Mount Stuart Introduction

Essay by Martin Postle

Mount Stuart, on the Isle of Bute – the remarkable Victorian edifice built by the 3rd Marquess of Bute, following the destruction by fire of the family’s ancestral home in the 1870s – contains one of the most significant art collections in the British Isles. The Bute Collection, which remains the private property of the present Marquess of Bute, is cared for today by the Mount Stuart Trust. At the heart of the collection is the important series of European paintings acquired in the late eighteenth century by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Located from the 1770s until the mid-nineteenth century in the Bute country house at Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire, and redistributed subsequently in various Bute family residences – including Cardiff Castle, Dumfries House and St John’s Lodge, Regent’s Park – the 3rd Earl’s collection forms an important point of focus in the present study.

The central essay in the case study, by Caitlin Blackwell Baines, presents a historical overview of the Bute Collection and its journey through different family houses from the early eighteenth century to the present day, including dynastic family portraiture, Dutch and Italian Old Masters, and sporting art. Blackwell Baines’s account draws heavily upon the evidence presented in picture inventories, catalogues and valuations contained in the archive at Mount Stuart. In order to assist the reader, and future researchers, Blackwell Baines also provides a comprehensive catalogue of the relevant documents in the Mount Stuart archive. Among these documents, the most comprehensive catalogue that relates to the picture collection is the so-called ‘Rough Catalogue of Pictures, Luton Park’ – an undated manuscript of around 1799. In recognition of its significance, a photographic reproduction of the ‘Rough Catalogue’ is included in the present case study, together with an introduction and complete transcription by Blackwell Baines.

In the present case study, research on works of art in the Bute Collection, not least in relation to their acquisition and display history, is linked inextricably to the archive at Mount Stuart, which is, in its own right, among the richest and most comprehensive resources of its kind. However, while the material in the archive goes back many hundreds of years, it has been accreted through documentary material garnered from many branches of the Bute family through intermarriage. In addition, it is only over the past few decades that there has been a concerted campaign to organise and catalogue the archive, in order both to understand better its historic importance and allow greater accessibility. Here, in the context of the case study, Lynsey Nairn, Archivist at Mount Stuart, provides an overview of the archive and its various components, as well as her own key role in its recent organisation and development. In her contribution, Nairn also shines a spotlight on a number of important objects in the archive relating to fields of research beyond the remit of the case study, but which are quite remarkable in their own right.

Portraiture, as well as old-master painting, is integral to the picture collection at Mount Stuart, not least the highly important series of dynastic full-length portraits commissioned from the early eighteenth century into the early decades of the nineteenth century, from leading artists, including William Aikman, Godfrey Kneller, Allan Ramsay, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and Henry Raeburn. These portraits collectively form a microcosmic history of the genre. It is this series of ‘honours’ portraits, in the context of the political and dynastic ambitions of the Bute family, that forms the focus of the essay by Martin Postle and Lisa Ford.

One particular early portrait in the collection, of the family of Edward, 3rd Baron Windsor, is the focus of the essay by Edward Town; it is one of six sixteenth-century paintings that now hang in the so-called Henry VIII Room at Mount Stuart. As Town explains, the history of this portrait highlights the status of the Bute Collection as a ‘collection of collections’. More generally, it adverts to the role and perception of Tudor painting in the history of Country House studies, and the display trajectory of such pictures over generations, where the identities of artists and sitters alike become confused or even lost in the mists of time.

In an essay that seeks to relate paintings in the Bute Collection to family interests beyond the immediate realm of art, Oliver Cox examines the collection of sporting art at Mount Stuart during two phases of collecting: in the mid-eighteenth and the twentieth centuries. From his perspective as a political historian, Cox interrogates the way in which horses and equine culture, in the flesh and on canvas, can be related to the politicking and collecting habits of the 3rd Earl of Bute in the 1760s and the 4th Marquess of Bute some 170 years later.

The case study also acknowledges the active role played by Mount Stuart today in promoting an interest in contemporary art and artists, particularly through the annual contemporary visual arts programme, founded in 2001. In their contribution, Morven Gregor, Visual Arts Programme Co-ordinator, and Sophie Crichton Stuart, chair of Mount Stuart Trust, reflect on the evolution of the role of contemporary art in the house, the surrounding gardens and landscape, and considers its present and future ambitions.

Finally, the Paul Mellon Centre has commissioned a short film by Jon Law, Paul Mellon Centre Research Fellow and Filmmaker, focusing upon the impact of the Isle of Bute and Mount Stuart upon a variety of visitors and travel writers over the centuries.


  • Dr Martin Postle is Deputy Director for Grants and Publications at the Paul Mellon Centre. Between 1998 and 2007 he was Head of British Art to 1900 at Tate. Martin's research and publication interests focus principally on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British art, including portraiture, landscape and the history of art academies. He has curated exhibitions on a wide range of subjects, including the artist’s model, the Fancy Picture and the art of the garden, as well as monographic exhibitions on Joshua Reynolds, Johan Zoffany, Richard Wilson, Stanley Spencer and George Stubbs. Martin is project leader and commissioning editor of ‘Art & the Country House’, to which he has contributed a number of essays and catalogue entries.


by Martin Postle
20 November 2020
House Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Martin Postle, "Mount Stuart Introduction", Art and the Country House,