Do put down that revolver

Rosemary Hill

  • The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House between the Wars by Adrian Tinniswood
    Cape, 406 pp, £25.00, June 2016, ISBN 978 0 224 09945 5

In the first series of ‘Sh!t the Dowager Countess Says’, the YouTube compilation of Maggie Smith’s one-liners from Downton Abbey, she asks, drily: ‘What is a weekend?’ Cue eye-rolling around his lordship’s dining table and smirks from viewers. But the countess was perhaps not being disingenuous for once, given that at this point in the loose chronology of Downton it is supposed to be about 1920 and she is going on eighty. Nobody born in 1840, in any class, would have heard the word before they reached middle age. In 1879 a correspondent to Notes and Queries wondered if it was a dialect term. In Staffordshire, he explained, ‘if a person leaves home … on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends … he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so. I am informed that this name for Saturday and the day which comes between a Saturday and Monday is confined to this district.’ By 1929 the weekend was an established national fact, but still decidedly modern, often with racy connotations. When Edward Prince of Wales asked his father, George V, if he could have the use of Fort Belvedere at Windsor the king was surprised: ‘What could you possibly want that queer old place for? Those damn week-ends I suppose.’ He caved in and perhaps regretted it, for the weekends with their associated guests and amusements made possible the affair with Wallis Simpson and so led eventually to the abdication.

Adrian Tinniswood, whose book combines a panoramic view of life and architecture in the interwar years with pin-sharp detail and the sort of springy prose that comes with a complete command of the material, takes the idea of the weekend as both an embodiment of the period mood and a metaphor for those decades which have come to seem merely a poignant interval between the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. The title is borrowed from Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, whose social history of Britain from 1918 to 1939, The Long Weekend, appeared in 1940, and it conjures up a sepia image of a tranquil Indian summer ‘in which the sun set slowly on the British Empire and the shadows lengthened on the lawns of a thousand stately homes’. There is truth in that but, as Tinniswood makes clear by argument and illustration, many kinds of life were lived in the English country house between the wars and all were aspects of an age characterised by rapid change on some fronts and precarious stasis on others. The world of afternoon tea and stuffed stags co-existed with a more Art Deco kind of house party, jazz, cocktails and flamingos on the lake, and with the rise of the commuter squire.

The country house, anything from a modest manor to a palace like Blenheim, had been a conspectus of English life since the Middle Ages. Unlike the French, English landowners mostly liked to be in the country. As employers, farmers, improvers and on occasion wreckers, they were familiar presences on their estates. In the 18th century the country house, often with a landscaped garden, reached its apotheosis. Palladian elegance set in artfully natural scenery was the beau ideal of a world in which the house was a hub of social and economic life in the provinces. This vision was, as Tinniswood observes, overwhelmingly what the ‘country’ in ‘king and country’ meant for many English people of all classes up to the end of the First World War. Despite his subtitle he takes the narrative where it leads, which is sometimes over the border to Wales or Scotland and occasionally to Ireland, for the ‘English country house’ is a distinct phenomenon, its local modifications superficial. Balmoral, beneath its Scots Baronial turrets, is its quintessence. Individual country houses naturally had ups and downs. Families had been ‘selling up, going broke and dying out’ for generations: the deaths of heirs, a fondness for cards and catastrophic marriages all took their toll. But after 1918, with the loss of so many men and the accumulation of death duties, it seemed that the end really was nigh. Hundreds of country houses were put up for sale that year. Less expectedly they sold in unprecedented numbers and for record prices. Many old families took the opportunity to sell off all or some of the outlying parts of unprofitable estates. Others tried to cling on. The Earl of Powis stuck bravely by his decaying home, Lymore Hall in Montgomery until, at a church fête in 1921, ‘without any audible premonitory symptoms’, the earl and twenty of his guests suddenly fell through the floor of the great hall into the cellar. After that, sale was inevitable. The earl was heartbroken and those who attended the viewing were advised to stay close to the skirting boards.

‘People who formerly lived in very large houses are now getting out of them,’ Country Life noted in 1919. ‘Who goes in is another matter.’ To some extent the magazine was itself the answer, as Tinniswood’s constant recourse to its archives suggests. Established in 1897, the year of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, its pages mixed traditional country-house interests, hunting, pig breeding and coming-out portraits of debutantes, with the Arts and Crafts movement, the houses of Edwin Lutyens, the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll and a hard core of serious architectural history with high-quality photographic illustration. This blend of old and new reflected the pattern of the interwar years. While a number of houses were bought by people who hoped to merge seamlessly into the landed aristocracy, the new owners often brought a more aesthetic and intellectual appreciation to what they acquired. Country Life’s proprietor, Edward Hudson, himself pioneered one approach to the reinvention of the country house when he commissioned Lutyens, who had designed the magazine’s offices and furnishings, to remodel Lindisfarne Castle, a ruined Tudor fortress on Holy Island. The work was finished in 1912 and the result was not, Lytton Strachey reported after a visit, at all comfortable: ‘Very dark with nowhere to sit’. But the principle of taking an old building or a fragment of one and remaking it as a country house that would be simultaneously old and new caught on.

