The very titled deeds

The Fate of the English Country House - The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home
May 23, 1997

The appearance in the same month of two handsome and attractively priced volumes on English country houses and the English countryside, by Peter Mandler and by David Littlejohn, is well timed. One of the main political issues in the recent election was change, and historians reflecting on this topical outcome turn inevitably to the relationship between continuity and change. Country houses are often taken as symbols of English historical continuity. Yet they themselves have changed in ambience, appearance, contents and significance over the centuries. So, too, as Mandler explains, have attitudes towards them, both informed and popular. "The English experience in the past 200 years had been notable for ambivalence towards the aristocratic heritage (not the only version of heritage) and a reluctance to take positive steps to preserve it." David Littlejohn, an American professor of journalism at Berkeley, has concentrated on aristocratic attitudes and records them well.

Changes in attitudes across time are reflected in literature as well as in architecture, and both authors devote space to Brideshead. Both, too, refer to Mrs Felicia Hemans's verses, "The Homes of England'' (1828), which have lent themselves to subsequent parody. Mandler takes the "stately home" of his title from Mrs Hemans. Her famous opening lines evoke a scene of harmony and peace: The stately homes of England, How beautiful they stand!

Amidst their tall ancestral trees, O'er all the pleasant land.

The deer across their greensward bound Through shade and sunny gleam, And the swan glides past them with the sound Of some rejoicing stream.

In 1938, Noel Coward, intent to titillate and amuse rather than to acclaim, abandoned the trees, natural or genealogical, and changed Mrs Hemans's third and fourth lines to read: To prove (the) upper classes have still the upper hand.

Coward placed his emphasis on the word "still'', pointing out that England's stately homes were "frequently mortgaged to the hilt'', going on to suggest that some of their owners, at least, kept up their houses only "for Americans to rent''.

Another version set of verses, which appeared in 1894 in Punch, one of Mandler's favourite sources, made it clear that in the year when death duties were introduced there already were signs of ducal uneasiness about the future of their family heritage. "Depressed dukes: a dirge for two voices'', followed a month later by a memorable cartoon on the same subject, figured the dukes of Devonshire and Westminster. They were concerned not only about taxes but about "the British public'' dropping in to see them in their very stately homes without being asked: A Briton's home's his castle. But our Castles are his home, In a sort of way, on a holiday, e'er he likes to come! ...

The Ancient Homes of England! Ah!

Devonshire, old chum, I fear me that an Ancient Home is but an Ancient Hum To poky proletariat prigs who fired with ravenous greeds Would pry into long pedigrees and question title deeds.

The quality of these Philistine lines was appallingly sub-Coward, but they are interesting in that they imply not only that there was a shifting relationship between continuity and change in 1894 ,but that there were nagging doubts about "hosts'' and "visitors''. The facts of access changed, as both Mandler and Littlejohn show, between generations as well as between individuals. Coincidentally, the year 1894 was also the foundation year of the National Trust "for places of historic interest and natural beauty''. It was to become the largest private landowner in England.

Coward's lines were used in the early 1960s to promote an American television film, The Stately Ghosts of England and the ghosts of ancestors haunted far more aristocrats (and far more visitors) than Owen Wingrave. Not surprisingly one went west across the Atlantic. In another memorable Punch cartoon an "olden time'' ghost met a brisk holidaymaker in an ancestral home that had turned into a youth hostel. In such encounters (as in encounters with Americans) there were bound to be social misunderstandings. Mrs Hemans evaded them by keeping everything local.

At that level she treated stately homes and humble cottages (the latter figuring also but less memorably in her verses) as complementary. To her, country houses and cottages were mutually dependent parts of the same natural and social scheme. Her cottages were: ... smiling o'er the silver brook And round the hamlet fanes.

She did not, however, seek to go inside the mansions or the cottages. It was left to other observers of rural life, such as Canon Girdlestone, more local than she was, to observe that village labourers "did not live in the proper sense of the word, they merely didn't die''.

