The Northwick Collection : No.1.

Who was Lord Northwick?

In the annals of art history the important art collection of John 2nd Lord Northwick, who died in 1859, is referred to frequently – but with little attention to detail, particularly in relation to the man himself and his collecting. One reason for this is the fact that he did not marry, and therefore no son to inherit. But the main reason is that he appears not to have made a Will – at least one could not be found – which necessitated the enforced Sale of his collection.                                                                                                          My concern in this series of essays is predominantly with his collection of paintings – but his enormous collection included much more – works on paper (watercolours, prints, and drawings), applied art (cameos, gems, coins, and ‘antiquities’), as well as books and manuscripts. Items from his entire collection have found their way into major collections in this country and abroad – and a Northwick provenance is of enormous value, not least in the Sale Room.

In this first essay I am concerned with attempting an initial picture of the man – someone who did not seek publicity and thus no iconic painted portrait as there was with most other collectors. The only visual records seem to be from his youth – first as a young child with his mother and two sisters – secondly a portrait by his family’s favourite painter, Angelika Kauffmann, whilst he was on his Grand Tour, a work which appeared briefly in a mid twentieth century sale and has now again disappeared into obscurity.

Gardner portrait

Daniel Gardner : ‘Lady Rushout with her three children’ : c1774


Angelika Kauffmann : ‘Sir John Rushout’ (later 2nd Lord Northwick) : 1794.

Family History

The family history of the Northwick’s is difficult to unravel partly because it seemed to suffer greatly from frequent early deaths and the lack of sons to carry on a direct line – and it was only in 1797 that the baronetcy of Northwick was granted, a title which John, the 1st Lord Northwick, did not long enjoy dying in 1800. Rushout was the family name and whilst early history of the family is uncertain things become clearer from the early seventeenth century when  John Rushout, a native of France, settled in London and listed as a Flemish Merchant.  He seemed to have quickly settled in and became a wealthy man – acquiring Northwick Park, in the village of Blockley which straddled the Gloucestershire and Worcestershire boundary, as his country seat, soon to be regarded as the main family home.  Clearly influential and desirous of further social and political development he arranged for his son James, then 17 years old, to be created Baron of Maylards(possibly later ‘Maylords’) in the county of Essex. James was ambitious and hard working becoming the MP for the constituency in which Northwick Park was sited.  After several early deaths the fourth Baronet, Sir John Rushout, took up his title in 1711. He was an active politician and served as Treasurer of the Navy in 1743/4 when he was made a Privy Counsellor and from 1762 to 1768 he was Father of the House of Commons.  He died in 1775 aged ninety.

Sir John Rushout 1684 to 1775 Kneller

Godfrey Kneller : Sir John Rushout, 4th Baronet : 1685-1775

The Fourth baronet was succeeded by his son, also John, who benefited from his father’s work and aspirations by being elevated to the peerage as the First Lord Northwick in 1797 – but not for long as he died in 1800. The title then passed to his son, another John, who was the subject of these essays, the 2nd Lord Northwick, born in 1770. Unlike many of his contemporaries the second lord was not educated at one of the major Public Schools, or at one of the two English Universities – instead his parents sent him abroad for his teenage  education.                                                                                                                                  In 1790 he embarked on an extensive Grand Tour – visiting several European countries but particularly Italy.  Our John took the Grand Tour very seriously and enthusiastically embarked upon it in a spirit of eager enquiry – quickly making several important serious contacts including Edward Gibbon, Sir William Hamilton and his wife Emma, Horatio Nelson, and Richard Payne Knight – as well as several major artists including Antonio Canova (sculptor) and Vincenzo Camuccini (painter). Europe seemed constantly in the grip of continuing political, and thus military, conflict which – as well as often appalling travel conditions – made for an exciting life. It was whilst staying with friends at Palermo that the British ship HMS Vanguard was temporarily stranded in the Bay which meant that John and his friends were arguably the first English people to receive the news of the Victory of the Battle of the Nile – from Nelson himself!         The upheavals in Europe, particularly Italy, did provide possible rich pickings for collectors as ancient family collections were sold off by their impoverished owners. John Rushout found himself, with the help of expert advice and contacts, in an exciting world of possibilities. Not for him the pleasures of wine and the flesh – his fellow young travellers appeared to have despaired by the fact he much preferred chasing up collecting possibilities. His early forays into collecting, advised by the knowledgeable William Hamilton and Payne-Knight, started with smaller items such as coins, intaglios and cameos, and gems – but also venturing into prints and the occasional painting. As he approached ten years immersed in his adventures and discoveries abroad news came of the serious illness of his father – who died in 1800.

Early Years – 1800 to 1838.

