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 …