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’.

Mandler argues that country houses, before the 19th century a matter of interest only to their owners’ fellow aristocrats, became caught up in an Early Victorian drive to recover a truly popular and national history. They became symbols of a shared past, and were viewed as the common property of all classes. Better transport and growing leisure made it possible for Londoners to take day-trips to Hampton Court or Cobham Hall and for the inhabitants of Birmingham and Manchester to visit such show houses as Eaton Hall, Alton Towers, Chatsworth, Hardwick, Haddon, Belvoir and Warwick Castle. Country-house tourism thrived in the mid-19th century, and in the 1860s it was comparatively rare for a house to be absolutely closed, particularly if it dated from the Middle Ages or the Olden Time. In the post-Chartist age, the aristocracy were, by a tacit compact, left unmolested in enjoyment of their privileges, in return for exercising those privileges in a less exclusive way.

The degree of Mid-Victorian interest in these legacies of a semi-feudal past is remarkable. When Aston Hall seemed fated for demolition in 1857, a working men’s committee intervened and, with help from Birmingham magnates, bought it for conversion into a people’s park. The house was then stuffed with a mixture of Olden Time curiosities, including ‘a chair which belonged to a branch of the Shakespeare family’, and such objects of entertainment as a Chinese street scene in waxwork with a barber shaving his customer’s head. In 1864 Aston Hall was taken over by Birmingham Corporation as the first municipally owned country house.

It is often assumed that country-house visiting has grown steadily ever since. But Mandler demonstrates that it declined in the later 19th century, when the Mid-Victorian compromise between aristocracy and people broke up amid political bickering and agricultural depression. When Warwick Castle was badly damaged by a fire in 1871, a public appeal was mounted to help the Earl of Warwick with the costs of restoration. This went badly awry. ‘If a noble family cannot rebuild their own castle,’ thundered John Ruskin, ‘in God’s name let them live in the nearest ditch till they can.’ The popular view that stately homes were part of the national heritage was now challenged by the Radical view that they were the national heritage, wrongly appropriated.

With an aristocracy on the defensive and a democracy on the attack, interest in the country’s heritage dwindled between 1870 and 1900. The masses preferred the seaside resort to the attractions of the past. The Arts and Crafts movement shifted aesthetes’ attention away from great houses to country cottages, black and white farmhouses, and small manor houses like Kelmscott. The past celebrated by William Morris or C.R. Ashbee was one of homeliness, craftsmanship and simplicity. Its location was the cottage and the village green, not the great hall and the long gallery.

Objects of relative indifference to a philistine public, country houses were seen by a barbarian aristocracy under economic pressure as assets to be exploited. There were regular auctions of furniture and pictures and ruthless programmes of modernisation in the interests of comfort and convenience. Regarded as private property for private use, stately homes became bases for hospitality and country sports, or weekend venues for political house-parties. Neither their owners, nor the population at large, saw them as part of the national heritage.

By comparison with France, Germany or Italy, Britain was slow to develop legislation to protect historic buildings and works of art. Most aristocrats were hostile to such intervention, repudiating the implication that they were imperfect custodians of their inheritance or that their ancestral homes somehow belonged to the nation. Even the establishment in 1869 of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, which listed aristocratic holdings on a voluntary basis, was denounced as interference with private property and the first step on the slippery slope leading to confiscation. The Liberal MP Sir John Lubbock finally got through an Ancient Monuments Act in 1882, but the scheduling of monuments proceeded slowly and, again, was wholly voluntary. Government failure to intervene directly to save historic buildings was one of the motive forces behind the formation in 1894 of the National Trust.

Meanwhile most progressives were more interested in taxing the aristocracy to fund urban welfare schemes than in preserving their stately homes. The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments was set up in 1908, but the buildings it was required to list and describe had to have been erected before 1714. In 1911 Lord Curzon intervened with his own money to save Tattershall Castle from vandals who had ripped out the medieval fireplaces (on which Pugin had modelled those of the Houses of Parliament) and disposed of the building itself to a dealer for export to America. But even he remained opposed to the compulsory purchase of ancient monuments and defended the owners’ right to resist scheduling. An Act of 1913 made it possible for preservation orders to be issued on ancient monuments, but castles and country houses were excluded if they were private dwellings. No major advance in the control of historic buildings was seriously considered until the arrival of a Labour government in 1945.

Half the country houses which had been advertised as open to the public in the 1860s and 1870s had closed again by 1914. At Knole in 1883-84, Lord Sackville, having already closed the house, shut off the right of way through the park as well, only to precipitate violent (and successful) resistance by the inhabitants of Sevenoaks, who resented the loss of their tourist business. Only Warwick Castle foreshadowed the commercialism of the future: from 1885 the fourth Earl introduced shilling admission tickets, full time guides, Elizabethan pageants and year-round opening.

