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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Cleveland House and viewing art in the regency

The Stafford Gallery at Cleveland House, named after its owner the 2nd Marquess of Stafford, was the most celebrated collection of Old Masters in Regency London. Cleveland House was entirely rebuilt in the 1790s by the third Duke of Bridgewater who had assembled a collection of hundreds paintings. His collection included most of the paintings owned by the Duke of Orléans, which was a grand collection sold after the French Revolution in 1798. The Duke of Bridgewater’s nephew, who became the Marquess of Stafford in 1803, inherited the house and continued the restoration, adding to the art collection, which he then opened to the public.

This collection was the first of its kind to be made accessible to the public in London. The grand opening in 1806 was attended by 2,000 guests, including the Prince of Wales and his brothers.

The collection was mostly old master paintings by artists like Raphael, Poussin, Titian, Claude, and Annibale Carracci. These twelve rooms of the house were open to the public during the height of the season and it might have been the most impressive private collection in Europe. It could be visited on Wednesday afternoons over four, later three, months in the summer by “acquaintances of a member of the family”, but in practice tickets could be obtained by simply writing and asking for them.

There were around 300 paintings on display, and when it was opened to the public it was still nearly twenty years before the National Gallery opened. There were other collections of Old Master paintings in English homes, like at Blenheim and Chatsworth, but their collections were not of the quality of the paintings in the Stafford Gallery and nor were their doors open to the general masses. The collection had Italian baroque and Dutch 17th-century paintings, and was also brought it up to date with the inclusion of Turner and other British painters.

In Mr Darcy’s Valentine, Darcy decides to take Elizabeth to Cleveland House to see the art collection of the the Marquess of Stafford. In the story, the marquess’s son is a friend of Darcy’s, and Darcy calls in a favor. One of the paintings they talk about, after admiring the Old Masters, is a Turner seascape.

They walked through all of the rooms, occasionally joined by Bingley and Jane, but the afternoon was primarily spent looking at dozens of paintings with Darcy.

“Do you have many old masters at Pemberley?” she asked him as they looked at a painting he had said was by Raphael.

“No, only family portraits and a few Derbyshire landscapes. There is a Joseph Wright landscape I am fond of. But as much as I admire paintings like these, it would not do for Pemberley to tie up so much money in art.”

She considered that preferring having paintings of family and home suited Darcy well. Those might be the things most important to him. “Well, I think every drawing room should have such French and Italian masters,” she said archly, “that way there is always a source of amusement if the evening company affords no others.”

He smiled. “No evening where you are present could be described as such.” His sincerity made a warmth spread across her. Darcy asked, “Which of these grand paintings would you purchase if money was no object?”

“Oh, I know nothing about art.”

“Even if you could not explain its technical composition, you know what you like.”

“Well, I am an expert on my own opinion,” she agreed, and his amused laugh brought a smile to her own lips. “I think I know. Let me show you.”

She led them into another room that had the few English pictures in the collection and pointed to a large painting of boats in a gale.

Dutch Boats in a Gale (The Bridgewater Sea Piece) 1801 Turner

“That was done by Mr Turner,” he said, coming up to stand beside her to look at it. “Do you like the realism of it, rather than the other more mythical and symbolic paintings here?”

Elizabeth nodded. “The rough water, the ominous clouds . . . you can almost feel the strain and the roll of the two boats in the foreground before they hit one another.”

“They do seem to be on an unavoidable collision course,” he said, pointing. “There is a sense of urgency.” She felt more than saw him shift his weight. “But the storm clouds are met with breaking sunshine, and the boats in the background are not facing the same waves. That bit of clear sky and calmer ocean give one hope.”

The Stafford Gallery at Cleveland House (rebuilt and renamed Bridgewater House in 1854, and then known as the "Bridgewater Gallery”) began a trend of private owners opening their collections to the public. This led to the development of loan exhibitions and eventually the establishment of permanent art galleries in the UK.

The first loan exhibitions were established by the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom (1805-67). The Duke of Bridgewater’s nephew was a founding member and this institution was the forerunner of the National Gallery, established in 1824, and was the first permanent collection accessible to the public. Some of the pieces in the original Orléans Collection and subsequent Stafford Gallery collection at Cleveland House are now in The National Gallery of Scotland and the National Gallery in London.

You’ll have to read Mr Darcy’s Valentine to learn how Darcy and Elizabeth’s gallery viewing ends and what other romantic thing Darcy says before the visit to town is over.

Are you a fan of art galleries? What style of paintings are your favorites? Do you like it when fictional characters visit real places?

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