Home wanted - money no object

The Rise of the Nouveau Riches
September 17, 1999

The exuberance of this admirable book befits the subject - how millionaires in Victorian and Edwardian England spent their money, some of them in Scotland, on houses and gardens (quite inadequate terms to describe them). The first millionaires, a new word borrowed from France, were Victorian or just pre-Victorian, and it was during the Victorian period as a whole that as many as eight out of ten millionaire or half-millionaire families acquired landed estates within two generations: between 1858 and 1879 the proportion was 26 out of 30. The result, as J. Mordaunt Crook shows in fascinating detail, was "the reinvention of the British aristocracy as a self-renewing plutocracy". It scaled the social heights in the reign of Edward VII when ostentation was perpetually, if not by then provocatively, on display.

To understand why houses and gardens mattered so much it is necessary to reach back before the 19th century. The spell of land for centuries proved almost irresistible. There were always parvenus on the scene. The "magic of gentrification" could be slow, but was often spectacular, reflected in titles as well as acres. Acquiring "a place", The Spectator , an insider source, stated authoritatively in 1872, had always been money's priority, unless of course its owner was "abnormally unEnglish". Some of the characters in this book were not English by origin, but that seems to have strengthened their aspirations to join "a privileged caste". Once they had done so, primogeniture and entail did the rest. "Economic historians deal in money. Art historians deal in taste. But architectural historians have to deal with both." So Mordaunt Crook begins the most important chapter in this book, "The style of millionaires". He says less about the economics than about the styles. Oscar Wilde on land is not among his many quotes. The aesthetics of restoring, "rehabilitating" and "regenerating" - or of building and extending property - do not follow one single pattern. French taste sometimes went with American money. When the Wernhers remodelled Luton Hoo they chose the architects of the Ritz Hotel. Rococo, in Mordaunt Crook's phrase, "could survive almost any amount of dilution". "Italianate" often had little to do with Italy or "Jacobean" with James I. Most of the gothic appalled Ruskin.

Very few of the lavish country houses were designed by architects of the first rank, "and even fewer have proved to be, art historically speaking, of the first importance". Yet there were striking exceptions, among them Richard Norman Shaw's Cragside building for Lord Armstrong, the armaments manufacturer, and the Voysey villas on Lake Windermere. Mordaunt Crook includes a particularly interesting chapter on "New money in the Lake District", with revealing comments on Ruskin's Brantwood near a quite different lake.

Given the scale and sweep of this book there are inevitably occasional slips, usually springing from secondary sources. Thus, Cobbett could not have said what he is reputed to have said in 1851; he was by then inhabiting a heavenly mansion. When the detail is Mordaunt Crook's own, however, it is meticulous as well as memorable. Much of it concerns banks, where money was kept and lent. In the Kent garden of the architect Sir Herbert Baker, who effectively destroyed Sir John Soane's superb Bank of England (Soane died in the year Victoria ascended the throne), a classical capital from the old Bank was kept as an ornamental monument. At a Buckinghamshire house - Tyringham, designed by Soane for a banker in the 1790s - Lutyens, who was employed in the 1920s to transform the garden, found three more capitals. The house had already been "transmogrified", to use Mordaunt Crook's evocative verb, before the first world war by an architect as forgotten as Lutyens is remembered.

Whether there are morals in the story the reader is left free to judge, although Mordaunt Crook issues several warnings. On the broadest front Richard Cobden, who is quoted only once but might have been quoted many times, thought that there were; and before him another anti-corn law leaguer is said to have tugged John Bright's sleeve as they entered Barry's house of houses at Westminster and said "John, John, how can we keep honest if we live in places such as this?" For Mordaunt Crook the glory days of a family were over when it memorialised itself in stained glass. Yet this may not be the last word. In the church of Somerleyton in Suffolk a stained-glass window extols the memory of Francis Crossley, the first baronet in an unbelievably successful carpeting family, with the words "He is Risen". Francis's son, who endowed the window, was to be given a peerage, becoming Baron Somerleyton, described then as "no longer in trade".

In my own book Victorian Things , I took carpets as symbols. The Crossleys benefited from what was happening to other people's houses even further away from Halifax than Somerleyton. Deliberately Mordaunt Crook does not deal in this book with the nouveaux riches as collectors. Yet, another book is there in waiting. "Our millionaires," wrote The Spectator in 1872, "are maniacs for collecting things."

Today's nouveaux riches are not the only people who should read Mordaunt Crook. Nor only architectural historians. No one knows better than he the meaning of "meretricious". We all should read him.

Lord Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.

The Rise of the Nouveau Riches

Author - J. Mordaunt Crook
ISBN - 0 7195 6040 3
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 354

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