Hugh Broughton’s home for the reunited Portland Collection at Welbeck Abbey is an assured addition to an architecturally eccentric estate
As Hugh Broughton says, he might not have seemed the obvious choice to design this Nottinghamshire art gallery, given that his last high-profile project was the walking village of Halley VI, Britain’s Antarctic Survey Station. And when it came to the competition to design a home for the Portland Collection at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire, he was up against all the well-known names with a lot of experience of that building type. But he also had under his belt the well-received Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery, completed in 2012. And this is an old-money commission where personality counts for a lot. He and his client, William Parente of Welbeck Abbey, latest of the wealthy family there going right back to Bess of Hardwick in Elizabethan times, just hit it off.
The result is good: a very personal building, built to last, that has a very public function. The Welbeck Estate is unique, the result of a mania for building by the distinctly eccentric 5th ‘burrowing Duke’ of Portland in the 1860s. He kept a large permanently-employed workforce not only to dig the network of subsurface tunnels and rooms that he favoured (he wasn’t keen on being seen in daylight) but also all manner of other buildings, in a vaguely Tudor style appropriate for a descendant of Bess. The resulting village, at a discreet distance from the main house, is like a 19th century stab at a business park – which is pretty much what it has become. Later additions include a typically boisterous range of workshops by John Outram, and the existing Harley Gallery for contemporary art. This is a 1994 conversion of the Estate’s gasworks building, originally needed to provide light for all the buildings and tunnels. The gallery is part of the public face of Welbeck, along with a good farm shop, garden centre in the vast walled garden, and tours of the state rooms of the main house.
Just as the old building is for new art, so the new building is for old art. It sits right next to the Harley Gallery but is not joined to it. The Portland Collection is the cultural patrimony of the dynasty to which Parente belongs, accumulated over nearly 500 years. Among much else, it contains a Michelangelo drawing and the only surviving painting by Marcus Gheeraets the Elder – of Queen Elizabeth I. There are Van Dycks, Stubbses, a remarkable collection of portrait miniatures arranged here by Sir Peter Blake, fine silverware, and Royalist memorabilia including the pearl earring worn by King Charles I at his execution. Parente succeeded to the estate in 2008 and set about unifying and presenting the collection, then dispersed in various family houses. Hence this gallery.
The site was forlorn: the roofless stone hulk of the ‘tan gallops’, once a covered all-weather training ground for racehorses. Broughton has dropped his new building between these walls, resisting his natural urge to reveal the stone inside (not good for hanging art) except where his cool limestone foyer with its cantilevered roof abuts it. The design emerged in intense collaboration with Parente. Instead, the steel-framed building is clad externally in well-proportioned Danish brick with flush lime-mortar pointing. Above this rise the curving zinc-clad roofs of the gallery, their joints rolled rather than the more usual standing-seam.
The pièce de resistance here is the 22m oak-floored Long Gallery, which you enter directly from the foyer. The tall curved cycloidal roof made of fibrous plaster sections rises to a full-length glazed light slot that allows indirect daylight only. The burrowing duke would feel at home here. At present the silverware is displayed in a glass cabinet at the far end of this as a focal point. From here you move right to smaller gallery spaces. North lights produce a wash of daylight when required, or are closed off with external shutters – very necessary for delicate works such as the Michelangelo. The volume is broken into smaller areas for specific displays: items from the collection will regularly change.
The Portland Collection building feels very assured in its proportions, materials and siting. For instance, Broughton places three large windows behind the limestone reception desk in the foyer which give long views across the lush green landscape of the 6000ha estate. Outside, a simple resin-bonded gravel surface to the yard visually connects the various buildings, old and new, in the yard. Heating and cooling are wholly provided by air-source heat pumps, a heat recovery system and a remote photovoltaic array. There is nothing superfluous here, and – apart from some clumsy light fittings in one of the displays – nothing that feels out of place. Welbeck is one of the country’s lesser-known historic destinations but with this gallery it is, as Michelin would say, worth the detour.
880 m2 gross internal area
£4.73m construction cost design
1538 date of oldest work displayed
22m length of Long Gallery
Client The Harley Foundation
Client advisor Malcolm Reading Consultants
Architect Hugh Broughton Architects
Exhibition designer Ronayne Design
Structural engineer Price and Myers
Services engineer AECOM
Quantity surveyor Ridge
Lighting designer Speirs and Major
Acoustic consultant Ramboll
Landscape consultant Dominic Cole Landscape Architects