If you haven’t visited Petworth House, then you must. It has all the trappings of a National Trust property but with added wow. Having driven past and walked in the park many times, I decided to visit for the first time in decades recently and it blew my mind!
A bit of background
Petworth House is a 17th-century Grade I listed country house, rebuilt in 1688 by Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset. It was the Percy family’s (Earls of Northumberland) home in the south for many centuries. It’s famed for its extensive art and sculpture collection which includes works by Turner, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Van Dyck. It also has a large deer park which was landscaped by Capability Brown.
Occupation of the site itself dates back to at least the early 14th century when there was a fortified manor house here built by Henry de Percy, 1st Baron Percy. Over the years (and being staunchly Catholic) the family fell in and out of favour with the monarchy. Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland was executed for treason in 1572 for leading an uprising against the Queen but his brother was granted mercy on condition that the family be confined to Petworth House.
In 1682, Elizabeth Percy, daughter and only heir of the 11th Earl of Northumberland inherited Petworth House. She was 16 and already twice widowed. She then married the 20-year-old Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset and inspired by Versailles and in Baroque style, the house was transformed into what you see today. In the 1750s and 1760s, Lancelot “Capability” Brown was commissioned to landscape the parkland.
Art at Petworth
I have to admit to being a little intimidated by the art collection at Petworth but what I found was that if you’re not sure of your own tastes, this is a fantastic place to delve a little into yourself to find out more. The first rooms you come to are the Somerset Room and the Square Dining Room, both heavily hung with great works.
If you know your art, it’s here you’ll find The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch, Macbeth and the Witches by Sir Joshua Reynolds, works by Van Dyck and dozens of family portraits. Whilst I can appreciate these for what they are, they are a little intense for me. That said, even if they’re not your style, you can’t help but be a little in awe and admire them.
The Marble Hall
This originally opened onto the drive and you really start to get a feel for the enormity of Petworth House at this point. With vast floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the sweeping parklands and its arresting marble floor (hence the name), there’s a Turner painting here of the room itself and an inlaid mahogany organ that was bought on Christmas Day in 1786 by the 3rd Earl of Egremont.
Another painting you might recognise is An Unknown Cardinal by Titian (1488-1576). This was the subject of an episode of the TV programme Britain’s Lost Masterpieces in 2019 when Bendor Grosvenor and other experts confirmed the portrait to be by Titian (prior to which this had been in doubt for over 100 years). And for those that love the smaller, more personal stories of our great houses, when renovation work was carried out on the floor here a few years ago, various items were discovered which included an oyster shell (probably from one of the workers’ lunch) and part of a smoking pipe. For me, this conjured up a great image of a couple of humble workers laying this fantastic floor hundreds of years ago, with their pipe and pack lunch.
The Beauty Room and the Grand Staircase
From this point of the tour, the house gradually crescendos with opulence and splendour and if you’re expecting the Beauty Room to be small and intimate, you’ll be surprised. Undeniably feminine, this room was originally a tribute to the ladies of Queen Anne’s court, but also has a shrine to the Napoleonic Wars and another Turner painting of the room itself. I was particularly taken by the most fantastic collection of chairs and vases, whilst you’ll also find more paintings and portraits including two by Michael Dahl, and tantalising glimpses of the Grand Staircase.
The Grand Staircase is spectacular.
I was told by the volunteer stationed here that some people just lie on the stairs, staring upwards to take it all in and I can well believe it. There is no photo that can do this area justice but despite its classical style, vast proportions and the fact that it was created in the early 18th century, it feels both modern and intimate!
The room beneath the stairs tells the story of Prometheus and Pandora and as you progress up the stairs, Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset is seated in a triumphal chariot, accompanied by her three daughters. Look up to see the Assembly of the Gods on Mount Olympus above you. Zeus is in the middle giving Pandora her box. Wow, just wow. It doesn’t matter what your tastes are, this is magnificent.
The chapel is the oldest part of the house dating back to the early 14th century and from the pre-existing Tudor house, although some of it was subsequently rebuilt in the 17th century and incorporated into the new mansion. It is still used by the family today.
The North Gallery
I thought I was replete at this point until I reached the North Gallery which is another mind-blowing space. This is the English art and sculpture quarter, and a purpose-built gallery. This is also where Turner’s sea and landscapes really called to my inner romantic. There’s Gainsborough here too, and Leslie, Wilson, Witherington and many more, all arranged in such a way to help you feel your way through. And that’s what this room is all about: the senses and feeling of what each painting says to you.
That said, there are a number of sculptures here as well, some of which are so tactile it’s hard to stop yourself caressing the odd (marble) buttock and the painting of the 1835 Fete in Petworth Park helps to put Petworth’s great past into perspective. And then there are two paintings at the far end of the gallery that almost pop off the walls so exotic, vibrant and compelling are they, namely Sancho Panza in the Apartment of the Duchess and Gullivers Presentation to the Queens of Brobdingnag both by Leslie. Neither are my normal style, both are mesmerising.
The other notable thing to look out for in this room is the first globe of the earth made in 1592 which was allegedly a gift from Sir Walter Raleigh. It’s fantastical, beautiful and absorbing, and I want one!
Across the courtyard from the house are the kitchens dating back to the 18th century with a fantastic display of utensils and cooking equipment which would have fed the likes of Turner, the Prince Regent and even, on at least one occasion, the Tsar of Russia.
Tucked away in a little corner you’ll also find a fascinating collection of autobiographies of many of the former staff, along with their portraits and photos. Like Mrs Purser, a housekeeper who worked at Petworth for 60 years, and Hannah Jackson, the 7th housemaid in 1881 who earnt £14 a year (the equivalent of £1,150).
There’s a lot to take in at Petworth and during the winter, not all the rooms are open so it’s worth going back for a second visit if you want to see them all. The art at Petworth can’t be fully absorbed in one visit either, but by talking to the volunteers who always share so freely of their knowledge, it’s definitely a place where you can return, reflect, learn and absorb. I think you can tell, how excited I was by my visit. Petworth House is quite magnificent. And from the house, you must also always find time to explore the park (along with its deer, the Rotunda, the Doris Temple, ancient trees, the Boat House, and the Dog of Alcibiades). In short, you can really lose yourself here.