16 June 2015

Best exhibitions in an C18th country mansion: Compton Verney

Compton Verney is a Warwickshire manor that dates back to the C11th Domesday Book. In 1435, it was acquir­ed by Richard Verney (1435-1490) with the cooperation of his broth­er, the Dean of Lichfield and Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. I haven’t seen an image of the Compton Verney mansion as it appeared in Tudor times, but it must have been splendid. Being so close to Stratford-upon-Avon might have added to the mansion’s glamour.

In 1711 a later baron George Verney, decided to rebuild the house in classical style. This baron's house may have been influenced by Blenheim Palace; Britain Express suggests that Sir John Vanbrugh, architect of Blenheim, was directly influential in Compton Verney.

 The new house was set in grand formal gardens in Baroque style. But when John Verney, the 14th Baron, came to the title, he called in Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728–1792) to re-build the house (yet again) in the 1760s. Robert Adam apparently swept away the courtyard house in favour of a U-shaped design with a grand class­ical porticoed entrance, as shown in the photo.

U-shaped Compton Verney
with porticoed entrance
designed by Robert Adam

In 1769 landscape designer Capability Brown (1716–1783) was invited to remodel Compton Verney's 120 acres of grounds. He demolished the medieval chapel beside the lake and stripped the estate of its formal gardens, planting thousands of oak trees to augment his sweeping vistas and the Palladian bridges.

Behind the house is Compton Verney chapel, re-built by Capability Brown in 1776 in the neo-classical style. There were still medieval and brasses, fit decoration for a chapel centred around a large altar tomb from the 1630 era of Richard and Margaret Verney.

How perfect that the first-ever exhibition about landscape designer Capability Brown was set in Compton Verney’s own Capability Brown landscape in 2011. Perhaps that exhibition inspired the Capability Brown Festival which will be held in 2016 to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth, celebrating his life, works and landscapes.

 family chapel, 
rebuilt by Capability Brown

 landscaped gardens and bridge,
 designed by Capability Brown

Post WW2, Compton Verney was derelict and threatened with destruct­ion but it was not purchased by the Compton Verney House Trust until 1993. In Phase I of the renovation programme, the exterior of the building was restored to its Tudor condition and the rooms inside were somewhat modernised. In Phase II a new education centre and offices were created in the restored historic out-buildings, linked to the mansion by an underground tunnel. Not only has this precious historical man­sion been taken off the English Heritage’s Building-at-Risk regist­er; it is now a functioning arts centre. I haven’t seen it myself, so I am very grateful to Britain Express.

Within Compton Verney’s Robert Adam Hall Gallery there are 6 permanent exhibits. These are: 1] Medieval Germanic art 1450-1650; 2] Golden age of Neapolitan art 1600-1800; 3] Chinese bronzes; 4] British portraits from the Tudor period on; 5] British folk art and 5] textiles. In addition to the permanent exhibits, Compton Verney hosts a range of temporary art exhibitions and an ongoing programme of classes and workshops.

Art gallery

For me, the two most important temporary exhibitions in 2015 are:
1. Canaletto: Celebrating Britain, March 2015-June 2015. Once the British economy was booming and the Jacobite threat had evaporated, the Georgian Revol­ution created a new, more confident generation that was increasingly assured by Britain’s status as a major world power. It was prepared to be less regimented by Palladian rules and more eclectic in its architectural patronage.

During his nine-year stay in Britain (1746-55), Canaletto documented traditional views and landmarks, and also the latest ach­iev­e­ments in architecture and engineering. The depictions of these new building projects celebrated Britain’s new-found wealth and assurance. The Canaletto: Celebrating Britain exhibition examined the architecture of Baroque masters such as Wren (St Paul’s and St Mary’s Warwick) and Hawksmoor (Westminster Abbey’s west towers). The Gothic revival marked Britain out as the new Venice, which was the real subject of Canaletto’s great canvases on display in this exhibition. I recommend the publication Celebrating Britain: Canaletto, Hogarth and Patriotism.

2. The Arts and Crafts House: Then and Now June 2015 - Sep 2015. This exhibition traces the origins and legacy of the historic Arts & Crafts Movement and its fascination with the creation of the home. Through the work and ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, the exhibition will explore how new generations of designers created new ways of living and working eg a] the link between house and garden, using nature as the major inspiration. The exhibition will also feature work by CR Ashbee, Sidney and Ernest Barnsley, MH Baillie Scott, Ernest Gimson, Gertrude Jekyll, Edwin Lutyens, May Morris, CFA Voysey and Philip Webb.


Andrew said...

Many years ago I read quite a bit about Brown. I thought his style with gardens was great. I did not know he also designed buildings. I would love to see the 2015 festival.

We Travel said...

All our Arts and Crafts students should go to the exhibition as a group. The designers you mentioned are everybody's favourites.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Finally a happy ending for a historic house and grounds. I too am a big fan of Capability Brown and his new way of seeing the English landscape, but now that you told us the history of Compton Verney, I do wish he had seen his way clear to keeping that medieval chapel!

Hels said...


Capability Brown's wealthy families wanted him to design the idealised landscapes found in the 17th century Italian landscape paintings of Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, and in the 18th century gardens of William Kent. Brown was a brilliant landscape designer but not an architect.

I believe the Capability Brown Festival next year will be huge! Blenheim Palace is going to be a centre of the celebrations since Brown excelled himself there for the famous Duke of Marlborough. I would love to be there!

Hels said...

We Travel

Imagine seeing an exhibition of CR Ashbee, MH Baillie Scott, Ernest Gimson, CFA Voysey and Philip Webb etc *sigh*. A London friend is going to Compton Verney on my behalf and will take photos, buy a catalogue etc, but it is not the same :(

I can only travel to the northern hemisphere from mid June to the end of July in any given year so I would like exhibition organisers to take this into consideration. Plus Australians really need 6 months notice, in order to buy a plane ticket.

Hels said...


amongst many other things, William Kent was a serious creator of the English landscape garden, a natural style that utterly changed the design of large estates. Kent's Arcadian temples and grottoes were the launching pad for his most important pupil, Capability Brown, a young man who carried the Palladian torch onwards.

Finally a happy ending for a historic house and grounds.... amen to that, brother!!

Barnes&Noble said...

Celebrating Britain: Canaletto, Hogarth and Patriotism

Canaletto's time in Mid-Georgian Britain has received much scholarly attention in the past. But this book places his work in a broader political and social context, linking his paintings and drawings with a growing sense of assurance and mission which the British nation was beginning to display - perhaps best represented by the works of William Hogarth.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Compton Verney is a lovely house that has been sensitively restored and adapted to its function as a centre for the visual arts . The house has been extended, with new galleries added at the back, in an uncompromising modern style that nevertheless works superbly well with the 18th-century building. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the Arts and Crafts House exhibition.

Hels said...

Barnes and Noble

what an interesting combination: Canaletto (1697-1768) and Hogarth (1697-1764) who were born in exactly the same year and lived the same long lives. I had not thought of Canaletto tapping into the British nation's growing sense of mission.

Hels said...

many thanks.
I knew you were a proper Arts and Crafts man when you wrote about the Arts and Crafts church in Herefordshire. Well done for identifying the designs of W.R Lethaby and well done for noting his pioneering modern design elements.