Visiting and Writing on Country House Art Collections in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Essay by Jocelyn Anderson

The middle of the eighteenth century witnessed a significant increase in the number of tourists travelling to country houses to view art collections. Part of this increase can be attributed to infrastructure because newly improved road networks were making it easier for people to travel throughout Britain and, by extension, to go to country houses, but feasibility alone does not explain country house tourism. Tourists’ gazes were directed by a rich discourse about country houses, a discourse that demonstrates that the histories of writing about and visiting art collections in country houses are entwined.1 Some of the earliest descriptions of country house art collections were penned by travel writers who had toured the houses. Both the fame of private collections and the opportunities to study their works were dramatically enhanced by publications, and publications encouraged more tourists to make visits. Growing visitor numbers bolstered the rationale for publishing information about collections. The development of the country house art collection as a tourist attraction and as a subject for travel writers and art critics was a symbiotic one. This essay examines the significance of visiting and writing texts about country house art collections and considers how these practices positioned country house art collections in relation to art history.

Tourists and the prestige of art collections in country houses

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only selected country house art collections were part of a public discourse. There were dozens of country houses that were not celebrated as tourist attractions, either because they were relatively small, remote or simply deemed insufficiently distinctive. Furthermore, not all paintings displayed within country houses were necessarily considered to be of interest to the public: describing Knowsley Hall (Merseyside), for instance, John Britton noted that ‘the house contains many portraits; some of which are curious as works of art’, but it also had ‘a large collection of pictures, by the old masters’; in this account there is a strong implication that the majority of the portraits displayed in the house do not merit tourists’ attentions (in Samuel Derrick’s view, this house’s collection of old masters was also characterised by great ‘inequality’, with works ranging from ‘contemptible daubings’ to exceptional paintings).2 In addition, the presence of an art collection within a country house did not mean that the collection was open to visitors: writing about Wycombe House (Buckinghamshire) in 1801, Britton and Edward Wedlake Brayley observed that the house ‘was lately furnished with a splendid collection of paintings; but as the orders of the present resident operate to the exclusion of strangers, we can neither describe them, nor be more particular in our account of the interior’.3 As these authors indicate, access to a collection was entirely at the discretion of the owner, and there were collectors who were not prepared to allow tourists access. Many country house owners were willing to permit access, however, and as visitor numbers rose, opening hours were set and admission rituals were established; for example, on visiting Warwick Castle (Warwickshire) in 1801, Joseph Farington ‘sent up a written request from the Porters Lodge, a custom that is always attended to’.4 Servants developed routines for showing tourists around, and descriptions of collections were published in a wide range of texts.

Many people became accustomed to the idea that certain collections could be visited, but the collections remained private. Writing in 1844, Mrs Jameson acknowledged that access was at the discretion of a collector, noting: ‘It is undoubtedly true, that should he choose to shut up his doors, he has the power and the right to do so. How far he is right to assert that right, is another question.’5 The ethical tension Mrs Jameson identified is most likely a reflection of the fame selected country house art collections had already achieved: since the middle of the 1700s topographical books and travel guides had been encouraging people to visit specific collections that offered unique opportunities to view antique statues and old-master paintings; these were artworks that were deemed to have special cultural significance. As the prestige of these collections grew, people began to think of them as collections with public significance.

One of the earliest celebrated collections was that at Wilton House (Wiltshire). In describing the house in A Tour Thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain (1724), Daniel Defoe compared the house to a museum, and declared: ‘Here is without doubt the best, if not the greatest Collection of Rarities, and Paintings, that are to be seen together, in any one Nobleman’s, or Gentleman’s House in England.’6 He went on to state that the state rooms ‘might vie for Paintings’ with the Luxembourg Gallery in Paris, a highly celebrated French royal collection, and that, although there were many fine works on display, a family portrait by Van Dyck was in itself ‘worth the Labour of any lover of Art to go 500 Miles to see it’.7 Van Dyck’s Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke and his Family would be routinely mentioned in accounts of the house throughout the eighteenth century, though sometimes in more critical terms (fig. 1).8 In the eighteenth century, Wilton was one of a handful of houses that became known for an uncommonly prestigious collection. Burghley (Lincolnshire) and Houghton (Norfolk) were also highly celebrated: in 1722 Edmund Gibson published a revised and expanded edition of William Camden’s Britannia (first published 1586), in which he declared that travellers who visited Burghley ‘have affirm’d, they have met with nothing either in Italy or France, that exceeds’ the art collection; in 1768 Arthur Young described the collection of paintings at Houghton as ‘most undoubtedly the first in England, after the royal one’.9 Although both these houses had other attractions as well, their picture collections’ fame was extraordinary.

Portrait of the fourth Earl of Pembroke and his Family

Figure 1.
Sir Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of the fourth Earl of Pembroke and his Family, 1635. Oil on canvas, 330 × 510 cm. Collection of the Earl of Pembroke, Wilton House.

Digital image courtesy of Collection of the Earl of Pembroke, Wilton House / Bridgeman Images. (All rights reserved)

Some country houses were praised for one specific work of art, a work of art that surpassed everything else on display. Contemporary travel books indicate that Raynham (Norfolk) was particularly interesting because of its Salvator Rosa painting of Belisarius (fig. 2): the popular regional guidebook The Norfolk Tour (1772) noted the house ‘is rather in the stile of an exceedingly good habitable house, than a magnificent one. But the famous picture of Belisarius, by Salvator Rosa … has I think more expression in it, than any painting I ever saw.’10 Numerous visitors emphasised the importance of this painting in their accounts: in a letter to his father, William Drake claimed Raynham had ‘no particular object of digression, except for a capital Painting of Belisarius’; Thomas Wale described it as ‘very famous’; and François de La Rochefoucauld declared it was ‘as beautiful as it is magnificent, and stirring the admiration of the connoisseur and ignoramus equally … The design and colouring could hardly be more perfect, and it makes the greatest possible effect.’11 Instances of a single painting outshining not only the majority of the collection but almost the house itself are rare, but Raynham is not unique; Okeover Hall (Staffordshire) attracted tourists primarily because of a painting of the Holy Family then attributed to Raphael.12 In 1767 a tourist recorded visiting this house ‘to see the Famous picture of the Holy Family by Raphael’ and finding that ‘the Composition, Drawing & Colouring of this picture are Inexpressible’; this visitor made no other comments about the house or collection.13 Paintings of extraordinary prestige were evidently tourist attractions in their own right.


