Historic records and architectural histories: Petworth

By Tim Hudson (guest blogger)

What types of historic documents do architectural historians use? Continuing with our guest written series, the once Editor of the Sussex Victoria County History and co author of the updated Pevsner guide to West Sussex, Tim Hudson, will be exploring the types of records used when researching built heritage. Each blog, Tim will look at a significant West Sussex building through a variety of historic documents available at the Record Office.

Today we look at Petworth and its Estate.


The West Sussex Record Office holds archives from several great landed estates, for instance those attached to Goodwood and Wiston Houses. But arrangements for the Petworth House Archives are unique. The huge collection remains in situ, kept at the private end of the great house; but documents are produced for inspection by readers at the Record Office in Chichester.

In the past one of the County Council archivists – for many years Alison McCann – was responsible for the Petworth connection. Latterly Alison has continued her involvement as Lord Egremont’s personal archivist.

Petworth Park: Photograph by Ann Hudson

The Petworth House Archives contain much material on the history of the great house itself. Documents relating to the extensive rebuilding of the late 17th and early 18th centuries were trawled in the 1970s and 80s for articles in Country Life and Apollo by the late Gervase Jackson-Stops. Those articles proved invaluable in the revision of the account of the house for the recent ‘Pevsner’ volume Sussex: West, published in 2019 under the editorship of Elizabeth Williamson.

Part of the medieval Petworth House survives, most visibly today the Chapel behind its lush Baroque reconfiguration.  It is well illustrated in a photograph in the new ‘Pevsner’ volume by courtesy of the National Trust (plate 58).

But the overwhelming impression of the building is of the 30-year period beginning with the Duke of Somerset’s succession in 1688. The majestic West Front, perhaps by Daniel Marot, and Grinling Gibbons’s Carved Room are two of its most striking features. A fine example of Gibbons’s intricate limewood carving in the latter room is illustrated in the new ‘Pevsner’, again by courtesy of the Trust (plate 57).

The Park belonging to the house is chiefly the work of Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown, dating from the mid 18th century. The Petworth House Archives contain essential documentation, including Brown’s contracts for the work.

The expansion of the park, both under Brown and earlier, involved the demolition of some buildings in Petworth town, most notably in North Street. Ralph Treswell’s map of 1610 shows a line of houses on the west side of this road, since replaced by the rather overbearing park wall of dark-coloured stone.

PHA 3574 – Excerpt of 1610 map of Petworth by Treswell. The church with its old spire is visible at the junction on North and East Streets. Copyright and thanks to Lord Egremont.

Successive owners of Petworth House have had a major influence on Petworth town in other ways, as the new Pevsner volume reveals. In the 1830s the third Lord Egremont paid for a gas supply to be laid on. The town’s thank-offering was the lamp standard put up at the junction of East and North Streets near the church.

The design of this extraordinary confection was provided circa 1837 by Sir Charles Barry, co-architect of the Houses of Parliament. It was paid for by subscription, the list of subscribers being headed by the Earl of Munster, an illegitimate son of King William IV who was also Lord Egremont’s son in law.

Another striking incident in Petworth’s townscape is the former Swan Hotel on the corner of the Market Square and Saddler’s Row. Plans of circa 1898 survive in the Petworth House Archives. Since no architect’s name is given, these seem most likely to be by the estate architect of the time.

The building has a highly romantic silhouette, but E V Lucas in Highways and Byways in Sussex (1904) felt it might just as well be in Balham! It is now divided between flats (above) and commercial space (below), and thanks to its listed status is certain not to be demolished.

The former Swan Hotel. Photograph by Tim Hudson.

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