‘A family home and not … a museum’: Living with the Country House Art Collection

Essay by Kate Retford

Scholarly interest has generally focused on the country house art collection as a site of display, partly due to the prominence of exhibition culture in art-historical studies but also sometimes motivated by an enquiry into how such sites foreshadowed public art galleries and museums. Academics, certainly, have paid much less attention to the collection as lining the walls of a home, in which the owner, his/her spouse, their dependants and their household staff conducted their daily lives. We usually consider old master paintings in such a collection as evidence of elite consumption, advertising status, wealth and taste: as ‘positional goods’.1 We less often think of them as elements of a backdrop to the inhabitants reading, sewing, playing music, conversing. Such objects also of course, as Jon Stobart and Mark Rothery have recently reminded us, provided sensory pleasures as well as emotional comfort, perhaps rooted in aesthetic gratification, perhaps more in associational properties.2 Still more liminal in this scholarship have been the meanings that such objects inevitably accrued as presences in the lives of the individuals who owned and/or lived with them, deeply ingrained as they were in their personal biographies.

A key issue here is the degree to which ‘display’ and the ‘home’ have been conceptually and theoretically polarised: grandeur set against comfort; publicity against intimacy. Judith Lewis opened her important article, ‘When a House Is Not a Home’, with Alexander Pope’s resonant declaration that Blenheim, that great monument to the military triumphs of John, 1st Duke of Marlborough, could be deemed ‘a house, but not a dwelling’: ‘’tis very fine / But where d’ye sleep, or where d’ye dine?’3 Ideas of ‘home’ are often grounded in notions of privacy, intimacy, the privileging of the self, the provision of emotional and physical comfort – hardly qualities that spring to mind when walking through the grandiose spaces of Blenheim Palace.4 The country house was, it is well understood, a political hub, an economic organ, a dominant presence in the local community. Lewis’s essay, however, set out to explore how these spaces could also function as ‘sites of emotional and physical comfort, family intimacy, and personal attachment’.5 After all, in the domain of the country house, the private and the public have long been interwoven in various and complex ways. Any single space within such a house could frequently shift between domestic and public use, as well as through nuanced intermediary stages, such as sociability of more or less intimate kinds.6

A notable instance of this is evoked by a letter that a member of the household at Blenheim found themselves having to write in 1770 to John Moore, a family friend, asking him not to direct visitors to the house before the usual opening hour of 3 o’clock: ‘The little Ladys are Continually in the Appartments, except the hours that the house may be show’d.’7 The parade of grand rooms at Blenheim could constitute living space for Ladies Caroline (aged six) and Elizabeth Spencer (five), perhaps also eight-month-old Charlotte, in the early afternoon, but become a tourist attraction a few hours later. Such proximity between the family and the public in the country house, as well as the inevitable periodic tensions, resonate from this early period of country house visiting through to the present day. One only has to think of Lord Harry Vane trying to write letters in his study at Battle Abbey on the first day of opening to the public in 1857, being driven from the room by curious faces staring at him through the window.8 In 1974 the Dowager Countess of Radnor opined that, when opening up one’s country house, one had to have enough space into which to retreat from one’s visitors, or else go out during opening hours: ‘You cannot, day after day, dodge them on the stairs, hide your knitting, shut up the dogs.’9

It might seem that the design of the great eighteenth-century Palladian houses of the Villa Mocenigo type – Holkham in Norfolk, Kedleston in Derbyshire – resolved this, devoting the central block to the public function of the ‘temple of the arts’, while tucking the day-to-day lives of the family members away in a dedicated pavilion, linked but set apart by a communicating corridor (fig. 1). Indeed, at Kedleston it does appear that Sir Nathaniel Curzon and his wife Caroline only used a couple of rooms in the main block on a regular basis (the music room, that nearest the family apartments, and the dining room) and that this area was largely dedicated to public display and formal engagements.10 However, accounts by visitors such as Arthur Young and the guide to the collection at Kedleston first published in 1769 indicate that visitors could sometimes access the family pavilion.11 For Holkham there is clear evidence that visitors could readily enter the family apartments, not least their inclusion in John Dawson’s 1817 Stranger’s Guide to Holkham.12 When that most dedicated of country house tourists, Caroline Lybbe Powys, went round Holkham in 1756, ‘the family were from home’, but she and her companions could still view all the rooms in ‘the fourth wing’. Indeed, Mrs Powys was able to inspect miniature portraits in ‘a closet here of her ladyship’s’, including pictures of her daughter-in-law, ‘the beautiful Lady Mary Coke’, and her son, Lord Edward. Engaging with the intimate circumstances of the family, Mrs Powys remarked that Lady Coke and her husband ‘had lately lost’ Edward, ‘to their inexpressible grief, being their only child’.13 While this wing was certainly dedicated to family occupation and daily living, contrasting with the orientation of the main block of the house towards display and grandeur, that contrast clearly did not equate with notions of privacy and publicity as we typically formulate them today.

Plan of the Principal Floor of Holkham, from The plans, elevations and sections of Holkham in Norfolk, the seat of the late Earl of Leicester (London: 1773)

Figure 1.
Matthew Brettingham, Plan of the Principal Floor of Holkham, from The plans, elevations and sections of Holkham in Norfolk, the seat of the late Earl of Leicester (London: 1773), 1773. Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Digital image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Living with the country house art collection14

Consideration of how the inhabitants of a country house interacted on an everyday basis with the works of art on their walls leads, inevitably, to patchy, personal anecdotal evidence. A letter might provide a glimpse of an individual seated in his/her closet writing to a family member or friend, the connection inherent in the act of writing strengthened by the sight of a portrait hung above the desk. Lady Dorothy Bradshaigh was sustained in the writing of her numerous letters to the author, Samuel Richardson, by the presence at Haigh Hall in Lancashire of his portrait by Joseph Highmore: ‘As I sit at my writing desk I cannot look up without viewing your picture.’15 Such affective association is not, of course, restricted to a likeness; it might also be embedded in an artwork’s associations and/or provenance. When in 1844 William, 6th Duke of Devonshire, penned his intimate handbook to Chatsworth, conceived as a letter to his sister, Harriet, Countess Granville, he noted a number of objects that recalled their long-deceased mother, Georgiana. In the North Corridor, for example, ‘the little bust of a laughing Faun was a great favourite of my Mother’s, and was always on the chimney-piece of her dressing-room in London’.16 In the Red Velvet Room ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds’s picture of my Mother, with a child … in her lap, is one of his best, though some people dislike the attitude, and do not allow the likeness’ (fig. 2).17

1784-6. Oil on canvas, 112.4 × 140.3 cm. The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth.

Figure 2.
Joshua Reynolds, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her daughter, Georgiana, 1784-6. Oil on canvas, 112.4 × 140.3 cm. The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth.

