After a particularly tough house move in the second week of October, the weekend brightened with attendance at The Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference – ‘Looking Ahead: The Future of the Country House’. Always slightly anxious that I might not have my ‘clever head’ engaged at these sorts of things, I was relieved to discover many familiar faces amongst the delegates.
I attended on the Saturday of the conference. Whilst I know those involved with The Attingham Trust will be reading, this was not without purpose. Certainly, I work through the week, but I was intrigued far more by the papers on offer that day. Split into four sessions, the first theme encompassed the ownership of mainly British country houses by national institutions and local authorities. The second looked at the Irish country house particularly in light of funding and a nation’s tumultuous history. The third was, for me, a proper introduction to the ’historic house’ in the United States, with the final session examining the position of the country house in Australia.
The previous day would have given me the opportunity to hear Tim Knox – Director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, interview John Harris – author and architectural historian about country house snooping, or Giles Waterfield from The Attingham Trust interview Julian Fellowes. Attending as I did on the Saturday only, I felt I had missed a great deal. And not surprisingly, Downton Abbey was thus quite high on the agenda!
So conspicuous was the latter that I fully understood the intense fever of the ITV period drama outside of the comfort of my own living room. Whenever I tell people what I ‘do’, their eyes light up. Inevitably, Downton Abbey enters the conversation and I am required to smile sweetly whilst all the time supporting their idea that country houses at the turn of the 20th century were ALL like this. Yet, I am not attempting to bite my nose off to spite my face. Downton Abbey has certainly earned its place in the discourse of the country house. It is glossy, television-land escapism – the perfect ingredient for a Sunday evening, and although I do watch it occasionally (given the chance at all), I feel I already know these stories.
Downton Abbey has brought the country house to the masses and has provided a generalised interpretation which encourages people to understand a little more about life in the country house. For several years this has been one of the main objectives of institutions in charge of historic houses. However, there is still a divide of interest amongst those involved in making decisions on how houses should be presented, marketed and cared for. The social history of the country house is still a relatively new ingredient to the visitor experience, but there are those who wish to cling to the old trends surrounding architecture and collections.
At the Attingham conference these ideals were definitely tangled up together within thoughts on the future of the country house. This is typically a British symptom of class and the need to categorise our heritage and the people who should and could visit sites. Anna Keay (now at The Landmark Trust) provided her personal take on visiting a site with her children who were immediately pounced upon by overbearing room attendants. I know this feeling well, and appreciate the need for a velvet rope to provide physical boundaries for my own child in such circumstances! That Keay made a swift apology for the inclusion of an image of herself with her children was frankly strange. But then, so too did Lisa White (Chairman of the National Trust Arts Panel) when she included a picture of National Trust marketing which incorporated children playing in the grounds of a country house. The educational aspect of the future of the country house was therefore made obvious by its absence.
The Attingham Trust is the finest of academies from which to study the country house. And whilst its Summer School remains exclusive to those already working in museums, art galleries or with a conservation body, it provides a fantastic platform from which debates of this nature can arise. This was why I decided to attend the conference on the Saturday.
As the papers moved away from matters of British ownership, but still within the boundaries of historic house management and collections, there was an air of optimism which hadn’t been so prevalent in the first session. Both Terence Dooley and Kevin Baird, as representatives of the Irish country house, spoke with charm and enthusiasm about the sites under their guardianship. Plus there was no apology for the inclusion of images portraying children examining objects or peering over reconstructed period dress. Moving onto the later sessions, this mood remained. Admittedly, this could have been the chance for many of the speakers to promote their work, their heritage sites and indeed their part of the world to a largely British audience, but there were many themes I would be interested in covering here. I was particularly intrigued by Craig Hanson’s paper (Associate Professor, Calvin College, Michigan) which noted the activities of women as private citizens during the 1850s onwards for establishing preservation societies and associations in the United States. This was an entirely new concept for me, but one which had clearly resonated with American women like Nancy Lancaster in the 20th century.
By the time Professors Gini Lee and Mark Taylor came to give their respective papers on the Australian country house, the number of delegates had shrunk. Perhaps noticeably, but having watched people leave in dribs and drabs between papers, I was a little disheartened by the change. Understandably it had been a long day, nonetheless, there were some interesting points made, especially given Lee’s own academic background in landscape architecture and interior design, and so this was a refreshing stance on a subject about which many probably knew very little.
Overall, it was matters of funding that were at the heart of the conference. Visitor experiences, educational outreach, research, acquisitions, and housekeeping all require funding. Heritage is currently suffering from a mixed bag of opportunities which has pushed country house management to extremes. Jeremy Musson (Architectural Historian and TV Presenter) highlighted the plight of one of my favourite houses, Temple Newsam in Leeds, which is struggling under the weight of years of unpredictable local authority ownership. Many houses, both here in Britain as well as abroad have had important cultural legacies established through decades of well-meaning curatorial departments, conservation teams and front-of-house staff. Things have not always been done properly and layers of bad interpretation have had to be stripped back (or re-applied) in order to meet contemporary trends in country house presentation and purpose. By trashing, or at least procrastinating about the past ideals and hard work of those is to forget what history is meant to do. It is therefore unforgivable to see a measly £10,000 set aside for one heritage department merrily scrapped from a budget because it is deemed unimportant or no longer financially viable. There is, or course, no quick fix and every house has its own requirements; like running a business, some demand heavy footfall, while others simply want their stories telling.
The Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference was indeed a great place to shake hands over drinks and to chat with old friends, but it put things into perspective. We need to imagine ourselves in the future already, and to be looking back on how we encouraged those funding bodies to accept the necessity for heritage in its many forms. Places need not become corporate and soulless, but they do need to recognise the expectations and aspirations of those with an inkling of interest in the country house – whether this has its foundations in Downton Abbey or otherwise. The country house audience is changing, and in competing for funding many institutions probably feel overwhelmed in choosing what to present to the public. These are businesses which are uniquely contained within the buildings that defines them and the work they do and so without them the businesses would dissolve. Accepting change is the first part, passing this notion on is pivotal to the future of the country house.
Full link to the conference programme http://www.attinghamtrust.org/60th-anniversary-conference/programme.pdf
The Attingham Trust Newsletter page http://www.attinghamtrust.org/at_newsletter.html
There was a report produced by The Attingham Trust in 2004 entitled OPENING DOORS: LEARNING IN THE HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT which ‘examined the educational provision in a wide range of historic buildings and sites across the British Isles and the Irish Republic. It makes numerous recommendations to Government and to other bodies for improvements in an active but fragmented and heavily under-resourced field.’ Currently the link is not working, but it would make for good reading. It is available to purchase as a book from the Attingham Trust.
Further reading and links in connection with some of the papers given:
Pevsner Architectural Guides http://yalebooks.co.uk/pevsner.asp
Historic Houses Association http://www.hha.org.uk/
The Buccleuch Group and Estates http://www.buccleuch.com/
Burghley House http://www.burghley.co.uk/
Jeremy Musson http://www.jeremymusson.com/
Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates http://historicirishhouses.ie/
Newport Preservation Society http://www.newportmansions.org/
The Royal Oak Foundation http://www.royal-oak.org/index.php