In considering social relationships and, above all, social attitudes over a long time, a necessary task for all interpreters of "heritage'', Mandler has been, as the book's blurb states, something of a pathbreaker. Littlejohn looks to established historian authorities; Mandler questions them. Yet for all the breadth of his reading and his flashes of original insight, he does not entirely carry the curious and critical reader with him. Sometimes his perspectives seem insecure. So do his choice of words and his indifference to precise dating. Words reveal much, and Mandler's historical vocabulary anticipates subsequent cultural shifts more than reflects current preoccupations. Thus, in his stimulating account of "the Victorian idea of heritage'', itself a dangerous title since, as he himself shows, there was not one but rather a series of not-always-consistent ideas that changed considerably over a long reign. It does not help in tracing its beginnings before Victoria came to the throne to find words such as "mass culture'' and even "mass culture industry'' used as building blocks in his argument: these are words heavily loaded with late 20th-century freight. The use of the description "intellectuals'', not used by the Victorians (or pre-Victorians), or the over-reliance on "elites'' do not help either. The relationship between ideas and property in England always requires detailed attention. It is curious, too, that in travelling along Mandler's path we meet Walter Scott frequently without visiting Scotland.

None the less, the thesis Mandler sets out at the beginning of this chapter seems convincing, deserves to be argued through and has wide-ranging implications. "Historical consciousness, far from being an elite plot to imprison a dynamic society in older patterns of deference and tradition, was one of the crucial ways in which popular culture enfranchised itself. A national history was rediscovered and used to correct the social imbalance of the 'polite vision' of the 18th century.'' The "heritage'' was amplified and extended as it was accepted by "the people''. Charles Knight, pioneer of cheap publishing, is rightly given considerable attention.

Mandler is convincing, too, when in a somewhat tangled chapter called "Philistines, barbarians and aesthetes'', he challenges what he calls the "general held view'' (is it?) that "the late Victorian years'' were a "fateful period during which Britain stepped back from modernity, preferring to fantasise about the national past and the rural idyll rather than to face the realities of urban and industrial democracy''.

Instead, for Mandler, "English culture, taken as a whole'', became "less interested in history and more hostile to the aristocracy after 1870", and "there was a counter-revolution of values in attitudes to heritage''. There are, of course, difficulties in taking English culture "as a whole'', for as much needs to be said about cities as about countrysides and more needs to be said about managers than about aristocrats (and this book is not the place for him to say it). Knowledge was becoming more specialist too. Within this context of the 1860s, Ruskin, handled roughly and unsympathetically by Mandler, needs to be studied more carefully. So, too, does William Morris whom he recognises once referred to "heritage'', our heritage, in a now familiar manner but in a manner different from the early Victorians. Unfortunately, Mandler leaves discussion of the history of the now overworked word heritage to a footnote, where he observes that use of the word in its "modern sense'' was only occasional in the 19th century. Given that "heritage'' is one of his most important blocks and that we are to end with the phrase heritage industry, a sign of aristocratic adaptability, we need to chase the word more thoroughly. The words national heritage were, according to him, "a copulation of the 1930s''. The first usage he can find is in a Country Life leader of 1930.

There are some interesting passages in Mandler about continuity and change in Country Life, a magazine that is this year celebrating its centenary, another piece of good timing. It has had a considerable influence, particularly since the time of Christopher Hussey, in identifying both the charms and the problems of country houses and their owners in a changing society. The first number of 1897, copies of which were distributed earlier this year at the time of the centenary, has very little about "heritage'' in it - there is far more in it about racing and in its title it incorporates Racing Illustrated - although its first advertisement of country houses, complete with small photographs, shows at the top of its third column the great problem house, Stowe, which had recently been lived in by the Comte de Paris. There was also the first of a sequence of country house articles, somewhat tucked away, on Baddesley Clinton, which in its first paragraph brings Mrs Hemans up to date: "Among all the counties of Great Britain there are few shires more famous for princely mansions and quaint old houses of long-lineaged English gentlemen than that of Warwick. Standing among great elms, in which for generations countless rooks have been accustomed to make their homes, they lift their many-windowed walls and battlements over old-world gardens to end in high gables and twisted chimneys, where doves flutter and coo in the sunshine."

There is a long road ahead to Marcus Binney, John Cornforth and Marc Girouard, all of whom are placed in their context by both Littlejohn and Mandler.

Mandler's most difficult chapter to read and to digest is "The country house and the affluent society'', which overlaps with rather than follows the previous chapter on "The country house and welfare state''. Dealing with the period from 1945 to 1964, it covers years of austerity as well as years of affluence. Its most original source material is to be found not in country house archives but in those of the BBC, which then and earlier, notes Mandler, sensitive throughout to the role of the media, influenced public attitudes towards both houses and owners. There is too little about the effects of the second world war, better covered in Littlejohn's book, just as there is too little in previous chapters about the effects of the first world war. A comparison between the two wars, neither of which figures in Mandler's index, is left to a tantalisingly brief footnote. There is a brief reference, however, to John Smith, one of the outstanding, if unobtrusive, figures of recent history in his highly individualist attitude to "the heritage'', but there is no reference to the Landmark Trust. Considerable attention is paid in both volumes to James Lees-Milne, a founder member of the Georgian Group and for long indefatigable secretary of the National Trust's country houses (later historic buildings) committee.

