Or, the art of British country house interiors

April 29, 2013

Last Remarks

The collecting of art became a key feature of British country houses in the early 17th century [1]. Connected to this very earliest accumulation of paintings is the development of the long gallery, originally simply a place to exercise in bad weather, but eventually a space tacitly understood to be a display area for portraits. As country house owners, family members, and visitors would view these works, they would put each portrait to the ultimate test: whether or not it genuinely conveyed the individual represented [2]. This evaluation of portraiture and its success in showing the spirit of a person is a practice that continues still today.

The display of portraits in country houses greatly developed over the centuries, but their connotations remained very much the same. Art collections took on a more public face as visitors toured country houses; family portraits represented the dynastic status of the house, as well as the artistic taste of the owner [3]. Portraits played a significant role in visually representing the illustrious history of the country house and the long lineage of the family [4]. Whether displayed in long galleries or entrance halls, dining rooms or saloons, family portraits remain a ubiquitous part of country house art collections.

Despite the importance of the display of portraiture in country houses, it is often difficult to find images of the interior decoration of these houses; even more seldom is there information about specific portraits that is easily accessible. Period films are an invaluable resource for those who want to experience the interiors of country houses but are unable to visit the houses themselves. In these films, country house family portraits work to establish an atmosphere that connects the fictional country house owner with the actual house and its renowned history. Through the viewing of period pieces, the display of portraiture in British country houses can be better understood and truly appreciated. 


[1] McBride, Kari Boyd. Country House Discourse in Early Modern England: a Cultural Study of Landscape and 
              Legitimacy. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2001.
[2] Kerslake, J.F. “Pictures as Documents: The Chatham House Collection.” International Affairs 33.4 (1957): 453-459.
[3] Miers, Mary. The English Country House: from the Archives of Country Life. New York: Rizzoli International 
               Publications, 2009.
[4] Musson, Jeremy. How to Read a Country House. London: Ebury Press, 2005.

Squerryes Court

Squerryes Court, an early Georgian style country house in Kent, was the home of the de Squerie family in the 13th century, after which it had many different owners; John Warde bought the property in 1731, and his descendants still live there [1]. The present house dates from the late 17th century, although it has undergone much remodeling and restoration since then [2]. Squerryes Court represented Hartfield in the 2009 verison of Emma, and can also be seen in Pirate Radio and Foyle's War: Series One, Episode One (The German Woman).

Jane Austen gives us no detailed description of the Woodhouse country home, Hartfield, in the text of Emma; we are to gather that it is quite fine indeed, as Emma is of very high social status. Hartfield is the center of Emma's world, and the decision to use Squerryes Court, with its warm and inviting interiors, is perfect for the setting of the mini series. Squerryes Court contains an impressive collection of English, Italian 18th century, and Dutch 17th century paintings, as well as many family portraits which are displayed throughout the house [3].

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle, a "Jacobethan" country house in Hampshire, has been the home of the Carnarvon family since 1679 [1]. The original Elizabethan house was built on the site of a medieval palace and was later rebuilt in the classic Georgian style; the present day house was designed by famed architect Sir Charles Barry in 1842 [2]. Highclere Castle is most well-known as the Earl of Grantham's grand home in Downton Abbey, but was also used in Marple: 4:40 from Paddington, Jeeves and Wooster: Series Two, Episode One (Jeeves Saves the Cow Creamer); Series Two, Episode Two (A Plan for Gussie); and Series Four, Episode Five (Trouble at Totleigh Towers).

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes in fact had Highclere Castle in mind as he wrote the story and screenplay for the show; his longstanding friendship with the Carnarvon family enabled him to make his vision a reality [3]. As architect Sir Charles Barry said of his design for Highclere Castle, the house was based on three qualities: love of extravagance, love of the past, and love of ancestry [4]. It is easy to understand Fellowes vision and see how it fits into Barry's plan for the house, as Highclere Castle's splendid interiors and extensive art collection provide the perfect setting for Downton Abbey

April 28, 2013

Loseley Park

Loseley Park is an Elizabethan country house in Surrey, built in the mid-16th century by Sir William More expressly to entertain Queen Elizabeth I [1]. It remains the home of the now More-Molyneux family, and has been left remarkably little changed since it was constructed. The house represents Donwell Abbey in the 2009 version of Emma, and can also be seen in Marple: 4:50 from Paddington, and 2008's Sense and Sensibility.

