Early Days at Petworth
Essay by Max Egremont
Petworth House was given by my family to the National Trust in 1947, with a huge endowment of some £400,000. My great-uncle, my father’s predecessor, was still alive in 1947; he died in 1952 with the house still closed to the public, partly to reassure the confused and apprehensive old man that the change of ownership would have little effect. My parents moved into Petworth in 1953.
I remember being taken to see my great-uncle Charles Leconfield (or Lord Leconfield) a few months before his death.1 Already bedridden, he had moved from his former bedroom on the first floor, called appropriately enough (given his passion for foxhunting) the Hunting Piece, to what had been my great-aunt’s sitting room (now our dining room) at the south end of the ground floor, a long rectangular room that gets the sun in the middle of the day and (during the summer) in the evening. Pictures, mostly of children, that my great-aunt had hung in the room had been taken down, to be replaced by ones of his favourite hunters (fig. 1).
Uncle Charles, as my father called him, was sitting up in his single bed, dressed in striped pyjamas: a grey-haired, small, dumpy, pink-faced smiling man with a straggly moustache, not at all gruff. I was four years old and he may have been uncertain how to amuse this silent boy, the eventual heir to his beloved Petworth, a place cherished by him not for the house and art (which he knew little about and was bored by) but for the land across which he had ridden and hunted for more than fifty years.
What could he say to his great-nephew? He reached across to a small table by the bed, lifted up a large circular gold watch on a thin leather strap and held it in front of my face. ‘Put this up to your ear’, he said, ‘and you’ll hear it tick.’
We did not stay long because he was tired and soon afterwards uncle Charles died. There are photographs of the long funeral procession with my father and the Leconfields’ adopted son Peter leading the mourners. For Petworth, for the town, the estate and the house, it was the end of an epoch, for Charles Leconfield, known by neighbours as the last of the feudal barons, had been the master there since inheriting from his father in 1901. His wife, my great-aunt Violet, was by 1952 in an asylum, being treated for insanity that had involved appearing naked out of the lift in the lobby of Claridge’s hotel.
One of the last glimpses that my father had of his uncle was of reins tied to the end of the bed and Charles, in pyjamas, pulling on one side or the other as his old groom Bill Barnes read aloud from old hunting diaries that described winter days of long ago. His life, after inheriting, had been divided between sport (hunting, also shooting and fishing) and what in his obituary was called public service, as lord lieutenant of Sussex and chairman of the County Council.
Charles Leconfield liked the country, seldom going to London. His politics were strongly Tory and imperialist (he had fought in the Boer War), suspicious of abroad. When the Belgian ambassador came to stay, Charles was heard to exclaim just before dinner: ‘Damn these foreigners, they come between me and my food’: reactionary and crude, perhaps, but in the spirit of the times.
But good points echo across the years. Charles Leconfield had a sense of duty, was patient with his unhappy wife and had two adopted children, Peter and Elizabeth, who adored him. A shy inarticulate man, he had a gruff sense of humour, sometimes misunderstood. ‘Oh, sorry Lord Leconfield – am I sitting in your chair?’ a young guest asked at Petworth. ‘All the chairs are my chairs’ was the deadpan, admittedly not startlingly witty, response.
On the estate, the hunt was paramount. Rides in the woods were trimmed so that riders could go along them in an undamaged top hat, woods were planted to hold foxes, keepers employed to preserve them, also to stop up the earths or holes down which they might escape the hounds. The annual earth-stoppers’ dinner was a popular and riotous local function. Uncle Charles could lose his temper with foolhardy followers of the hunt. Random jumping especially annoyed him; it was not, he thought, part of the day’s purpose and he held to the old nostrum, ‘He who leaps unnecessarily is an abomination.’
The seriousness of all this seems absurd. But the hunt – its hierarchy and customs – was then an extraordinarily important part of county (and country) life, a master of foxhounds having almost royal status. Even when I was a child, the then MFH was stopped for speeding and told the police that they must let him go immediately or he would be late for the meet.
Charles Leconfield had many possessions: houses (a castle in Cumberland, a ruined castle in Yorkshire and until 1947 the palace of Petworth in West Sussex), art and land. It was the art that he appreciated least, leaving it to his cultivated if eccentric wife Violet to take guests round the collection. If he had to do this, he peered at the pictures in the hope of a label to tell him the artist’s name.
Inevitably such an owner fell into the hands of frauds. During the 1920s the fashionable picture cleaner was Kennedy North who once boasted to Kenneth Clark that he was still ‘bluffing the buggers and making them pay’.2 Charles Leconfield, no doubt following advice, got Kennedy North in to clean several of the Turners. The result was disastrous, all character and life drained through damaging methods. Now, apparently, some of the work of the once admired John Brealey, brought to the Petworth collection during the 1950s by Anthony Blunt, is thought imperfect. How will recent conservation work be regarded sixty or seventy years hence?
