Some reflections on ‘Understanding British Portraits,’ Knole Study Day by Jessica David
The Understanding British Portraits study day at Knole offered an enriching variety of informed presentations by scholars engaged in the study and preservation of the house and its collection. The day’s talks were divided into two sections, each concluding with a tour and time for discussion. As a first-time visitor, I felt privileged to absorb such a scholarly introduction to Knole in the ambience of its Great Hall, and the ‘behind the scenes’ explorations provided time to readdress topics posed by the speakers and reflect on the great benefit of viewing a collection in situ.
My particular interest in attending the Knole study day, apart from simply enjoying its location, was to examine and learn more about the early portrait collection, especially the set in the Brown Gallery. Over the last couple of years I have been engaged in the technical cataloging of the Yale Center for British Art’s collection of Tudor and early Stuart portraits; therefore, I was eager for an opportunity to observe an intact portrait set, the likes of which several YCBA portraits once comprised. In fact, there are two portraits at Yale that relate, as versions or copies, to paintings at Knole (those of Francis Walsingham and William Powlett). Catherine Daunt’s insightful investigation of the Brown Gallery portrait set lent, to me, a greater understanding of how many such portraits, now disassociated from their original sites and sets, began life. Her interpretation of the group’s sequential growth and display history, enhanced by the technical evidence of its framing and dendrochronological survey, formed a compelling explanation of its original function and previous location at Knole.
The challenge of excavating the historical and decorative makeup of a site like Knole seems worlds apart from that posed by a collection assembled in the 1970s and 80s. In a collection like the YCBA, where little is known about the early portraits’ provenances or conservation histories, the obstacles are different but great. Catherine’s research makes a tremendous case for tracking down related portrait groups as a means of understanding the works technically and historically. It also highlights the significance of understanding the conditions of their commission as well as later interventions in order to accurately gauge their appearance today.
Edward Town’s talk on Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset’s contribution to the portrait collection at Knole (including works by William Larkin, Paul van Somer and Isaac Oliver) was particularly resonant with me, not only because the same painters are included in our own research at Yale but because such patterns of patronage are easily severed when private collections get dispersed and reshuffled into new inventories. In addition to making a very strong argument for the identity and authorship of an unnamed portrait at Knole, Ed demonstrated how a well-preserved collection can reveal the taste and intention of successive patrons, in addition to the perceived value or quality of the commission at that date.
The National Trust’s on-going conservation plan and development of a new conservation centre at Knole were wonderfully drawn by Emma Slocombe and Melanie Caldwell. Many of the existing solutions and trials, including the replacement of a delicate carpet in the Reynolds Room with a (very convincing) reproduction were reviewed on our tour. It was evident from Melanie’s talk on the history of restoration at Knole, as well as from the conservation material presented in public spaces, that there is an admirably long precedence of both preserving the collection and educating the public about the need for preservation.
All talks presented at the study day were deeply engaging and I don’t recount all of them, or the wonderful discussions on our tours, because they are well described by other bloggers. I am deeply grateful to the organizers and hosts of this event for such an informative and uplifting day.