William III took one look at Burghley House (the Elizabethan residence of the Cecil family) and declared it “too great for a subject.” Four hundred years old in the democratic year of 1986, Burghley is exposing some of it s treasures to the prying eyes of ordinary Americans.

The Burghley Porcelains went on view at New York City’s Japan House Gallery on May 15. After closing here on July 27, this show travels to the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, from December 2, 1986, through February 1, 1987, and thereafter tours in four cities in Japan until 1988. The exhibition was made possible by grants from American Express Company and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Burghley House was built by William Cecil (1520-1598) according to his own designs. As first Lord Burghley and the great minister and Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I, William Cecil became very affluent. Cecil’s descendants were made Earls of Exeter in 1605 and Marquesses in 1801. Cecil built Burghley House between 1555 and 1587 on the remains of a 12th-century monastery, and its architecture is widely recognized as among the finest of its period.

Small wonder that William III re marked in 1690 that it was “too large for a subject.” What is significant is that the Burghley collection of art includes outstanding paintings by European masters, furniture, tapestries, statuaries, and silver. At the recently concluded exhibition at the National Gallery in the capital, for instance, “Treasure Houses of Britain” included a Queen Anne silver cistern weighing 3,400 ounces, among a number of objects from the Burghley House. 

Daniel Defoe, of Robinson Crusoe fame, on the other hand, saw Burghley differently in 1724. “More like a town than a house,” he wrote. “The placed at such distance from one an other, look like so many distant parish churches in a great town.” Atop Burghley House is a small stone forest consisting of columns, obelisks, lions, and even a watchtower.

Burghley House benefited from the efforts of successive generations of Cecils. The grounds are the work of Capability Brown. Using the ample grounds, Capability Brown left an en during bridge in the Palladian style, with a trout-filled river flowing naturally beneath it. It must be remembered that in their Italianate ambitions, the French ventured and tamed nature surrounding their chateaux. Versailles, for example, is inhospitable to most humans. The Anglo-Saxons, for their part, left matters happily in the hands, capable hands one might say, of gifted landscapers like Capability Brown. Before long, Capability Brown brought nature to the very doorstep of the English, and in the process he allowed for their proverbial privacy as well. Where there stood gorgeous hills, Brown had them flattened. Then just as easily, he reversed the process when he discovered marshes. And out of the flattened hills, Brown devised man-made lakes, and cascades, of which Burghley has ample evidence. In this unique process of making nature according to his whims, Capability Brown incurred the wrath of the British Parliament during the construction and landscaping of Blenheim for the first Duke of Marl borough. Until 1981 Burghley House was the residence of the Sixth Marquess of Exeter, who won the 1928 IX Olympiad 400-meter hurdles. His early sportslife, as a matter of fact, was a feature of the film Chariots of Fire. Burghley House is not a part of Britain’s National Trust. It still belongs to the Cecil family, whose trustees invited the late Marquess’ Lady Victoria Leatham “to live at Burghley and to conserve its resources for the future.” Lady Victoria, who spoke at Japan Society in New York on May 18, 1986, observed that those who lived in great houses were not expected to know the extent of their possessions. By way of illustration, she recounted the cautionary tale of a young man invited for the weekend to the country place of a temperamental duke.

No sooner had the young man been shown into the duke’s residence than he commented admiringly on the beautiful carved chairs. Utterly displeased by the young man’s verbal appreciation of his furniture, the duke’s manacle “popped out of his eye.” Instantly, he ordered his foot man to replace the young man’s luggage back in the car and ordered his chauffeur to “leave at once.” “The damn fella commented on m’chairs!”

The Japan House exhibit of Burghley porcelains is an ingenious selection from an embarrassment of riches. No efforts were made, for instance, to make these porcelains appear as if they were taken out of a Wunderkammer. In all-white glass cases with proper lighting, the porcelains were laid out. Only in one case, a pair of Edo wrestlers from 1690 were placed on a revolving disk-more to suggest motions of wrestling than to make any statement.

The 292-page catalog, with over 150 black-and-white and 90 color illustrations published by New York’s Japan Society, is addressed to a wide audience. Besides essays by Rand Castile (former director of Japan House) and Lady Victoria Leatham (chatelaine of Burghley House) a team of top-notch international scholars, curators and connoisseurs brings us closer to the spirit of Burghley House.

In all, there are some 20 5 porcelains, mostly Japanese, beginning with rare and important examples of 17th-and 18th-century Arita and Kakeimon wares. The Edo period, 1660-1680, Lobed Dish is a fine example of Arita from Burghley. The design is a preoccupation for this anonymous ceramicist, and it is fairly common to discover such ideas prevalent among most Japanese porcelains. 

While the Japanese pieces dominate the show, the exhibition also displays 25 porcelains of the Ming, Transitional, and early Qing periods (ca. 1550-1750). The two most significant Chinese porcelains from Burghley include a blue-and-white Charger With Daoist Emblems and a large Ming blue-and white bowl with silver-gilt mounts. The Ming bowl was brought to En gland by Sir Francis Drake in 1580 when he captured a Spanish ship filled with similar porcelains. Elizabeth I herself had shares in Drake’s voyage. According to the curator of the collection, Dr. Nishida, several shards of blue-and-white, found at Drake’s Bay in California, where Sir Francis is said to have careened his ships, bear de signs greatly resembling those on this bowl. The Burghley bowl, however, came as a direct gift from Elizabeth I to her godchild Thomas Walsingham. His granddaughter, Lady Osborne, gave it to the Eighth Earl of Exeter in 173 I. These tangible remains, so beautiful to look at and if possible to hold, as is the case at some of the finer auction houses, have much with which to instruct us.