Art house

Restoration - Richard Cork on a stately home's reincarnation as a diverse showcase for art

Not content with saving a derelict Georgian mansion, Sir Peter Moores has spent £64m transforming it into a resplendent showcase for ancient and contemporary art. Requisitioned as an army research centre during the Second World War, Compton Verney had not been occupied since the departure of the military, and by the 1990s it had deteriorated to an alarming extent. But Moores, heir to the Littlewood's fortune, has given the house a spectacular new life.

Compton Verney's outstanding architecture dates from the 1760s, when Robert Adam was commissioned to turn the old baroque building into a cool, neo- classical alternative. Together with the 120-acre grounds designed by Capability Brown, Adam created an impressive yet mercifully unpompous home for Lord Willoughby de Broke and his young family. No attempt has been made by the Peter Moores Foundation to return the house to its 18th-century domestic incarnation. Instead, the newly restored mansion is home to a diverse collection embracing archaic Chinese bronzes, German Renaissance art and Neapolitan painting, not to mention historic British portraits and folk art. Moores is an unashamedly quirky collector, leaping from era to era without a pause, and viewers are left floundering if they attempt to find links between the gallery's different sections.

Fortunately, the architects Stanton Williams have worked for ten years on the project to regenerate the Grade I listed house, and they have given the interior spaces some consistency. At one extreme, they worked with the conservation architects Rodney Melville & Partners on restoring the Georgian character of the ground-floor rooms. At another, they have created an entirely new, two-level gallery extension with its own contemporary identity. This could easily have clashed with the old building, but the warm limestone of the historic mansion is used on the outside of the extension, which also reflects a subtle awareness of the house's original proportions. Stanton Williams have shown equal sensitivity in the spaces they have created on the upper floors, working within the original shell to provide a congenial setting for Moores's multifarious treasures.

Outstanding among them are the Chinese artefacts. The oldest, a tripod vessel dating from 3000-2000 BC, is a ceramic with bulbous legs. Intended to hold water or food cooked over a fire, this neolithic object resembles the pendulous, milk-swollen teats of a cow. It inspired Shang and Zhou dynasty bronze vessels, of which there are many in this collection.

As we approach the Western Han dynasty around 100 BC, the predominantly austere low-toned bronzes give way to a seductive red and white cocoon-shaped jar. It was made for a lower-ranking member of the elite who could only afford ceramic. But I welcomed its festive decoration after the sobriety of earlier vessels, and delighted even more in the delicacy of the painted equestrian figures. These poised riders once accompanied a dead noble in a tomb.

A sense of mortality also hangs over the extraordinary collection of artworks from Naples, all produced during its "golden age" from 1600 to 1800. Carlo Bonavia made his 1757 painting A Storm off a Rocky Coast as turbulent as possible. Thunderous clouds unleash their apocalyptic force on the helpless sailing ships, all driven towards destruction on the rocks.

None of the painters in the Naples section can be counted as one of the finest artists of their period. But among Moores's acquisitions of early German art is a superb limewood figure by a master sculptor of the Reformation, Tilman Riemenschneider. A prolific carver in Wurzburg between 1483 and his death nearly half a century later, he specialised in elaborate altarpieces. Although the female saint of this sculpture is unidentified, she probably formed part of an ensemble. She looks devout and holds a book in her left hand. But her long, undulating tresses are full of vitality.

The small group of British portraits, by contrast, are dominated by paintings only from the workshops of leading artists. Neither the smug, patriarchal image of Henry VIII nor the poignant portrait of his short-lived son Edward VI was produced by Holbein himself. Nor do we know who painted the crude effigy of Elizabeth I sporting a crescent moon symbol of chastity on her bejewelled dress. But when we turn to the portrait of a two-year-old boy, bizarrely dressed in a dark green "petticoat" over a farthingale frame, the hand of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger is unmistakable.

Paintings of children reappear in the handsomely displayed collection of British folk art. But they are overshadowed by such flamboyant exhibits as a fairground carousel pig, its legs outflung as if in flight. The most memorable images here are grotesque paintings such as The Dentist, a late 18th-century horror attributed to the itinerant schoolmaster John Collier. Known also as "Tim Bobbin", he specialised in this kind of macabre panel. The dentist pushes his leg against the patient's chin. With both hands, he tugs on the thread bound round his victim's tooth. While the patient's face twists in unimaginable agony, the dentist grins hideously.

A similarly ghoulish fascination runs through the Peter Greenaway installation. Encouraged to invade the galleries and grounds alike, Greenaway here returns to the territory explored in his early film The Draughtsman's Contract. But the rows of coloured poles he has installed in the grounds, apparently to "reclaim" the vistas designed by Capability Brown, are over-intrusive. And the suitcases displayed in such profusion inside the mansion, linked to the life of an imaginary character called Tulse Luper, become wearisome. The most startling contains a real young woman, dressed in period costume and seemingly asleep. But too many of the suitcases are filled with accumulations of objects, the work of an over-obsessive film-maker who does not know when to stop. Tulse Luper will also be the focus of Greenaway's forthcoming trilogy of new films. Judging by the overkill he indulges in here, they could easily prove relentless and exhausting.

Peter Greenaway's Luper is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire CV35 (01926 645 541) until 31 October

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