Digital image courtesy of The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth / Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees / Bridgeman Images. (All rights reserved)

A sculpture in a corridor, or painting on a wall, might also provide the stimulus for a conversation, but we are more likely to find a trace of such an exchange around an artwork when it is a print that needs to be removed from a portfolio or an item contained in a cabinet that has to be unlocked and opened. Horace Walpole revealing to privileged guests the contents of his cabinet of enamels and miniatures in the tribune at Strawberry Hill springs to mind.18 Indeed, the very acts of commissioning and displaying works of art were often sociable, affective ones, generating extensive correspondence. When Caroline Fox, 1st Baroness Holland, constructed the portrait gallery at Holland House in the 1760s, her project filled numerous letters to her sister, Lady Louisa Conolly. Caroline had to press her to help secure a portrait of their younger sister, Cecilia, on more than one occasion (‘Let me have Cecilia’s picture immediately’) and chased Louisa for her own likeness for around four years, finally able to declare in June 1766: ‘How could I go on so far without telling you your sweet face is come home and put up in my Gallery?’19

Works of art could, furthermore, provide the concrete materials for those sociable activities by which the family could while away leisured hours, especially female members of the family. Prints could be removed from a portfolio, cut, reworked and pasted onto a chimneyboard perhaps or around the walls of a print room. When Mrs Powys took in The Vyne on her travels in 1780, she noted one of the fruits of John Chute’s endeavours as a collector: ‘In the gallery library are many portfolios of the finest prints.’20 Nearly thirty years later Caroline Wiggett, adopted by William and Elizabeth Chute, sat in the house with her brothers and her aunt, preparing a number of those prints to adorn the walls of the little parlour (fig. 3).21 Caroline’s brother, William, who later inherited the estate, came somewhat to rue his part in this endeavour: ‘I gave some little assistance by cutting out borders. Some of the engravings are too valuable for such a situation …’22 However, for Caroline, artistically inclined, recovering from a bout of measles, fond of the parlour as ‘so much warmer’ than most of the rooms in a chilly, damp house and crucially getting to spend time with two of the siblings from whom she had been removed as a very young child, this was clearly a valued and memorable mutual project, producing a lasting legacy.23

The print room: The Vyne, Hampshire

Figure 3.
The print room: The Vyne, Hampshire, Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of Geoffrey Swaine/​Shutterstock. (All rights reserved)

As with much of the material that has to underpin such a discussion, these are sporadic, fragmentary glimpses into the intersections between the country house art collection and family life. And, of course, much of the time, works of art would have been more simply components of the broader material environment that framed mealtimes, leisured activities and socialising. These could be mute objects, perhaps barely glanced at on a day-to-day basis, yet still crucial elements in an expensive, elite, yet comfortable interior, at the least ‘setting the tone’. Something of this is evoked by a fascinating category of works of art, which tends rarely to be studied beyond the documentary information it can provide about picture hangs and the arrangement of furniture: those nineteenth-century watercolour interior views that one can find, it seems, in almost every country house art collection.24 These are emphatically representations of domestic life within the walls of the country house, crafted for a variety of purposes but capable of providing valuable insights in their staged versions of that life.

Some of these images were produced by professionals, such as those reproduced in John Britton’s History and Description … of Cassiobury Park.25 They record the interiors remodelled by James Wyatt and Jeffry Wyatville in the early nineteenth century for George, 5th Earl of Essex.26 The earl allowed in visitors between 2 and 4 o’clock every afternoon (apart from Sunday and with the exception of ‘Lord and Lady Essex’s own apartments’), but Frederick Lewis’s aquatint after Augustus Pugin’s view of the library does not convey this accessibility (fig. 4).27 Rather, it is represented ‘as principal drawing room’, described by Thomas Creevey as ‘most comfortable … a beautiful room 50 feet in length, full of books and every comfort’.28 One young woman writes at a desk, while another leafs through a large book of maps, placed on a lectern. Indeed, the room, as pictured, explicitly invites such usage: volumes are there to be pulled off the shelves or from the pile on the table by the fireplace; prints can be removed from the open portfolio to the right and placed on the nearby stand for more detailed scrutiny. The art and book collections demand active engagement, but overseeing this, elevated above the handleable items, are a series of family portraits over the bookcases, together with Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of the 5th Earl as a boy, with his sister, Lady Elizabeth, above the hearth (fig. 5). Reynolds’s painting is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: Pugin’s view not only resituates it in its original setting, recontextualising it in the decor and furnishing of the library, but also encourages us to think of the portrait as simultaneously dominating a domestic space and as ‘part of the furniture’, merging into that interior.29 The watercolour, emphasising domestic life at Cassiobury, invites us to consider this portrait as an important object in Lord and Lady Essex’s home – privileged by its size and position and yet so familiar as to be routinely ignored. Pugin’s image is not only constructed as private and domestic through the women’s apparent lack of awareness of the viewer’s presence but also through the fact that they do not tour, look and point at such works of art in the manner typical of pictured tourists.

Great Library, Cassiobury, from John Britton, The History and Description, with Graphic Illustrations, of Cassiobury Park, Hertfordshire: The Seat of the Earl of Essex (London, 1837), plate XIII

Figure 4.
Frederick Lewis after Augustus Pugin, Great Library, Cassiobury, from John Britton, The History and Description, with Graphic Illustrations, of Cassiobury Park, Hertfordshire: The Seat of the Earl of Essex (London, 1837), plate XIII, Engraving. Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts (Folio B N 8).

Digital image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

1768. Oil on canvas, 181.6 × 145.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Accirca No. 48.181).

Figure 5.
Joshua Reynolds, George Capel, Viscount Malden (later 5th Earl of Essex) and his sister, Lady Elizabeth Capel, 1768. Oil on canvas, 181.6 × 145.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Accirca No. 48.181).

Digital image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The number of such professional views in this period are dwarfed, however, by those produced by amateurs – almost always female amateurs.30 Art had long been an appropriate pastime for elite ladies, but the popularity of books such as Britton’s Cassiobury Park, together with the expansion of watercolour painting and the number of available tutors, stimulated this newly flourishing branch of amateur practice.31 A particularly fine set of such images survives at Petworth, created in the 1860s by Madeline Wyndham (wife of the younger son of 1st Baron Leconfield) and a fascinating counterpart to the much more famous examples by J. M. W. Turner.32 They were created during Madeline’s long winter stays at the house, together with her husband, three children, nurse and nurserymaid, stimulated by her intimate friendship with her sister-in-law, Constance, Lady Leconfield, who deeply valued their ‘really happy comfortable family part[ies]’.33

In these watercolours the great Carved Room becomes the space described by Madeline’s mother-in-law as ‘very pleasant and comfortable even for a small party’ – the site of a relaxed hunting breakfast (fig. 6).34 That of the Marble Hall, meanwhile, usefully evokes shifting room use, modifying the experience of works of art that remained in position (fig. 7). This room, built for the 6th Duke of Somerset as the main entrance to Petworth, was ‘the Hall of State’, dominated by its black and white marble floor, with the Somerset arms prominent above the chimneypieces and the niches filled with large Roman marble statues. It had been an appropriate setting in which to depict the 3rd Earl of Egremont welcoming the allied sovereigns to Petworth in Thomas Phillips’s commemorative painting of the event held to celebrate the Peace of Paris.35 However, the room steadily changed in character over the course of the nineteenth century, as the house was reoriented and the other side became the main entrance. It gained a carpet and a billiard table, and then, after his wife’s death in 1863, it was transformed into the 1st Lord Leconfield’s study, apparently prompted initially by a request from his housekeeper that he move into the south end of the house to facilitate a spring clean.36 The carpet does much to domesticate the room, concealing the striking patterning of the cold marble floor, while a piano and substantial number of chairs and tables help to create a comfortable space. The Titian painting of a cardinal had previously been in its position over the fireplace and the austere Roman statue remains in its niche, but the effect of these artworks is modified as they become elements of a more fully furnished domestic environment – no longer constituents of a grand entrance hall but ornaments in a light and airy study.

