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The National Trust looks after more than 13,000 oil paintings at over 200 historic houses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland – the largest number of any organisation in the UK. This vast collection includes a treasure trove of masterpieces dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. 

David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture at the National Trust, presents his selection of the top masterpieces from the collections.

1. The Adoration of the Magi

The Adoration of the Magi

The Adoration of the Magi (triptych, centre panel) c.1495–1500

Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450–1516) (and workshop)

National Trust, Upton House

An uncanny mixture of the celestial and the sinister is very much on show in the central panel of this triptych depicting the Adoration of the Magi from the collection at Upton House, Warwickshire.

The Christ Child sits in Mary's lap as the opulently dressed kings present their gifts. A semi-naked figure draped in pink robes stands in the doorway of a ramshackle hut – he may be the Antichrist. The presence of evil in an Epiphany scene might seem unusual, but it's characteristic of the work of Hieronymous Bosch, one of the most visionary painters of all time.

2. The Dormition of the Virgin

The Dormition of the Virgin

The Dormition of the Virgin

Pieter Bruegel the elder (c.1525–1569)

National Trust, Upton House

This painting in 'grisaille' (shades of grey) shows the dying Virgin surrounded by huddled praying devotees. Her spiritual presence is conveyed by the intense white halo of light around her head.

Pieter Bruegel the elder was one of the most significant artists to emerge from the Netherlands in the 1500s and grisailles are extremely rare in his oeuvre. Now in the collection at Upton House, Warwickshire, this painting was once owned by Peter Paul Rubens.

3. Elizabeth I (1533–1603)

Elizabeth I (1533–1603)

Elizabeth I (1533–1603) 1592

Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619) (studio of)

National Trust, Hardwick Hall

This portrait of Elizabeth I from the collection at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, appears to have been acquired by Elizabeth Talbot (‘Bess of Hardwick’), Countess of Shrewsbury, and was almost certainly on display at Hardwick in the Queen’s lifetime.

The dress is embroidered with roses, irises and pansies along with insects, animals and fish. This unusual mixture of motifs from the natural world is typical of embroidery of the late Elizabethan period. It is thought that Bess masterminded the design, and possibly even worked on it herself.

4. Portrait of a woman, perhaps Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavicino

Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavicino (?)

Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavicino (?) 1606

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

National Trust, Kingston Lacy

Between 1605 and 1606 the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens worked in Genoa painting portraits of the city's aristocracy. This portrait, from the collection at Kingston Lacy, Dorset, is among the most beautiful from this period.

The sitter wears an opulent silk gown overlaid with gold embroidered lace and large golden oversleeves. A white and silver lace ruff encircles her head and her hair is dressed high with flowers, sprays of jewels and a white egret feather. These lavishly painted fabrics and textures display the brilliant treatment of surface and colour for which Rubens was so celebrated.

5. Sir Edward Herbert, Later 1st Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1581/1582–1648)

Sir Edward Herbert, Later 1st Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1581/1582–1648)

Sir Edward Herbert, Later 1st Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1581/1582–1648) c.1613–1614

Isaac Oliver (c.1556/1565–1617)

National Trust, Powis Castle

The dashing Sir Edward Herbert was as famous for his courtly accomplishments as he was for his courage in battle when he sat for this elaborate cabinet miniature, now in the collection at Powis Castle, Powys. With its unusual iconography and verdant landscape setting, this full-length miniature is flamboyantly and exquisitely rendered by Isaac Oliver.

The French-born Oliver brought personality and life to his portraits, ultimately surpassing the work of his master, Nicholas Hilliard, who was goldsmith and miniaturist to Elizabeth I and James I.

6. Self Portrait, Wearing a White Feathered Bonnet

Self Portrait, Wearing a White Feathered Bonnet

Self Portrait, Wearing a White Feathered Bonnet 1635

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) (and studio possibly)

National Trust, Buckland Abbey

This self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, from the collection at Buckland Abbey, Devon, was painted when the artist was running a successful studio and enjoying a period of wealth and professional acclaim. His costume is a reflection of this prosperity: he wears a sumptuously embroidered velvet cloak and a jewelled beret with elegant golden and white plumes.

