Petworth House, the grand 17th century home of the Earl of Egremont, presents a majestic front to the world. In reality, the architectural history of this West Sussex home is not straightforward.
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The 6th Duke of Somerset, Charles Seymour, is responsible for the building program that turned the 14th century medieval manor into a masterpiece of the Baroque. Although not destined to inherit the title, he unexpectedly succeeded to the dukedom when his older brother, the 5th Duke, was murdered in Italy by the husband of a lady he had offended. Charles married Elizabeth, of the famous Percy family of Northumberland, and heiress to the family fortune and estates. These included the Petworth property.
The architect of the medieval Percy home is unknown, but its construction was probably ordered by Henry, Lord Percy of Alnwick. Traces of the original medieval house remain today in the ‘Chapel Court’ where the outline of an outer wall is seen, and, upstairs, where a staircase is hidden behind panelling. The chapel itself is the most complete surviving medieval interior.
When Elizabeth came of age in 1688, the 6th Duke used her inheritance monies to transform Petworth into today’s grand mansion, adding its 320-foot front façade and the state apartments. Obsessed with his sense of self-importance, the Duke earned for himself the title “Proud Duke”. It is said he would not allow his own daughters to sit in his presence, and each morning he breakfasted in full ceremonial dress.
He had his crest and his heraldic supporters, a bull and a unicorn, placed on the chimneypieces. The hall of state, completed in 1692 as the main entrance to the house, was paved with black and white Purbeck marble. The Duke built the high walls, 14 miles in circumference, that surround the property to keep his place private from the ‘common people’. Whenever he left the estate, runners would proceed him, clearing the peasants out of his way.
The Duke remodeled the medieval chapel about 1684 and hid the wooden roof structure, consisting of 20 arch-braced trusses, with an elaborate barrel plaster ceiling. Then he sliced off part of the original chapel roof to add a library on the floor above. A marble floor, woodwork, a stall and communion rail were added to the chapel.
Completed around 1690, the Carved Room displays beautifully detailed and intricate woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons—master woodcarver to the crown from the time of Charles II to George I—and his assistant, John Selden. In particular, the limewood carving of musical instruments by Gibbons is outstanding. Horace Walpole said of Gibbon’s work at Petworth that it was ‘the most superb monument of his skill’.
In 1714, a fire at Petworth triggered the building of the Grand Staircase with its murals painted by Louis Laguerre. Especially notable is the ceiling telling the mythological story of Prometheus and Pandora. After the “Proud Duke” died in 1748 and his son followed in 1750, the titles and estates were divided; his son-in-law became Duke of Northumberland and his nephew, Charles Wyndham (1710-1763), inherited Petworth and the title 2nd Earl of Egremont.
Charles Wyndham commissioned Capability Brown to design and landscape the deer park. The park, one of Brown’s first commissions as an independent designer, consists of 700 acres of grassland and trees. Brown removed the formal garden and fishponds of the 1690’s and relocated 64,000 tons of soil, creating a serpentine lake. He bordered the lake with poplars, birches and willows to make the ‘natural’ view pleasing. A 1987 hurricane devastated the park, and 35,000 trees were planted to replace the losses. Gracing the 30 acres of gardens and pleasure grounds around the home are seasonal shrubs and bulbs that include lilies, primroses, and azaleas. A Doric temple and Ionic rotunda add interest in the grounds.
The 2nd Earl also added to Petworth’s collection of paintings and antique statuary and built the North Gallery to house them. In 1750, he commissioned the Petworth State Bed, considered an English Rococo masterpiece.
George O’Brian Wyndham (1751-1837), the 3rd Earl of Egremont, and later, Lord Leconfield, was a patron of the arts and a horse breeder. J. M. Turner, the watercolourist, was a frequent visitor, using the library above the medieval chapel as his studio. The collection of Turner’s works, many of Petworth, is the largest outside the Tate Gallery. Chippendale, giltwood, Louis XVI furniture, Venetian chairs, and Meissin and Chelsea porcelain are part of the legacies that adorn the home. There is a collection of needlework, some attributed to Lady Jane Grey.
Wyndham, like the 6th Duke, remodelled parts of the house. He added a stone terrace and lengthened the ground-floor windows to access it, after guests, jumping from the higher sills across an open area, had 'some awkward accidents'. He created what is known as the Square Dining Room about 1795, later panelling the walls and enlarging the windows. He doubled the size of the Carved Room about the same time, and brought carvings from other rooms in the house to enhance the enlarged room. The Earl appropriately commissioned a portrait of Gibbons for the room.
In the late 1820’s, Wyndham designed the Napoleon room to honour Napoleon and Wellington. Paintings depicting the battles of Vittoria and Waterloo and a bust of the Duke of Wellington reflect the room’s theme. The original wallpaper and velvet curtains by William Morris still hang in the dressing room of the Earl’s wife. The Belzamine (a type of fabric that once decorated the room) bedroom features a 1770 Chippendale bed with original velvet hangings. In 1827, work was completed on a central corridor and square bay to create a museum-like atmosphere for the growing collection of the 3rd Earl’s art.
The last major remodelling of Petworth took place in 1869-72 when the 2nd Lord Leconfield hired Anthony Salvin to add a porte-cochere, build a new entrance hall, and redo part of the southeast wing. He replaced the 3rd Earl's conservatory with a stone screen and gateway that bisects the courtyard. At the north end of the courtyard, a conservatory, a tennis court and a passage that connected the North Gallery to the Servants' Block were removed.
The servant’s quarters, used until 1947, give a wonderful picture of life “downstairs” in a stately home. The fittings cover more than 200 years of change, and kitchen utensils of all kinds are part of the fascination. Lovers of copper will be entranced with the 1000 pieces displayed. The Chef, who was a valued member of the staff, had his own sitting room.
The archives of Petworth House go back as far as Elizabethan times and provide an invaluable source of information on the running of a large household. There is a large collection of books, manuscripts, bills, and maps situated in two of the rooms in the Servants' Block. A comment from Petworth’s archive made during a visit in the 3rd Earl’s time was, ‘like a great Inn, where there was nothing to pay, but where guests were not very attentively served’. Apparently there were plenty of servants, but they did as they pleased.
In 1947 the third Lord Leconfield handed the house and park to the National Trust. From the splendid state rooms and galleries to the bedrooms upstairs, the 6th Duke’s opulent mansion and its treasures are now open to the ‘common folk’ and enjoyed by all.
Petworth village in West Sussex, on the A272 from Billinghurst, A283 from Milford and Pulborough, A285 from Chichester
House: open April-end Oct, Sat-Wed, Fridays in July and Aug, 1:00-5:30pm (last admission 5pm).
Extra Rooms open on weekdays: White & Gold Room and Library on Mon (not Bank Holidays); three first floor bedrooms on Tue and Wed
Free entry for National Trust Members
Shop and Restaurant
Pleasure Grounds: open 27th March to 1st Nov, 2:00-6:00pm (opens at 11:00am in Aug)
Deer Park: open daily, 8:00am till dusk; closed 25th-27th June
Tel. 01798 342207