The Hon. Mrs Wyndham, The Carved Room, Petworth House, George Wyndham, 1st Lord Leconfield and Sir Reginald Graham at a hunting breakfast

Figure 6.
Madeline Wyndham, née Campbell, The Hon. Mrs Wyndham, The Carved Room, Petworth House, George Wyndham, 1st Lord Leconfield and Sir Reginald Graham at a hunting breakfast, circa 1865. Watercolour, 40.5 × 46 cm. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 485158).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images. (All rights reserved)

The Hon. Mrs Wyndham, The Marble Hall, Petworth, George Wyndham, 1st Lord Leconfield seated at his Desk

Figure 7.
Madeline Wyndham, née Campbell, The Hon. Mrs Wyndham, The Marble Hall, Petworth, George Wyndham, 1st Lord Leconfield seated at his Desk, circa 1865. Watercolour, 51 × 70 cm. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 485157).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images. (All rights reserved)

A third of Wyndham’s watercolours raises another key point about art and domestic life in the country house. Sitting, reading, writing, looking at books and prints can readily be acknowledged as appropriate activities for the elite interior and ideal occupations for representation. Yet domestic life, needless to say, is not solely made up of appropriate activities. In Madeline’s view of the great, top-lit North Gallery – flanked by the marble figures of a philosopher, an Amazon and a goddess – we see two figures, showing the moment evoked as domestic (fig. 8). The young woman reads, familiarly enough, albeit casually seated on the floor rather than on the chair behind her. More surprisingly, a small child stacks blocks at the base of the statue of the Amazon, the accompanying bats and balls indicating a game that would seem unwise, to say the least, in this fine gallery of art. This representation is most striking in its negation of surely the primary function of this space: a site for the display and spectatorship of high art.

The Hon. Mrs Wyndham, The North Gallery, Petworth House

Figure 8.
Madeline Wyndham, née Campbell, The Hon. Mrs Wyndham, The North Gallery, Petworth House, circa 1865. Watercolour, 33.5 × 42 cm. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 485159).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images. (All rights reserved)

A contemporaneous watercolour of the Stone Gallery at The Vyne by Elizabeth Chute, daughter of the William Lyde Wiggett Chute quoted above, engages with the logic of a country house inhabited by a family still further: the quotidian combined with the remarkable, the needs of daily life set against the responsibilities of the art collection’s custodian (fig. 9).37 William noted in his ‘Reminiscences’ that he and his wife, Martha, had ‘a rather large Family born to us, consisting of seven sons & four daughters’. Although two of those sons died young, this was a substantial number of children to accommodate in The Vyne. William added more bedrooms, and he turned the Lower Gallery over to the children, as ‘a very useful place in which [they] could play & amuse themselves’. Elizabeth, one of those offspring, has depicted a space that sits somewhere between sculpture gallery, lumber room, workshop and play area. Marble statues, busts and paintings jostle with a rocking horse, a horse on wheels, a net strung up for battledore (or shuttlecock), a train track with a couple of carriages falling off the end and a large variety of tools. A rudimentary proscenium, inscribed ‘FORTUNE DE GUERRE’, evokes the theatrical performances of the children described by William: ‘By their representation of farces and light comedies [they] entertained the Villagers and Tenantry and several neighbours … much to the satisfaction & delight of all Parties, if their unashamed laughter may be considered to be a proof of success.’38 Plaster busts deemed by John Chute ‘as good as any we could have got by sending for them on purpose from Italy’, tablets with Greek and Latin inscriptions given by Horace Walpole, and a number of portraits – all seem decidedly at risk from the dedication of this space to the younger members of the household and the incongruously overlapping functions of a workshop.39

Stone Gallery, The Vyne, Hampshire

Figure 9.
Elizabeth Chute, Stone Gallery, The Vyne, Hampshire, 1877. Watercolour, 44.5 × 53.2 cm. National Trust, The Vyne (NT 719454).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images. (All rights reserved)

Remembering the country house art collection

As scholars, we would not look at those portraits and busts and think of them as the backdrop to battledore and childhood theatricals, yet it matters that they had that role. However, if the engagement of the activities of daily domestic life with works of art can only be glimpsed in the archive and representations, then the related, accrued meanings of such objects for those who lived with them are still more elusive. It is in the memoir, the autobiography, the ‘reminiscence’ that we most commonly find evocations of the inevitable wealth of intensely personal meanings that such objects came to possess – meanings that can extend far away from and become, to a degree, independent of the works of art themselves.

Staying with The Vyne, take the valuable and important collection of Flemish and English tapestry panels at the house, featured in key textile history scholarship.40 For Caroline Wiggett, however, they had a resonance and a place in her story of her own life that fall well outside the usual domain of the art historian. Writing her memoirs in 1869–70, Caroline recalled arriving at the Tudor house in 1803.41 Her father had been left a widower with seven children; the Chutes had no offspring and were looking to adopt. The Revd James Wiggett and William Chute were cousins, had been at school together, and it was agreed that, of the motherless Wiggett children, Caroline was ‘the most eligible to be taken from the nest, to be transplanted into another soil’. Her account of how at the age of only three and a half she was removed from her family and relocated to Hampshire, entering The Vyne ‘roaring, as well I might’, is bitter. A particularly vivid memory of those early days was of having her bed in her aunt’s room:

The tapestry which is now in the billiard room was hung in that room, & I always looked upon that man stepping into his boat, which I being shortsighted magnified into something dreadful, as I was left at night in a sort of half light, going to bed early, I remember feeling so alarmed that sometimes I persuaded the maid to remain with me till I fell asleep.42

An important tapestry becomes the stuff of juvenile horror, consolidated over the course of nearly seventy years into an encapsulation of childhood trauma and displacement.43

In accounts such as these, the work of art becomes a deposit of remembered feelings and experiences, connected to its physical properties but ultimately transformed into a departure point for memory. The wider physical context of the object often plays a notable part, most typically through sensory qualities of warmth and cold, light or – as here – darkness. Spaces and the objects within them are, as Gaston Bachelard so cogently pointed out, particularly powerful stimuli, since

memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are. To localize a memory in time is merely a matter for the biographer and only corresponds to a sort of external history … For a knowledge of intimacy, localization in the spaces of our intimacy is more urgent than determination of dates.44

The problem is finding traces of such memories in the archive. Caroline Wiggett’s manuscript ruminations are a rare discovery for the period; penned in old age for the benefit of her nephew, Chaloner Chute, they were never intended for publication. However, in the early twentieth century a wider range of material can be found, providing further insights into works of art, personal memories and the idiosyncratic meanings of objects.