Figure 2.
Salvator Rosa, Belisarius, 1650s, Oil on canvas, 254 × 175 cm. Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire

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

Eighteenth-century travel writers tended to focus their attentions on old-master paintings in country houses (and occasionally discussed recent portraits by leading British painters), but by the middle of the nineteenth century some writers were placing greater emphasis on the significance of contemporary British art displayed in country houses. In an 1845 travel guide, for instance, W. Adam declared that Chatsworth (Derbyshire) had an outstanding collection of paintings but ‘time and space equally forbid our doing more than making general observations’; he made an exception for Edwin Landseer’s Bolton Abbey (fig. 3), which he described as ‘a picture which reflects the greatest credit on the artist’, who he claims ‘well merited the approbation and distinguished honour bestowed upon the picture when exhibited at Somerset House’.14 In Rambles by Rivers (1844) James Thorne noted that at Petworth (West Sussex) there was ‘an excellent collection of paintings by Claude, Cuyp, Rubens, and others of the old masters’ and that the collection of Van Dyck paintings was ‘famous all the world over’, but also that, in addition to these, the late earl had collected numerous works by English artists.15 Thorne had particular praise for the J. M. W. Turner paintings on display: ‘There is perhaps no other collection, except his own, that contains so many of Turner’s pictures; and the selection is a most choice one, displaying almost every variety of his style.’16 Old-master paintings still dominated travel literature about art collections in country houses, but these accounts indicate that for ambitious travellers, viewing British art was certainly possible.

Bolton Abbey in Olden Time

Figure 3.
Sir Edwin Landseer, Bolton Abbey in Olden Time, 1834. Oil on canvas, 155.5 × 195.2 cm. The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth.

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

The increasing fame of art collections in country houses was not a reflection of the collecting and display practices of country house owners. New acquisitions and the transfer of collections from London residences to country houses were certainly factors: writing in 1776, Caroline Lybbe Powys claimed: ‘’Tis well known that of late years the most capital pictures of the best masters have been brought into England … now there’s hardly a gentleman’s seat without a good collection.’17 The provision of information about these collections, however, was fundamental to their being ‘well known’ and interesting for tourists. In commenting on Wilton, Powys noted that ‘every one has heard of if not seen’ the Van Dyck family portrait, a remark that demonstrates that the identity of that specific painting was critical to the public narrative of the house: the information was known to visitors before they went to the house, and it enhanced their experience because they knew what they were viewing.18 Different visitor experiences of the collection at Burghley highlight the need for information. When he visited the house in 1734, Revd Jeremiah Milles noted there were ‘some good pieces of painting … they shew’d us ye story of Seneca bleeding to death in a Bath; & our Saviour consecrating ye elements, both wch they reckon very fine & as they say are done by ye same hand; I am apt to think it is some Flemish painter.’19 Milles (who elsewhere expresses frustration over lack of information) and the servant showing him through the house were mistaken about these paintings; in contrast, later eighteenth-century visitors at Burghley knew exactly what they were being asked to admire. A visitor in 1767 wrote at length about both works (figs 4 and 5), noting that ‘Christ Blessing the Elements’ was from ‘the happy pencil of Carlo Dolci, who has Describ’d in the person of Our Saviour The Divinity in Human form [where] this Whole Figure is Executed in a most Extraordinary Manner’ and that ‘the Seneca in the Saloon by Jordanno is One of those Capital pieces A stranger must leave with Reluctance’.20 This difference in information was not a matter of the paintings having been reattributed – the artists’ names were recorded on the family’s inventory in the seventeenth century – but rather a reflection of the information that was available to visitors.21 The contrast between examining a collection with and without comprehensive guidance to it was one that many tourists, Milles included, were acutely conscious of.

17th century. Oil on canvas, 246.5 × 301cm. The Burghley House Collection (PIC406).

Figure 4.
Luca Giordano, The Death of Seneca, 17th century. Oil on canvas, 246.5 × 301cm. The Burghley House Collection (PIC406).

Digital image courtesy of The Burghley House Collection. (All rights reserved)

17th century. Oil on canvas, 84 × 68.5cm. The Burghley House Collection (PIC265).

Figure 5.
Carlo Dolci, Our Saviour Blessing the Bread and Wine, 17th century. Oil on canvas, 84 × 68.5cm. The Burghley House Collection (PIC265).

Digital image courtesy of The Burghley House Collection. (All rights reserved)

The opportunity to view art collections in country houses with good information was not merely a matter of better touristic spectacle: access to these collections and information about them was increasingly seen as potentially important for the development of British art. In The English Connoisseur (1766) Thomas Martyn made a direct connection between access to private collections and the state of contemporary art, declaring: ‘The polite arts are rising in Britain …: one certain way of advancing them, is to give all possible opportunities to those who make them their study, to contemplate the works of the best masters.’22 In the decades after Martyn published his book, descriptions of artworks in country houses appeared regularly in travel books about Britain. Authors of narrative tours often discussed works that they found particularly impressive, and sometimes published more extensive guides to collections. Topographical book series sometimes incorporated descriptions of artworks and/or lists of pictures on display. Although the total number of travel books with descriptions of country houses cannot be quantified with precision, by the early nineteenth century there were dozens of titles in circulation and potentially hundreds of copies of each; for example, when John Britton published The Beauties of Wiltshire (1801), 750 copies were printed.23 Yet while narrative tours and topographical books could offer substantial information and were increasingly available, the most expansive lists and descriptions were found in country house guidebooks and commemorative catalogues. Early country house guidebooks played a critical role in meeting visitors’ demands and in enhancing the status of collections in tourists’ eyes, and commemorative catalogues could not only be useful to tourists, they gave collections more formal identities. Together, these texts ensured that the fame of art collections in country houses continued to grow.

