The Weston Park Foundation is delighted to have been able to join Art UK and for this collaborative association to enable the House's important collection of paintings to finally begin to appear online. Weston Park's art collection has long been an open secret in the art world – a collection that embraces world-class works by Sir Anthony van Dyck that are regularly loaned to global exhibitions, together with sporting art, old master paintings, and a range of portraits that chart not only the owners of Weston and their family but also interesting and significant sitters from across Europe.
The collection is an indigenous country house collection, in that it has long been at Weston Park and remained in the ownership of the Earls of Bradford until, in 1986, the present and 7th Earl of Bradford gifted the House, park and collections to the nation. The gift was engineered and underwritten by the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Weston Park is now vested in the Trustees of the Weston Park Foundation, an independent charity with conservation and learning objectives.
As a collection, though, the group of paintings had a fascinating origin, with the early acquisitions made by father and son, Francis Newport (1620–1708), 1st Earl of Bradford of the first creation, and his younger son, the Honourable Thomas Newport (1655–1719), Lord Torrington. Francis had been a Royalist who was captured fighting for the king at the Battle of Oswestry, whilst his wife, Lady Diana Russell, a daughter of the 4th Earl of Bedford, had maintained the family home at High Ercall as a garrison for the Royalist forces.
Both Francis Newport and his wife were highly cultured people. Lady Diana's father, the Earl of Bedford, was a major patron of the architect Inigo Jones, employing him in the 1630s to develop Covent Garden in a scheme of classical town planning which resulted in the square, piazza and church of St Pauls. Francis Newport built a highly fashionable Dutch-inspired brick townhouse in Shrewsbury and was eventually commemorated by a monument that is attributed to Grinling Gibbons.
During the Commonwealth period that had followed the Civil Wars, many works of art flooded the market as Royalists – including the Newports – were fined for their support of the defeated Charles I. The family were, however, able to make acquisitions and these continued after the Restoration of the monarchy when Charles II regained the throne in 1660.
One of the most important group purchases was made by Francis Newport at the sale of the executors of the painter Sir Peter Lely in 1682, when he acquired 15 paintings for a total in excess of the then-sizeable sum of £300. Prime amongst his pictures were the works of Sir Anthony van Dyck, including the portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson that is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and also Van Dyck's self portrait which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Of the other works by this artist, six are still at Weston Park including his masterful portrait of Sir Thomas Hanmer which was noticed by the diarist John Evelyn in 1685:
'I dined at Lord Newport's, who has some excellent pictures, especially that of Sir Thomas Hanmer by Vandyck, one of the best he ever painted...'
The collection was initially kept at the family's London house in Surrey Street, Westminster, but during Thomas, Lord Torrington's custodianship the pictures were removed to Richmond House, a Thames-side villa at Twickenham that had been bought by Francis Earl of Bradford in 1685. When Lord Torrington's widow, Ann, Lady Torrington, died in 1735, the Twickenham house was sold and the picture collection was inherited and brought to Weston Park by Anne's sister-in-law, Mary Wilbraham, Countess of Bradford. It took nearly 30 horse-drawn carts to bring the 172 paintings to Weston Park and the records still survive to indicate which painting arrived in each packing case.
Over the years, some have left the House but the collecting at Weston Park continued, with judicious additions of works by Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Constable, George Stubbs, the Ferneley family, and Sir Francis Grant, amongst other notable artists. Even in the ownership of the Weston Park Foundation, further additions of works by Paul Benney, Marcus May, Rob Pointon and Christopher Clements have further augmented the historical holdings of this remarkable historic house.
Gareth J. L. Williams, Curator & Head of Learning, Weston Park Foundation