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Royal curator sheds new light on reclusive Duke
Louis XV Jean Adam Serre c 1860. © The Harley Gallery.

WORKSOP.- Best known for the extensive tunnels he built underneath the family home at Welbeck Abbey on the Welbeck Estate, the eccentric and reclusive 5th Duke of Portland is revealed in a new light through his “extraordinary collection” of miniature paintings says Senior Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection, Vanessa Remington.

Having catalogued the ‘miniatures’ in the Royal Collection, Remington was invited to curate a new exhibition of more than 25 paintings opening at The Harley Gallery on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire on 31 March and running until 30 September 2017.

She describes the Portland Collection’s miniatures as “probably second only to the Royal Collection” and the new exhibition focuses on the 5th Duke to show a man very different from his public persona. Despite his reputation as a recluse with little social life who avoided the outside world, Remington’s research shows a Duke who was nevertheless fascinated by youth, beauty, celebrities and high society.

“Unfortunately, we have no diary or memoirs from the 5th Duke and so he’s been very much defined by the miles of tunnels he built under the family home. By examining his collection of miniatures though we see a man fascinated by women, despite being a recluse who had no personal relationships with them other than his sister.

“There is a very clear focus on beautiful and famous young women so it’s a sad irony of his life that he felt unable to engage and enter that world despite the access his wealth and social status gave him,” says Remington.

Miniatures were very popular across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and were usually intimate and informal portraits painted by specialist artists for rich patrons who often gave them as love tokens. The 5th Duke was an avid collector and amongst more than 80 miniatures he collected personally are key pieces including:

• Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and Empress Josephine of France
• The beautiful but doomed mistress of Louis XIV, the Duchess of Fontanges
• Two young girls dressed as angels
• Louis XV, King of France and his consort, Marie Leczinska, Queen of France
• The famous soprano, Adelaide Kemble, with whom the Duke was once in love, and her sister, the actress Frances 'Fanny' Kemble. Also on show will be a series of pastel paintings of the opera singer, which he commissioned.

Painted on vellum and ivory, the miniatures of the Portland Collection are displayed very infrequently and for short periods because of the risk of light damage. Many of the miniatures are painted with watercolour paint which is light sensitive. A specialist viewing area uses sophisticated PIR technology to manage light levels in order to protect the works for generations to come.

The Portland Collection at Welbeck houses treasures assembled over 400 years by the Dukes of Portland and their families. It opened to the public on Sunday 20th March 2016 and includes masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s Madonna del Silenzio, on show for the first time in 50 years; Van Dyck’s paintings of a young Charles II in armour and Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, not publicly exhibited since 1960; as well as the pearl earring worn by Charles I at his execution in 1649.

The Portland Collection was named RIBA East Midlands’ building of the year, as well as winning the East Midlands Sustainability Award, Heritage award and a prestigious national RIBA award. The Gallery most recently won a silver award in the American Architecture Prize, and is currently in the running for a ‘Building’ award and a Civic Trust award.

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