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The Portrait Collection at Ham House

Chelcey Berryhill - Thursday May 05, 2016 8:00

The University of Oxford and the National Trust are working together to create experiences which teach, move and inspire. University of Oxford historian and Royal Oak Lecturer Dr Oliver Cox recently introduced this partnership and we’re proud to share his student’s research on AngloFiles magazine. This week, discover the story behind the National Trust Ham House’s portrait collection. 

Ham House, Surrey. Photo: Marina N.

Ham House, Surrey. Photo: Marina N.


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Like many grand houses in England, Ham House in the suburbs of London, has an impressive portrait collection that documents the Tollemache family’s personal, political and royal relationships. Alongside family portraits such as Peter Lely’s sumptuous representations of Elizabeth Lauderdale (1626-1698), grandiose portraits of their friends and allies, including King Charles II, populate the walls, providing us with a visual scrapbook of moments of Ham’s history. Bridging the gap between the past and the present, these portraits bring us ever closer to the people that made the house what it is today.

Recently, I was part of a series of ‘Story Intervention’ workshops at Ham House, with a team of Oxford University researchers and collections staff from the National Trust. Our aim was to think about ways of reinterpreting the ‘Museum’ and ‘Discovery’ rooms, the former of which had displayed items from the collection in museum cabinets installed by the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1970s. The final display included textiles from the collection, which were removed for conservation treatment, providing the perfect opportunity to re-think the space and highlight different objects and periods from Ham’s history. After several stimulating conversations about the kinds of stories we could tell about history of the house and its occupants, we began the second phase of our work at the property and decided to put together a series of ‘object in focus’ displays, which would highlight various pieces from the collection.

Great Hall, Ham House. Photo: alh1

Great Hall, Ham House. Photo: alh1

Bearing in mind my own doctoral research into posthumous portraiture, I have chosen to research Richard Cosway’s portrait of Maria Caroline Manners, Lady Duff (1775-1805) recently acquired by the National Trust. Second daughter of Louisa Tollemache, 7th Countess of Dysart, Maria Caroline died prematurely at only thirty years of age. This portrait, commissioned by her husband following her premature death, is an incredibly touching work, sensitively rendered in soft pencil with light touches of watercolour. It depicts the young woman walking across an illusionistic globe, looking out at the viewer with tenderness. A cherub tugs at her dress and points upwards, and another, clasps her right hand encouraging her to ascend to heaven. Dressed in white with a fair complexion, she epitomises the ideal of virtuous beauty in the late Georgian era. Though commissioned by her husband in memoriam, this was not, however, a portrait purely for private consumption. The renowned publisher Rudolph Ackermann, published prints of this work in 1807 to commemorate this ‘remarkable occurrence’ of 1805.

© National Trust Images/John Hammond.

© National Trust Images/John Hammond.

As I have been researching this work, I’ve also been considering how it relates to other portraits at Ham, and how forging these connections can help us to reach a greater depth of understanding about the collection as a whole. Throughout the house, portraits tie together mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends providing the modern day viewer with a visual counterpart to Ham’s rich history; it is a storehouse of memories and connections. When visitors first enter the house, they are greeted by a portrait of Maria Caroline’s mother, Louisa Manners, 7th Countess of Dysart (1745-1840) by John Hoppner after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Beyond that, there is a portrait of Charlotte Walpole (1738-1789), her uncle’s wife, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Walk upstairs and you will see further family members including a double portrait of John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale (1616-1682) and Elizabeth Murray, 2nd Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale (1626-1698), Maria Caroline’s great great grandparents. In almost every room, members of Maria Caroline’s ancestors and descendants decorate the walls that were intended to remind the visitor of the great importance of familial bonds.

Ham House is a rare treasure-trove of 17th century paintings, furniture, textiles and decorative art objects but it is also home to some unique and fascinating works from other periods in its history. Maria Caroline’s posthumous portrait is one such example and putting it on display will highlight the role of portraiture as a site of remembrance, whilst connecting this once cherished woman to the rest of her family represented on the walls of Ham.

Emily Knight is a DPhil Candidate in History of Art at the University of Oxford. Her thesis considers the relationship between portraiture and death in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries in Britain.

Thank you to the students of the University of Oxford for sharing your research and perspective on Ham House’s portrait collection. Plan to visit Ham House this summer? Don’t forget to pack your Royal Oak membership card.

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