Archive for 2012

Interrogating the old masters

November 13, 2012

Glenn Brown, The Death of the Virgin, 2012. ©Glenn Brown

Upton House is hosting an exhibition of works by contemporary artist Glenn Brown, curated by Meadow Arts. Brown’s works are both uncompromisingly modern and extremely traditional. But then Brown’s conception of ‘tradition’ includes science fiction as well as old master paintings, kitsch as well as high modernism.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Death of the Virgin, c 1564. ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

This makes for a fascinating juxtaposition with the permanent collection at Upton. Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted and chairman of Shell, assembled important collections of paintings and porcelain during the first half of the 20th century, which were given to the National Trust together with the house in the late 1940s.

Glenn Brown, Cactus Land, 2012. ©Glenn Brown

The paintings Lord Bearsted collected range in date from the 14th to the 19th century and include major works by Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Memling, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, El Greco, Gabriel Metsu, Jacob van Ruisdael, Pieter Saenredam, Francesco Guardi, William Hogarth, George Romney, George Stubbs, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Henry Raeburn.

Domenikos Theotocopoulos, known as El Greco, El Espolio (the Disrobing of Christ), 1570s. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Glenn Brown has explicitly engaged with one of these paintings, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Death of the Virgin, by painting his own version. But he has infused the religious scene with a strong dose of surrealist distortion and post-modern alienation.

Glenn Brown, Searched Hard for You and Your Special Ways, 1995. ©Glenn Brown

Brown approaches old master paintings without the reverence sometimes accorded to them. He analyses and interrogates them as a painter – peer to peer – noticing techniques and stylistic strategies, weaknesses and strengths. He interrogates high and low imagery, old and new art on an equal basis and feeds it all into his own work.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Head of a Girl, c 1790. ©National Trust Images

Another way in which Brown turns art history on its head is by by the way he applies the paint thinly and smoothly – referencing perhaps the slick detachment of the photographic surface – while creating the impression of thick and tempestuous ‘old master’ impasto.

Works by Glenn Brown in the exhibition gallery at Upton House, formerly a squash court. ©Meadow Arts

In other cases his no-nonsense approach rehabilitates art that is currently out of fashion, such as the sentimental and eroticised work of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. In the booklet that accompanies the exhibition Brown states his conviction that Greuze’s virtuoso technique and obvious enjoyment of the act of painting are so strong that they make his choice of subject matter of secondary importance.

15th- and 16th-century paintings in the Picture Gallery at Upton House. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Not only has Brown been inspired by the Bearsted collection, but the old masters at Upton are equally benefiting from this exposure to contemporary art. I hope we will have many more such intelligent and searching encounters between old and new, high and low in the historic houses of the National Trust.

The exhibition is on until 6 January 2013.

Wimpole in the round

November 7, 2012

The Breakfast Room at Wimpole Hall, the table set with tea for one to suggest the period during the 20th century when the house was owned by Elsie Bambridge. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Our libraries curator Mark Purcell recently alerted me to a virtual tour of  Wimpole Hall. The site allows you to explore  360-degree images of the main rooms.

An angling party, by Edward Smith, mid 18th century, acquired by Elsie Bambridge for Wimpole. ©National Trust Images/Roy Fox

The experience is not quite as vivid as actually visiting Wimpole, of course – there is no need to mothball our historic houses just yet – but it does provide a good impression of the layout of the house and the proportions of the rooms and the objects in them.

Portrait by Alan Ramsay of Jemima, Marchioness Grey, in the Long Gallery at Wimpole. The sitter lived at Wimpole in the late 18th century. ©National Trust Images/Roy Fox

Having only seen the portraits of the 2nd Earl of Hardwicke and his wife Jemima, Marchioness Grey, in reproduction, I was pleasantly surprised by the image of the Long Gallery which shows the pictures in their splendid gilded Kentian frames.

Portrait of the 1st Earl of Hardwicke by Thomas Hudson, in the Long Gallery at Wimpole. © National Trust Collections

And by panning round to the opposite side of the Gallery you can see the portrait of the 1st Earl, with his sumptuous Lord Chancellor’s ‘handbag’, which I featured here earlier. I was also surprised to see how small the charming 18th-century picture of a collector, in Mrs Bambridge’s Study, actually is.