On his return to England he was faced with several family, or family related, properties in various parts of the country – the central one being Northwick Park at Blockley (then in Gloucestershire and later in Worcestershire) with significant property, house and estate, in Middlesex and Essex – as well as a London residence. In the first few years he began to rationalise, where he could, these various properties and their responsibilities – something which he was good at and developed as a very capable and forward looking, and caring, landowner.  Now, with considerable wealth and income from his farmland and estates, he could (in his spare time!!) develop his collecting.  It is apparent that whilst he collected much in the way of antiquities and books his main interest was increasingly upon paintings and the world of art. He enthusiastically got involved in the cultural life of London – joining such bodies as the Society of Antiquaries and the Dilettanti Society, attending regularly the art sales held at Christies Auction Rooms, and actively involved in the setting up bodies concerned with bringing art to the public such as the British Institution (founded in 1805).  It was not long before he became a recognised and familiar figure in the art world and although we have no portraits of him (it must have been his decision) we do get a glimpse of him by George Redford in his marathon work ‘Art Sales’, published in the late nineteenth century, as follows :-

‘He (Lord Northwick) was a most pleasant and cheerful gentleman, extremely simple and unpretending in his manner, with a slight, rather short, figure, and a face, round, smiling, and fresh in complexion.  I remember him well as an ‘habitué’ of Christies, more than forty-two years ago, and in summer he generally wore a suit of Nankeen, a kind of cool dress which has long since disappeared.’


Northwick Park, Blockley : post 1832

Th Hse 1Thirlestaine House : Cheltenham : c1846

It is clear from the manuscript evidence of the family that Lord Northwick began seriously collecting in the early decades of the century and developed serious contact with major dealers and other collectors. One practical result was lack of space for hanging this rapidly expanding collection of paintings – a problem he started to resolve by buying a new London property in Connaught Place, a new and exclusive development adjacent to Hyde Park. There is evidence that from the 1820’s he welcomed visitors to view his works – both young and old.  The breathing (or hanging) space of Connaught Place was not to last long – he had built a large purpose-built art gallery extension to Northwick Park in the early 1830’s.  But even this was to prove inadequate – and Lord Northwick, planning ahead and now firmly established in the art and collecting world, sought to buy something bigger outside London.  It was in 1838 that he decided upon a large neo-classic mansion on the outskirts of Cheltenham – Thirlestaine House – and quickly sold his London house in Connaught Place. At the same time he put up a considerable number of paintings for sale by Christies – many of which remained in his collection – which suggested he was doing something he regularly did – ‘weeding , with their hanging space potential, provided a further boost to his collecting.  It was Thirlestaine House which now began considerable expansion – almost every few years between 1840 and 1855 new galleries were built.  In other essays I shall deal with aspects of the collection at Thirlestaine House but here I note that Lord Northwick’s wish to share his collection with the public became evident from the early days of his arrival.   The local weekly magazine, the ‘Cheltenham Looker-On’ began, in the early 1840’s, a series of articles on the paintings at Thirlestaine House – which quickly developed into a published catalogue, which was revised and re-published several times over the next twelve years, the last one being a year before his death in 1859.

1859 – Death of the Northwick Collection.

The 2nd Lord Northwick died not long before what would have been his ninetieth birthday – to nationwide as well as local mourning.  But his death proved to be the death of the collection he had so carefully built up over decades – because no Will could be found and, being unmarried, he had no son and heir meaning that the whole collection had to be sold.  The great twenty-one day sale, with other smaller sales in 1860, was conducted by the then rival to Christies – Phillips – at Thirlestaine House, with works coming in from Northwick Park. The national press followed every day and every sale, every price and every purchaser – it was a major national event which has gone down in history. The tragic fact is that the majority of works have ‘disappeared’ – some have appeared in the collections of major purchasers but these too, when sold off, have ‘disappeared’ – a relatively few now appear in major collections such as the National Gallery in London and other British public collections (Cheltenham has two works) – and quite few now appear in major USA collections and elsewhere world-wide.  The heir to the 2nd Lord Northwick , the 3rd Lord Northwick, acquired or kept quite a number of important works which were dispersed at the death of his heir, Capt Spencer-Churchill, in the 1960’s – again to disappear into purchaser anonymity.   As to Thirlestaine House – the family did not wish to be burdened with it and, eventually, sold it to the great, but reclusive, collector of books and manuscripts Sir Thomas Phillipps. At his death the burden fell heavily on his fractured family who eventually managed to sell it to Cheltenham College in 1948.

