Two books on the English country house

In 1974, the Victoria and Albert Museum organized an exhibition titled “The Destruction of the Country House”. Director Roy Strong noticed that visitors were in tears as they accepted all that was missing – well over a thousand grand houses had been demolished since the 1870s. In the exhibit catalog, National Trust expert James Lees-Milne opened his essay by calling the country house “as archaic as the osprey,” a bird of prey extinct in England since 1840.

The story of the country house: a story of places and people

By Clive Aslet


256 pages

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Two very different but equally compelling new books by great British architectural historians give a note of optimism. “The Story of the Country House: A History of Places and People” by Clive Aslet is an eclectic scientific tale, retracing the development of the country house from medieval hunting lodges to modern villas in ‘today. The scholarly and delightfully talkative “Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the English Country House After World War II” by Adrian Tinniswood examines the changes in the status of the great houses in post-war Britain, the old money versus new money and social upheaval.

Mr. Aslet is an elegant writer with a wry sense of humor. It features personalities as colorful as AW Pugin, the Catholic fanatic who pioneered the British Gothic revival in the 19th century; the restless and neurotic King John, whose baggage train drowned in a river with the crown jewels; and James I, who, at his coronation, freed prisoners, “with the exception of those held for very serious crimes such as popery”. he would find “the same configuration of furniture wherever it is” (sort of Holiday Inn mentality, I guess).

Mr. Aslet writes: “Even country houses that strongly evoke a single period are often palimpsests where one epoch replaces another, a process which can recur over and over again until the deep past is no more. ‘a ghostly and indecipherable stain. To assert his point of view, he presents Stansted Park, a magnificent stately home that began life as a medieval hunting lodge and has seen many permutations, including a 19th century college where, of all things, “de young Jews without resources could stay, be razed and baptized, and be trained as missionaries to be sent to their own people, and a riding school prepared them to travel to distant lands.

The latest version of Stansted Park is a grand Edwardian mansion, the embodiment of the golden age of the country house which “in the novels of Henry James”, Mr. Aslet tells us, “evokes an ideal state of human existence which, after centuries of evolution, has reached a level as near perfection as it is possible for mortals to attain.

In lyrical prose, Mr. Aslet discusses the influence of Inigo Jones, who “crossed Stuart’s sky like a meteor” with his designs based on the Italian classicism of Andrea Palladio. He explores the Baroque style that began in the 1680s, with its dazzling illusionism. “The gods and goddesses seemed to spring from the walls and ceilings. . . . Everything was movement, spectacle, drama. . . . Statues frolic on the horizons. The gardens, landscaped with gravel paths and trimmed hedges, seemed to stretch for miles.

One of these Baroque masterpieces is Chatsworth House, home of the Dukes of Devonshire. A 126-room princely mansion dating back to 1686, Chatsworth housed a girls’ school during World War II to avoid requisition by the military. The vandalism of soldiers was legendary. “Stories abound of jeeps coming down tall stairs, of garden ornaments used for target training by drunken troops,” writes Mr. Tinniswood, “and of family portraits turned into makeshift dartboards. “

In 1950, when the 10th Duke died suddenly at age 55, his successor faced catastrophic taxes of around 80%. For the 11th Duke, selling Chatsworth would have been a personal failure: “I don’t want to be the one to give up. With the help of his wife, Deborah, the youngest of the Mitford sisters, in 1959 the Duke moved his family into a modernized 20-bedroom suite and opened the state rooms to the public.

Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the British Country House after WWII

By Adrian Tinniswood


429 pages

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Mr Tinniswood recalls that Blenheim Palace, home of the Dukes of Marlborough and designed by John Vanbrugh in glorious grounds by Capability Brown, was taken over during part of the war by the MI5 bus line from Oxford to Woodstock , who used to call when they reached the gates of Blenheim, “Someone for MI5?” “”

After the war, the aristocrats whom the author calls “showman-peers” found inventive ways to raise money. In Beaulieu, a 7,000-acre estate, Lord Montagu established an automobile museum, and in 1956 began a series of jazz concerts that eventually drew over 20,000 people. In 1960 there was a riot as fans of modern and traditional jazz clashed. Undeterred, Montagu put on another concert the following summer. When the crowd went wild in the village, he put an end to the party.

In 1966, Lord Bath opened a safari park at Longleat, his 130-room Elizabethan mansion on 9,000 acres. Forty-six lions observed the “meaty cows in the park beyond”. Bath has also put on rock concerts and was once forced to barricade himself indoors with the performers as screaming girls pounded on windows. When 20,000 people showed up to see the Rolling Stones, there were 200 casualties. Bath was not impressed. “” So few cases of hospitalization out of 20,000, it is not a bad record, “he declared to the press, with aristocratic recklessness. “

Musicians didn’t just perform in big houses, they bought them. Mr Tinniswood writes that “in the 1960s rock stars and stately homes went together like cannabis and cookies or Rolls-Royces and swimming pools.” Celebrities and rich Americans bought them too. J. Paul Getty owned a Tudor mansion. He was so stingy that he had locks installed on his phones and installed a prepaid one for his guests.

Mr Aslet suggests that during the Covid lockdowns, those lucky enough to have even the most ordinary country house “returned to a state of social relations closer to Jane Austen’s age than to the 21st century: family members had to rely on each other. for company, since they weren’t allowed out. But it was not as difficult an ordeal as elsewhere, given the space in the house, the terrain to walk around, the vegetables in the garden, the pantries and freezers full of emergency supplies and possibly. be a well-stocked cellar.

Meanwhile, the osprey has made a comeback. Perhaps this bodes well for the future of the beloved English country house, so vividly portrayed by these two writers.

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