A collector in his study, Wenzel Wehrlin, mid 18th century, acquired by Elsie Bambridge for Wimpole. ©National Trust Images/Roy Fox

The virtual tour as a whole also gives a flavour of life in an English country house in the twentieth century, when it was bought, furnished and lived in by Elsie Bambridge, the only surviving child of Rudyard Kipling. Her taste interacts with the layers left by earlier owners, resulting in one of those interesting country house palimpsests.

A room with a blog

October 23, 2012

The breakfast Room at Osterley Park, before its recent repainting in ‘Batman grey’ and the start of the conservation project. ©National Trust Images/Mark Fiennes

Some rooms have views, other have blogs — and some have both. The Breakfast Room at Osterley now has its own blog, documenting the conservation process that aims to rediscover its original yellow colour scheme.

The Breakfast Room as the contents are being removed. © National Trust

Between 1949 and 2011 the Breakfast Room had undergone several redecorations, including a green and a yellow scheme, carried out first by the Victoria & Albert Museum and latterly by the National Trust.

James Finlay scrutinizing the evidence. © National Trust

The room was recently painted grey when it was used as one of the sets for the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. The fees charged for the filming have now enabled Osterley to instigate a full-scale investigation into the original yellow.

A paint scrape from the dado, showing a yellow layer on top of an earlier blue one. © National Trust

In 1772 Agneta Yorke visited Osterley and described the Breakfast Room as being ‘a lemon colour with blew ornaments.’

An unpicked sample of the 20th-century wallpaper, showing different layers of paint, paper and linings. © National Trust

But descriptions of colours are notoriously subjective, and it would be ideal if we could identify physical traces of the original paint.

The discovery of a doorway which once connected the Breakfast Room to the Library Passage. © National Trust

20th-century layers have now been stripped off and paint scrapes have been taken. The various findings are now being analysed, and you will be able to follow the story on the Osterley Breakfast Room blog.

The World of Interiors, c. 1735

October 19, 2012

The Nostell Priory doll’s house. ©National Trust Images/Mark Fiennes

The Winn  family doll’s house at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire, is a remarkable time capsule of the taste in country house interiors of the 1730s, almost the equivalent of an interior decoration magazine like The World of Interiors today.

The Hall. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

The furnishings and furniture were created with a high level of precision and detail, indicating that the house was made as a decorative model for the adults of the family, rather than for the children to play with.

The Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

All the fireplaces are copied from James Gibbs’s Book of Architecture of 1728. In the early 1730s Sir Rowland Winn, 4th Baronet, was building a new house at Nostell and the doll’s house may have been commissioned at that time.

The Red Velvet Bedroom. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

The late John Cornforth has pointed out how the Nostell doll’s house also illustrates the function of chinoiserie, or pseudo-oriental decoration, in the less formal spaces of 18th-century country houses.

The Chinese Dressing Room. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

While the principal or state bedroom is decorated with red velvet, its dressing room next door has walls hung with either Chinese wallpaper or leather hangings imitating Chinese motifs. One of the subsidiary family bedrooms on the floor above has a bed and curtains hung with Indian chintz.

The Chintz Bedroom. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

So while ‘west’ stood for formality and grandeur, ‘east’ indicated a more intimate, informal and feminine atmosphere. And that characterisation has influenced the meaning of chinoiserie to this day.

A Regency Chinese garden

October 16, 2012

Leigh Park House, Hampshire, by Joseph Francis Gilbert, c. 1831. © Portsmouth Museums and Records Service, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

On the 25th of October Jodi Eastberg will be giving a talk about the Regency linguist, diplomat, merchant, politician and China scholar Sir George Thomas Staunton (1781-1859).

Lady Staunton with her son George Thomas Staunton and a Chinese servant, by John Hoppner, 1794, © School of Oriental and African Studies, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Jodi Eastberg is Associate Professor of History at Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has done extensive research into British perceptions of China through the life of Sir George Thomas Staunton.

Sir George Thomas Staunton, by Martin Archer Shee, © Government Art Collection, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Jodi is working on a biography of Staunton and is currently in the UK researching his banking records with Coutts & Co. in London.

View of the the lake at Leigh Park with various chinoiserie structures, watercolour by Joseph Francis Gilbert, c. 1832

As I mentioned previously, Staunton learned Chinese at a young age and became an influential figure in the East India Company. His country house, Leigh Park, near Portsmouth in Hampshire, reflected his interests, with Chinese collections in the house and Chinese plants and pavilions in the garden.