Convenient, informative and pleasing: the early house guidebook

In the eighteenth century, travel books encouraged tourists to visit country houses in order to look at and learn about art. Viewing paintings displayed in a country house as works by artists whose achievements demanded study and reflection was very different to viewing the paintings as grand decorations for the house or as displays of the owner’s personal taste; examining the paintings as discrete works of art required information about them, and most tourists never had the opportunity to meet country house owners, let alone discuss the collections with them. Early country house guidebooks were both practical solutions to visitors’ demands for information about collections and texts with significant potential for promoting specific interpretations of collections. Typically published after a house had achieved some fame, country house guidebooks were designed to be convenient for visitors.

Guidebooks were quick to promote themselves as practical texts. When William Mavor published his New Description of Blenheim (1789), his advertisement emphasised that he had prepared his text ‘for the general convenience and information of the numerous and respectable visitors’.24 Similarly, A Description of the House and Gardens at Stourhead (1818) introduced itself as ‘an useful and accurate guide to all those whose curiosity may lead them to visit’.25 The advertisement for John Rutter’s Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Wardour Castle (1822) promised that the book was entertaining as well as functional: ‘No systematic description having yet been published of Wardour Castle and Demesne, together with its extensive Collection of valuable Paintings, … it is presumed that this compilation will prove a useful and pleasing Guide.’26 The intended audience of these publications is clear, and these authors’ goals suggest they were confident of a substantial readership and the commercial potential in writing for tourists.

Intended to respond to a practical challenge, guidebooks organised information accordingly. They were small, lightweight texts, typically octavo in size (approximately 9–12 x 16–20 cm is common), if not smaller, and were normally bound with paper covers. These characteristics would have made it easy to carry a guidebook from room to room during a visit to a house; they would also have made a guidebook a convenient souvenir for tourists who were spending several weeks travelling. Convenience was also critical to how the text in a guidebook was arranged. The methodology of a 1775 guide to Holkham (Norfolk) is representative of the type: there are separate sections for each room, and the book lists the titles of the artworks and the names of the artists who had painted them. It also includes details about their positioning to better aid the visitor in connecting information to artwork; for instance, in its account of the state dressing room (fig. 6) it notes that a Claude Lorrain painting hung ‘over the Chimney’ and identifies five other paintings in the room in relation to that location.27 Other guidebooks offered similar types of information, but with variations in layout: in the catalogue-guide that describes the collection at Kedleston (Derbyshire) the information is placed within a chart; in the guide to Blenheim (Oxfordshire) Mavor used a system of roman numerals to indicate the sides of a room and arabic numerals to indicate the rows of pictures.28 In presenting information in this way, guidebooks not only responded to tourists’ needs, they also modelled ideal tourist behaviour: with the text in hand, the tourist was tacitly encouraged to identify and reflect on the artworks, and thus to treat the visit to the house as a learning opportunity.

Holkham Hall, Norfolk.

Figure 6.
The Landscape Room, Holkham Hall, Norfolk, Holkham Hall, Norfolk.

Digital image courtesy of Viscount Coke and the Trustees (photo) / Bridgeman Images. (All rights reserved)

By the early 1800s it was increasingly common for a guidebook to incorporate additional information about the artists whose works were on display and about the artworks themselves. In an edition published in 1774 the Wilton guide included explanatory notes about the artworks and additional sections with general information about art, specifically ‘Rules to Judge of the Goodness of a Picture’, ‘The Science of a Connoisseur in Painting’ and ‘A Dissertation on the Origin, Progress, and Decay of Sculpture, among the Greeks and Romans’.29 The Corsham and Burghley guides offered essays on the history of art and sections with biographies of painters.30 The Stourhead guide has charts about painters that place each artist within a national or regional category and encourage readers to link the paintings displayed in the house to specific ‘schools’ of art.31 When a new guide to Holkham was published (1826), the editors reported that ‘Short Biographical notices of the principal painters whose talents are combined in embellishing this splendid collection, are now given’; these notices took the form of footnotes, an approach also employed in An Historical and Topographical Sketch of Knole (1817) and Wardour.32 Brief comments also directed viewers to admire specific aspects of artworks; for example, an 1807 catalogue-guide to the collection at Browsholme Hall (Lancashire) declares that in Turner’s View off Sheerness ‘the colouring of the water is admirable and the whole design bold and striking’ (fig. 7).33 In all of these guides the implication is that the reader will benefit from a greater knowledge of art when viewing the collection. A guide to Goodwood (West Sussex) makes this instruction explicit, explaining that ‘sketches of the different masters have also been added, with a view of affording to those, who may not have had the opportunity of devoting much attention to the study of pictures, a general idea of the characteristics of the Artist at the moment when one of the productions of his pencil is before them’.34 Through this type of discourse, the art-historical significance of a country house collection was consolidated and promoted.

1807. Oil on canvas, 108.8 × 143.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington (1942.9.87).

Figure 7.
J. M. W. Turner, The Junction of the Thames and the Medway, 1807. Oil on canvas, 108.8 × 143.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington (1942.9.87).

Digital image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Critical responses to guidebooks emphasised their value as sources of information for tourists. In a review of Britton’s guide to Corsham (Wiltshire) the Gentleman’s Magazine noted that the book was arranged ‘in so methodical a manner, that, independent of the information we may at other times derive from it, it serves us as a Guide’ during visits.35 This reviewer also complained about the lack of better publications on private collections: ‘Considering the amazing number of valuable productions of Genius, in every branch of the Fine Arts, with which this country is … fortunate enough to abound, it seems surprising … that the practice of giving to the world printed Descriptions … of our most distinguished Collections, has been so rarely followed.’36 By this account, the audience for guidebooks was apparently eager and authors could expect success. Critics also praised the inclusion of art-historical contextual information in country house guides: when the Guide to Burghley (1815) was published, a review noted the book’s art-historical content and commented: ‘The traveller will find the present volume no superficial companion. Every thing that can be desired or expected is concisely and accurately described; and the catalogue of the numerous pictures is as satisfactory as it is scientific.’37 The idea of a guidebook as a text that could go into depth about a collection was appealing.

