Or, the art of British country house interiors

April 29, 2013

Last Remarks


The collecting of art became a key feature of British country houses in the early 17th century [1]. Connected to this very earliest accumulation of paintings is the development of the long gallery, originally simply a place to exercise in bad weather, but eventually a space tacitly understood to be a display area for portraits. As country house owners, family members, and visitors would view these works, they would put each portrait to the ultimate test: whether or not it genuinely conveyed the individual represented [2]. This evaluation of portraiture and its success in showing the spirit of a person is a practice that continues still today.

The display of portraits in country houses greatly developed over the centuries, but their connotations remained very much the same. Art collections took on a more public face as visitors toured country houses; family portraits represented the dynastic status of the house, as well as the artistic taste of the owner [3]. Portraits played a significant role in visually representing the illustrious history of the country house and the long lineage of the family [4]. Whether displayed in long galleries or entrance halls, dining rooms or saloons, family portraits remain a ubiquitous part of country house art collections.

Despite the importance of the display of portraiture in country houses, it is often difficult to find images of the interior decoration of these houses; even more seldom is there information about specific portraits that is easily accessible. Period films are an invaluable resource for those who want to experience the interiors of country houses but are unable to visit the houses themselves. In these films, country house family portraits work to establish an atmosphere that connects the fictional country house owner with the actual house and its renowned history. Through the viewing of period pieces, the display of portraiture in British country houses can be better understood and truly appreciated. 

Bibliography:

[1] McBride, Kari Boyd. Country House Discourse in Early Modern England: a Cultural Study of Landscape and 
              Legitimacy. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2001.
[2] Kerslake, J.F. “Pictures as Documents: The Chatham House Collection.” International Affairs 33.4 (1957): 453-459.
[3] Miers, Mary. The English Country House: from the Archives of Country Life. New York: Rizzoli International 
               Publications, 2009.
[4] Musson, Jeremy. How to Read a Country House. London: Ebury Press, 2005.

2 comments:

  1. Lily: Wonderful web site, but very surprised that you don't have a section on Chatsworth, as it was the house used to portray Pemberley in the Joe Wright-Keira Knightley P&P, and in fact may have actually been visited by Austen and been the place she had in mind for Pemberley when writing P&P. Again, thanks for your good site.

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    1. Thank you for your comment! I did consider profiling Chatsworth, but in the end decided to focus on other country houses. It's very interesting to know that Austen herself may have visited there, though! Perhaps my love for the 1995 P&P swayed me to pay less attention to the houses used in the 2005 version!

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