F.M.L. Thompson looks at the long run of the English aristocracy
- The Aristocracy in England, 1660-1914 by J.V. Beckett
Blackwell, 512 pp, £22.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 631 13391 7
As Britain chips away at her manufacturing base and slides towards becoming one vast open-air museum and tourist attraction, her aristocracy has emerged as the most dignified and venerable of museum pieces. Country houses are prized and revered as architectural gems, as art galleries and as period museums, and the frequently bizarre mixture of the excellent and the ordinary in their collections, or their downright second-rate quality, is successfully concealed by the adroit salesmanship which portrays all this in the full glory of its variety and eclecticism as a central part of the national heritage. ‘Heritage’ is, indeed, one of the vogue words of the Eighties, and in casting themselves for the role of its guardians the aristocrats have found a function which looks like being proof against unpopularity or redundancy. That many of them are today, in effect, beef barons, barley barons, property developers, art dealers, company directors and merchant bankers is beside the point: the prevailing image is of cultivated country gentlemen caring for priceless art treasures on behalf of the nation, keeping at bay the forces of vulgar and grasping materialism by the authority of impeccable manners and inherited good taste. Never mind that a display of cultural arrogance has always been the last refuge of groups and nations in decline, from ancient Greece to post-Napoleonic France and on to post-imperial Britain, a figleaf of civilisation trying to hide a loss of power. It remains true that for those able to play it the heritage card is a winner: the aristocracy is fortunate in finding itself on the receiving end of the national nostalgia trip and its idealisation of the country life.
There is, nevertheless, something rather pathetic in the spectacle of aristocrats, never distinguished as a scholarly or aesthetic breed, posing as the curators of the nation’s treasures: proud bears obliged to perform undignified and unnatural circus tricks. At the end of this formidable survey of the aristocracy John Beckett notes that they have survived into the late 20th century ‘as protectors of the nation’s heritage’ and that some ‘even argue that as collectors of beautiful objects over time their families were thinking not merely of self-interest but of the national herutage.’ But as a historian who likes to keep his cards close to his chest, he does not disclose whether he finds this to be pathos, bathos or humbug. The evidence, and especially the lack of evidence, about the process of accumulation of beautiful objects strongly suggests that the claim of patriotic altruism is largely moonshine, an invention of 20th-century admen which has precious little relation to the realities of ancestral motives. Beckett does not discuss the building of stately homes in the language of architectural history – that has been done by other hands – but in the context of conspicuous investment and the desire to express power, wealth and grandeur in suitably imposing physical forms. This is obviously correct. Hardwick Hall or Chatsworth, Alnwick Castle or Hatfield House, Knowle or Knowsley, Blenheim or Burleigh, these and all the rest of the grand roll-call were not created so that in a suitable number of centuries they could be shown to an admiring public, be featured in TV programmes, or be presented to the National Trust. They were built to serve their owners’ purposes, the purposes of displaying their owners’ importance and asserting their families’ position at the top of the social hierarchy. The houses were carefully designed as stage-sets for the theatre of aristocratic public life, exercising leadership or domination over the surrounding countryside: hence many, although very opulent, were not notably convenient for comfortable domestic life. Only after their functions had collapsed were the public allowed in more or less indiscriminately.
Vol. 9 No. 8 · 23 April 1987
SIR: I read with some amazement F.M.L. Thompson’s claim (LRB, 19 February) that the assembly of great aristocratic collections in this country was ‘generally unimportant and undeserving of comment at the time at which it occurred’. Comment by whom? The voracious acquisition of works of art on the European market by English aristocrats did not pass unnoticed by King George III and greatly agitated the Popes in Rome. It is indeed hard to think of any English aristocratic activity that attracted more international comment during the 18th century. Anyone reading Thompson might suppose that since there was no fuss when the ‘nation’s treasures’ came here, there is no need for fuss now they are being sold. But there was a fuss.
