Picturing Petworth

Essay by Alec Cobbe

Some time in 1983 I received a letter from Max, Lord Egremont, whom I had known since my student days at Oxford. He had learnt that I had been re-organising picture collections in various country houses and he and his wife Caroline now invited me to Petworth to advise on the hanging of two paintings by Andrea del Sarto. The pictures had just returned from a fifteen-year restoration at the Courtauld Institute and were yet to go up on the walls. We looked at possible locations. Hanging any picture, but particularly ones of such importance, might involve rethinking a whole room or, indeed, as would prove in this instance, an entire collection. Great houses often have pictures to spare in storage and I asked the Egremonts if this was the case at Petworth. Never again would I encounter such a scenario as they then proceeded to reveal in the upper reaches of the house.

Max and Caroline took me up and showed me long corridors of romantically named, shuttered and abandoned rooms: Belzamine Room, Tapestry Room, Buff Room, Cigar Room, Trellis Room, to name a few. In every room was stack after stack of gilt-framed pictures, covered in dust and cobwebs (fig. 1). They were tiered on the walls as well and some were lying face up on the floors: one, which I happened to pick up, in the passage to Lord Percy’s Room, proved to be a potential Claude, another, the head of a woman, was by Paris Bordone, her bare breasts prudishly covered with overpaint by a doughty restorer.1 How had they come to be there? During the 1950s, I learnt, Max’s father had been advised by Anthony Blunt, the distinguished art historian, adviser to the National Trust and spy. He had subtracted hundreds of pictures from the densely hung walls of the principal private rooms below, which he perceived as ‘a hideous Victorian muddle’.

Pictures and frames stacked in an upper room at Petworth House

Figure 1.
Pictures and frames stacked in an upper room at Petworth House, 1983. Photograph. Petworth House.

Digital image courtesy of Alec Cobbe. (All rights reserved)

It was obvious that a record of the chaos in those forgotten rooms should be made. It could not be good that so much of the original collection was lying around in chaotic neglect. I have no idea whether Max, when he wrote to me, had had anything in mind other than his declared intention of integrating the two del Sartos into ‘the general scheme of things’ but, I suggested, and he and Caroline enthusiastically decided there and then, that we should embark on a massive rationalisation of the pictures at Petworth (fig. 2). So began my close involvement with this great collection that would stretch over decades and exert a profound influence on my own attitudes to interior architecture, collecting and design.

Lord and Lady Egremont choosing paintings with Alec Cobbe in the upper rooms at Petworth

Figure 2.
Alec Cobbe, Lord and Lady Egremont choosing paintings with Alec Cobbe in the upper rooms at Petworth, 1983. Acrylic on panel, 31 × 27.5 cm.

Digital image courtesy of Alec Cobbe. (All rights reserved)

The total collection of pictures surviving at Petworth numbered about 750, of which some three hundred were ceded to the National Trust in a pioneering arrangement under the ‘acceptance in lieu’ provision of the 1953 Finance Act. The survey that I embarked on enumerated 450 pictures remaining in family ownership. It took several visits to complete and, once done, it showed that Blunt in pursuing his aesthetic ideal had advised that more than two thirds of the family-owned pictures should be consigned to storage. Today this seems astonishing. Many owners given such advice from so eminent a figure might have consigned the lot to the salerooms.

Of the pictures remaining with the family after the cession to the National Trust, close on three hundred of every possible size were lying fallow in the upper reaches of the house. Many were paintings not considered good enough to be accepted in lieu of tax. There were others of serious quality – numerous portraits by Reynolds, Dahl and Kerseboom, a series of beautiful unfinished Hoppners, versions of Van Dyck portraits, Dutch landscapes, genre scenes by artists such as Dominicus van Tol and various large pictures painted for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. Approaching the top of the stairs outside the Old Library was Northcote’s violent pillow-smothering of the Princes in the Tower and in the Buff Dressing Room, stacked unframed, was Lawrence’s powerful portrait of Pope Pius VII, probably an uncompleted version that was finished after the artist’s death by Lawrence’s assistant, John Simpson.2

Survey completed, we began to think how we should set about things. Neither Max nor Caroline felt the need to disturb Max’s parents’ redecoration of the rooms they were living in, much of which had been done with the advice of John Fowler, who had also been employed, less successfully, on the National Trust side of the house.

