BBC News: Who holds the keys to our mansions? March 2015

Here’s an important debate currently passing through academic and property consultancy circles – the foreign buyer of the country house (the full article follows further below).

There is quite a lot to say here, and I’m not sure what my own thoughts are on this just yet. Ultimately this is all about money, and the spending power of those with a great deal of existing capital. Perhaps it has nothing to do with the ‘occidental’ nature of the buyer at all, but on the other hand, it does raise questions about the future of a part of Britain’s cultural identity.

In the first instance, a willing buyer with the adequate funds to purchase any of the empty country houses in Britain should be a good thing as it brings these buildings back into use. However, the article highlights how a purchase does not always guarantee that a house will even become occupied. Such a purchase is about increasing personal capital – or misguided investment. Where the argument concerns the finances of the buyer, we must consider how the country house as residence has infiltrated our psyche. Inheritance, estate income and family matters have to offer stability within a setting of high staff turnover, regional and national economies and possible political influence. The country house as residence is therefore an administrative centre and must have a business model if it is to survive. Having the correct funds to purchase must be accompanied by such, otherwise the country house just becomes another new toy to be discarded when it looks worn out and dirty.

Where the argument concerns the origin of the buyer, things become much murkier. The Downton Abbey effect reassures many of a past world nostalgia which is somehow uniquely British. The TV series makes itself known everywhere – it makes a cameo in Iron Man 3, and animated children’s television show Arthur even celebrated its existence with one episode dedicated to ancestral awakenings! Though Downton has not single-handedly drawn wealthy magnates to the British county house, it has surely provided a vast influence over individual desires. Thus, cultural identity comes into play: Downton Abbey isn’t real, of course, but it is pivotal in this argument because it has skewed both native and foreign visions of country house living. Are we really threatened by a foreign buyer because they might bring some ‘otherness’ to the mix, or is it really because we would feel excluded from the process and be denied some sort of access past the front door? Lest we forget, these are private establishments and not all museums and depositories for collections of statuary or paintings and furniture.

The cultural identity of the British country house is awkward because it represents both sides of the social strata. We have come to expect greater access to them as visitors, but often do not realise that many houses are still true residences. Some are open to the public or offered up as conference or wedding venues, others are simply homes. That the buyer is foreign – and provided they know their business model – it should have no bearing on how we negotiate past their new house. The privacy of the country house and its family has been sought after since the end of the seventeenth century, culturally a foreign buyer wouldn’t be changing anything, so perhaps it’s best to sit tight and remain optimistic.

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The east front of Apethorpe HallApethorpe Hall was once a favourite haunt of King James I.

A stately home which was once a haunt of the rich and royal has been sold to a French baron. It’s the latest in a string of mansions sold to international buyers, raising questions about the safety of England’s heritage. But does it matter who holds the keys?

Author Henry James once said: “Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character, the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details… is the well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country house.”

It was an opinion shared by many when the stately home was the highest symbol of aristocratic wealth. However, in the early 20th Century the English upper classes began to lose their grip on their palaces.

Not unlike the scenes in TV’s Downton Abbey, the fight to save the country home was a very real concern for the landed gentry in the face of heavy taxation.

It was this chink in the armour of England’s upper classes that gave some international buyers a first class ticket to tradition and class.

“At the beginning of the 20th Century there were a lot of historic houses and people married rich American wives,” said Dr Timothy Brittain-Catlin, lecturer in architecture at the University of Kent.

“In the 1920s and 1930s there was a lot more money in America and if it wasn’t for them, the houses would have been demolished.

“Everyone [here] was broke and houses weren’t protected and many of them were bought up by people like [American] William Randolph Hearst.

“Some were remodelled and rebuilt and in England it led to a serious conservation lobby, so in a way it was a good thing because it made people aware.”

Minley ManorMinley Manor was sold by the Ministry of Defence for a figure exceeding the £5m guide price

It is estimated that between 1880 and 1980, about 2,000 country homes across England, Wales and Scotland were demolished. But the grass of the English countryside has always appeared greener to international buyers.

“A lot of people regard England as a safe haven of heritage,” said Jasper Feilding, of property consultants Carter Jonas which dealt with the sale in November of Minley Manor in Hampshire.

“You can buy a schloss in Germany or a chateau in France which may be equally as important from a historical point of view.

