Grand Estates and Country Houses: Treasures of the Aristocracy

The North Gallery at Petworth House showing off the collection of paintings, sculptures, and objects The North Gallery at Petworth House showing off the collection of paintings, sculptures, and objects (Wikimedia Commons).

Overflowing with riches of cultural and artistic significance, the grand estates and country houses of the aristocracy are a treasure trove of heritage. From sprawling gardens to ornate interiors, these architecturally impressive mansions reflect the wealth, taste, and influence of the families who owned them. Offering an insight into history, these estates are a portal to the past, but it’s the treasures housed within that provoke the greatest interest.

Across Britain, Europe, and the United States, the estates and country houses of the aristocracy are grand displays of opulence and wealth that not only glitter on the outside, but shine with art and treasures inside. Set in rolling countryside, these palatial houses serve as luxurious retreats for the seriously wealthy, where country pursuits can be enjoyed and friends entertained on an impressive scale.

The 18th century British and European style of architecture endured in the United States in the following centuries, as both often became homes to vast art and antiques collections. Reflecting the opulence of people like the Vanderbilt family, William Randolph Hearst, and the Dukes of Marlborough, collections of visually arresting objects and often maximalist design shine like jewels in the grandeur of their setting.

Resplendent rooms would likely each have their own distinct identity, with fortunes splashed by landed gentry keen to enjoy the trappings of wealth, while displaying their authority and prestige. And within these rooms lay a fascinating breadth of arts and treasures.

An English Treasure Trove

Conjure an image of a great country estate and Downton Abbey might well spring to mind. The BBC period drama centring around the Earl of Grantham and his family was filmed at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England. Built in 1679 and renovated in the 1840s, its park was designed by Capability Brown and is a place of great English cultural significance. It was also the place where the 4th Earl of the castle drafted the British North America Act of 1867, alongside the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald.

It also houses a significant art collection, which is on display in many scenes from Downton Abbey. From the 17th century leather wall coverings made in Córdoba, Spain decorating the saloon to the circa-1819 marble bust of the second Earl of Carnarvon by the Italian sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini in the entrance hall, and the painting Mrs. Musters as Hebe (1785) by Sir Joshua Reynolds decorating the central staircase, Highclere Castle is bursting with treasures. The art gallery continues in the formal dining room with 17th- and 18th-century oil paintings hung salon-style, while Anthony van Dyck’s monumental equestrian portrait of Charles I (circa 1635) hangs in the dining room, and the library is home to a Jacob Frères chair-and-desk once owned by Napoléon.

It’s far from the only grand British estate to boast an impressive collection of art and treasures. Petworth House has over 9,000 items on display, including major works from Titian, van Dyck, Reynolds and William Blake. Inside the Anthony Salvin-designed house is the oldest English terrestrial globe in existence, alongside fine works of art and collections of silver and ceramics.

A late 17th-century country estate in West Sussex, England, Petworth House is famous for its extensive art collection gathered by George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, which contains many pieces by his friend, J. M. W. Turner. Alongside Turner’s two paintings of Petworth Park, the house’s art collection contains intricate wood-carvings by Grinling Gibbons, William Blake’s A Vision of the Last Judgement, portraits by  Anthony van Dyck, as well as a fine collection of ceramics, an 18th century Carrara-marble statue of Roman Emperor Nero, and the first English terrestrial globe from 1592.

But, with over 300 years of history and heritage, it may be Blenheim Palace that’s the greatest host of fine artworks, tapestries, ornaments, and artefacts of great historical significance. The 18th century UNESCO World Heritage Site in Oxfordshire, England, is the only non-royal house in England to hold the title of palace. Built in the English Baroque style, the palace is also notable as the birthplace and ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill.

A regency mahogany hall stool circa 1810.

A regency mahogany hall stool circa 1810. Sold for £2,000 500 via Christie’s (September 2019).