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Edward Wilson paintings at Cheltenham

Discovery Winter quarters, 1902

‘Discovery Winter Quarters’ : 1904

It is always a delight to have a chance to view, and discuss, works which are usually not on public display. One such recent event I found most stimulating – exploring the explorer Edward Wilson’s life and work through a small selection of the water-colours, drawings, and sketch-books held at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum (The Wilson). The Curator responsible for the collection had arranged three one hour sessions one Saturday recently and asked me to join her partly to contribute an ‘Art’ perspective and partly because many years ago I was involved in the collection.                                    Edward Wilson is a fascinating Cheltenham character – Antarctic explorer (with Scott), doctor and surgeon, naturalist, and artist and illustrator. These Saturday hour sessions, well attended, aimed to provide glimpses of Wilson throughout his life – from childhood onwards.  It was clear that observing and drawing was a very early enthusiasm – the notes, sketches, and drawings clearly showed that this boy was a ‘natural’.  Fortunately his parents encouraged this precocious talent – alongside his other studies at school


A Wren : 1886

In the second half of the nineteenth century (he was born in 1872) drawing was a fundamental skill for a number of professions and activities – not purely an ‘art’ activity.  The training of a profession of ‘artists’ as we understand it did not really get going until the end of the nineteenth century –  the founding of the Royal Academy Schools in 1768 was primarily a training for skilled artisans. Attending Cheltenham College he would have found a strong ‘Drawing Department’ as the school, like several schools throughout the country, had a strong tradition of training boys for the military and for such professions as medicine where drawing was essential.  Medicine, particularly surgery, required accurate and detailed recording – and the military, both army and navy, were the ‘eyes’ of the British Empire recording new territories and unexplored areas as well as coasts and terrain.  The great tradition of British exploration from Elizabethan times onward had as essential members doctors (particularly surgeons), botanists and ornithologists, and artists – sometimes, as in Wilson’s case, all rolled into one. In this context we noted that Scott had started to include photography – and we were able to look at some of these early photographs and compare them with the paintings and drawings of Edward Wilson.

garden-warblers-nest 1895

Garden Warblers Nest, Grantchester, Cambridge : 1895

On leaving school , in 1890, Edward went up to University at Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences and Medicine.  We were able to see works from his Cheltenham years and whilst at Cambridge – from detailed analytical work to broader ‘landscapes’. After Cambridge he went to London to train as a surgeon and qualified in 1901 – a period in which he continued drawing and painting.


A Kite : 1896.

During the course of the sessions two pertinent questions arose on the art side – can we accept him as an ‘artist’? – and how on earth do you paint in Antarctica?  The first can be answered quite simply by looking at the work he produced – yes, his work is of a high calibre. Nineteenth century society, the rising middle and professional classes as well as the aristocracy, regarded painting and drawing as a necessary and enjoyable accomplishment – witness the large number of ‘sketching clubs’ during the period.  Wilson, competent as he was, did not see any necessity to enter his work into public exhibitions or get involved with a commercial art market – he enjoyed his own ability and saw it as an essential ingredient of his working and personal life.  In terms of using his skills in the extreme cold of Antarctica – it clearly must have exercised his mind and those of his explorer companions.  Watercolour was always his chosen painting medium – and there was no shortage of water in Antarctica! On display during our sessions were the sort of items which he used – solid blocks of watercolour pigment – soft brushes – graphite pencils or sticks – charcoal – pens and India Ink. In the latter case it is probably unlikely he took bottles of liquid India Ink – so he could have used the centuries old method of a solid stick of ‘lamp black’, scraping some off and mixing it with water to the consistency he wanted.  So much for the materials – but what about how he painted or drew? Popping outside with a portable easel, a canvas stool, and his box of painting equipment was clearly not possible. In fact he made very quick shorthand sketches outside, marking them, often later (he had a terrific visual memory), with his own notation concerning such things as colour and detail. When inside he had a corner of the hut where he developed his ‘jottings’ into a final form – we saw a photograph of him doing just that.

Wilson painting

The three sessions were very enjoyable for all concerned – much discussion and exchange of ideas and comments. I look forward to more of these sessions exploring the often hidden corners of the work and collections of Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.

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Game shoot at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

Cooper, Abraham; The Morning of the First of September; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum;

Cooper, Abraham; The Morning of the First of September; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum;


