Major new exhibition at the National Trust's Petworth House

From Albrecht Dürer to John Piper, a  new exhibition at Petworth House looks at how the skies have been depicted in art. Skyscape runs at the National Trust venue from January 11-March 18.

Constable, John, Summer Sunset, oil on paper, c.1820-25.  Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Constable, John, Summer Sunset, oil on paper, c.1820-25. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Focusing on aerial rather than terrestrial landscapes, it will offer visitors the chance to view masterpieces spanning 500 years of European art.

Showcasing nearly forty objects from the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, Skyscape is inspired by John Constable’s (1776-1837) statement of October 23 1821 that ‘It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the keynote, the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment.’

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Spokeswoman Gina Dudjan explains “Skyscape begins with depictions of the sky as the dominion of the divine. Narratives of revelation, redemption, and judgement from classical and Christian traditions are represented, including Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) famous and minutely detailed engraving Nemesis and Rembrandt’s (1606-1669) most celebrated landscape etching, The Three Trees. Another highlight is a striking renaissance Limoges enamel of the Crucifixion with a backdrop of gilded cumulus clouds.

“With the recognition of landscape as a discrete artistic genre during the seventeenth century, and the emergence of meteorology as a scientific discipline in the late 18th century, the sky became a subject in its own right. Artists such as J R Cozens (1752-1797) and J M W Turner (1775-1851), as well as Constable, developed innovative techniques, particularly using watercolour, oil sketches and mezzotint to capture fleeting effects of light and weather with greater precision and apparent spontaneity.

“The majestic watercolour Sepulchral Remains in the Campagna by J R Cozens, where the sky rather than the Roman countryside dominates the composition, reveals his influential genius for conveying shifting weather through delicately blended watercolour washes.

“Yet the sky retained its capacity for heavenly symbolism and increasingly became a vehicle for emotional expression. Clouds could suggest transience or magnificence, storms might embody threat or drama while sunrises and sunsets often evoked meditations upon death and renewal.

“For the Victorian polymath John Ruskin (1819-1900), meteorological accuracy in art was a means of revealing spiritual truths. The exhibition includes two of his vividly coloured watercolours of the dawn. He described making such works as ‘bottling skies’ in the same way that his father, a prosperous sherry merchant, preserved vintages. A habitual early riser, Ruskin urged his students in The Elements of Drawing (1857) to make daily studies of the dawn, declaring ‘Love that rightly with all your heart, and soul, and eyes; and you are established in foundation laws of colour’.

“The spiritual and emotive aspect of skies persisted in the work of British 20th-century artists as diverse as George Clausen (1852-1944), Paul Nash (1889-1946) and John Piper (1903-1992). Commissioned by Queen Elizabeth in 1941 to make a series of topographical records of Windsor Castle, Piper’s stormy skies over the royal residence represented imminent threat of the war and the Luftwaffe. However, this sombre symbolism was ignored or deplored by King George VI who wryly remarked, ‘You seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper.’”

The exhibition has been organised by the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. £5 for National Trust members and non-members. Normal admission prices apply. Skyscape takes place in the Servants’ Quarters Gallery and the mansion. Due to limited space in the Servants’ Quarters Gallery, timed tickets are required for this part of the exhibition.