Apollo Magazine

How Compton Verney stays ahead of the flock

Now 20 years old, the country house museum in Warwickshire has developed a distinctive approach to collecting – and it’s paying off handsomely

Prize Ram (c. 1870; detail), unknown artist. Photo: Jamie Woodley; © Compton Verney

‘Open doors, open minds,’ said Sir Peter Moores, businessman, art collector and founder of Compton Verney, an 18th-century mansion-turned-art gallery nestled in 120 acres of serene Warwickshire countryside. Geraldine Collinge, who became CEO 18 months ago, tells me this over a coffee in the gallery cafe, adding that her aim for the site is to ‘make our collections open to all’ and to ‘bring children up with the habit of enjoying art’. It’s the first day of the Easter school holidays and, as Collinge is talking, I have to lean forward to hear her over the din of screaming kids. Unreasonably grouchy thoughts creep into my mind as the clamour rises; perhaps the doors are a little too open today.

All this feels slightly unexpected in a country house, but then Compton Verney is not really a country house any more. The current form of the building can be traced back to the 1760s, when it was overhauled by the architect Robert Adam, with Capability Brown drafted in to design the grounds a few years later. It was requisitioned for the army during the Second World War and then fell into disrepair until the early 1990s, when Moores bought the estate and renovated it, gutting most of the interior to create a gallery, which opened in March 2004. There are still a few gold balloons scattered around the cafe from the recent 20th-anniversary celebrations, part of which includes a new sculpture park, with a bronze Louise Bourgeois spider the crowning jewel. Indeed, a large part of Compton Verney’s charm comes precisely from its blend of the accessible and the esoteric, the playful and the serious.

Compton Verney seen across Compton Pools. Photo courtesy Compton Verney

Although he accumulated a substantial body of art throughout his lifetime, Moores bought works specifically for Compton Verney, focusing on art that was neglected in other major galleries and museums in the UK. Hence the eclectic nature of the collection, which is split into distinct sections: British folk art, ancient Chinese bronzes, northern European Renaissance art, British portraits and miniatures, Neapolitan art from 1600–1900 and the Marx–Lambert collection of ceramics and other objects. Moores was adamant that the art should always be on display and, as such, the gallery is full to the brim, so acquisitions are rare. One notable exception is Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies (c. 1650), an extraordinary English portrait of a Black and a white sitter side by side, which drew attention when it was acquired last year and is currently undergoing extensive analysis.

Nowhere is Compton Verney’s approach to accessibility more visible than in the Neapolitan rooms, which have recently been rehung to emphasise the sensory nature of the works – a move that has resulted in visitor numbers increasing five-fold, according to Collinge. Spray bottles have been positioned throughout the collection, each one carrying a different scent to chime with the art. One bottle in the first room emits a smoky odour to complement two paintings of the eruption of Vesuvius by night: an atmospheric work from 1774 by Pierre-Jacques Volaire, in which Turner-esque oranges and reds billow across the canvas, and a smaller, more inert painting of 1760/61 by Lacroix Marseille. Next to this is an interactive work, Sensing Vesuvius (2023), by the visually impaired artist Aaron McPeake, which consists of three hunks of solid Vesuvian lava suspended from strings on the ceiling. When you push them together, they make a series of satisfying clangs, like volcanic wind-chimes. ‘I like it when I’m in a meeting and I hear the bells being rung,’ Collinge smiles. ‘It’s always a nice way to start the week.’

An Eruption of Vesuvius by Moonlight (1774), Pierre-Jacques Volaire. Photo: John Hammond; © Compton Verney

The Naples collection continues with displays incorporating touch and sound, taking in some lovely paintings by Pietro Fabris; a still life by Giovanni Battista Recco which places an endearingly unlovely parsnip centre stage; and Giuseppe Bonito’s The Music Lesson (1738–39), which has a pair of headphones next to it playing a recording of a Scarlatti sonata. But one work in particular draws the eye in these rooms: Gennaro Basile’s Self-Portrait (c. 1752–55), which at first glance looks like a portrait of two sitters but is actually Basile, casually turned towards the viewer, a half-smile on his lips and brush in his hand, painting a woman’s portrait. The woman – who the gallery card suggests could be the Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa – looks static next to the dynamic Basile in the foreground, and yet she commands the canvas, positioned above her creator in a complex comment on the power relations inherent in portrait-painting.

Self-Portrait (1752–55), Gennaro Basile. © Compton Verney

The curation is more orthodox in the northern European rooms, which are dominated by the Lamentation Altarpiece (c. 1515), of which the two wing panels owned by Compton Verney have been temporarily reunited with the magnificent central panel in the National Gallery of Scotland’s collection. Wooden and alabaster carvings and reliefs, some immaculately proportioned, others misshapen but no less intriguing, are dotted throughout, along with several works by Cranach, including Venus and Cupid (c. 1525), and a haunting death mask (c. 1530) by an anonymous Netherlandish artist that is, in a way, the most bracingly alive thing in the room.

When Moores was assembling the Compton Verney collection, he was keen to include works that he thought would bring crowds – particularly people who wouldn’t usually flock to galleries. The result of that desire is the British folk-art collection, which Moore apparently didn’t care for but is an astonishingly rich and unusual body of work. Entering the room is like stepping into a cabinet of curiosities: animals hang from the ceiling; tables are laden with painted whirligigs, pull-along animal toys and a toasting fork in the shape of a three-legged dog. Up the stairs in a second room, paintings are hung cheek by jowl and old wooden chairs are crammed into corners; the building’s sloping roof gives the feeling of rummaging around in the attic of a recently deceased hoarder. The art is, by definition, the work of untrained hands, mostly anonymous, but many of them are exquisitely crafted and full of wit and character – the cartoonish The Dentist (c. 1770), attributed to John Collier, is a delight, as are the anonymous painting Three Sober Preachers (c. 1860), with its childish Rousseau-esque figures, and the extensive array of animal pictures, including cats, dogs, pigs and a gloriously cuboid prize ram.

The Folk Art gallery at Compton Verney in 2016. Photo: Jamie Woodley; courtesy Compton Verney

The distinct nature of each collection might give visitors the feeling that they’re seeing six separate galleries. In a sense they are, but as I leave the British room with Canaletto’s The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens (c. 1751) lingering in the mind and head upstairs to see a selection of ancient Chinese bronzes, I feel a sense of continuity starting to take form. Doesn’t Enid Marx’s 20th-century papier-mâché Mexican Creature have a similarly gormless expression to that Tang dynasty terracotta horse? And does the anonymous English folk painting Abraham Offering up his Son Isaac (c. 1800–20) not chime with the German Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (c. 1505–08) in its innovative use of scale? That seems to me a freeing, childlike way of looking at art, rooted in the acts of looking and imagining rather than the strictures of genre, school or medium. In that sense, this unique place has done its job.

Prize Ram (c. 1870), unknown artist. Photo: Jamie Woodley; © Compton Verney

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