I broke my journey home from my Devon weekend, at one of Sussex’s most distinguished stately homes, Petworth House in, well naturally with posh houses, Petworth – English stately homes tend not to have street numbers and towns are usually named after them, not the other way round.
This mostly 17th. Century mansion has medieval bits as well as Victorian additions and has been a seat for the well-heeled through the bad old days of English history in 1151, later becoming a 13th Century fortified manor house. Since those days it has been occupied by some of the grandest of English families, including the Earls of Northumberland, the Percy family, who first came over to England with William the Conqueror and his boat loads of thugs. The families since then have handed down their influence from generation to generation, sometimes on the female side, often through an illegitimate line and can be connected to many of the bloodiest events in our history including the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War and 19th. Century mining. By 1668, when the present building began, the owners of Petworth had mostly stopped fighting and had settled down with their inheritance to be just plain rich. In 1947, the place was “given” to the National Trust to look after for the nation, us, but the traditional owners are allowed to linger on in the south wing and, presumably, to romp all over the place when the paying visitors go at night.
There are 700 acres of parkland designed between 1751 and 1764 by the greatest of all parkland designers, “Capability” Brown who made a speciality of making artificial plantings look like an idealised Nature. He was so successful that many people now believe that this is what England would look like if it was just left to return to the wild.
It would be forever civilized, quiet and free from intrusive conurbations of common people.
So trees grow exactly where they are told to grow, balancing the view and calming the mind.
Just in case it seemed too natural the owners scattered a few ancient Greek temples just to give the place the feel of its ancient aristocratic heritage.
Actually the elderly oak trees do that anyway – magnificent at their full height with their massive and gnarled trunks that intone permanence in deep centuries old voices.
Inside, there is a lot of old stuff too.
Paintings by Van Dyke, Gainsborough, Reynolds, William Blake, Constable and, of course, Turner who visited the place often in the time of the 3rd Earl of Egremont who supplied the great artist with a studio somewhere upstairs where he did his bit to immortalise the great house.
The sofas aren’t as old but they look very comfortable if bland. Petworth House, at the time of the same 3rd Earl (1751-1837) was a comfortable place not just for artists but for the great man’s fifteen mistresses and their forty odd children. There was a lot of everything going on at Petworth in those days.
There are paintings all over the many acres of interior walls here but one of the most impressive spaces is the carved room with intricate wood carving by, amongst others, the master of them all, Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1721). Oh yes, and that is King Henry VIII there in the middle.
The marble hall is fine too with its mix of classical and neoclassical statues.
The main dining room has an indigestible surfeit of paintings too – perfect to gaze at when you are seated next to a guest who is boring you to death with tales of the afternoon’s shoot.
If you hadn’t seen enough paintings in the main state rooms then you could still go to the custom built art gallery which is an interesting memorial to how paintings used to be hung – all over the place.
There are plenty of Greek and Roman statues too – some authentic and others the products of admiring 18th and 19th. Century hands – and worth a look if you are not embarrassed by rows of naked people.
This one, the man with his lion, is a mix of ancient and modern, well neoclassical….a broken statue improved with the addition of missing limbs, head and artifacts.
The real thing is this extraordinary Roman statue, apparently done from the life, of the very badly-behaved Emperor Nero (AD 37 – AD 68) as a boy who looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
If I had to take one work of art with me though – I tried but they saw it sticking out from under my shirt when the alarm went off – it would be this wonderful painting by Claude (1604 – 1682), Jacob with Rachel and Lear in an imagined Italian landscape. It was Turner’s favourite too, I was told.
It must have been wonderful to be rich and conscience-free in those golden days in Britain’s past but better now, I think, when we can all go and have a look.