A wry view of life for the world-weary

Rural Rides (23)


Petworth House and Gardens

This had always been on my list of places to visit and now as a pre-tiree I have the luxury of extra time on my hands we finally made it and thoroughly enjoyable our trip was too. The house is, funnily enough, in Petworth which is in West Sussex (just over the border from Surrey), a few miles due east of Midhurst.

Externally, the house is not overly impressive, being a long squat building in a dull grey stone, the initial feeling of disappointment being compounded by restoration work to the roof complete with the inevitable scaffolding and the tap-tap of chisels on masonry. The front of the house, or at least the original entrance, sits at the edge of a magnificent park, landscaped by Capability Brown and hosting the largest herd of fallow deer in England, although we didn’t see one, as well as a host of noisy and messy geese.

The glory of Petworth, though, is inside and every room open to the hoi polloi is a veritable treasure trove of fabulous and priceless works of art and statuary. There are 19 oil paintings by Turner, principally landscapes from the period when his eyesight wasn’t dodgy, and numerous works by the likes of Van Dyck, Reynolds, Claude and William Blake as well as magnificent wall and ceiling paintings by Louis Laguerre. The third Earl of Egremont was a major patron of British contemporary art at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, often hosting Turner and Constable, the latter describing Petworth as the house of art.

Away from pictorial art, of particular interest was the 1592 terrestrial globe by Emery Molyneux, believed to be the only one of its kind in existence, and a beautiful 15th century vellum manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The one surviving trace of the original 13th century building is the Chapel and Undercroft, although the former was modernised at the end of the 17th century and shows heavy baroque influences.


With so much eye-candy on display it was a struggle not to become blasé – oh, there’s another Blake – but the room that really took my breath away was the Carved Room which featured the magnificent carvings of a favourite of mine, Grinling Gibbons. For those with a more egalitarian taste there is the opportunity to view life downstairs and to look at the kitchens and larders (wonderfully cool) and marvel at the collection of over 1,000 piece copper batterie de cuisine and the unfeasibly steep stairs.

Stepping out of the rear of the house you come straight into the town – a surprise to me as when we parked up in the house car park there was no suspicion that we were so close to civilization – and judging by the collection of antique and over-priced craft shops the town enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the big house. We found a pleasant enough pub – the Star, a Fullers’ gaff serving a very acceptable London Pride but Gale’s HSB which had seen better days – but we chose the one day in the year that they were having their kitchen renovated so we had to dine on crisps and the memories of the glories we had seen.

Petworth was granted by Henry I’s widow, Adeliza of Louvain, to her brother, Joscelin, who then married into the Percy family. The Percys, one of the most powerful families in England, used Petworth as their southern base but once they came under suspicion of treachery by Queen Bess it became their prison. When the 11th Earl of Northumberland died heirless in the mid 17th century the house passed to the Seymours. Inability to meet death duties meant that the house passed to the (grateful) nation in 1947, although the present Lord Egremont and his family still live there.


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