Women’s Collecting and Display Strategies in the British Country House

Essay by Amy Boyington


Women have long been active in the patronage, collection and display of art in the British country house, but their engagement in such activities has been largely obscured throughout history. Due to the legal doctrine of coverture, whereby a woman’s legal rights (and property rights) were subsumed by those of her husband upon marriage, it was far more difficult for women to maintain control over their own finances.1 Although these restrictions reduced women’s opportunity to engage in patronage and collecting, it certainly did not dissuade them. When the circumstance allowed, women were enthusiastic connoisseurs and patrons of the arts. Spanning a period of 500 years, this essay will investigate, via a series of examples, the contributions of elite women to the creation and augmentation of country house art collections.

The sixteenth century

The sixteenth century saw wealthy patrons expand their country house collections as a means of displaying their lineage, taste and learning. When women possessed financial autonomy, they too participated in the pursuit of patronage and display. Bess of Hardwick (1527–1608), Countess of Shrewsbury, was one such woman, who throughout her remarkable life rose to great power and wealth through four advantageous marriages.2 Bess was a prolific patron of the arts, amassing a large art collection, which she proudly displayed in her Renaissance prodigy house, New Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. Her art collection, which she showed throughout the house, was assembled over a sixty-year period, although a substantial part was acquired during the 1590s as the building of Hardwick neared completion (fig. 1).3

The Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, National Trust

Figure 1.
The Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, National Trust, National Trust, Hardwick Hall (162885).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images / Nick Guttridge. (All rights reserved)

The 1601 inventory compiled at her death individually lists a hundred and four pictures, of which ninety-seven were described as paintings, with a further thirty-six recorded as residing in Old Hardwick Hall (her ancestral seat located near New Hardwick Hall).4 Of the hundred and four pictures, ‘sixty-seven are portraits, nineteen are heraldic, nine religious, four are parts of the world, three are maps and two are classical narrative’.5 The portraits consisted of close family members, including ‘The Ladie Arbella her grandChilde’ in the Low Great Chamber;6 English royalty, such as ‘Quene Elizabeth’, in the Low Great Chamber;7 portraits associated with Mary Queen of Scots, such as the ‘Quene of Scottes’, hung in the Withdrawing Chamber;8 foreign royalty, such as ‘Phillip, King of Spayne’, hung in the Gallery;9 and other contemporary figures, such as ‘the Lord Burleigh, Lord Tresorer’, in the Low Great Chamber.10 Bess’s religious paintings in the Chapel are listed as ‘too pictures of our Ladie the Virgin Marie and the three Kings, the Salutation of the Virgin Marie by the Angle’,11 and her classical paintings consisted of ‘Ulisses and Penelope’12 and ‘Twoo twynns’, which may have depicted Romulus and Remus or Castor and Pollux.13

Bess’s collection demonstrates that she sought to consciously display art as a declaration of her connoisseurship, familial connections, position among elite society, learning and religious devotion, all of which would have been readily understood by her contemporaries. Further, displaying her collection at her country residence rather than in town suggests that she was particularly proud of her new house, its links to her ancestral seat and her lifetime achievements.

Despite her extraordinary wealth, Bess’s engagement in the patronage of the arts was not unique. Other women from the upper echelons of Tudor society also participated. For instance, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox (1515–1578), daughter of the Scottish queen dowager, Margaret Tudor, was also a great patron, commissioning works from Hans Holbein, Hans Eworth and Nicholas Hilliard, among others.14 Anne Seymour, when Countess of Hertford in 1539, commissioned Holbein to paint a portrait (copy) of her late sister-in-law, Queen Jane, to be displayed at Wolf Hall, Wiltshire, her husband’s family home.15 Lady Hertford was evidently keen to promote the Seymour connection to the current Tudor heir, Prince Edward, through their late kinswoman. She later also commissioned Cornelis Ketel to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth in 1578, presumably as a demonstration of her loyalty to the monarch.16 Yet, even women of lesser status participated in the acquisition and display of art. In 1562, for example, Cecily Delves, a widow from Weston in Cheshire, had three pictures hanging in her parlour, worth five shillings.17

The examples of Bess of Hardwick and the Countess of Lennox demonstrate that in the sixteenth century it was already possible for women of extraordinary wealth and autonomy to curate art collections as an expression of their character and to display their personal and political allegiances. Although there are examples of lower-status women such as Cecily Delves engaging with art, country house art collections were very much the purview of the elite, and typically female art collections were hindered by their inferior social and political status during this era.

The seventeenth century

The seventeenth century saw the flourishing of female patronage, both at court and in the country. Charles II’s French mistress, Louise de Keroualle (1649–1734), Duchess of Portsmouth, was renowned for her patronage of French artists, such as Pierre Mignard and Henri Gascars, as well as for her sumptuous apartments at Whitehall, in which she displayed much of her art collection.18 Another notable Restoration patroness was Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart, later Duchess of Lauderdale (1626–1698), who, together with her second husband, John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, embarked on a major extension, redecoration and refurnishing campaign at her family home, Ham House, Surrey, from the 1670s onwards.19 The interior decorative scheme and picture display at Ham House was largely driven by the duchess, who having inherited the house in 1655 from her father, William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart, was determined to elevate the decor and art collection to the height of luxury.

