Art Turning out of Knutsford railway station onto the main road yesterday, the last thing I needed to see was one of those brown tourist signs pointing in the opposite direction with the information, “Tatton Park, 4 miles”. Having been here almost this time last year for Tabley House and knowing how long that walk had taken it, hadn’t occurred to me, largely because I’d not bothered to look at the maps (spoilers) that I’d also have to walk some to get to the mansion in the park but there it was. Four miles. Which might not seem very far to the seasoned rambler, but as I discovered the other week in the Lakes, I’m very far from being a seasoned rambler. Not one bit.
Actually, I’m being slightly over dramatic. Amid the scenery, the blue skies and well cared for road, the walk through Tatton Park wasn’t that awful. Cyclists and pedestrians travelling in the opposite direction all greeted me and I greeted them when they didn’t. I even think that I saw Laura Trott passing by on wheels though it could have been my mind filling in the blanks when I caught half of a face in the corner of my eye. Unlike the Lakes, the mammals aren’t fenced but roam freely so I was amid the sheep and deer rather than with them just too far away. I wonder how often they’re actually bothered by tourists or if they’re hopefully just left to be.
Tatton Hall has had a messy history in architectural terms. The estate was acquired by the Egerton family in 1598 and although they lived in the Old Hall which is still on site for the next hundred years, by 1716 they’d moved into the new building which as the official catalogue describes was originally a “three-storied rectangular block of seven bays”, but later augmented into a neo-classical building with sections designed by Samuel Wyatt in 1780 and Lewis William Wyatt in 1813. The Egerton family stayed there, right through to the final owner Maurice Egerton who left it to the National Trust.
In his book, Public Art Collections in North West England, Edward Morris devotes his four text pages to describing who amongst the Egertons were the art collectors. In 1729, Samuel Egerton was an apprentice clerk for the picture collector Joseph Hill and it’s through this connection he acquired the two Canalettos. But the most important collector was apparently Wilbraham Egerton, Samuel’s great nephew whose interest in Dutch painting led to the purchasing of the Van Dyck, Stoning of St Stephen but it’s clear that everyone in the family across the years had a hand in.
All of which said, as art collections go, it’s a bit disappointing. You’d think after all this time, finding two Canalettos and a Van Dyck in the north west under these circumstances would be exciting for me, but they’re disappointing Canalettos, early schematic views of Venice which are interesting from a historical perspective in capturing the city but otherwise flat and uninvolving. The Van Dyck is difficult to appreciate in this setting due to the way the light from the windows hits it so its impossible to see the whole work without some reflections on the canvas.
But throughout I had to keep in mind that this is the National Trust (and Cheshire City Council who provide their funding) presenting the house and grounds as a glimpse into the past and the history of the Egertons, not an art gallery. These walls filled with portraits are the ancient equivalent of an iCloud so shouldn’t really be judged on their artistic merits, even though now and then there also happen to be some fabulous paintings. Similarly, the many “schools of” and “manner of” paintings are the Egertons bringing into the old Masters the only way they could.
Currently in the process of restoration, a process being carried out in public, is The Cheshire Hunt with Wilbraham Egerton of Tatton (1781–1856), and His Son William Tatton Egerton (1806–1883), 1st Baron Egerton of Tatton by Henry Calvert (its space on the wall in the entrance hall currently filled with a pretty convincing from a distance digital reproduction). I’m mentioning it because it seems important to mention it, but it’s really off the edge of my subset of interests, my brain not quite able to divorce its capability as a painting with what it depicts.
Much more in that subset is the oddball anonymous portrait of Elizabeth I, which is frankly easier to link to than describe. My first reaction was quite a dirty laugh, which echoed throughout the hall in which its hung. How did that happen and judging by the dating, during the Queen’s reign? My experience has been that contemporary portraits tended to offer something akin to fantasy in relation to Gloriana especially in her later years, yet here she is unflatteringly in full HD, the skin hanging from her skull. Did the artist survive this? Was this unusual?
