I'm an eighteenth-century historian (mainly!), who delights in all things related to the country house; building and architecture, material culture, servants, household and estate management... If I can research it, I'll write about it!
It has been a long time since I wrote anything for this blog and I am very grateful to all those people who have left comments and liked posts or linked pieces to their own while I’ve been absent.
My last post was written at the end of April 2017. A few days after this I lost my mum and my priorities changed. I also had very little time for researching and writing and wanted to find new approaches to the country house.
My plan is to come back here and update things and target those subjects which have raised a lot of questions and poke around certain elements which might get us thinking a bit more about the characters who worked at or lived in country houses, the specific roles of the servants and the creation of the country house in our imaginations.
Having been away for so long, I have grown aware of two very basic approaches to the country house and these are either academic or not academic. By that I mean, it’s either taught or it’s interpreted for the audience by those who have been taught. I’m cautious to put it that way, as I’m one of the taught and my blog is a tool which presents the country house in certain ways. However, the world is changing and in the last few months alone we have seen attempts to challenge the status quo and how our histories are presented to us. The country house is not outside this and there are plenty of different avenues to explore which move away from how it has been taught as a subject academically. I welcome any areas of discussion or topics which require further research as a means of linking to others’ work.
I will return to writing soon and hope that you all keep enjoying the blog. Many thanks to all who have supported over the years!
It’s spring! In the UK at least, March generally sees the reopening of many sites to the public after the closed winder season. April is apparently National Gardening Month and with the May Bank Holidays the outdoors suddenly become the backdrop to all kinds of refreshing interpretations for the country house and its garden.
I feel this subject often sits separately to that of the architectural history of the country house. There are differing approaches to the country house garden and the majority are glorious illustrations of the evolution of vast gardening and landscaping ideals. As I’ve likely mentioned before, even at a young age, it was the outside space which drew me to the country house initially but once inside I seemed to dismiss the parkland and formal parterres for a long time. For many historians of the country house, it is difficult to fully engage with both simultaneously and I know I still feel more confident discussing the social and architectural history rather than the aesthetics of the outdoors.
However, such approaches in the methodology shouldn’t be given too much weight here as the
Ingress Abbey by Thomas Badeslade, 1720s
country house garden is better admired through less dry academic dialogue. If anything, the country house garden invites all to observe an idealised nature – an Arcadian treat for the visitor. There is also the unforgettable freedom of the country house garden and its park which stimulates curiosity as well as the imagination. Therefore, for this first post of four I want to focus on Adrian Tinniswood’s Country Houses from the Air (1997 edition) since this allows for initial study of the patterns and scale of the exterior world of the country house. I also like the concept of looking at the country house garden from a distance and metaphorically moving in to consider aspects of it more closely by concluding with a case study.
Colour print of Lulworth Castle after the original drawing by Mrs Humphrey Weld, 1721
In the introduction to the publication, Tinniswood makes a fine argument for the definition of the English country house which is crucial in pulling together the readers’ own preconceptions. I have been challenged on this on several occasions and it isn’t easy to define in simple terms. What Tinniswood does to assist is to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein when debating family resemblances in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953), ‘If you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that…And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail’. With the inclusion of Blenheim Palace, Knole, Groombridge Place, and Lulworth Castle (above) in Country Houses from the Air, this definition is imperative to understanding these similarities which are both obvious and yet not so. Still, this is the country house; a cluster of similar characteristics which most visitors would nod their heads in agreement at, and at which many owners and managers know instinctively as a part of their world.
And so to it: this book is significant because it helps identify the older ideals of the owners, their occupation with grandeur and fashionable aesthetics, and ultimately the overall composition of their home and ancestral seat. Alongside the fantastic colour images of the aerial views by Jason Hawkes sit prospects by Knyff, Kip, Harris, and contemporary artists commissioned at the time of architectural remodelling or rebuilding.
Newby Hall, North Yorkshire. Engraving by Knyff, 1707
Tinniswood’s publication allows the reader to not only admire the obvious aesthetics of the country house garden and parkland but also tells of the techniques for capturing these images throughout the history of the houses themselves. Here Tinniswood comments, ‘The historical images that serve as a counterpoint to Jason Hawkes’ photographs range in time from the medieval cartulary roll depicting Boarstall [Buckinghamshire] to C. E. Kempe’s late-Victorian line-and-wash drawing of Groombridge Place [Kent] and the early-twentieth-century views of Ightham Mote [Kent] and Arundel [Sussex].’ Such images are also telling of the trends in portraying the country house and it’s gardens. The majority of the historical images date roughly between 1680 and 1720 with many of these representing aerial or bird’s-eye views. Of these, Tinniswood notes, ‘the acknowledged masters of the craft…are Leonard Knyff and Johannes Kip.’