Jane Austen's descriptions of the country houses which form the setting for many of her novels are few and far between. On the interiors of these great houses, such as Kellynch, Pemberley, and Norland, we are told even less. The descriptions with the most extensive detail primarily refer to older houses, such as Northanger Abbey and Donwell Abbey, and even then Austen is never very explicit [2]. The Tudor interiors and many portraits in Loseley Park make it a very fitting location for filming Donwell Abbey.

Sudbury Hall

Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire was inherited by Sir John Vernon in 1513 and remained the Vernon country home until 1967 when it was transferred to the National Trust [1]. The house as seen today is mainly the creation of George Vernon who rebuilt Sudbury Hall in the mid-17th century [2]. With rooms that are "lofty and handsome, neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendour, and more real elegance [3]", Sudbury Hall is famed as the interior location of Pemberley in the 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.

Sudbury Hall

It was planned that Lyme Park would represent both the exterior and interior of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice, however, a change of management at Lyme Park meant the interior was no longer available; Sudbury Hall was miles away, but was chosen because of its elegant interiors and impressive long gallery [4]. Said Pride and Prejudice Location Manager Sam Breckman, “Houses on the scale of Pemberley are few and far between. It is supposed to be in Derbyshire which would give it a distinctive northern look, and it has to be very big and set in stunning scenery” [4]. The interior of Sudbury Hall, with its many family portraits, effectively establishes the Darcys as members of the established gentry.

April 27, 2013

Dorney Court

Dorney Court near Windsor has been the Palmer family home for over 450 years and is an excellent example of Tudor architecture [1]. 'Dorney' is the ancient word for 'island of bees,' and Dorney Court well-known for its honey which is still produced there today; additionally, the very first pineapple in England was grown at Dorney Court [2]. The house contains a large collection of family portraits, many of which can be seen in Sense and SensibilityJeeves and Wooster: Series Three, Episode Six (Comrade Bingo)Marple: The Body in the Library, and Marple: The Sittaford Mystery.

The paneled rooms and galleried hall of Dorney Court provide a fitting backdrop for period pieces looking for a country house with a more serious tone. Although the dining room and great hall of Dorney Court feel dark and somber, the presence of many family portraits adds a personal touch and livens up the space.

April 26, 2013

Wrotham Park: Part Two

This discussion of Wrotham Park is continued from Wrotham Part: Part One. The art collection of Wrotham Park was built up considerably from the late 18th to the mid-19th century, with works by old masters as well as leading painters of the day [1]. Portraits by van Dyck, Kneller, Reynolds, Lawrence, de Laszlo, and Sargent decorate the house, in particular the Staircase Hall. The staircase at Wrotham Park, visible in a number of period films, is quite simply marvelous. Through movie stills from Poirot: Series One, Episode Three (The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly), Jeeves and Wooster: Series One, Episode Four (The Hunger Strike), Series One, Episode Five (Brinkley Manor), Series Two, Episode Four (Jeeves in the Country)Series Two, Episode Five (Kidnapped!), Series Four, Episode Four (The Delayed Arrival); Gosford ParkDaniel Deronda, and Bridget Jones's Diary, we can better experience and appreciate the portrait covered walls.

The Staircase Hall at Wrotham Park functions as a kind of vertical long gallery; family portraits are hung on either side of the staircase, with a central tapestry that was part of the decoration of Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King George VI in 1937 [1]. These portraits provide insight into the family history of the owners of Wrotham Park, and also serve as a vivid, eye-catching backdrop for many movies.