My Favourite Painting: Fergus Henderson

Chef Fergus Henderson chooses 'Interior of a Great House' by J. M. W. Turner, a painting which 'compels you to dive in'.

Fergus Henderson explains his choice, Interior of a Great House by Turner

‘When I studied architecture, we spoke a lot about the iconography of a painting, not meaning symbolism as such, but a central point that captivates you and draws you in. It is a beguiling idea, which this picture expresses: the central radiant beam inviting you to become immersed.

‘As my career moved towards cheffing, I became consumed by the idea of the iconography of the plate and it is this painting that I use as a touchstone. There should be one point of simple, enticing clarity – a pickled walnut, perhaps, which is what I most strongly associate with this image – that compels you to dive in. Come! Commune with the pickled walnut!

Fergus Henderson is a chef and founder of the London restaurant St John. His new book, The Book of St John, was published last month

John McEwen comments on Interior of a Great House by Turner:

In the Turner catalogue raisonné, this picture is listed as Interior at Petworth, about 1837, with a qualification: ‘Although identified as Petworth when first listed in the National Gallery inventory in 1905 the picture depicts no recognisable room.’ It came from Turner’s studio, where pictures were often left untitled. Nonetheless, it was purported to show Petworth’s Marble Hall and to have been painted in reaction to Lord Egremont’s death in 1837: ‘The suggestion of a catafalque with coat-of-arms, surrounded by dogs, and the sculptures that possibly allude to Lord Egremont’s collection of antique and contemporary examples… All is in a state of dissolution, above all from the power of [Rembrandtesque] light flooding from the right.’

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Now, however, the painting is tentatively said to describe the drawing room of the neo-Gothic castle (since destroyed) that architect John Nash built for himself on the Isle of Wight. In 1827, Turner stayed there with Nash, as well as at Lord Egremont’s magnificent 17th-century Petworth House in West Sussex. At both, he was an honoured guest as much as a working artist, his every need met.

His visit to Cowes coincided with that of George IV, a passionate yachtsman, who attended the regatta, then in its second year, for the first time. The King gave the event the regal endorsement of a cup and Cowes was abuzz. Turner persuaded Nash to commission two paintings of the regatta and extended his stay.

He also painted another untitled interior, Music Party, which was also once thought to be of Petworth; it, too, has now been assigned to East Cowes Castle. They could, of course, be an imaginative mix of his memories of both houses.