The most famous example is probably Vita Sackville-West’s published writing about Knole, the home in which she grew up, that she loved with an ‘atavistic passion’, but that she could not inherit as a woman: ‘“a technical fault over which we have no control”, as they say on the radio’, she later remarked.45 Her 1922 Knole and the Sackvilles is a powerful amalgam of the highly personal and the deeply researched, a literary collage in which one moves from a historical document cited in toto to a childhood memory in the space of a page.46 Works of art in the Knole collection appear with their own authority, but also as refracted through Vita’s personal experiences and memories. Walking through the ballroom with her book in mind, you find your attention directed more fully to the frieze, which she loved as a child, ‘with its carved intricacies of mermaids and dolphins, mermen and mermaids, with scaly, twisting tails and salient anatomy … I was invariably contemptuous of those visitors to whom I pointed out the frieze but who were more interested in the pictures’ (fig. 10).47 In another passage she recalls moving through the state rooms after dark with a candle and encountering Van Dyck’s portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola (fig. 11), then thought to be of Lady Desmond: ‘The pale, far-away eyes stare past you into the dark corners of the wainscot, eyes either over-charged or empty – which?’ She was not frightened, however: ‘I loved [Knole]; and took it for granted that Knole loved me.’48 She here evokes a relationship in which the house is an active agent, as attached to its inhabitants as they are to it. Such poetic reminiscence is often only used for ‘colour’, to enliven an account of a house, but it can encourage us to think of the properties of an artwork at different times of day, of variable experiences of an object according to your circumstances and stage of life, and the particular potency of the viewer’s share when the individual has lived with the item, which then becomes a component in their construction of their own life narrative. The quality of the Anguissola portrait evoked by Vita is certainly embedded in its physical properties – the eyes are deeply hooded and not fully aligned, the eyeballs look up while the lower lids droop down – but that quality is both enhanced and becomes the object’s most potent signification in this account, thanks to the context of the darkness and the evoked gaze of a lone child holding a candle.

The Ballroom: Knole, Kent

Figure 10.
The Ballroom: Knole, Kent, Photograph. National Trust, Knole (1312852).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images / James Dobson. (All rights reserved)

Sofonisba Anguissola

Figure 11.
Anthony van Dyck, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1624. Oil on panel, 41.6 × 33.7 cm. National Trust, Knole (NT 129883).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images. (All rights reserved)

Moving from the Bloomsbury group to the Sitwells, across their much vaunted rivalry, Osbert and Sacheverell both featured summer months spent as children at the family seat of Renishaw, Derbyshire, in their autobiographical writings.49 Once again, works of art assume alarming properties when refracted by darkness and the youth of the viewer: ancestral portraits are spooky, ‘painted in such fashion that their eyes [follow] you and their heads seem to be turned in your direction whichever part of the room you [stand] in’.50 Sacheverell’s account of his childhood in All Summer in a Day is largely bleak, but some light finds a way in via John Singleton Copley’s portrait of The Sitwell Family (fig. 12). For art historians interested in Copley, this represents his importantly singular foray into the genre of the conversation piece, as the artist attempted to take advantage of the departure of Johan Zoffany (who had dominated this field) for India.51 For biographers, including Osbert himself in Left Hand, Right Hand!, the portrait provides useful likenesses of important family members.52 In Sacheverell’s memories of being a young boy at Renishaw, however, the picture appears as a cheering scene of childhood play, able ‘to rebut a despairing mood and supply some ground for optimism’. Lineage is certainly important in his account, but the image, featuring Sacheverell’s great-great-grandfather, does not primarily make him think of the longevity of his line. It rather conveys a message of encouragement, as if that ancestor was ‘able to speak out of the picture and tell one everything was all right and that one could go on hoping’. Sacheverell then shifts to the mode of the art historian, comparing the qualities of the Copley to comparable work by Zoffany – painted with the same ‘convincing reality’ but ‘on a larger scale and less fussy in detail’.53 The intensely personal and the scholarly – emotional projection and formal visual analysis – appear in easy juxtaposition.

The Sitwell Family

Figure 12.
John Singleton Copley, The Sitwell Family, 1786. Oil on canvas, 180.34 × 156.21 cm. Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire.

Digital image courtesy of Wikiart. (Public domain)

Vita Sackville-West and Sacheverell Sitwell are major literary figures, exceptional writers, but their work heralds a strand of self-presentation by the country house denizen that has become particularly prominent since: personal, associative, reflective, revelatory. The current Earl Spencer’s publicising of Althorp is a case in point. In the TV programme, Secrets of Althorp: The Spencers (US Public Broadcasting Service, 2013), he ‘takes viewers on a personal tour around the noble manor that’s first of all his family home’.54 His book, Impressions of Althorp: Thoughts on my Spencer Heritage (2012), was billed as ‘an immensely personal perspective’ and, again, repeatedly emphasises that Althorp is ‘very much a family home’.55 A tie-in article in Country Life was titled ‘These are a few of my favourite things’ and featured personal accounts of selected items in the Althorp collection: the G. F. Watts portrait of the 5th Earl Spencer and his wife is ‘a wonderful, easy thing to live with’; William Orpen’s portrait of the 6th Earl is one of his ‘favourites. I was brought up believing he was a frightful hypochondriac and quite tricky, but I’ve read his diaries and he was an amazingly sensitive man.’56

The late Deborah Cavendish, wife of the 11th Duke of Devonshire, was particularly effective in this mode of presentation: her successful book, The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth, published in 1982, was reworked as a new, lavishly illustrated volume by Frances Lincoln in 2002.57 In its first iteration the duchess bases her tour of Chatsworth around the mid-nineteenth-century Handbook of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, using his personalised account as the starting point for her still more intimate presentation of the house. She writes humorously of the issues of living somewhere so vast: the pros of children being able to roller skate for miles without going out of doors, of being able to walk for hours inside on a wet day; the cons of putting a bag down and not being able to find it again for months, of having to trek through corridor after corridor at night to let out a dog being house trained.58 She envelopes treasured objects in affectionate prose, so that major works of art – a Velázquez female portrait, a Zoffany, racehorses painted by Peter Tillemans – become ‘familiar things’, giving comfort to their owner in her sitting room.59 This idiom was magnified in the book’s later refashioning, the extensive quotes from the 6th Duke now subsumed, the blurb proclaiming it ‘the inside story of Chatsworth’, ‘a real family home’, ‘by the person who knows it best’.60 A new raft of colour photographs by Simon Upton showed the duke and duchess in various staged, informal poses: ‘Andrew, shoe off, and me waiting for someone in the West Hall in 2001’ (fig. 13).61

Andrew, shoe off, and me waiting for someone in the West Hall in 2001, from Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth, The House (London: Frances Lincoln, 2002), p.40

Figure 13.
Simon Upton, Andrew, shoe off, and me waiting for someone in the West Hall in 2001, from Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth, The House (London: Frances Lincoln, 2002), p.40, Photograph. Chatsworth.

Digital image courtesy of Simon Upton. (All rights reserved)

‘A family home and not … a museum’

In her writing on Chatsworth Deborah Cavendish brings the revelatory quality of such accounts of country houses – obvious, but left implicit in Earl Spencer’s writing – to the fore. The tour of Chatsworth in The House follows an architecturally logical progression, so that rooms open to the public and private spaces are intermingled, their status merely flagged by, respectively, discrete white and black circles. In Chatsworth, twenty years on, the two are separated, so that one moves from the description of the public rooms to an account of ‘The Private Rooms’. The double-page spread which marks the divide features a photograph of ‘The West Hall: Our Entrance’ (fig. 14). It shows the staircase that leads to the duke and duchess’s own quarters, evoking a granted moment of privileged access into the personal spaces suggested as lying beyond the shadows at the top of the steps. The duchess here comments that the fact these private rooms

Photograph. Chatsworth.