The duchess’s personal rooms reflected her own taste most clearly and demonstrate that she favoured the sophisticated French style fashionable at the time.20 For her Private Closet, she commissioned Antonio Verrio to paint the exceptional ceiling, which depicts The Penitent Magdalen, Surrounded by Putti Holding Emblems of Time, Death and Eternity (fig. 2). The room was hung with luxurious hangings, together with paintings of her choice, which according to the 1677 inventory consisted of an overmantel of Medea Casting Spells among Ruins (c.1673) and an overdoor of Capriccio of Classical Reliefs, both by Henry Ferguson.21 The walls were hung with a large number of paintings, which by c.1683 ranged ‘from family portraits and portrait drawings to Venetian Old Masters’, thereby suggesting that within this intimate space she wished to be surrounded by artworks that were both sentimental and treasured.22 In the adjoining White Closet the duchess again commissioned Verrio to paint another luxurious ceiling, which depicts Putti with Medallions of the Four Cardinal Virtues, and Sphinxes and Divine Wisdom Presiding over the Liberal Arts. She hung it with religious paintings such as Benedetto Gennari’s Head of St. Paul (c.1675),23 which contrasted with the pastoral-landscape overdoors of Mercury and Battus (c.1675) and Herdsmen and Animals (1675–7) by Dirck van den Bergen. The duchess’s choice of hang in both rooms indicates a clear interest in art display and a favouring of the aesthetic pioneered by the court of Louis XIV. Having visited France herself, she was evidently eager to lead the way in importing French taste into English interior design.

The Penitent Magdalen, surrounded by Putti holding Emblems of Time, Death and Eternity

Figure 2.
Antonio Verrio, The Penitent Magdalen, surrounded by Putti holding Emblems of Time, Death and Eternity, circa 1698. Oil on plaster. National Trust, Ham House (NT 1140138).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images / Christopher Warleigh-Lack. (All rights reserved)

In a similar vein, Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset (1667–1722), together with her husband, also significantly restored and redecorated her ancestral seat at Petworth in Sussex. The duke and duchess amassed a large collection of portraits, commissioning the most fashionable court painters of the day, including Godfrey Kneller, Peter Lely, Willem Wissing, John Riley, John Closterman and Michael Dahl.24 For instance, to commemorate her role in the coronation of William III and Mary II, in which she carried the queen’s train, the duchess commissioned John Closterman to paint her in her coronation robes, together with her young son Algernon, Marquess of Hertford (fig. 3). This portrait is a clear demonstration of her elevated role within the court and served to enhance the Petworth art collection with an element of personal and dynastic glory.

Lady Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset and her son Algernon Seymour, Earl of Hertford, later 7th Duke of Somerset

Figure 3.
John Closterman, Lady Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset and her son Algernon Seymour, Earl of Hertford, later 7th Duke of Somerset, circa 1690s. Oil on canvas, 208 × 145 cm. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 486184).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images / John Hammond. (All rights reserved)

These examples highlight the fact that by the seventeenth century elite women were following the wider patronage trends in Britain, employing fashionable Dutch, French and German portraitists to immortalise themselves and their family members. As well as proclaiming personal, political and royal allegiances through portraiture, women were as conscious as their male counterparts in commissioning the most fashionable artists of the day to enhance their country house collections and to display their taste.

The eighteenth century

Continental artists such as Godfrey Kneller were still finding favour with female patrons in the early eighteenth century. For instance, at Kings Weston House near Bristol, the home of Edward Southwell (1671–1730), it was his new wife, Lady Elizabeth Cromwell (1674–1709), who was the major patron of the arts. On the death of her father Vere Essex Cromwell, 4th Earl of Ardglass, in 1687, Lady Elizabeth became a wealthy heiress, providing her with the financial autonomy to engage in art patronage. Thus, even before her marriage in 1704, Lady Elizabeth had already commissioned Godfrey Kneller to paint a number of portraits to add to her collection. He supplied her with £430 worth of pictures in exchange for a bond of £400, which she settled on 5 June 1703.25 The group of paintings included a mix of originals and copies that were variously of Lady Elizabeth’s family, her friends and herself, and were intended to adorn the walls of her new home at Kings Weston. Among them was ‘Ld Essexes picture whole length - - 30’, referring to Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, the founding member of the Cromwell family, as well as ‘Ld veres picture whole length - - 30’, a posthumous portrait of Lady Elizabeth’s father.26 Other portraits were of her friends, including ‘Mr Fitzherbert & his wife, 2½ lengths - - 30’, who lived at Tissington Hall, which was a few miles from Lady Elizabeth’s childhood home, Throwley Hall, in Derbyshire.27 Kneller also lists a number of Lady Elizabeth’s portraits, including ‘La: E:C: picture whole length - - 50’ (fig. 4), ‘A diana, whole length - - 50’ and ‘A Cecilia for Mr Congreve - - 15’, which was a copy of Kneller’s full-length portrait of Lady Elizabeth as the patron saint of music.28

Lady Elizabeth Southwell (née Cromwell) as Diana

Figure 4.
Godfrey Kneller, Lady Elizabeth Southwell (née Cromwell) as Diana, circa 1702. Oil on canvas, 228.6 × 152.4 cm. Kings Weston Collection, Avon and Somerset.

Digital image courtesy of Kings Weston Collection. (All rights reserved)

Following her marriage to Edward Southwell, Lady Elizabeth continued to patronise Kneller, commissioning him to paint a range of new portraits, both of herself and of her new family. Kneller painted Lady Elizabeth playing a guitar in a double portrait with a female companion, presumably her childhood friend Mercia Fitzherbert from Tissington Hall.29 Kneller’s largest painting for Lady Elizabeth is the c.1705 group painting of her with her mother, Lady Ardglass, and her three sisters-in-law (fig. 5), one of them holding her baby son Edward Southwell (1705–1755).30 The sentimental domestic composition suggests that it was commissioned as a celebration of female kinship and of Edward’s birth. Lady Elizabeth’s paintings were proudly displayed throughout Kings Weston, thereby illustrating the crucial role she played in adding to her family’s art collections.