Here the scope and development of the exterior setting is clear. the earliest part of the house was established by Sir John de Pulteney who became Lord Mayor of London four times between 1331 and 1337. The estate eventually came into the hands of Sir William Sidney and has remained in the family ever since. Crucially, this is the garden to help establish this run of posts but also its connection with country house poetry which has previously been discussed here. Though the engraving by Kip is a century later, it is easy to visualise the words of Ben Jonson in ‘To Penshurst’ (1616) in which he wrote, ‘The early cherry, with the later plum, Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come; The blushing apricot and woolly peach Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.’
In the early nineteenth century some parts of Penshurst were rebuilt in a Tudor-Gothic style and the formal gardens were laid out in the 1850s by George Devey who used Kip’s 1720 engraving as the inspiration for the updated scheme. The image to the left captures the site from roughly the same prospect as that by Kip and the stretch of land shows how much has unchanged since or been inspired by the engraving. Yet, the scars of past aspects are often obvious – note the circular trough where there once stood a low level plantation clearly visible in the older engraving.
These map perspectives are clever studies in the Siennese style which incorporated careful observation, ground level surveys and detailed plans before executing the final draft. Generally, it seems that the engravings were the result of individual commissions and represented a celebration of completion in building works and large scale remodelling. Tinniswood is cautious to point out that a handful of these were likely projections of aspiration, but that otherwise most were true of the scene as it would have appeared at the time. Take Newby Hall (above) as an example. At the very end of the 17th century Celia Fiennes travelled through Yorkshire, stopping at York, Harrogate and Ripon before moving on to Burton Agnes and Hull. Of Newby, she wrote,
…it looks finely in the approach in the midst of a good parke and a River runns just by it, it stands in the middle and has two large Gardens on each side; you enter one through a large Iron Barr-gate painted green and gold tops and carv’d in severall places…and the Squares are full of dwarfe trees both fruites and green, set cross wayes which lookes very finely; there is Flower Garden behind the house, in it and beyond it a Landry [sic] Close with frames for drying of cloths…
The bird’s eye view would eventually fall out of favour and instead the fashion for landscape painting would take its place; such depictions being better suited to the sweeping romanticised parklands adopted from the second half of the 18th century. Nonetheless, the changes in garden design, architectural planning and the prospect of the country house as taken in by the contemporary visitor are documented well by Tinniswood throughout the publication.
What the next three posts will do is to detail the chronology of country house garden design as well as introduce the influences and those who have become synonymous (and some lesser known) with some of the major changes in landscaping from the 16th century onwards. Some sites have invested a great deal of physical energy and funding towards large garden projects so it is only fair to dedicate time to these too. What is certain, is that there will be some fantastic images yet to come; spring is definitely here!
Blog posts on Kip and Knyff (A study of Knyff) https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2017/04/01/kip-knyff-part-1-knyff/ (and of Kip) https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/kip-and-knyff-part-2-kip/
After the purge of Christmas food and several breeds of alcohol, the tendency is to tackle outdoors and attempt to go for a walk on Boxing Day. This year I thought I would seek out the landscape at Whitley Beaumont near Huddersfield based on my interest being sparked by the recent exhibition at Harrogate’s Mercer Gallery.
The house was demolished in the 1950s after exhaustive mining (and presently quarrying) took over the estate in similar fashion to many sites from Huddersfield to Sheffield. This wasn’t an easy discovery and the land is privately owned so there is only a certain level of access. Add to that two very busy roads, no proper space to park a car as well as imposing industrial barriers strongly suggesting no-go areas. However, several public footpaths skirting the edges of the parkland provided me with enough visual information to pinpoint aspects of the landscape as Brown and his patron intended.
Brown visited Whitley in the late 1770s but it is likely the land survey was undertaken by William Crossley, Snr from nearby Brighouse rather than Brown and his own men. Crossley is important for a few reasons as he would eventually move into surveying for the canal network working across much of Yorkshire particularly but had previously also assisted a William Jessop on several projects and may have known John Smeaton (from Leeds) who established a more efficient water system on the estate at Temple Newsam in the second half of the 18th century. To this extent Brown was not alone and there existed a comprehensive network of individuals jointly employed on sites or undertaking surveys for landowners for development or sale. The second half of the 18th century was a critical time where may landowners sought to enclose common land, achieve greater agricultural efficiency and develop their parkland for ornamental use. For the latter, Brown was the household name, but there were clearly regional pockets of surveyors who most certainly were aware of each other and their teams.
The Whitley estate was owned by Richard Henry Beaumont (1748-1810) at the time of Brown’s visit. The Beaumonts were a well established minor gentry family in West Yorkshire with marital ties across Yorkshire. Beaumont wished to have something in tune with current trends, but compared to the estates of the elite Whitley may never have been intended as something showy. On closer inspection, the existing landscape suggests that this may not have been possible anyway as there is little space for slow carriage drives, open parkland and sweeping lawns. The site is relatively compact with creaking turns accommodating the sharp rise and fall of the land.
What was intended by Beaumont and Brown still incorporated the trademark carriage drive which wound through woodland and out into meadow; this was in marked contrast to the dead straight approach from the north which had previously failed to absorb any other part of the estate. Further rides took the visitor around the edges of the estate, and attempts to smooth the land with the use of ha-has are all still visible on the edge of low lying woodland today. The Brown signature clumps of trees were also established and much of these are visible from the air and from the ground including Deer Hill (as seen below). I could only approach from one side of the old estate and the map below shows where the images were taken.