Figure 14.
Simon Upton, The West Hall: Our Entrance, from Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth, The House (London: Frances Lincoln, 2002), pp.138-9, Photograph. Chatsworth.

Digital image courtesy of Simon Upton. (All rights reserved)

are the home of a variety of people with their children and dogs creates a lived-in feeling which spills over into the whole house – or so I am told … People who visit Chatsworth now seem to like the comfortable idea that the family who invented it all are still here.62

This is the twist. Scholars of the country house art collection have, as I have noted, paid insufficient attention to its more intimate, private, personal and familial meanings and functions. The stately home business, since its first flourishing in the mid-twentieth century, has paid plenty of attention to this aspect of the houses and their contents.63 On the one hand, visitors to Holkham can no longer wander around the family’s personal spaces in the way Mrs Powys could in the 1750s. On the other hand, an informal photograph of the family is featured on the house’s website, the text below opening: ‘Welcome to Holkham and to what is still very much a lived in, family home’.64 The private and the public in the country house are still intimately interwoven – family life and tourism still juxtaposed – but in new ways, crucially the former explicitly used as a marketing tool to promote the latter.65 This is most fully encapsulated in the now standard guidebook foreword to the occupied country house: the ‘welcome’ (an echo of the early modern discourse of country-house hospitality), accompanied by a photograph of the family and its owner’s reproduced signature. This will usually comment on the length of the family’s tenure and then assert that the house is a ‘home’, not a ‘museum’. Guidebooks to Renishaw from the 1970s to the 1990s, for example, emphasise that the house is ‘still a home and – not yet – a museum’.66 Renishaw is private, but the National Trust guidebook for West Wycombe features a similar introduction on ‘Living at West Wycombe’ by Sir Edward Dashwood, 12th Baronet: ‘Living here is a true delight, especially in summer … [My father] re-established the strong link between the house and the family that originally created it and has been in residence ever since. We also wish it to be viewed as a family home and not as a museum.’67 Parenthetically, a single, notable exception here is the 2001 guidebook to Mount Stuart, in which prefatory remarks by ‘Johnny Bute’ describe how he ‘made a decision … to treat Mount Stuart as a business rather than a family home’. This is accompanied by a photograph of the marquess as Chairman of the Mount Stuart Trust, in a grey suit, no accompanying wife and children, no view of the family pile behind.68 Yet this is indubitably the exception that proves the rule – it is positively startling when working through a pile of country house guidebooks from the last few decades.69

By all accounts, those owners who first ventured into turning their houses into businesses in the mid-twentieth century were quickly on top of the commercial appeal of the country house as home. After Henry, 6th Marquess of Bath, had opened Longleat to the public in 1949, he noted: ‘We plumped for guides because we thought Women’s Institutes, British Legions, etc, like to be told funny anecdotes about the family.’70 John, 13th Duke of Bedford, was similarly frank in his account of opening up Woburn Abbey in the 1950s. He soon developed a daily routine of doing a couple of tours of the house and shifts in the souvenir shop, during which period, he noted, sales would always increase. Even though his family were living in rooms tucked away in one wing of the house, his wife, the duke records, ‘succeeded most cleverly in arranging the main state-rooms for show while still making them look as if they were lived in’.71

This is emphatically not to question that an owner of even a very grand mansion can understand it to be their ‘home’, even if they are only there infrequently, even if time in the house is spent in contained apartments, even if the family rent from a charitable trust (as at Chatsworth) and even if the property has been (like West Wycombe) handed over to the National Trust. For the owner of a smaller, entirely private house, who lives in all the rooms, perhaps only rolling up the rugs for the twenty-eight days opening required by the art and heritage tax exemption scheme, it clearly is, above all else, their home.72 It is also important to acknowledge the practical necessity of reminding visitors of the limits that come with occupancy, such as access restrictions to certain areas. The point that rather concerns me here is the fact that the country house presented as ‘family home’ is such a marketable product: that the idea of these as lived-in, domestic spaces is so eagerly taken up by those involved in marketing, publicity, publishing and retail. Critical scrutiny of this seems curiously lacking, including within the field of Museum Studies.73 The most relevant scholarship here, perhaps, is Fiona Candlin’s work on ‘micromuseums’: small, independent, single-subject museums, often situated in the front room or rooms of someone’s house.74 These, Candlin notes, pull against Tony Bennett’s definition of a museum as ‘public …. in the sense of being outside the private sphere of the home’.75

Occupied country houses are, similarly, not public in this way, not outside ‘the private sphere of the home’. However, the repeated setting of ‘home-ness’ against ‘museum-ness’ cannot be reduced to a mere matter of classification, to the fact that those houses that remain private property cannot technically be categorised as museums. The pleasure of Mrs Powys at getting to see family miniatures inside Lady Coke’s cabinet at Holkham, and the fascination incurred by Vita Sackville-West’s memories of seeing the portraits in the Leicester Gallery at Knole by candlelight as a child – such allure became, in the mid-twentieth century, a fully fledged marketing strategy. It is a crucial plank of the current presentation and advertisement of the independently owned properties of the members of Historic Houses.76 But what, precisely, is the appeal for the visitor? Why should an art collection seen as part of a space identified as domestic be capable of possessing such ‘added value’ for tourists? My concluding remarks here are hopefully a prelude to further study.

The ‘country house as home’ trope plays, of course, to established curiosity about the private lives of those in the public eye. In an era of high awareness of publicity strategies the desire for apparently authentic, though highly contrived ‘insights’ into an individual’s private, family life appears only to increase. The TV panel game show, Through the Keyhole, is in the sixth series of its revival this year (2019). Hello! magazine, launched in 1988, is still going strong. Even if many country house owners do not fulfil the criteria of ‘celebrity’ exactly, the same inquisitiveness about ‘how the other half live’, the same seductive invitation to prurience is evident. The Duchess of Devonshire noted this in The House, commenting on the popularity of biannual charity coffee mornings in the Painted Hall:

I think the reason for their success is that our rooms on the first floor are open. People who may have been round the State Rooms many times are naturally more interested to see rooms which are used every day, and they always remark on how ‘homely’ and ‘lived in’ they are, which is a polite way of saying they are very untidy.77

Fascination with those who have property and art collections far beyond the ken of the populace at large incorporates interest in what it might be like to own a house like Chatsworth, to have the experience of possessing a masterpiece by Thomas Gainsborough or Lucian Freud. A major source of interest when reading The House lies in the duchess’s familiar, routine encounters with great works of art: the Velázquez, Zoffany and Tillemans hanging in her sitting room are described in a passage evoking a winter evening, the fire lit, her dogs on the floor, ‘alone or with one or two great friends’.78 To some degree, the ordinary – a sociable, comfortable evening at home – becomes fascinatingly strange, as it is lifted into the world of the aristocrat. But interest in the experience of living in such a house, with such artworks, is also inextricably intertwined with projection, with an empathy inflected by acquisitiveness. One imagines oneself living in that house, with those artworks. In more recent house presentations – such as the refurbished Kenwood reopened in 2013 – the tendency is away from velvet ropes and towards the lit fire in the hall and the comfortable sofas on which one is invited to sit, facilitating such projection. Such vicarious consumption, by definition, clearly marks social distinction. Yet the shared language of ‘family’, ‘domesticity’, ‘home’ might also be deployed as believed to offer a connection, making visitors feel more ‘comfortable’ with the artworks and the spaces in which they are housed. The presentation of the old master painting in the context of a ‘home’ might be understood by owners and curators to help domesticate and render less intimidatory items associated with reverence and instruction in the museum.