I am not quite sure why we decided to start on the Private Dining Room. Perhaps because it was a mid-sized room that would be quickly achieved. It had been successfully decorated by the firm of Lenygon and Morant during the early twentieth century in a harmonious combination of pale pinks, greys and off-whites. My design for the room in 1983 was conservative at first, simply putting up the existing two Reynolds three-quarter-length portraits on either side of the fireplace with room to admit unspecified pictures underneath. Equally, the Holbein of Edward VI at the end of the room was raised to admit another unspecified picture below. My proposal increased the number of pictures hanging in the room from nine to sixteen (we were always conscious of the numbers with a view to incorporating all the unused pictures into the used rooms). However, as discussions and the scheme developed, it became bolder. I suggested bringing the full-length Gainsborough of Lady Egremont in her coronation robes in from the Red Library and the full-length Reynolds portrait of Mrs Musters down from the State Bedroom, to form two striking pictures on either side of the fireplace (fig. 3). The room was otherwise articulated with columns of head-and-shoulder portraits on either side of the end window, above the doors and above the mirrors on the piers of the long window-wall. The Holbein of Edward VI would be moved to the Red Library and replaced with the larger full-length portrait of Colonel Wyndham by Sir Francis Grant.

Private Dining Room, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe

Figure 3.
Private Dining Room, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe, photograph. Petworth House.

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin. (All rights reserved)

With this accomplished, we turned our attention to the Red Library, where Max worked at his desk. It was here that we had decided to incorporate the two del Sartos that had returned from the Courtauld Institute and which were stacked in the unused State Bedroom. We felt that it was important that the rooms in which the family mostly lived should be hung with some of the best pictures. Around the del Sartos we would group an assortment of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian old masters, garnered from the rooms above, incorporating the now restored Paris Bordone and a Salviati portrait among them. Once again, the initial drawn design that I prepared was more cautious than the execution of the hang. A symmetrically arranged group of four smaller unspecified pictures hanging beside Max’s desk in the proposal was replaced with one large magical Lely of the young 11th Earl of Northumberland, hunting with his dog, which was especially cleaned. The room eventually received a hang of fifty-three pictures, where there had been only nine (figs. 4 & 5). The adjoining White Library was hung in sympathy with watercolours by Turner which showed arrangements of portraits above the bookcases. Phillips’s portrait of the 3rd Earl seated in the room provided additional evidence of columns of pictures between the bookshelves (fig. 6).

South wall, Red Library, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe

Figure 4.
South wall, Red Library, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe, photograph. Petworth House.

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin. (All rights reserved)

North wall, Red Library, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe

Figure 5.
North wall, Red Library, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe, photograph. Petworth House.

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin. (All rights reserved)

Above: JMW Turner, White Library, Petworth (detail). Tate (D22678). Below: White Library, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe (Petworth House)

Figure 6.
Above: JMW Turner, White Library, Petworth (detail). Tate (D22678). Below: White Library, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe (Petworth House),

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin / Tate. (All rights reserved)

The next spaces to which we turned were the Stone Hall and the Main Corridor on the ground floor leading from the Stone Hall to the Red and White Libraries and the Dining Room. The Stone Hall already had the huge Wootton in it and the two large van Goyens on either side of the fireplace. It was a question of giving it an upper rank and overdoors of portraits, for which the various Kersebooms and sub-Lelys came into play (fig. 7). Over the fireplace there is a bronze relief, above which was a gap too small for a three-quarter-length portrait. Caroline had the idea of an anniversary cypher of her and Max’s intertwined initials, composed on a tondo, which I duly painted and for which a frame was made by John Davies of Norfolk.

Stone Hall, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe

Figure 7.
Stone Hall, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe, photograph. Petworth House.

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin. (All rights reserved)

The tall, narrow space of the Corridor appeared bleak and was punctuated with oddly placed internal windows intended to provide light to the narrow staircases behind. I conceived the idea of using ranks of full-length portraits at the upper level of this corridor, ignoring and indeed concealing the windows with pictures. Beneath them, smaller pictures were arranged.

