F.M.L. Thompson looks at the long run of the English aristocracy

F.M.L. Thompson

  • 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.

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