The Portland Collection, Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Nottinghamshire - Museums Association

The Portland Collection, Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Nottinghamshire

The artworks and the sheer accumulation of wealth on display in the newly designed galleries impress Amy Barnes
Amy Barnes
Within museology it may be considered deeply unfashionable to treat the collections of the wealthy and influential with anything but jaded indifference, and with good reason; but when it comes to “wow-factor”, few experiences come close to viewing an accumulation of aristocratic riches.

Previously housed within the adjacent Harley Gallery in Welbeck, Nottinghamshire, the new displays of the Portland Collection, which opened in March this year, provide public access to an increased number of historic examples of fine and decorative arts accumulated by the Cavendish-Bentinck family over 400 years.

The new purpose-built building, designed by Hugh Broughton Architects, has two main display spaces: a long picture gallery, barrel-vaulted and lit from above by natural light, and a more subdued, artificially lit Treasury Gallery within which the bulk of the light-sensitive objects is displayed. A muted colour scheme of greys, blues, dark reds, purples and greens lends a rich and sophisticated look to the gallery spaces, complementing the high quality of the artworks and objects on display.

The inaugural display in the Treasury Gallery (which will be redisplayed on a three-yearly basis) is split into three main sections. It explores the activities of two key contributors to the collection’s development. First comes Arthur Cavendish-Bentinck (1857-1943), the 6th Duke of Portland. He commissioned catalogues of artworks and objects which had previously, as the accompanying text says, “simply been the furnishings [of his predecessors’] houses”, thereby formally inaugurating the Portland Collection. Second is the 3rd Duke, William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck (1736-1809), twice prime minister, who “improved” the Welbeck estate according to the fashions of the day and augmented the initial collection but fell into debt as a result.

The oil paintings, silverware, furniture and jewellery are displayed in sections that explore the collecting and acquisition activities of these two key figures – the type of objects they acquired, their approaches to documentation and display. Nestled among them is a circular display space which features a selection of miniature portraits from the collection (on display until the end of August) chosen by the artist Peter Blake. These paintings are part of one of the UK’s largest collections of miniatures in private hands; I found them a delight to view. Magnifying glasses are provided, making it possible to examine even the minutest detail. I had a lot of fun speculating on the mood of the sitter and marvelling at the extraordinary hairstyles on show in these tiny portraits.

Shock and awe

The opening display features a number of masterpieces and curios from the Portland Collection, including a chalk sketch – Madonna del Silenzio (c.1538) – by Michelangelo, which has not been on show to the public for 50 years; a pearl earring worn by Charles I on the day of his execution; the Portland Tiara (Cartier, c.1902), made for Winifred, Duchess of Portland, from a collection of diamonds accumulated by successive dukes over centuries; paintings by George Stubbs, including The 3rd Duke of Portland on Horseback at Welbeck (1766); and a miniature portrait of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard.

The Portland Silver is a particular highlight. Housed in a case at the far end of the Picture Gallery, the sheer accumulation of wealth it represents is arresting. The accompanying text quotes Frederick Gorst, a footman at the Welbeck estate in the early 1900s, when confronted with the silver collection for the first time, as having been “awe-struck”. I suspect that many visitors might share this reaction.

While I don’t have any major criticisms of the new gallery building, its design or the display, there are a few minor issues that, if addressed, could improve the visitor experience. The entrance foyer is stark and could appear intimidating, certainly to those unfamiliar with the experience of visiting art galleries, and the free visitor guide could be given greater visibility amid the guidebooks priced at nearly £13. Also, I found the typeface selected for the Portland Collection (and across the Harley Gallery) difficult to read.

The interactives that provide visitors with the opportunity to flick through rare books and manuscripts are a great idea, but are let down by an unintuitive platform that presumes visitors have experience of touchscreens. This could be easily fixed with the addition of some basic instructions for use.

The interpretative approach is orthodox and not particularly innovative, but works for the likely target audience: that is, mature art lovers, who were much in evidence on the day of my visit. That said, the gallery text is generally accessible and approachable, with occasional touches of humour – “the Duke sat on the Duchesses’ coronet” – and does not assume too much pre-existing knowledge on the part of the viewer. Labels are made available in larger print.  

Economic boost

The gallery is funded by the Harley Foundation, an independent charitable trust set up in 1977 by Ivy, Duchess of Portland, to encourage engagement with and education in the visual arts. The Portland Collection furthers these aims. William Parente, who inherited the Welbeck Estate in 2008 and instigated the new gallery, has recently said that he regards the public display of the Portland Collection as an opportunity to help bolster the local economy and foster a sense of identity. “These things”, he says, “are our history; each generation learns from them and adds to them as they can. But they are also part of our collective history as people: they chart the way people, places, tastes and society have changed over the centuries – everyone should be able to enjoy them.”

While it may not offer the range of experiences that audiences now expect from cultural institutions, the Portland Collection at the Harley Gallery offers the opportunity to see works of significance and quality for free in the East Midlands, an area of the country often overlooked.

Amy Jane Barnes is a heritage consultant and honorary visiting fellow in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester 
Project data

Cost £5m
Main funder The Harley Foundation, an independent charitable trust (the gallery has not received any public funding)
Exhibition designer Ronayne Design
Architect Hugh Broughton Architects
Structural engineer Price and Myers
Services engineer AECOM
Quantity surveyor Ridge
Lighting design Speirs and Major
Acoustic consultant Ramboll
Landscape consultant Dominic Cole Landscape Architects 
Duration of exhibition Miniatures on display will change every six months (the current display, curated by Peter Blake, is on display until 18 September), works on paper every year, and the remainder of the displays every three years. 
Admission Free 
Focus on: miniatures

Through the generations the Cavendish-Bentinck family has developed a collection of fine and decorative art, which includes one of the largest significant collections of British miniatures.  Key collectors include Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689–1741), who enlarged the collection with works by the most distinguished artists of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, including Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. He also commissioned works from Samuel Cooper, the greatest of all 17th-century English miniaturists, called by Walpole “Van Dyck in Little”.

Many of the loveliest miniatures in our collections depict family members: mother and daughters, husbands and wives, and children. Rendered in microscopic and intimate detail, these tiny portraits provide an incredible window into history.

Designing cabinets for the miniatures was one of the key challenges facing our exhibition designer John Ronayne, who had to combine security and conservation requirements with an intimate viewing experience to suit these jewel-like works. His solution was “the octagon”, a space with a low ceiling and subdued lighting controlled by a sequence of “magic eye” detectors, which gradually brighten the objects as the visitor enters. Together with five sloped-glass showcases, an elbow-leaning rail and magnifying glasses, visitors are offered a private viewing and a sense of personal contact with these glorious portraits.

Looking through the Victorian mahogany drawers housing the miniatures collection, the range of faces seemed reminiscent of the “magical crowds” which appear in Peter Blake’s collages. I wondered what would happen if he was to work with the miniatures in the same way that he brings together his prints. The extraordinary displays that Blake has chosen are the result. Crowds of 30 miniatures lie on two single panels, all crowded together so that preposterously bewigged cavaliers cosy up to piggy-eyed politicians and flirtatious French ladies in low-cut empire dresses. Three other panels are more restrained, although the background papers are the vibrant blues, reds and yellow of pop art. I’ve never seen miniature displays like it, and they look incredible.

Lisa Gee is the director of the Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire

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