Why Knole House?
As home to one of the earliest surviving examples of a portrait gallery in Britain, it contains a collection subject to the same environmental conditions for over 400 years.
A Historical Setting
The house is situated in a thousand acres of parkland in Sevenoaks, Kent. Construction was begun in the 15th century by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury over the site of an earlier house. In 1604, Thomas Sackville became the new owner of the house in 1604 when he purchased the lease of Knole for £4,000. Subsequently, Sackville purchased the surrounding land in 1605 and embarked on a large-scale redecoration of the house. It is in this period that the portrait set that forms the case study for our work is thought to have been commissioned.
Other notable inclusions in the art collection at Knole are 17th century copies of Raphael’s Cartoons and works by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Van Dyck. In addition to paintings, Knole House is also home to a significant collection of textiles and Stuart period furniture. The organ in the private chapel at Knole is reputed to be one of the oldest surviving English-made chamber organs. The variety of the collection at Knole offers additional scope for investigating environmental impact on heritage artefacts other than painted wood.
The Brown Gallery Portrait Set
The Brown Gallery at Knole is the earliest surviving example of a portrait gallery in Britain apart from Hardwick. The portrait set consists of 44 early 17th century portraits painted in oil, with 43 painted on oak panel and one on canvas. Very few sets made during these years can be associated with named artists. Instead, they would have been produced by multiple anonymous artists or heraldic, decorative or theatrical painters.
Research suggests the portraits were originally hung in the Cartoon Gallery at Knole before being moved to the Brown Gallery around 1700, where they have been housed ever since.
The earliest sitters represented in the portrait set are the Franciscan friar and philosopher, Roger Bacon c.1214-92(?), and the theologian and philosopher, John Wyclif (d.1384). All the other sitters were alive in the 16th century, and seven were still alive when Sackville himself died in 1608. The portrait set includes nobility, clergy, scholars, and officers of state representing the nation’s history throughout the 16th century and into the reign of James VI and I.
Now in the care of the National Trust, Knole House is undergoing conservation work. Leaking roofs and damp are damaging the paintings and textiles, which have been subjected to condensation and mould growth. As part of a £19.8million project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Brown Gallery and associated rooms at Knole House will have a controlled environment to provide stable temperature and relative humidity for the paintings, furnishings and tapestries.