Mells Manor: Introduction to the Catalogue of Paintings and Drawings
Essay by Martin Postle
The art collection at Mells Manor, Somerset, consists of more than a hundred paintings and drawings, dating from the early fifteenth century to the present day. This catalogue, although it does not contain every single art work in the house, represents the bulk of the collection and provides detailed information relating to artists, attributions, subject matter and the history and context of the works in question. Mells Manor, home to the Earl and Countess of Oxford and Asquith and their family, has an intimate and alluring ambience, its collection of art works distributed throughout the interior, often combining different styles, schools of art and time periods in the same space. The guiding principle at Mells is aesthetic pleasure rather than canonical strictures imposed by the framework of art history: thus, early Italian sacred subjects are juxtaposed with Pre-Raphaelite portraiture, while images of eighteenth-century Italian cardinals rub shoulders with depictions of local family members. It is vital to keep in mind the eclectic nature of the display when exploring Mells. However, for the benefit of the reader, and for taxonomic reasons, the collection is presented in the catalogue in strict chronological order, spanning – through the ninety-two works represented – a period of more than five hundred years, from the 1420s to the late 1940s.
The earliest works in the collection are the thirty paintings by Italian artists from the 1420s to the mid-seventeenth century. These works were all assembled initially by the Glaswegian merchant William Graham (MM75) and came into the collection as wedding gifts to his daughter Frances, when she married the barrister Sir John Horner in 1883. The paintings, with the rest of the collection, were at that time displayed at Mells Park House, the family’s eighteenth-century country house. With the exception of a small number of the paintings which form this component of the collection, notably the series of five pictures attributed to Jacopo Bellini and his workshop (MM7–MM11) and the Crucifixion by Matteo di Giovanni (MM12), the early Italian pictures have received scant critical attention. The Paul Mellon Centre was, therefore, fortunate to engage the distinguished Italian Renaissance scholar Professor Paul Joannides to catalogue the works. Given the particular importance in Renaissance scholarship of connoisseurial issues relating to questions of attribution, Professor Joannides has consulted widely with a number of international authorities in their respective fields in order to interrogate existing attributions and posit new ones. As Joannides acknowledges, the exercise involves inevitably a degree of speculation: a number of works certainly merit further research and, in some instances, technical investigation. Furthermore, like any self-respecting catalogue, it marks the beginning and not the end.
The paintings in the collection from the seventeenth century consist for the most part of portraits, with the notable exception of a depiction of the Mynedeep Forest (MM34), one of several such curious maps in existence; a classical landscape, here attributed to Gaspard Dughet (MM37); and The Entry into Noah’s Ark (MM33) by a follower of Jacopo Bassano. The portraits, catalogued by Amy Lim, are for the most part members of the Horner family. The quality of these portraits varies considerably and in a number of instances both the identity of the artist and the sitter remain uncertain. Where the artist is unknown, a possible identity is suggested based on stylistic grounds and comparative works from the period. There is, however, room for further speculation.
At Mells, the eighteenth century is also represented principally by portraiture. Here, as with the previous century, members of the Horner family are represented through portraits that hung, when they were created, at Mells Park Manor. There are, however exceptions. They include the impressive full-length portraits of Thomas Horner (MM53) and Sir John Coxe Hippisley (MM54), which evidently only entered the collection during the twentieth century and now hang in the Dining Room. The portrait of Hippisley is of particular significance, art historically, since it is the only known portrait in oils by William Pars, otherwise known as a topographical landscape artist. Its significance and its journey through various collections and locations are discussed in the separate ‘Object in Focus’ study.
The impact on the collection of Sir John Coxe Hippisley, who married into the Horner family in 1801, is considerable, even though he himself never resided at Mells. Apart from the portrait by Pars, Hippisley is represented by two other closely related portraits from the 1790s (MM57 and MM58), as well as a series of portraits of members of the Catholic Stuart court in exile, presented to him by Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal York (MM47–MM50), and now displayed above library shelving, along with the portraits of Hippisley.
In the nineteenth century there is a relative lacuna in the collection until the early 1860s, from which time works by the Pre-Raphaelites are represented, including an important pastel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Donna della Fenestra (MM62), featuring as the model Frances Graham, before her marriage to Sir John Horner. Her father, William Graham, in addition to his interest in early Italian painting, was an important patron of both Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. As explored by Devon Cox in his catalogue entries, Burne-Jones is a significant presence at Mells, his platonic friendship with Frances Graham over several decades resulting in the gifting of a series of drawings and designs for tapestry, embroidered by Frances and other female members of the family. Among the most impressive of Burne-Jones’s works is the large pencil study for Love and the Pilgrim (MM67), presented by the artist to Frances Graham as a Valentine’s Day gift in 1883. Items in the collection from this period also include works by less well-known artists, including the physically ailing and chronically impecunious George Chapman, who painted the portraits of Frances and her sister Amy around 1870 (MM66 and MM65 respectively).
By the early twentieth century, photography had largely displaced painting in terms of the portrayal of family members, the portrait of Sir John Horner (MM83), husband of Frances, by the gentleman-artist Richard Evelyn Fuller Maitland being a notable exception. Artists, however, continued to be welcomed to Mells Manor, to which the family had returned in the early 1900s. During the 1920s and thirties those artists who were patronised painted principally landscapes, including Paul Nash (MM84) and William Nicholson, who also painted a trompe l’oeil library door (MM82) featuring three giant-sized volumes. Other artists who visited Mells during the inter-war period included Henry Lamb, Rex Whistler, and the mercurial Welsh artist David Jones, whose fragile mental health caused him to seek sanctuary there on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War (MM91 and MM92). Today, owing to the generosity of spirit of the Earl and Countess of Oxford and Asquith in opening their home and archive to the scholars involved in the present research project, it has been possible to shed further light on the art collection at Mells, to explore in depth its variegated contents and history, and to share its contents with a wider audience.
- by Martin Postle
- 20 November 2020
- House Essay
- CC BY-NC International 4.0
- Cite as
- Martin Postle, "Mells Manor: Introduction to the Catalogue of Paintings and Drawings", Art and the Country House, https://doi.org/10.17658/ACH/MME587