Dan Cruickshank’s The Country House Revealed finally came to a conclusion this Tuesday on BBC2. In his last two programmes, Cruickshank looked at Clandeboye, County Down, and Marshcourt, Hampshire; the first an example of the wider changing social order and economic structure of the country house, the second was the result of this change and the symbol of plutocracy.
At Clandeboye we saw Cruickshank in his element with the surroundings as he flitted from room to room and enjoyed the company
W Magazine photo of the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava upon the Clandeboye estate (February 2009)
of its owner Lindy Guinness, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. An interesting woman and the very epitome of elite presence in the modern age. We learnt that Cruickshank had attended a social event at Clandeboye some 35 years earlier, but we were not permitted the full story as to what circumstances he attained the invite in the first place. As a result the often giggly moments shared by Cruickshank and the Marchioness were cloaked in mystique which was added to with flirtatious undertones often allowing the main themes to be ignored. The life study of a ‘French boy’ tucked away in a closet space set the pair into rosey-faced sniggers, but on the other hand it was a pleasant departure to the more formal and scholarly encounters Cruickshank had had with the people connected with his case studies.
At Marshcourt, Cruickshank seemed more sober in his approach (despite a moment which saw him purposefully scrape his elbow along the chalk walls), and there seemed a looming presence resembling unfinished business or stunted happiness. Where Clandeboye had stood as a symbol of landed wealth in the nineteenth century and had seen the financial struggles of its then owner – Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava
and his climb up the ladder to elite success, Marshcourt represented the ‘last hurrah’ in country house building. Built for Herbert Johnson by Edwin Lutyens between 1901 and 1904, Marshcourt was created for a member of the new elite who had made money away from landownership. This country house was intended to be a retreat from city life, and a vision of its owners playful character. On several occasions Cruickshank made reference to Marshcourt or Herbert ‘Johnny’ Johnson and his circle as playful, wayward and vivacious.
Having watched the last two episodes back to back, there was a sense that Cruickshank had covered most angles of country house building and development from the fifteenth century to the twentieth century. We had witnessed the establishment of the country house as a power base, as the self-sufficient estate and home of the landowner, as the shelter for the spoils of the Grand Tour and worldly travels, and as a symbol of private wealth. Dan Cruickshank had done this with just six houses not normally open to the general public. We had met with private owners; many of which had little or no link with the older families who had built these houses, but all had different visions for the future. All expressed their feelings of responsibility for the maintenance and ‘homeliness’ of these buildings and emphasised a desire to recreate or continue the heritage of that specific property.
Yet, within the murky depths of internet writing and reviewing there lies a comment which argues for more interest to be shown inside the usual boundaries of the United Kingdom and Britain generally – more specifically Wales. This is true of this kind of history documentary but is probably a reflection on the interests and academic knowledge of those involved or those the tv producers wish to work with. Amanda Vickery’s latest installment At Home with the Georgians
for example was based on her Behind Closed Doors
book of 2009 which made England its main focus. Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk
let her explore only a few aspects of domestic arrangements outside her own place of work – the Historic Royal Palaces. Of course, Wales has country houses and not just lots of castles; Erddig
is a fantastic example of how an eighteenth and nineteenth-century house worked. It may be owned by the National Trust, but its more recent history proves that modern-day hopes of retrieving local heritage are always prevalent. But what about Hawarden Castle which is privately owned by the descendants of British Prime Minister William Gladstone? And did Cruickshank and his producers fear treading on the toes of Ruth Watson and her Country House Rescue
team if they were to explore the histories of Pen-Y-Lan
or Plas Teg
? The demolition of hundreds of Welsh country houses in the twentieth century leaving vastly smaller numbers than in England only suggests that Cruickshank and his team should have focussed on one all the more. At least in that respect it would have been a more rounded examination of the British country house.
Front cover for The Country House Revealed (April 2011)
Overall, this was an enjoyable series to watch. I have read some of the book, and admit I do not have a copy of my own at the moment. That Dan Cruickshank is sole author however is misleading since the book is probably better described as a compilation of articles from several academic minds. The elusive Jonathan Parker is one of the main researchers with additions from those more well-known in the field. But Dan Cruickshank is afterall an architectural historian who has travelled the world in order to highlight some of the grandest buildings other countries have to offer. He has also entered more humble dwellings and compared urban development with that of the rural setting. He would be the obvious choice of commentator to link with a glossy hardback and to front a programme such as The Country House Revealed.
Perhaps what follows should be a ‘demolition’ of the country house and we could delve into the archives of those no longer standing but were equally important establishments in marking out a true ’hidden history’ of our nation. There are many historians at work on this theme, so Dan Cruickshank, if you’re reading this……
For the review mentioned in this text see the Reviews, Snippets and Articles section in the right-hand column here; ‘The Independent review of The Country House Revealed’.