Last week I wrote about the display of paintings in public galleries. This week my topic is how paintings were displayed in large private homes during the decade of the Regency. Some of the methods for the display of art in public galleries were also employed in private homes, especially the homes of royalty and the aristocracy. But there was more leeway to deviate from these practices in private galleries, and many wealthy connoisseurs indulged their whims as they pleased. Not only in how they displayed their art, but in the type of art they chose to collect, some of which was not suitable or appropriate for display in mixed company or for public viewing.
The secrets of the display of art in the private spaces of the Regency …
Art has been collected by men, and women, of taste beginning in Classical times, though the more modern tradition of collecting art did not begin until the end of the Renaissance. By the seventeenth century it have become an obsession for some dilettantes. (Originally this word was used to refer to someone who appreciates art, as differentiated from one who creates it. It retained this meaning through the Regency. Sadly, it is now used to disparage those who are not professionals in a given discipline, regardless of their passion and commitment.) The Grand Tour only fueled the obsession for art collecting among the monied classes. Vast quantities of art where shipped back to England from wherever her young men of means might travel. Once it arrived, it had to be displayed, not only for the enjoyment of the collector, but frequently to impress his friends and associates with both his taste and his wealth.
Unlike the public picture galleries, only the grandest private galleries were designed with skylights to provide top-lighting. Most were side-lit with regular windows. Whenever possible, the room chosen for the gallery would have a northern exposure. This would provide the most even light as well as reducing potential sunlight damage. In some private galleries, the cornices were fitted with curtain rods so that curtains could be drawn over the walls to protect the pictures on them from light damage except when they were actually being viewed. In some cases, only select paintings would be hung with curtains. Frequently, these were of scenes considered too horrifying to be viewed by refined ladies of delicate sensibilities. The curtains were therefore closed when ladies toured the gallery, but were opened if visitors were all male. The watercolors by the artist J. M. W. Turner were found to have green roller blinds fitted into their gilt frames when they went to the Tate Gallery after his death. The windows of many private galleries had shutters as well as draperies in order to regulate the light which entered the room. These shutters could also provide added security for a private art gallery.
Most private galleries were designed primarily for daylight viewing. Only on special occasions would they be illuminated by artificial light, either from candles or lamps, as these were extremely expensive to use in the volume needed to fully illuminate a large room. In addition to the risk of fire, the smoke was detrimental to the paintings. In most galleries, wall sconces with reflective backing plaques would be placed at intervals around the room. The frames of particularly large or important paintings might be fitted with candle sockets on each side. Robert Adam was one of the first to incorporate candle holders into the frames of pictures. Chandeliers of candles or oil light were suspended from the ceilings in the larger galleries. It was also possible to hire lighting fixtures, so a private gallery could be well lit for a special occasion even if it did not have a large number of lighting fixtures permanently installed. Gas lighting came to private homes much later than it did to public buildings, so there were no instances of private galleries being illuminated by gas light during the Regency.
Mirrors were much more frequently used in private galleries than they were in public galleries, to reflect and increase the available light at night or on overcast days. Chimney-breasts were very often hung with a large mirror, as a painting hung over a fireplace would be at high risk of smoke damage. Mirrors might also be attached to the door panels on the side in the gallery. At the Duke of Wellington’s London home, Apsley House, the windows of his picture galleries were covered with mirrored panels at night.
As in the public galleries, red was the most common wall color in private galleries, particularly in country houses. However, there were many wealthy art collectors who chose to disregard the convention. A notable exception to the use of red walls was the Green Closet at Ham House, which, as the name suggests, was covered with green damask. The walls of the galleries at both Osterley Park and Dudley House in London were also green, the color second in popularity to red. Blue was used on the walls of a few prominent private galleries, most often in London houses. At Carlton House, the Prince Regent had a gallery known as the Blue Velvet Room, called so for the material which covered its walls. In the great Waterloo Gallery at Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington chose yellow silk damask as the wall covering, disregarding the advice he had received that this would be a poor foil to both his paintings and their gilded frames.
The practice of skying paintings, that is, covering the walls closely from floor to ceiling with paintings, was used in many private galleries just as it was in most public galleries. However, the paintings in the private galleries were not typically hung as closely together as those in the public spaces. This was partly due to the fact that individual private collectors often did not own as many paintings as a public institution, but also because more private galleries were illuminated by regular windows rather than skylights, reducing the available wall space. The Prince Regent was a notable exception to this practice of densely hung pictures. He ordered his small but important collection of Dutch paintings to be hung separately, one on each panel of the walls of his Blue Velvet Room. A few other serious collectors, like the Regent, also hung their paintings according to school, or by type, grouping all their landscapes together in one part of their gallery, and all their portraits together in another.
A unique feature of a few homes of wealthy art collectors was the closet. This was a small room, usually off the library or the gentleman’s bedchamber, often with a hidden door which was kept locked. It was customary that only the gentleman and his man would have access to the closet. His lady, if he were married, might not even know of its existence and no servants except the valet would ever be allowed to enter it. In this small room were hung either the gentleman’s most precious paintings and/or those of an erotic nature which could not be displayed in the main gallery of his home. Paintings with erotic themes have existed since ancient times and have been avidly collected by those with an interest in such subjects. Many of them are extraordinarily explicit, and would certainly not have been considered fit for public exhibition during the Regency. Even when kept in a private gentleman’s closet, such paintings were often curtained, just as were those in the main gallery of the house which were considered too horrifying to be viewed by ladies. These small rooms were typically lit by skylight, or had no windows at all and were lit only by artificial light.
During the Regency, the private art galleries of many wealthy collectors looked very much like the public exhibition rooms of the art academies and auction houses, on a slightly smaller scale. Paintings were hung in tiers on the walls of these rooms, occasionally grouped by school, type or date by more knowledgeable collectors. However, these private galleries were less likely to be lit from above by skylights. Instead, they were lit by regular windows. and many of them had curtains which covered each wall upon which paintings were hung to protect them from sunlight. And some of these wealthy collectors had a small private closet in which they kept their most valuable or erotic pictures. Gentlemen of somewhat less means with an interest in erotic art might have one or two paintings hung in an alcove of their bedchamber or in their dressing room. These pictures would also be kept curtained except when they were viewed.
Those fully curtained walls have great potential as a hiding place for the hero or heroine while the villain is plotting evil in the gallery. Or perhaps the other way around, the villain is eavesdropping on the hero as he plans the capture of a French spy. And how many interesting things might happen in those small private gentlemen’s closets? Perhaps a slow and delicious seduction of the heroine or an effective, if perhaps unsettling, hiding place for the hero who is wrongfully hunted for some crime of which he is not guilty. The possibilities are nearly endless and certainly stimulating.