The changing fortunes of many of the great English country houses are encapsulated at Compton Verney. From barons to billeted soldiers, suffragettes to secretive appeasers, and foxhunters to film stars, the house has seen all manner of occupants and uses.
Though the estate has roots stretching back to medieval times, the house saw an Elizabethan and Stuart heyday when the Verney family had links with the Grevilles of Warwick Castle. The beautiful tombstone of Sir Richard Verney and his wife, Margaret Greville, found in the private chapel, is really the only remaining evidence of this period. Today, the house is the result of restoration of 18th-century designs by Robert Adam. An award-winning modern art gallery is carefully incorporated into this neoclassical architecture.
You first glimpse the house through trees, then its entire splendour is revealed as you pass between the four sphinxes of the Upper Bridge. This impression is created thanks to the work of Capability Brown, the great landscape architect. Brown replaced the straight lines of formal gardens with more natural effects of changing views, framed by trees. For the first time, landscape became the focal point for, not just the backdrop to, grand country estates.
Gainsborough’s rural vision
So it is fitting that landscape is the subject of one of Compton Verney’s exhibitions (currently running until 10 June). Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) may be best known for the society portraits of his day, but his real inspiration lay in the English countryside. The exhibition explores the Themes and Variations of this aspect of his work – particularly the qualities of modesty, ease and humanity that he felt grew from nature and which he sought to capture.
Gainsborough’s landscapes show influences from both Dutch naturalism and Italian classicism, but his drawings reveal that his key subjects were country people and their animals, often captured as they paused in their work. The pauses are full of movement. A gust of wind blowing at clothing, the twitch of a horse’s ear, water dripping from a cow’s mouth – each is captured and placed as a small moment within the framing structures of trees, rocks and watering places.
This exhibition is just part of the vast range of work you can see at Compton Verney. Other highlights are the Folk Art and Northern European rooms. You will leave feeling that an artist’s work is truly complemented by being displayed close to the outdoor world that inspired it.