“But they’re not making any more country houses and if you’re looking for a trophy property there’s more kudos in buying something in England which has that historical importance.”

There have been a number of high profile sales of country homes to overseas buyers in recent months.

A bidding war in January 2014 saw the sale of Hadspen House in Somerset to an international buyer – rumoured to be Hollywood star, Johnny Depp – for a reported £12m, while Dunstall Hall in Staffordshire was sold to a Middle Eastern businessman for £4m in July. In January of this year, Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire was sold to French academic, Baron von Pfetten.

Dunstall HallDunstall Hall is just one in a long list of country properties bought by overseas buyers

“There’s definitely been some kind of movement towards foreign buyers purchasing country houses and in recent months there has been something of a trend,” said Mike Fox, from Save Britain’s Heritage.

“Providing the houses don’t suffer as a result of them being bought by international buyers, we’ve got no problem.

“But the concern is if they’re just bought up as trophy properties and then left. There are a number of houses where that has happened.”

Apethorpe, which was once a favourite haunt of King James I, is a prime example of a property left to rot.

Apethorpe HallApethorpe Hall’s new owner said he hopes it will regain a place in British history
The sunken garden at Apethorpe HallThe grounds features a number of green spaces including the sunken garden

The Jacobean country house was bought by a Libyan businessman in 1983, who neither lived in it or maintained it and left it to crumble for almost two decades.

It was eventually bought by the government in 2001 and handed to English Heritage in 2005, who sold it following £8m worth of restoration work.

Its new owner has agreed to open the doors to the public for 50 days a year to help it “regain the place in British history it deserves”.

“The house was bought for a foreign owner who let it fall to pieces and now has another foreign owner,” said Dr Brittain-Catlin.

“Conservationists will tell you that they have lost a manor, but on the other hand, an important house has now been saved by someone who is living in it and appreciates it.

“The [nationality] of the buyer isn’t the important thing, it’s that the buyer looks after it,” he added.

Highclere CastleHighclere Castle has found fame as the home of Downton Abbey…
Montacute House, Somerset…while the grounds of Montacute House provided the backdrop for scenes in Wolf Hall

Despite attempts to preserve these quintessentially British properties, the Historic House Association says times are still tough for owners, with about 60% of members opening their homes to the public and offering them as film sets for TV programmes like Wolf Hall and Downton Abbey.

“These are very uncertain times for historic houses and gardens,” said Richard Compton, president of the HHA. “Competition to attract visitors with disposable incomes has increased; at the same time, costs have also risen.

“Many historic house businesses face threats to their very survival.”

A question mark currently hangs over the future of one of Europe’s biggest private stately homes.

Wentworth WoodhouseWentworth Woodhouse requires millions of pounds worth of repairs

Wentworth Woodhouse, in South Yorkshire, has been open to the public for more than 25 years but its owners are planning to put the Grade I listed property on the market.

It means anyone who can afford the reputed £7m price tag plus the £40m needed for repairs could snap up a piece of England’s heritage.

But Mr Fox hopes the house can be purchased by a preservation trust which has so far raised £3.5m in pledges.

“The family need to consider their options and that includes putting it on the market,” he said, “But we remain confident we can do some kind of deal

Links given in the article:

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Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire.

Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire. The Courtyard viewed from the Loggia.

Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire. The Courtyard viewed from the Loggia (author’s own image).

 

After three years of research and emotional storytelling, I finally made the personal pilgrimage to Northamptonshire in search of some of my ancestors and a part of the English countryside they knew as their home.

I was not disappointed. This was an opportunity to take in great swathes of rural Northamptonshire between Oundle and Corby without actually travelling very far at all; the landscape is essentially English, and luckily for me, packed with truly outstanding (and eclectic) architecture!

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Left to right: St. Rumbold’s Church, Stoke Doyle (author’s own); The courtyard at The Talbot Inn, Oundle (TripAdvisor); and the incomplete Lyveden New Bield (author’s own).

 

One of the most exhilarating sites by far was Kirby Hall. I can say with confidence that Kirby Hall is most certainly an architectural treasure; at once bold and ambitious, yet accepting and somehow thoughtful. It must be impossible for visitors to dislike this place.

As much as I write about the social history of the country house, I would not be able to understand the physical movements of a household without knowing the construction and design of a particular house. Kirby Hall is a ruined country house, and it’s all the better for it in this instance. Stripped of most of its interior decoration, the walls are free to be admired for the patchwork of ambitions imposed upon them by the owners of Kirby since the 16th century.

