Or, the art of British country house interiors

April 7, 2013

Athelhampton House

Athelhampton House in Dorset dates back to the 15th century. Although it was seriously damaged by a fire in 1992 [1], the house was used for the 2009 movie From Time to Time in which it represented the country estate, Green Knowe. 

The Great Hall at Athelhampton figured prominently in the film, with an impressive fireplace and tapestry particularly eye-catching. In very grand country houses, the hall was continually a symbol of high status and a location of splendid entertaining [2]; doubtless the artworks displayed there were very carefully selected. 

What's interesting here is the addition of a female portrait to the left of the fireplace for the interior set of the movie. This rather ghostly woman is not present in any photographs of the hall in its typical appearance. Visitors to country houses expected to see depictions of the family's ancestors, so the display of this portrait in a very public space of the house denotes its importance and familial ties [3]. It is unclear whether this painting is just a prop, or if it is a family portrait that usually is hung elsewhere in the house. Regardless, its prominent position next to the fireplace in a room which would have been the first impression of any guests works to establish both the ancestral connections and artistic appreciation of the residents. 

From Time to Time- Maggie Smith in front of a dimly lit portrait

From Time to Time- portrait to the left of the fireplace better lit

Another element that figures prominently in the storyline of From Time to Time is the examination of portraits of individuals presented specifically as family members from centuries past. Although the film takes place in the 1940s, the main character, Tolly, is able to pass through time to 1805. Because Tolly, as well as the viewer, is first shown the artistic depictions of Sefton and Maria Oldknow, there is an expectation already forming about how the person actually looked. Implicit in this is a comparison between the subject represented in the frame, and the individual in person. When we are then presented with an actor playing that individual, we automatically think back to their portrait and judge its success in representing the individual, both physically and spiritually. In this way, the test of a portrait is whether it truly characterizes the person it claims to represent [4].

From Time to Time- portrait of Sefton Oldknow

From Time to Time- closer image of portrait of Sefton Oldknow

Also, because these two portraits were meant to expressly match each actor, they must have been created specifically for this movie. I wonder who painted them and what sort of techniques they used, and hope to find more information on this. To my eye, they seem to masterfully match the style of portraiture in the 19th century, and do a much better job of recreating historic portraiture than some other period films (Bleak House, Wives and Daughters, etc).

From Time to Time- portraits to the right of the fireplace

From Time to Time- portrait of Maria Oldknow next to unknown male portrait

The same male portrait shown to the right of the fireplace in the 1940s scenes is in a different location in the 1805 scenes. This is indicative of the lack of any fixed plan for the display of art collections or family portraits in country houses. Long galleries were a popular exhibition space for many works of art due to ample wall space and ease of display. However, other rooms of the house were also decorated with treasured portraits including dining halls, parlour rooms, and great halls. With the acquisition of new works of art, the display of collections changed, and of course each new inheritor brought their own artistic sensibilities and preferences to the house [5]. Perhaps this gentleman in red was particularly appreciated by Maria Oldknow and was moved from a corridor to a more prominent position complementing her own portrait by the fireplace.

From Time to Time- male portrait in 1800s flashback

Through the presentation of portraits in From Time to Time, we can get a real sense of the profound family ties to the house, as both a movie set and as a historic space. The analysis of what makes a portrait a success is also alluded to, as viewers decide for themselves whether Maria and Sefton are accurately captured and truly immortalized in their portraits.


[1] The DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses. "Athelhampton House." Accessed April 8, 2013.  
[2] Gomme, A.H. Design and Plan in the Country House: from Castle Donjons to Palladian BoxesNew Haven: Yale  
              University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2008.
[3] Hearn, Karen. In Celebration: the Art of the Country House. London: Tate Gallery, 1998.
[4] Kerslake, J.F. “Pictures as Documents: The Chatham House Collection.” International Affairs 33.4 (1957): 456.
[5] Russell, Francis. "The Hanging and Display of Pictures, 1700-1850." In The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five  
              Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting, edited by Gervase Jackson-Stops, 133. Washington, 
              D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1985.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting analysis. I agree- the portraits look quite period. It's a real shame you can't find the artist. I always find it terrible that (in many cases)important information about such important prop pieces isn't readily available.