My college art history classes invariably began at 8 am or right after lunch- neither being a good time to sit in a darkened room and look at slides. Despite this, I relished (through occasional yawns) this exposure to artwork far removed from my rural background, and I fell madly in love with the old masters, as well as European and British architecture. (I even remember some of the things I learned in those long-ago classes! Though I am chagrined that I don’t recall some of my classmates…) Despite the failings of memory, those classes proved to be the perfect combination of canvas and construction that sent me forward on the path I am today. Last summer, I experienced art and architecture in situ – and the pairing has never seemed more fitting or appropriate then at Petworth House in West Sussex.
I spent a delirious day roaming all over Petworth as part of the 2014 Attingham Summer School, and I was thrilled when the Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner made its way to Lexington recently. Ensconced in the Kentucky Theater (a lovely historic movie house), I settled in to the story of J.M.W. Turner, and as part of that, glimpses of the place John Constable called “the house of art.”
Petworth House, set within a 700-acre park landscaped (or as some of my friends would say, butchered) by Capability Brown, contains the National Trust’s finest collection of paintings. In addition to works by Turner, it boats pieces by Anthony Van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds, William Blake – and one of my favorites, Hieronymus Bosch.
The Third Earl of Egremont was one of Turner’s closest friends and most important patrons – he commissioned 20 paintings from the artist, the largest single collection outside Tate Britain. Between 1809 and 1837, Turner was a frequent visitor to Petworth, painting in front of an immense, three-part arched window in what had been the Earl’s library on an upper story of the house.
The film crew spent a week on location in Petworth – and yes, I did squeal, ever so quietly, when I recognized rooms in which I had spent so much time last summer.
The carved room (which originally was half the size of the present space ) holds, on the east wall, four landscapes by Turner commissioned by the 3rd Earl. If you were sitting in chair, facing the wall, the paintings were at eye level – so even though you weren’t facing the park, its splendor was still in front of you, courtesy of Turner’s brush. Not all of the four landscapes show the park, however – they also reflect the 3rd Earl’s interest in commerce and agriculture.
Turner never returned to Petworth after the 3rd Earl’s death. The movie portrays him, tramping about England, capturing nature – and also being lashed to the mast of a ship to witness firsthand the fury and colors of a storm. I wonder if all of those wanderings helped Petworth fade from his mind, tucked away in the folds of memory, or if he thought longingly of the Downs and the rolling grounds of Petworth and the way the light shimmered off of the lake. Not knowing any of this, I cherish my time there – the chance to see Turner’s landscapes in the room for which they were intended (only fairly recently returned, but that is another story) and to witness the calm blue of a summer sky transform into roiling clouds above the park. The National Trust received Petworth from the heirs of the 3rd Earl in 1947 (the family maintains one wing of the house), and I think Turner himself would be pleased that his legacy is so celebrated there now.