Or, the art of British country house interiors

April 21, 2013

Wilton House

Wilton House in Wiltshire was finished in the mid-16th century, and then rebuilt a century later under the supervision of popular architect Inigo Jones after a devastating fire [1]. This Palladian country house has been the residence of the Herbert family (Earls of Pembroke) for over 400 years. While Chatsworth House was used for the exterior of Pemberley in 2005's Pride and Prejudice, Wilton House represented its magnificent interior.


The art collection at Wilton House is vast and impressive, containing over 230 works by renowned artists such as Rembrandt, Holbein, Hals, Rubens, Reynolds, and Brueghel [2]. The collection is particularly rich in its holding of works by van Dyck; family portraits he painted are displayed on the walls of the ornate Single and Double Cube Rooms.

As part of the renovation by Inigo Jones in the mid-17th century, the Double Cube Room was designed and built; at 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 30 feet high, it effectively creates the dimensions of two side-by-side cubes [2]. While many portraits decorate its walls, undoubtedly the largest and most impressive is the group portrait of Philip, 4th Earl of Pembroke, and His Family. Measuring 17x11 feet, this was the largest canvas van Dyck ever painted, and figures prominently in the interior backdrop of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice- Double Cube Room

Like many portraits in other country houses, these works by van Dyck were originally displayed in London; in fact, the large group portrait of the Herbert family was likely painted in their London home, Durham House [3]. After the Double Cube Room was complete, the canvases were transported from Durham House to Wilton House at considerable risk and great labor due to their size and value [4]. Although they originally hung elsewhere, it is hard to imagine these works not in the elaborately gilded Double Cube Room of Wilton House.


The magnificent Double Cube Room contains not only family, but also royal portraits. For example, over the mantel of the fireplace hangs a portrait of the children of Charles I [4]. In fact, the Double Cube Room was originally called the King's Great Room due to both the multitude of royal portraits as well as the many visits of royalty to Wilton House [5]. 


Van Dyck's popularity can at least partially be attributed to his translation of the atmosphere surrounding the court of Charles I into commissioned portraits [6]. The way he represented an effortless dignity of his subjects, particularly with an emphasis on facial expression, seems to embody the definition of successful portraiture. Van Dyck displayed not only the physical characteristics of the Herbert family members, but also their inner person; this is no small task, particularly with a group portrait of ten people, but van Dyck managed to capture each person's individuality while still allowing them to function as a group.

Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, with his Family - van Dyck c.1635

Wilton House is a place steeped in history and culture. The 2nd Earl was even a sponsor of Shakespeare, and the first performances of "Twelfth Night" and "As You Like It" were likely at Wilton House [2]. Ben Jonson, Edmund Spencer, Christopher Marlowe, and John Donne all visited on various occasions, and the art collection rivals that of major museums. While Wilton House is exceedingly impressive and grandiose, it is perhaps not what Jane Austen would have had in mind for Pemberley, which was to be a model of modern, if understated taste [7]. Regardless, Wilton House is a country house full of richly decorated rooms and wonderful art, perfect for filming or visiting.

Bibliography:

[1] The National Heritage List for England. “Wilton House.” Accessed April 20, 2013. http://list.english-
              heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1023762.
[2] The DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses. “Wilton House.” Accessed April 20, 2013. 
             www.dicamillocompanion.com/Houses_detail.asp?ID=2140.
[3] Pembroke, Sidney Charles. A Catalogue of the Paintings & Drawings in the Collection at Wilton House, Salisbury, 
             Wiltshire. London: Phaidon, 1968.
[4] Nicolson, Nigel. The National Trust Book of Great Houses of Britain. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1978.
[5] Musson, Jeremy. English Country House Interiors. New York: Rizzoli, 2011.
[6] Wilton, Andrew. The Swagger Portrait: Grand Manner Portraiture in Britain from Van Dyck to Augustus John, 
             1630-1930. London: Tate Gallery, 1992.
[7] Duckworth, Alistair M. “Gardens, Houses, and the Rhetoric of Descriptions in the English Novel.” In The Fashioning
             and Functioning of the British Country House, edited by Gervase Jackson-Stops, 403. Washington, D.C.: 
             National Gallery of Art, 1989.

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