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Art at Hillsborough Castle

The display of art at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland has been selected to represent both the history and the contemporary use of the house as a royal and government residence. It has been drawn from several sources, including The Royal Collection, The Schorr Collection and collections featuring contemporary Irish artists.

The paintings are displayed to reflect the themes and historical use of the rooms where appropriate, including rule, power, law and justice, and the Downshire family history. There are original works of art hanging alongside later copies, or interesting ‘after’ or ‘school of’ works, inspired by more famous artists.

Here is a more in-depth look at some of the highlights of the current Hillsborough Castle hang and the stories they depict.


Did you know?

Copies of original paintings referred to as ‘studio of’ or ‘school of’ have usually been created by artists in training under a famous painter.

The South Terrace, Hillsborough Castle on a clear day.

The history of art at Hillsborough

Paintings in an Irish ‘Big House’, as these aristocratic private homes were known, were usually created by minor jobbing artists.  These painters travelled around the country to paint for wealthy clients.

However, we know Hillsborough originally displayed work by one prominent artist, George Romney (1734-1802). From the house inventories going back as far as 1747, we can see that family portraits hung in the Dining Room, as was traditional.

Satirists were also popular, and these early inventories showed that the family owned many prints by William Hogarth.

Image: The South Terrace, Hillsborough Castle, © Historic Royal Palaces

State Entrance Hall

This room has always been the entrance to the building, and a space in which to welcome visitors, from Queen Elizabeth II to pop star Gary Barlow.

State Entrance Hall at Hillsborough Castle with artworks hanging on the walls.

The hang in the State Entrance Hall shows all the main protagonists involved in the history of the house, including Wills Hill, 1st Marquess of Downshire, painted in 1791 by George Romney.

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

A full-length portrait of Charles II wearing Garter robes, a dark blue velvet mantle lined with white silk and embroidered with the Garter badge. He looks towards the viewer.

Charles II, After Sir Peter Lely

State Entrance Hall

This handsome Stuart was particularly important to the town, and to the Hill family.

During the 1660s Charles II granted Hillsborough borough status.

This gave the family important commercial and legal benefits, including the right to send representatives to parliament.

This copy of the 1672 original painting was commissioned by Queen Victoria in the 19th century.

Although the Queen was a Hanoverian, she took a keen interest in her glamorous Stuart ancestors.

We don’t know exactly when this picture was painted, but it was hanging in St James’s Palace by 1865.

Charles II, after Peter Lely (19th-century copy), Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019, RCIN 407684

A full length portrait of a young Queen Mary II, when she was a princess, depicted in a flowing gown as the mythological goddess of hunting, Diana. She carries a bow and wears a crescent moon on her head.

Mary II when Princess

State Entrance Hall

The Dutch artist Peter Lely depicts the 10-year-old Princess Mary, daughter of James II and sister to the future Queen Anne, as the Roman goddess Diana.

As well as being a huntress, Diana was also the virtuous protector of young women, and perhaps Lely evoked Diana for a reason.

Five years after this was painted, tall, attractive Mary was told she was to be sent away to the Netherlands to marry her cousin, Prince William of Orange, who was at least 10cm shorter than her, and considerably older.

The young Princess ‘wept all day that afternoon and all the following day’. 

Despite this unpromising start, the couple grew to love each other. Mary returned to England in 1668 after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ to rule jointly with her husband, William III.

Mary II died of smallpox in 1694 aged only 32, leaving William heartbroken.

Mary II (1662-94) (above), when Princess by Peter Lely, c1672, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019, RCIN 404918

Throne Room

This splendid space is the ceremonial heart of the castle, and when it was created in the early 19th century as a Saloon, it was the picture gallery of the house.

The Throne Room at Hillsborough Castle, with rich paintings on the walls and two red thrones at the end of the room.

Traditionally, here was where the Downshire family, like other aristocrats, would hang their most prized ‘history’ paintings. These featured stories from the Bible, mythology and ancient history, to reflect an aristocratic classical education.