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The east front, 16th century with 17th century additions (author’s own).

 

Begun in 1570, the house that stands today is mainly the result of the ambitions of Sir Humphrey Stafford (a man who is frustratingly elusive in any of the searches I have undertaken). At first Stafford’s plan was simple and typical of the traditional Elizabethan plan with protruding bays and pitched roofs. However, building was rapid suggesting that Stafford and his surveyor and mason were all in close correspondence. In 5 years the site was transformed into a large four-sided house with spacious lodgings for the family, the household and visitors. Despite the cultural insistence upon retaining features like a Great Hall, this new Kirby Hall demonstrated the desire to emulate something more cosmopolitan – something European.

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One of the decorative friezes above a door in the courtyard. The Stafford family crest can be seen in the centre of the image.

 

Stafford employed local man Thomas Thorpe who hailed from a family of respected masons from the nearby village of Kingscliffe. Thorpe had referred to French architectural pattern books for the finishing touches at Kirby, and aspects of this Anglo-French style can be seen in much of the ground floor level including the porch and the arches of the loggia or arcade which in Stafford’s time was known as the ‘cloister’.

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The loggia as seen from the east. The plan and lower portions date from Stafford’s time, the rounded and triangular pediments are later.

 

Stafford’s death in 1575 halted the building at Kirby but its innovative architectural features such as the giant pilasters within the courtyard and delicate stone friezes quickly caught the eye of one of Elizabeth I’s favourites.

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Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-91) bought Kirby that same year and intended the house to be for the sole purpose of accommodating and entertaining the queen. A glamorous figure at the Elizabethan court, Hatton was reputed to have been a handsome spirited man who effortlessly climbed the ladder of courtly professions. Between 1564 and 1577 he had risen as one of the Queen’s gentlemen pensioners and a gentleman of the privy chamber, through the position as captain of the yeomen of the guard to vice-chamberlain of the royal household. He was also knighted in 1577, and by 1587 had become Lord Chancellor. Hatton famously held property at Holdenby House also in Northamptonshire which at time of his death was one of the largest residences in England. Yet, it was a project which would also bankrupt him and his descendants were forced to sell Holdenby to the Crown. Sadly it was largely demolished in the 17th century after the English Civil War.

As for Kirby Hall, the queen never came, but Hatton and his descendants were determined to set about extending and embellishing the house further. By the second decade of the 17th century, Kirby was a fine mix of practical, playful and elegant spaces. The West Garden (though rather plainly set out) was beginning to assume its later importance. The Great Stair was added, a Great Parlour, and best of all the shapely bay windows to the south which housed the bedchambers and the Great Withdrawing Room. All were united by a string of decorative gables, and through sheer practicality this is the only part of the house which still has a roof today.

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The south west corner of Kirby (author’s own)

 

It was at this time that Kirby would see its first Royal visitor in the form of James I who visited four times between 1612 and 1624. The grandeur of the south west corner rooms where the royal visitor would have been accommodated were recorded in an inventory taken on the death of a later Hatton (also Sir Christopher) in 1619 which listed amongst many other things; a chair under a canopy of white taffeta with purple and gold stars, a mirror inlaid in mother-of-pearl, Persian carpets, and furnishings made from moire satin and gold lace.

Today, such sumptuous fabrics are often confined to bridal wear, so to imagine the craftsmanship and delicacy of fine lace and embroidered silks and taffetas catching human movement in these now empty spaces is almost magical.

The 18th century was not so kind to Kirby, the reasons for which are difficult to pinpoint other than the desire of the Hatton men to become more engrossed in business elsewhere. A Hatton descendant married into the Finch family – the Earls of Winchelsea – and took both names. However, the main home of the Finch-Hattons was in Kent and Kirby perhaps felt too cumbersome. Perhaps its intended purpose as a royal lodging was proving too demanding. The impression upon visiting Kirby today is one of gradual shrinkage; a contraction of the energy and ambition needed to keep such a building up-to-date. That the remaining roofed part contains remnants of 18th century fashionable decoration only goes some way to suggest that efforts still continued for a time.

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The late 18th-century apse with decorative cornice in the Great Withdrawing Room; and a close up of behind the curved walls showing the lath and plaster construction.