Game shooting, which proved to be a pivotal point in my previous blog, is not something which forms any real part of my life – but my explorations into the painting ‘Making Pills for the Saxons’ led me to another painting in the Cheltenham collection.   The title of this work is ‘The Morning of the First of September’ and is by a nineteenth century British artist Abraham Cooper.                                                                                                                                          I have to admit that, again, it is not a painting which I particularly noticed in my early years at Cheltenham – rather dismissing it as yet another sentimental Victorian potboiler. In the light of my work on the ‘Making pills’ painting I decided to take another, more objective, look at this painting which also included a shot-gun. Depicted is a man on a horse holding a shot-gun, accompanied by two gun-dogs, standing alert in a rather wild countryside in the emergent light of a new day. So far so good – this was probably something to do with game shooting. But why a particular date, the first of September?  On further exploration, which could have been much quicker if I was still living in rural Oxfordshire and asked friends in the village, I realised that this referred to one of the game shooting ‘seasons’ – in this case the start of the grouse shooting season. So here would have been a painting of a subject matter much admired and bought by the gentry and urbanites who went on regular shooting trips. The painting would have resonated with reminders of getting up in the early hours of a probably rather cold and wet early September – ready for the off.                                                                                                                                                It is with some humility that I recognise that my attitude, along with many of my curatorial and art history colleagues, to ‘Victorian sentimental art’ stemmed from ignorance.  Inevitably, it seems, one generation has to dismiss the previous generation – but there must come a point when that dismissal is itself questioned. Over the past few decades I have been interested in what might be called the ‘sociology of art collecting’ in the nineteenth century. In particular I have been exploring two particular strands – firstly a study of people living in Bristol and Gloucestershire, however ‘minor’, who were collecting paintings. The second strand is an in-depth study of the great and extensive collection of the 2nd Lord Northwick – in particular at the family seat at Northwick Park at Blockley and his mansion, Thirlestaine House, in Cheltenham.  Whilst the collecting of ‘sentimental’ Victorian paintings by minor collectors could be understood as simply following prevailing fashion the collecting of such works by a major, judicious, and knowledgeable collector like Lord Northwick suggests that there is perhaps something missing in the aesthetic and historical judgement of a later generation, including our own. In a later blog I hope to discuss in greater depth the matter of why intelligent and cultivated nineteenth century collectors  bought and commissioned such works as the one here under discussion.  I would simply add at this point the important fact, often forgotten, that from the early decades of the nineteenth century in Britain there was a strong and serious movement to encourage contemporary British Art combined with a serious attempt to provide moral and educational guidance, through Art, for the population of a rapidly changing society which was in danger of being cut off from its social roots.

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Making Pills at Cheltenham Art Gallery.

(c) Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘Making Pills for the Saxons’ (1868) by Erskine Nicol (1825-1904)

I must admit to some confusion, on my part, over this painting – a situation that has been with me for years.  It started with my discovering this work in the Picture Store at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum soon after I took up post in 1973.  I now realise that titles given to paintings can be misleading – none more so than with this painting. Is this really a painting of an ancient Saxon workman? Did Saxons have pills? What is the point in painting someone making pills? I relegated it in my mind to the shelf ‘of no interest.’.  Having now returned to Cheltenham, after many years, I have become, hopefully, a little wiser and with time to re-evaluate my original assessment.

On looking at the painting again, with a more tolerant and observant eye, I found details which I had overlooked previously. It was the sight of a shot-gun and a pistol lying on the table which caught my attention. Whilst they are ‘historic’ items they do not seem ‘ancient’ – in fact they seemed to be probably of the period in which the artist lived and produced this work. Continuing my exploration of the work I noticed there appeared to be ball-bearings, or something similar, on the table. There is also a small bottle of some yellowish liquid and some smallish pieces of paper or card. Armed with this information I then tackled the enigma of the title ‘Making Pills for the Saxons’ – but how?                                                                                                                                                                                              Perhaps I should start with that word ‘Saxons’ – does it really refer to a person from Saxony or an historic Saxon invader?  No obvious way forward on this line of attack. As a long shot I decided to concentrate on the firearms – the shot-gun and the pistol. I know very little about firearms but the pistol did seem to be of early nineteenth century vintage. As to shot-guns, I only knew about them from living in rural Oxfordshire where ‘shoots’ were a regular part of everyday life, but I had never handled one. The one in the painting did seem rather ‘modern’, perhaps a clue might be here. I realised that the small things like ball-bearings, plus the other items, could be the ingredients for ‘shot’ – I was aware of both shot and cartridge cases.  It was clearly time to learn more about firearms of the nineteenth century.                                                                                                                                        After trawling through endless, and often boring, treatises on firearms and dealers lists I came across a reference which gave me a clue. In the early part of the nineteenth century several attempts were made, in Europe and in Britain, to improve the performance of the traditional flintlock firearm. As shooting ‘game’ became ever more fashionable the disadvantages of firing with a flintlock was energetically voiced – particularly the fact that it’s noise, plus flash and smoke, as it fired alerted the game, bird or beast, who immediately fled from the scene. Experiments began to be made into possible ways of improving percussion – and one successful alternative used a pin-fired mechanism which activated a chemical concoction which ‘fired’ a pellet or pellets.  One enterprising manufacturer decided to go ahead with this new firearm – and the name of the firm was ‘Saxon’! Here at last appeared to be the answer to my questions about the subject matter of this painting – here was a game-keeper making up the cartridges  containing the explosive and the bullets ready to be used by people using the modern shot-gun similar to that lying on the table.   Or have I got it terribly wrong?  Like Millais and ‘Bubbles’ advertising Pear’s Soap this might be an advertisement for the guns made by the firm ‘Saxon’.



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