The Country House and the Collecting of Art: Evolution and Dispersal

Module code: HA7101

Module co-ordinator: Professor David Ekserdjian

This module is concerned with the collecting of works of art, above all in the context of the English country house. It will begin by chronicling the first English collecting of Italian Renaissance art, predominantly through the collections of Charles I and the Earl of Arundel. The latter formed a particularly distinguished collection of drawings, and special attention will be paid to the collecting of old master drawings both by the nobility (the Chatsworth drawings are the other obvious case study) and by artists from Lely to Lawrence. We will also examine the roles of auction catalogues, inscriptions, and collectors’ marks within this process.

More generally, we will explore the consequences of the Grand Tour for collecting, not least of antiquities, and the evolution of the auction business, above all in 18th-century Paris and 19th-century London. We will consider the crucial importance of Horace Walpole’s Aedes Walpolianae, which functioned both as a scholarly catalogue and as a selling tool in the eighteenth century, (an intriguing recent parallel is the Treasure Houses of Great Britain exhibition catalogue), along with the consequences of the French Revolution, and especially the arrival of the Orleans Collection in Britain, for the evolution of taste.

Moving on to the 19th century, we will evaluate the significance of such works as Gustav Waagen’s Art Treasures of Great Britain and Sir J.C. Robinson’s catalogue of private collections in the context of the art market. Similarly, in the early 20th century, the rise of American collecting and its effects upon the upon the dispersal of country house collections as well as the activity of such figures as Wilhelm von Bode and Bernard Berenson at the interface between scholarship and the market will be covered in depth.

Finally, we will investigate the consequences for country house collections of post-war development of the market in two principal areas - antiquities and old master paintings and drawings - with particular reference to the need for reassurance felt by buyers over issues of authenticity, provenance and condition, and over how these concerns have been and continue to be addressed by the market. The shifting balance of power between auction houses and art dealers will also be a major theme. Finally, the modern phenomenon of the country house contents sale, which has venerable 19th-century antecedents, not least in the form of the Hamilton Palace sale, will be counterpointed by an investigation of the ways owners and government are now attempting to secure the future of collections.

Topics covered

  • Outlining the history of collecting works of art from the seventeenth century to the present day
  • Grasping the significance of the Grand Tour for collecting
  • Understanding the role of auction catalogues in the formation and dispersal of collections
  • Assessing the role of artists in the collection of works of art


  • 20 hours of seminars


  • Two essays, 2,500 words each (100%)