A version more attuned to Bloomsbury tastes emerged at Sissinghurst in Kent, where Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, found the remains of a great courtyard house that had once played host to Elizabeth I. It was already in ruins when Horace Walpole saw it in 1752 and all that now survived was one low range of buildings and a single great tower. Restoring it was a daunting prospect and Harold pointed out that for the same money they could buy an intact house ‘replete with park, garage, hot and cold, central heating, historical associations and two lodges’. But such a house could never have been made their own as they made Sissinghurst and its now world-famous garden. Association, the spirit of place, mattered to many new owners, but it had to be right. If a house was too closely linked to a particular family the incomer might feel like an arriviste. Ideally there should be some grand but vague historic resonance, and for the English and those aspiring to Englishness that generally meant the Tudors, who, from Walter Scott’s Kenilworth to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, still stand in the national imagination for History with a capital H. Among the most important rescued buildings Tinniswood discusses are Hever Castle in Kent, the home of Anne Boleyn, which was done up by the Astors, and Henry VIII’s Eltham Palace, which acquired a dazzling if slightly incongruous extension in the Moderne style for the Courtaulds. Estate agents were not slow to take note of the historical wow factor and Tinniswood notes that extensive as Elizabeth I’s progresses were, she cannot possibly have visited every house with which sale notices of the 1920s and 1930s optimistically associated her.

The country house saw heavy traffic in many directions, to and from the town, between the classes and across the Atlantic. As wealthy Americans moved in to save some houses, so furniture and fittings from others less fortunate were sold off and shipped out. Chimneypieces, panelling and whole rooms were acquired by museums and private clients in the United States. Money was not the only driver, however. In 1919 many aristocratic families still owned at least one country house – indeed the Duke of Buccleuch had six – but a significant number owned none. Tinniswood, who likes to be precise about such things, cites 88. Some had fallen on hard times, like Lord Strathspey, 31st chief of the Clan Grant, who was living in reduced circumstances in Putney, but most of the rest kept smart London establishments in Mayfair or Regent’s Park; they simply no longer wanted a country house. Land management was time-consuming and increasingly uneconomical, staff were getting harder to find and upkeep was expensive. As transport became easier and faster so a house in the country, a place for the ‘weekend’, was more appealing than the full panoply of the country house as home, with its limited diversions and heavy obligations. As Noël Coward put it, ‘The fact that they have to be rebuilt/and frequently mortgaged to the hilt/is inclined to take the gilt/off the gingerbread.’

Coward himself, who was born in Waldegrave Road, Teddington, represented one new species of country-house owner. In 1926 he rented Goldenhurst in Kent, a poky and unpromising farmhouse that had been patched up over the years. ‘A square edifice’, as he described it, ‘wearing perkily a pink corrugated tin roof and looking as though it had just dropped in on the way to the races’. On examination the encrusted Victoriana concealed a ‘rather lovely 16th and 17th-century oak-beamed farmhouse’. He bought the freehold and for the next thirty years worked and entertained there. It was at Goldenhurst that he wrote Cavalcade, one of his most spectacular successes, a full-throatedly patriotic play which presented England from the turn of the century up to 1929 through the lives of one family, the Marryots. It was a dramatic expression of all that was appealing in the country-house ideal and the Conservative Party credited it with helping them win the 1931 election. Coward’s own country-house life was rather different. He built a studio ballroom in which he premiered his latest work for guests including Cecil Beaton and Joan Crawford. The local postmistress was rendered speechless one evening by being asked to put through a call from Marlene Dietrich. Goldenhurst enabled Coward to live and entertain in an extended household with his family, his staff, and his lover and business manager, Jack Wilson. He was one of a number of homosexual men, among them Ivor Novello at Redroofs near Maidenhead, who found in a country house a way of living which, if it was not exactly open, was much less constrained than it would have been in Teddington.