Ordnance Survey section dating from 1894 (old-maps repository online website)
Modern satellite image of Whitley Beaumont – Google imaging
Given that there must be scars across the site from extensive mining in the 1940s, it has done little to take away the feeling of awe for the viewer.
Image from Point One on the 1894 map, facing north east through woodland and across the bridge at Coal Pit Scrog. (Author’s own image).
Approaching directly from the village of Lepton to the south, I followed the road north east to Whitley Beaumont Scout Camp in the direction of the parkland and continued across the opening downwards to the stream and dip in the woodland where a part of the old carriage drive appeared to stretch out but actually ended in impassable shrubs and dense overgrowth. Signs that the Brown landscape were added to in the 19th century are visible in the plantations of azaleas and rhododendrons – a now troublesome part of the overgrowth unfortunately!
View from Point Two on the 1894 map looking northwards towards the site of the house. (Author’s own image).
Eventually reaching the edge of the woodland from a slight turn of direction it was possible to frame the section of high ground on which the house would have stood. The image left should give an idea of the rise of the land in all directions to the north, east and west. The house would have been just over the crest of the hill to the left of the patch of woodland. The kitchen gardens (a section of wall still exists at the edge of the woodland) were situated further towards where the image was taken and are visible on the 1894 map.
View looking out eastwards from Point Three on the 1894 map. The image shows Deer Hill. (Author’s own image).
Turning south and following the farm track for a few steps another view pinpoints one of a few clumps of trees. Again the sense of height should be clear and from both the house and Deer Hill it is obvious that the views would have been spectacular across this part of Yorkshire. Today one of the most striking features is not of this period but is instead that of Emley Moor TV mast further south (out of frame and to the right in the image above).
There were two follies at Whitley but only one remains in part which is seen from Liley Lane and formed part of the earlier straight north approach. This is known as The Temple on old Ordnance Survey maps or later as ‘Black Dick’s Tower’. Another temple or monument stood close to Deer Hill and a dark speck on the 1894 map is visible of this building which has long since been cleared away. I have not been able to trace a date for the latter building, but neither construction have little to do with Brown and his designs.
Very little of the family papers have been published but what primary documentation exists appears to be fairly extensive, not to mention the exterior and interior details of the house itself which once stood at the site. Local history groups and projects have also been set up which have ventured out past the barriers with the correct permission and I have listed a few of these since their own explorations have thrown up fantastic images of the remnants of the 18th century landscape.
When Brown drew up plans for Temple Newsam the optimism was severely challenged once work began and huge swathes of ground were churned over for planting and creating the desired open grandeur of lawn and unbroken green. At Whitley, the level of work involved is now clear amongst the overgrowth and patches of woodland – the removal and alteration of these being only a part of what may have been a similar task in creating the original ornamental landscape for Richard Henry Beaumont in the 1770s. The ‘capabilities’ of which Brown noted time and again suggest vision for a site and how it might be manipulated, but also the realistic degree of work involved. Whitley is indeed compact in comparison to the elegant Stowe and has a roughness around the edges due to its recent industrial past, yet it remains a true example of the lengths humans will go to in order to alter the natural environment both in light of 18th century desires and the equivalent modern-day exploitation.
Front cover to the current 2016 edition by National Trust Books
Phyllis Elinor Sandeman (1895-1986, and to give her full title The Hon. Phyllis Legh, Mrs Sandeman) was the youngest daughter of Thomas WodehouseLegh, 2nd Baron Newton and Evelyn Caroline Bromley Davenport. The Leghs are one of a few larger families linked to estates in Lancashire and Cheshire, with Lyme Park being the family’s principal residence and one of the largest houses in Cheshire and also where the publication is set and now owned by The National Trust.
Oil painting on canvas, The Hon. Phyllis Elinor Legh, Mrs Henry Gerard Walter Sandeman (1895-1986), signed (?), 1912. National Trust Collection
A Country House Christmas: Treasure on Earth has been published three times – 1952 (then titled Treasure on Earth), 1995 and 2016 and has a usual ‘tell it like it is’ feel but has something a little different about it compared to other recounts. I have always been choosy about the first hand accounts of country house living as they do seem rose tinted at best. Over the last few years I have collected a few publications written (or ghostwritten) by individuals who were once employed at a country house. Yet, these are not very coherent and there can be a feeling that they have been encouraged to put their thoughts to paper with too much haste before their experiences become long forgotten. Moreover, there’s always something missing of the mechanics and routine which as ordinary as they are, help bring the story to life.
In fairness, if I were to write an account of my life now or as a student 20 years ago I’d be deterred from including the mundane and keep the more interesting parts for a readership. Most of us would embellish it here and there! However, A Country House Christmas is considered and detailed and Sandeman is neither aloof nor detached in her telling of her youth at Lyme. There is a warmth to the narrative and true fondness as well as dislike for particular parts of the Christmas experience there which will connect to any reader.