‘The old landed aristocracy has produced no great collectors with the single-mindedness, determination and coherence of industrialists like Henry Tate, Samuel Courtauld or Burrell,’ Thompson tells us. But these industrialists are of little significance when compared with the second Earl of Arundel and the fifth Earl of Exeter in the 17th century, the third Earl of Burlington and the second Duke of Devonshire in the 18th, or the third Marquis of Lansdowne and the fourth Marquis of Hertford in the 19th. The ignorance displayed by Thompson here would be impossible had he any interest in the ‘nation’s treasures’ or respect for people who do have such an interest.
No wonder Thompson considers the ‘spectacle’ of, aristocrats ‘posing as curators of the nation’s treasures’ to be ‘pathetic’. The aristocrats, however, are more aware of their history than is their historian. Their ancestors were among the founders, promoters and supporters of the British Institution, the National Gallery and the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. There is much hypocrisy behind today’s talk about heritage, but there are initiatives and commitments which the ruling classes of this country made in the past which deserve to be honoured. Philistinism has certainly sometimes been respectable among many sections of our aristocracy, but no more so, I suspect, than it is today among senior academics.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
SIR : It would be unfortunate for your readers if some of the breezy assertions on the subject of art collecting by the English aristocracy in F.M.L. Thompson’s run-up to reviewing J.V. Beckett’s The Aristocracy in England: 1660-1914 were allowed to pass unchallenged. To anyone who has made a study of the subject, it seems extraordinary that someone whom you describe as a Director of Research of an Institute of Historical Research, and a professor of history, could apparently be so ignorant of a large body of literature on the subject. One could produce a long list of members of the aristocracy who took an enlightened and enthusiastic interest in assembling collections of works of art from the late 17th century onwards. Indeed, such interest was often repeated, if not in the immediately following generation, then in later ones: so that such collections continued to grow in stature. The evidence – which Thompson asserts to be non-existent – can be found in Thomas Martyn’s The English Connoisseur, 1766; J.D. Passavant’s Tour of a German Artist in England, 1836; William Buchanan’s Memoirs of Painting, 1824; Dr Gustav Waagen’s Works of Art and Artists in England, 1836, and the vastly enlarged edition of 1854 entitled Treasures of Art in Great Britain, with its long supplement of 1857; Mrs Anna Jameson’s Companion to the Most Celebrated Galleries of Art in London, 1844; Adolf Michaelis’s Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, 1882; or even my own documentary chrestomathy, The English as Collectors, 1972; and in many other volumes. As for members of the aristocracy who formed notable collections of paintings and works of art – some of which survive and some of which have been dispersed – Professor Thompson might ponder on such names as Arundel, Pembroke, Marlborough, Egremont, Exeter, Towneley, Bridgwater, Grosvenor, Stafford, Salisbury, Radnor, Bristol, Spencer, Northwick, Landsdowne, Palmerston (father of the politician), Hertford and Harewood. I could go on.
F.M.L. Thompson writes: It is flattering to have drawn the fire of Nicholas Penny and Frank Herrmann, although a shade alarming that their aim has been made so erratic by their eagerness to show off their splendid toys. All the same, I am most grateful to them for generously making freely available some of their store of learning on art history and art collecting, and for supplying a select bibliography and a short list of famous men. It has to be admitted, however, that this information, while instructive, is neither destructive nor constructive in the context of a section of a review which was trying to explain how a big book on the English aristocracy could avoid giving any space to discussing the processes by which the general run of country-house collections were formed over the centuries. It must be conceded, also, that naming half a dozen famous aristocratic names drawn from three centuries, although an interesting exercise, is not a major contribution to understanding the general behaviour of a social order that numbered several hundred families; neither was my own naming of three industrialists intended to convey the impression that all 19th-century industrialists were great art collectors. Of course, the author of the Arrogant Connoisseur will know better than I do that there are few things so dangerously offensive as an art historian who gets hold of the wrong end of the stick while riding his hobby-horse: until he regains control of his mount it is advisable for everyone else to stand well clear.