 

Yet, two large sales of the contents, one in 1772 and another in 1824, highlight a desire to make a swift break. By the 1830s, the once grandest rooms in the south west corner were occupied by a Finch-Hatton agent and then later a farmer.

Gradually, the rest of the house began to fall into decay; becoming open to the elements and whoever passed by. The guidebook offers up a romantic yet earnest quote made by the Reverend Canon James who saw ‘the very action of decomposition going on, the crumbling stucco of the ceiling feeding the vampire ivy, the tattered tapestry yet hanging on the wall, the picture flapping in its broken frame.’

The ruined service wing viewed from the Bedchamber/billiard room (author's own)

The ruined service wing viewed from the Bedchamber/Billiard room (author’s own)

For a long time the roof above the service wing remained, eventually falling to the pressing of time and neglect before the end of the 19th century. The same fate was met throughout the house, but despite this, it seems that the locals were eager to spend time socialising within the courtyard and around the ruins,; intrigued by this almost entirely accessible romanticism and past grandeur. At Lyveden New Bield a few miles away, graffiti is ripe and legible scrawlings date between  1850 to the more recent past. It seems the Earl of Winchelsea did not wish to see Kirby succumb to the same violation , but actively discouraged such behaviour with the use of warning notices pasted to walls in the 1880s. Subsequently, there are few local credentials to search for here.

 

And this still persists in a very respectful manner. As a visitor to Kirby Hall today, there is a strange feeling of limbo – it’s a ruin, but a ruin of a house, not a castle or abbey. Given it was an extremely cold December day, there were few visitors, but those that had made the effort consisted of young couples and the traditional group of retirees. No-one touched walls and no-one shouted across to members of their party. People acted as they do when walking through any ‘regular’ country house – audio guide in one hand and a guidebook or leaflet in the other. It all felt too normal, so much so, that I even heard sniggers from a group I was following closely as I slipped into the void behind the 18th century apse to take photos.

The Earls of Winchelsea still own Kirby Hall, but it is managed by English Heritage. The latter want you to peek into these corners and examine the spaces and look at the fabric of a building and ask questions about architectural detailing or the past habits of long gone residents. Kirby is an excellent place to start doing this or to refresh that curiosity. I know that English Heritage are eager to continue their research into Kirby Hall because there is still a great deal to unearth and documentation to sift through. In the meantime, the house maintains a distinctive shape within the Northamptonshire countryside, and the Hatton gables and pinnacles will tempt any and everyone from the beaten track.

 

Links:

English Heritage information for teachers http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/kirby-hall-info-for-teachers/kirbyhall.pdf

Kirby Hall as an Austen setting http://austenonly.com/2011/02/23/jane-austen-film-locations-kirby-hall-northamptonshire-used-as-mansfield-park/

The deserted village of Kirby http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/northants/vol1/pp33-35

Pocket history from The Heritage Trail http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/stately%20homes/kirby%20hall.htm

Holdenby Hall included in a post by The Country Seat blog http://thecountryseat.org.uk/2013/11/14/a-minor-prodigy-brereton-hall-for-sale/

The West Gardens at Kirby in Google books https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=mRdern2HY5QC&pg=PA176&dq=kirby+hall&hl=en&sa=X&ei=EhnIVOimE4K3ac2cgpAJ&ved=0CDYQ6AEwBDgK#v=onepage&q=kirby%20hall&f=false

Pevsner at Kirby Hall in Google Books  https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=soI35rrNLMIC&pg=PA280&dq=kirby+hall&hl=en&sa=X&ei=QRrIVIaTOsPlaMCagZgM&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAzgy#v=onepage&q=kirby%20hall&f=false

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Yorkshire Christmas Pie

Windsor Christmas-pie

A Yorkshire Christmas Pie being served up at Windsor Castle, mid nineteenth century.

 

After an exceptionally busy year in a new job – and new career for that matter, I have been able to return to my true love! Let it be known that countryhousereader will get the attention it deserves from now on; no more leaving it to the sidelines.

I thought it best to make a comeback with something festive, but also a minor dedication to two of the finest country houses in Yorkshire – Harewood House and Castle Howard. And with confirmation of an official Tour de Yorkshire in 2015, where better to celebrate!