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

A painting depicting a stag hunt at the Palace of Versailles in the 1700s, showing the Duc de Bourgogne on light grey horse holding out a sword. He is surrounded by other men and hunting dogs, the palace in the background, along with the city.

Stag Hunt at Versailles 

Throne Room

This painting and its pair, Hawking Party at Marly, were bought by art-loving British monarch George IV following the French Revolution. They evoke the lost monarchy of France and feature the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy and their splendid court – something to which the King aspired.

George IV adored anything French – food and furniture as well as art – and he was an extravagant collector. He filled his palaces with collections of European old masters and more contemporary work. Displaying paintings of the lost French monarchy was an attempt to show solidarity with them, post-Revolution, while of course being available more cheaply as the new French government sold them all off. George IV paid only 40 guineas for both paintings from a Parisian dealer!

Stag Hunt at Versailles (detail), by Jean Baptiste Martin, c1700, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019, RCIN 406958

Marie Adélaïde of Savoy riding side-saddle, wearing a blue and gold dress with a hawk on her hand. She is surrounded by dogs and courtiers, with a view of Marly in the background, wooded hills, and pavilions.

Hawking Party at Marly

Throne Room

The Duchess of Burgundy, aged around 15 is riding side-saddle on a white horse at the Chateau of Marly, seen in the background.

Her arrival in the French court, aged 12, to marry the Duke was described as ‘a breath of fresh air’ but sadly she died when she was 26 from a measles outbreak that also killed her husband and eldest son.

Hawking Party at Marly (detail), by Jean Baptiste Martin, c1700, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019, RCIN 406957

A painting of the family of Darius, King of Persia, kneeling to presented to Alexander the Great.

The Family of Darius before Alexander

Throne Room

This is another painting in the Throne Room chosen for its classical subject matter. The scene depicts the story of the captured family of the Persian Emperor Darius III pleading with Alexander the Great for their freedom.

It is a version of an earlier famous painting by Paolo Veronese, painted in 1565-7.

The original first hung in Venice, where it was much copied by aspiring artists on their ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. This later reduced and simplified version was painted by an apprentice of Sebastiano Ricci, a celebrated Venetian artist of the 1700s, under supervision in his studio. 

The story has a happy ending: Darius had fled from the battlefield, allowing his family to be captured by Alexander, who refused to release them despite their desperate pleas. However, Alexander treated them generously and eventually married Darius’ daughter. 

The Family of Darius before Alexander (above), Studio of Sebastiano Ricci, c1700-30, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019, RCIN 404768

Red Room

The paintings in this room appear as a ‘cabinet hang’, typical of the type where many small, highly-decorative paintings are densely displayed.

The Red Room at Hillsborough Castle with rich red walls and paintings.

A cabinet was usually a private room in which intimate discussion took place. The round table was a deliberate choice, allowing equality of seating for all participants.

The cabinet hang was chosen here as it is particularly appropriate for the Red Room. During the 1980s and 1990s, many of the delicate negotiations of the Peace Process were held in here.

It was in the Red Room that Queen Elizabeth II met Irish President Mary McAleese in 2005, for what was described at the time as ‘a historic event’. 

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

A painting of Francis Rawdon-Hastings wearing the red and white undress uniform of a colonel with the woods behind him. To his right, a fashionable red drape flows behind him.

Francis Rawdon-Hastings

Red Room

A full-scale portrait of this kind is not usually found in a ‘cabinet hang’, but it is displayed here as it’s one of Reynold’s finest paintings in an impressive career, and Hastings has links with the area surrounding Hillsborough, as he was the 2nd Earl of Moira, the nearby town.

This portrait was commissioned by Rawdon-Hastings as a gift for the Duke of York. As required by courtly etiquette, the Duke gave Hastings a portrait in return. George IV (who had already also exchanged portraits with Hastings) purchased this painting in 1827.