Guidebooks could also go beyond information and be used to make claims about the general cultural importance of the artworks displayed in the house. The first guidebook to Castle Howard (North Yorkshire), published in 1805, was primarily a guide to the paintings on display. Although Castle Howard had been attracting tourists for decades, the recently acquired paintings from the Orléans collection were very well known, and the guide celebrated the artistic significance of these works and other old masters on display. The climax of the guide was its discussion of Annibale Carracci’s Three Maries (fig. 8):

1604. Oil on canvas, 98.2 × 103.2 cm. The National Gallery, London (NG2923).

Figure 8.
Annibale Carracci, The Three Maries/The Dead Christ Mourned, 1604. Oil on canvas, 98.2 × 103.2 cm. The National Gallery, London (NG2923).

Digital image courtesy of The National Gallery, London. (All rights reserved)

If there ever was a picture that united all the excellencies of painting, this seems to be that wonderful effort of the art. The drawing, colouring, and composition, cannot be surpassed … Many stories are recorded of the esteemed value of this extraordinary work; such as the court of Spain having offered to cover its surface with Louis-d’ors, which would amount, by the trial, to 8,000 … By the most awful and unexpected of all events, the French Revolution, and in the wreck of all princely grandeur, and individual property, it found its way into England, and into the hands of the owner of this house; where, as long as it remains, may it not only be an object of delight and admiration, but a memorial of the instability of all worldly possessions.38

This guide not only claims a universal cultural value for the painting, it casts the owner as a guardian of culture. It is an unusual example of explicit, hyperbolic praise, but the fundamental message of this passage appeared in most guidebooks. Through their commentary about the quality of artworks displayed and the achievements of the artists who had created them, many guidebooks implied that tourists were very fortunate to have the opportunities to view the art collections they were touring.

Early country house guidebooks are best described as tourist ephemera, texts that varied widely in terms of their broader value. As interpretive guides, they were not only convenient, they recorded the official narrative of a house’s collection. They were normally supported by the owner, who would probably have given his permission for the guide to be published, shared information about his collections with the guidebook author and may even have made a more substantial contribution; for example, when working on A History or Description … of Burghley (1797), J. Horn ‘was permitted to reside at Burghley, for three weeks’ which enabled him to make a ‘general memorandum’ of the house and collection.39 Horn was one of several guidebook authors who received information and assistance from an owner while writing; if assistance was not forthcoming, guidebook authors occasionally recycled content from other travel books, extracting whatever material was most convenient for their purposes.40 Guidebooks were undoubtedly used by visitors to better reflect on the collections they were touring; several surviving guidebooks have brief annotations next to listings of specific artworks.41 At the same time, later writers occasionally criticised guidebooks; for example, Johann David Passavant, whose writings will be discussed below, described the New Description of … Wilton (first published 1758) as ‘very incorrect’.42 Such a response requires expertise, however: for the majority of tourists, guidebooks were apparently very effective, even if they sometimes had errors. Guidebooks presented country house collections as tourist attractions accessible to visitors, thus confirming a new public significance for them.

Embellished, beautiful and expensive: commemorative catalogues

Often more lavish and more private than guidebooks, commemorative catalogues about country house art collections played a critical role in recording collections for families and scholars. Like guidebooks, they often combine descriptions of the collections with additional information about artists’ careers, regional styles or artworks’ provenances, as if they are determined to integrate country house collections into a broader narrative about the history of art in western Europe. The most influential British model for this type of publication was Ædes Walpolianæ: Or, a Description of the Collection of Pictures at Houghton-Hall in Norfolk (fig. 9), a book by Horace Walpole.43 Walpole’s book had a significant impact not only on the fame of the collection at Houghton, but on how other collectors approached books about their artworks.44 Commemorative catalogues like this one had tremendous potential to help publicise collections, but while Houghton was a celebrated tourist attraction, the publication of this type of catalogue did not necessarily indicate a collection was accessible to visitors.

Frontispiece from Horace Walpole, Ædes Walpolianæ: Or, a Description of the Collection of Pictures at Houghton-Hall in Norfolk (London: Printed for the Author, 1747/48)

Figure 9.
George Vertue after Christian Friedrich Zincke, Frontispiece from Horace Walpole, Ædes Walpolianæ: Or, a Description of the Collection of Pictures at Houghton-Hall in Norfolk (London: Printed for the Author, 1747/48), Engraving etching, 21 × 14.7 cm. The British Museum (1849,1031.62).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The distinction between a guidebook and a commemorative catalogue can be unclear, particularly since some texts could perform both functions. In introducing his book on Goodwood, for instance, William Hayley Mason noted:

This little work originated in a wish expressed by the Duke of Richmond to possess a descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures in Goodwood House for the use of himself and his friends. At the suggestion, however, of many visitors and strangers, to whom the collection is at all times open, and by whom the want of such a publication as is here attempted has been often felt and acknowledged, it has assumed its present form.45

Mason’s explanation of his process demonstrates that descriptions of collections did not necessarily begin with the intention of creating a public guidebook. There were also subtle differences in methodology: introducing the catalogue to the picture collections at Saltmarshe (Herefordshire), the author noted that ‘the following account of the Gallery of Pictures at Saltmarshe is intended more as a Catalogue of the Collection, than a description of the Paintings as Works of Art’, but also that an index had been provided to aid visitors in identifying ‘the Pictures most worthy of inspection’.46 In practice, the texts within catalogues could be very useful to tourists, but commemorative books were often larger, longer, heavier, and not necessarily arranged with practicality in mind; for instance, some commemorative catalogues do not organise artworks according to the rooms they were displayed in. Private catalogues might also be difficult to acquire: in 1837 Britton observed that ‘the Duke of Bedford has had printed a most splendid volume on the Woburn Abbey Marbles’, but that it was ‘so limited in distribution, as to be almost a sealed casket’.47 Similarly, commenting on the sculpture collections at Ince Blundell Hall (Merseyside), Passavant stated: ‘Two works descriptive of this collection have been privately printed, which, being only attainable through the proprietor, are not generally to be met with.’48 These writers’ frustrations are evident, but overall, as a type of publication, commemorative catalogues still merit consideration as a genre of text with considerable potential influence: they were often available to writers if not to a general readership, and they could be crucial sources of information for subsequent book projects.49 If a collection was not accessible to visitors, a commemorative catalogue could play a significant role in making a collection virtually available for study.

