This AR Project Tells the Story of One of England’s Richest and Most Influential Families

Sotheby's exhibit showcases art from Chatsworth House, including AR portraits

Viewers use iPads to view volumetrically replicated portraits from the Chatsworth House. Sotheby's
Headshot of Marty Swant

As part of Sotheby’s new exhibit “Treasures from Chatsworth,” a New York City-based agency has created an augmented reality experience to tell the stories of one of the richest and most influential families in England.

The Sotheby’s exhibit, created by the acclaimed Broadway creative director David Korins (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen), spans several rooms on the third floor of Sotheby’s Manhattan showroom and includes a variety of paintings, sculptures and jewelry from the home, dating back to the 16th century. Instead of replicating the rooms of the mansion itself, Korins sought to create a “modern-day Alice in Wonderland.”

Not all of the art was brought from England physically, however.

Technology, Humans and Taste (THAT) collaborated with Korins to showcase a number of portraits from the house in augmented reality. The portraits of various members of the Cavendish family, which date back hundreds of years, have been given a new life in volumetric images embedded into a massive piece of wallpaper (a replica of wallpaper found in the house). Using iPads and headphones, visitors can view the portraits in detail and hear the story of the family that’s long called the Chatsworth House their home while digital birds flutter around in what seems to be the real-life space.

For those unfamiliar with the various families that belong to the British elite, the Chatsworth House is home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. It has been passed down to more than a dozen generations of the Cavendish family. Set on the grounds of luscious English hills, the house is home to thousands of pieces of art, including not just the portraits seen in the exhibit, but also the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Lucian Freud and Rembrandt van Rijn.

The exhibit builds on a digital video series called “Treasures From Chatsworth” that Sotheby’s developed several years ago. The series allowed Sotheby’s to expand its own digital presence and reach a broader audience as a result.

According to David Goodman, marketing chief at Sotheby’s, this summer’s exhibit was a creative challenge. Because the house was built over such a long period of time, it wasn’t something that could be easily represented in another setting. The collaborators also wanted to do more than simply tell the story of the Chatsworth collection or the house itself.

“Each duke in their time was an extraordinary collector, and oftentimes we forget that something in the 16th century that we refer to as from ‘old masters’ was in their time known as contemporary art,” Goodman said. “So when you look at this in the context of time, it’s comprised of some of the most extraordinary art and objects that have been collected over the past 500 years.”

THAT co-founder and chief creative officer Nathan Phillips said the goal was to try and answer the question: What if these walls could talk?

“The idea was to not tell the story in a linear way, but to transport you to the place,” he said. “Because the one thing you can’t get here is [being there].”

The experience itself isn’t about the technology, but the technology tells the story. This required intentionally building the AR art within the “world of relics and classic mediums of painting and sculpture.”

THAT used volumetric capture that doesn’t just replicate the image of each painting, but also its sense of depth. As visitors walk toward them, each portrait feels almost three-dimensional.

“When people are done, the thing they talk about is the stories and how beautiful the wallpaper is,” he said. “What they don’t talk about is the volumetric portraits we created, or the iPads, or the onboarding or any of the technology. The technology is completely invisible, and that’s really important to us.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.