Lady Elizabeth Southwell (née Cromwell) with her mother, Lady Ardglass, and her three sisters-in-law, one of them holding her baby son, Edward Southwell

Figure 5.
Godfrey Kneller, Lady Elizabeth Southwell (née Cromwell) with her mother, Lady Ardglass, and her three sisters-in-law, one of them holding her baby son, Edward Southwell, circa 1703. Oil on canvas, 61 × 73.6 cm. Kings Weston Collection.

Digital image courtesy of Kings Weston Collection. (All rights reserved)

The paintings remained at Kings Weston long after Lady Elizabeth’s death in 1709: an inventory taken on 27 December 1777 following the death of Edward Southwell, 20th Baron de Clifford (1738–1777), lists two of those supplied by Kneller as hanging in the ‘Parlor’, namely ‘Cromwell Earl of Essex Copied from Holland by Keller’ and ‘Lady Betty Southwell by Kneller’.31 In the newly widowed Lady Clifford’s dressing room Kneller’s ‘Lady Betty Southwell playing upon an Organ’ was displayed, which perhaps hints at an affinity she felt with the previous chatelaine of Kings Weston. Instead of displaying a multitude of portraits in her dressing room, Lady Clifford chose to display forty-five miniatures and in excess of thirty paintings, including landscapes by Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, ‘Four Views of Venice’ by Canaletto and ‘A dead Christ with Angels on Marble’ by Michael Angelo.32

Lady Clifford’s selection of paintings indicates her preference for predominantly religious scenes and landscapes, and since she curated this set of paintings herself, her dressing room provides a clear insight into her artistic tastes. This was true of dressing rooms for both sexes within the eighteenth-century country house, since these rooms were individuals’ private domains. For example, at Holkham Hall, the grand Palladian seat of Thomas Coke (later 1st Earl of Leicester), it is only in his wife’s dressing room that we see her tastes emerge. The 1760 Holkham inventory, taken after the death of Coke, shows that Margaret Coke, Countess of Leicester (1700–1775), elected to display an impressive array of artworks in her dressing room, including four landscapes by Andrea Locatelli ‘over the Doors and on the side next the Library’ and in addition ‘on the other side the Chimney a Vergin in the clouds’ by Giacomo Cavidone.33

Although most of these paintings were presumably acquired by her husband, it is interesting that Lady Leicester partook in the contemporary fashion of displaying Italian paintings. Poignantly she chose only to display two portraits, namely ‘Ladies Catherine and Ann Tuffton’ – her two elder sisters, both of whom had died by this point.34 In comparison, Lord Leicester’s dressing room was hung entirely with family portraits, both of his own family and of his wife’s. Thus, where Lady Leicester was able to control the aesthetic within Holkham, it is clear that her taste in art was discerning, deigning only to display portraits of the utmost sentimental value.34

When Lady Leicester was tasked with the completion of Holkham Hall between 1759 and 1765, she embraced the opportunity to commission new artworks of her own.36 In the chapel she decided to embellish the altarpiece by commissioning two panels to flank Guido Reni’s Assumption of the Virgin (acquired by Lord Leicester). Her chosen artist was Giovanni Battista Cipriani, who produced depictions of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, and St Anne, patron saint of mothers, both completed in 1764 (fig. 6). This commission was clearly a personal one for Lady Leicester, since she was no doubt remembering her only child Edward, whom she had lost just over a decade earlier. In the green state bedchamber she commissioned Gavin Hamilton to paint Juno and Jupiter, for which she paid £100 (fig. 7). Lady Leicester evidently appreciated and understood the classical iconographical scheme apparent throughout Holkham, as advocated by her late husband, and she therefore chose to add to it.

1764. Holkham Hall, Norfolk.

Figure 6.
The Chapel at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, showing Giovanni Battista Cipriani’s two flanking paintings, one of St Cecelia, the other of St Anne, 1764. Holkham Hall, Norfolk.

Digital image courtesy of Hans A. Rosbach. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

1770. Holkham Hall, Norfolk.

Figure 7.
The Green State Bedchamber at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, showing Gavin Hamilton’s Jupiter caressing Juno, 1770. Holkham Hall, Norfolk.

Digital image courtesy of Hans A. Rosbach. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

At Blenheim Palace Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (1660–1744), did not wait until her widowhood to influence the collection and display of artworks. In 1740, when she and a secretary drew up an inventory of the furnishings at Blenheim, she was careful to list the paintings that she had purchased during her lifetime, thereby ensuring that they were not recorded as heirlooms to be inherited by her heir. In her dressing room she had ‘Over the Chimney a Madonna in an Eight Square Frame which she bought of Lord Banbury and is therefore hers’,37 while in the ‘Grand Chamber’:

The Head of a Man in Black with a Small White Ruff and a Book in his hand, is the Dutchess of Marlboroughs.38

A Small Madona with a Child in a Gilt Eight Square Frame is the Dutchess of Marlboroughs and likewise the Murder of the Innocents and the Madona over the Chimney at length with Angels peircing the Serpent is hers bought of my Lord Banbury.39

The duchess’s collection consisted of family portraiture as well as a mixture of old master paintings, the latter of which she purchased to augment the interiors of Blenheim Palace. In the state bedchamber she owned two paintings: a portrait of the 2nd Earl of Godolphin, her son-in-law, by William Dobson, and ‘Rubens Family with our Saviour’.40 The duchess was evidently conscious of the status of art collections throughout her lifetime and had continually purchased paintings of merit when the opportunity arose. At the Duke of Portland’s sale in 1722, for example, the ‘Dss. Marlbrough’ is recorded as having bought eight paintings for the substantial sum of £1090 8s 4d, including three by Rubens.41 She intended them to form part of the Churchill collection (and therefore separate from her own) to be displayed at Blenheim Palace, illustrating her crucial role in enhancing the former art collection. The most expensive piece, Rubens’s Roman Charity, was hung proudly in the ‘Gallery’ by 1740, described as ‘the Roman Charity bought at my Lord Portland’s Auction And Cost five hundred Guineas’.42

