An art exhibition full of variety and surprises has no unifying theme save that the paintings all come from National Trust houses. Marc Jordan is inspiredby Marc Jordan / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The national trust is a curious hybrid, a kind of push-me-pull-you of the heritage world. Its founders set it up at the end of the last century to protect landscape of outstanding natural beauty, then as now threatened by industry, housing and farming. One hundred years later the Trust is one of the largest landowners in England and Wales. Most of us, though, think of it as the guardian of a huge portfolio of country houses, ranging from quaint old manors to classical piles; acquired almost by stealth.
Visiting these buildings is a mass sport in the summer, to such a degree that some might be worn away, like an overused footpath. It would be nice to believe that we have a particular appreciation of our history and of the cultural and aesthetic role that the English country house has played in it. Perhaps we do. We are also addicted to the contact with upper class life that country house visiting provides. Compared to France and Italy, where the aristos withered a long time ago and historic buildings generally have the antiseptic character of well run museums, Trust properties give the impression that a Wodehousian earl will come in to poke the fire at any moment.
This has a lot to do with the Trust’s palimpsestic view of history. Not for the Trust a spuriously “authentic” attempt to restore its houses to an arbitrary point in time. The lived-in atmosphere, so admired by foreign visitors, is the result of the Trust’s policy, when it takes on a house, of trying to secure its contents as well, which may mean pre-war Peter Jones armchairs in the same room as 17th century Mortlake tapestries. The Trust owns furniture, silver, porcelain, textiles and paintings that many world-class museums would be proud to display. But they cohabit with an eclectic accumulation of lesser objects that give them a domestic context. The Trust’s curators usually strike the right balance between scholarship and intuition.
It is as ensembles that these houses impress us. In the case of the Trust’s collections of paintings we can learn a lot about how the English used pictures-new and old masters-in their homes from the 17th century to the 1940s. We can work out what kinds of subjects and which painters they liked at different times. This is social history as well as art history. But it is often difficult to see and appreciate the paintings as individual works of art. They may be hung too high, or displayed in low levels of light to preserve other more fragile objects in the same room. Or they may just be smothered by the general level of aesthetic “noise.”
So it is particularly welcome that the Trust has chosen to celebrate the end of its centenary year with a selection displayed at the National Gallery of about 70 paintings from the ever-growing number that it owns. I have yet to meet anyone who has not been delighted and enthralled by this show. The reasons are clear. The exhibition has no art-historical theme. Instead the criteria for selection have been quality and variety. The choice of paintings has been made by the Trust’s adviser on paintings and works of art, Alastair Laing. He is a meticulous scholar and a connoisseur of old master paintings. Few of the paintings are well known. They are in excellent condition. The juxtapositions are often piquant and the show is the right size for an afternoon’s relaxed viewing.
Everyone will have their own favourites. On the evening of the private view the curators and art historians had a good deal to say about Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna from Ascott, Van Dyck’s Stoning of St Stephen from Tatton Park and Titian’s portrait of Francesco Savorgnan from Kingston Lacy. When I went round again the day after Boxing Day, there was a small crowd in front of Hogarth’s satirical Morning and Night from Upton House and the anonymous 18th century portraits of servants from Erdigg. My companion, a painter, was bowled over by the dramatic full length portrait by Van Dyck of the adventurer Sir Robert Shirley from Petworth. He was impressed as much by the paint laid on like crisp wax on canvas with the texture of rough sacking as he was by the exotic Turkish costume of the sitter. My own attention was caught by a huge picture by the landscape painter Benjamin Williams Leader The Excavation of the Manchester Ship Canal from Tatton Park, which dominated a room hung with works by Turner, Bellotto, and Cuyp.
I always like to take home with me from exhibitions one small painting for my mus?e imaginaire. My serious-minded art historian friends think this is a little naff. Painter friends usually understand. At the moment I am hesitating between a Self-portrait by Candlelight by the 18th century engraver Richard Morton Paye, an artist I had never heard of before, and, more ambitiously, Chardin’s The Governess. I think I shall opt for the latter. It is after all characteristic of the National Trust to encourage us to have ideas above our station. n