Other references in the book are made to sisters Lettice (1885-1968) and Hilda (1892-1970), making them 11, 21 and 14 respectively at the time of the story. Many real names have been altered in the text and Lyme is referred to as Vyne or Vayne and her mother is known as Lady Vyne rather than Newton for example but as a rule it is easy to understand the settings and the players. Additionally, the descriptions of both the landscape and interiors are fantastic and for a regular country house visitor will be recognisable as typical of certain periods, styles and presentation.
General reference to the country house will continue to be Downton Abbey for some time, but here there are intriguing descriptions of the relationships between the family and servants, but also of the community and established hierarchies on both sides and recognition of long standing families who have served and supported the family and the estate. Thankfully too, there is little poignancy for a lost world or ‘other worldliness’. This is a firm recommendation at this time of year or at any other and because it’s Christmas Eve, here’s a small sample to enjoy!
When everybody had assembled in the library and Truelove had announced dinner they would process into the dining-room, Sir Thomas taking Mrs. Waldegrave, and Lady Vyne bringing up the rear with the Canon. Probably Cousin Amy would be allotted to Mr. Hunt. The boys and girls would bunch in together at the last. Through the little tapestried anteroom they would pass into the big Georgian dining-room. The long table extending almost the entire length of the room would glitter and sparkle with the lights reflected in the silver and white of the cloth and from the walls the family portraits would smile benignly on the company. On one of the four gilt side-tables would stand the wonderful rosewater dish and ewer, silver and parcel-gilt with the Vayne arms embossed in coloured enamels – made in the reign of Bloody Mary….
They would begin with grace said by the Canon and then the meal would proceed eaten off silver plates, not so pleasant as the china service because scratchy under the knife and fork, but welcome because they were part of the Christmas ritual. The candle shades in the tall candelabras had little garlands of silver spangles and there would be crackers laid amongst the flower decorations.
First there would be soup of the clearest consistency imaginable, and then some kind of fish which melted in the mouth. Then an entrée, perhaps a vol-au-vont or small mutton cutlets, and then roast turkey or pheasant. Then a wonderful sweet into which Perez had put all his artistry: perhaps baskets of nougat with ribbons of spun sugar containing a creamy ice, and muscat grapes coated in sugar and crystallised quarters of orange and tiny pastry cakes.
The last course, the savoury, was never handed to the little girls. Without any instruction in the matter Truelove had made this decision, and nobody questioned it. On the other hand, he always allowed them a little champagne. Dessert was almost the nicest part of the meal, and the scent of tangerine oranges would all her life be associated in Phyillis’s mind with Christmas dinner at Vyne.
With dessert came the crackers, always a trial to Sir Thomas, for whom the sight of grown men and women in paper caps was anathema…
Tomorrow Phyllis would be moving in a maze of enchantment through the drama dance of Christmas, that drama in which the setting played so great a part. Waking in the twilight of the winter’s morning, waiting for the singing in the courtyard, the herald of the day’s delights. Breakfast and the exchange of small gifts. The visit to her parents’ rooms together with her brothers and sisters to give them their joint offerings. Then the drive down through the white park to the old church – the familiar Christmas service. Then out-of-doors for a little exercise, snow balling perhaps if there was enough snow, then in again to change for tea in the dining-room with lovely iced cakes and crackers. And then the joyous chattering throng climbing the stairs to the Long Gallery.
And there would stand the great shimmering blazing tree, the only light in the room except the fire, and beside it the bran tub, so full that some of the packages were not quite submerged, and beyond the radius of the tree’s light the great long room stretching away into the shadows.
The identity of the governess uncovered, http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/local-news/mystery-governess-lyme-park-unmasked-8777863
National Trust dedication to Phyllis Legh, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lyme-park-house-and-garden/features/it-wouldnt-be-christmas-at-lyme-without
Short biography of Phyllis Sandeman as painter, http://www.suffolkpainters.co.uk/index.cgi?choice=painter&pid=1673
The independent art historian and curator Giles Waterfield died on 5th November of an unexpected heart attack. He was Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery between 1979 and 1996, an associate lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, acted as advisor to numerous museum and heritage organisations, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, and was co-director for the Attingham Trust from 1995-2003, as well as the founding director of Royal Collection Studies there in 1996.
One of the more honest obituaries in a wealth of very matter of fact ones comes from The Art Newspaper in which Waterfield is described as both erudite and amusing. I never shook hands with the man, but did meet him in October 2012 at the Attingham Trust conference. He spoke passionately about the country house and its many histories and I remember thinking he had a great smiling presence in the room which merrily balanced the flamboyant manner of Julian Fellowes who also attended.
2012 was the peak of popular interest in the social history of the country house where Downton Abbey was running to nearly 12 million viewers for its 3rd and 4th series. This was also the 60th anniversary of the Attingham Trust and there appeared to be a flicker of interest in every aspect of the country house, not just its architecture and fine art collections.
