It’s fitting that Turner is the artist chosen for Petworth House’s first exhibition in its new permanent gallery space.
He visited the house often to see the 3rd Earl of Egremont’s collection of Titians and Rembrandts and loved the salubrious setting as a place to relax as much as study and paint.
Andrew Loukes, Petworth’s house and collections manager, hopes this will mark the first of many exhibitions of world-renowned art by major artists in the National Trust property.
“We might try to do one a year or perhaps even more frequently but we wanted to kick off with Turner because of his close associations with Petworth.
“While many people know about Turner’s association with Petworth, what is less well known is that he had an important relationship with the whole county of Sussex – right from west to east.
“This exhibition draws together some of the more interesting and important works that came out of that interest, which stretched right throughout his career.”
How much time Turner would have spent in the old servants’ quarters, where the compact exhibition space is located, is debatable.
But when it came to the county that held the house, Turner loved it. He made more than 500 works in Sussex. Only Yorkshire and Kent can claim to have had a bigger influence on his development and inspired more works.
“I think Turner was particularly drawn to Sussex because he was a Londoner and Sussex was in striking distance – even though the roads were appallingly bad during that period,” Loukes continues.
“Sussex had a reputation at that time of having bad roads because of the landscape, the chalk and clay, the downland and Weald landscape, but that didn’t put him off. He was a great traveller.”
Turner loved the coast. His great scenes are always maritime – whether that be warring ships or quotidian seaside markets.
“The great, long coastline of Sussex was a big draw and you get a sense of that in many of the works here.
“But there is also a great deal of history in Sussex. The whole thing about the Norman invasion was obviously an important aspect.
“Then I suppose what cements it all together is he had these two wealthy patrons, one in East Sussex and one in West Sussex, so there was huge financial incentive to be here as well.”
The National Trust property at Petworth is about an hour’s drive north-west of Brighton and located just north of the town’s compact centre.
It holds the largest group of Turner oil paintings outside national collections.
Turner’s main period of visiting was in the 1820s and 1830s but the patron had been buying pictures since 1802.
In 1809, the Earl invited Turner to Petworth to make the picture that dominates the exhibition: Petworth, Sussex, The Seat Of The Earl Of Egremont, Dewy Morning, 1810 (pictured above centre).
Turner picked a view of the house from in front of the Earl’s beloved boating lake and boathouse – and the pencil sketches he made on the spot are shown next to the finished work.
“His standard practice was to make preparatory pencil sketches in notebooks and take them back to his studio to make the final version. This is what he did here.”
The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1810. It illustrates Turner’s moving palette and use of a white undercoat, which worked to make mist in the picture.
Turner’s Sussex is the first time a collection of drawings and watercolours by Turner has been exhibited at Petworth.
The Earl didn’t go in for watercolours, but these were hugely important for Turner.
The Earl was, however, a huge lover of British art at a time when it was unfashionable. Other collectors in the country preferred to fill their houses with the Old Masters. Turner respected the Earl for his support. He admired him for creating a sort of artists’ colony with great paintings on the walls in a time when galleries were rare. John Constable and Charles Robert Leslie were among other regulars to the house. Together Turner and the Earl helped develop British art’s reputation and its output.
Turner found another supporter across the Sussex border in the industrialist and Tory MP for East Sussex, John Fuller.
A bust of Fuller, who sounds like a character from Blackadder, sits in one corner.
“He was called Mad Jack and was a great eccentric. He famously built a group of follies around Brightling village and as an MP he was a supporter of the pro-slavery movement, anti-Catholic emancipation and to this day is the only MP to have been forcibly ejected from the House of Commons for making his case too strongly.”
Among the works made for Fuller is Bodium Castle, 1816, which has not been exhibited since 1862.
In total, there are more than 40 works, show-ing views from Hastings to Arundel, divided into a story with sections that start in the 1790s with Turner looking at architectural subjects and colour studies completed on a 1796 tour.
“That section is called Student, Teacher, Artist and you can see him moving from architectural rendering to creating a sense of the place. It is interesting to think it started about that time and Sussex played a major role in that.”
As you walk the room, you see his style develop. By the end you get a very personal vision, with a section called Petworth Artist In Residence and Vignettes For Illustration (which were made for the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell).
The six or seven watercolours on blue paper are taken from a total of about 120 in the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain.
“These are Turner’s private recollections of the house, inside and outside,” explains Loukes.
“They are wonderful little scenes that document the social life of the time.
“Some of these scenes look like they have come straight from the pages of Jane Austen.”
A Dame’s Party shows how Turner was drawn to the female fashions of the day. The slim dresses and high necks on the younger women contrast with conservative middle-aged ladies and a joke of a long-necked whippet.
In Spilt Milk, Turner makes amends for spilling milk on his niece’s dress and in another he remembers a visit to Brighton to see the old chain pier, which was demolished in the 1890s. “These were private. They were his personal record of being here, which makes them even more special.”
Works lent by Tate Britain include three sketch books which he used in Sussex.
“They are very precious things,” says Loukes. “To be able to show things of this nature at Petworth – one of his favourite places – is very special.”
Loukes’ favourite production is Fish Market at Hastings (Early Morning), 1824 (pictured above left).
“This is one of the great Turner watercolours and it is from Hastings Museum. It is a brilliant thing and we are very lucky to have it in Sussex – and to show it in West Sussex is fabulous.
“It has everything. If you are into Turner it has all the elements: brilliant representation of the light, a real sense of the essence of the place, but also fully engages with the social history.
“You have all those elements and it is brilliantly executed. Plus we have the benefit of having one of the preparatory colour sketches for it, which is alongside and helps to explain how the whole thing is structured.”
Turner's Sussex is at Petworth House, Petworth, from Saturday, January 12 until Wednesday, March 13. The exhibition is open Saturday to Wednesday from 10am, with the last admission at 2.15pm. Tickets cost £10/£5 and booking essential. Call 0844 2491895 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth to book