By the year 1816 the walls of Warwick Castle held one of England’s most ambitious collections of Old Master Portraiture ever assembled. Despite the sale of the Castle in 1978 to an entertainments company, many exciting stories of the castle’s collection and history remain hidden away in the vast Greville Archive, held by the Warwickshire County Record Office (WCRO).
George Greville, second Earl of Warwick, was born on 16 September 1746 at Warwick Castle. He eventually went on to study at Eton, and attended both Oxford and Edinburgh Universities respectively. As a young boy he would have been witness to vast changes and improvements being made to his family home at Warwick. His father Francis, created Earl Brooke in 1746 and later the first Earl of Warwick in 1759, spent much of his wealth and energy transforming his castle and gardens into what might be expected of a fashionable Georgian country house. Although Francis was an important patron to the likes of Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Jean-Marc Nattier and Giovanni Antonio Canaletto, his son’s patronage and collecting spirit would eventually surpass that of his father’s by several notches.
The vast Warwick Castle archive at the WCRO retains a reasonable amount of documents relating to the legacy of the second Earl’s purchases. The earliest known inventory1 which lists pictures with subject and attribution was made by the famous antiquarian Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) in 1774, one year after the first Earl’s death. Despite the obviously incomplete nature of the list it portrays the strong Italian flavour of the collection at this point, with paintings attributed to the likes of Carlo Maratta, Bassano, Andrea Del Satro and Palma Vecchio. It is quite possible that these pictures might have been purchases made by the first Earl during his Grand Tour during the late 1730s.
The first large scale inventory dated to c.1800 contains over 213 paintings2. From this inventory several aspects and features of his taste can be picked out. George Greville seemed to developed a particular interest for British and Continental portraiture from the 16th and 17th centuries. His collection consisted of important portraits by legendary painters such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Tintoretto and Holbein. The political upheaval experienced on the continent during the late 18th century allowed collectors like the second Earl to purchase high quality artworks works which were unavailable to the previous generation of connoisseurs.
“Fine portraits are what I particularly desire to have”
He wrote in 1779 to his uncle Sir William Hamilton, the famous antiquarian, exclaiming, “fine portraits are what I particularly desire to have, and some very fine ones I now have but not enough, should you ever see any well painted agreeable head or half length in old dresses I should be much obliged to you to purchase them for me.” The desire for paintings of figures in ‘old dresses’ is most revealing, as it suggests that the Earl was most interested in paintings which evoked a sense of the past. It is possible that his purchases reflected a wish to decorate a building with objects and artworks which complemented the historical associations of his castle, even if they had no direct ancestral association with any of its past or present owners.
A sizeable number of portraits of men in armour are a good example of how portraiture may have been used to evoke romantic associations of the medieval chivalric past, and would have certainly complimented the Earl’s already impressive arms and armour collection. The castle’s 18th century interiors, in which the early neo-gothic was used often to further reinforce the roots of the building, provide an interesting comparison to the highly fashionable neo-classical interiors by Robert Adam which defined this particular era of stately homes.
Warwick Castle’s important place in British history, which spanned the centuries since its foundations in 914, might have had a significant influence on the Earl’s collecting habits, especially considering that the Grevilles saw themselves as the legitimate inheritors of the building’s legacy. Although a close comparison to the spirit of museum building in the 18th century may have its limits, it is certainly interesting to compare the partly encyclopaedic approach that the Earl had to that of a museum.
1 WCRO reference CR2017 TP10.
2 WCRO reference CR1886 Box 446 – unnumbered.