“The country house art collections are an incalculably important and significant part of the cultural heritage of these islands. Even now, when so many have been scattered and many more are in danger, they are unique. To the art-historian, of course, to the student of painting as well as the historian of taste, they possess infinite riches; to the student of British art they provide an enormous mass of primary evidence which has only partly been sifted; but it is also no exaggeration to claim that those collections illuminate the history of civilization in the British Isles.”
Oliver Millar, Former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures
Since the late Oliver Millar wrote those words in 1974, the situation has changed drastically: even more old masters and other works of art have left the collections of the aristocracy, and in many cases, left British shores all together. Perhaps the worst case is Woburn Abbey where pictures continue to leave the Trust despite attempts to retain them. Last year for example, a Poussin in that collection was sold to an “overseas buyer.” But how did all this art get to country houses and buildings like Woburn, Castle Howard, Knole, Petworth, Hardwick (painted by David Cox, above), and Warwick in the first place? What are the origins of the country house collection in England, and what individuals and organisations were involved? How does the country house gallery compare with the modern public museum? In order to answer these and many other questions, it is essential to understand the history of art collecting in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries- and this course introduces the topic in its early stages. After the French revolution a huge amount of pictures flooded the English market, and many of these were bought at auction by members of the gentry who installed them in their galleries in their country homes. Artists like Turner and Constable visited these collections in order to copy pictures; and in the case of politicians like Horace Walpole, and connoisseurs like Passavant and Waagen to describe and catalogue the collections. Thanks to individuals like these who travelled to country houses in England in order to catalogue the Claudes and Carracci in the collections of the families, we can imaginatively reconstruct the collections that have been broken up. With the aid of their descriptions and the vast BBC Your Paintings database, we shall explore the changing fortunes of the old master in the stately home in order to show that though the country house has generally experienced a “rise,” its picture collection is sadly in decline thanks to the odd “leaking roof” and the lure of the international art market which has tempted many an impecunious member of the aristocracy. This is also a tale of heritage, an idea introduced into culture by the Victorians who made the stately home art collection more accessible and therefore more public, thus foreshadowing the National Trust which in the absence of state intervention was founded in 1895 to save the nation’s heritage and art treasures from neglect. In the final weeks, the course looks at the exporting of art in the case of a number of stately homes, especially Woburn; we briefly explore the fortunes of the country house art collection during the “Brideshead generation,” especially Castle Howard in the war years; and finally consider a blueprint for a new kind of art collection which has turned the country house into a modern museum in a picturesque setting (Compton Verney).