Hanging in the Red Drawing Room is a John Singer Sargent portrait of the 9th Duke and Duchess and their sons, while the Adoration of Magi by Carlo Dolci, one of the most famous Florentine artists in the 17th century, hangs in the China Ante Room. And of course, Winston Churchill’s presence is still felt through his Woodward & Sons shotguns, his diamond-encrusted cigar box, as well as the Boulle Marquetry writing table, circa 1700, by Pierre Golle.

Organizations such as Historic England, English Heritage, and the National Trust play vital roles in preserving and showcasing the rich heritage of these historic estates and country houses. Through conservation efforts, heritage tours, and educational programs, these organizations ensure that future generations can appreciate and learn from the cultural significance of these magnificent properties.

American Icons: Treasures of a New World

Grand country houses and expertly manicured estates can be found across the United States, too. The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island was built between 1893 and 1895 as a summer residence for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose immense wealth thrust his family to prominence during the Gilded Age. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, The Breakers is among the most visited attractions in Rhode Island, with approximately 450,000 visitors annually.

The house has a European Renaissance Revival edge to its style, which is evident in the Morning Room, which features wall panels made from pure platinum and was entirely built by artisans in France before being shipped across the Atlantic and assembled on-site. Designed by influential architect, Richard Morris Hunt, the library and music room at The Breakers are lined with coffered ceilings, while the extravagance and opulence continues in the dining room with 12 freestanding rose alabaster Corinthian columns supporting a colossal carved and gilt cornice.

In fact, the Vanderbilts are responsible for more than one grand country estate, and none are grander than châteauesque-style mansion, Biltmore, North Carolina. America’s largest privately-owned house, the colossal Gilded Age mansion was built for George Washington Vanderbilt II in the late 19th century, and was modelled on the Château de Blois in the Loire Valley, France.

Having travelled through Europe and Asia, Vanderbilt collected eye-catching and renowned antiques and paintings, transforming his already impressive country home into a treasure trove of art. Alongside three 16th-century tapestries representing The Triumph of Virtue Over Vice, the house also hosts family portraits by John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, and James Whistler on the first floor, while on the second floor more large-scale masterpieces are on display, including two John Singer Sargent portraits of Biltmore’s architect, Richard Morris Hunt, and landscaper, Frederick Law Olmsted, which were both commissioned by Vanderbilt.

Of course, the Vanderbilts weren’t the only ones building castles with a European influence at the start of the 20th century. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher designed the Hearst Castle estate in California in 1919, with the aid of renowned architect, Julia Morgan. More than another grand castle belonging to another socialite, Hearst Castle was, for a time, the centre of the world for glitzy social gatherings. Hearst Castle reached its fabulous peak in the Roaring Twenties when it welcomed many Hollywood stars of the period, from Charlie Chaplin to Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, and Clark Gable, as well as Calvin Coolidge and Winston Churchill, while other notables included Charles Lindbergh, P. G. Wodehouse and Bernard Shaw.

If this lifestyle sounds familiar then you’re probably thinking of the 1941 film Citizen Kane, which Hearst fought to suppress. The film’s protagonist, Charles Foster Kane’s palace Xanadu is said to contain “paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace – a collection of everything so big it can never be cataloged or appraised; enough for ten museums; the loot of the world”. This mirrored Hearst’s insatiable hunger for collecting, who imported an intricate Spanish ceiling that dates back to the early 1400s for his gothic study. His deconstruction and removal of the 14th century Bradenstoke Priory in England led to opposition from Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, but it failed to deter him.

He amassed art and antiques of high quality, with his collection of ancient Greek vases among the world’s largest. History is everywhere at Hearst Castle, including on the South Esplanade, where a stone figure of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet stands and dates from approximately 1550 to 1189 BC. In the courtyard of Casa del Monte is one of a total of nine Roman sarcophagi (circa 230 AD) collected by Hearst, while a cast of a stone original of Apollo and Daphne by Bernini, dating from around 1617, stands in the Doge’s suite.