The lake at Leigh Park from the east, showing the Chinese-style pergola, summer house, bridge and boathouse, and the Mughal-style pavilion, watercolour by Joseph Francis Gilbert, c. 1832

The garden, in particular, seems to have been an enchanting Regency-style chinoiserie fantasy, with Chinese or pseudo-Chinese structures including a bridge, a boathouse, a pergola and a summer house, as well as a pseudo-Mughal onion-domed pavilion. Although the house is gone some of the garden structures survive.

Recent photograph of the lake, now called Leigh Water

The talk will be at Staunton Country Park (as Leigh Park is now called) on 25 October, from 10.30-12.00. Places are limited and anyone interested is asked to contact Kerry Bailey on 023 9245 3405 or via

God is in the details

October 11, 2012

Detail of the hangings on the mid-19th-century bed in the Red Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

Modernist guru Mies van der Rohe is supposed to have said that ‘God is in the details.’ But that dictum doesn’t only apply to modernist design, of course.

Items on the writing table in the Red Bedroom. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

When looking at images of Felbrigg Hall recently I found these amazing shots by David Kirkham, which zoom in on details of objects and surfaces in the house.

A corner of the Regency sofa in the Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

From an objective, rational viewpoint, these ‘things’ – and the collective thing that is Felbrigg – are the direct and indirect evidence of history, of the coming and going of different  generations who left successive layers of objects and decorations.

Rosewood teapoy, c.1820, in the Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

But quite apart from the causal relationships between objects and events, the different textures, shapes and colours in the house also seem to communicate with us on a more subliminal level.

Detail of Rococo giltwood pier table, c. 1752, in the Cabinet at Felbrigg. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

The myriad material factors in a house like Felbrigg, and the juxtapositions between those factors, are simultaneously deliberate – in reflecting the choices of specific people at specific points in time – and random – in that they represent not one moment of taste but many, and that some evidence has inevitably been lost or erased over time.

Gilded overmantel mirror and French ormolu and marble clock in the Cabinet. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

The result is perhaps similar to what Marcel Duchamp called the ‘art coefficient’, the effect that art has on the viewer: an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.

View of part of the Dining Room. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

In the context of a historic house we would probably call that ineffable coefficient the ‘spirit of place’.

Celestial and terrestrial globes in the Library. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

And to that immensely complex body of material evidence we then need to add the subjectivity of the visitors, each of whom is unique and brings yet another set of factors into the equation.

A corner of the Library, with its 18th-century Gothick style bookcases. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

So, paraphrasing Mies, we might say that the spirit of place is in the details: in our unique, subjective reactions to the innumerable sensory impressions as we move around a historic house.

Recycling in the grand manner

October 9, 2012

Silver basin by Anthony Nelme, 1692, subsequently engraved with the arms of Sir Matthew Featherstonhaugh, 1st Bt, and his wife Sarah Lethieullier. ©Christopher Hartop

Recycling and retrofitting is nothing new. We have just acquired a silver basin with a connection to Uppark, West Sussex, from Christopher Hartop. This luxurious item was originally most likely used in the bedchamber, then became a christening bowl, and finally reverted to being a bedroom hand basin.

The Saloon at Uppark. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The bowl was made by London silversmith Anthony Nelme in 1692, and may have been commissioned by Sir Heneage Fetherstone, 1st Baronet (d. 1717). It was later inherited by Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh, 1st Baronet (1714-1774),  and engraved with his an his wife Sarah’s arms.

The Althorp christening bowl, by Paul de Lamerie, 1723-1724. The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection, on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. © V&A Images

Originally it may have bee intended for the washing of hands, for shaving, or perhaps as a punch bowl. In 1754, with the birth of Sir Matthew and Sarah’s son Harry, later the 2nd Baronet, it was used for his christening, which took place in the Saloon at Uppark.

Pair of silver salvers by William Peaston, 1746, purchased for Uppark at auction in 2010 with funds from gifts and bequests to the National Trust and with a contribution from a fund set up by the late Simon Sainsbury. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

During the Commonwealth baptismal fonts in churches were considered to be among the trappings of ‘Popery’, and grander families began to hold christening ceremonies discreetly at home. The practice persisted in some quarters even after the Restoration, but surviving christening bowls (like the Althorp Christening bowl in the Gilbert collection) are very rare .

Late 19th-century photograph showing Miss Frances Bullock-Fetherstonhaugh sitting on the south steps at Uppark surrounded by friends. ©National Trust

Both the 1st and the 2nd Baronet acquired silver for Uppark. Most of these pieces were dispersed during the twentieth century, although the National Trust has been able to repatriate a few in recent years.

