Petworth Explorations in Paint - Image National Trust Images Sue Rhodes

Explorations in Paint exhibition at Petworth House & Gardens

Stunning country home compliments permanent art collection with invigorating new exhibition

The National Trust’s Petworth House and the Royal Academy of Art have unveiled Explorations in Paint. An inspiring new exhibition to launch a year-long celebration of colour.

The paintings on permanent display at Petworth were made by some of the most innovative artists of their day. They pushed the boundaries of artistic norms and explored the myriad possibilities of paint. These include a number of important works by The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds. “He has always been known for his inventive use of different materials at his Studio Experiments show,” says curator, Dr Lois Oliver. The paintings in the exhibition look very different, with their bold abstracted forms. But the spirit of artistic exploration is consistent with the works on display in the house.” 

Reynolds was born 300 years ago this year, so Explorations in Paint is part of celebrations across the National Trust. This exhibition will also be revealing the fascinating stories behind two of his paintings which have recently been conserved. Petworth House has always retained strong links to the Royal Academy and holds many works of art by past Royal Academicians. Alongside pieces by Reynolds, there’s also fine examples from J.M.W. Turner, and Angelica Kauffman. 

Image – Winter Light, Lammermoor by Barbara Rae, R.A. ©Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer John Hammond

“When we began planning Petworth’s 2023 ‘Colour’ programme we were keen to focus on the 300th anniversary of Reynolds’s birth as the artist has always been known for his experimental approach to colour. Reynolds was a founder member of the Royal Academy and its first president. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the RA and work with them to create a show that celebrated Reynolds’s legacy through the work of recent and current Royal Academicians.”

Set amongst the glorious West Sussex landscape, Petworth House is a late 17th-century Grade I listed country house

It became renowned for a wide-ranging art collection, along with some extraordinary landscaping carried out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. When the property and its priceless art collection was gifted to the National Trust, these were opened up to the public. The collections at Petworth have changed and developed throughout its history. Contemporary art has continued to be an important part of that story.

The 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837) was passionate about contemporary art. The North Gallery at Petworth is the legacy of his collecting. “We hope that the exhibition will appeal to new audiences who may not have visited Petworth before. Who may be encouraged to visit Petworth because of Explorations in Paint and will then discover the vast collection of art here at Petworth.” The ambition is to also present their frequent visitors with something a little different. This exhibition builds on the collection of past Royal Academicians in the house, by giving the opportunity to see recent and current members.  

The exhibition brings together nine artworks by current and recent Royal Academicians. It explores the material possibilities of paint and its expressive potential

These are practising artists elected by their peers in recognition of their work, to lead the Royal Academy. The show includes works not previously lent by the institution, and a new work that has never been exhibited by Rebecca Salter PRA, the Academy’s first female President.

Image – Studio Experiments in Colour and Media by Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A. ©Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer Prudence Cuming Associ

Thematically, the event has been inspired by Reynolds’ own Studio Experiments canvases, one of which is being shown. This perfectly demonstrates his fascination with the physical properties of paint, and often experimented with different mixtures in his studio. Explorations in Paint has been curated for the National Trust by Dr Oliver and the Royal Academy Collections team. Many of the artworks on display hold special significance for the artists, as ‘Diploma Works’ they chose to present to the Academy following their election as Royal Academicians.

A celebration of colour

Petworth is also celebrating colour all year. They have a full programme of activities and events which draw from Petworth’s famous art collection and celebrating nature’s changing colours across its Park and Pleasure Garden. There will be new ways to experience the property and create moments of joy, curiosity, and inspiration.

The aim of the exhibition is to show the endless possibilities of working with paint. Each artist has their own approach and so inevitably, there is a variety of styles and techniques.” Royal Academy President Rebecca Salter’s JB26 is a carefully layered, three-dimensional work with a loose weave muslin stretched across two halves of diptych. Contrasting passages of dotted black ink and gouache create a quiet sense of equilibrium. Salix by Gillian Ayres is all about the texture of paint and the bold application of colour. How abstract forms come together in thick, gestural marks. In contrast, How Strange by Tess Jaray is an exploration of the colour red, layer upon layer of increasingly diluted oil paint giving the work a lustrous sheen. “The exhibition is a celebration of what paint can do.”

It’s hoped audiences will enjoy seeing the dynamic work of these celebrated contemporary artists. Audiences should also reconsider how we view the historic art in Petworth’s permanent collection. “By bringing these artworks to West Sussex from the Royal Academy in London we hope it gives more people the opportunity to see works by leading artists working in the UK. The exhibition is a joyous celebration of paint, and we hope it surprises and inspires our visitors.”

The Royal Academy of Art’s Explorations in Paint exhibition runs at the National Trust’s Petworth House until Sun 24 Sept.

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