Petworth House

This beautiful 17th-century, grade I listed country house in West Sussex is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public, welcoming thousands of visitors each year.

Petworth House stands in a magnificent 700-acre deer park, and as well as viewing the treasures inside the house, visitors can enjoy walks in the pleasure gardens.

Petworth houses one of the National Trust’s finest art collections, including classical sculpture and paintings by Turner, Reynolds, and Gainsborough.

It has a fascinating history, having undergone several transformations over the years.

Let’s find out all about it.

Petworth House sits in the South Downs, West Sussex.

Petworth House’s 900-year history

We know that a medieval house originally stood on the site and its chapel still survives. The land was given by Henry I’s widow to her brother Jocelin de Louvin, who married into the Percy family who owned other land and castles in the north of England. Petworth House became the Percy’s permanent home when Elizabeth I, believing them to be sympathetic to Mary, Queen of Scots, exiled them to the south in the 1500s. Once there, they began extending the medieval house.

The next major episode for Petworth House came with the marriage of Elizabeth Percy in 1682 to Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset, known as the `Proud’ duke. In 1688 Charles began redesigning Petworth, taking inspiration from opulent French Baroque palaces such as Versailles, and grand state rooms were created to display the family’s wealth.

Skilled craftsmen

The work involved some of the finest craftsmen of the day, including Britain’s most famous wood carver Grinling Gibbons whose work adorns the Carved Room, and the plasterer Edward Goudge. The house was built with local freestone ashlar with Portland stone ornamentation and features included rusticated pilasters, a marble hall, and a mansarded slate roof.

Local mason John Selden devised much of the internal and external decoration such as the duke’s crest: keystones with carved wings, which feature over each window. After a fire in 1714, Petworth underwent more remodelling. At this time, artist Louis Laguerre was commissioned to paint murals to line the grand staircase.

Artworks at Petworth House

Petworth’s extensive art collection started in 1763 when George O’Brien Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, inherited the house. He added the North Gallery in the 1820s to house his collection and it’s believed that the great English architect Sir John Soane was involved in designing the lighting of the art gallery. The Earl became patron to artists such as JMW Turner and John Constable and the so-called Golden Age of Petworth began as one of the finest art collections took shape.

More alterations

It became a busy house, used to entertaining on a grand scale; the number of indoor servants had grown from over 50 in 1819 to 135 by 1834. In the 1870s, Petworth House underwent yet more alterations, this time led by the architect Anthony Salvin.

He created the most recent entrance, linking Petworth House to the estate office which he also enlarged. Following a fire in 1872, the servants’ quarters and historic kitchens were re-built and fitted with the latest steam technology.

Due to death duties, in 1947 the 3rd Lord Leconfield gave Petworth House to the National Trust, and his nephew John Wyndham, 1st Lord Egremont, gifted part of Petworth’s art collection to the Trust. Bringing the story up to the present day, part of the house is occupied by the present Lord and Lady Egremont and their family. The house is of special historic interest and is on the National Heritage List.

Petworth House viewed across the Capability Brown landscape.

The Pleasure Gardens

Pleasure gardens were popular features of country houses in Georgian times when they were created for walking and socialising in. The `Proud’ duke oversaw the design of elaborate formal gardens, woodland walks, formal borders, and architectural features covering 30 acres at Petworth, using the royal gardener, George London. The work involved terraces, ramparts, and a summer house. In 1750, Charles Wyndham, the 2nd Earl of Egremont, commissioned the landscape designer Lancelot `Capability’ Brown to redesign the formal landscape.

Brown replaced the formal features with serpentine paths and informal planting, creating sweeping vistas and a natural-looking landscape between the 1750s and 1760s. His design was based around maximising views of the South Downs, often using tiers of ground and naturalistic planting. Over four commissions during the 1750s, Brown created the upper and lower ponds seen today and oversaw the re-siting of the road from Petworth to nearby Tillington which was moved further south.

His scheme also involved building a ha-ha and the Ionic Rotunda, based on an Italian temple as a focal point. Brown also relocated the Doric temple from the park to the pleasure gardens in the 1750s, before it moved to its current spot in 1875. This landscape remains today, and the deciduous trees put on a spectacular autumn show, with maples, Cornus, and tulip trees among the beautiful examples of woodland trees.

The 3rd Earl of Egremont added to the pleasure gardens. He was a patron of plant collectors as well as a patron of the arts, and the gardens became a horticultural haven bursting with colourful planting, displaying his collection of North American trees and shrubs.

Fallow deer in Petworth Park.

Petworth Deer Park history

The 700-acre deer park is bounded by a 14-mile-long stone wall, measuring six feet in height. Fallow deer have roamed the park for over 500 years. They are believed to have been hunted by Henry VIII on a visit in the 1500s, and the herd numbers 700-800 today. The deer park contains ancient and veteran trees, many aged between 250-950 years old: some were saplings planted in 1066. Species include common beech, aspen, swamp cypress, common lime, sweet chestnuts, common walnut trees, and a London plane tree.

The park is one of the finest surviving examples of a `Capability’ Brown English landscape, with breathtaking views over the South Downs and it took 12 years to complete. During the Second World War, the army took over part of the park and 3,700 troops were based there. After the war, the park became a Polish resettlement camp. It closed in 1959 and there is still a Polish community living nearby. The park and pleasure grounds are grade I listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

National Trust collections at Petworth House

In the 17th and 18th centuries, wealthy European collectors were keen to collect porcelain, which was imported from East Asia as well as being made in Europe. Petworth House is home to some of the National Trust’s finest ceramics including Meissen, Vienna, Sèvres, and Chelsea porcelain tableware.

Petworth House is also home to one of the National Trust’s greatest picture collections. It comprises over 300 paintings including many works by Titian, Bosch, Claude, Blake, and Gainsborough as well as 16 paintings by Reynolds, a stunning collection of 20 landscapes by Turner, and 17 pictures by van Dyck.

There is also a collection of classical sculptures, both antique and 19th century, by Flaxman and Westmacott, along with 17th-19th century furniture. The Petworth Chaucer manuscript, one of the earliest copies of the Canterbury Tales dating from around 1410 and recently digitised, can also be seen at the house, along with the earliest English globe.

Visiting Petworth House

For opening times and more information about this National Trust property, visit Petworth House.

Have you been to Petworth House, and is it a great place to visit?

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