In later life, when widowed, the Duchess of Marlborough energetically continued commissioning family portraiture. In 1734, when furnishing Wimbledon House, her new villa near Wimbledon Common, she wrote to her favourite granddaughter, Diana, Duchess of Bedford: ‘All my pictures for Wimbledon are near finished, except your brother Marlborough’s, the Duke of Bedford’s, and yours.’43 She commissioned Isaac Whood to paint these final three portraits, specifying that the Duke of Bedford was to be ‘drawn in the coronation robes’ and desiring for her granddaughter:

that Mr. Whood will condescend to copy that picture that was done by Vandyke for that charming Countess of Bedford in the Gallery. The white satin clothes and the posture I would have just the same for you. And I remember that I like the neck extremely. And I am sure, if he copies that, it will be more like yours than any he will draw for you. As to the hair I leave that entirely to your own direction.44

The duchess’s instructions demonstrate that she wanted the elite status of her family members to be emphasised in their paintings, further indicating that she was actively curating a collection that would convey power and wealth to its viewers.45

The Duchess of Marlborough was an exceptional patroness of the arts, whose extraordinary wealth, power and status enabled her to amass a remarkable art collection, much of which is still displayed throughout many of her descendants’ country houses. Later in the eighteenth century, albeit on a more modest scale at Saltram in Devon, Theresa Parker (1744/5–1775), while in the midst of orchestrating the redesign of the interiors with Robert Adam, spearheaded the embellishment of the Saltram art collection, alongside her husband, John Parker, Lord Boringdon, a keen patron and friend of Joshua Reynolds. Theresa, daughter of Thomas Robinson, 1st Baron Grantham, regularly corresponded with her brothers, Thomas Robinson, 2nd Baron Grantham, and Frederick (‘Fritz’) Robinson, who were then on ambassadorial duties in Spain, commissioning them to seek out suitable works of art: ‘If you meet with anything abroad, of pictures, bronzes etc. that is valuable in itself, beautiful and proper for any part of Saltram we depend so much on your taste and judgement that you must not lose an opportunity of procuring it for us.’46 She additionally asked Frederick to send back samples of blue damask fabric for the saloon, ‘as we shall soon write to Genoa and wish to fix upon the best Blue for setting off the Pictures’.47

The saloon was the focus of much of Theresa’s attention during 1772, in which she continued to seek out appropriate paintings to display, asking Lord Grantham to source a companion piece to an existing Van Dyck:

Are you likely to pick up any very good Picture to match our Vandycke as to size and partly as to subject, I am not sure the latter is of great consequence as … its Companion must … hang over the Door going into the Velvet Room, and consequently cannot be seen at the same time.48

Additionally, she was active in purchasing suitable paintings when the opportunity allowed. In September she was delighted to secure a pair of landscape paintings by de Loutherbourg, writing that they were ‘much the best I have seen of his performance, tho’ he is in great repute in France’.49 She was also occupied with acquiring a pendant to hang alongside the existing painting of Sir Thomas Parker (c.1620) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger in the saloon. Joshua Reynolds was chosen to paint a full-length of Theresa on a similar-sized canvas to match the earlier portrait (fig. 8). As Kate Retford affirms, Theresa was the ‘moving force behind the portrait commission’, which consequently again entrenches the notion that women were active participants in the augmentation and display of family art collections within country houses.50

The Hon. Theresa Robinson, Mrs John Parker

Figure 8.
Joshua Reynolds, The Hon. Theresa Robinson, Mrs John Parker, 1770-2. Oil on canvas, 233.7 × 142.2 cm. National Trust, Saltram (NT 872149).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images / John Hammond. (All rights reserved)

In addition to the commissioning of paintings, another way in which elite women could participate in the collection and display of artworks was through the creation of a so-called ‘print room’, quite literally a room decorated with engravings cut and pasted to the wall surfaces. By the eighteenth century the print room was established as a fashionable means by which men and (predominantly) women could display their connoisseurship in country houses. Print rooms generally seem to have been confined to country houses or suburban villas, rather than town houses. This situation may be explained by the fact that there were fewer forms of entertainment in the country, meaning that the creation of such rooms provided endless hours of occupation. Additionally, the greater number of rooms to be found in country houses provided more opportunities to experiment with interior decorative schemes.

At Petworth an eighteenth-century ‘Print Closet’ survives, with over 200 prints that date from c.1677 to 1755 and cover a range of subjects, including topographical views of castles, engravings after old Italian masters, allegories of the seasons, and contemporary Italian and French works.51 The creator of this room remains unclear, but as Esther Chadwick suggests in her essay in the Petworth House case study, it may have been the work of Alicia Maria, Countess of Egremont (1729–1794).52 Chadwick proposes that Lady Egremont ‘exercised an important role in the buying of works of art’, for which her husband regularly reimbursed her, such as in September 1762, when he paid £30 5s for ‘what she had disbursed for a picture of Zuccarellis’.53 Thus, given her active interest in the acquisition and display of art, it is highly probable that she wished to design a fashionable print room to further display her artistic taste and connoisseurship. Later in the century, at Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, the Hon. Mary Leigh (d. 1806) created a print room that consisted of a ‘gallery fitted with modern prints on a buff paper’.54 Remarkably, the room contained a total of ‘214 prints [of] Difft subject[s]’, making it a clear ‘example of [Mary’s] taste being imprinted onto the fabric of the house’.55 The situation surrounding the creation of the print room at Stoneleigh was particularly poignant. Mary Leigh was the sister of Edward Leigh, 5th Baron Leigh (1742–1806). A collector of books, art and furniture, Edward Leigh had inherited Stoneleigh from his father, the 4th Baronet, in 1749. However, by the mid-1760s he was experiencing mental-health problems and in 1774, having been declared insane, was committed to the guardianship of his sister, Mary.56 The creation of the print room may therefore have offered Mary some measure of consolation and relief, as well as aesthetic fulfilment.