In 2005, and riding on the coat tails of several exhibitions based on archival material which led to interpreting the house in more publicly accessible ways, Send it up Hot was published by the Castle Howard Estate. Similarly, Harewood House was reinventing its Kitchen and servant quarters below stairs after years of restoration. Both houses were establishing an awareness of their immediate surroundings too, and careful research was quickly bringing these architectural gems to different audiences; the sights, sounds and smells of the working country house were suddenly more tangible.

castle howard book

The abundant resources of the Yorkshire countryside made it an attractive purchase in any century to which we turn. The Yorkshire country house owner knew fine well how to promote the wealth of his estate and by turn knew this reflected the identity of the county. The Yorkshire Christmas Pie could be concocted anywhere, but its grandeur easily matches the landscape and bounty of the locality. If anything, its richness is a tribute to the diversity of the county and its heritage.

So, what is a Yorkshire Christmas Pie?

The Yorkshire Christmas Pie was a large game pie stuffed with mainly birds such as pheasant, partridge and turkey inside an elaborate pastry crust. The most quoted recipe is definitely that put together by Hannah Glasse from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) and included in Castle Howard’s Send it up Hot:

FIRST make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon, Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black-pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge; cover them; then the fowls then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces, that is, joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild-fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot oven, and will take at least four hours. This crust will take a bushel of flour. These pies are often sent to London in a box, as presents; therefore, the walls must be well built.

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An example of one of the huge copper pie moulds from the kitchen at Harewood House

Of course these mammoth pies were deliberately magnificent in time for the festive season, but a truly grand present to receive at Christmas, no doubt about that! Merry Christmas to one and all!!

Ivan Day at Harewood Some Christmas Recipes

Only the best at Christmas http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-to-eat-like-a-king-for-christmas-11475686/?no-ist=&page=1

History of the Yorkshire Christmas Pie http://www.yorkshirelife.co.uk/food-drink/the_history_of_the_yorkshire_christmas_pie_1_3103216

The Christmas Pie http://savoringthepast.net/2012/12/19/the-christmas-pie/

Dining with the Washingtons http://www.mountvernon.org/recipes/yorkshire-christmas-pie

Georgian London and Hannah Glasse’s recipe for Yorkshire Christmas Pie http://georgianlondon.com/post/49461238015/hannahs-yorkshire-christmas-pie

Glasse recipe book https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=dYIEAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA145&lpg=PA145&dq=yorkshire+christmas+pie&source=bl&ots=cy4-_I0_rC&sig=MPQlasx8pS1aDm_xkAlC2fgo6JY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=4veRVPHoLM7tasnngogN&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBzgK#v=onepage&q=yorkshire%20christmas%20pie&f=false

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BBC News: Stars of film and television

Arley Hall

The following is an article from the BBC News website which highlights the growing sense of place found in the (mainly English) country house today and how this can be captured on film. Prompted by Disney’s Evermoor which will be filmed at Arley Hall in Cheshire (above), the attraction of the country house for native and international television viewers and film audiences is still clearly strong.

[Original BBC News article can be found here.]

Arley Hall, Cheshire.

This country house is to be used as the set of the Disney Channel’s first UK live production. Evermoor, a teen drama, will be filmed at Arley Hall, near Warrington, with the Victorian property becoming the latest English stately home used to wow an international audience. The house has previously featured in programmes including Hollyoaks, Coronation Street and The Forsyte Saga. The UK Press – particularly The Independent anticipate the arrival of a new setting which could equal that of Hogwarts, otherwise known as Alnwick Castle (see below).

Here is a selection of other spectacular settings made famous by Hollywood and the TV screen.

Highclere Castle, Hampshire

Highclere Castle
Downton Abbey filming

As a friend of the owners, Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes had Highclere Castle in mind as he wrote the first series of the period drama.

The last series of the ITV show pulled in an average of 11.8 million viewers in the UK. A new instalment is due later this year. The Newbury castle is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

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Alnwick Castle, Northumberland

Alnwick Castle

Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry came to life on screen in the magical surroundings of Alnwick Castle. Owned by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, the castle now offers “broomstick training” to its younger visitors.

Jonathan Kewley, honorary secretary of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, said the attraction of country houses to film makers – and visitors – was the fact they were “big enough to be a world”.

He said: “Most of these country houses are set in large grounds and once you go in you’re inside an enclosed world. “They’re big enough for children to get lost in and find all sorts of hidden rooms or explore outside and it’s easier to suspend a sense of disbelief.”

