The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting Washington
The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting
The English Country House: A Grand Tour Book/Little, Brown
The stately homes of England seem about to reconquer the United States for Squire Western, the Duke of Omnium, and Lord Marchmain. That, at least, is the impression conveyed by the splendid exhibition, “The Treasure Houses of Britain,” in Washington. Thirty-five thousand square feet of gallery space have been given over to it; more than seven hundred works of art from over two hundred houses are on display; the Ford Motor Company alone has subsidized it with a sum in excess of one million dollars; and 700,000 visitors are eagerly and confidently expected before the exhibition closes. Now that the inaugural festivities are over, this may be an appropriate time to take a closer and more critical look, not only at the exhibition itself, but also at the broader British background to it, and at the real aims and objectives of those responsible for staging it.
It has become a platitude of modern British history that one of its most significant themes is a profound and pervasive hostility to industry and to urban life. By the late eighteenth century, people came to feel that they had largely mastered the natural world, and this, combined with the major impact of the industrial revolution on the landscape, led to an important shift in attitudes toward the countryside. Men and women of all classes increasingly saw it no longer as a wilderness to be tamed but as a Garden of Eden—threatened not so much by the serpent as by the dark, satanic mill—which must be preserved. At all levels of society, from the Chartists to the Fabians to High Tory paternalists, a veneration for green fields, village communities, and high mountains became commonplace, as reflected in the paintings, the prose, and the poetry of so many writers and artists during the last two hundred years. Indeed, the cult of the countryside seems about to supersede the rising middle classes as the all-purpose explanation for modern British history: for the economic growth of the Industrial Revolution no less than for the economic decline that followed; for fox hunters at one extreme and for animal liberationists at the other.
One way to treat this subject more precisely is to look at the timing and tone of these romantic, rural impulses as embodied in the cult of the country house during the last hundred years. Since the 1870s, the British economy has experienced three major downturns, each one known to contemporaries as the “great depression”: during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second, and in the long, lean years after 1974. Like all historical happenings, slumps never repeat themselves exactly, but these three depressions share many common characteristics: unacceptably high levels of unemployment, both cyclical and structural; the loss of overseas and domestic markets to international competitors; complaints that entrepreneurial effort was insufficient and that worker productivity was inadequate; renewed awareness of the blight, poverty, and deprivation in big cities; hunger marches, riots, strikes, and other expressions of urban unrest; and a widespread sense of unease, pessimism, and anxiety, which hardly needs laboring in the aftermath of Handsworth and Brixton.
But these three recessions have also had a much broader impact on the country. In politics, they have in each case coincided with a significant shift to the right: from Gladstonian liberalism to the age of Lord Salisbury, from Asquith and Lloyd George to the era of Baldwin, and from Wilson’s “New Britain” to the regime of Mrs. Thatcher. In part, this is because depression divides the left, and so lets the Conservatives in: Salisbury profited from Liberal disarray in the aftermath of Home Rule; Baldwin from the interwar confusion engendered by Liberal decline and Labour’s infirmity; and Thatcher from an opposition vote split between Labour and the Social Democratic and Liberal Alliance.
But there are also more positive reasons why recession in Britain seems to favor reaction rather than revolution. Economic crises make most men and women increasingly cautious; safety first becomes a more appealing slogan than the new frontier; retrenchment, self-interest, and conformity triumph over expansiveness, openhandedness, and dissent. It was, after all, the undergraduates of the prosperous Sixties and early Seventies who aspired to change the world; today their successors are more concerned to get good grades so they can get good jobs.
But there is also a distinctive cultural climate engendered by each of these depressions in turn. It is hardly coincidence that the late nineteenth century was the time when Elgar was composing his most elegiac music, when Lutyens was designing his most romantic houses, and when a variety of conservationist bodies and pastoral publicists like the National Trust and Country Life were coming into being. In the interwar years, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England was set up; writers as diverse as G.M. Trevelyan, P.G. Wodehouse, and Hugh Walpole were praising the hedgerows; and Stanley Baldwin appeared as Lord Emsworth incarnate, puffing his pipe, poking his pigs, and telling everyone that the true spirit of England was the sight and sound and smell of the countryside. And in our own time, the same sentiments have reemerged: witness the expert and popular books of Mark Girouard on English country houses and the extraordinary success of Brideshead on television; the hue and cry raised by the preservationist lobbies over the sale of Mentmore (in vain) and Calke Abbey (much more successfully); and the passing of the National Heritage Act and the raising of the Mary Rose, the latter acclaimed by some as almost comparable to regaining the Falklands.