At about this stage, the National Trust became aware of this major family project. Anxious not to miss out on the bounty from the trove of family-owned pictures in store, they commissioned me to rethink the hang of the publicly shown rooms of the house. This would eventually lead to some redecoration. John Fowler had been employed in the 1950s by St John (Bobby) Gore, then Adviser on Paintings to the National Trust, to redecorate a number of the public rooms, including the Square Dining Room, which he had painted in a lemon-yellow colour. The walls of a room in which Blunt wished to group many Turners were covered with a yellow rep fabric chosen in collaboration with Lady Egremont (the Dowager Pamela). In Turner’s time this room had been red. The great North Gallery had been covered with chip paper and painted in a horrible orangey colour. The origin of the latter was reported in family anecdote to have been arrived at when one of the painters said as Fowler was leaving the house one day: ‘Mr Fowler, you didn’t give us the colour for the Gallery.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, turning back, ‘just paint it the colour of Campbell’s tomato soup’ and so they did.

The contrast between working for the family and the National Trust was considerable. With the former, I would stay in the house and rise at five or six in the morning to leaf through the stacks of pictures, sketch out ideas and be ready to direct the men who commenced at eight. With the National Trust, naturally, many more people were involved. Ideas were mostly discussed with Christopher Rowell, the Historic Buildings Representative, and tested on Dudley Dodd and Martin Drury, Historic Buildings Secretary. A proposal might then be put forward to the members of the Arts Panel, who met only a small number of times a year. By this time, an extraordinarily valuable document of 1837 by Petworth’s Rector, Thomas Sockett, was coming into play. He had listed and sketched the picture arrangements of each wall of most of the main rooms (as illustrated in Emily Burn’s study in the present project). His document did not cover the family Dining Room, or indeed the Red Library or family corridor, but the rooms from there on were included by him. Moreover, there was another source documenting the picture hangs of the first decades of the nineteenth century, namely interior watercolours of Petworth by Turner himself and the occasional painting by Charles Robert Leslie. By the 1980s scholars believed that Turner might have played a part in advising the Earl of Egremont on the display of pictures at Petworth. His watercolours may even have documented hangs he advised.

There was much proper discussion as to whether we should hang faithful reconstructions of these documented hangs. The prevailing view of the Arts Panel at first was that this would be impossible and pointless. They illustrated their argument with Turner’s watercolour of the Square Dining Room, pointing out the oval self-portrait of Reynolds plonked on top of the same artist’s huge Macbeth and the Witches like an apple on William Tell’s head and protruding into the cornice, saying one could not possibly do such a thing now. Actually, that was something I was longing to do. I suggested to Christopher Rowell that we do a trial hang to show the Arts Panel the sort of thing that might be achieved. This was agreed and I chose precisely that wall of the Square Dining Room and the watercolour by Turner of it for the trial (fig. 8). The Arts Panel visited and liked it so much that they oscillated immediately to the other extreme, saying that documented hangs should be done throughout the whole house. This of course was not possible but it was agreed that the approach would be historical, tempered wherever necessary by the availability of pictures and other desiderata. In the end, there was a consensus that recreated hangs should be devised where it seemed appropriate. The Square Dining Room hang was accepted as a given.

A wall of The Square Dining Room at Petworth House (Cobbe Collection)

Figure 8.
Above left: Alec Cobbe, A wall of The Square Dining Room at Petworth House (Cobbe Collection), Above, right: JMW Turner, The South Wall of the Square Dining Room, Petworth (Tate D22770). Below: South Wall of the Square Dining Room, Petworth, as redecorated and rehung by Alec Cobbe (Petworth House).

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin / Tate. (All rights reserved)

Another of the ‘Turner’ hangs was the reinstatement of the two Shirley portraits by Van Dyck in the Red Room, which was then hung in the yellow rep by Anthony Blunt for all the Turners. Everyone was agreed on this but in the event the execution was attended by some near-farcical side-tracks. At the time when Turner painted the Shirley Van Dycks hanging there, during the later 1820s, the pictures had been substantially extended and reframed. These frames were copies, then newly made, of an eighteenth-century model still on a full-length portrait of Queen Anne in the Beauty Room. In the 1950s when the pictures for cession to the National Trust were being considered, Blunt had advised acceptance of the two portraits but to have the offending nineteenth-century additions removed in order to return them to their original conformation. Their 1830s frames now obsolete, he then had them reframed in late seventeenth-century Petworth livery frames adjusted from two spares in the attics, ceded for the purpose by the family. The discarded nineteenth-century frames were abandoned upstairs and remained the property of the family. In the intervening years, their gilding fell into disrepair.