In many respects this was due to those like Waterfield who sought to highlight the eras in which these houses were built and the contemporary moral codes of behaviour imposed on their inhabitants. Attempts to define the servant hierarchy and the spaces which acted as identifiers of work rather than entertainment were also gaining greater impetus for research.
Giles Waterfield aided the promotion of such research through publication and curation. Most relevant here is the exhibition and its accompanying publication written and edited by Waterfield and Anne French Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servant Portraits which ran from October 2003 to January 2004 at The National Portrait Gallery in London. With a series of lectures connected to the exhibition, Waterfield would demonstrate his specialist interest in the representation of servants in English literature from the early 19th century onwards.
Dare I admit and quite cowardly in hindsight, but I wrote a review of his Markham Thorpe (2006) a couple of years ago for this blog. I was a harsh critic and I deleted it several months later when I was knew I would meet Waterfield and hoped to promote my own research at that time. In the blog post I recall suggesting how detailed and perhaps a little contrived his backdrops were – an easy task given who he rubbed shoulders with – adding that his characters were stereotypes and his female protagonist was too sweet! However, the accompanying publication for the Below Stairs exhibition is obviously not fiction but a scholarly approach to a collection of images which need consideration without prejudice.
Much of my own research since the date of the exhibition has looked into the status of servants from the late 17th century and so my own knowledge is fairly extensive. Nonetheless, that the publication is an accompaniment to an exhibition does not hold it back or allow for patchy source material. It is instead a well written piece and on the one hand appears to bring the subject matter up-to-date whilst on the other it offers a stimulating and unique take on a subject often severely lacking in images.
Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants c.1750-5 William Hogarth (1697-1764), Oil on canvas. Tate Collection.
As often seems the case, I was unable to get to the exhibition at the time as I had just started a new job, but I did have the book delivered instead. It covers most ground and includes the essential study of servant portraits from Bramham Park, Yorkshire and Erdigg, Wales as well as those stand alone images like that of Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants (above) by William Hogarth (c.1750-55) or Robert Shaw, Keeper of the Forest of Bowland by James Northcote (c.1806) which have evolved from mere contemporary representation of real people to objects that for the viewer should raise questions about the character and lifestyle of the sitters. French and Waterfield discuss this in light of the servant and master relationship and the production of servant portraiture as a symbol of loyalty and extended family.
Ignatius Sancho, 1768 Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada
Other themes covered by Waterfield particularly include servants working in institutions, life in service, and black and Indian servants. The latter illustrating some of the finer portraits of the 18th and 19th centuries including Ignatius Sancho (above) by Thomas Gainsborough (1768) and The Munshi Abdul Karim by Rudolph Swoboda (1888).
The images are obviously central to the book and this is not a cheap general publication about servants illustrated with unrelated pictures of maids or gardeners. It is analytical and puts the images in context and wherever possible provides contemporary commentary of the sitter and/or painter/photographer. Servants are the backbone of country house social history and kept these sites running daily. Their status and their numbers were disadvantages which limited their representation so this publication is essential in allowing us to visualise the servant workspace, their daily tasks and study their features in order to try and see something more of the person rather than a job role. Equally so, Hogarth’s representation of six of his servants allows the viewer to hear them speak as it is almost possible to match their faces to the tone of voice or how they may have expressed themselves with the smallest of gestures.
In order to push this to a more general reader, it takes someone like Waterfield to suggest this notion and there was incredible devotion in the work he undertook. My lasting impression of Waterfield from the Attingham Trust conference four years ago was of someone rather unassuming. There were many big voices wanting to talk about their research or pat themselves on the back for their project leadership skills at such-and-such institution. Waterfield was able to navigate through this by simultaneously showing direct interest delivered with a wry smile. People gravitated to him and wanted to know his thoughts on developments in country house interpretation and preservation, and he knew exactly who was connected to which trust, funding body or academic department.
I’m sure there will be a gap left behind as Giles Waterfield was a character essential to the modern day study of heritage. As funding narrows and dismantles the enthusiasm many have for history and heritage sites we desperately need individuals like him who can operate underneath this and motivate and collaborate in order to challenge any normalisation of weak interpretation and cultural obscurity for many places.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown by Nathaniel Dance (later Sir Nathaniel Holland, Bt), oil on canvas, circa 1769. National Portrait Gallery, London
With 2016 being the tercentenary of his birth, it would be silly not to write about Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Even better still, as I struggled to compose something over the last few days, Classic FM came up with just the perfect inspiration with a programme dedicated entirely to the landscape gardener. So, as I sat down for the tenth time working out where to start, it didn’t matter what was played on the radio next to me, the music finally brought the imagery I needed to the front of my tired brain.
Baptised in the parish church of St. Wilfrid’s at Kirkharle in Northumberland in August 1716, Lancelot Brown would spend much of his youth employed on the local estate. Little is known of these early years, except that Brown eventually left Northumberland to travel to Lincolnshire perhaps for work in water management. By the 1740s Brown came to work alongside William Kent at Stowe in Buckinghamshire and soon became head gardener there. He would leave Stowe in 1751 having gained worthy connections via his employer Lord Cobham to members of the elite in Buckinghamshire and much of the Midlands.
