Our friends Tom and Alix were going away on holiday and asked if we would like to house-sit for them. And since Tom works for the National Trust, and they live in Petworth House‘s Cowman’s Cottage that meant a lovely little holiday for us–in the very week that Isaac was celebrating his birthday!
Petworth House is a magnificent seventeenth-century mansion surrounded by seven hundred acres of landscaped park. The House itself is a study in stately symmetry — its triple-deckered lines of long windows and speckled alabaster brick seem almost spare in their Classical simplicity in comparison to the sprawling Gothic turrets of Tyntesfield.
Within, the House overflows with the National Trust’s largest collection of art-works. The Gallery at the House’s North End is filled with marble sculptures and a bewildering array of painted landscapes, portraits, and scenes historical and mythological. But the artistic highlight of the house is not to be seen in the Gallery, but rather the ‘Carved Room’.
Here a visitor is met by the unflinching gaze of Henry VIII looking every inch the medieval monarch as he stands, hands on hips, in white stockings and a fur-lined black cape. His portrait is flanked on either side by two more full-length homages to Petworth’s aristocracy. Under each of these four accompanying portraits is positioned a luminescent Turner landscape, the skies of which glow golden with the captured light of their setting suns. And framing all these paintings, winding around them like some persistently creeping vine, are the carvings that give the room its name. The work of Grinling Gibbons, whose sole surviving portrait hangs inconspicuously in the corner of the room, the carvings are an elaborate reproduction of ripening fruit, blossoming flowers, musical instruments and heraldic insignia.
Outside the house there is a fairly large garden (the ‘Pleasure Garden’) which you would walk through if you had driven to Petworth House and parked in the car park before beginning your visit (but since we were staying in the Cowman’s Cottage, this was not our experience). As well as the flowers, there are a couple of pieces of faux-Classical garden architectural ornament — an ‘Ionic Rotunda’ which provides both shelter from the weather and a pleasing view into the village beyond the garden’s walls, and a ‘Doric Temple’ adorned with a sentimental verse of poetry.
I describe the Garden only as ‘fairly large’ only because of the adjacent seven hundred acre landscaped Park, the geography of which has been very deliberately arranged for maximum viewing pleasure from the windows of the House. Indeed, two of the Turner paintings in the Carved Room are of the view that one would have if one were to be looking out of the window on the opposite side of the room. And apparently they were placed at precisely the right height so as to be at eye-level; the reason being that, in the days when the Room still functioned as a dining room, one could lose oneself in the beauty of Turner’s art without even having to glance upward from the conversation with whatever overbearingly dull visitor one was sat opposite.
As the painting shows, the Park is home to what is, in fact, the largest herd of fallow deer in England. They are an impressive sight to behold, and well worth however long it takes you walking through the Park before you catch a glimpse of them. The walls of the Park are cleverly hidden behind trees to give the impression, at least until you get up close, that the Park is boundless and without limit, stretching eternally on.
Outside the walls of the Park lies the village of Petworth, whose charming air of matchless quaintness owes much to the thirty-some antique shops that have established themselves here. Here you can buy authentic antique furniture, 1920s Belgian chandeliers, elaborately engraved Victorian silver, military swords from last century’s world wars. Driving through the narrow streets of the village you will find the wealthy of South England puttering along in their fancy cars: an odd mixture of vintage automobiles and fancy sports-cars.
But even if all of this feels somewhat beyond you — I’m certainly not in the market for an antique mahogany dining table, and I don’t think I’ll be driving a Lamborghini anytime soon — there’s still plenty of amusement to be had in strolling into the different antique shops and asking what their most ancient item on sale is. When I asked the question they invariably didn’t have a clue, but generally gamely made something up, in an uncertain hope that in spite of appearances I might after all turn out to be a prospective customer. (And I did actually buy a Victorian milk jug — but that’s another story.)
So if you’ve never been to Petworth, I encourage you to visit! I’m certainly looking forward to the next excuse we have to stay chez Tom & Alix!