Art in the British Country House: Collecting and Display

This three-year research project focuses on the collection and display of works of art in the country house in Britain from the sixteenth century to the present day. Through a focus upon a series of carefully selected case studies, the project will address two closely related issues: the formation, character and function of country-house art collections; the conventions, development and dynamics of pictorial and sculptural display within the country house.

The crucial importance of the country house to understanding the history of art-collection and display in Britain is indisputable and of long-standing interest to historians of British art. The time is propitious, however, for the application of new perspectives to this topic. This project, in turning a fresh eye on the collection of art within the country house, builds on exciting new developments within this area of scholarship, which have shed new light on the wide range of motivations and circumstances that have shaped such collections. Furthermore, the project extends to the country house a growing scholarly interest in modes of pictorial display, which has hitherto tended to focus on the display of paintings, sculpture and prints within more urban and public forms of environment, and on the exhibition space in particular.

The project is intend to concentrate attention on the ways in which country house collections were formed, and on the reasons why they took the form they did. It will address the impact upon collecting practices of such factors as the growth of continental travel, the development of a sophisticated art market, fluctuations in taste, and dynastic ambitions and familial alliances. It will also address the conditions, facilities and habits of display in the country house, investigating such issues as the shifting modes of the picture hang, the introduction of dedicated gallery spaces within the country house, the relationship between the country house and the town house as sites of collection and display, the development of cataloguing and the growth of professional curatorship.

The project will be built around the intensive study of eight individual houses, carefully selected so as to ensure a broad range of examples - appropriately varied in terms of their chronologies, locations and scale, and rich in terms of their holdings, their inventories, and their information regarding the display of works of art during their histories. It will also draw on the Paul Mellon Centre’s own extensive research resources, which include much that is of relevance: archival materials, correspondence, country house guides, sales catalogues, books, photographs and newly commissioned images.

The research findings of the project, resources and related activities, will culminate in an extensive online research publication in 2019.

See also

  • Events

    The Country House: Art, Politics and Taste

  • Events

    Art in the British Country House: Collecting and Display

  • Staff

    Martin Postle

  • Staff

    Jessica Feather