Tinniswood catches this kaleidoscopic world in snapshots: Nancy Astor jumping on the back of T.E. Lawrence’s motorbike and roaring down the drive at Cliveden, Stanley Baldwin sitting on a sofa at Fort Belvedere with Edward VIII, who had just decided to abdicate, both of them drinking whisky and crying. Indeed Lawrence and Baldwin become a kind of leitmotif, often shadowed by Charlie Chaplin, who seems to have been on everyone’s guest list. Lawrence knew John and Susan Buchan, country-house owners of the new weekending sort, and spent his time with them talking about ‘the Arabs … his muddled masochism and his … disillusion’; Baldwin appears at Warwick Castle and at Madresfield, which was in part the model for Brideshead, the defining account of the country house as lost arcadia. Lawrence and Baldwin both feature as guests of Philip Sassoon, although Baldwin – he was anxious to make the point – was not present when Sassoon was entertaining ‘ladies with painted toenails’. All the while, beside the new fast set, the old slow set kept up tradition, moving at a stately pace with vast amounts of luggage in convoys of motor vehicles. ‘You never travelled with your suitcase,’ a grandson of the Duke of Bedford recalled – ‘that was not the thing to do.’ Guests at the duke’s seat, Woburn Abbey, were accordingly conveyed the fifty miles from London with the aid of four cars and eight staff to house parties where, as John Galsworthy wrote in 1931, time as well as history apparently stood still: ‘The men put on the same kind of variegated tie and the same plus fours, eat the same breakfast, tap the same barometer … and kill the same birds … The ladies have the same breakfast in bed or not, put the same salts in the same bath … play the same croquet or tennis.’

In houses where the old ways persisted, bachelor wings kept the sexes apart and elaborate rituals ensured that when they did meet at dinner conversation was constrained by esoteric etiquette. Manners and Rules of Good Society decreed, bafflingly, that ‘young ladies do not eat cheese at dinner parties.’ After their cheeseless dinner the ladies withdrew and when the gentlemen joined them bridge was ‘the chief if not the only amusement’. Consuelo Vanderbilt, one of a number of American heiresses whose aspirational parents married them to impoverished aristocrats over these years, was the reluctant duchess of ‘Sunny’, Duke of Marlborough. Snubbed by servants and family alike, she was so bored at dinner that she took to knitting between courses. In 1921 the Marlboroughs divorced and the duke married another American, Gladys Deacon. She got just as bored but in keeping with the more excitable mood of the 1920s took to playing with a revolver at mealtimes, telling one guest that she thought she might just shoot the duke. There followed another divorce, for divorce was becoming easier and less socially stigmatised; the country house weekend, with its opportunities for nocturnal corridor creeping, saw the beginning and end of many marriages.

Architecturally the new houses spanned the range from Modernist, though these were few (chrome and flat roofs were never likely to catch on in the country), to the Arts and Crafts, which saw a late, glorious flowering at Rodmarton Manor in Gloucestershire. Designed by Ernest Barnsley for Claud and Margaret Biddulph, Rodmarton was finished in 1929, having been built over thirty years on William Morris principles of handwork. The materials were local as were the builders and furnishers, who produced joinery for the timber framing, needlework and metalwork. It was a reinvention of the country house as social force, ‘a quiet attempt to change the world’. A much louder attempt was made at Port Lympne in Kent, where Philip Tilden created for Philip Sassoon what Tinniswood calls an ‘outsider’s house’ like nothing before. The interior had murals by Rex Whistler, lapis lazuli panels in the dining room and there was ‘one of the most dramatic bathing pools in England’: ‘flanked by raised quadrant pools and balustraded steps and fountains’, it seemed to float over the landscape. This was architecture as modern art. Country Life saw in it a renaissance of country-house patronage, ‘an example of the artistic power and ability of its own generation’. Honor Channon, wife of the politician Chips, thought it looked like a Spanish brothel.

Tilden, an under-studied architect who loomed large in these years and in these circles, has his reputation shrewdly reassessed by Tinniswood, whose account suggests that if he has been underrated since his death, he was overrated in life. His work was wildly uneven. Its success at Port Lympne owed a lot to Sassoon. At the Churchills’ new house, Chartwell in Kent, where he had an unimaginative brief, the result was a flop, big without grandeur, dull but not cosy. The greatest re-interpreter of the country house in the 20th century was undoubtedly Lutyens. Tinniswood catches him in all his brilliance and silliness, ‘a Chestertonian reactionary with a truly dreadful sense of humour’ whose design for the Cenotaph was the eloquent and dignified distillation of the national mood in 1919. By then his best houses were behind him – he was busy with New Delhi – but Castle Drogo in Devon, begun before the war, was finished only in 1927 and is a masterpiece. It was built for Julius Drewe, a tea importer who had persuaded himself that he was descended from a Norman baron called Drogo who had given his name to the nearby parish of Drewsteignton. A literal-minded man, Drewe wanted his house to be a Norman castle. ‘I do wish he didn’t,’ Lutyens wrote, but it was a large and lucrative commission. The result was bold – ‘raw’, Tinniswood calls it. Drogo is the essence of the castle form stripped to elegant bone in precision-cut granite. In the grids of the glazing pattern a ghost of a portcullis hovers and the great windows stare the visitor down. The interior is a sophisticated game of domes and vaults, shifting perspectives and great lit spaces.

