Thursday, January 6, 2011

Petworth, Sussex


Spoils of war

I travel often to Central Europe, where of course I find much, architecturally, to admire. One way in which the Czech Republic and its neighbours are different from Britain is the amount of dazzling – sometimes overwhelming – baroque architecture: churches dripping with putti and vast statues of bishops, brightly coloured plastered house fronts, that kind of thing. Our Czech friends insist that there is no ‘proper baroque’ in England, and it’s true, what passes for baroque architecture here – the work of Vanbrugh, for example, or Hawksmoor – is very different from the curious combination of grand scale and icing-sugar delicacy that typifies the baroque of Germany and Bohemia.

But every now and then one comes across something that makes one think a bit differently about what we have in England. These gate piers that mark one of the entrances of Petworth House are a case in point. They conjure up the idea of the spoils of war – an enemy’s armour displayed in triumph. But what extraordinary armour and what a bizarre way to display it. The helmet is supported on – what? Pevsner and Nairn, in their Buildings of England volume on Sussex, suggest a tree trunk. but what kind of tree has a trunk like this? A baroque tree, I suppose. As for the armour itself, from its lavish curlicues to its crested helmet, it’s amazing, the kit of the showiest show-off. The face on one of the shields is an especially ornate touch, as are the swirling crests, the feathered arrows, and the loops and tucks of fabric and tooled leather. Whoever made these piers was a virtuoso carver.

It comes as no surprise that this is the work of a sculptor from the European mainland. Apparently there are some drawings in the Petworth archives signed by ‘V Dost’ of Dijon that show military spoils like the ones on the gate piers. I can’t find out anything about Monsieur Dost, even his dates. I’d have thought the piers were early-18th century but the National Archives web site seems to think that the drawings are 19th-century. I remain delighted in my ignorance.

14 comments:

Vinogirl said...

Great post. Don't you think the 'trunk' resembles a (date) palm a little? Y'know, as they grow tall and the older fronds die/or are cut off, leaving behind abscission scars on the trunk that then exhibit a particularly unique pattern.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Viniogirl: Yes, I see what you mean about the date palm - the carving does look rather like the scarred trunk of this kind of tree. And thank you for teaching me a new word - abscission scars, I'll remember those!

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that the name "Dost" is more likely to be of Dutch/Flemish origin than French, but were not Flanders part of the Dukes of Burgundy's domains (of which Dijon would be a part), at least during the XVth century (until Charles the Bold of Burgundy was defeated by Louis XI of France)? Cf. Walter Scott's "Quentin Durward" which I read as a boy in a French translation...It is frustrating not to have a date for the piers. Vanbrugh himself had Dutch/Flemish ancestors, did he not? When was Petworth built? My ignorance is not worthy of your blog, which is always stimulating. Happy New Year!
François-Marc Chaballier

Philip Wilkinson said...

François-Marc: Yes, Dost does sound like a Flemish name (as is Vanbrugh, which contemporaries sometimes wrote as two words, 'Van Brugh' and variants thereon), and I'd guess that his family came to Dijon back in the days when Burgundy and Flanders were linked politically. Petworth is basically a late-17th century house, but its design seems to be more influenced by the generation of Wren than of Vanbrugh. So I'd put the gate piers slightly later than the main house, but I'm only guessing.

bazza said...

I am familiar with Petworth through the work of JMW Turner who made some fine views of and in the house. However I have never been there; perhaps it's time I did! I understand there are other fine interior carvings as well as this intriguing piece.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Yes, the art collection is the most interesting thing about the house, really. One of the owners was a generous patron of the arts, and Turner was a major beneficiary of this patronage. The oil sketches he did of Petworth interiors are like nothing else he did, as far as I know.

historo said...

The trophy sculpture looks to my layman eye on the borderline between late north European Renaissance and Baroque. It is most probably inspired from representations of Roman battlefield trophies seen on coins or sculptures (I studied Trajan's conquest of Dacia in Roman visual arts and these trophies abound on his monuments and coins related to that event). The tree trunk on which the war spoils were displayed in Roman representations is itself a casualty of the battle- scorched and damaged by fire and scrum and that is why it appears in that strange, unnatural state seen in this wonderful example from Petworth. Those e trophies displayed on the gate piers are probably there to tell the visitor that the founder of the house or some other ancestor has won important battles or is a war hero...
Thanks for opening the 'gates' of imagination by bringing those details to our attention.
Valentin

Philip Wilkinson said...

Valentin: Yes, an allusion to a Roman triumph does spring to mind - I'd not thought about the tree trunks being battle-scarred, which is a good point. I'd hoped that this post would throw up some interesting suggestions, and so it is proving!

Wartime Housewife said...

In the first picture, the helmet is clearly mounted on a stalk of sprouts. The Roman army was famed for its insistence on 5-a-day and you will find several discreet monuments around the country displaying and exemplifying their love of brassicas.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Oh, very good, Wartime Housewife. That'll be curly kale in the crest of the helmet, then?

Kate said...

I found you from To Discover Ice. I love your site. I’m going to poke around a little bit, but don’t worry I’ll put everything back where I found it!!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Kate. Feel free to poke around - and if you have any comments, leave them where I can find them!

Wartime Housewife said...

Yes.

Anonymous said...

Am I not the only one seeing visions of HP Lovecraft in this? Two columns of flesh wearing Roman uniforms. I realise that these pre-date HPL by some time, but still it's odd. I grew up in Petworth and still have friends and family there. lovely part of the country.