Alice Anne Graham-Montgomery (1847–1931), Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos and Countess Egerton of Tatton by Frank Dicksee is currently difficult to see because it’s in the middle of a wall in a dining room which is cordoned off at the very end to create atmosphere, but even from there her golden gown shimmers and the sheer ostentatiousness of the setting with its fir lined chair which I’m sure for years people assumed was how these people lived in these big houses but on reflection must have been an affectation of the artist’s studio.
Across the project Frank Dicksee is a name I’ve seen in a number of the collections and as I remarked to the attendant, because I do that sort of thing, that painting would have had pride of place in one of the regional museums, noting how the women’s portraits by known painters mostly seemed to be in less prominent, inaccessible positions whereas the more unremarkable portraits of men by relatively unknown artists are in full view. She replied that status overshadows artistic merit in these circumstances (which is a reflection I suppose, of our historically patriarchal society).
Which is presumably why one of the collection’s other great portraits Lady Gertrude Lucia Egerton (1861–1943), Countess of Albemarle by the Italian painter Michele Gordigiani is in the middle of a stairwell just before the visitor enters the cellar. There’s a bright, airiness to the image and a sense of freedom, of someone having been caught in a private moment by a photographer who isn’t a total stranger. Gordigiani’s is the image of Elizabeth Barrett Browning which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for her work in the future.
But opposite there is my favourite picture in the collection, Hilda Montalba’s Onion Seller, partly because it’s like nothing else in the painting collection. After walls of dull portraits and mediocre Dutch copies, this awoke me from my mid-afternoon torpor with all kinds of questions about why it was acquired, about the artist, about why it was on show, like the Gordigiani, so close to the exit and in a place where it would be easy to overlook as the visitor is leaving. Which of the Egerton’s bought it and where did it originally hang?
Neither the guide book or Edward have any answers. The usual source says that the artist was one of four daughters of the Swedish-born artist Anthony Rubens Montalba and Emeline (née Davies) and that she and her siblings were regular contributors to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition during the 1870s. Perhaps the painting was exhibited there and impressed one of the Egertons enough for a purchase. What impresses me is how it seems to merge the discipline of the still life in the onions with the more formal elements of the portrait with certain aspects of reportage.
The attendants on the whole were pleasingly honest. The person in the dining room noted that you could see which paintings had been out on loan and by inference are the most important) because they'd been cleaned and restored and it's worth noting that most of the paintings I've mentioned certainly have signs of that. They are often also asked why some of them are in such murky order (loads of the paintings are dirty with very yellow varnish) and it's usually because the cost of restoration would cost more than the painting is worth.
If all of this has sounded disappointingly cynical it may be because I’ve reached that point of mission creep so many of these projects have had. I look back at my visit to Dunham Massey and it’s certainly true that in comparison on this occasion I wasn’t able to quite simultaneously concentrate on the art and the house, so really didn’t get a sense of the building’s history as I walked through the rooms my eyes darting around looking at the paintings. My reaction on seeing a room without tended to be to move on.
Plus in concentrating on the kinds of works within the field of interest of Edward’s book, I certainly didn’t spend enough time looking at the large collection of lithographs in the servants work spaces or the display dedicated to final house owner Maurice Egerton’s ethnographic collection. An old school adventurer, as well as being a pioneer aviator, automobilist and radio enthusiast, he fought in both wars and travelled the world. There’s a page here featuring commentary from people who work at house and studied his life about his reputation.
As I began the long walk back I decided to try and thumb a lift, something I haven't done in years and as I sheepishly put out limb as a car passed it stopped and was given a pleasant ride back to gate by someone I gathered was a staff member. He'd noticed how long I'd been there, though I didn't ask if that was unusual, though given the speed with which I'd seen other visitors walking around I suspect that it might. So it wasn't as much of a long walk as it could be and I was back in Knutsford quicker than I expected but not quick enough to properly look around what looks like a very nice place.
Perhaps I’ll visit again. Perhaps I will. But with a historians eye, to look at the house and grounds as a glimpse into the past and the history of the Egertons, not an art gallery, not itching to pull out my moleskin book every five minutes and make notes in preparation for this ensuing blog post, review thing. Just two venues left, Manchester and the Walker, both art galleries and I’ve no idea how I’m going to react to those with all of their paintings. It took me three hours to get around Tatton Hall and I know that I didn’t see everything.