The publication of Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s Ædes Althorpianæ (1822), a book that describes Althorp (Northamptonshire), is indicative of the challenges and opportunities that were available to the author of the commemorative catalogue. Dibdin initiated the project by issuing a prospectus: the book would be available for £6 6s in small paper or £12 12s in large paper, and it was to be ‘embellished with engravings, executed by artists of the first eminence’.50 Those who subscribed to the project included the owner and book collectors; one acquaintance of Dibdin’s wrote that he had recently acquired Dibdin’s previous book for his library and concluded: ‘I do bite most greedily at Ædes Althorpianæ.’51 The production itself was extremely lavish: Dibdin worked with several engravers to create illustrations, including Edward Scriven (then historical engraver to the king), William Woolnoth and Samuel Freeman, and spent ‘little short of 2000l. on the plates’ plus an additional £350 on printing costs and French paper; in his view, the total was a sum which ‘had never been before devoted to the history of one Family, and to the furniture of one House’.52 The book itself repeatedly emphasised the quality and originality of its plates, and the text offered extensive commentary on the significance of the paintings reproduced in the book. In discussing Rembrandt’s Mother (fig. 10), for instance, the book claimed that the plate reproducing the painting ‘will give the best idea of the composition of this picture; and the observer cannot fail to admire the consummate care and skill’.53 The book thus promoted the art-historical significance of this painting, but in form this was a book for a collector’s library, not a tourist.

‘Rembrandt’s Mother,’ illustration from Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Ædes Althorpianæ; or an Account of the Mansion, Books, and Pictures, at Althorp (London: W. Nicol, 1822)

Figure 10.
Edward Scriven after Robert William Satchwell and Jacob Backer [formerly Rembrandt], ‘Rembrandt’s Mother,’ illustration from Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Ædes Althorpianæ; or an Account of the Mansion, Books, and Pictures, at Althorp (London: W. Nicol, 1822), Stipple engraving, 26.3 × 19.3 cm. The British Museum (Ee,2.134).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Britton’s book on Cassiobury (Hertfordshire) was similarly lavish. Only 170 copies were printed, and Britton claimed that ‘the volume is a beautiful specimen of typography … the copies were prepared for publication with much care, and at a great expense’; the Earl of Essex had provided plates for the illustrations, and the price was set at three guineas (or ten guineas for a larger size with coloured illustrations).54 Like Dibdin, when it came to content, Britton emphasised the importance of the paintings, praising the earl for his ‘collection of pictures by modern artists, which at once reflect honour on the patron and the painters. These works possess intrinsic merit and value.’55 He noted that David Wilkie’s A Highland Warrior (fig. 11) was on display, and he praised the artist for ‘mastery and distinction’.56 Through comments like this one, Britton’s book celebrated the house as the site of a significant display of British art.

1824. Oil on wood, 61 × 91.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (15.30.52).

Figure 11.
Sir David Wilkie, The Highland Family, 1824. Oil on wood, 61 × 91.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (15.30.52).

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

John Young was engraver in mezzotint to the king and Keeper of the British Institution, and in the early 1820s he published a small number of books that describe and illustrate private collections. In his work on country house art collections he was conscious that a catalogue could promote a collection to people who could not visit it: introducing A Catalogue of the Pictures at Leigh Court (fig. 12), he noted: ‘Although this Collection is too remote from the Metropolis, to share with its splendid Galleries the frequent visits of the amateurs and patrons of Art, – yet, the Pictures of which it is composed can never fail to excite the highest interest.’57 In fact, distance alone was not the only issue when it came to visiting the collection: Passavant noted that access to Leigh Court (Somerset) ‘was strictly denied to every stranger’ in the owner’s absence; as a result, his knowledge of the collection came partly from Young’s work.58 Young was also conscious that a commemorative book could advance an agenda with implications beyond the fame of a specific collection. Displayed partly in London and partly at Tabley House (Cheshire), Sir John Leicester’s collection emphasised modern British paintings, and he was determined to promote British art. He opened his houses to visitors at specific times, and he commissioned William Carey to write ‘a critical publication’ on the collections; Carey noted that the book was the first of its kind to focus specifically on British artworks, and he expressed a hope that Leicester’s ‘animating and commendable example … may be speedily followed’.59 Carey discussed twenty-two paintings displayed in the gallery at Tabley, including works by James Northcote, Joshua Reynolds and Turner. Three years later, Young published his own work on Leicester’s collections and also emphasised their wider significance for British art: although he refrained from writing about the paintings extensively, he claimed that examining the works in this collection would demonstrate that ‘the genius, taste, and feeling of our National Artists, require only the fostering care of British Patronage, to render them equal to the most celebrated masters of the Roman and Venetian schools’.60 Through Young’s works numerous plates depicting artworks in country houses were published as contributions to art-historical literature in Britain.