This portrait was added to Rembrandt's autograph paintings in 2014 following intensive technical analysis.

7. View of Dordrecht (from the Maas)

View of Dordrecht (from the Maas)

View of Dordrecht (from the Maas) 1650s

Aelbert Cuyp (1620–1691)

National Trust, Ascott

Light is the dominant element in Aelbert Cuyp's oeuvre, and this picture, from the collection at Ascott, Buckinghamshire, is undoubtedly the most spectacular manifestation of this talent in Dutch painting of the Golden Age.

The unusual format of this painting – it is nearly two metres wide – is exceptional for Cuyp and one would assume that it was made to commission rather than for the free market.

8. Self Portrait of the Artist Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting

Self Portrait of the Artist Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting

Self Portrait of the Artist Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting 1794

Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807)

National Trust, Nostell Priory

This Angelica Kauffmann self-portrait, from the collection at Nostell, West Yorkshire, presents the artist as a kind of female Hercules, choosing not between Virtue and Vice, but between the discipline of painting (traditionally a male-dominated field) and the discipline of music (seen as a feminine convention). 

Kauffmann was born in Switzerland but settled in London in 1766. She was one of the most prominent artists in eighteenth-century England and, with Mary Moser, was one of only two founding female members of the Royal Academy.

9. 'Hambletonian', Rubbing Down

'Hambletonian', Rubbing Down

'Hambletonian', Rubbing Down 1800

George Stubbs (1724–1806)

National Trust, Mount Stewart

This painting from the collection at Mount Stewart, County Down, shows the celebrated racehorse 'Hambletonian' being rubbed down after his great victory at Newmarket on 25th March 1799. A masterpiece of animal portraiture, this pictures combines anatomical precision with painterly expression.

It was painted by the renowned animal painter George Stubbs and commissioned by the horse's owner, Sir Henry Vane-Tempest.

10. Love Among the Ruins

Love Among the Ruins

Love Among the Ruins 1894

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898)

National Trust, Wightwick Manor

Two lovers in blue robes are seated together on a stone capital; at their feet is part of a broken column overgrown with a briar rose. This is among the finest of Edward Burne-Jones's late works, painted in 1894, four years before his death. It is based on an earlier watercolour of 1870–1873, but the muted colour, coupled with the wistful depiction of the ephemerality of love and youth, are typical of the older Burne-Jones.

This much-loved painting is on view at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands.

11. The cycle of paintings at Sandham Memorial Chapel


Map-Reading 1927–1932

Stanley Spencer (1891–1959)

National Trust, Sandham Memorial Chapel

This is one of 19 paintings by Sir Stanley Spencer commissioned for Sandham Memorial Chapel, Hampshire, an extraordinary cycle of paintings that are regarded as the artist's masterpiece. The painted vignettes recall Spencer's service as a medical orderly and later as a soldier on the Macedonian Front during the First World War.

Here, an officer is shown holding a map of Macedonia, while soldiers in the background are shown feasting on bilberries. The rendering of landscape and greenery typifies Spencer’s skill at painting landscape and still-life.

12. Capriccio of a Mediterranean seaport

Rex Whistler's great mural in the Dining Room at Plas Newydd, Anglesey, painted between 1936 and 1938, depicts the dramatic landscape of Snowdonia in a vast 'capriccio', an architectural fantasy encompassing elements of the mountains, sea and mythology. This detail shows the crown and trident of Neptune, god of the sea, and his footsteps entering the room.

On completion, this mural was his most ambitious interior to date. At the other end of the mural, Whistler included a young man sweeping up rose petals. This is a self portrait, his last one before he was killed in action a few years later at Normandy.

All of the pictures in this article are usually on display, but if you're planning a visit to see a specific work of art, it's always worth checking with the relevant place first. 

David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, National Trust

This story first appeared in a longer form on the National Trust website