Doubtless, the art-loving King appreciated the fine quality of Reynolds’ work in capturing the colonel in an intelligent and confident pose, despite the artist reportedly suffering from problems with his vision at the time.  

Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 2nd Earl of Moira and 1st Marquess of Hastings, by Sir Joshua Reynolds c1789-90, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019, RCIN 407508

A copy of Raphael's The School of Athens fresco, painted in the Vatican, showing ancient Greek philosophers interacting with one another.

School of Athens by Raphael, copy by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Red Room

This sketch copy of Raphael’s vast, celebrated fresco in the Vatican was created by Reynolds during a trip to Rome in the spring of 1750, where he made several copies of Old Masters. Reynolds encouraged younger artists to study Renaissance works of art. He emphasised the importance of Italian art at the Royal Academy and the merit of copying works in order to refine and develop new skills and techniques.

‘School of Athens’ (detail) by Raphael, copy by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1750, © Schorr Collection

State Dining Room

This room has been the scene of many grand celebratory meals.

The State Dining Room, Hillsborough Castle, painted in a light green colour with a long mahogany dining table and red drapes across the windows.

In 1829, Lord Downshire held a candlelit feast to celebrate the Twelfth Night of Christmas, with over 150 guests invited.

The hang in the State Dining Room reflects themes of food, dining and portraits, both royal and of the Downshires.

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

A painting depicting a dead hare and patridges, the scene of an aftermath of a hunt.

Dead Hare and Partridges

State Dining Room

Dutch artist Jan Weenix specialised in painting hunting-trophy pictures. A dead hare was one of Weenix’s repeated motifs.

This elaborate scene depicts the equipment associated with hunting, along with the dead game situated in parkland or a garden. This painting was part of a collection of 86 by Dutch and Flemish artists, bought by George IV.

Dead Hare and Partridges with Instruments of the Chase, Jan Weenix, 1704, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019, RCIN 403375

A three-quarter length portrait of Queen Charlotte wearing a ermine-decorated gown and a portrait of George III as Prince of Wales in coronation robes side by side.

Queen Charlotte and King George III

State Dining Room

The artist Sir Allan Ramsay had already painted George III as Prince of Wales in 1758 for John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, George III’s tutor and mentor. The success of that portrait led to Ramsay painting the state portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte in coronation robes seen here.

Paintings of the King and Queen were in high demand from aristocrats like the Downshires, keen to show their allegiance to the monarch. Ramsay’s studio in Soho, London, was described as being ‘crowded with portraits of His Majesty in every stage of their operation’.

There were orders for 150 pairs, and Ramsay was determined to paint each of them himself but eventually employed several assistants including David Martin and Philip Reinagle to help him. They painted these, with Ramsay himself painting the hands and faces.

Portraits of Queen Charlotte and George III (detail), attributed to Allan Ramsay, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019, RCIN 402413 and RCIN 402412

A blonde woman faces away from the camera, out of focus, admiring a historic painted portrait of a young man with dark hair, within a gilded frame.

Lord Marcus Hill

State Dining Room

Marcus Hill was the son of Arthur, 2nd Marquess of Downshire and his wife Mary, née Sandys. This portrait of Marcus was painted around 1816 by Thomas Lawrence, a popular portrait artist who would later paint many famous figures of his era, from Queen Charlotte to the Duke of Wellington.

Here, Marcus is pictured at 18 years old, just before his role as secretary to the British envoy to Spain. He is wearing court uniform, commonly worn for diplomatic service in the early 19th century.

The portrait was commissioned by Marcus’ mother, but Lawrence was not the first artist she had in mind. Marcus’ sisters recorded in their diary that their mother went to George Hayter’s studio but he was unavailable since he was ‘going abroad in a day or two’. They later visited Lawrence’s studio and were impressed by the ‘beautiful and striking likenesses’ in his art. Marcus’s sisters stayed with him while he sat for his painting.