Much had to be done when my parents moved into Petworth House in 1953 from a then charming house called New Grove on the southern edge of the town. There were few bathrooms, the atmosphere and taste were dingy, the heating system primitive. The work took several years and involved new boilers, the installation of the lift, turning the Red Library into a study for my father (with new tall bookcases), re-gilding the White Library ceiling, moving the dining room into my great-aunt’s sitting room (where Charles Leconfield had died) and gradual redecoration of my parents’ bedroom (the State Bedroom) that later involved the use of what remained of Jonathan Ritson’s carving, painted white on a pink background, possibly chosen by John Fowler and reminiscent of the style of Rex Whistler or Oliver Messel. Some of this work was done while my parents were still at New Grove, the rest after we had moved in.
In 1953 the house was opened to the public for the first time under the auspices of the National Trust. During the family’s ownership, parties had been taken round at set times by a dignified figure called the commissionaire, usually a retired member of the estate staff. But in May the new era began. Harold Macmillan, then minister of housing, for whom my father worked, came with Lord Esher, chairman of the National Trust, to perform the opening ceremony (fig. 2). I remember sitting on the terrace, a small boy in shorts, next to Lady Esher, an American. As Macmillan spoke, a small crowd stood in front of him on the grass, including many estate employees: skilled craftsmen, painters, carpenters, electricians and plumbers, all in their best suits, who had been involved in the recent work to prepare the public rooms.
The house’s ground floor was divided between the show rooms to the north and the private south end. The public was let in for I think some five days a week from half past two until 5 o’clock from the start of April until the end of October, their cars coming through the Grand Entrance Lodge on the drive also used by the family (fig. 3). The car park was in the Stable Yard, once busy with uncle Charles’s many horses, governess carts, traps and carriages.
The person put in charge of the opening arrangements was Miss Harris, a cultivated, intelligent, intellectual woman who had been my great-aunt’s secretary and now took on a similar role for my mother, as well as working for the National Trust. The administration of the public and private parts of the house was in the hands of this short-haired, bespectacled, middle-aged chain-smoker who had been to London University, subscribed to the New Statesman, voted Labour and had seen all the plays of Shakespeare.
Miss Harris found at least one aspect of my mother most impressive. One visiting expert, the furniture historian Ralph Edwards, was told that ‘Mrs Wyndham’ (as my mother then was) ‘will be down soon’ before Miss Harris’s voice dropped in awe to add, ‘I must warn you – she is very beautiful’ (fig. 4).
Miss Harris controlled the stewards. There was one in each public room and they were all retired estate workers and wore white jackets, never engaging in any conversation with visitors unless asked a question. If the question was about the family, they could answer; if it was about the house, its history or the art, the enquiry was referred to Miss Harris who wandered through the rooms wearing a large white badge on which was written ‘secretary’. The steward and the cleaners were also supervised by Mr Doolin, a fussy man who wore a butler’s dark jacket and striped trousers.
Few visitors came, there was no shop or café, just a table with postcards and guidebooks for sale in the North Gallery watched over by Mrs Moss, the wife of the house carpenter. Only about seventy cars could fit into the car park, which was usually half empty. If you did not know the town, the entrance to the house was hard to find, for the man then in charge of National Trust properties, Robin Fedden, a writer and traveller often out of the country in Syria or Egypt or the Pyrenees, thought that advertising was vulgar (fig. 5).3
Opening hours were shown on tiny notices, outside the Church Lodge or in the nearby tea shop called The Four and Twenty Blackbirds: very hard to see. Fedden was also in love with my mother, who did not want the place overrun by the public.
It was equally hard to get into the park and when you found an unlocked gate, an array of notices declared that no bicycling was allowed, the deer should be avoided during the rutting season and fox hounds and their puppies might be wandering about outside the hunt kennels so you should ‘beware of the bitches’: not the most enticing of welcomes.
The park was closed on Sunday mornings so that my parents and their guests could have it for themselves. Later we discovered that this had caused bad feeling in the town. Visitors complained that the atmosphere of the public rooms was bleak and dull because of badly lit pictures, dreary paint colours and unimaginative placing of furniture. John Walker, the retired American director of the National Gallery of Washington, who had a house near Petworth, compared it unfavourably with Parham.
It was not only the house that went to the nation. Many works of art were transferred as well in lieu of tax in a pioneering negotiation made necessary by the vast death duties after my great-uncle died. The arrangement let these works stay in the house, on show for the public. Twenty Turners were among them, with other pictures by Claude, Titian, Van Dyck, Le Nain, William Blake, the head of Aphrodite by Praxiteles, and some of the best furniture: all traded in at values that now seem absurdly low. But sales on the open market would have removed them from the house completely so the family approved of the ‘in lieu’ scheme. In fact, my great-uncle had surreptitiously sold about a dozen good pictures in the late 1920s, by Rembrandt, Bronzino, Chardin, Watteau and Holbein, trying to disguise this by having copies put up in their place.4 The copies were so bad that the rest of the family spotted the difference immediately.