The Tapestry Bedroom at Uppark. ©National Trust Images/Geoffrey Frosh

By the late 19th century, Sir Harry’s sister-in-law, Miss Frances Bullock-Fetherstonhaugh, was once again using the silver basin in her bedroom for washing her hands. It has now been placed in the Tapestry Bedroom to evoke that everyday use.

This acquisition was made possible by a grant from the V&A Purchase Grant Fund.

Knole uncovered

October 3, 2012

©John Miller

The team at Knole has now started a two-year programme of emergency repairs. This is the first stage of a much larger project aiming to secure the whole of the house for the future.

©John Miller

The roof of the east front is currently being opened up and the cement render used during previous repairs is being removed.

©John Miller

Modern cement was once widely used to patch up old buildings, but its hardness actually caused more damage to the softer traditional building materials.

©John Miller

Investigations are underway to assess how the damage to the roof timbers can be best repaired and to find out what the structure can reveal about the building’s history.

©John Miller

As curator Emma Slocombe says: ‘There have been many more interventions and build stages in the external envelope of the building than we had thought. We are fascinated by each new revelation. It is an incredibly moving experience to see Knole in this state.’

©John Miller

Some lucky visitors were recently able to take scaffolding tours of the building, to see Knole’s skeleton for themselves.

Fair seed-time

September 27, 2012

The best parlour at Wordsworth House, Cockermouth. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

‘Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up

Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear;

Much favour’d in my birthplace…’

Costumed interpreter dressed as Ann Wordsworth at Wordsworth House. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

The poet William Wordsworth, who wrote these lines (from The Prelude, 1805), was born in a fairly substantial house in Cockermouth, in what is now Cumbria, in 1770.

The back office at Wordsworth House, where John Wordsworth would have worked in his role as agent to the Lowther estate. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

William was the second child of John and Ann Wordsworth. John was the agent for Sir James Lowther’s Cumberland estates. The house was owned by the estate and was ‘tied’ to the agent’s position. For a number of years it must have been filled with the sounds of the growing brood of Wordsworth children, five in all.

Costumed interpreters dressed as servants in the kitchen at Wordsworth House. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

Tragedy struck in 1778 when Ann Wordsworth died, and John died five years later, with the children having to be sent into the care of relatives elsewhere. But the period in Cockermouth seems to have been a particularly formative experience for William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, as it imbued them with a sense of the beauty of the Cumbrian landscape.

The dining room at Wordsworth House. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

The house was given to the National Trust by the Wordsworth Memorial Fund in 1938. By that time there had been a number of subsequent owners, and no furniture or other objects remained from the Wordsworths’ time. In 2004 the National Trust instigated a restoration project to bring the house’s appearance back to what it may have looked like in the 1760s and 1770s.

Performing China

September 25, 2012

Mrs Yates as Mandane in ‘The Orphan of China’, by Tilly Kettle, exhibited 1765. Photo: © Tate, London 2012

I have just finished reading Chi-Ming Yang’s Performing China: Virtue, Commerce and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England. I found this book particularly interesting in that it presents the British cultural engagement with China in the 18th century as a kind of dialectic, a see-sawing between admiration and rejection.

Two children in Asian clothing, by Tilly Kettle, © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

Two children in Asian clothing, by Tilly Kettle, © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

In an age when Europe was being transformed by the effects of international trade, China presented an intriguing example of an empire that had somehow managed to combine ancient virtue with modern commerce.

Chinese goods like porcelain, lacquer and silk, which were being imported into Europe in increasing numbers, were both valuable commodities and symbols of an ancient civilisation, both advanced products to be emulated emulated and corrupting luxuries to be distrusted.

Portrait of Thomas Kymer of Kidwelly in Chinse costume, by Gavin Hamilton, 1754, at Newton House, Dinefwr. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The ambivalence towards Chinese culture was also evident in Arthur Murphy’s play The Orphan of China, a tragedy about conflicting familial and patriotic loyalties which had a long run on the London stage between 1759 and 1767.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the Orphan, in Yang’s analysis, seems to have been its representation of Chinese virtue as recognisably admirable but simultaneously exotically excessive. It provided a useful template against which the British could measure their own, more objectified and individualistic sense of virtue.

I would tend to agree with Yang that this ambivalence or dialectic is a constant in the history of our engagement with China and is still relevant today.

More about the portrait of Mrs Yates as Mandane can be found on the Tate website, and a brief discussion of the portrait of the children in Asian clothing is on the site of the Global History and Culture Centre, University of Warwick.