The history man

09th July 2019

To celebrate the publication of his new book, which delves into the estate's glorious history, we talk to Goodwood House curator James Peill

Words by James Collard

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“As a child I loved going to country houses,” says James Peill. “I was always inspired by the history, the art, and the stories of the families.” And one way or another, such houses and the treasures they contain have been his career – first at Christie’s in London and New York, then at Goodwood, where he became curator of the Goodwood Collection in 2009, and as an author of several books on the subject, the latest being Glorious Goodwood: A Biography of England’s Greatest Sporting Estate.

Peill’s CV reveals a singular focus. The avid young countryhouse visitor who knew before he was 10 that he wanted to work at Christie’s went on and did precisely that, joining as a graduate trainee after completing a History of Art degree. At Christie’s, Peill (pictured, above) trained as a furniture specialist and auctioneer – an experience he likens to doing “a one-man show, only with quite a lot of money at stake”. 

A recent acquisition for the Goodwood Collection – a 1787 cartoon depicting the 3rd Duke and his wife (in the box) at the theatre he had built at his London house, where amateur theatricals were performed to great acclaim

A recent acquisition for the Goodwood Collection – a 1787 cartoon depicting the 3rd Duke and his wife (in the box) at the theatre he had built at his London house, where amateur theatricals were performed to great acclaim

With a big house sale, “you’d get the complete picture – furniture, silver, porcelain, maybe books”. And while Peill’s work brought him close to exceptional pieces, such sales can also signal the dispersal of a great collection, amassed in precisely the kind of country house that he has always loved.

So it’s doubtless more of an unalloyed pleasure to be the professional custodian of one of the great surviving collections at Goodwood House – tasked with maintaining and even adding to it. For that, the questions Peill and the current Duke ask themselves are these: “Can we afford it? Does it look good? Does it need a lot of money spent on restoring it? Does it fill a gap in the collection? Is it something that was in the collection that we want to have back?” And, of course, a question perhaps more familiar to the rest of us: “Do we have room for it?”

Glorious Goodwood: A Biography of England’s Greatest Sporting Estate

Glorious Goodwood: A Biography of England’s Greatest Sporting Estate

At Goodwood, there are pieces that proclaim the grandeur of the Dukes’ public lives: tapestries given by Louis XV to the 3rd Duke, ambassador to Paris; Napoleon’s campaign chair, given by Wellington to the 4th Duke, his comrade-in-arms; ancestral portraits aplenty. But others speak to the family’s sporting pursuits, which Peill describes with such infectious enthusiasm in his book: Stubbs’s paintings of the Charlton Hunt; Jane, Duchess of Gordon, fishing; the 7th Duke on the golf course; and shooting parties at Glenfiddich.

Asked to explain this continuity of “sporting passions, which the family act out and share”, from all of the above to Thoroughbred racing and Formula 1, Peill suggests that “it’s partly the place – and it’s a lovely place. And there’s been this very strong desire, passed down through the generations, to share it with others. And there’s a great enjoyment in sharing. And maybe that’s something you only learn by doing it.”

James Peill’s Glorious Goodwood: A Biography of England’s Greatest Sporting Estate is out now, published by Constable

This article was taken from the Summer 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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Our summer exhibition theme is Glorious Goodwood: A Biography of England’s Greatest Sporting Estate

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