One final photograph from Chatsworth usefully underscores this point (fig. 15): ‘The door from the West Hall into the Leather Room, and from there into Andrew’s Sitting Room. The inevitable contents of a hall include Andrew’s bulb planter and engraved spades from ceremonial tree plantings … Yet another Henry VIII hangs in the Leather Room.’79 Presenting such a painting as ‘yet another Henry VIII’ – being able to view it through an open door from a vantage point in a cluttered, regularly used hall full of spades, walking sticks and hats – clearly does critical work in the world of country house tourism, playing with the boundaries of the ordinary and extraordinary: work that is worthy of much further investigation and critical analysis.

Photograph. Chatsworth.

Figure 15.
Simon Upton, The door from the West Hall into the Leather Room, and from there into Andrew’s Sitting Room, from Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth, The House (London: Frances Lincoln, 2002), p.148, Photograph. Chatsworth.

Digital image courtesy of Simon Upton. (All rights reserved)

I am grateful to Jonathan White and Fiona Candlin for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay, and for the input of those who attended a workshop at the Paul Mellon Centre on 23 November 2018 and provided useful feedback.


  • Kate Retford is Professor of Art History at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on eighteenth-century British art, particularly on portraiture and the country house art collection. Her work includes The Art of Domestic Life: Family Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century England (2006); Placing Faces: The Portrait and the English Country House in the Long Eighteenth Century, co-edited with Gill Perry et al. (2013); and The Georgian London Town House: Building, Collecting and Display, co-edited with Susanna Avery-Quash (2019). Her most recent monograph, The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2017), won an Historians of British Art award. She is currently working on a book about print rooms in eighteenth-century country houses.


  1. See Jon Stobart and Mark Rothery, Consumption and the Country House, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, e.g. p. 24.

  2. Stobart and Rothery, 2016, e.g. pp. 12–13 and esp. ch. 3. On comfort, see John E. Crowley’s seminal discussion in The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

  3. Judith S. Lewis, ‘When a House Is Not a Home: Elite English Women and the Eighteenth-Century Country House’, Journal of British Studies, vol. 48, no. 2, April 2009, pp. 336–63, at p. 336.

  4. Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: Social History of Family Life, New York: Vintage, 1962; Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea, London: Penguin Books, 1986.

  5. Lewis, 2009, p. 362.

  6. See Gill Perry, Kate Retford and Jordan Vibert, eds, with Hannah Lyons, Placing Faces: The Portrait and the English Country House in the Long Eighteenth Century, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013, introduction, pp. 10–12; Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 196: ‘The idea that the home was a refuge insulated from the social world is one that would have perplexed the rural gentry of this period.’ For an important discussion of space and time of day in the house, see Benjamin Heller, ‘Leisure and the Use of Domestic Space in Georgian London’, Historical Journal, vol. 53, no. 3 (2010), pp. 623–45, at p. 628, as well as Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, esp. ch. 1.

  7. British Library, Add. Mss. 61,672, f.137, anon. from Blenheim to John Moore, 25 June 1770.

  8. Ralph Nevill, English Country House Life, London: Methuen and Co, 1925, pp. 132–4.

  9. Roy Strong, Marcus Binney and John Harris, The Destruction of the Country House, 1875–1975, London: Thames and Hudson, 1974, p. 173.

  10. Kedleston Hall, London: National Trust, 1999, pp. 10, 12–13, 20–41.

  11. Arthur Young, The Farmer’s Tour through the East of England, 4 vols, London, 1771, I, pp. 201–2. The Catalogue of the Pictures, Statues, &c at Kedleston, s.l., c.1769, includes the rooms in the family pavilion, as do the subsequent editions of c.1771, c.1778 and c.1796. However, as Jocelyn Anderson notes, they do not seem to have been a standard part of the visit. They were rarely commented on by visitors, and the rooms are listed at the back of the Catalogue, which is otherwise primarily organised spatially. Many thanks to Jocelyn for her thoughts on this point.

  12. John Dawson, The Stranger’s Guide to Holkham: Containing a Description of the Paintings, Statues &c. of Holkham House, in the County of Norfolk, Burnham, 1817, pp. 7, 79ff. For the family wing at Holkham, see also Christine Hiskey, Holkham: The Social, Architectural and Landscape History of a Great English Country House, Norwich: Unicorn Press, 2016, pp. 108, 221–3.

  13. Emily J. Climenson, ed., Passages from the Diaries of Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys, of Hardwick House, 1756–1808, 1899, reprinted Birmingham: Herron Press, 2013, pp. 8, 10–11. (She also notes, p. 11, that: ‘He and his lady I think were far from being happy.’ This is an understatement. Edward Coke virtually imprisoned Mary, she refused to have sex with him and they had no children, she never used the title Viscountess Coke, and their families ended up going to litigation, producing a settlement whereby she could live with her mother, but had to remain married to Edward until his death.) When Lady Beauchamp-Proctor visited Holkham in September 1772, to find herself taken round with ‘a whole tribe of people’, having been forced to wait until another party had finished their tour, she could not get to see ‘the wing My Lord and Lady used to inhabit themselves’ – but only because ‘this was new doing up’. See Leo Schmidt, Christian Keller and Polly Feversham, Holkham, Munich and New York: Prestel, 2005, p. 220.

  14. There has been some valuable literature on the country house as a lived and social environment, stimulated by Mark Girouard’s seminal Life in the English Country House, London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978. See Christopher Christie, The British Country House in the Eighteenth Century, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, and Dana Arnold, ed., The Georgian Country House: Architecture, Landscape and Society, Stroud: Sutton, 1998.

  15. The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, London, 1804, p. 50, Lady Dorothy Bradshaigh to Samuel Richardson (December 1750). See C. H. Collins Baker, ‘Joseph Highmore, Samuel Richardson, and Lady Bradshaigh’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 3, May 1944, pp. 316–19.

  16. William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, Handbook of Chatsworth and Hardwick, London, 1845, pp. 6–7. Georgiana had died in 1806.

  17. Devonshire, 1845, p. 62; also p. 58, in the picture gallery: ‘Two beautiful Watteaus remind me more than anything else of my Mother’s London room, where they used to hang.’ See Alison Yarrington, ‘Marble, Memory and Theatre: Portraiture and the Sculpture Gallery at Chatsworth’, in Perry, Retford and Vibert, 2013, pp. 96–114, for the 6th Duke of Devonshire and his Handbook.

  18. Michael Snodin, Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, p. 317, no. 171.

  19. Brian Fitzgerald, ed., Correspondence of Emily, Duchess of Leinster 1731–1814 Vol. I: Letters of Emily, Duchess of Leinster; James, First Duke of Leinster; Caroline Fox, Lady Holland, Dublin: Stationery Office, 1949, pp. 338 (Lady Holland to the Marchioness of Kildare, 5 September 1762), 452 (9 June 1766); see also pp. 330 (4 June 1762), 336 (8 August 1762), 338–9 (5 September 1762), 341 (14 September 1762), 388 (11 September 1763), 388 (21 September 1763), 397 (27 November 1763), 413 (20 September 1764), 444 (25 April 1766). For an account of the Holland House Gallery, see Stella Tillyard, Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740–1832, London: Vintage, 1995, pp. 149–55.