The art collection includes a portrait of Alvisius Vendramin by Tintoretto in the Doge’s suite, Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s portraits of Maximilian I of Mexico and his empress Carlota, and two portraits of Napoléon by Jean-Léon Gérôme. The oldest painting in the collection is a Madonna and Child from the school of Duccio di Buoninsegna, which is from the early 14th century. The collection has largely remained intact, although around 65 vases are now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And on occasion, some items do emerge from private collections, and sometimes by unusual routes.

Recently Unearthed

A pair of Italian or Central European Grained, Ebonised, Bronzed and Parcel-gilt Overmantels. Second quarter 19th century.

A pair of Italian or Central European Grained, Ebonised, Bronzed and Parcel-gilt Overmantels. Second quarter 19th century. Sold for £1,500 via Christie’s (September 2019).

A mansion in Saint Petersburg, Russia was the location for a surprise haul of thousands of pieces of silver. Stashed for a century behind a wall by a Russian aristocratic family hiding it from the Bolsheviks, builders accidentally unearthed more than 2,000 items of silver produced by Russia’s finest jewellers and valued at more than $2 million. The treasure included a tea set, ornamental figures, trays and cutlery, which all belonged to one of the country’s richest aristocratic families, the Narshykins, who fled following the 1917 Revolution.

Discoveries like this are so rare that they’re usually confined to folklore. It’s very rare to discover complete collections of such enormous artistic value, in particular the tea set, which was produced by the jewellers of the Russian royal court. Locked in a secret room in packing cases, the items were able to retain their original pristine condition. And while it’s uncommon to find such complete collections, items of both historical significance and great artistic merit do appear at auction in specialist collections.

At Auction

A George III silver tea-urn mark of Philip Rundell.

A George III silver tea-urn mark of Philip Rundell. Sold for £15,000 via Christie’s (September 2019).

Items with aristocratic heritage or association always fascinate at auction. Historical artifacts, paintings, jewelry, furniture, and ornaments of noble families attract a range of people, from collectors to historians, as well as those lured by the prospect of owning a piece of history.

Offering an insight into the lavish lifestyles and cultural contributions of the aristocracy over the years, specialist auctions allow bidders to live like a king and enjoy objects and paintings from some of the great artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Heirlooms, artworks, and antiques of rich provenance, as previously hidden treasures swap palaces for new homes.

Portrait of a bearded gentleman circa 1540.

Portrait of a bearded gentleman circa 1540. Sold for £13,125 via Sotheby’s (January 2017).

Items like a 16th century portrait of a bearded gentleman owned by the first Marquis of Dalhousie (1812-60), which once hung in Colstoun House, Haddington sold for £13,125 at Sotheby’s Of Royal and Noble Descent in 2017 auction, surpassing its £4,000 to £6,000 estimate. Similarly, a Flemish tapestry circa 1535 – 1540 once owned by the 8th Duke of Berwick and 15th Duke of Alba de Tormes, Madrid, Spain also attracted great interest at the same auction, where it sold for £27,500.

Items of regal silverware can also be found at the right auction. Items like a George III silver tea-urn bearing the mark of Philip Rundell (an English jeweller known for his association with royalty) that belonged to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, which sold at Christie’s, London in 1938 for £43 to Mrs Rainey. It made a little more than that when it once again went under the hammer at Christie’s Visions of Collecting: Royal and Aristocratic auction in 2019.

It’s perhaps a recent auction of An Opulent Aesthetic: An Important Private Collection from an English Country House at Christie’s that best showcases the treasures of aristocracy. Furniture, ornaments, and paintings sit side by side in a gallery rich in heritage. Sales start in the low hundreds of dollars, proving that whatever the size of your own manor, you can still own pieces of aristocratic elegance and grandeur, even if their new surroundings don’t quite match the opulence of their history.

Sources: National Trust – 10 Unique Houses to Visit | National Trust – Petworth | Christie’s | Wikipedia – Highclere | Architectural Digest | New Yorker | | Sotheby’s | | | | Wikipedia – Biltmore Estate | Wikipedia – Hearst Castle | Wikipedia – The Breakers | Wikipedia – Vanderbilt Family | Wikipedia – Petworth House