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Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Chatsworth House

The 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice used Chatsworth House as Mr Darcy’s residence.

The enormous grounds, home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, have also welcomed casts and crews of The Duchess, starring Kiera Knightley, and horror film The Wolf Man.

Mr Kewley said many visitors to stately homes were more interested in the human stories attached to them rather than the buildings themselves. He said: “People go round and think ‘what would it be like to live here?’ Visitors are interested in the people who did live in the homes and what their back story is.”

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Kenwood House, London

Kenwood House, London

The Hampstead location for scenes from the movie Notting Hill is described by English Heritage as “London’s hidden gem”.

Kenwood House also featured in the Peter O’Toole movie Venus.

Mr Kewley said the cultural differences between England and other countries- and the fact architecture in the country was quite different to that found elsewhere – added to the mystery and intrigue surrounding country homes.

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Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Blenheim Palace

Sir Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace and it is now a World Heritage Site. It also boats an impressive list of film credits. James Corden and Catherine Tate starred in 2010’s Gulliver’s Travels while parts of Harry Potter and the Indiana Jones films were also shot at the Woodstock mansion.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, released in 1934, was the first film to make use of the grounds.

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Genre: The Country House Novel – the Social House

Downton-Abbey-Season-1-downton-abbey-31759161-333-500Without doubt, the social country house has become the version of the country house most would recognise currently due in the main to Downton Abbey. It is almost impossible to avoid the series if you like country houses just a little bit because it pops up in internet searches left, right and centre! Its popularity is something which I want to look at in a later post. Yet its content is typical of the social house regardless of how much gloss is placed on the presentation. If the casual viewer can command a good knowledge of servant hierarchies, household politics and daily routines then the programme has done more than merely entertain. Forget the table settings, the beautiful costumes and the fine furniture; this is all about human interaction.

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This, the third of three posts looking at the literary country house explores some of the themes presented by staging the house as a location for social discourse. Previous Genre posts here have addressed the country house poem  and the country house as haunted house. The social house however, is where the genre really takes off.

Returning to John Lucas and more specifically Blake Morrison both writing for The Guardian (February and June 2011 respectively), it is possible to see how popular this aspect has become in recent years.

There are two distinctive definitions of the country house in its social guise. The first a solid symbol of artificial hierarchies to the extent that it has become inextricably linked with British class distinctions and notions of ‘knowing one’s place’ throughout history. As Stevens expresses in The Remains of the Day, ‘It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls.’ Lucas notes, ‘Country houses are nothing if not a symbol of upper class hegemony: the novel provides an apparatus through which this can be examined, sometimes humorously, sometimes with gentle satire.’ This is certainly true of the works of Thomas Love Peacock for example, particularly Headlong Hall (1816) and Nightmare Abbey (1818). In academic circles this is the traditional country house novel, and the true definition of the genre. These works acknowledge greatness and elite authority even if they mock its eccentricities.

Film still from The Remains of the Day with Anthony Hopkins as Stevens - longstanding butler (1993. Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989).

Film still from The Remains of the Day with Anthony Hopkins as Stevens – longstanding butler (1993). Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989).

The social house is a commentary upon the political and cultural scene using gender and race (and class) as the tools for negotiating the main narrative. The other definition and a more refreshing approach sees the social house as more about perceptions of the human condition – past and present. Morrison concludes his article with, ‘What the contemporary novelist finds in country houses isn’t greatness but loss, failure and everyday human struggle, writ large.’ It does not have to be about servants and masters or inheritance and title. The country house in this instance is attractive because it is a convenient box in which to place any number of people and their experiences and desires. From here the author can construct plots concerning deception, family breakdown, heady romance or illicit sex, isolation and the inevitability of aging. In much the same way that the haunted house works with its dark corners and dusty attics, the social house plays host to everything from dinner table talk to hushed liaisons within any and every room, garden and outbuilding.

Cover for the first UK edition of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman and Hall, 1934)

Cover for the first UK edition of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman and Hall, 1934)

The role of the haunted house is mysterious; its aging walls suffocating and passages misleading. The role of the social house is slightly more mobile because authors can deposit their characters there and unravel the tale ‘on site’ or they can establish it as a silent asset. The latter sees the country house assume the characteristics of one of the other players, usually a previous owner as in Forster’s Howard’s End (1910) or even Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). The house might have some stoical presence that the human players severely lack, or it might represent resignation; a fate driven by alimony and unwanted inheritance as suggested in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934).

