Or, the art of British country house interiors

April 11, 2013

Corsham Court

Corsham Court in Wiltshire was originally constructed in 1582, with extensive building improvements in the 18th century [1]. Several of its rooms, including it impressive Picture Gallery, were used in the film Remains of the Day.

Lancelot "Capability" Brown was the architect in charge of enlarging the house in the 1760s, and he was responsible for the construction of the Picture Gallery, which was integrated into his Elizabethan-style architectural plan [2]. 

The Picture Gallery is 72 feet long and 24 feet wide and features works by van Dyck, Rubens, Reni, and other Old Masters. The collection also contains several English 16th and 17th century portraits, as well as a well-known 16th century group portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola. The hanging of the art remains largely unchanged from its arrangement in the 18th century, and many of the works even retain their original frames. In country house galleries, the use of elaborate and unique frames for particular works of art draws attention to their importance to the collector [3]; in this case, every work, regardless of size, is framed with special care.

Remains of the Day- gathering in the Picture Gallery

The room is lit by five large windows on its east side, which provide natural light to better view the collection. This signals the harmony between the exterior natural world and the interior artistic world [4]. The sumptuous Rococo style of the room is readily apparent in the gilded frames, deep red silk damask on the walls, and the ornate fireplace and ceiling decoration. These features all complement the art which was brought from London specifically to hang in this gallery.

Two Sisters and a Brother of the ArtistSofonisba Anguissola c.1555

It is difficult to see in the still from Remains of the Day, but in the image of Corsham Court in its typical appearance, it is possible to make out the group portrait by Anguissola just right of the fireplace. While this is a charming portrait of a family, capturing the innocence of youth, it is not a family portrait in the sense of establishing ancestral ties for the owner of the house. The Corsham collection is more about displaying sophisticated and expensive artistic taste than presenting a visual family tree.  

Charles I with M. de St Antoine- van Dyck 1633

 Further right on the wall are additional smaller portraits, and the largest and most impressive canvas is featured on the far wall. This equestrian portrait by van Dyck fills the entire vertical space of the wall; full-length portraits in England were greatly facilitated by the introduction of canvas at the end of the 16th century  [5]. The monumental height of the work and the elevation of Charles I above his riding master further emphasizes Charles I's power and influence. The presence of this portrait in the Picture Gallery then links the family with this royal power and serves as a visual reminder to all visitors of the illustrious nature of this country house.  The work at Corsham Court is one of several copies of this equestrian portrait, all made by Van Dyck; another copy can be seen at Highclere Castle on the set of Downton Abbey, and the original is at Windsor Castle [6].

With a combination of works by Old Masters and renowned portraitists, the Picture Gallery at Corsham Court provides insight into not only the artistic connoisseurship of the collector, but also the important political ties of the family.


[1] The DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses. "Corsham Court."
              Accessed April 10, 2013. www.dicamillocompanion.com/Houses_detail.asp?ID=516.
[2] Corsham Court, Wiltshire, England. “A Brief History.” Accessed April 10, 2013. www.corsham-  
              court.co.uk/Court%20history/Commentary.html. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
[3] Pointon, Marcia R. Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in the Eighteenth-
              Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
[4] Christie, Christopher. The British Country House in the Eighteenth Century. Manchester:
              Manchester University Press, 2000.
[5] Musson, Jeremy. How to Read a Country House. London: Ebury Press, 2005.
[6] The Royal Collection. "Charles I with M. de St Antoine." Accessed April 10, 2013.      

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