To re-create the Turner view of the Shirley Van Dycks in the Red Room, it was felt that they should be put back into these long-discarded frames since they were readily identifiable in Turner’s watercolour. But, of course, the frames were now too large since the nineteenth-century additions to the pictures had been removed and the frames still belonged to the family. Max and Caroline naturally offered to lend them to the National Trust. It was a simple matter to reduce their size to match the original smaller size of the Van Dycks and we urged them to go ahead with the necessary alterations. However, the frame restorers, commissioned by the National Trust to restore the gilding, now pronounced the frames to be splendid eighteenth-century originals and that it would be sacrilegious to tamper with their size. They won the argument, so a pot of money was spent on commissioning substantial additions to Van Dyck’s masterpieces in order that they should fit the now-restored 1830s frames. Notwithstanding the restorer Simon Folkes producing excellent eight-inch wide strips of authentic-looking ‘Van Dyck’ to enlarge the pictures, the outcome was completely wrong. The visual impact of the portraits was horribly impaired by the compositional slackening that invariably takes place if you add meaningless areas of canvas to the margins of a work. Eventually, after a year or two, common sense prevailed, when someone whom the National Trust respected told them the frames could not possibly be from the eighteenth century. The expensive new additions were removed and the frames invisibly cut down with wholly satisfactory results (fig. 9).

The Red Room, Petworth (detail)

Figure 9.
Above: JMW Turner, The Red Room, Petworth (detail), Tate (D22683). Below: The Red Room, Petworth, as redecorated and rehung by Alec Cobbe (Petworth House).

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin / Tate. (All rights reserved)

Family Spaces

Meanwhile, work on the family spaces had continued with the Church Bedroom, in which we hung an enormous group portrait by Hieronymus de Neve, and then the Chamber Passage. This was a great atrium to the family bedrooms, lit by a skylight and approached by a corridor. We treated it as a densely hung gallery in the manner of the British Institution, hanging it with mainly English gallery pictures, including Opies, Hoppners and Romneys (fig. 10). In the approaching corridor, we hung five Polidoro panels, their architectural wooden frames painted in a strident turquoise-green colour. Edward Bulmer, who was then working with me, had a talented hand for faux marbre; together we had marbled all the columns and pilasters in the domed Music Room at Hatchlands, Surrey. He carried out some excellent subdued Rouge Royal marbling on the Polidoro frames. At the family end of the corridor we covered another internal window with the Lawrence/Simpson portrait of Pope Pius VII as a splendid end to the view (fig. 11).

Final Plan for the hanging of the Chamber Passage as an Upper Gallery, Petworth

Figure 10.
Alec Cobbe, Final Plan for the hanging of the Chamber Passage as an Upper Gallery, Petworth, gouache and watercolour on paper. Cobbe Collection.

Digital image courtesy of Alec Cobbe. (All rights reserved)

The Chamber Passage, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe

Figure 11.
The Chamber Passage, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe, photograph. Petworth House.

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin. (All rights reserved)

The Polidoros had originally hung under the full-length ladies in the Beauty Room, until the 3rd Earl of Egremont had the Beauties’ knees rolled up behind to shorten them in order to instate a ‘Waterloo arrangement’ underneath. This consisted of two battle scenes of Vittoria and Waterloo by George Jones, flanking a portrait of Napoleon, produced to order by Thomas Phillips. The National Trust entertained plans to unroll the Beauties and return the Polidoros to their earlier position, but the plan was delayed by the discovery that some of the beauties had suffered their legs being cut off rather than folded back.3