The contemporary fashion for print rooms afforded women a further sphere in which they could collect, curate and display art within their country houses. More generally, during the eighteenth century, there were myriad ways in which women engaged with the art world. The growth of the Grand Tour in this period resulted in an influx of continental art into British country houses, which women conspicuously curated and enjoyed, often displaying them in their private quarters. During this era women were also becoming more visible in the purchasing of art, thus directly augmenting their families’ art collections, as well as consciously displaying their own distinct discernment and patterns of connoisseurship.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The last decade of the eighteenth century witnessed an intensification in the British culture of connoisseurship, spurred on in part by the breakup of major continental collections during the French Revolution.57 The result of this phenomenon, as Ann Bermingham states, ‘was a radical commodification of art as a large number of works found their way to England where they were privately auctioned’.58 This opportunity allowed the landed elite to collect artworks for their country houses on an unprecedented scale: women were, however, generally dissuaded from actively participating.59 Indeed, despite women’s increasing engagement in the collection and display of artworks, it was still generally considered to be the preserve of the wealthy male. Conduct books encouraged polite young women to sketch, paint and ‘have an acquaintance with the fine arts, because they enrich and beautify the imagination’, but, as James Usher wrote in 1770, women ‘should never use nor even understand the terms of art: the gentleman will occasionally explain them to her’.60

Thus, although women were expected to be familiar with fine art and sculpture, this was intended primarily to make them more appealing and interesting as companions. Due to their supposed inferiority of understanding, women could only hope to be accomplished in the art of painting yet remain detached from the intellectual appreciation of art and connoisseurship. This opinion was depicted in a c.1801 satirical print entitled The Progress of the Polite Arts, in which two women at a butcher’s shop admire a miniature that is advertised for sale together with a mutton joint (fig. 9).61 Notices on the shop wall advertise plays including ‘Who’s the Dupe’, ‘School for Scandal’ and ‘High Life Below Stairs’, all of which emphasise female inferiority in connoisseurship, suggesting that women purchase art in the same way they would buy meat.

1801. Hand coloured etching with stipple and aquatint, 17.5 × 20.5 cm. The British Museum (1948,0214.743).

Figure 9.
Anonymous, Progress in the Polite Arts, 1801. Hand coloured etching with stipple and aquatint, 17.5 × 20.5 cm. The British Museum (1948,0214.743).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Yet, despite such ridicule, women continued to engage in the patronage of the arts, as they always had. In 1801 the famed courtesan Emma, Lady Hamilton (1765–1815), organised the purchase of Merton Place, Surrey, on behalf of her lover, Lord Nelson. Merton was to be their country seat, and thus Emma enthusiastically set about decorating and furnishing it in preparation for Nelson’s homecoming. She purchased artworks that promoted Nelson’s image and her own fame, displaying them en masse. Unfortunately, such was Emma’s enthusiasm for excessive display, that her lack of taste was mocked by contemporaries, with Lord Minto stating:

Not only the rooms, but the whole house, staircase and all, are covered with nothing but pictures of her and him, of all sizes and sorts, and representations of his naval actions, coats of arms, pieces of plate in his honour … an excess of vanity which counteracts its own purpose.62

Lady Hamilton had displayed her art collection inappropriately and in such a way that was considered vain and narcissistic, confirming to the polite world that taste could not be bought or acquired through an advantageous marriage (she had married Sir William Hamilton in 1791).

A far more successful female connoisseur was Queen Victoria, who, throughout her reign acquired and commissioned numerous artworks to adorn her London palaces as well as her country residences.63 Victoria, who had in her youth taken weekly drawing lessons from the artist and Royal Academician, Richard Westall (fig. 10), was deeply interested in art, including the process of painting itself. In 1848, when she commissioned Thomas Sidney Cooper to paint her prize Guernsey cows at Osborne House,64 her holiday home on the Isle of Wight, Cooper was surprised when Prince Albert informed him that the queen wished to view the painting in its unfinished state.65 When the queen did inspect it, Cooper was impressed with her interest and knowledge of painting:

‘I have painted for many persons of distinction, but I never came across anyone who showed a more comprehensive appreciation of artistic excellence generally, or a more perfect and simple reliance upon my powers, than in this particular instance, as to the execution of the work.’66

Victoria was also an active collector of paintings, yet in 1841 she forced herself to adhere to a strict budget of £2,000 ‘for myself, for Pictures Statues &c./ not including engravings & lithographs & c. &c.’, a sum which she increased to £3,300 in 1855.67 Despite this restrictive budget, Victoria still indulged in her passion for patronage and collecting: for example, in 1852 she acquired Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s Florinda (1852) as a gift for Prince Albert’s birthday, costing her £1,000.68 This painting was hung in the Queen’s Sitting Room at Osborne House, a room where Albert liked to work, suggesting that the picture hang for this particular room was intimate rather than stately (fig. 11).

