Petworth Introduction

Essay by Martin Postle

Petworth is one of Britain's greatest 'treasure houses'. Its collection, accrued over several centuries, includes British and old master paintings, murals, tapestries, sculpture and antique statuary, ornate wood-carving schemes, porcelain, silver, furnishings, books and prints. Petworth’s family history is connected with some of the country's most influential dynasties, including the Earls of Northumberland, the Dukes of Somerset and the Earls of Egremont. Reconstructed by the 6th Duke of Somerset in the late seventeenth century, and remodelled once more in the 1870s, Petworth is also among the largest of Britain's country houses, containing several miles of corridors and a myriad of rooms, set in seven hundred acres of rolling parkland.

Among the various aristocratic owners of Petworth across the centuries, perhaps the most influential collector, in terms of the impact of his taste upon the interior of the house, was George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, conspicuous for his patronage of contemporary British artists, notably J. M. W. Turner. Having no legitimate male heir, Lord Egremont bequeathed Petworth to his illegitimate son Colonel George Wyndham, subsequently created Lord Leconfield. It was from Lord Leconfield that the ownership of Petworth passed in 1901 to his grandson Charles Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Leconfield. Although his principal passion in life was hunting, and he professed little interest in art, Charles Wyndham and his cultured wife, Lady Violet, were instrumental in opening up the State Rooms at Petworth to the public, and it was during his residency that, in 1920, Charles Henry Collins Baker published, under the aegis of Lady Violet, the magisterial Catalogue of Pictures in the Possession of Lord Leconfield, a book that, although privately published in a limited edition, exposed for the first time to a wider public the riches of the painting collection at Petworth. It was also under Charles Wyndham's stewardship that, in 1947, Petworth was gifted, with a significant endowment, to the National Trust.

The institutional impact of the National Trust upon Petworth in the early Post-War period is evoked wonderfully by Max Egremont, 2nd Baron Egremont, in his essay for the present case study. There, he also mentions the role of Anthony Blunt in reorganising the picture collection, characterised by his cavalier attitude towards the existing displays, and intent upon re-presenting the house as a public space, informed by strictly pedagogical museum principles. Since the 1950s, under the aegis of the National Trust, much has been done in terms of researching the collections and re-interpreting the display spaces. Even so, what is not readily apparent to the average visitor to Petworth, nor, indeed, to the readers of the various iterations of the National Trust guidebooks, is that the house and its collections comprise far more than is viewed on the ground-floor tour of a dozen or so apartments. The reason for this is that, when it acquired Petworth, the Trust agreed that Lord Leconfield and his descendants should continue to occupy part of the house, which they continue to do. In addition, the Trust only acquired a proportion of the paintings, leaving those they did not require in the possession of the family.

The current case study, which has been carried out with the enthusiastic support of Lord and Lady Egremont and the National Trust, explores collections and displays in both the private and public apartments at Petworth, seeking to present a more nuanced and joined-up picture of the entire house and its contents. In addition to Lord Egremont's personal recollections of his early experiences, we are extremely grateful to Alec Cobbe for his first-hand account of his seminal role in the rehanging and redecoration of the private apartments and, latterly, the public apartments, from the 1980s onwards. In our recent exploration of the house, and its labyrinth of passages and chambers, we also encountered some less-charted territory, notably the remote Print Room in an upper room at the north end of the house. This room, which remains virtually untouched since the creation of its current decorative scheme in the mid-eighteenth century, forms the basis of a painstaking piece of research by Esther Chadwick, who not only provides a broad historical context for the Print Room, but has succeeded in identifying and cataloguing each and every print.

In addition to the aforementioned contributions, an overview of the related archival material relating to the house and its collection is provided by Emily Burns, whose research explores through the documentation the collecting habits and various strategies for display employed by successive generations of owners. In addition, this component of the project includes the transcription of two particular documentary sources: the 2nd Earl of Egremont's picture purchases during the mid-eighteenth century and a list of paintings in the house during the occupancy of the 3rd Earl, made towards the end of his life, in the mid-1830s. Andrew Loukes, the National Trust's on-site curator at Petworth, shares his considerable knowledge of the collection and the house's history in an essay devoted to the 3rd Earl, highlighting not only the trajectory of his patronage of artists and his collecting, but his active concern with curatorship.

A particular aspect of the 3rd Earl's patronage is interrogated in M. G. Sullivan's focused research on the monumental figure sculptures Egremont commissioned from contemporaries John Flaxman, J. C. F. Rossi and John Edward Carew. While the 3rd Earl is remembered as an enlightened and generous patron of the arts, the commissions undertaken by Carew in particular, reveal a darker side to his patronage, underlining the precarious position in which artists could find themselves in implementing such ambitious and costly schemes. The case study also foregrounds significant new research undertaken by Tabitha Barber, which is centred upon one room, and one series of paintings: the set of seven full-length portraits of aristocratic women by the Swedish-born artist Michael Dahl, commissioned by Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset, which, despite their fluctuating fortunes and the vagaries of taste, continue to modulate the tone of the display in the aptly named 'Beauty Room' at Petworth.

Finally, I should like to extend my thanks to the conservator Helen Wyld, who speaks so eloquently and with such expertise about the little-known mid-eighteenth-century tapestries by Paul Saunders in the private apartments at Petworth, the rare woven carpets by Claude Passavant, and a series of late seventeenth-century Beauvais tapestries, all of which belonged originally to Egremont House in London. Helen's research is contained in the film 'The Petworth Tapestries', commissioned by the Paul Mellon Centre from Jon Law, whose series of films have made such a special contribution to 'Art & the Country House'.


  • 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, "Petworth Introduction", Art and the Country House,