The Cambridge Bedroom, its Dressing Room and the Tapestry Bedroom followed. The State Bedroom, previously the Dowager’s bedroom, had been decorated for her by John Fowler in a lingerie pink colour that he affectedly called ‘Cuisse de Nymphe Emu’. Against this background were applied swags made up from bits of the carvings by Jonathan Ritson that had been removed from the Carved Room and painted white for the purpose. The room had lain empty since Max and Caroline had taken over at Petworth and now they decided to make this their bedroom.4 The elaborate carved gilt state bed in the room had been sent to be restored and when it returned was placed in another room – Mrs Wyndham’s – where it could be shown to the public. A different bed was to be hung with painted fabric and for the pictures in this room, we decided to group the series of unfinished Hoppners of the 3rd Earl’s daughters together with, as a centrepiece, that of the Lamb sisters in a wooded landscape (fig. 12). This too had been left unfinished by Hoppner but was completed successfully by John Rising, resulting in a picture reminiscent of Hoppner’s great portrait of the Frankland sisters in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

The State Bedroom, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe

Figure 12.
The State Bedroom, Petworth, as rehung by Alec Cobbe, photograph. Petworth House.

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin. (All rights reserved)

The North Gallery

It was a momentous decision by the National Trust to rid the North Gallery of its ‘Campbell’s soup’ colour. The room is a vast complex space consisting of a vestibule running the entire width of the house, with arches opening into a main Gallery of the same length, which in turn had a square extension to the North. Everyone was agreed that as long as the objectionable colour remained, dominating the climax for the visitor, the house could never look good. Turner’s watercolours showed it had then been painted in a pale-ish grey and it was the National Trust’s intention to return it to this original colour. At the time there were fifty-three pictures hanging in the Gallery, many of them large. With these taken down and redecoration under way, I arrived one morning with Christopher Rowell and found the decorators tearing off the chip paper, which revealed a splendidly rich earlier oxblood colour. This was painted on paper, and they were tearing that off too. They had already taken most of it off in the square extension. I urged Christopher to call a halt; it seemed to me that the colour being revealed, with its patination, was a near perfect one for pictures, particularly for pictures and frames in a somewhat dimmed state. So this colour, which must have dated from the 1870s, was preserved and a talented house-painter from Campbell Smith & Co, Mark Gowland, re-created the old red in the square extension, where it had been destroyed. Paint scrapes had already shown that the cornice had once been picked out in a black and terracotta ‘Greek vase’ manner and this scheme clearly matched the deep red of the walls.

The project also involved consideration of the numerous sculptures, both ancient and modern. A portrait of the 3rd Earl sitting in the North Gallery, by Thomas Phillips, showed the two great Carew sculptures The Falconer and Arethusa on either side of the North extensions. They were currently housed in the National Trust’s tea rooms in a space historically known as the Audit Room. It was the National Trust’s idea, which I enthusiastically supported, to place these in what appeared, if Phillips’s picture was taken as evidence, to have been their original positions (fig. 13). This was a massive operation and they had to be lowered by cranes through skylights. The final effect was excellent and only slightly marred by the later discovery that their Gallery siting was entirely Phillips’s (or Lord Egremont’s) fanciful idea and that their original position was in fact the Audit Room.

Petworth North Gallery. Scheme for the North Bay (Cobbe Collection)

Figure 13.
Above right: Alec Cobbe, Petworth North Gallery. Scheme for the North Bay (Cobbe Collection), Below: The North Bay, North Gallery, Petworth, as redecorated and rehung by Alec Cobbe (Petworth House), Above left: The North Bay, North Gallery, Petworth, showing pre-Cobbe hang (Petworth House).

Digital image courtesy of Alexey Moskvin. (All rights reserved)

The hanging of so many pictures in the North Gallery and the arrangement of the sculptures, in this complex space, was a most challenging operation. The working design for the operation, which took many days, is reproduced here (fig. 14). The net result was, as elsewhere in the house, a denser covering of the walls, with 114 pictures being deployed.

The North Gallery Petworth House, Sussex: arrangement of pictures suggested for the Trial rehanging

Figure 14.
Alec Cobbe, The North Gallery Petworth House, Sussex: arrangement of pictures suggested for the Trial rehanging, January 1990. Pen & ink and pencil on paper. Cobbe Collection.