Highly perceptive and hard-working, Brown was very much a celebrity for his time and showed an awareness of the society within which he both served and influenced. That he told his clients their estate had ‘capabilities’ suggests great persuasive tactics. That it became habit, and thus adopted as a nickname suggests Brown happily assumed a sort of personal branding. As ‘Capability’ Brown he was highly sought after and by name he was recognisable for both skill and profession.
Aske Hall View from the South 1769-80 by George Cuit (1743-1818) oil on canvas. Zetland Collection
To mark the tercentenary, there are several exhibitions and events taking place across sites connected to Brown. Much of Brown’s place in the history of landscape gardening is fairly well-researched. For this post, I simply want to share a small part of the events marking the tercentenary of his birth where I took off to Harrogate’s Mercer Gallery to see ‘Noble Prospects: Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape’ which will run until 11th September. This small yet thoughtful exhibition does replicate some of the material already exhibited elsewhere as part of individual projects in recent years. Yet, it pulls together present research well and has already attracted worldwide interest according to its Facebook page.
The exhibition explores the nearly 20 or so recognised sites in Yorkshire associated with him, supposedly one of the greatest concentrations in the country. Featured in the exhibition are portraits of Brown and his Yorkshire clients, original plans, drawings and documents by Brown, paintings of his creations and works of art that inspired his landscapes. Thankfully, I bought the guidebook which meant I could scrutinise the items a little closer – albeit on the page rather than in the flesh.
Many similar exhibitions began at sites in the spring months to coincide with seasonal opening times. Yet, I agree with the Classic FM presenter since the best time to visit Brown’s landscapes are late summer and early Autumn just when the trees begin to change colour and the grass has its last flush of growth before winter. This is the time of year when the air changes, when it grows heavy and the sun hovers over panes of glass and stone pillars. Utterly romanticised, I know, but Brown is not only part of a culture supposedly obsessed with gardening, he represents the human desire to simultaneously manipulate and emulate the natural landscape – and to frame it.
The Palladian bridge designed by Brown at Scampston Hall near Malton.
His clients were fully versed in classicism and such imagery would have been their source material. The Irwins at Temple Newsam commissioned Brown in the early 1760s as part of their plans for large scale improvements. Once work began and all outside was in disarray, Lady Irwin wrote to her close friends explaining how she sought comfort from the pastoral landscape paintings in the family collection, most notably Claude Lorrain whose arcadian imagery provided great inspiration. Here was Brown with the knowledge and practical skills ready to encapsulate the landscape of myth within the rural British countryside.
This more natural style (as opposed to the formal avenues and parterres of the century before) consisted of sweeping unbroken lawns, serpentine lakes, clumps of trees, classical style follies and winding carriage rides. He was, by no means, the only working towards this style and many estate owners employed others or took on the challenge themselves.
As my own interest in the country house evolves, it is the landscape which has always had different degrees of personal attraction. Certainly as a child I found gardens far more enticing and the country house itself was a steady burner. The wider landscape has only in recent years become something more for me. Perhaps in this context, the exhibition at Harrogate offered me a chance to see how Brown interacted with the landscape and brought the visions of his clients to life. This it does well, and it is possible to understand the practicalities of landscape gardening on a vast scale and how the eighteenth-century country house sat within this design framework.
One of the most intriguing aspects from this exhibition was the mention of the landscape at Whitley Beaumont near Huddersfield. This was the seat of Richard Henry Beaumont to which Brown made a visit in the late 1770s. Brown’s vision included all the usual characteristics. However, the house is one of many lost English country houses having been demolished in the 1950s, but the patterns of Brown’s landscape and the signature marks of the natural or arcadian style are still visible today.
Whitley Beaumont by J. T. Taite (fl. 1850s), 1858, oil on canvas. Huddersfield Examiner courtesy of Stephen Beaumont
The exhibition has been curated by Karen Lynch who pieced together the guidebook from her recent essay for The New Arcadian Journal (see below) but has previously published works on other Yorkshire sites – Harewood House, Plumpton Rocks and Bretton Hall. What would be interesting to discover is the influence of the contemporary Yorkshire countryside on those instructing Brown in the mid-eighteenth century – a point not fully touched upon in this exhibition. Perhaps there was little influence at all but if the county has such a high concentration, then the ‘capabilities’ must also be high and certainly worthy of exploration.
Jane Brown, The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783 (2011)
Karen Lynch, Noble Prospects: Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape. Yorkshire Gardens Trust and Harrogate Borough Council (2016) and in more comprehensive form ‘Capability Brown in Yorkshire’, Yorkshire Capabilities: New Arcadian Journal 75/76 (2016), pp.37-107
Allan R. Ruff, Arcadian Visions: Pastoral Influences on Poetry, Painting and the Design of Landscape. (2015)
This one is an old favourite, and increasingly noteworthy within the study of the English country house and more recently black history. Kenwood House is part of English Heritage’s portfolio and having recently completed an extensive restoration programme the house reopened to the public in 2013. Crucially, it is free of charge.
