History of Petworth Festival

The Petworth Festival is a remarkable success story. Founded over 40 years ago by Lord Egremont and a group of like-minded local people, including the composer Robert Walker, an event which first straddled a weekend has now become a major fixture in the summer diary, not just locally but also throughout the region.

With events programmed throughout the Petworth area – including St Mary’s Church, Petworth House’s atmospheric Stable Yard, two large purpose-built facilities at the Seaford and Midhurst Rother Colleges, and the magnificent music room of Champs Hill – the now three-week festival annually programmes artists and performers from the very top drawer right across the performing genres. Having started as a celebration of classical music, the Festival continues to present some of the leading names seen on the biggest stages around the world, with: MILOŠ, Steven Isserlis, Jess Gillam, Mitsuko Uchida and Sheku Kanneh-Mason all being recent visitors. In the last few years the range of the Festival has spread significantly and the impressive roll of performers now includes top names from the world of comedy – Paul Merton, Julian Clary, Alistair McGowan and Gyles Brandreth; jazz and blues – The Blues Band, Claire Martin, Joe Stilgoe and Georgie Fame; and world music with artists from around the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and beyond. The annual Jazz in The Stables event has become one of the most celebrated dates in the whole Petworth diary.

But it is in the imaginative use of venues in the Petworth area and the development of a ‘community facing’ programme that the Festival has seen its most significant developments. Over 15 different spaces throughout the immediate West Sussex area have been brought into the fold in a drive to welcome visitors from all local communities. The free Festival and community outreach programmes have also become a major focus, 2019 having proved a landmark year when the National Lottery’s Community Fund recognised this aspect of the Festival’s work by making a significant award. In 2021 we extended the Festival’s reach by presenting free events in the Petworth House Pleasure Gardens, and in 2022 incorporate new local partnerships with the Coultershaw Heritage Site and the Petworth Community Association.

The promotion of young up-and-coming performers has also become a major strand of the Festival’s programming, with important annual partnerships including the Royal Academy of Music, The Musicians’ Company, Live Music Now and the West Sussex Music Trust. The annual series of morning and lunchtime concerts has been a notable growth area at recent festivals. And no summary of the Festival’s important musical associations would be complete in 2022 without a mention of a new association with the Leeds International Piano Competition. This represents an exciting new development as well as acknowledgement of the Festival’s wider recognition within the music world.

And all of this without having mentioned the Petworth Festival Literary Week which was established in 2011 as a sister event in the Petworth calendar. Now expanded to a full week each autumn, the literary festival has seen major authors and public figures such as William Boyd, David Suchet, Julian Fellowes, Joanna Trollope, Max Hastings, Michael Palin, Prue Leith and Victoria Hislop lighting up the autumn nights.

Despite its growth, the Festival has retained its intimacy and style, and Lord Egremont is still very much involved as the President. His business, The Leconfield Estates, is Principal Sponsor, and the Festival enjoys ever-increasing support from both the immediate locality and further afield.