It is the ‘on site’ stories which hold so much fascination for readers though, and many are drawn to the narratives which focus on personal or wider historical events. Descriptions of the house provide a force which is either repulsive or magnificent for the key characters but is nonetheless a place which ultimately controls their motives, behaviour and consciousness,

Morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home – barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances.                                           (Ian McEwan, Atonement, p. 22)

The wasted chances are as much about the architectural structure as they are about the emotional development and perceptions of freedom made by the inhabitants. As readers we might wonder how we would react to a character’s experience as it unfolds upon the page. Do we relate to it immediately? Does it fill us with disgust or passion? Or do we long to be involved as more than observer?

Cover for Ian McEwan's Atonement (unknown publishing date)

Cover for Ian McEwan’s Atonement (unknown publishing date)

Interestingly, the greatest wealth of literature absorbed with the social house seems to be confined to a particular era – the twentieth century. The nineteenth-century country house novel is to some extent restrained by tradition. Contemporary nineteenth-century authors were writing about a world which had changed very little in centuries; the characters are therefore the focus (including the house as presence) and the plot is devised around the nuances of social interaction. From the dawn of the twentieth century, the country house was on its way to decline. During the second half of the century hundreds of houses had been demolished and their estates built upon. Authors like Waugh and Forster were well aware of this shift and their novels are commentary on the coping mechanisms made by owners as they faced threats to lineage, financial security and their cultural values.

Moreover, authors of the modern country house novel – those making appearances in the twenty-first century – are eqaully attracted to the vanishing Belle Epoque with its grand parties and bustling households. The Downton Abbey effect reinforces this and the social house is marketed as the literary Highclere. I like what Lev Grossman in Time Entertainment (May 2012) says, ‘The paradox of the English country house is that its state of permanent decline, the fact that its heyday is always behind it, is part of the seduction, just as it is part of the seduction of books in general.’

Cover for Kate Morton's The House at Riverton (Pan,  2007)

Cover for Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton (Pan, 2007)

But this probably says something more about the present human condition. Houses and people have a symbiotic relationship which is emotionally complex. The house is the static body which grows old, it has seen a great deal of life and death, and every occupant has left their mark. That its heyday is behind it only reinforces this poignancy. When we visit a well furnished, well curated house we stand to look at the paintings. Offer a visitor the chance to visit the drab cellars or offices and the attention immediately turns to the people who used these spaces. When that world no longer exists in the way it was meant, or its ending is nigh we cling to its memory. The existence of people or otherwise is how we formulate similar narratives. So for an author of the country house novel in the twenty-first century, the social house maintains its grip because people are always full of surprises. The country house is the tool chosen for concealment or liberation of these stories.

References and suggested reading:

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814).

Ned Beauman, Boxer, Beetle (2011).

Isabel Colegate, The Shooting Party (Penguin Classics, 2007)

Lord Julian Fellowes, Snobs (2004).

E. M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910).

John Galsworthy. The Country House (1907).

Linda Gillard, House of Silence (2011).

Mark Girouard, A Country House Companion (1987).

Rumer Godden. China Court: the Hours of a Country House; a novel (1961).

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (2011).

Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day (1989).

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (privately printed, 1928, full text 1960).

Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton (1896).

Malcolm Kelsall, The Great Good Place: the Country House and English Literature (1993).

Virginia C. Kenny, The Country House Ethos in English literature, 1688-1750: Themes of Personal Retreat and National Expansion. (1984).

William Hurrell Mallock. The New Republic; or, Culture, Faith and Philosophy in an English Country House. New York (1878).

Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001).

Kate Morton, The House at Riverton (2008) and The Distant Hours (2010).

Thomas Love Peacock, Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817) and Nightmare Abbey (1818).

Jane Sanderson, Netherwood (2011).

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (1993).

Giles Waterfield, Markham Thorpe (2007).

Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (1934) and Brideshead Revisited (1945).

Lucie Whitehouse, The House at Midnight (2008).