The two volumes are indispensable for students of the history of 20th-century institutions concerned with "the heritage" and of their complex relationship with governments of different shades, as complex as those of the relationships, often fragile, of house owners with the Treasury, each with a separate story behind it. The volumes make no claim, however, as many others do, to provide a guide to country houses or to their owners. These, too, have their separate histories. One of the most modest and least glossy of the guides I myself first used was Barbara Freeman's Country Houses You Can Visit and How to Find Them, published in 1952. It figures in neither volume. Yet, practical in its approach, it encouraged exploration at a time when visiting remote country houses in an age with far fewer cars on the roads, was, with a few notable exceptions, not a "mass'' activity. In a brief preface, E. Russell Muirhead, author of many guide books, set the tone more modestly than some of his successors: "It is generally admitted that the civilisation which created the English country house - a civilisation which was born in the 16th century and died in the 19th - was one of the main factors in the building of England; and whether we admire it or not as a whole, it is a good thing that its finest legacy should be preserved for posterity." There was no built-in bias in this 216-page guide.

A later guide, published in 1963, John Cornforth's The Country Life Picture Book of Country Houses, used the missing word heritage', referring also to "the growth in the cult of the historic house"; and in a one-page introduction Christopher Hussey set out some of the essentials "as an old hand at introducing houses to people''. What viewers of country houses chiefly wanted to look for and to recall was "the characteristic impression, the revealing detail, the telling comparison''. Hussey also quoted the 1950 official report of the committee on Houses of Outstanding Historical and Architectural Interest, a landmark committee commissioned by Attlee's first Labour government that "set the terms'', as Mandler puts it, "for further discussion'', if not for subsequent policy on country houses: "Reflecting some six centuries of our social history and domestic life, they remain a living element in the social fabric, showing in unbroken sequence how the planning, construction and adornment of the English home was adapted to changing conditions, social, economic, political and technical, to fresh aesthetic ideals and to new intellectual outlooks." Mandler would rightly question "unbroken sequence''. Indeed, in 1924 Hussey himself had attacked "the fashionable'' and "decadent element'' among landowners whom he held almost as responsible as David Lloyd George for what was then "the plight of the country house''.

In 1953 he became a member of the Historic Buildings Council, set up in 1953 in the wake of the Gowers report, and it was that committee which in 1972 commissioned Cornforth, unlike Hussey not a landowner himself, to prepare a "wholly independent'' study of the economic position of the country house, which he maintained should be "the centre for a way of life that involves a community''. The appearance of Cornforth's Country Houses in Britain: Can They Survive?, in 1974, a bleak year in British history, coincided with the holding of a well-planned exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, "The Destruction of the Country House", which demonstrated that whatever was still at risk in 1974 in British ways of life (and there was much that was), many country houses had already been destroyed. One of the main features of the exhibition was the "hall of lost houses''. In 1955, a record year for demolitions, 75 country houses (subsequently thought to be an underestimate) had been pulled down.

In the year after the exhibition, the Labour government's chancellor, Denis Healey, conceded exemption from capital transfer tax not only for important works of art had been allowed under the now-abandoned death duties, but for outstanding buildings and stretches of land. From then on country houses were officially deemed part of the "national heritage''.

There had to be public access, however, and from then on, too, "access'' and "heritage'' became buzzwords in the English language, the former kept to the minimum, the latter broadened so that when in 1991 a Cabinet-level department of national heritage was set up, the climax of a process, it encompassed broadcasting and sport as well as buildings and land. There was increasing talk of "heritage industry" too. The first National Heritage Act had been passed in 1980; and in 1984 the National Buildings and Monuments Commission had been officially renamed English Heritage. The definition of "the heritage'' had certainly not been left to owners of great and small country houses. Yet, according to Mandler, what has happened to them after 1975 has justified the twist in his title The Fall and Rise. The story is unfinished. The country houses - most of them - are not finished either. What will happen to them is not a matter of fate. There will be several answers, several "strategies'', not one.

Lord Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.

The Fate of the English Country House

Author - David Littlejohn
ISBN - 0 19 508876 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 344

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