‘St John the Evangelist,’ illustration from John Young, A Catalogue of the Pictures at Leigh Court, near Bristol; the Seat of Philip John Miles, Esq. M. P. With Etchings from the Whole Collection. Executed by Permission of the Proprietor, and Accompanied with Historical and Biographical Notices

Figure 12.
John Young after Domenichino, ‘St John the Evangelist,’ illustration from John Young, A Catalogue of the Pictures at Leigh Court, near Bristol; the Seat of Philip John Miles, Esq. M. P. With Etchings from the Whole Collection. Executed by Permission of the Proprietor, and Accompanied with Historical and Biographical Notices, (London: W. Bulmer and W. Nicol, 1822), circa 1822. Etching, 29.2 × 23 cm. The British Museum (1863,0509.94).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Passavant, Waagen and the publicity of country house collections

By the early nineteenth century the art history of country house art collections was well established as a critical subject within travel and topographical literature. Lists of artworks had been published for numerous houses and in many cases were firmly tied to an art-historical narrative that celebrated the achievements of the old masters. The advantages of accessing and studying works in country houses and drawing on the literature about country house collections were recognised by writers who positioned their books as serious art-historical enquiries.

Unlike many British travel writers who published descriptions of visits to country houses, Passavant emphasised that he had undertaken his travels principally to examine ‘the works of Raphael’, and in Tour of a German Artist in England (1836) his accounts of collections placed great emphasis on art-historical analysis of paintings.61 He noted that ‘first rate collections frequently occur’ at country houses, and access to these collections was often critical to his research; for instance, commenting on the Ansidei Madonna (fig. 13), then displayed at Blenheim, he noted: ‘No engraving has ever been made of this exquisite picture.’62 Passavant offered critical discussions of paintings: about the Raphael, for instance, he observed that the painting’s ‘beautiful and more scientific drawing distinctly bespeaks the Florentine school’ and that the work ‘is in excellent preservation. An attempt to clean it has been made at the lower part; but, fortunately, proceeded no further.’63 Passavant consulted books on country house collections as part of his project, and although he sometimes disputed their claims, he tacitly acknowledged they had guided his research.64 The overall structure of his project emphasised country house collections’ wider art-historical significance because he also included extensive commentary on museum collections, effectively placing both types of collections on common ground. When Passavant’s book was translated into English, critics saw his work as an international, independent validation of the superiority of British art collections: according to the Monthly Review, ‘It is now fully manifest that the gold, the enterprise, and taste of Englishmen, have secured to the country innumerable specimens and collections of first-rate paintings.’65 Although selected collections were visited by foreign travellers in the eighteenth century, Passavant had significantly elevated the international reputation of several works in country houses.

1505. Oil on poplar, 216.8 × 147.6 cm. The National Gallery, London (NG1171).

Figure 13.
Raphael, The Ansidei Madonna, 1505. Oil on poplar, 216.8 × 147.6 cm. The National Gallery, London (NG1171).

Digital image courtesy of The National Gallery, London. (All rights reserved)

As the Director of the Royal Gallery of Pictures in Berlin, Gustav Waagen was able to make special arrangements to visit collections in country houses to study them and he felt strongly about the importance of access for study. In Treasures of Art in Great Britain (1854) access is a theme throughout: about Cobham Hall (Kent) he writes: ‘I was indebted to Lord Malmesbury for an introduction to the noble possessor … I was most kindly received by Lord Darnley, who himself did the honours of his fine collection.’66 At Cobham Waagen’s greatest praise was for Titian’s Rape of Europa (fig. 14), which he described as ‘the pearl of the collection’, declaring that the action was ‘animated’, the landscape ‘poetical’ and the colours warm and powerful; he also felt that the painting was suggestive of Veronese’s influence on Titian.67 More systematic than Passavant, Waagen discussed paintings in a wider context and he was deeply interested in how works in country house collections might be linked to different geographical styles.68 He repeatedly emphasised that prolonged examination was key to his work: at Panshanger (Hertfordshire) he noted he had spent ‘six happy hours in quiet solitude’ and that ‘it is only when thus left alone that such works of art gradually unfold all their peculiar beauties’; when reporting on his visit to Blenheim, he acknowledged he had been granted ‘the very rare favour of being allowed to remain alone, and as long as I pleased’ and that he had been given his own copy of the Blenheim guidebook.69 Already an influential figure in British art when Treasures was published, Waagen offered his readers virtual access to country house art collections with unprecedented and authoritative analyses of artworks.70

Rape of Europa

Figure 14.
Titian, Rape of Europa, 1562. Oil on canvas, 178 × 205 cm. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (P26e1).

Digital image courtesy of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

The rising fame of art collections in country houses and the patterns of access to them led many people to begin to think of country house art collections as an established presence in British culture, to the point that their status as private property was publicly minimised even though their legal status had not changed. Lord Northwick’s collection at Thirlestane House (Gloucestershire) offers a powerful demonstration of this paradox (fig. 15). The 1846 guide to this collection declared:

1846-7. Oil on canvas, 81.3 × 108.6 cm. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1981.25.213).

Figure 15.
Robert Huskisson, Lord Northwick’s Picture Gallery at Thirlestaine House, 1846-7. Oil on canvas, 81.3 × 108.6 cm. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1981.25.213).

Digital image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Though not like public exhibition rooms … it is yet, through the kindness and liberality of its noble owner, so easy of access to every lover of the fine arts, that, for all the purposes of cultivated taste and intellectual gratification, it may be almost so considered. Even during his Lordship’s residence on the premises, it is rarely closed to a respectful application, while at other times it is permitted to be open daily.71

Lord Northwick was apparently very enthusiastic about granting access to his pictures, willing to guide visitors himself and eager to use the collection to teach visitors about art.72 On his death, however, the art works were sold, and the residents of Cheltenham were abruptly reminded that this was not a public collection at all.73 Ultimately, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century country-house art collections were private collections, no matter how high their public reputations rose.