Links:

John Lucas in The Guardian, full link http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/feb/01/country-house-novel

Blake Morrison in The Guardian, full link http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/11/country-house-novels-blake-morrison

The country house in modern culture http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/01/17/downton-abbey-and-the-cult-of-the-english-country-house/

Lev Grossman in Time Entertainment full link The Tragedy of the English Country House | TIME.com http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/02/the-tragedy-of-the-english-country-house/#ixzz2qYzpD2Yx

Book review blog including Rumer Godden’s China Court http://www.essbeevee.co.uk/2013_04_01_archive.html

The Country House Myth in The Remains of the Day http://www.postcolonialweb.org/uk/ishiguro/ed9.html

A fantastic link which helps summarise the genre entirely http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/english_literature_in_transition/v053/53.1.larabee.html

A wider view http://splendidlabyrinths.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/country-house-literature.html

Perhaps do a course? University of Leicester http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/postgraduate/madegrees/ma-option-modules/en7222

Country House Conference focussing on film and television, Newcastle University http://countryhouseconference.wordpress.com/

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Filed under Men and the Country House, Servants, The Destruction of the Country House, The running of the country house, Women and the Country House

Exhibition | Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House

Originally posted on Enfilade:

As Courtney Barnes noted back in November at Style Court, America’s fascination with England’s country houses will continue into the new year (and 2015). While Houghton Revisited, which brought dozens of paintings back to the house from Russia for display this summer and fall, was awarded Apollo Magazine’s 2013 Exhibition of the Year, pictures and objects still in the Houghton Hall collection will travel to Houston, San Francisco, and Nashville. From the MFAH press release (22 November 2013). . .

Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 22 June — 22 September 2013
Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 18 October 2014 — 18 January 2015
Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, 13 February — 10 May 2015

Curated by Gary Tinterow and Christine Gervais with David Cholmondeley

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William Hogarth, The Cholmondeley Family, 1732
(Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall)

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A Christmas Ball.

40773The following is a short but charming excerpt from Backstairs Life in a Country House by Eileen Balderson with Douglas Goodlad (1982). Eileen Balderson was born in 1916, and as the youngest of a large family left school early to start employment in domestic service mainly in large country houses. Many of her reminiscences come from her time spent at particular houses like Burwarton House (Shropshire), Rise Park (East Yorkshire) and Middleton Hall (East Yorkshire).

Here, Eileen discusses the breathtaking seasonal entertainments, of which Christmas was one. She then recalls some of the seasonal Dinner menus – the Winter one is added at the end here!

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Never again would there be such entertaining as in the pre-war years. Never again such hosts – or guests!

The big houses were full of music and colour at party time…When there was a big shooting party, there were a number of visiting servants…If the local hunt met at the house all the mounted followers were offered a drink – port, sherry, cherry brandy, sloe gin, with whisky for the huntsmen and whips, and others who asked for it. I longed to try the sloe gin, which was made in the house. Alas, it was locked in the butler’s pantry.

In houses with upwards of twenty in staff, a servant’s ball was held around Christmas time. The ball with the gentlemen of the house having the first dance with the cook and his lady danced with the butler. My sister dropped an awful brick at a house where she was head kitchen-maid. The eldest son of the family asked her for the first dance. Not knowing who he was, she said she was engaged for that turn around the floor! The mistake is readily explained. Except for the butler’s pantry staff and the lady’s maid, the rest of the servants very rarely saw the family, the kitchen staff least of all.

Master and mistress stayed for about half an hour and after a toast to them they left. The ball then got going, but was fairly respectable and sober until the butler, cook and their guests had gone. After that, it was really enjoyable! As the ball did not usually start until about 10pm we were out of bed for most of the night. It was work again in the morning, and a case of wash and change and into uniform for a day’s duty without sleep, but not without sustenance. There would no doubt be some tasty leftovers.

Winter Dinner Menus

Chicken Soup

Fish Quenelles

Fillets of Beef

Japanese Artichokes

Stewed Normandy Pippins

Whipped Cream

Sardines a la Piedmontaise

***

Rice and Tomato Soup

Fillets of Plaice with Green Peas

Salmi of Game

Potato Fritters

Pear and Chestnut Tart

Cheese Ramequins

***

Mutton Broth

Stuffed Fillets of Haddock

Curried Chicken     Boiled Rice

Cold Apricot Souffle

Savoury Brain Croutes

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (British History Online).

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (British History Online).

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Filed under Book reviews, Servants, Women and the Country House