Now, I like Petworth very much; it is somewhere that I have visited several times in the past and as far as its contents are concerned it has to be one of the Trust’s flagship properties. So, I wanted to make that clear straight away as I am about to become a little bit critical.
My big gripe about Petworth is the lack of a sensibly sized guidebook. Approaching the visit with my Trust Challenge hat on, it was quickly apparent that getting to grips with the property’s people and timeline was not going to be straightforward. The reasonably priced, but flimsy, ‘souvenir guide’ has only a single page about the history of the place with very brief bullet points about the four ‘makers of Petworth’ before embarking immediately on its tour of the house. The alternative for those seeking more information about the house and its cast of characters is the opposite extreme: a 168-page glossy book entitled ‘Petworth: The People And The Place’, price-marked at a not inconsiderable £18.99. I did actually buy a copy as it was on offer in the shop at a far more affordable £7.99, but it is very much a hefty book to read after the fact rather than something you can dip into during a restaurant break or while viewing the house.
As an example of the difficulty in gleaning the relevant facts, we were already confused before we even reached the house reception as the old dairy on the way to the house has information about the fire escape ladder bought by the 3rd Lord Leconfield. Now, we were pretty sure that Petworth was the Egremont family seat so there was an immediate question about who this Leconfield chap was. We assumed that one of the frequent introductory talks would help to clarify things but it was only a brief 10-minute overview that did very little to supplement the feeble introductory page in the guidebook. It was only when we headed back to the house reception to look up Lord Leconfield in a copy of the 168-page book that we discovered a family tree on the wall and learnt that the 1st Lord Leconfield was the illegitimate son of the 3rd Earl of Egremont and so never inherited the title. Several generations down the line, the Egremont name was returned to the family but I have had to do some internet research to discover how. It seems that, in 1963, just before inheriting the Leconfield title from his father, the 6th Lord Leconfield in waiting was raised to the peerage in his own right, becoming Lord Egremont and thus returning the Egremonts to Petworth, albeit as baronets rather than earls.
Now, to be fair to the flimsy guidebook (I always try to be balanced!), it provided a fairly good summary during the tour of the house. Although the rooms are laid out in reverse order in the book so you have to work from the back, it does summarise the salient information and if you want more detail on any specific items or pictures, there are comprehensive room folders available complete with a useful numbering system to help you track down what you need. Such is the quantity of art on show at Petworth that it would certainly be impossible to mention everything in a guidebook. Besides, I prefer not to wade through page after page of information during my visits so this section of the guide was perfectly adequate and informative, picking out the highlights of each room and relating a few interesting tales in just a few paragraphs. However, a similar level of detail was also given on introductory boards in most rooms, which begs the question as to whether the guidebook is even necessary if it doesn’t deliver something more.
For fans of JMW Turner, Petworth is something of a must-see as it is home to a number of his paintings (either 17 or 20 depending on which of our tour guides you want to believe!) including four landscapes in the Carved Room that were painted specifically for that room and include two views of Petworth Park itself. Turner regularly visited the 3rd Earl of Egremont who was a strong supporter of the arts and happy to throw open his doors to all kinds of visitors (it seems Constable was another guest). Petworth certainly makes the most of the Turner angle, offering guided talks about the artist’s relationship to the place. Again, though, this was a fairly short tour and a little difficult to keep track of as the guide led us on a whistlestop dash around the North Gallery, weaving in and out of other visitors and speaking quite quietly so we missed a lot of what she had to say about the paintings on display there. It was a little easier to hear in the Carved Room and I think the tour should perhaps have stayed there and simply discussed the North Gallery pictures so that we could go back later to view them independently. (As a brief aside related to the Turner topic, I think I should mention that Petworth is housing a special exhibition of his paintings over the winter, which will also include props and pictures used in the upcoming movie, ‘Mr Turner’.)
A further talk that we missed (it was unfortunately given at the same time as the one about Turner) takes a closer look at the 9th Earl of Northumberland (the Earls of Northumberland owned Petworth before the Egremonts), who was a friend of Walter Raleigh and a suspected conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot. As a result, he spent nearly 20 years imprisoned in the Tower of London. A Van Dyck portrait of the Earl, painted posthumously, is on display in the Square Dining Room, not far from another Van Dyck of the 10th Earl (a great patron of the Flemish painter) and his family.
Now, having been less than complimentary about the guidebook and the talks, I should also add that there is an audio guide available for visitors to take around the house with them, albeit at an extra cost of £2. Although I was tempted by this, I decided to stick with the live talks and written information so I have no idea how detailed or helpful the audio might have been. Who knows, it could have started with a really useful section clarifying everything I wanted to know about the background of the house and family?!
To get back to the positives, though, whichever way you choose to approach your visit, I am fairly sure that you will be impressed by your walk around the grand rooms. Trying to pinpoint highlights from the visit was difficult but there were three rooms in particular that stood out for me.
