I started this blog in March 2011 after failing in yet another job application with an academic institution. You see, academic institutions like you to be ‘active’ and attend conferences, give seminar papers, publish, publish and publish some more. I’ve done all this, but at my own expense, and there’s more financially rewarding things for me to do than spend money on train tickets (especially in Britain), a hotel for the night, dinners, conference tickets and incidental publishing costs. So, I decided to do what I like best, and simply write about the country house in a way that suited me.
Over the last 10 months or so, the blog has proved fairly popular and I have been thinking about why this might be. One specific thread of thought concerned our present day perception of the British country house. For example, I’ve often been asked why I haven’t posted a blog entry on Downton Abbey. I can spend days completely consumed by the country house, the people who lived and worked in them, the furniture, the paintings, the architecture … the list could be endless. To be honest I haven’t watched a full series of Downton Abbey, and don’t wish to; I think I’d be country house saturated if did, and I need to admire other things sometimes. However, I have read several articles about the impact Downton Abbey has had (and is still having) on international audiences, especially those in the US and Canada. Authors of these articles perceive the Downton Abbey watcher as romantically inclined, sentimental and detached. Presumably that would mean that those who would hate to watch Downton Abbey are somehow realistic, sensible and switched on. I’m none and yet all of these things. I love period dramas, but I also have a car that needs fuel, a family to feed and a rather more humble house to look after. So for an international audience that enjoys a country house epic the drama is purely escapism. It’s the British version of the Hollywood silver screen where the people are model types of their real life counterparts. And who cares ? Even Shirley Maclaine is due to join in the performance.
And yet there is something more profound about the country house than a setting for a period drama. Recently, a handful of British academic institutions have been focussing their attentions on the country house in detail. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has a lot to do with changes in the academic system. When I started at university, my degree was in the History of Art, Design and Architecture, by the time I’d finished three years later, the university had renamed it the History of Material Culture. This new degree title is still in operation and represents the current trend for learning about our heritage through objects. It would be petty to discuss how architecture fits into this criteria, as degrees on architectural history exist, but the built environment is not regarded as truly object based learning. Therefore the country house has been able to establish itself as a separate area of academic interest. Best of all, the country house is full of material culture; not to mention the social, local, art and decorative art histories.
Another reason for this academic attention is the shifting zeitgeist within a new generation of country house visitors. Those houses lost to fire, town planners and developers are no longer part of living memory. The houses that still stand are only partially open to the public (if at all) and are architectural exhibits in their own right. Very few country houses are working histories with large families and servants. To grasp how the country house worked, people want to visit pantries, kitchens, stable yards, nurseries, go down dark passageways, go through every door, and understand every space. Academics see their role as being one to aid the development in understanding this area of our heritage. As ‘thinkers’ however, the interpretation of the country house in this way can be lost on those visitors who helped establish the shift in the first place! I will be writing about two of the most prominent academic projects in the next few months.
Perhaps it really is romanticism that drives our interest in the country house though? A lost world we might never regain in that same shape and form? The academic will study the ceramics and chairs, the visitor will remain curious about the attic windows and service passageways, and somewhere inbetween there is always an element of supernatural interest too. I’ve often heard the most open-minded and sophisticated of curators question whether the portraits take a mortal sigh and step down from the walls at night. And such a statement is revealing in another way too since the country house connects with us; it can be welcoming or dismissive, but it holds our attention through novels, in films and television dramas. They were built to inspire awe and curiosity, to display wealth and family connection – all devices which keep us modern-day people eager for more.
Mavisbank, A Tragically Neglected Eighteenth-Century Country House and Playing the Part of Downton Abbey. From Two Nerdy History Girls blog.
Inspired by Downton Abbey. From The National (UAE)
A Memorial to the Lost Houses of England. Fantastic website dedicated to the lost country houses of England.
Downton Abbey and the Cult of the English Country House. Robert Fulford in the Canadian National Post.
Back from the Dead – the English Country House. Harry Mount for The Telegraph.