Petworth Festival achieved the remarkable milestone of its 40th year in 2018.
The brainchild of local composer Robert Walker, Lord Egremont, and a group of like-minded local people, the first festival took place over a September weekend in 1979 with concerts featuring English music staged in the wonderful acoustic of Petworth’s parish church, St. Mary’s. As the Festival’s popularity and reputation grew, so the dates were changed, the current three weeks in July were established in 2000. Despite its growth, the festival has retained its intimacy and style with many of the main events still taking place in St Mary’s Church, but over recent years it has increasingly spread its wings to include other venues in the locality including the regionally acclaimed Music Room at Champs Hill in Coldwaltham and Petworth House’s atmospheric Stable Yard - home to three of the festival’s most popular events each summer. More unusual events have been programmed in unconventional venues including the showrooms of local company Sofas and Stuff.
The local audience has similarly remained strikingly loyal and supportive, but with the expansion of the festival, growing numbers have been travelling to Petworth from further afield.
Alongside a substantial outreach programme and events promoting the work of young performers, the festival presents prestige concerts across the genres, major artists in recent years having included classical musicians Steven Isserlis, Joanna MacGregor and The King’s Singers; comedians Paul Merton, Alistair McGowan and Gyles Brandreth; singers Barbara Dickson and Claire Martin and a host of top names from the worlds of jazz, traditional and world music.
In 2011 the Festival added an autumn literary weekend to its roster of events. An immediate success with audiences and sponsors alike, this is flourishing eight years later. The line-up of authors who have appeared include Michael Palin, Julian Fellowes, Max Hastings, children’s author Lauren Child, Sir Chris Bonington, Andy McNab, Victoria Hislop, Michael Morpurgo, Prue Leith and many other notables.
Lord Egremont is still very much involved as the President, and his business, The Leconfield Estates, is Principal Sponsor. Robert Walker, his successor the broadcaster and pianist, David Owen Norris, local composer and musician, Terence Allbright and Petworth resident Michael Follis,each spent seven years in the role of Artistic Director. The current incumbent, Stewart Collins - a former singer and also Artistic Director of the Henley Festival - celebrates his 10th year in 2019.