  20. Climenson, 2013, p. 204.

  21. Many of the original prints in the current room at The Vyne were replaced in 1959, due to their poor condition, with a group from the Liechtenstein collection.

  22. Hampshire Archives and Local Studies (hereafter HALS), 31M57/1073, ‘Reminiscences of W. L. Wiggett Chute of the Vyne House and Estate, covering the years 1827–1872’.

  23. HALS, 31M57/1070: ‘Reminiscences of Life at the Vyne by Caroline Workman, covering the years 1803–1869, written 1869–70’. For examples of Caroline’s artwork, see the drawings included in HALS 31M57/652: ‘Quarto book containing notes compiled by Chaloner W. Chute on the history of The Vyne, its contents, together with notes on the pedigrees of the Sandys, Chute and related families’.

  24. See Charlotte Gere, Nineteenth Century Interiors: An Album of Watercolours, ed. Joseph Focarino, London: Thames and Hudson, 1992; Charlotte Gere, Nineteenth-Century Decoration: The Art of the Interior, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989; John Cornforth, English Interiors 1790–1848: The Quest for Comfort, London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1978.

  25. John Britton, The History and Description, with Graphic Illustrations, of Cassiobury Park, Hertfordshire: The Seat of the Earl of Essex, London, 1837. This was a luxury publication, costing 3 guineas, or 10 guineas for the larger format, with colour images. Thanks to Jocelyn Anderson for this information. Other key publications include William Henry Pyne, The History of the Royal Residences of Windsor Castle, St. James’s Palace, Carlton House and Frogmore, London, 1819, and Joseph Nash, The Mansions of England in Olden Time, London, 1839–49.

  26. See Stephen Poole, A Fair and Large House: Cassiobury Park 1546–1927, Watford: Watford Borough Council, 1985.

  27. Britton, 1837, pl. XIII. For the instructions written by the earl on the first page of the visitors’ book, see Poole, 1985, p. 29. Other artists involved in Britton’s publication include J. M. W. Turner, Henry Edridge and William Alexander.

  28. It was described as ‘principal drawing room’ by Prince Puckler-Muskau in 1826; see Cornforth, 1978, p. 46. Thomas Creevey writing to his stepdaughter on 21 January 1820, quoted in Poole, 1985, p. 46.

  29. The Metropolitan owns a small collection of paintings from Cassiobury. Apart from the Reynolds, the museum has Peter Lely’s portraits of Mary Capel, later Duchess of Beaufort, and her Sister Elizabeth, Countess of Carnarvon (39.65.3) and Sir Henry Capel (39.65.6), and David Wilkie’s The Highland Family, 1824 (15.30.52). It also owns the staircase from Cassiobury (32.152), attributed to Edward Pearce, c.1677–80.

  30. See Gere, 1992, pp. 8, 27, and Cornforth, 1978, pp. 12, 16–18. For amateur art more broadly, see Ann Bermingham, Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000, and Kim Sloan, ‘A Noble Art’: Amateur Artists and Drawing Masters c. 1600–1800, London: British Museum, 2000.

  31. Cornforth, 1978, pp. 16–18. As well as the examples discussed here, a particularly interesting leatherbound album survives at Audley End, dated 1853, containing twenty interior views (a second album contains twenty-two views of the exterior, gardens and surroundings). See John Cornforth, ‘Victorian Views of Audley End’, Country Life, vol. 160, no. 4123 (8 July 1976), pp. 102–5. These albums are part of a larger collection of watercolour views of Audley End from the period, including work by Mirabel Jane Neville and Lucy Georgiana Neville, daughters of Richard, 3rd Lord Braybrooke, c.1844–1860. See Hannah Chavasse, ‘Material Culture and the Country House: Fashion, Comfort and Lineage’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Northampton, 2015, esp. pp. 193, 195. Many thanks to Peter Moore, Regional Curator responsible for Audley End, for his help with my research.

  32. Wyndham’s views are included in Cornforth, 1978, p. 36, but he comments that it is ‘unfair to bracket’ them with the Turners, presenting the latter as exceptions to the rule that this genre does not usually constitute ‘serious art’ (p. 7). For Madeline Wyndham, see Caroline Dakers, Clouds: The Biography of a House, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993, esp. ch. 1.

  33. West Sussex Record Office, Petworth House Archives, 10354, Letters from Constance, Lady Leconfield, to Madeline Wyndham, 1866: Lady Leconfield to Madeline Wyndham, from Petworth, 25 November 1878. See also Constance, Lady Leconfield, Random Papers, Southwick: I.M. Higham, 1938, p. 50; Petworth House, West Sussex, London: National Trust, 1997, pp. 91–2, and Dakers, 1993, pp. 6, 20–1. The Wyndhams didn’t have their own country house in this period (thanks to Caroline Dakers for noting this in conversation).

  34. Leconfield, 1938, p. 49. My thanks to Andy Loukes for tracking down this reference, and for his help at Petworth more generally. See Petworth House, 1997, pp. 26–31, for the Carved Room.

  35. Thomas Phillips, The Allied Sovereigns at Petworth, 24 June 1814, 1817, oil on canvas, 128 x 147 cm, Petworth, West Sussex (National Trust: 486228).

  36. For the Marble Hall, see Petworth House, 1997, pp. 16–19.

  37. I am grateful for the help of Helen Sanderson, House and Collections Manager, and George Roberts, Regional Curator, at The Vyne.

  38. HALS 20M64/26, ‘Notebook containing account of William Lyde Wiggett Chute of the history of The Vyne and the Chute family, his succession to the estate and his own family’, August 1872.

  39. Maurice Howard, The Vyne, Hampshire, London: National Trust (1998), 2004, pp. 17–19, quoting p. 19.

  40. The most important are the c.1720 chinoiserie tapestries from the Tapestry Room, made at the Soho factory under the supervision of John Vanderbank: NT 719698. See Howard, 2004, p. 12; Edith A. Standen, ‘English Tapestries “After the Indian Manner”’, Metropolitan Museum Journal, no. 15 (1980), pp. 119–42, esp. p. 139. There are also earlier tapestries, c.1680, now in the Little Tapestry Room: Venus and Phaon and Sappho Sending her Letter: NT 719696. See NT Collections website for further bibliographic references: http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/719696.1 and http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/719698 (accessed 25 January 2019).

  41. See Trevor Lummis and Jan Marsh, The Woman’s Domain: Women and the English Country House, London: Penguin, 1993, ch. 5.

  42. HALS 31M57/1070: ‘Reminiscences of Life at the Vyne’.

  43. There is no panel at the house that quite matches Caroline’s description: the only boat appears in the scene of Venus and Phaon in one of the Flemish tapestries, but Phaon has his back to the vessel. Another candidate could be a section of the tapestry ‘in the Indian manner’ that hangs over the door in the Tapestry Room, with a man moving across an island in a rather eerie fashion – but not towards a boat. Caroline seems to have either misread the tapestry as a child or mis-remembered it as an adult. Thanks to Helen Sanderson for her thoughts on this point.

