Hugh Dalton to the rescue

Keith Thomas

  • The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home by Peter Mandler
    Yale, 523 pp, £19.95, April 1997, ISBN 0 300 06703 8
  • Ancient as the Hills by James Lees-Milne
    Murray, 228 pp, £20.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 7195 5596 5
  • The Fate of the English Country House by David Littlejohn
    Oxford, 344 pp, £20.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 01 950887 5

The stately home is England’s most characteristic contribution to international tourism. Many countries have old houses which are open to the public. But neither the châteaux of the Loire nor the Palladian villas of the Brenta nor the antebellum homes of Natchez can offer the spectacle of an ancient house, set in its own gardens and park, surrounded by its agricultural estates, crammed with furniture, books and paintings from the past and, best of all, still occupied by a descendant of the family which built it. It is this irresistible combination of architectural distinction, aesthetic display and genealogical continuity which has made the English country house so crucial a national icon.

In the eyes of many commentators, the popular interest in country-house visiting symbolises everything that is wrong with modern Britain. The cult of the stately home is said to foster snobbery and deference. It makes possible the economic survival of the aristocracy in a supposedly democratic age. It encourages nostalgia for an idealised, rural, paternalist world that never was. It fosters hostility to modern art and a taste for anaemic neo-Georgian architecture. In short, it shows the ability of a social and aesthetic élite to foist its values and tastes on the population at large. It is yet another instance of Martin Wiener’s well-known thesis that rural nostalgia has been the fuel of British economic decline.

One of the many merits of Peter Mandler’s superb study is that it utterly demolishes these assumptions. He shows that, by Continental standards, Britain has been exceptionally slow to protect its country houses. Political intervention has been resisted and commercial development put above other considerations. Many country houses have been demolished during the last hundred years and the destruction of others narrowly averted. Their owners have been heavily involved in business and, until recently, showed little interest in questions of heritage. Far from imposing their values on the populace, the aristocracy and their houses have had to be protected from themselves by middle-class writers, artists and pressure groups. Only very recently has the stately home come to be regarded as integral to the national heritage and identity.

In the first, and in some ways the most successful, part of his book, Mandler shows how the initial wave of popular feeling on the subject of country houses was, if anything, anti-aristocratic. The extraordinary success of Joseph Nash’s The Mansions of England in the Olden Time (1839), and the ensuing cult of houses like Knole, Haddon, Hardwick, Hatfield and Wollaton, stemmed from Nash’s depiction of these great houses as the background for scenes of Christmas revelry where the classes mingled in the great hall. This was a thinly veiled attack on the exclusivity of the ‘polite’, classical culture of the 18th and early 19th centuries, when magnates distanced themselves from their inferiors, ceased to share their festivities with their tenantry and either closed their houses altogether or opened them only to a minority of acceptable visitors.

Mandler correctly identifies Nash’s Olden Time as the late Tudor and early Stuart period, though he could have said more about the long literary tradition of ‘Old English hospitality’, which generated the Victorian lithographs. It originated with the nostalgia of Elizabethan Catholics for the dissolved monasteries; it continued with Jacobean laments about the gentry abandoning their paternalist duties in the countryside for the pleasures of London; it was to be found in the Spectator’s portrait of Sir Roger de Coverley; and it reached its apotheosis in Washington Irving’s account of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20). Irving’s was the first, and by no means the last, American contribution to the idealisation of the English country house. He tells us that the architecture and furnishings of Bracebridge Hall had not been altered since the Restoration and that its owner regretted that he had not been born two centuries earlier, ‘when England was itself, and had its peculiar manners and customs’.

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