Stowe 500 x 500


In the autumn of 1985 the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC presented their largest and most successful exhibition, The Treasure Houses of Britain. It included nearly 600 exhibits of furniture, porcelain, glass, silver, jewellery, paintings and sculpture from two hundred different country houses located in every corner of the British Isles. Nearly one million people saw the exhibition arranged in seventeen different room settings. Cynics thought it was a shop window, showing American collectors what was available for sale and, indeed, many of the objects have changed ownership in the intervening years.

< Stowe Never was anything half so fine and charming
Arthur Devis 500 x 500

Early 2022

The work of a portraitist was busy, competitive, repetitive and unrepenting. It required remarkable personal and organizational abilities, management skills to run a studio, or, as an alternative, the process required artistic agility and speedy production. The reasons for commissioning portraits were many and varied, relationships such as a record of marriage, a father loosing a daughter, or for publicity purposes, praising corporate and individual strength, claiming the virtues of fidelity and motherhood, recognizing dynastic inheritance and attempting immortality. Historic portraits provide a unique insight into a great variety of attitudes and the evolving manners of a changing society.

< Arthur Devis John Orde, His Wife, Anne, His Eldest Son, William, and a Servant 1754-56 detail Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Perseus 500 x 500


Wilton House is one of the most extraordinary survivals and it contains exceptional works of art. Michiel Sweerts worked in Rome and Amsterdam and his refreshing realism is engaging and surprising. The collection founded by Sir Francis Cook in the nineteenth century was available to the public but, as the family fortune diminished, so did the collection and it is now spread throughout the world. The protestant countries of Northern Europe received an influx of creative and inventive Huguenots escaping Catholic France. And finally what makes a regional style? Indeed, is there such a thing?

< Paris Bordone Perseus armed by Mercury and Minerva c.1550 detail Birmingham Museum of Art, USA
colourful men square


Power and money have always been closely allied to Art. As an unnecessary commodity, an object of desire, auction houses hope to achieve prices that no one can anticipate. When a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci was placed on the auctioneer’s block in New York in November 2017, it was expected to match the price of Willem de Kooning’s $300,000,000 abstract masterpiece that had been sold fourteen months earlier. Instead the price was half as much again (£450,300,000). While auctioneering is by its nature a gamble, dealers can support and sustain artists through difficult times and create markets for their work where there was none before.

< After Thomas Rowlandson A Connoisseur 1820s detail


There were many reasons why the eighteenth-century gentleman wished to travel to Italy. He wanted to see the landscape that had formed the backdrop to the classical education he had received at school and university and he wanted to learn about different political systems that would help him serve in government back home.
The visitor might have felt that a change in climate would help him overcome the death of his wife or improve his health and he probably wanted to have a good time away from prying eyes. No matter what the motive the effect of Italy had an extraordinary influence on future aesthetics in Britain. This course describes how visitors travelled to Italy, what they saw and how they wanted to bring some of it home.  

< Willey Reveley Views in the Levant: Rome with Ruins seen Through an Archway c.1785 watercolour detailYale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection detail


The country house in Britain has formed an intrinsic part of our national identity and aristocratic estates still provide an integral part of the structure and economy of the countryside. They also supply an unequalled resource to study the histories of society, art and architecture. This course looks at twelve different houses. Some are remarkable survivals, such as Hardwick and Ham, others have been altered to meet contemporary taste as at Longleat and Burton Constable. All twelve houses have been chosen to show a sweep of history, a range of craftsmanship and a tangible reflection of the character and taste of many collector-owners.

< George Cruikshank after Alfred Crowquill Beauties of Brighton etching and watercolour published by S Knight 1 March 1826 detail


Primogeniture and stable government during the last 350 years have maintained the Country House as a central feature of cultural life in Britain. They all have different characteristics and they all reflect the power, wealth and interests of their owners. Rather than being just a simple history of domestic architecture, over four months this course examines aspects of the social, economic and cultural life of the country house over the past five hundred years and ends with a study of how the houses that remain continue.

< Arthur Devis Robert and Elizabeth Gwillym of Atherton Hall, Hertfordshire 1745–47. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut detail detail


During the seventeenth century the Court looked to the Continent for Classical inspiration with commissions to artists such as Rubens, Van Dyck and Honthorst. Civil War turmoil brought a Puritanism to power that called a halt to Courtly patronage. By the time of the Restoration the exuberance of the court of Charles I was replaced with a more conciliatory style, the example of the Continent was adapted to something more English in character and architecture found new expression with Wren, Vanbrugh and Archer.

< Sir Peter Lely Portrait of Diana Kirke, Countess of Oxford c.1665. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut detail


With the death of the last Stuart monarch in 1714, the crown passed to Queen Anne’s Hanoverian cousin, George. During the next hundred years his son, grandson and great grandson oversaw a country that grew in confidence and became the greatest power in the world. These changes are reflected in the decorative and the fine arts, a period of energy and innovation marked by the diverse work of Hogarth, Wedgwood, Chippendale, Reynolds and Adam.

< Johan Joseph Zoffany Edward Shuter as Justice Woodcock, John Beard as Hawthorn, and John Dunstall as Hodge, in ‘Love in a Village’ by Isaac Bickerstaffe 1767. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut detail


This series looks at two extraordinary church buildings, works by Giotto that begin the examination of the world from a human perspective, royal propaganda used to decorate a ceiling in London, a portrait of a pope by an Englishman painted for a protestant king and two of the most significant commissions made in the last century, one for a restaurant and the other for a cathedral. A varied selection with threads that will remind the audience of much they have already seen and much that they will see afresh.

< Giotto Lamentation of Christ before 1305. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua detail


This series of lectures, ranging from Piero della Francesca’s work in the 1450s to Picasso’s work in the 1930s provides new insights into some of the most potent images of Western Art. The lectures place the works in context, explain how they came to be made, whatsignificance they had for those who first saw them and hint at how they have been regarded subsequently.

< Pablo Picasso Guernica 1937. Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain detail


British painting is different from work on continental Europe. It worships portraiture and derides religious and historical subjects. Until the beginning of the eighteenth century the arts often relied on continental painters who preferred to work in Britain rather than face greater competition at home. Official academic tradition came late and caused ructions; landscape developed into the greatest personal expression and high-minded individuals distanced themselves from the Academy.

< Stanhope Forbes A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach 1884–85. Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery detail


Landscape painting in Western art came in by the back door. It was only in the seventeenth century that the emotive qualities of landscape became a true subject. Artists on both sides of the Alps responded to the exuberance and horror of nature and show that it could serve as an extension of the feelings experienced by the figures inhabiting the landscape. These differing approaches became polarized in the work of two great British artists at the turn of the eighteenth century, Constable and Turner.

< John Constable Study of Clouds 1822. Victoria and Albert Museum, London detail


Suppressed for many years by religious imagery, as individuals became more confident so the portrait became a driving force in Western art. Contradicting the genericism of classical sculpture the Renaissance learnt to compromise and, in order to show the power and position of an individual, portraiture became an important political force. These talks look at the works of some of the greatest artists of the past five hundred years: Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Velasquez, Lawrence and Sargent.

< Titian Portrait of Jacopo Strozzi 1567–68. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna detail