Finest prospects: the artist and the country house (and a challenge)

The country house has always been a trophy to be admired and enjoyed.  Yet, in the age before mass media and transportation made it easier to see these fine houses, often the only way to remind yourself and, more importantly, guests to your London townhouse, of your rural wealth and power was through the rather special branch of art that is the country house portrait.  Though originally European, it found new and invigorating life once it had crossed the Channel, creating an important and fascinating record of the lives, tastes and architecture of the landed classes. We also have a mystery house in a painting to find…

The country house first started appearing in paintings in France, with one of the very earliest depictions being that of the Duc de Berry’s houses and estates in 1416 by Pol de Limbourg.  These paintings served not only as reminders of wealth but also as practical tools for the running of extensive estates. The earliest English contemporary of these paintings is a 15th-century portrait of John of Kentchurch with a view of Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire in the background.  Although the depiction of the country house was a primarily European feature, it was still a relatively niche pursuit until the late 1500s, with painters more usually employed to portray the religious, historical or mythological.

Detail of 'An Aerial View of Tottenham Park, Wiltshire' by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack (after 1737) - this picture hung for many years in the estate office.
Detail of 'An Aerial View of Tottenham Park, Wiltshire' by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack (after 1737) - this picture hung for many years in the estate office.

The trade in country house views was particularly popular in the Netherlands, where a demand for topographical engravings combined with many estates created a ready market.  The genesis of the English tradition is also to be found here as the Royalist aristocracy fled to the region during the Civil War. The connections made at this time were to prove fruitful for the many painters who followed their current and prospective patrons back across the Channel after the the Restoration in 1660. Before then, views of a country house were usually part of an estate survey, bar a few exceptions such as those of Conway Castle in c.1600, Nonsuch Palace and Richmond Palace c.1620, and the ‘King’s houses’ by Alexander Kierincx in 1639-40.  It was the famous engraver Wenceslas Hollar who completed the first significant set; five views of Albury House in Surrey in the late 1630s. Hollar was also significant in establishing the new fashion for these views once confidence was restored in the late 1650s.

The Restoration of Charles II gave new life to the art, with Dutch artists eager to record the newly invigorated estates of the aristocracy.  Without the artistic constraints often found in Europe, the style of the art in England was largely determined by the owner rather than royal preference.  By the 1680s, the country house portrait was as well established, as well  as those of the family, and reflected both pride and change.  Views were often painted to record the old house before it was swept away or remodelled or after the work had finished to showcase their new seat.

One of the finest artists of this period was Leonard Knyff who had arrived in England in around 1676 but whose first country house painting, completed in 1696, is of Dunham Massey, Cheshire.  A few more paintings followed, but his master work was a collection of eighty engraved views published (by Johannes Kip) in 1707 under the title ‘Britannia Illustrata: Or Views of Several of the Queen’s Palaces, also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain…’.  It remains one of the finest records of the country houses of the period – today, even individual prints can sell for hundreds of pounds and full copies of the book for tens of thousands.

Detail of 'Westwood, Worcestershire' published 1709 for "Britannia Illustrata: Or Views of Several of the Queen's Palaces, also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain...." by Johannes Kip & Leonard Knyff
Detail of 'Westwood, Worcestershire' published 1709 for "Britannia Illustrata" by Johannes Kip & Leonard Knyff

From the 1700s, the composition of the paintings shifts to include, and give greater prominence to, sporting activities and also the setting of the house, particularly the gardens. With sports such as riding and hunting being such a key part of the enjoyment and reputation of an estate, it was natural that these should feature in any artistic celebration.   As the fashions for landscaping and elaborate gardens took hold, so to did a desire for these to also be included in such detail that the house became a much smaller element, subsumed into a wider bucolic vision.  The more ‘survey’-like paintings showed in almost cartographic detail the layout of the gardens with the tree-lined rides radiating away from the house.

'Lowther Castle, Westmorland, Seen from a Distance by 'Day' in 1810' - J.M.W. Turner
'Lowther Castle, Westmorland, Seen from a Distance by 'Day' in 1810' - J.M.W. Turner

This trend was not only driven by the owners who were very proud of their new environment but also because it was a natural continuation of the earlier work of these artists, as recorders of landscapes. John Harris argues that it would be difficult to confirm the exact influence which art exerted over landscaping but the popularity of landscape painters such as Claude Lorrain, coincided with the popularity of advocates of the more natural landscape such as Humphrey Repton and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1760s.  Parkland now moved from the more formal ‘boxes’ which Knyff had so accurately portrayed, and was now shown as a more rural, naturalistic form, the landscape now dominating the picture.  How far this style departed from formal country house portraiture can be seen in the works of J.M.W. Turner who frequently reduced the house to a mere smudge in the distance – and even when the house featured clearly, it was subordinate to the overall setting and atmosphere.  That’s not to say that the ‘Claudian’ view was the only one – the preferences of the owners for clear visions of their seats kept artists such as William Hodges, James Barret, William Marlow, and Theodore de Bruyn busy too.