1830. Oil on canvas, 145.8 × 115.0 cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021 (RCIN 400135).

Figure 10.
Richard Westall, Queen Victoria when a Girl, 1830. Oil on canvas, 145.8 × 115.0 cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021 (RCIN 400135).

Digital image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021 . (All rights reserved)

1858-60. Photograph, 17.8 × 17.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021 (RCIN 2103719).

Figure 11.
William Lake Price (att.), Osborne House, The Queen's Sitting Room, 1858-60. Photograph, 17.8 × 17.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021 (RCIN 2103719).

Digital image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021. (All rights reserved)

A fellow female art enthusiast and collector was the remarkable Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevalier, Countess of Montalbo (1825–1874), who, together with her wealthy husband, John Bowes, amassed a magnificent collection of European and decorative arts, which they planned to display in their purpose-built country house museum, the first of its kind (fig. 12).69 Their collection, which now forms the Bowes Museum (fig. 13), ranged from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries and contained Britain’s largest assemblage of Spanish paintings, which they purchased in 1872 from the Condesa de Quinto in Paris, including El Greco’s The Tears of St Peter (c.1580–9) and Francisco Goya’s Interior of a Prison (c.1793–4).70 By the end of 1862 the couple had purchased over 200 paintings for their collection, with Joséphine concentrating much of her efforts on acquiring contemporary French paintings, with artists including Gustave Courbet, Henri Fantin-Latour, Eugène Louis Boudin and Adolphe Monticelli.

1869-1885. The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.

Figure 12.
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, 1869-1885. The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.

Digital image courtesy of The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. (All rights reserved)

19th century. Photograph.

Figure 13.
The interior of the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, 19th century. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. (All rights reserved)

As it was thought that Joséphine would outlive her older husband, an apartment was planned for her within the museum, so that she could spend her widowhood organising and arranging the collections and display. Tragically, however, she died in 1874, long before the museum’s completion, leaving behind a devastated husband who almost entirely lost enthusiasm for the museum. Émile Gallé, a French artist who worked in glass and a leading figure in the French Art Nouveau movement, expressed his regret ‘for the loss of this generous spirit … this high appreciation of the beautiful, the exquisite delicacy of taste, this lively love of art, which made Madame Bowes an enlightened patron, beloved by artists’.71

A similarly enthusiastic art collector, whose collecting habits spanned into the twentieth century, was Alice de Rothschild (1847–1922), a lesser-known member of the Jewish banking dynasty. Her fine art collection was displayed at Eythrope Pavilion, Buckinghamshire, her newly built country house (1876–9), located a short distance from the grand French-inspired Waddesdon Manor, built for her brother, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, during the 1870s. Her impressive collection consisted of notable Renaissance pieces, including The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c.1470), attributed to Lazzaro Bastiani, and the Master of Frankfurt’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (fig. 14), the latter purchased in 1885 for £131 5s.72 In common with her brother, Alice also acquired a number of eighteenth-century portraits, both from the English and French schools, including Marianne Loir’s portrait of A Boy Holding a Garland of Flowers (possibly a French prince; c.1760) and Thomas Hudson’s Mrs Rebecca Willshaw (1746).73

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Figure 14.
After Master of Frankfurt, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, circa 1510-20. Oil on panel, 91.4 × 52 cm. National Trust, Waddesdon Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the National Trust for display at Waddesdon Manor, 1990 (Accirca No. 5284).

Digital image courtesy of Waddesdon Image Library. (All rights reserved)

When Alice inherited Waddesdon following her brother’s death in 1898 she continued to collect new artworks, a number of which were purchased for specific rooms, such as the portrait of an Austrian general, possibly Raimondo, Count Montecuccoli (1608–1680), which she displayed in the Billiard Room.74 To furnish the Smoking Room she acquired a portrait that was sold as ‘Queen Anne of Denmark’ in 1909 for £50.75 Alice also commissioned new works, such as Miss Belladrum and Calf (c.1900), a painting of her prize-winning shorthorn cow ‘Miss Belladrum’ (fig. 15).76

Miss Belladrum and Calf

Figure 15.
T. Fall, Miss Belladrum and Calf, circa 1900. Oil on canvas, 44.5 × 59.5 cm (sight). Waddesdon (Rothschild Family) On loan since 2011 (Accirca No. 34.2011).

Digital image courtesy of Waddesdon Image Library. (All rights reserved)

No less important in terms of her independent-minded and pioneering art patronage was Alice’s contemporary, Frances Horner (1854–1940), née Graham, the chatelaine of Mells Manor in Somerset, the subject of Caroline Dakers’s case-study essay for the present research project. An important patron of Sir Edwin Lutyens, Frances commissioned him to sensitively restore and remodel her husband’s largely Elizabethan manor to accommodate their family’s needs and tastes. Having inherited numerous artworks from her father, William Graham, a collector of Italian masters and a notable Pre-Raphaelite patron, Frances successfully displayed them together with her husband’s ancestral collection. Frances’s long-standing friendship with the artist Edward Burne-Jones also resulted in a series of artistic commissions, such as the monument to Laura Lyttleton (née Tennant), their mutual friend.77 She was also responsible for commissioning from Alfred Munnings the majestic equestrian bronze for the parish church of St Andrew, Mells, commemorating her son, Edward Horner, the last of the male line, who was killed in France in 1917.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries female engagement in patronage, collection and display within the country house was as prevalent as it had always been. In contrast to the proceeding centuries, however, it could be argued that, as society became increasingly individualistic, female (and male) art collecting and display became a progressively private pursuit, rather than a political or dynastic one. Women increasingly followed their own tastes, either with or without regard for the latest fashions in the art world. This allowed for greater experimentation in patronage and collecting, as seen through the examples of patrons as varied as Lady Hamilton, Joséphine Bowes and Frances Horner.


