Or, the art of British country house interiors

April 14, 2013

Nether Winchendon House

Nether Winchendon House, a Medieval and Tudor house in Buckinghamshire, was originally in monastic ownership [1]. In the late 18th century, a number of changes were made to the house in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style, as was popular during the Regency era. The house has been used for the filming of numerous movies and TV series including 2007's Marple: Ordeal by Innocence.

In the episode of Marple, portraits can be seen in a small entrance hall as well as what looks to be a sitting room, all backed by wood panelling that decorates the walls. Although there is no accessible listing of the identities of those individuals represented in the many portraits throughout the house, we can imagine them all to be members of the family that has lived at Nether Winchendon House for over 400 years [2].

The listing of the many family members who have owned Nether Winchendon House since 1559 is quite long, so speculation as to which portrait is of which individual is rather pointless. It is very clear though that through the years, the inhabiters of this house have been very proud of their long ancestral lineage, and so have placed family portraits in many frequently traversed areas of the house. The art is not tucked away in a far off, seldom visited upstairs room, but figure predominantly in the decoration of a main entrance hall and favorite sitting room.

Marple: Ordeal by Innocence- door flanked by two portraits

The late 18th century saw the development of country house interiors from grand palatial aspirations to more comfortable, modest spaces for entertaining [3]. Houses were still very impressive and attracted influential guests and interested tourists alike, but there was more of a warmth and welcomeness to the rooms. This shift can be seen with Nether Winchendon House's bright and inviting sitting room, decorated with a multitude of portraits from various eras and artistic styles. 

Marple: Ordeal by Innocence- sitting room with brightly colored portrait

The artistic representations chosen for display on the walls of a country house represent the cultural and dynastic status of that house and family [4]. Thus, more recent portraits in the sitting room of Nether Winchendon House are hung right next to a much earlier, full-length group portrait; although they look disparate side-by-side, they each work to establish and visually display the important connections of the family.

Marple: Ordeal by Innocence- opposite wall of the sitting room

On the right is a portrait of a dignified-looking gentleman, doubtless one of the family portraits in the house; it looks to be part of the Grand Manner style, popularized by Reynolds in the 18th century as a way of expressing the status of male aristocratic patrons [5]. To its left is the large group portrait, obviously painted in a much earlier style. The fashion of wearing dramatic ruffs originated in the 16th century in England; this costume choice, along with the formal qualities of the work can help to date the portrait. Additionally, full-length portraits were introduced to England in the mid-16th century by Edward VI's court painter, Guillim Scrots [6], so this can also aid in dating the painting to the mid to late-16th century. One of the earliest and still persistent themes of portraiture is family [7]. This helps to explain the sheer size of the work, along with the depiction of children. 

Marple: Ordeal by Innocence- closer view of the large group portrait

Another interesting feature is the inclusion of two portraits within the portrait; this technique was used to portray individuals who were important to the family group, but were away or had died. These portraits within the portrait create a fascinating layering effect, with different dimensions of individuals receding into the wall. 

The use of Nether Winchendon House for Marple: Ordeal by Innocence seems particularly fitting, considering their shared emphasis on the importance of family. While the former underlines a centuries long tie to their country house, the latter features an extended family with many foster children, embroiled in the mystery of who killed their mother. For both, portraits in Nether Winchendon House serve to emphasize each family's closeness and longevity.


[1] The DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses. "Nether Winchendon House." Accessed April 14, 2013.
[2] Nether Winchendon House. “History continued.” Accessed April 14, 2013. www.netherwinchendonhouse.com/
[3] Musson, Jeremy. How to Read a Country House. London: Ebury Press, 2005.
[4] Miers, Mary. The English Country House: from the Archives of Country Life. New York: Rizzoli International
               Publications, 2009.
[5] Christie, Christopher. The British Country House in the Eighteenth Century. Manchester: Manchester University 
               Press, 2000.
[6] Jackson-Stops, Gervase, ed. The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art 
               Collecting. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1985.
[7] Strong, Roy. Introduction to The British Portrait, 1660-1960, 30. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 

No comments:

Post a Comment