Image: This portrait was gifted to Historic Royal Palaces by the trustees of the Sandys Trust (Registered Charity Number 1168357)

State Drawing Room

This elegant space, with its wonderful view of the gardens, was originally designed as a library, holding many thousands of books, which were sold at auction in 1907. It dates from around 1810 but was rebuilt after a major fire at the castle in 1934.

The State Drawing Room at Hillsborough Castle, design based on the inter-war feminine ideal of a country house drawing room, showcasing light neutral colours and paintings on the walls, as well as two marble columns.

The hang in the State Drawing Room shows works by famous contemporary Irish artists, some with royal patronage.

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

Painting by Jack B. Yeats, Off the Donegal Coast, 1922, showing sailors on rough waters, attempting to escape their vessel to board a ship (out of view in the painting).

Off the Donegal Coast

State Drawing Room

This work was painted by renowned artist Jack B. Yeats in 1922, one of the most important artists working in Ireland during the 20th century and the first Irish artist to sell a work for over £1 million.  

He was the son of the painter John B. Yeats and brother of poet and playwright William B. Yeats. The artist often depicted Irish life and the people of the West, using these subjects to visit the theme of Irish nationality.  

In Off The Donegal Coast, Yeats portrays the West Coast of Ireland, showing sailors in their little currach rocked by waves, with fear visible in their eyes. Yeats’ displays an unusual diagonal composition and places our view on the side or above the rescue ship. With his vigorous painting style, energetic brushstrokes and muted tones, Yeats captures a moment of great tension.  

Image: On loan from the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork 

Painting of Winston Churchill standign before an easel in Lady Paget's garden in Kingston Hill, Surrey.

Sir Winston Churchill Painting

State Drawing Room

The famous British Prime Minister with his easel and paints was captured in 1915 by his friend and art tutor, Sir John Lavery. 

Lavery was born in Belfast in 1856 and trained in Glasgow and Paris before moving to London, where he became an established society painter.

Churchill did not begin painting until he was 40 years old and learnt from friends such as Lavery and Lavery’s wife, Hazel.

He is depicted here in the garden of Lady Minnie Paget, who lived near London and was an American society friend and contemporary of Churchill's mother.

Sir Winston Churchill Painting, by Sir John Lavery, 1915, © Historic Royal Palaces

Lady Grey's Study

This calm, cosy room was created in 1936, two years after the disastrous fire.

Lady Grey's Study

The study is named after Lady Grey of Naunton, Esmé Burcher, wife of the last Governor of Northern Ireland.

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

Preparing the Peace at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens - wide shot of Lady Grey's Study in period colours, decorated with contemporary preparatory sketches creating an art work installation

Preparing the Peace

Lady Grey's Study

A collection of preparatory sketches displayed in Lady Grey’s Study of official portraits of key figures involved in the Peace Talks at Hillsborough Castle.

A collection of preparatory sketches of official portraits which now hang in institutions all over the world are displayed together in Lady Grey's study.

Paintings at the palaces

The art at Hillsborough Castle is just one of many glorious displays of paintings that you can see at our other palaces.

The Red Room at Hillsborough Castle with rich red walls and paintings.

At Hampton Court Palace, along with astonishing works to be seen throughout the palace, the Cumberland Art Gallery houses a rotating display of paintings, ranging from Tudor and Renaissance portraits to Georgian landscapes and baroque allegories.

Fine works by Italian painters from the 16th and 17th centuries, among many more, feature at Kensington Palace, while at Banqueting House, Whitehall, you will find the world-famous ceiling canvases painted by Rubens in 1637 for Charles I.

Listen to the podcast

In this talk we explore the role of Charles I as a collector of masterpieces. As the first British monarch to collect art for art's sake, he lay the foundations of today's sumptuous Royal Collection. This talk was originally recorded in 2015.

More episodes


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