This essay has demonstrated that women, although remaining largely in the shadows, have enthusiastically participated in the collection and display of country house art collections throughout the centuries. When women possessed financial independence, they relished the chance to display their taste and status through artworks. Some augmented their husband’s collections, whereas others were conscious of collecting and commissioning art to please only themselves. It is clear from surviving evidence that, like their male counterparts, women used art as a means of self-expression and to establish their erudition and taste among their social circles. It is also clear that the important and varied contributions that women have made to the collection and display of art in the country house is a rich and historically overlooked topic, worthy of recognition, extensive investigation and further research.


  • Amy Boyington_crop

    Dr Amy Boyington is an architectural historian and is currently working as a Research Consultant for the National Trust at Stowe Landscape Gardens. She gained her doctorate at Cambridge University in 2018 which investigated female architectural patronage in eighteenth-century Britain. Amy is also an ex-officio trustee of the Georgian Group and Chair of the Young Georgians.


  1. See Susan Staves, Married Women’s Separate Property in England, 1660–1830, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006; Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England, London: Routledge, 1993.

  2. For biographies, see Mary S. Lovell, Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth, London: Little, Brown, 2005; David N. Durant, Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

  3. Gillian White, ‘“that whyche ys nedefoulle and nesesary”: The Nature and Purpose of the Original Furnishings and Decoration of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 2005, pp. 157 and 170.

  4. White, 2005, p. 158.

  5. White, 2005, p. 160.

  6. Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick, London: The National Trust, 2001, p. 52.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Located in the Withdrawing Chamber, ‘Houshold Stuff’, 2001, p. 47.

  9. Houshold Stuff’, 2001, p. 50.

  10. Houshold Stuff’, 2001, p. 52.

  11. Houshold Stuff’, 2001, pp. 51–2.

  12. Located in the Withdrawing Chamber: ‘Houshold Stuff’, 2001, p. 47.

  13. Susan James, The Feminine Dynamic in English Art, 1485–1603: Women as Consumers, Patrons and Painters, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009, p. 42.

  14. Susan James, The Feminine Dynamic in English Art, 1485–1603: Women as Consumers, Patrons and Painters, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009, p. 42.

  15. James, 2009, p. 47.

  16. Ibid.

  17. James, 2009, p. 49.

  18. Rosemary Baird, Mistress of the House: Great Ladies and Grand Houses 1670–1830, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003, p. 85.

  19. For an excellent discussion on Elizabeth’s patronage, see Christopher Rowell, ‘Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale (1626–1698), as a Collector and a Patron’, in Susan Bracken, Andrea M. Gáldy and Adriana Turpin (eds), Women Patrons and Collectors, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011, pp. 35–66.

  20. Bracken et al., 2011, pp. 57–9.

  21. Bracken et al., 2011, p. 53.

  22. Bracken et al., 2011, p. 54.

  23. National Trust Collection, Ham House, Benedetto Gennari, Head of St. Paul, c.1675, oil on canvas, 55.9 x 52.1 cm, NT 1140136.

  24. See Amy Lim, ‘Aristocratic art patronage and the late Stuart court’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford, forthcoming, 2021.

  25. V&A, National Art Library, MSL/1957/1679, 1008311150, autograph receipt, 5 June 1703, as quoted in J. D. Stewart, ‘Records of Payment to Sir Godfrey Kneller and His Contemporaries’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 113, no. 814 (1971), pp. 30–4 (33).

  26. Ibid.

  27. J. A. V. Chapple, ‘Christopher Codrington’s Verses to Elizabeth Cromwell’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 60, no. 1 (1961), pp. 75–8 (77).

  28. Stewart, 1971, p. 33.

  29. In the Kings Weston collection.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Bristol Archives, 45317/3/4/2, Kings Weston House Inventory, 27 December 1777.

  32. Ibid.

  33. ‘An Inventory of the Furniture, Household Goods, Pictures, Statues and Bustoes at Holkham House in the county of Norfolk, late belonging to the Right Honourable Thomas Earl of Leicester deceased’, 1760, in Tessa Murdoch, ed., Noble Households: Eighteenth-Century Inventories of Great English Houses, Cambridge: J. Adamson, 2006, p. 226.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid.

  36. For a discussion of Lady Leicester’s completion of Holkham, see Amy Boyington, ‘The Countess of Leicester and her Contribution to Holkham Hall’, The Georgian Group Journal, vol. 22 (2014), pp. 53–66.

  37. ‘An Account of the Furniture belonging to the Executors of the late Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim house in 1740’, in Murdoch, 2006, p. 275.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Murdoch, 2006, p. 276.

  40. Ibid.

  41. Frick Art Reference Library, New York, ‘A catalogue of pictures by the most celebrated Italian and eminent masters: will be sold by auction on Monday the 19th of this instant February, in St. James Square’, London, 1722, transcribed in ‘The art world in Britain 1660 to 1735’ at http://artworld.york.ac.uk (accessed 14 May 2019).

  42. Murdoch, 2006, p. 276.

  43. Duchess of Marlborough to Duchess of Bedford, 7 June 1734, in G. S. Thomson, ed., Letters of a Grandmother. 1732–1735. Being the Correspondence of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough with her Granddaughter Diana Duchess of Bedford, London: Jonathan Cape, 1943, p. 117.

  44. Thomson, 1943, p. 118.

  45. Adam Eaker, ‘A Taste for Van Dyck’, in Stijn Alsteens and Adam Eaker (eds), Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture, New York: The Frick Collection; New Haven: in association with Yale University Press, 2016, p. 43.

