Last week I went back to the Harley Gallery at the Welbeck Abbey estate in Nottinghamshire to get inspiration from the newly opened gallery which showcases part of the Portland Collection.
Welbeck Abbey is a country estate which has been owned by the Cavendish - Bentinck family (the Dukes of Portland) for over 400 years. Over the centuries they gathered a huge collection of paintings, silver and gold plate, sculptures, miniatures and other objects, named the Portland Collection. The collection has been kept private for a long time but now the newly built gallery lifts the veil off some of its treasures.
And what treasures they have. I had already had a glimpse of the collection when I visited Welbeck Abbey last summer (see this blog post). Shortly before that visit I was contacted by the director of the Harley Gallery (a contemporary gallery on the estate) with the wonderful suggestion of creating a series of new works inspired by the Portland Collection. Excited, I set off to visit the Welbeck estate and meet her. During the house tour (there are tours in the state rooms of the Abbey every year in August) I got a taster of what the art collection of the family contains. Further talks with the gallery staff and some literary research revealed to me what a treasure trove Welbeck is, not only because of its art collection, but also because of its rich cultural history. The family tree of the Cavendish - Bentinck's surely is one of the most interesting ones in the country.
A blog post about some of the 17th century characters from the Cavendish - Bentinck family can be found here
On the estate of Welbeck Abbey is the Harley Gallery, where exhibitions of contemporary art are held regularly, and where my exhibition is to be held. There is a shop with books and crafts, a cafe and a farm shop, as well as artists studios, and many more small artisan businesses.
In March 2016 the new building for the Portland Collection was opened. It houses part of the art collection built up by the family at Welbeck Abbey over the centuries. The new gallery is right next to the Harley Gallery and built within the old walls of William Cavendish Scott Bentinck's -the 5th Duke of Portland- 19th century riding house.
The new building is beautiful, modern and sleek. The entrance hall especially is extremely large, light and airy, as is the main gallery. They look stunning on a sunny and bright day.
However, the large gallery space adjacent to it is surprisingly dark and slightly less streamlined in its layout. Display cases are angled and dotted around, the ceiling comes down and rises up.
In this part of the gallery there is a hugely varied collection of landscape and portrait paintings, an important and extensive collection of miniatures (which are beautifully displayed and lit), furniture and manuscripts, a dazzling diamond tiara, silver and much more. Works range from the 16th to the 20th century. This is also where the Michelangelo drawing, so often mentioned in the press, can be found as well as my favourite; the rare portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (c.1520 – c.1590) (the father of the more famous Gheeraerts the younger).
The main gallery is bright, long and straight. It currently shows some beautiful paintings by Van Dyck, and some grand 18th century portraits of the Bentincks as well as some 18th century natural history paintings of animals. At the end of the long gallery there is a sparkling display of the family silver. In the bright and huge entrance hall we can find two of William Cavendish’s large horse paintings and a third is just on the left in the main gallery (they belong to a set of twelve, commissioned in the early 17th century). The building, designed by Hugh Broughton Architects has just been shortlisted for the regional RIBA 2016 Awards. I find the gallery stunningly beautiful in places.
The Harley Gallery have published a very nice guide to the Portland Collection. It has just the right measure of information and pictures without being too shallow and general, nor too in-depth to put people off. There is a lovely introduction by William Parente, the current owner of the Welbeck estate, describing the wonderful things the Harley Foundation has done over the years.
The current display in the gallery will change every three years (how on earth did they choose this first lot from the thousands of treasures? I don’t envy them, or maybe I do) so hopefully in a few decades we will have seen quite a bit of the collection. Many pieces have already been on loan to various exhibitions and museums and so have been ‘out’ without us being aware of where they came from. A famous example is the Elizabeth I ‘Coronation’ miniature which has been spotted at the National Portrait Gallery in the past.
Inspiration and Exhibition
In November an exhibition of new works by me ‘inspired by the Portland Collection’ will open at the Harley Gallery. I have been diving into the earliest period of Welbeck’s history as a home, in the 17th century, and its main figures William and Margaret Cavendish. Their life, their houses (Bolsover Castle and Welbeck Abbey (see my next blog post)), William’s grandmother Bess of Hardwick (William used to play at Hardwick Hall as a child), their exile in Antwerp during the civil war, their art collection, the architecture they favoured; it is all part of the bigger picture of the the 17th century. My research will inspire me to create new paintings which will link topics of then with topics of today.
One of the topics I came across over and over again while reading about the Cavendish family are the women. Bess of Hardwick, Margaret Cavendish, Henrietta Harley and Margaret Bentinck were all strong-minded, independent and intellectual women. In an age where women could not own anything, speak up or get a decent education, this is remarkable.
Another topic that interest me at the moment has come from one of the paintings in the collection (but not on display at the moment) which features Frances Howard, Countess of Essex / Somerset wearing an embroidered jacket, sitting at a table with a lace cutwork tablecloth over it. She is doing her hair and holding a mirror and brush. The painting is beautiful (although I haven’t seen the real thing yet, but I hope I might one day) but also interesting on many levels. Jacobean embroidery is beautiful and interesting. It features in many portraits and many pieces have been saved and are currently in museums all over the world. It was a fairly short-lived fashion however and I am intrigued by them.
The Portland Collection at the Harley Gallery is a stunning small gallery with historic art on display that can rival any national museum. The art and objects on display are of an enormous variety but all of wonderful quality and beauty. It is only a small part of the huge collection so I can’t wait for the future when the display is changed and we can see more. It is definitely worth a special trip to Robin Hood Country and made even more pleasant by the excellent cafe, the Harley Gallery’s contemporary exhibitions, and, in August only, the State Room Tours of Welbeck Abbey. And let’s not forget my own exhibition at this amazing place at the end of this year. I’ll do my best to make it good!
at The Harley Gallery
A60 Mansfield Road
Entry is free
Exhibition Sophie Ploeg
BP Travel Award Works & New Work Inspired by the Portland Collection
5 November 2016 - 8 January 2017
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