Secrets of the South Downs: Petworth House


Petworth House is located in the charming village of Petworth, West Sussex. The main body of the current house was commissioned by the the sixth (or “Proud”) Duke of Somerset between 1688 and 1696.  However, Petworth’s origins stretch as far back as the 12th century when the estate was gifted to Jocelin de Louvain, by his half-sister Adeliza of Louvain (widow of Henry I).  Jocelin married into the powerful Percy family whose stronghold was based in the north.  In 1309, Jocelin’s descendent Henry de Percy, 1st Baron Percy of Alnwick (1273–1314), obtained a licence to crenelate.  The Percy family were elevated to the Earldom of Northumberland during the 14th century, but it was not until the lifetime of the 8th Earl that Petworth saw a substantial rebuild between 1576 and 1582.  This was primarily due to the fact that queen Elizabeth I was suspicious of the Percy’s allegiance to Mary, Queen of Scots, so confined them to their southern estates.  The 9th Earl, also known as the ‘Wizard’ Earl due to his scientific interests, remodelled part of the house after 1621, of which part of the walls survive to the north of the building.

View from the landscaped park towards the principal front.
View from the landscaped park towards the principal front.

In 1682 Lady Elizabeth Percy, the heiress of the Percy estates, married Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset.  Together, they set about remodelling the largely outdated Petworth in the most fashionable style of the day: the Baroque.  It is debated whether the architect was Pierre Puget or Daniel Marot, but in truth, there is not enough evidence to conclusively say.  The house is 322 feet long and the main front has two principal storeys each with 21 large sash windows, and an attic storey with 21 smaller windows, thus creating an impressive elevation.  Above the first floor there is a heavily moulded cornice which runs the length of the elevation, and above the second floor (attic storey) there is a second cornice, with parapet and a decorative balustrade, to hide the roof.  The central three bay ground floor windows as well as the three at either end of the elevation are picked out with extra decoration: each have cornices with consoles.  The three windows at either end are also surmounted by busts.

Close up of the main elevation, showing the busts above the ground floor windows.
Close up of the main elevation, showing the busts above the ground floor windows.

The interiors followed in the Baroque taste and perhaps the most impressive of which is the Carved Room: the specacular work of Grinling Gibbons.   A fire in 1714 is said to have triggered the building of the Grand Staircase.  A breathtaking sight with its murals painted by the famous Louis Laguerre, it is even possible to spot Elizabeth, the Percy Heiress, riding in a triumphal chariot.  When the 6th Duke died in 1748, quickly followed by his son in 1750, the titles and estates were divided.  His son-in-law took the Northumberland estates and titles, and his nephew, Charles Wyndham (1710-1763) took Petworth and the title 2nd Earl of Egremont.  It was this heir who commissioned ‘Capability’ Brown to sweep away the formal gardens and re-landscape the park.  He also commissioned what is now regarded as one of the finest examples of an English Rococo state bed.  Attributed to James Whittle and Samuel Norman and dated to the 1750s, it is riot of detail, including a Chinese dragon, shells and a small squirrel  eating a nut.

View of the principal front.
View of the principal front.

The 3rd Earl of Egremont was a patron of the arts, and it is during his lifetime that he collected some of the finest art in existence.  Amongst his friends he could count JMW Turner and John Constable.  He added extensively to Petworth’s collection as a whole, and today the art collection is considered one of the best owned by the National Trust.  With works by Lely, Van Dyck, Turner, Titian, Kneller, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Claude, to name but a few.

Rotunda in the gardens.
The Ionic Rotunda in the gardens.

The National Trust was gifted Petworth in 1947 as the family were lumbered with extortionate death duties.  The current Lord and Lady Egremont continue to live in part of the house.

The beautiful parkland.
The beautiful parkland.

Petworth Park is a stunningly beautiful place to experience, dating back nearly 1000 years.  The park is home to a 900 strong herd of fallow deer which can often be glimpsed in the distance as they graze.  The serpentine lake, designed by Brown offers a lovely vista from the House.  Strolling through the Pleasure Grounds offers even more delightful views, such as the marvellous Ionic Rotunda, and the graceful Doric temple.

It cannot be denied that Petworth is a special place. Its beautiful setting, its fabulous collections, its delightful gardens, its charming restaurant, its tranquil park all serve to make it the perfect place to restore ones energies.


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