Petworth and Arundel, West Sussex

2 09 2006

Only last week at Waddesdon I had commented that it is rather uncommon to visit a renowned country house that didn’t contain an enfilade. This fact was borne out once more today at my visit to Petworth House, in the delightful county of West Sussex. To begin with, there were no surprises. There are more rooms than one would need. There are more rooms than one would build in our own time. There is art in every corner. Unlike the standard off-the-shelf furniture of today, of Ikea, Courts or Dfs, there is here a personal expression of the owner or the artist or both. Every piece of furniture, painting, carpet or decorative item is a collectible.

View of the house from the landscaped gardens

View of the house from the landscaped gardens

Thus the architecture of Petworth House did not have much to impress. At least for me, by now well-initiated into English architecture, there was not much here to make a journey of more than two hours from Luton worthwhile. But the fame of Petworth is elsewhere. It lies in its collections of paintings and sculptures; and this was what I had come to see.

English paintings from various periods form the bulk of the collection. Here we have the watercolours and drawings of William Blake; the highly acclaimed landscapes of J.M.W. Turner; the refined portraits of Joshua Reynolds; the flowing brushwork of Thomas Gainsborough; the formal portraits of Anthony Van Dyck or Peter Lely; the Shakespearean themes of Henry Fuesli.

Of equal value are the sculptures of antiquity that are to be found in almost every room. These have the unfortunate circumstance of being overshadowed by the paintings. The paintings take much space. Their numbers are greater. It is difficult to escape their presence. It therefore takes great effort to notice the sculptures, tucked away in the corners on pedestals, in the niches and alcoves. So too is the fate of Greek vases or Chinese porcelain. The audio guide does not make much mention of them either and one is compelled to seek the assistance of supplementary printed guides that are available in every room.

Such was my verdict before I entered the North Gallery. I must confess that this gallery was a surprise. If this had been part of a museum, it would have been in its proper place. To find such a gallery in a country house is not just unique; it is unexpected. It is like Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire where the passion for collecting occupied every living space, so much so that the house became more of a warehouse.

The North Gallery is a treasure house of paintings. Not one wall has been spared. There must have been over a hundred of them covering every available space. The problem really was that the room was not well-lit. Many paintings were not at eye-level and therefore it was often difficult to find a good spot from where I could appreciate each one to its best advantage. So my attention naturally shifted to the sculptures and deservedly so for what glory there is in some of them!

Without doubt, the centre stage is taken by the 1826 sculpture of “St Michael subduing Satan” by John Flaxman. One of the important attributes of any great sculpture is that it must live up to its greatness from any angle. It must present a balanced composition far and near, high or low. Moreover, it must draw the viewer to walk around it and feel the movement of lines and curves. It must engage the viewer in an active manner so that he becomes a witness to the unfolding drama that is playing before his very eyes. Then, it must exercise the viewer’s wonder and draw him to inspect the details. The skill of the artist will thus be seen in the smooth roughness and the soft toughness of a yielding stone. A sculpture as this is not a static piece as a painting. It is ever-present action. It is active movement. It is silent energy.

Such is the beauty of this centrepiece by John Flaxman. It is not the more familiar theme of St Michael slaying the dragon, as the Dragon Hill in Uffington says to us. Satan is depicted as fallen, but not as an angel. His rough bearded appearance is more human than a fallen angel of Paradise. Here he can only crawl, for his legs under metamorphosis have changed into his once assumed serpent form. The coils in vain try to grasp St Michael but only manage to dislodge his garment. His taut muscles and veins almost ripping out of the skin are indications of the intense struggle with the saint who towers over him with a spear poised to strike. In all this intensity, there is perfect calmness in the expression of St Michael. There is beauty and grace in his posture, in that very moment before he strikes. The end is near and the outcome is certain.

This by no means is the only piece that deserves praise. There are a good number of admirable sculptures by Irish sculptor John Carew. “Venus, Vulcan and Cupid” (1827/8-31), “The Falconer” (1827/8-9), “Adonis and the Boar” (1823-25/26), “Prometheus and Pandora” (1835-7), “Arethusa” (1824), are among the best of his work. There are many sculptures – heads, busts and restored fragments – from the ancient world; but the true worth of this gallery is in the collection of comparatively modern British sculptures that are not so easily found elsewhere.

Thus we come to the specific question of patronisation. The 2nd Earl of Egremont acquired many antique sculptures. The 3rd Earl of Egremont, on the other hand, did more than acquire. He commissioned works. He fed the painters and sculptors. Without him, John Carew would probably have been out of work. Without him, many of treasures of Petworth would never have come into existence. He is also well-known as a patron of Turner. Just as one falls back to the antique past and looks up to it with pride, the other believes in the potential of the present at its new frontiers and endless possibilities. Could there then be an argument that patronisation is better than preservation? One is active; the other passive. It is only when preservation leads to creation it can be meaningful and worthwhile.

The North Gallery was by no means the only room that captured my attention with its uniqueness. The other was the Carved Room which is too long to be a proper room, certainly not to the rules of Palladian architecture. The point to admire in this room is the elaborate woodwork by Grinling Gibbons in the late 17th century. The carvings here are the best that I have seen in this medium. The skill in the use of tools is well-matched by the artist’s mastery of balanced composition that is so beautifully displayed in the three dimensional collage of carved bouquets, garlands, flowers and vases. His eye for detail is not to be overlooked. It is present in the figures on the vases. It is present in the feathers of the quill. It is present in the notes on the stave that echo their songs to the strings of the violin. In this room too are four notable paintings of Turner – warm views of Petworth or in connection with Petworth.