The expert chosen to select works of art for the in-lieu arrangement was the art historian Anthony Blunt (fig. 6). Although I came to know Blunt much later, I was too young to meet him in the 1950s when he was often at Petworth, sifting through the collection. My parents liked him, although long before he was exposed as a Russian agent I heard them discuss his known Soviet sympathies. He once nervously accepted an invitation to a weekend at Petworth, perhaps imagining that the company would be mostly political (because of my father’s work for Harold Macmillan) or social. Afterwards he assured my mother that he had enjoyed the experience. Much later, however, after Blunt’s exposure, another guest, my mother’s sister Mollie Salisbury, said that she had found him patronising and sinister. This may have been a form of point-scoring, for the two sisters were very competitive.
Anthony Blunt wrote an essay in the 1980s about his rehanging of the public rooms for the National Trust in preparation for the opening of these to the public.5 He was determined, he said, to thin out the previously thick ‘country house’ hang and praised my mother for her help in arranging many of the Turners (all of which went to the nation in lieu of tax) in the same room, then called the Red Room (fig. 7). Such a display now seems cold and academic, resembling a public gallery or museum.
The first time I met Blunt was in about 1968 when he was director of the Courtauld Institute, then in Portman Square, and I was still an undergraduate at Oxford. My parents took me to an evening party at the Institute where a picture by Bronzino, sold by my great-uncle in 1928 and bought back by my father in the late 1960s (fig. 8), was on show (I’m not sure why) alongside two large other pictures from Petworth, in poor condition, by Andrea del Sarto, still owned by my family (fig. 9).6 Those by del Sarto some twenty-five years previously had been rejected by Blunt for the nation and were now being restored at the Courtauld, already clearly more exciting that had been thought. Blunt, thin and elegant in a dinner jacket, hosted the occasion in a quietly grand manner, saying humorously to my father: ‘I thought we should put up a notice saying that the pictures on view this evening are the property of Lord Egremont unless it says otherwise.’
When we met at a dinner party in London nine years later (still before the exposure), I found a more approachable, even slightly fragile, personality. About four years after this, the National Trust picture expert Bobby Gore brought Blunt (still not revealed as a Soviet spy) to lunch at Petworth.7 By that time, I was married and Caroline, I and the experts went up in the afternoon to look at the pictures in store in a series of cold, unused first-floor bedrooms. There was much dust, the frames were dirty and the canvases dark after years of neglect. Near the end of the session Bobby said: ‘Anthony, we must leave in about 10 minutes to catch our train. Oughtn’t we to wash our hands?’ Blunt held up his long, splayed, darkened fingers: ‘If it’s the pictures or washed hands, can’t we choose the pictures?’ Bobby, a fervent admirer, agreed so they turned back to the art and later got into the National Trust local representative’s car to go to the station in an unclean state. These works in store, taken down by Blunt in the 1950s, were to be the basis of Alec Cobbe’s brilliant re-hang some four years later.
Charles Wyndham, 3rd Baron Leconfield, GCVO (1872–1952).1
Stanley Kennedy North (1887–1942): see ‘British picture restorers, 1600–1950 – N’, National Portrait Gallery, London, https://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/directory-of-british-picture-restorers/british-picture-restorers-1600-1950-n; see also Richard D. North, ‘Stanley North (later Stanley Kennedy North) 1887–1942’, https://www.richarddnorth.com/archive/elders_betters/stanley_kennedy_north.asp, both accessed 13 February 2020.2
Henry Robin Romilly Fedden, CBE (1908–1977).3
Thirteen paintings in total are recorded as having been sold, including four by Rembrandt: see annotated copy of C. H. Collins Baker, Catalogue of the Petworth Collection of Pictures in the Possession of Lord Leconfield, London: The Medici Society, 1920, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London.4
Anthony Blunt, ‘Petworth Rehung: The Restoration and Rehanging of the Petworth Collection 1952–53’, National Trust Studies 1980, London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1979, pp. 119–32.5
When the Bronzino was sold privately in 1927 a copy was commissioned, A Florentine Youth, which is also now at Petworth, NT 486777.6
Francis St John Corbet ‘Bobby’ Gore, CBE (1921–2010).7
- by Max Egremont
- 20 November 2020
- House Essay
- CC BY-NC International 4.0
- Cite as
- Max Egremont, "Early Days at Petworth", Art and the Country House, https://doi.org/10.17658/ACH/PTE556