well it shows the collections, what it tells us about the use and display of the space over the centuries, and how well it conveys what Alexander Pope called ‘the genius of the place’.

9 Responses to “Between history and fiction”

  1. cinziarobbiano Says:

    love this man :-)

  2. Princess of Eboli History Masquerade Says:

    The most beautiful pictures!!!!!!
    Beautiful site!!!!!!!!!!!!! <3

  3. Deana@lostpastremembered Says:

    I can’t wait to get his book. What a magnificent artist he is. I look forward to stopping by Hatchlands. Thanks for introducing Mr. Cobbe.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Cinzia, Princess, Deana, glad you appreciate this.

  5. theirishaesthete Says:

    Hurrah for Alec Cobbe: one of our finest Irishmen!

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you for your enthusiastic comment. I admire your very informative and at the same time extremely readable columns in Apollo. To paraphrase the byline of your blog, a scholar who can really write is so rare as to be almost an oxymoron :)

  7. theirishaesthete Says:

    Thank you, most kind. And now I must put to work writing the Apollo column for April…

  8. Susan Barsy Says:

    This post made me wonder what I owe the vintage luxury apartment I live in. To become a “trust tenant” of it would be a strange charge indeed, and whatever I might do to create its original ‘genius’ would be certainly be a fiction, no matter how sincere I was or how much I knew. That said, I feel I owe Mr Cobbe a debt, because I dearly love looking at interiors like this! Fiction is an essential food for the soul.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes fiction has a tendency to turn into reality, and reality into fiction… :)

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