It is this restoration which perfectly reflects the enthusiasm of English Heritage overall; the research, knowledge and eventual interpretation of the site without ‘hidden extras’. Typically, I have found that those at English Heritage are eager to unveil as much as possible and at Kenwood House the feeling is one of progression and delight.
The fine art collection at Kenwood House incorporating the Iveagh Bequest and Suffolk Collection add to the resources available for any art historian and beyond. I remember visiting as a student in the late 1990s and being able to witness ‘in the flesh’ Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Mary, Countess Howe (c.1764). Writing an essay on Gainsborough’s use of modern dress rather than classical or antiquity styled society ladies certainly gained pace after seeing this painting!
Mary, Countess Howe, by Thomas Gainsborough (The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House)
Kenwood’s social history is rich and offers up a great deal for debate in terms of contemporary ideals and household hierarchies particularly in terms of the role Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) had within the family and the society which they mixed. Again research into Dido’s life both at Kenwood and after her marriage has been undertaken by English Heritage, but a lot of her life seems to inconclusive. Born into slavery as the natural daughter of Maria Belle an enslaved African woman and Sir John Lindsay, Dido was brought to England by her father as an infant to be placed under the guardianship of William Murray – a later pivotal owner of Kenwood House.
Theories abound about her portrait with her cousin Elizabeth (below), her position in the Murray household, and perceptions of her within wider society. It is difficult to pin anything down here as Dido is deserving of a post which allows for more discussion than can be committed here. There are some who argue that it was Dido’s illegitimacy rather than her heritage which played on the dynamics within the family. Yet her status as free woman seemed to have to be constantly reaffirmed and when Murray died he still felt it necessary to state this in his will when also noting Dido’s annuity of £100.
When I visited, the curator was conducting an informal tour for members of a small group undertaking research on a number of paintings in the collection. My eavesdropping wasn’t met with suspicion or annoyance though, and as I followed the recommended route around the house it was clear that all staff members are proud to not only be presenting but also to be a part of Kenwood’s story.
Built as a suburban villa rather than a country house with a centralised administration for the wider estate, the exact site for ‘Caen Wood’ House was established by the second decade of the 17th century. This earlier brick-built property located off Hampstead Lane in north London was later modernised about 1700. By 1746 the house was occupied by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and a nephew of the Earl of Ilay who by that date owned the property. Both Bute and Ilay shared an interest in exotic plants and it may have been Bute who added the orangery to the south west of the building.
Despite its modest size (the guidebook notes, ‘bigger than a town house but smaller than a country seat’) Kenwood’s development through this period is cleverly mapped in current literature as well as on the website. It is this sort of interpretation which makes architectural heritage so much more exciting and plausible for wider audiences.
An example of the 2-dimensional reconstructions available to readers and visitors of Kenwood. This image shows how Kenwood may have looked in 1756.
In 1754 William Murray (1705-93), later 1st Earl of Mansfield acquired Kenwood from Lord Bute for £4,000. Under the ownership of the Murrays, the aesthetics of the house were destined to change dramatically. William Murray set out to appoint Robert Adam to improve the house from about 1764; an important move for the time and a competitive one which suggested that Murray intended to show his business and political stature was equal to that of the Childs at Osterley and the Percys at Syon – two other contemporary Adam projects (Adam being appointed from 1761 and 1762 respectively).
Of course, it is impossible to write about Adam at Kenwood without noting the truly magnificent library there. In the visits I have made to Kenwood I have seen both interpretations of this particular interior – the dark colour scheme and heavily gilded plasterwork, and the transformation made in recent years towards a less heavy application in colour thought more accurate of the original Adam interior.
Column in the Adam library at Kenwood showing the older (and darker) colour scheme below the newly restored version. (Author’s own image.)
The library ceiling designed by Adam with paintings by Antonio Zucchi. (Author’s own image.)
Detail from chinoiserie fire surround (author’s own image).
The use of this room was for more formal entertainment by the Mansfields who otherwise used the upper hall for accommodating close friends. The two rooms today are vastly contrasting; where the library is bright and airy (it was considered difficult to heat even in the 18th century) and yet distinctive, the upper hall is somehow unsettled. Adam remodelled the upper hall in the fashionable chinioserie style but little remains of this apart from a fragment of wallpaper and the fire surround. Yet here are a number of pieces from the Suffolk Collection and once again time must be taken to study these away from published literature. If anything, the height of Stuart extravagance in dress is perfectly displayed in such minute detail that I doubt the full length portraits grow tiresome.
By the end of the 18th century a further extensive programme of remodelling took place which finally established the house as it may be seen today. This wave of building was at the instruction of David Murray, 2nd Earl Mansfield (1727-96) who inherited from his uncle. This Murray desired extra accommodation but also saw an opportunity to enhance the existing characteristics at Kenwood. In order to achieve this, his first act was to relocate Hampstead Lane several metres away from the original forecourt to allow the family more privacy. A new service wing was created to the east and two brick wings were added to the north front.