First off, the North Gallery is an art gallery that would justify existence in its own right separate from the rest of the house. It began life as the 2nd Earl of Egremont’s South Corridor, set aside specifically for sculpture, and the 3rd Earl then extended it to include a Central Corridor and a North Bay. You could spend quite some time in there, reading through the room folder to identify each of the numerous paintings and sculptures. I have included a picture of Flaxman’s St Michael subduing Satan, which was commissioned for the house by the 3rd Earl (as were a number of the other statues in residence) and it dominates the North Bay, which was created specifically for a piece of this size and impact. You will also find many of the Turner paintings in these galleries, along with others by Thomas Gainsborough and William Blake. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, and there is probably something for everyone.
The second of my highlights is the Carved Room, with ornate wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons and a couple of other local artists. There was a fire at the house in 1714 and it is suggested that John Selden, one of the other contributors, died in the fire while working to save the Gibbons carvings. It is also here that Turner’s specially commissioned landscapes can be seen, while in addition there are some royal portraits, including Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria (alongside her favourite dwarf, although he looks more like a child than a small man!)
My last highlight is the Grand Stairs, with its impressive murals. This was gutted in the 1714 fire and Louis Laguerre was employed for the restoration, creating impressive classical scenes on the walls and ceiling.
Among the other things worth mentioning is an extremely early manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the Somerset Room. This dates from the 1420s, just 30 years after the tales were written, making it one of the earliest surviving texts of Chaucer’s work, and while it’s pretty impossible to read with its olde English script and language, it is quite remarkable to think that it is almost 600 years old. Another very old item is the Molyneux Globe in the North Gallery, which dates to 1592 and is said to be the oldest English-made globe in existence.
There are many other interesting stories, though. For example, in the Beauty Room the portraits of the various ‘beauties’ lining the upper walls have had the bottoms rolled up so their feet can no longer be seen. This was done so that a shrine to the Napoleonic Wars could be added below them, including pictures of the battles of Waterloo and Vittoria, a portrait of Napoleon and a bust of Wellington. The portrait is located directly above the bust, however, which seems to me to be the wrong way round!
Meanwhile, in the Square Dining Room, you can usually see Joshua Reynolds’ painting of Macbeth and the Witches. This was absent during my visit as it is away being cleaned so a black and white etching of the picture has taken its place for the time being. The original painting again has a story, though, as it was commissioned for a new Shakespeare Gallery set up in London in 1786 to encourage artists to move away from portraits and to take on more literary subjects. It was a real pity that the gallery failed as I for one would happily have paid the entry fee!
I could go on further about some of the other sights and stories at Petworth but I really ought to start winding this up. I do have to mention the Servants’ Quarters, which have been given their own guidebook and are probably the best I have seen anywhere to date. When I say ‘best’, it’s a relative term as this kind of thing doesn’t set my world alight (or even aflicker!), but anyone interested in life below stairs will be in for a treat. The Servants’ Quarters are set up as they would have been between 1920 and 1940 so it’s all very Downton Abbey in there.
The restaurant (and separate coffee shop) can also be found in the servants’ block, along with the gift shop and a secondhand bookshop. The restaurant was fairly busy and I imagine it’s a bit of a free-for-all at the height of the season. But if you can get a table, the food is well worth the effort, with decent portions of the kinds of fresh-cooked meals that the Trust often does so well.
Highlights: The North Gallery, the Carved Room, the Grand Stairs, the Chaucer manuscript
Refreshments: Caramelised onion, leek and tomato tart with potato wedges and vegetables; tea with blackberry cheesecake. (I am also reliably informed that the lamb meatballs were fantastic!)
Purchase(s): House guidebook; Servants’ Quarters guidebook; Petworth – the People and the Place by Christopher Rowell; a book about Turner’s life and art (which has been whisked away to be given back to me as a Christmas present!); two birthday cards; and three secondhand books (The Unseen by Katherine Webb, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer).
Companion(s): Mum and Dad
NT Connections: Flatford: Bridge Cottage (Constable visited Petworth); Felbrigg Hall (the Wyndham Earls of Egremont are related to the Wyndhams of Felbrigg); Uppark (Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh of Uppark had his own bedroom at Petworth as he was a close friend of the 3rd Earl of Egremont); Hatchlands (Alec Cobbe of Hatchlands advised on the Petworth restoration and picture rehang).
NB: Already, while reading my Petworth book, I have discovered that both Henry VIII (1526) and Elizabeth I (twice in 1563 and 1583) visited Petworth during the Earls of Northumberland years, while William III visited (1693 and 1694-5) when the ‘Proud Duke’ (6th Duke of Somerset) was in residence. I’ve added all of these to my list of regal visits (see Miscellany).