  46. British Library (hereafter BL), Add. MSS 48218, ff. 107–8, Theresa Parker to Lord Grantham, 23 August 1771.

  47. Saltram, London: National Trust, 1998, p. 45.

  48. BL Add. MSS 48218, f. 111, Theresa Parker to Lord Grantham, Sackville Street, 21 April 1772, as quoted in Kate Retford, ‘Reynolds’s Portrait of Mrs Theresa Parker: A Case Study in Context’, British Art Journal, vol. 4, no. 3 (2003), p. 80.

  49. BL Add. MSS. 48218, ff. l80–l, Theresa Parker to Frederick Robinson, Saltram, 1 September 1772, as quoted in Retford, 2003, p. 80.

  50. Retford, 2003, p. 81.

  51. Esther Chadwick, ‘Patterned with Paper Pictures: The Print Room at Petworth House’, Collection and Display: The British Country House, Paul Mellon Centre, 2020.

  52. Chadwick, 2020.

  53. Petworth House Archives, 7464, as quoted in Chadwick, 2020.

  54. Mrs Cassandra Austen to Mrs Mary Austen, Stoneleigh Abbey, 13 August 1806, quoted in William Austen-Leigh, Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh and Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, London: British Library, 1989, p. 140.

  55. Jon Stobart and Mark Rothery, Consumption and the Country House, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 218.

  56. Mark Purcell, ‘“A lunatick of unsound mind”: Edward, Lord Leigh (1742–86) and the refounding of Oriel College Library’, Bodleian Library Record, vol. 17, no. 3–4 (Apr.–Oct. 2001), pp. 246–60.

  57. Ann Bermingham, ‘The Aesthetics of Ignorance: The Accomplished Woman in the Culture of Connoisseurship’, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 16, no. 2 (1993), pp. 3–20 (13).

  58. Ibid.

  59. Bermingham, 1993, p. 14.

  60. James Usher, Clio, Or A Discourse on Taste, Addressed to a Young Lady, 3rd edn, London: T. Davis, 1772, p. 49.

  61. British Museum, 1948,0214.743, anonymous, Progress in the Polite Arts, 1801, hand-coloured etching with stipple and aquatint, 17.5 x 20.5 cm.

  62. Lord Minto to Lady Minto, 22 March 1802, in Countess of Minto, ed., Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot First Earl of Minto, from 1751 to 1806, 3 vols, London: Longman, Green & Co., 1874, vol. 3, p. 242.

  63. Jonathan Marsden, ed., Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, London: Royal Collection Publications, 2010; Vanessa Remington, ‘Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their relations with artists’, Royal Collection Trust, 2012: https://www.rct.uk/sites/default/files/V%20and%20A%20Art%20and%20Love%20%28Remington%29.pdf (accessed 31 January 2020).

  64. Thomas Sidney Cooper (1803–1902), The Victoria Cow, 1848, oil on panel, 45.1 x 61 cm, Royal Collection, RCIN 405575.

  65. Thomas Sidney Cooper, My Life: Thomas Sidney Cooper, 2 vols, London, 1890, vol. 2, p. 62.

  66. Ibid.

  67. Cited in Oliver Millar, The Victorian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, vol. 1, p. xxxviii.

  68. Helen Rappaport, Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003, p. 43.

  69. For a comprehensive history of the museum, see Caroline Chapman, John and Josephine Bowes: The Creation of the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle: The Bowes Museum, 2010. For Joséphine’s involvement, see Sarah Kane, ‘Turning Bibelots into Museum Pieces: Josephine Coffin-Chevallier and the Creation of the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle’, Journal of Design History, vol. 9, no. 1 (1996), pp. 1–21.

  70. El Greco, The Tears of St Peter, c.1580–9, oil on canvas, 108 x 89.6 cm, Bowes Museum, B.M.642; Francisco Goya, Interior of a Prison, c.1793–4, oil on tin plate, 42.9 x 31.7 cm, Bowes Museum, B.M.29.

  71. The Bowes Museum Archive, Émile Gallé to John Bowes, 7 April 1874, as cited in Chapman, 2010, p. 128.

  72. Lazzaro Bastiani (attrib.), The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c.1470, oil on panel, 59.6 x 40.5 cm (sight), acc. no. 8072; Master of Frankfurt, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c.1510–20, oil on panel, 91.4 x 52 cm, acc. no. 5284.

  73. Marianne Loir, A Boy Holding a Garland of Flowers, c.1760, oil on canvas, 67.2 x 57 cm, acc. no. 880; Thomas Hudson, Mrs Rebecca Willshaw, 1746, oil on canvas, 89 x 69.5 cm (sight), acc. no. 840.2.

  74. Flemish School, An Austrian General, Possibly Raimondo, Count Montecuccoli (1608–1680), c.1665–70, oil on copper, 21.2 x 13.6 cm, acc. no. 8088.

  75. Anglo-Netherlandish School, An Unknown Woman, Formerly Called Queen Anne of Denmark, c.1610–15, oil on panel, 95.3 x 81.3 cm, acc. no. 8086.

  76. T. Fall, Miss Belladrum and Calf, c.1900, oil on canvas, 44.5 x 59.5 cm (sight), acc. no. 34.2011.

  77. See Caroline Dakers, ‘Yours Affectionately, Angelo: The Letters of Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98) & Frances Horner (1858–1940)’, British Art Journal, vol. 2, no. 3 (2001), pp. 16–21.



by Amy Boyington
20 November 2020
Thematic Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Amy Boyington, "Women’s Collecting and Display Strategies in the British Country House", Art and the Country House, https://doi.org/10.17658/ACH/TE579