Review 2013: Not The Doctor: Public Art Collections in North West England:
Tabley House.

Art Some projects continue. As I suspected, Knutsford’s Tabley House wasn’t one of the easiest of the venues in Edward Morris’s survey of Public Art Collections in North-West England. Actually getting to Knutsford was easy, change at Chester, about two and half hours on trains. But having failed to the bare minimum of research about how to get to Tabley House once in the area, beyond tweeting to make sure they were open, I did of course get lost in the town ending up in front of the entrance to Tatton Park (which I still have to visit so will be going back to Knutsford again). After visiting the tourist information centre and quite rightly corrected on my pronunciation of Tabley (rhymes with tablet rather than table), I was told that there wasn’t a bus service and pointed in the direction of Knutsford Road and a subsequent forty-five minute walk (which in Liverpool terms would be twice around Sefton Park, I think), not including the grounds themselves which probably added another ten or fifteen minutes. Thank goodness we had a relatively mild October.

Hello, Tabley House. As both Edward’s book and the available souvenir catalogue explain, Tabley House and grounds have a relatively complicated ownership history, but the most important figure in its history is Sir John Leicester (1762-1827) who inherited the house from his father and from the small acorns of a few family portraits and paintings of the surrounding landscapes became one of the first and arguably most important patron of British art in that period, Saachi of his time, if you will. As Edward describes, it’s his influence which meant many museums and art galleries were ultimately set up, his example leading local merchants into developing their collections, albeit most often for more philanthropically public reasons. Only after many years and decades did some of the work Leicester amassed become available for public viewing but I’m getting ahead of things a bit. But suffice to say, Leicester is by some degree, one of the reasons I’m writing this paragraph and still doing this project.

Lancaster’s key decision from which everything else flowed was that after doing the much in vogue grand tour of Europe, rather than following the lead of his contemporaries buying in lots of foreign art, he decided to promote British art instead. His entire collection of, as Edward lists “landscapes, history paintings and scenes from history and everyday life” was by British painters and on top of that he built on the existing collection of landscapes and family portraits by engaging artists like Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney and others to produce some more of those. One of the paintings on display right now is Turner’s image of Tabley’s grounds on a Windy Day. Listening to the volunteer invigilators describing the period, it’s almost as though the house was constantly filled with visiting artists, like some pre-Victorian version of Andy Warhol’s Warehouse. Except with rolling countryside and architecture attractive enough to appear in the remake of The Forsyte Saga (which this did).

Unfortunately what's still in the house is a shadow of what this collection must have been like. As well as Tabley, Leicester owned a house in London and other properties and as it was described to me, he’d spent so much money amassing the collection, the estate in so much debt, that the whole lot ended up being sold on to cover costs. Then a couple of centuries later, in 1975, when Colonel John Leicester Warren, the final person in the Leicester line died, ownership was passed to Manchester University when it became a school and when that closed to a Health Care Trust on the understand that the first floor would be preserved for public visitors and that’s essentially where it is now. Much of the house is a nursing home apart from a suite of rooms which have been restored to reflect what they may have been like when Leicester lived there, but thanks to a series of buy backs and academic research by the university, with all of the original furniture and original paintings.

But the quest is the quest, and so like Edward, my interest in the place was mainly in the collection on public display, and, well, it is what it is. It’s mainly a collection of landscapes and family portraits, a couple painted by notable names, the aforementioned Turner, some by followers of those notable names and others by schools and unknown painters. The point, I suppose, is that like other such properties, this isn’t an art gallery, to some extent it’s a way of visiting history and seeing how the peoples of the past, or at the wealthy peoples of the past perceived themselves and captured their own history. Now, through the magic of Your Paintings, you can browse the collection yourself and as you can see, the best examples are when the artist has stepped out of the expected genres, norms and expectations produced something which has an aesthetic transferability outside of its function of capturing the likeness of a relative or building, of simply adding to a scrapbook in architectural form.

Yet it’s a measure of Leicester as a collector that he strove to find the best representations of his relatives. Having commissioned this full length portrait of his wife Georgina from Thomas Lawrence, he was reportedly disappointed with the formulaic nature of the composition, which is indeed pretty artificial and so instead went to William Owen to produce this much more naturalistic and fresh image that’s full of life. What the digital image can’t quite capture is the translucence of the fabric and how Georgina seems to almost float against the landscape which depicts the grounds of Tabley rather than simply some clouds as was the case in the earlier picture. That’s generally the case across the collection, that it’s the more contemporary images rather than classical recreations that stand out and I’m sure if you were to put the collection in chronological order you could see how tastes have changed over time, how the symbolism of the past gave way to the realism, with Leicester at the tipping point.

Which isn’t to say fantasy doesn’t have its place. There’s John Martin’s startling epic The Destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii in which horrific fire of the gods rains down on a humanity which was ill prepared. There’s Thomas Danby’s The Raft featuring nameless souls exhausted by whichever calamity has befallen then looking towards an uncertain future. There’s Charles Robert Leslie’s scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry Fuseli dynamic portrayal of Friar Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Leicester apparently bought back into his collection because it had originally been in his family when he was a youngster and reminded him of his childhood, though he spent much of his time in Ireland when it was on display in this house.  But from personal experience I can say that it’s not unusual to prize a possession for its sentimental value even if its almost impossible to look at because of all the memories it evokes or captures. Plus this particular Friar Puck is pretty sinister, with his hood and little bell.

Ultimately I came away from the house with the impression of Leicester as a relatively ambiguous figure though as the curator on duty explained when I brought this up, he was really just a product of his time, he was nothing unusual in his treatment of debtors, employees or servants, some of whom were only allowed into the house in The Octagon room with its forbidding reliefs of farm implements on the ceiling. He might well be an art collector and lover but that didn’t stop him from having his personal portrait painted, overpainted and repainted as he gained honours and increased his rank and station. But there’s one display in the house which is scary. It’s of the security measures he had in place to deter trespassers. I’ll leave you with the accompanying notice (which I wrote out in long hand due to the no photography rule and I hope is accurate as I attempt to read my own handwriting in typing it up) and believe me when I tell you that the implements mentioned in block capitals are just as a horrific as they sound:

Whereas fish of various kinds have been latterly poached and stolen by evil disposed persons, from the waters in Tabley Park, and such evil practices are still continued. This is there for to give notice STRONG MAN TRAPS to be constantly set on the edges of the waters and on the shallows. And also for the protection of his GAME, which was latterly much poached and destroyed, to direct SPRING GUNS to be constantly set in his woods and (undecipherable) within and near the park; and he hereby offers a reward of Ten Guineas to be immediately to any person apprehending or giving information that such poachers or evil disposed persons, or any one of more of them may be brought to justice. – Tabley Park, July 3rd 1818.

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