Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Petworth House

The people who owned Petworth- starting with the Percys of Northumberland- could command the best- so they did. They wanted family portraits? They hired Van Dyck and got him to produce them by the yard. They wanted Graeco-Roman statuery? They shipped it in by the ton. They wanted  fancy woodwork? They hired Grinling Gibbons. They wanted their park landscaped? They hired Capability Brown. They wanted their empire immortalised in paint? They invited that nice Mr Turner down to stay.

The result is overwhelming. Petworth has the greatest collection of art works in the National Trust's portfolio. It's a collection of national- of international- importance. And it contains surprises. Country house magnates didn't generally collect late medieval Flemish art, but somehow or other Petworth got hold of a first rate Nativity by that very weird and very rare artist Hieronymous Bosch.

One strolls from room to room. One gawps. One has the wind knocked out of one's sails. How many Turners are there? I've lost count.  And is that a vast Reynolds history painting up there? Yes, apparently, but it's so high up, so badly lit and so dirty I can't really see what's going on in it.

And here's a rather considerable problem. The house is preserved as a monument to 19th century taste, which means paintings are hung in tiers- like so much wallpaper- some of them fifteen feet off the floor- and you just can't bloody see them. There's a nymph and satyr labelled "(?) Titian" that looks pretty convincing to me but one can't get close and it's fogged up with Victorian cigar smoke and who knows whether it's the real thing or not. Again, the statues have all been restored- according to 19th century taste- so that something that started out as nothing but a battered torso now has head and limbs and a smooth finish. There's one colossal head of a Goddess that might just be 5th century Athenian and so a thundering great world masterpiece, but nobody seems to be sure. Has any one ever really examined it? I don't think they have.

Yes, it's very nice to see how the Duke of Egremont, Turner's patron, displayed his loot; it has an art-historical interest, but really I'd prefer to see the art itself- properly displayed, properly cleaned, properly lit and with the statues unrestored.  If I were in charge, I'd take a deep breath, build a picture gallery on modern lines and display the cream of the collection there. If it's considered absolutely necessary to preserve the effect of the old displays then I'd replace the originals with replicas.  An all but invisible copy of Reynolds is as good as an all but invisible original Reynolds if all you want it for is to fill up space on your wall.
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