Between the wars, the situation of the stately home reached its nadir. Death duties and agricultural depression set in motion a flood of land sales. Hundreds of houses were demolished and many others closed to the public. At its lowest point, the stock of privately owned houses open to the public was down to two dozen. In 1929 Nuthall Temple, a Palladian villa outside Nottingham, was deliberately burned down by a demolisher: an ‘Impressive Scene’, according to the Nottingham Evening News. Devotees of the Arts and Crafts tradition condemned post-Restoration architecture and shed no tears.

The change came with the revival of a taste for 18th-century classical architecture, symbolised by the foundation of the Georgian Group in 1937. This was a revolution in which Christopher Hussey, Ralph Dutton, Country Life, the Sitwell brothers, the Shell Guides and Brideshead Revisited all played their part. But no step was more important than the appointment in 1936 of James Lees-Milne as secretary of the National Trust’s Country Houses Committee. The story of how this Baroque-loving, Etonian aesthete travelled the length and breadth of the country, persuading indigent owners to hand over their properties to the Trust in return for their being allowed to stay on as tenants, has been unforgettably told in his own published diaries; a mixture of gossip, snobbery, well-honed anecdote and acute observation, whose seductive qualities are not lessened by the diaries’ being so politically incorrect. The latest instalment, Ancient as the Hills, covers the years 1973-74. Funerals of friends (one of them killed by ‘a learner motor bicyclist’), panic about the trade unions and despair at the desecration of the rural landscape by developers give it a rather melancholy tone. By way of consolation, A.L. Rowse on Shakespeare is ‘dreadfully good’, Sacheverell Sitwell’s latest book ‘a work of near genius’ and Raymond Erith ‘the very best architect alive in England’. There continues to be a great deal of motoring to luncheon at grand houses.

The Second World War saw the requisitioning of stately homes, the introduction of heavy taxation and the disappearance of domestic service. But the National Trust’s Country Houses Scheme made only modest progress because owners were unable or unwilling to endow their houses and showed little interest in securing continuity of residence. The postwar building licence system, which favoured the recycling of old buildings over the construction of new ones, Mandler remarks, saved more country houses than did the National Trust. Alternative use, as colleges or nursing homes, became the main alternative to demolition.

Salvation came from the Labour Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, in 1946. A great walker, Dalton was more interested in open spaces than country houses. But by creating the National Land Fund for the acquisition of houses in lieu of death duties, he set in motion the transfer of many stately homes to public ownership or to the National Trust. Dalton’s successor, Sir Stafford Cripps, appointed a committee under Sir Ernest Gowers, which in 1950 declared that ‘the English country house is the greatest contribution made by England to the visual arts ... and has seldom, if ever, been equalled in the history of civilisation.’ Instead of more public ownership and alternative use, it recommended tax exemptions and reductions to enable the owners to continue in situ.

This was too much, even for the Conservative Governments of the Fifties. As Minister for Planning in 1953, Harold Macmillan declared that ‘the mode of life for which these notable houses stood was doomed’: the most that could be done was to preserve a small selection ‘as symbols of a former civilisation’. Instead of granting the tax reliefs urged by Gowers, the Government set up Historic Buildings Councils to make repair grants, to private owners as well as to the National Trust, provided that public access was allowed. Essentially, this system, now administered by English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, is still in operation. Country-house owners secured less than they would have liked, but their gains were at the expense of historic towns and villages, which were not eligible for grants until the Sixties, by which time it was in many cases too late to save them.

In his final chapters Mandler chronicles the extraordinary resurgence of the country house in the late 20th century, fuelled by mass leisure and affluence, by entrepreneurial initiatives of the kind associated with Longleat, Beaulieu and Woburn, and by an enhanced public appreciation of the aesthetic and historical interest of old houses, to which the work of scholars like Nikolaus Pevsner, John Summerson and Howard Colvin vastly contributed. It took off in the Seventies, when the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, The Destruction of the Country House (1974), was followed by a new system giving owners protection from capital taxes in return for conceding public access. After two centuries of ambivalence and indifference, the stately home has become fully accepted as part of the national heritage.

The great strength of Mandler’s book, admirably documented and enjoyably written, is that it places English attitudes to country houses within a much larger cultural and political context. It is virtually a history of changing taste during the last two centuries and as such has fascinating things to say on a range of subjects from suburban house styles to The Wind in the Willows. The argument is rather schematic at times; there is some carelessness about dates; and the later chapters are ill-digested. But Mandler’s impressive book will endure.

By contrast, The Fate of the English Country House is deceptively lightweight on first acquaintance. But this chatty and eminently readable book by an American professor of journalism at Berkeley proves to be based on a remarkably extensive range of visits to English country houses and conversations with their owners. Littlejohn gives an admirably lucid account of what has happened to country houses since the beginning of the Second World War and a well-informed assessment of the challenges which they present to their modern owners. His conclusions are that the concept of heritage has been spread so thin as to include virtually anything more than a generation or two old and that we now have more country houses than we can afford. Those houses which belong to the National Trust or are in some form of public ownership are reasonably secure. As for the remainder, Littlejohn recommends a firm declaration of national support for the two to three hundred really important houses and the rescinding of the ban on altering or demolishing the others. Whether or not this is what happens, it is clear that the last chapter in the history of the English country house has not yet been written.