Digital image courtesy of Alec Cobbe (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The Somerset Room

By 1995–6 the National Trust had decided to review the decoration of the Square Dining Room, which was a pale lemon-yellow, as was also the Somerset Room. I believe these perfectly pleasant colours had been chosen with the advice of John Fowler. Moreover, it was decided to make the Somerset Room a particularly strong hang of paintings collected by the 6th Duke of Somerset (1662–1748), who had married the Percy heiress in the early eighteenth century. These included the huge landscape with Jacob and Laban by Claude. This was a picture that had been owned by Sir Robert Gayer (c.1636–1702) prior to its purchase by the Duke of Somerset in 1686. The smaller landscape with a bridge and an idealised view of Tivoli, which I had found on the floor in the Lord Percy rooms, possessed the same provenance. Gayer’s name is inscribed on the reverse of Claude’s Liber Veritatis drawings of both compositions in a seventeenth-century hand (1776 edition in the British Museum). This strengthens the argument for a Claude attribution of the Tivoli landscape, which itself is a variant version of a yet smaller, undoubted, copper panel in the Courtauld Institute’s Princes Gate collection.

The beautiful Jacob and Laban approaches seven feet in width; I remember seeing a conservation report from the 1950s which stated that there was a large tear in it, with the annotation ‘a man could climb through it’. I wished to hang this painting on the main wall opposite the fireplace, to make a centre of gravity for the planned dense hang. Art historians, however, argued that the orientation of light in the picture (not overly pronounced) should match that of the window placement in the room, which would mean hanging it to one side of the fireplace, so it would be lit by a window from the left. My own instincts were that the light issue was of lesser importance; nonetheless I bowed to art-historical opinion and the picture was hung a-centrally. Perhaps one day it can be tried the other way. For the redecoration I suggested the rooms should be monumental rather than drawing-roomy. This was accepted and both rooms were painted in a stone colour, sufficiently dark to show up the whites of the pictures. The Square Dining Room, which, as we have seen, had already been rehung, was painted en suite.

An entirely laudable decision taken by the National Trust was to return the four Turners commissioned by the Earl of Egremont to their original positions in the Carved Room. This was a space created by Lord Egremont in the 1820s out of two old rooms with stunningly accomplished carving by Grinling Gibbons and John Seldon. The Earl had demolished partition walls and deployed the carvings and some paintings in a gallery-like space. When newly completed, the flat walls of the room had been painted white to show off the natural wood of the carving and this is seen in a painting by Charles Robert Leslie (fig. 15). The Earl commissioned further carving to elaborate the scheme from Jonathan Ritson. The Turner pictures were painted for this room, two being designed to reflect the landscape seen from the windows opposite them. In 1871 the Ritson infills had all been removed to storage and around the same time the white paint had been stripped off to give the room a dark, wood-panelled appearance, resulting in what Max would term the ‘radiogram look’. In the present scheme, the original carvings by Gibbons and Seldon were conserved and the Ritson carvings gathered up and reinstated. As the family’s adviser, I urged that the white background paint should also be reinstated. A whole stretch of the original ‘white’ had been revealed as the room was worked on and it was really aged – the colour of a digestive biscuit. The National Trust argued that since the carvings themselves had darkened they would not relate well to a ‘white’ background, however aged. I felt strongly that these pale Turners were painted to be hung on a background of similar hue and if they were set on the dark ‘radiogram’ colour they would beam out like searchlights. This was another battle I lost, partly, I suspect, because the painting of the flat surfaces around the intricate carvings would have been extremely time-consuming and would have made an already expensive project even more so.

The Carved Room, Petworth House

Figure 15.
Charles Robert Leslie, The Carved Room, Petworth House, c.1856. Oil on board, 35.2 × 30 cm. Tate (T03789).

Digital image courtesy of Tate. (All rights reserved)

The Old Library was a room that had been used by artists working in the house and it was thought that Turner had painted there during his long stays at Petworth. He certainly painted watercolours of the room showing artists at work, including William Beechey painting his Flora, a large painting that is still in the house. The room had come to be known as Turner’s Studio. However, research for the exhibition Turner and Petworth, organised by the Tate and the National Trust in 2002, established that the Old Library was more of a communal painting room for any artist staying in the house and that Turner’s own studio was elsewhere. He preferred to work privately and even the Earl had to knock to seek admittance. For that exhibition, I was invited to reorganise the Old Library according to the arrangements seen in Turner’s watercolours, as far as was possible, using pictures and furniture (including the easel) that were still in the house.