  • Jocelyn Anderson is an art historian whose recent research focuses on modern Canadian art and on art and the British Empire. She has done research for the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and has taught Canadian art at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She has also taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Birkbeck, and the University of East Anglia, and has worked in the Learning Department at Tate Britain. Her work on images of the British Empire has been published in British Art Studies, the Oxford Art Journal, and Eighteenth-Century Studies. She is currently working on a book on early modern magazine illustrations, for which she received a Lewis Walpole Library Fellowship. Before working on images of the British Empire, her research explored early modern tourism within Britain, and she is the author of Touring and Publicizing England’s Country Houses in the Long Eighteenth Century (2018). She received her PhD from the University of London (Courtauld Institute of Art) in 2013, and subsequently held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (2014) and the post of Early Career Lecturer in Early Modern Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art (2015–16). She is currently the Editorial and Education Director at the Art Canada Institute.


  1. For the concept of the tourist gaze, see John Urry, The Tourist Gaze, 2nd edn, London: SAGE Publications, 2002, p. 3. For the connection between the rise in country house tourism and travel literature, see Jocelyn Anderson, Touring and Publicizing England’s Country Houses in the Long Eighteenth Century, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018, pp. 25–41.

  2. John Britton, The Beauties of England and Wales: Volume IX, London: Thomas Maiden, 1807, pp. 229, 235; Samuel Derrick, Letters written from Leverpoole, Chester, Corke, the lake of Killarney, Dublin, Tunbridge-Wells, and Bath, 2nd edn, 2 vols, London: F. Noble and J. Noble, 1769, vol. 1, pp. 33, 32.

  3. John Britton and Edward Wedlake Brayley, The Beauties of England and Wales, Volume One, London: Vernor and Hood, 1801, p. 370.

  4. Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre and Kathryn Cave eds., The Diary of Joseph Farington, 16 vols, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978–84, vol. 5, p. 1588. For more on tourist protocols, see Anderson, 2018, pp. 41–51.

  5. Mrs Jameson, Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art in London, London: Saunders and Ottley, 1844, p. xxxiv.

  6. Daniel Defoe, A Tour Thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain, Divided into Circuits or Journies, 3 vols, London: G. Strahan, 1724, vol. 1, p. 38.

  7. Defoe, 1724, vol. 1, pp. 39, 40.

  8. William Gilpin, Observations on the Western Parts of England, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, London: T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, 1798, pp. 111, 112–15.

  9. William Camden with revisions by Edmund Gibson, Britannia, 2nd edn, 2 vols, London: Mary Matthews, 1722, vol. 1, 526; Arthur Young, A Six Weeks Tour through the Southern Counties of England and Wales, London: W. Nicoll, 1768, p. 33.

  10. The Norfolk Tour, Norwich: R. Beatniffe, 1772, p. 20.

  11. Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, D/DR/8/8, ‘Letter from William Drake to His Father, Describing Tour of East Anglia’, 2 July 1775; Revd Henry John Wale, My Grandfather’s Pocket-Book, from A. D. 1701 to 1796, London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1883, 193; A Frenchman’s Year in Suffolk: French Impressions of Suffolk Life in 1784, including a preliminary week in London, brief visits to Cambridge, Colchester, Mistley and Harwich and a fortnight’s tour of Norfolk, Woodbridge: Suffolk Records Society, vol. 30 / The Boydell Press, 1988, p. 172.

  12. This is a copy (current whereabouts unknown) of the painting, The Holy Family, or ‘The Pearl’, designed by Raphael, partly executed by his pupil Giulio Romano, c.1518, and now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid: (accessed 20 April 2020). A later nineteenth-century photograph of the Okeover version is in the Royal Collection: (accessed 20 April 2020).

  13. Norfolk Record Office, MC 40/103/1, ‘Journal of a Tour in England’, 1767.

  14. W. Adam, The Gem of the Peak; or Matlock Bath and its Vicinity, London: Longman & Co., 1845, pp. 129, 130.

  15. James Thorne, Rambles by Rivers: The Duddon; The Mole; The Adur, Arun, and Wey; The Lea; The Dove, London: Charles Knight & Co., 1844, p. 120.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Emily J. Climenson, ed., Passages from the Diaries of Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1899, p. 166.

  18. Ibid.

  19. British Library, Add. MS 15776, ‘Journals of the Rev. Jeremiah Milles’, 1735–43.

  20. Norfolk Record Office, MC 40/103/1, ‘Journal of a Tour in England’, 1767.

  21. Burghley House, ‘Luca Giordano. The Death of Seneca’, Explore the Burghley Collections, Burghley House, ‘Our Saviour Blessing the Bread and Wine, Carlo Dolci’, Explore the Burghley Collections, (accessed 29 March 2020).

  22. Thomas Martyn, The English Connoisseur, 2 vols, London: L. Davis and C. Reymers, 1766, vol. 1, pp. vii–viii.

  23. John Britton, Auto-Biography, Part Second, ed. T. E. Jones, London: Printed for the Author, 1849, p. 9.

  24. William Mavor, New Description of Blenheim, London: T. Cadell, 1789, p. vii.

  25. A Description of the House and Gardens at Stourhead, Bath: Barratt and Son, 1818, p. 3.

  26. John Rutter, An Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Wardour Castle and Demesne, Wilts, Shaftesbury: J. Rutter, 1822, n.p.

  27. A Description of Holkham House, in Norfolk, Norwich: R. Beatniffe, 1775, p. 6.

  28. William Mavor, New Description of Blenheim, 2nd edn, London: T. Cadell, 1789, p. 55.

  29. Ædes Pembrochianæ, London: R. Baldwin, 1774, pp. vii–ix, x–xviii, i–xii (new pagination).

  30. John Britton, An Historical Account of Corsham House, London: Printed for the Author, 1806, pp. 9–28, 61–100. Thomas Blore, A Guide to Burghley House, Stamford: John Drakard, 1815, pp. 153–292.

  31. Sir Richard Colt Hoare, A Description of the House and Gardens at Stourhead, Salisbury: J. Easton, 1800, pp. 36–42.

  32. New Description of Holkham, the Magnificent Seat of T. W. Coke, Esq. M. P., Wells: H. Neville, 1826, pp. iii–iv; for an example of a notice, see, for instance, p. 60. John Bridgman, An Historical and Topographical Sketch of Knole, in Kent, London: W. Lindsell, 1817, p. 39. Rutter, 1822; see, for instance, p. 29.