  44. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas, Boston MA: Beacon, 1994, p. 9.

  45. Robert Sackville-West, Knole, Kent, London: National Trust, 1998, p. 91.

  46. Vita Sackville-West, Knole and the Sackvilles, 1922, London and Tonbridge: Ernest Benn Ltd, 1976. See also Vita Sackville-West, Knole, Kent, London: Country Life Ltd for the National Trust, 1948. Knole also became Chevron in Vita Sackville-West’s 1930 novel, The Edwardians, as well as, of course, the subject of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), written for Vita.

  47. Sackville-West, 1922, p. 26.

  48. Sackville-West, 1922, pp. 28–9

  49. See Desmond Seward, Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells, London: Elliott and Thompson, 2015. See also Sarah Bradford et al., The Sitwells and the Arts of the 1920s and 1930s, London: National Portrait Gallery, 1994, for an overview of the family.

  50. Sacheverell Sitwell, All Summer in a Day: An Autobiographical Fantasia, London: Duckworth, 1926, p. 79. See also Osbert Sitwell, Left Hand, Right Hand!: Volume 1: The Cruel Month, London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1945, p. 111.

  51. Kate Retford, The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017, pp. 10, 17.

  52. O. Sitwell, 1945, p. 14. Already, in the nineteenth century, Georgiana Caroline Sitwell had structured part of her ‘reminiscences’ of the Sitwells around the picture, in order to introduce the main branches of the family. See her Two Generations, with a preface, and edited, by Osbert Sitwell, London: Macmillan, 1940, pp. 32–48. The Sitwell family ran into acute financial problems in the nineteenth century: the house was nearly sold, and many of the contents went in a large auction. Georgiana stayed in the stripped-out house with her brother, Reresby, in 1853, ‘making drawings of the rooms as I remembered them, with their furniture in place’ (pp. 144–5). These are still at Renishaw and fall into the category of female amateur watercolour interior views described above. See Cornforth, 1978, pp. 70–4.

  53. S. Sitwell, 1926, p. 26.

  54. http://www.pbs.org/program/secrets-althorp-spencers/ (accessed 4 October 2018).

  55. Charles Spencer, Earl Spencer, Impressions of Althorp: Thoughts on my Spencer Heritage, s.l.: Produced for Spencer 1508 by BlueDoor Media, 2012, p. 124. See also p. 5 (‘primarily a home’) and p. 144 (‘a historic house but also a warm and much-loved home’). A copy with a ‘complimentary personal dedication’ can be obtained via the Althorp website: https://spencerofalthorp.com/product/impressions-of-althorp-by-charles-spencer/ (accessed 4 October 2018).

  56. Rupert Uloth, ‘These are a few of my favourite things’, Country Life, vol. 206, no. 44 (31 October 2012), pp. 38–43, quoting p. 40.

  57. Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth, London: Macmillan, 1982; Chatsworth, The House, London: Frances Lincoln, 2002.

  58. Devonshire, 1982, p. 82

  59. Devonshire, 1982, p. 106. In Devonshire, 2002, p. 159, there is a photograph of the Zoffany, illustrating a comment that it is ‘apt to be obscured by flowers’.

  60. Devonshire, 2002, dust jacket.

  61. Devonshire, 2002, p. 40. See http://www.simonupton.com/ (accessed 9 January 2019).

  62. Devonshire, 2002, pp. 138–9. This sentiment is heralded by a passage earlier in the book, pp. 7–8, when the duchess comments that visitors often remark on ‘a lived-in feeling’ at Chatsworth: a sentiment she finds surprising, considering the far-from-‘homely’ quality of the main apartments, but, ‘if people feel at home here I am all for it. For ourselves, it is home.’

  63. For an authoritative account of this ‘business’, see Peter Mandler, The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997, part IV.

  64. https://www.holkham.co.uk/visiting/welcome (accessed 4 October 2018). Thanks to Andrew Moore for a useful discussion of Holkham.

  65. There is some discussion of this in Mandler, 1997, p. 384, and more in Adrian Tinniswood’s The Polite Tourist: A History of Country House Visiting, 1998, London: National Trust, 1989, ch. 8.

  66. Reresby Sitwell, Renishaw Hall and the Sitwells, s.l.: R. Sitwell, 1977, p. 2; Reresby Sitwell, Renishaw Hall and the Sitwells, Derby: Derbyshire Countryside, 1989, p. 1.

  67. Tim Knox, West Wycombe Park, London: National Trust (2001), 2009, pp. 4, 5.

  68. Andrew McLean, ed., Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Isle of Bute: Mount Stuart Trust, 2001, n.p.

  69. One of the best places to undertake this exercise is the library of the Paul Mellon Centre, with its seminal holdings of country house guidebooks, recently enhanced by the collection of Giles Waterfield.

  70. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, The Gilt and the Gingerbread: or, How to Live in a Stately Home and Make Money, London: Sphere Books Ltd, 1967, pp. 87–8.

  71. John, Duke of Bedford, A Silver-Plated Spoon, London: Cassell, 1959, pp. 185, 195. Likewise, contributing later to Roy Strong’s Destruction of the Country House volume, the duke noted that the country house visitor is usually impressed if ‘a place … feels “lived in”’ (Strong et al., 1974, pp. 162–3).

  72. For the scheme, see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/capital-taxation-and-tax-exempt-heritage-assets (accessed 11 January 2019).

  73. There is increasing attention in the field of Museum Studies to the place of emotion, but this is typically concerned with how museums engage with the emotions of the visitor, through curatorial practice, and usually with presentation of traumatic, dissonant and/or subaltern histories. See, for example, Sheila Watson, ‘Emotions in the History Museum’, in The International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museum Theory, Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2015, pp. 283–301. Some of the literature concerned with the Historic House Museum – such as Nuala Hancock’s ‘Virginia Woolf’s Glasses: Material Encounters in the Literary/Artistic House Museum’, in Sandra Dudley, ed., Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations, New York: Routledge, 2010, pp. 114–27 – does resonate here, but these properties crucially provide a frozen, retrospective view into the past home of a historic figure or figures of import and so are fundamentally different from the country-house-presented-as-home.

  74. Fiona Candlin, Micromuseology: An Analysis of Small Independent Museums, London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

  75. Candlin, Micromuseology, ch. 1, esp. pp. 25, 32; quoting Tony Bennett, ‘Difference and the Logic of Culture’, in Ivan Karp, ed., Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations, Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2006, p. 49.

  76. https://www.historichouses.org/. See, for example, the image featured at https://www.historichouses.org/resources/latest-news/where-britain-s-history-lives-a-new-look-for-historic-houses.html (accessed 9 January 2019). I am grateful to Ben Cowell, Director of Historic Houses, for conversation on this point, and for showing me other publicity shots similarly constructed around a striking juxtaposition of the historic house/art collection and day-to-day family life, particularly featuring young children.

  77. Devonshire, 1982, pp. 102–3.

  78. Devonshire, 1982, p. 106.

  79. Devonshire, 2002, pp. 148–50.



by Kate Retford
20 November 2020
Thematic Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Kate Retford, "‘A family home and not … a museum’: Living with the Country House Art Collection", Art and the Country House, https://doi.org/10.17658/ACH/TE582