It had been established that Turner’s private quarters were almost certainly the three rooms along the north front (traditionally known as Lord Percy’s Bedroom, Dressing Room and Bathroom), the last being the room ‘at the end of a passage’, which Turner used as a studio, only unlocking the door to his host and patron, the 3rd Earl, whose tread and knock he recognised. While most of Turner’s many watercolours of Petworth date from the 1820s, the house became even more a second home for the artist following the death of his father in 1829. He was staying there shortly before Lord Egremont’s death in 1837, after which he never returned. Turner’s private rooms had not been used for more than a hundred years. Their floors can no longer take much weight and they survive in a state of poignant dishevelment. The bed in the suite dates from the 1830s and must have been slept in by Turner: this inspired me to make some paintings of this most poetic room, with special focus on the bed, for an exhibition entitled Turner’s Bed and Other Paintings at the Rafael Valls Gallery in London in 2005.

The pictures at Petworth make up one of the greatest country house collections in the United Kingdom and the process of rehanging it continues to influence my work in many other country houses. Adjustments to the Petworth dispositions still continue: two fine landscapes by Hobbema that returned from another family house were, for instance, introduced into the picture arrangement of the Red Library in 2018. Even after nearly four decades there are still quite a few paintings in store and some others in process of conservation.


  • Alec Cobbe was born in Dublin and trained as a paintings conservator at the Tate Gallery, and now he combines his conservation activities with the design of historic interiors and practices as an artist.

    Since 1981 he has carried out interior design and picture hanging numerous historic houses, with clients who include the Royal Collection, Historic Royal Palaces, the National Trust, for English Heritage he re-designed the presentation of major rooms at Kenwood House and for Eton College he designed a new library; for the Courtauld Galleries at Somerset House he re-designed the schemes for the series of Fine Rooms by William Chambers; in 1998 he redesigned the interiors of the German Ambassador’s residence in Belgrave Square; he has carried out schemes for numerous private owners at country houses such as designing the Sitwell Museum at Renishaw Hall and schemes at Burghley, Harewood and Hatfield House in the UK and Castletown, Co. Kilkenny, and Abbeyleix, Co. Laois, in Ireland. His design career archive was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and celebrated with a retrospective exhibition there in 2014 and at Dublin Castle in 2015.

    During several decades he formed the Cobbe Collection of Composers’ Keyboard instruments. His publications include James Gibbs in Ireland, 2002 (co-authored with Terry Friedman), Chopin’s Swansong, the pianos of his last performances, 2010, 300 Years of Composers’ Instruments (co-authored with Christopher Nobbs), 2014, and Birds, Bugs and Butterflies: Lady Betty Cobbe’s ‘Peacock’ China, 2019.


  1. C. H. Collins Baker, Catalogue of the Petworth Collection of Pictures in the Possession of Lord Leconfield, London: The Medici Society, 1920, p. 8, no. 191, Paris Bordone, Cleopatra, repr. opposite.

  2. Ibid., p. 116, ‘Simpson after Lawrence, Pius VII, No. 1’. See also Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: A Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings, Oxford: Phaidon, 1989, under cat. 650, p. 253.

  3. See Tabitha Barber and Tim Bachelor, British Baroque: Power and Illusion, London: Tate, 2020; see also Tabitha Barber, ‘The Petworth Beauties’, in the current project, which focuses on the Beauties Room and recent conservation.

  4. Jonathan Ritson (1776–1846) was employed extensively at Petworth by the 3rd Earl of Egremont, from the later 1820s until his death. Around 1830 Lord Egremont commissioned a portrait of Ritson by George Clint, which he installed in the Carved Room. Ritson’s carvings were removed in 1869 and consigned to storage; see http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/486808, accessed 28 February 2020.



by Alec Cobbe
20 November 2020
House Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Alec Cobbe, "Picturing Petworth", Art and the Country House, https://doi.org/10.17658/ACH/PTE555