  33. Catalogue of the Paintings in the Gallery, at Browsholme, Lancaster: William Minshull, 1807, p. 5.

  34. William Hayley Mason, Goodwood its House Park and Grounds with a Catalogue Raisonné of the Pictures in the Gallery of his Grace the Duke of Richmond, K. G., London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1839, p. viii.

  35. ‘200. An Historical Account of Corsham House, in Wiltshire, the State of Mr. Methuen; with a Descriptive Catalogue of His Celebrated Collection of Pictures, &c. &c’, The Gentleman’s Magazine 76 (1806): pp. 1047–8 (1047).

  36. ‘200’, p. 1047.

  37. ‘36. A Guide to Burghley House’, The Gentleman’s Magazine 86 (1816): p. 241.

  38. Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures at Castle-Howard, Malton: G. Sagg, 1805, pp. 11–12.

  39. J. Horn, A History or Description, General and Circumstantial, of Burghley House, Shrewsbury: J. and W. Eddowes, 1797, p. vi.

  40. For more on guidebook authors, see Anderson, 2018, pp. 52–3.

  41. British Library, 10350 de.2, William Mavor, New Description of Blenheim, 4th edn, London: Cadell and Davies, 1797; British Library, G.16193, Description of Nuneham-Courtenay in the county of Oxford, Oxford: privately printed, 1797; Canadian Centre for Architecture, ID:87-B18784, Catalogue of the Pictures, Statues, &c. at Kedleston. With Some Account of the Architecture (c.1770).

  42. Johann David Passavant, Tour of a German Artist in England, 2 vols, London: Saunders and Otley, 1836, vol. 1, p. 299.

  43. For a discussion of this book, see Andrew Moore, ‘Aedes Walpolianae: The Collection as Edifice’, in Larissa Dukelskaya and Andrew Moore, eds, A Capital Collection: Houghton Hall and the Hermitage, New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 2002, pp. 3–20 and 45–50.

  44. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Gallery of Pictures, Collected by Edmund Higginson, Esq. of Saltmarshe, London: Printed for Private Distribution, 1842, ‘Advertisement’ (n.p.).

  45. Mason, 1839, p. vii.

  46. Saltmarshe, 1842, p. 1.

  47. John Britton, The History and Description, with Graphic Illustrations, of Cassiobury Park, Hertfordshire: The Seat of the Earl of Essex, London: Published by the Author, 1837, p. 5.

  48. Passavant, 1836, vol. 2, p. 73.

  49. See, for instance, the account of Lee Priory in J. P. Neale, Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Second Series, Volume II, London: Sherwood, Jones, and Co., 1825, n.p.

  50. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Reminiscences of a Literary Life, Part the Second, London: John Major, 1836, p. 569.

  51. Dibdin, 1836, p. 571.

  52. Dibdin, 1836, p. 585.

  53. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Aedes Althorpianae, London: W. Nicol, 1822, p. 21.

  54. Britton, 1849, p. 62. Over a dozen artists worked on the plates, including J. M. W. Turner (for a full list of the plates, see Britton, 1837, p. 7).

  55. Britton, 1837, p. 28.

  56. Britton, 1837, p. 29.

  57. John Young, A Catalogue of the Pictures at Leigh Court, near Bristol; the Seat of Philip John Miles, Esq. M. P. With Etchings from the Whole Collection. Executed by Permission of the Proprietor, and Accompanied with Historical and Biographical Notices, London: W. Bulmer and W. Nicol, 1822, n.p.

  58. Passavant, 1836, vol. 1, p. 321.

  59. William Carey, A Descriptive Catalogue of a Collection of Paintings by British Artists, in the Possession of Sir John Fleming Leicester, Bart., London: J. Nichols and Son, 1819, pp. viii, x.

  60. John Young, A Catalogue of Pictures by British Artists, in the Possession of Sir John Fleming Leicester, Bart., London: W. Bulmer and W. Nicol, 1821, n.p.

  61. Passavant, 1836, vol. 1, pp. x–xi.

  62. Passavant, 1836, vol. 1, p. 277, vol. 2, pp. 2, 4.

  63. Passavant, 1836, vol. 2, pp. 3–4.

  64. Passavant, 1836, vol. 1, pp. 299, 301, 321, vol. 2, pp. 30, 63–91.

  65. ‘Art. III. – Tour of a German Artist in England’, Monthly Review, 2 (new series) (1836): pp. 465–6.

  66. Gustav Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, 3 vols, London: John Murray, 1854, III, 17–18.

  67. Waagen, 1854, vol. 3, p. 18.

  68. Émilie Oléron Evans, ‘Housing the Art of the Nation: The Home as Museum in Gustav F. Waagen’s Treasures of Art in Great Britain’, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 17, no. 1 (Spring 2018), (accessed 24 January 2019).

  69. Waagen, 1854, vol. 3, pp. 7, 8, 121, 122.

  70. Giles Waterfield and Florian Illies, ‘Waagen in England’, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 37 (1995): pp. 49–52. Waagen and Treasures would go on to be critical influences on the Art Treasures Exhibition held in Manchester in 1857: Elizabeth A. Pergam, The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857: Entrepreneurs, Connoisseurs and the Public, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2011, p. 33.

  71. Hours in Lord Northwick’s Picture Gallery; Being a Catalogue, with Critical and Descriptive Notices, of Some of the Principal Paintings Contained in the Thirlestane House Collection, Cheltenham: Henry Davies, 1846, p. 5.

  72. John Goding, Norman’s History of Cheltenham, Cheltenham: Norman, 1863, p. 141.

  73. Goding, 1863, pp. 141–43.



by Jocelyn Anderson
20 November 2020
Thematic Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Jocelyn Anderson, "Visiting and Writing on Country House Art Collections in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries", Art and the Country House,