All this suggests a recognizable and distinctive public mood, which has twice come and gone, and which is now firmly entrenched in Britain once again: withdrawn, nostalgic, and escapist, preferring conservation to development, the country to the town, and the past to the present. Not surprisingly, the version of the past that catches and crystallizes these sentiments is itself as conservative as the prevailing political climate. No one would describe Elgar or Trevelyan as radicals. The committees of the great preservationist societies were—and still are—groaning beneath the weight of great grandees. The idea of a “national” heritage which is somehow “threatened” and must be “saved” is sometimes little more than a means of preserving an essentially elite culture by claiming—often quite implausibly—that it is really everybody’s. The claim is usually accompanied by a highly value-laden version of the past, not so much history as myth, in which there is no room (and no need) for dissent or a different point of view. And the result is a neonostalgic, pseudopastoral, manufactured world, a picture-postcard version of Britain.
Just as business cycles need the helping hand of entrepreneurial endeavor, so the nostalgia booms require their own inventors of tradition and peddlers of dreams. Consider the image of England at present purveyed in American newspaper advertisements: Burberry raincoats, Laura Ashley dresses, Liberty prints, and Scotch wool tartans, all exploiting nostalgic and snobbish Anglophilia in the interest of British exports. In England itself, tourism is now the country’s biggest foreign currency earner after North Sea oil and the export of automobiles, providing jobs for 1.3 million people, with a predicted 50,000 a year being added for the rest of the decade. Is it any wonder that a recent headline in the London Times ran as follows: “Minister puts history at peak of new strategy to attract more tourists”? In the rapidly deindustrializing Britain of the 1980s, nostalgia and escapism are big business. Indeed, if the economy continues to decline at its present rate for much longer, they may soon be the country’s only business.
This long perspective of Britain’s recurrent economic crises and regular swings to conservative cultural values seems essential to understanding the country-house exhibition in Washington. But what of the display itself? Its avowed purpose is to celebrate and to publicize five hundred years of upper-class patronage and collecting since the advent of the Tudors first made the art world safe for aristocracy. To display the remarkable assemblage of paintings, miniatures, sculpture, furniture, porcelain, silver, tapestries, armor, and books that have thus been brought together, seventeen rooms have been specially designed and constructed within the east wing of the National Gallery. Some of these vividly suggest the feel of country-house interiors, rather than the antiseptic impersonality of an art museum. There is also a magnificent catalog, which reproduces in color every item on display, provides the fullest possible documentation and analysis, and is further enhanced by a set of lively essays filling in the historical background. And for those who want a closer sense of the country houses themselves, Gervase Jackson-Stops has provided an admirable introduction, accompanied by some beautiful photographs by James Pipkin.
The first section of the exhibition traces the development of country-house collecting from the period of the fortified medieval castle, through the outward looking “prodigy houses” of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, to the sumptuous Baroque palaces of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Here, in one broad sweep, we see the rise and efflorescence of superior secular patronage in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries. We begin with a room devoted to the Tudor Renaissance, which achieves its magical effect by bringing together several remarkable pieces never before seen side by side: the Lumley horseman from Sandbeck, the earliest known equestrian statue in the history of English sculpture; the sea-dog table from Hardwick, with an inlaid walnut top, supported by four carved dogs with dolphins’ tails, themselves resting on the backs of tortoises; the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I from Hatfield, whose iconography is so complex and suggestive that its precise meaning has eluded art historians. There are suits of armor that remind us that this was still an unsettled time; tapestries that were intended as much to warm the walls as to decorate them; and some exquisite miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver.
From this great chamber, we proceed into a Jacobean long gallery modeled on the background to Daniel Mytens’s painting of the Countess of Arundel, which is itself on display, as is the companion study of her husband, arguably the first great aristocratic patron and collector. Fifteen paintings of Tudor and Stuart worthies, ornately dressed, proudly posed and poised, are works of propaganda no less than of art.
The gallery opens into a more intimate section devoted to the gentry houses of the Restoration, with their French furniture, their Dutch-influenced interiors with portraits by Sir Godfrey Kneller, their cabinets and sconces. They are brilliantly contrasted to the later exuberance of the Baroque, when the Vanbrugh palaces set new standards of country-house luxury; these are well captured here. A Grinling Gibbons carving of dead game from Kirtlington Park reminds us that hunting, shooting, and fishing were an integral part of upper-class life, both for recreation and for food; the magnificent silver wine cooler from Burghley House, weighing over 3,400 ounces, gives some indication of their capacity for alcohol; and the silver-framed looking glass, silver candlestands, and silver-covered table from Knole, form a decorated suite of bedroom furniture of astonishing richness.