Certain changes came to every kind of country house. Stables gave way to garages and as flying became fashionable some acquired landing strips. The ‘between-wars cult of the tub’ saw bathrooms inserted wherever possible and in due course electricity, which was not without risk. At Hatfield there were alarming blue sparks and at Woburn some guests groped about in the dark, having no idea how it worked. The Duke of Bedford had enamelled notices saying ‘Electric Light’ placed over the switches. The transformations upstairs were affected by and reflected in the nether world beyond the green baize door. Tinniswood, whose book is calmly untendentious, draws his accounts of service largely from personal reminiscences, evoking a nuanced picture of a way of life now unimaginably remote. The huge changes over these decades were felt even more dramatically downstairs than up. Herbert Parker, a footman, looks back over a life stretching from Queen Victoria’s reign to the election of Margaret Thatcher. In the 1920s working hours were still immensely long and the most fundamental elements of individuality unquestiongly suppressed. One candidate for a job as a footman was told at the interview: ‘If you come to me you’ll be James, all my second footmen are called James, just as all my first footmen are called William.’ The Duke of Bedford only employed housemaids who were exactly 5’10”. By 1918 there were stirrings of discontent and the government set up a committee of inquiry into the ‘servant crisis’. It reported that wide variations in pay and conditions and lack of status were part of the problem and recommended that in future domestic staff should be able to get rid of their caps and keep their names.

Despite which a job in a large household had its advantages: steady employment, prospects for promotion and a likely place to find a husband or wife. This made it easier for great houses with vast staffs to keep them after 1919. The ‘servant crisis’ was felt first and hardest among the stockbroker classes looking for a housekeeper. Lucy McLelland, born in 1900, recounts memories of life at Belvoir Castle, home of the Dukes of Rutland, among a staff of nearly a hundred. This made a whole community and she worked her way up to cook with four girls under her supervision. Hierarchies below stairs were as rigid as above. ‘The kitchen,’ she explains, ‘never made toast.’ McLelland’s move from Belvoir to Styles, the home of Agatha Christie, was, she thought, ‘a come down’. Indeed the mass exodus from service between the wars was owed only in part to new opportunities: it was also a result of snobbery. A parlourmaid giving evidence to the government inquiry explained that she had suffered ‘untold misery’ because invitations to parties warned her not to admit what she did for a living. Her friends didn’t want their friends to ‘mix with servants’. It was, she concluded, ‘the snobbery of our own class’. For those unaffected by these attitudes, the ‘career servants’, this was a golden age of opportunity. Employers were constantly trying to poach each other’s staff with offers of better terms. Jeeves has a permanent hold over Bertie because they both know that a first-rate gentleman’s gentleman is all but irreplaceable.

By 1939 the number of inhabited country houses of the old kind was unmistakeably declining. Some were left to crumble, others became schools, golf clubs or asylums. Chequers in Buckinghamshire was given by the MP Arthur Lee and his wife, Ruth, to the nation in recognition of the fact that a future prime minister might not have a country house of his own. The Second World War saw another great cull and from 1945 the National Trust took on the main burden of rescuing redundant houses and preserving them as visitable historic sites. It was in the event some of the oldest and grandest, Chatsworth, Woburn and Castle Howard, that managed to reinvent themselves and, with the aid of some clever marketing, remain family houses in private hands. The new houses of the interwar years generally had a lease of shorter date. Castle Drogo, Sissinghurst, Lindisfarne and Chartwell are all now National Trust properties, Rodmarton belongs to the Historic Houses Association and Port Lympne, which was bought by John Aspinall in 1973 to expand his private zoo, is now run by the Aspinall Foundation as a striking combination of ‘romantic and unusual wedding venue’ and ‘safari park experience’.

What most endured of the interwar long weekend was the weekend itself, the house-in-the-country, not necessarily this country, anything from a full-blown stately to a cottage or a gîte that serves as an occasional retreat for the middle and upper classes. In 1975 the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition The Destruction of the Country House launched another kind of reinvention when it drew attention to the larger houses that were worth saving but were too big to be lived in easily and too decayed or not distinguished enough for the National Trust. In the 1980s the architect Kit Martin found a solution. He began dividing houses, starting with Gunton Park in Norfolk, into self-contained apartments that preserved the house and allowed the purchasers of two or three-bedroom maisonettes to luxuriate in extensive grounds. It became rather smart to give one’s address as The Laundry or The Old Kitchen. It is now the names of weekend homes, the Old Rectory, the Old Forge and the Old Dairy, that mark, like postholes on a Neolithic site, the outline of life in the world between the wars.