By the mid-1800s there had been a marked decline in the demand for these type of paintings. Improved communications meant that houses were no longer so remote, and with the advent of mass printing, publishing filled the demand for images of the houses as typified by the eleven volumes of J.P. Neale’s ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen‘ (1818-1829).  Owners of houses were also now increasingly from the new wealthy who had their powerbases in cities and the country house was merely a retreat. By 1880, photography was also firmly supplanting oil paint as the medium of choice, as shown by the success of photographers such as Bedford Lemere, and, by the 1900s, the success of magazines such as Country Life which placed a high priority on using only the best photos.

Detail of 'Carclew, Cornwall' by Algernon Newton (house built 1720s, burnt out in 1934) - painting commissioned for the family which owned it at the time of the fire
Detail of 'Carclew, Cornwall' by Algernon Newton (house built 1720s, burnt out in 1934) - painting commissioned for the family which owned it at the time of the fire

However, in the last twenty years, a resurgent interest amongst country house owners has again created a demand for the country house portrait.  Artists such as Algernon Newton, Julian Barrow, James Hart Dyke, Jonathan Warrender, and Marcus May have led the way in continuing the tradition.  One artist has even been responsible for creating a country house which only existed in one of his paintings. Felix Kelly had painted an imaginary scene of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda within an English landscape; inspired by this, Sebastian de Ferranti then commissioned the architect Julian Bicknell to translate this art into reality, completing the house in 1986.

These important paintings are now, for some houses, the only record of how they were before later changes obscured or obliterated them forever. For many others, they are a wonderful reminder of the beauties of architecture and are a unique and invaluable record of our country houses.

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Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken
Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken - click for full painting

The Challenge: can you identify the mystery house in this painting?

Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken
Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken

The catalyst for this post about country houses in paintings was an email I received from Wendy & Gordon Hawksley who are working to re-establish the reputation of William Bruce Ellis Ranken (1881-1941). A famous artist in his day, he socialised with the great and good and painted many of them before fading into obscurity after his death.  This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1936 (this is also the year it was painted) under the title of ‘Portrait Group’ but as yet it has not been possible to identify either the sitters or the house. And so to the challenge: simply, can we identify the house – almost certainly English or Irish, Palladian, engaged columns to the front (a la Kedleston Hall) with flanking curved colonnaded wings facing a large reflecting pool.  Obviously there may be some degree of artistic licence but it seems likely that this was the home of the subjects of the portrait. Suggestions either via the comments below or via email to me.  No prizes I’m afraid beyond a credit here and the happy thought that art history is slightly richer for your efforts.

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For a more in-depth history and many images (and to which this post is much indebted)  I recommend ‘The Artist and the Country House: from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day‘ by the ever-brilliant John Harris – unfortunately now out of print.

Empty walls? The sale of contents to fund the house – Althorp House

Althorp House, Northamptonshire (Image: Andrew Walker @ wikipedia)

For hundreds of years the political power of a country house was in the ownership of the house, and most importantly the estate – acreage equated with power even if the land was mortgaged to the hilt.  The paintings or furniture which furnish these houses were not only decorative but assets which were easy to sell off when financial circumstances demanded that money be raised.  An upcoming sale at Christies highlights how this is still the case today – even if the strength of the art market means that fewer works now need to be sold to raise the totals required.

Althorp House in Northamptonshire has famously been the home of the Spencer family since the 16th-century and sits in a 14,000-acre estate.  The family fortune was founded in livestock and commodities which enabled John Spencer to purchase the red-brick Tudor house at Althorp in 1522.  It was this house which the 2nd Earl Spencer commissioned the architect Henry Holland to modernise in 1787-89, encasing it in white brick and tiles and remodelling the interior to create the grade-I listed house we see today.  The Spencer family then built up their connections becoming politically influential but also extensive art collectors.

Today, Althorp is in the middle of a £10m project to put the house on a sound structural footing.  One major task, along with repairing the ornate stonework and the external tiles, is to fix the roof – an undertaking which is taking nine months and requires over 50-tonnes of lead.  Globalisation means that commodity prices have been rising strongly on the back of growing demand from countries such as China meaning the cost of the project has proved too great to be borne through income.  So the 9th Earl Spencer has been forced to put a selection of art, considered ‘non-core’ to the collection by the trustees, up for auction.  However, the flip side to globalisation is the massive wealth creation and more well-funded collectors chasing the best works.  In this case, the quality of the paintings and the robust prices being achieved at recent auctions, it is possible to raise enough money with just a few works.

The highlight is ‘A Commander Being Armed for Battle‘ by Sir Peter Paul Rubens which is expected to fetch between £8-12m which should cover the restoration bill for the house with the other works, including ‘King David‘ by the Italian Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino, providing some financial breathing space.  Ironically, the current Earl publicly criticised his stepmother for selling off four van Dycks and a Stubbs in the 1970s and 80s but this time the difference is that the proceeds will be re-invested in the house and estate rather than just simply for running costs.  It’s a fact of life that ownership of a country house is a constant battle against physical deterioration and with grant aid from the public bodies in such short supply it is unfortunately the artistic heritage which is once again being sacrificed to ensure that the family seat remains intact.

Full story: ‘On their uppers: The great aristocratic art sell-off‘ [The Independent]

Auctioneers: Christies – The Spencer House sale will be on 8 July 2010.