Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Petworth, Sussex

Petworth is a fascinating West Sussex town, a tight knot of narrow streets and tile-hung buildings set around a market place, hard by the entrance to the local mansion, Petworth House. The solid Classical Town Hall was one of the gifts of the house’s owner, the third Earl of Egremont, to the town. It was built in 1793 and isn’t especially remarkable until you come across this extraordinary bust in its oval niche on the North side.

The bust is a bit of a mystery. It depicts King William III and, from its subject and style, must date from much earlier than the Town Hall itself. The diaphanous cloth, flowing wig, and sideways turn of the head mark this sculpture as baroque, the rich, ornate, and decorative artistic style in vogue during William’s reign (1689–1702). Look at that drapery – it’s stone spun almost as fine as silk and seems to have very little means of support. The artist who carved this was a virtuoso with the chisel.

No one knows who made this bust of England’s Dutch king but its preservation in the town probably owes something to Egremont, who was famous for many things, including his many mistresses (he was known as ‘my lord seraglio’), his agricultural innovations, his philanthropy, and, above all, for his large art collection and patronage of many artists. British art owes Egremont a lot, most notably for supporting the painter Turner. The survival of this arresting piece of public art may well be something else to thank him for.

1 comment:

Peter Ashley said...

I'm amazed that Jeff Koons hasn't had it off the wall, chromium plated it and tried to get the result into the RA Summer Exhibition.