There is something to be said of Turner and his paintings. Peter Ackroyd, in his biography on London, mentions Turner as being “the true child of the river [Thames]”. Looking at Turner’s paintings at Petworth, it brings me one step closer to the truth in this. The characteristic of most of his paintings is the presence of a water body, be it a river, a lake, the sea or the shore. “Teignmouth” is a beautiful painting. So is “Hulks on the Tamar”. His views of the Thames are numerous, captured at different places – Windsor, Eton, Weybridge.

Chestnut in the gardens of Petworth House

Chestnut in the gardens of Petworth House

Only last week at Waddesdon I had witnessed the formal gardens that were so much in fashion in the 17th century. By the time Waddesdon was built, it was already out of fashion; but we know that at Waddesdon the objective was to create something of the past in the style of French Renaissance. Petworth, being older, too started with such formal gardens but nothing of that remains now. They were deliberately swept away by the ever capable “Capability” Brown to make way for the prevailing taste of the 18th century in landscape gardening; and what a park he has created and with what great success! The serpentine lake is the focus of the park. This is framed by hills clothed with clumps of trees. These trees are not so many that they assume the impenetrable proportions of a wood. There are adequate gaps and clearings to lead the view to farther landscapes. The paths to enjoy such landscapes are many. These offer enjoyable views far and near. The monuments are hardly impressive and are not placed to their best advantage, but to be fair I didn’t have enough time to enjoy the park to the full. It is likely that I might have missed many views that show these monuments in a better light.

The next sensible thing to put down is the village of Petworth itself. It is quite a surprise to find that the house is part of the village, not the usual instance of finding such a house in the middle of a large estate few miles from the nearest village. The most prominent thing to note in this village is the number of antique shops. For such a small village it has a disproportionately large number of them. There is at least one in every street and every corner. So I decided to spend some time at an antique bookshop. Some books are truly worthy of such a status but others are no more than worthless stuff carrying a high price tag. The expectation is that it will be worth something for someone. Take for example the following book as described by a bookmark:

Six Lectures on Light delivered in America in 1872-1873, London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1873. FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, pp xiii, 277, engraved frontispiece by Prof. Lockett, many illustrations, a crisp untrimmed copy in original mauve cloth, spine faded. £85

The lectures were given by John Tyndall, a well-known physicist of his time. He is best remembered for the Tyndall Effect that I had learnt at school. In this book he talks a great deal on the properties of light, details of experiments, results, analysis, doubts and postulations. It treats light purely as waves. The particle theory of light, in his time, had still not seen the light of day. Although the particle theory existed even at the time of Newton, it had not been popular. Today we know a great deal more about light. There are much better books. Can this book be worth such a high price? Can an original mauve cloth be a strong enough reason to supplant the faded theories of light? Certainly, it is a good book but I would not pay more than £5. It someone does buy it, one can be sure that it is not the subject matter that interests him.

There is yet more to relate on this store. I noted Peter Ackroyd’s biography on London, crisp and new, without a crease or a smudge. So quickly the world changes! So quickly things can get obsolete and become an antique! I think the shop owner got a little offended when I told him that this book wasn’t an antique.

I walked out of this store as the proud owner of what is definitely the oldest book I have purchased in my life – “The Ingoldsby Legends” by Thomas Ingoldsby, the Carmine Edition printed in 1881. The first edition was probably released in 1840 and my copy cannot be worth much. However, it is a beautiful book. The very first legend makes a mention of Grinling Gibbons, a name I had never heard of before today, but heard twice within the same day! Thanks to the Carved Room and the patrons of art, the name and its context in the legend were not alien to me. This book is now mine for only £1!

It is fair to say that Petworth has more antique shops than restaurants or pubs. It is perhaps an indication that during the day the village centre has more visitors than locals; and at night it is deserted. I enquired of a woman at the bus stop for a decent restaurant. She could recommend none. She never comes here for food. So I decided to visit Arundel which is not more than ten minutes by train from Pulborough. In fact, the bus from Petworth to Pulborough crosses a bridge over the River Arun.

The fame of Arundel lies in two things. Both are visible from a distance for the simple reason that they are situated on a high prospect. One is the grand castle. The other is the cathedral. It was too late in the day for me to visit either of these. I had come for dinner and my detour had not been in vain. Arundel has a selection of restaurants that will satisfy any serious food connoisseur. I roamed the streets at leisure, read all the menus out of curiosity and took my time to pick what suited my wallet. Finally I settled for grilled fillet of salmon drizzled with white wine sauce and some garlic bread at the Norfolk Arms. There is a coat of arms on another building nearby that mentions the close association of this town with the Duke of Norfolk.

Before leaving Arundel I took note of the sparse ruins of a medieval Dominican Friary, otherwise called Blackfriars. I have passed through London Blackfriars many times but never really questioned what the word meant or how it came to be. Here is one more variant of the practice of Christianity, one more monastery left barely standing and one more river still flowing.




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