I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas, that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet,’ is how Sir Philip Sidney referenced the family that stood as deep in the mistrust of Elizabeth I as he stood high in her favour.
To keep him from opportunities for mischief the Queen had Percy restricted to Petworth House rather than his estates in Northumberland, where his forebears had raised forces against the Crown. An internal exile, much employed by the Tsars and later Soviets and perhaps still by the Putin government, can be comfortable enough if you have money and allowed to retain it. If not, you may as well go to prison. Nonetheless, Percy was of the former kind, and therefore proceeded to make improvements to the house that dominates the small town of Petworth even more than perhaps Alnwick Castle does its namesake.
What we see today has only slight resemblance to the Tudor house. In particular, the exterior wall that once bounded the town can only be seen from inside at the foot of a staircase that leads into a corridor. There are now rooms in what had then been the open air. A courtyard has to be crossed to reach the kitchens and servants’ quarters.
In the splendid apartments, mostly open to the public whenever the house is, there is a collection of outstanding paintings and sculptures from many centuries and countries. Most were purchased long after the Tudor period, although the family portraits remain, now in the possession of the Wyndham family that succeeded Percy. The art on view is in fact part of Tate Britain, having been received in lieu of death duties. It is the object of most visits to Petworth House and all the better for being seen in context, along with a few kept in private apartments opened at specific times only.
In keeping with the eighteenth century Grand Tour tradition, the earliest works of art are sculptures from ancient Greece. Beside these are some Roman works as well as some Renaissance and later statues, many on Classical themes. Paintings from early Flemish and German periods share space with Titian and of course Turner, patronised by the third Lord Egremont (Wyndham). Lely, Van Dyke and Romney all contributed portraits of the family and other notable figures.
Beyond all these is the splendid landscape of the park, designed by Capability Brown, where deer can at times be seen. A woodland garden leads visitors from the car park to the house, unless of course they have entered from the town by an unprepossessing door adjacent to the parish church. This way in does at least have the benefit of instant access to the restaurant.
While splendid, Petworth is less monumental than Blenheim, and all the better for that. It demands close concentration, so a whole day is needed to begin to do it justice. We found it helpful to leave at lunch time, trusting to our lapel stickers for re-entry.
That said, National Trust membership offers even better value. If you are local, or in local accommodation, a second or third visit would do no harm.