New Portraits at Greys Court
"The portraits draw the story of the house together. The whole process has been worth every penny, especially as the reactions to the paintings from volunteers and visitors have been wonderful."
Katy Dunn and Rebecca Fletcher
There are two, previously unseen portraits on display at Greys Court this autumn. The family portraits were liberated from storage and framed thanks to a generous gift to the National Trust. The new additions complete the jigsaw of the Brunner family story, which unfolds on the walls of the country manor though its collection of paintings.
The picturesque 16th century manor house at National Trust’s Greys Court, set in the rolling Chiltern Hills just outside Henley-on- Thames, boasts a wealth of history. Parts of the estate date back to the 11th century and it bears the hallmarks of centuries past from Tudor show house to 20th century family home. The fortunes of families have been woven into its fabric, but perhaps none have left their mark more than the Brunner family.
In 1937, Sir Felix Brunner, 3rd baronet, British Liberal Party politician and grandson of Sir John Tomlinson Brunner (co-founder of Brunner Mond, a forerunner of ICI) purchased Greys Court with his wife, Lady Elizabeth Brunner, actress and granddaughter of Sir Henry Irving. They saw in the house the perfect opportunity to create a country haven to raise their four sons away from the hustle and bustle of London living.
With an eye for philanthropy and community at the heart of their ideals, the couple began opening Greys Court to the public in the 1950s, sharing the beauty and history of their special home. Bequeathing it to the National Trust in 1969, the Brunners continued to live there until Lady Brunner’s death in 2003. Their considerable legacy lives on in the intimacy of small, family rooms and the eclectic collection displayed around the house.
“The house feels as though the Brunners have simply stepped out for the afternoon. All the clocks tick and the piano is often played by our volunteers. It’s incredible as the sound resonates through the house. We want it to be completely authentic, chronicling how the Brunners would have lived,” say Senior House Steward Tessa Blake.
The new additions to the collection have been able to shed more light on this dynamic family. Working in consultation with a vast team of specialists and with two of Sir Felix and Lady Brunner’s sons, a pair of unseen portraits have gone on display, enabling the last jigsaw pieces of the Brunner story to be enjoyed once more.
“We knew that they were perfectly safe in storage but the shame was that we simply did not have the means to share them with our visitors,” says Oonagh Kennedy, Curator for the National Trust’s London and South East Region. “It was through a generous gift left to us that we were able to reassess how we could return them to the collection.”
The first portrait, painted at the turn of the 20th century by Arthur Hacker (1858–1919), an English Classicist painter twice exhibited at the Royal Academy, is of Sir Felix’s father, Sir John Fowler Leece Brunner, 2nd Baronet. Its late Victorian style captures Sir John’s assured gaze and hints at the stature of the gentleman. The second portrait is a charmingly informal image of Sir Felix. It’s a soft depiction of him as a young boy in a closely-worked style with his sister Joyce, later Lady Worsley.
Enlisting the craftsmanship of Ben Pearce, a specialist framer, the team set about researching how the paintings should be framed. In the end, a replica frame copied faithfully from another portrait in the collection was chosen.
“One of the benefits of having other family portraits has been the ability to consider how the framing of these two additions could be done sympathetically,” says Oonagh. “Ben worked on moulded samples until Tessa and I arrived at something as close to the original as possible.
“For the portrait of the children, we wanted something much simpler – a frame which might not look out of place in a London interior where the pictures would originally have hung. One of our biggest concerns was if there would be a knock-on effect introducing these paintings. Would they disrupt the historic presentation of the house? Would they add to the collection already there?”
It was during this process that the team stumbled upon an important discovery. The artist’s signature on the portrait of the young children had largely been undecipherable before framing. Research led to naming the painter as Millicent Etheldreda Gray (1873-1957), best known for her illustrations for A Treasury of Children’s Verse as well as an edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, prompting further study opportunities for the team.
“It is such a joy to have these on display,” Tessa adds. “The portraits draw the story of the house together. The whole process has been worth every penny, especially as the reactions to the paintings from volunteers and visitors have been wonderful. We hope that more visitors will be able to follow generations of the Brunner family around the house pictorially, through our collection.”
How to hang art
Hanging paintings can be both art and science when it comes to choosing the right location and feel. Oonagh and Tessa offer their tips for getting it right when it comes to hanging art at home:
Think about the gaze
When it comes to portraits, it’s important to think of the gaze of the sitter – do you want that really close connection? Do you want something more eye-to-eye? Think about where you want the eye drawn to as you look at the painting. Does the painting feel crushed or cramped in that space? If so, then maybe you need to find an alternative spot to hang it.
Find common ground
One of the key points we had to address when hanging the Millicent Ethedreda Gray portrait of the children, was how it might align with the entrance to the room, the cornice above it and how it would sit in relation to other paintings in the hallway outside. When hanging multiple paintings, try to think about all the items which will surround it and adjust heights to find a common ground.
Think about the feel of the artwork within the room you are considering hanging it in – does it enhance the feel of the room? Look at any soft furnishings. Do the colours complement each other? Explore symmetry and matching.
Weighing it all up
Both of the new portraits at Greys Court were fitted with brass chains on screw fittings which are hung from steel hooks – when hanging pictures at home, think about the weight of the picture you are hanging. How low the painting hangs will depend on the length of the chain. A chain or wire helps to distribute the weight of the painting.
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