Admittedly, the service wing sits uncomfortably in its layout, and I am in agreement with Joseph Farington who noted in 1793 shortly after building work began that it was “considerable, and in respect of architectural effect, strange additions to the late Lord Mansfield’s house at Caenwood”. However, the most effective alteration at this time was achieved through the ambitions of Humphrey Repton whose appointment by Murray led to the opening up of the immediate surroundings of the house transforming it from grand suburban villa to that of a fine country mansion.
The north front before Repton’s alterations (image taken from the Friends of Kenwood website – see link below)
The north front after Repton’s alterations, also showing the extensions aligned east and west (image taken from the Friends of Kenwood website)
Even a new dairy building was created to the south west of the main house for Louisa, wife of the 2nd Earl. Kenwood was now every bit a country house in all but administrative purpose.
The 19th century saw general repair and maintenance take priority and steadily attention was turning to the significance of the surrounding locality – particularly Hampstead Heath to the south of the park. Portions of adjacent land were bought and sold to the Metropolitan Board of Works (later London County Council) in order to connect the park with the Heath and keep access open to the public and free from the developers. By the first decade of the 20th century, Kenwood was leased out and successive families took over the tenancy up to the 1920s.
It was not without its fluctuations in fortune and protracted discussions concerning Kenwood’s future which had begun in 1914 continued throughout the First World War. Alan David Murray, 6th Earl of Mansfield (1864-1935) had decided to sell the house and estate and local residents attempted to raise funds to prevent the land being developed for housing. In 1922 the house contents were sold by auction, but the relatively new Kenwood Preservation Council led by Sir Arthur Crosfield sought to vest in land to the south of the house. It was at this point that local resident Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927) stepped into the negotiations. Taking up a lease for 10 years in December 1924, he quickly implemented the use of his own family trust to purchase the remaining land with the intention of giving the house and estate with the addition of a selection of his own paintings collection to the nation.
Unfortunately, the supervision of the installation of objects was not to be fulfilled by Lord Iveagh himself who died in 1927 so instead this was undertaken by six administrative trustees including the then Director of the National Gallery. By the summer of 1928, Kenwood was open to the public and in 1929 The Iveagh Bequest Act established Kenwood as an independent museum.
I visited Kenwood on a bright but chilly day and took a snap decision to travel by tube as far as Hampstead and cross the Heath to the house. As a student I went by coach which inevitably parked up on Hampstead Lane in order to keep the group for straying too far. I recommend Kenwood is better approached from the Heath through the the scrub and woodland, across stream and passing the rhododendrons if this is possible. It might sound idyllic or on the other hand troublesome for those inclined for a quick stop off, but it offers a better sense of place. There are the tantalising glimpses of the house and the dairy as the path curves out of the Heath and the avenue approach withholds the real glamour of the house until the final steps.
Kenwood is the result of gradual input from successive owners, tenants and local benefactors; layers which are meshed together coherently by English Heritage. Long may the research continue.
Laura Houliston, The Suffolk Collection (2012)
Laura Houliton and Susan Jenkins, Kenwood and The Iveagh Bequest. English Heritage Guidebooks (2013)
N. Poser, Lord Mansfield. Justice in the Age of Reason (Montreal and Kingston, 2013)
The following is a Press Release made by Save Britain’s Heritage. This is fantastic news and totally tips the balance in favour of a more local, regional and national plan of action which benefits so many. As before, fingers crossed for the future! Many thanks to readers of this blog for highlighting the link especially (see below for the full link).
3 February 2016
Press release: Preservation trust to acquire Wentworth Woodhouse
SAVE is delighted to announce that agreement has been reached with the Newbold family on the purchase of one of the finest and grandest historic houses in Britain, Wentworth Woodhouse.
The property will be purchased by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust (WWPT) and will continue to be open to the public. The public opening of the property will be supported by the National Trust for the first five years. It is hoped completion of the sale will take place within two to three months.
The £7m pledged for the acquisition includes a £3.575m grant offer from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and grants from the Monument Trust, the Art Fund, Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement and the John Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust. Pledges and donations have also been received from many individual members of the public. SAVE and the trustees of the WWPT extend their warmest thanks for all pledges and support received.
The long term strategy is for the public to visit and enjoy all the most interesting parts of the property while restoring the others for revenue-earning uses such as events and holiday lets with business units in the stables. Traditionally a historic house of this size would have required a vast endowment. This business model will provide a substantial income stream intended to cover both running costs and periodic bouts of repair.
Extensive repairs will be phased over 10 to 15 years allowing time for funds to be raised and the work to be carried out in phases while the property is opened to the public.
The Trust will build on the pioneering work of the Newbold family in opening the house to pre-booked visitors for the first time on a regular basis. An annual Clifford Newbold lecture will be held to mark the work of the Newbold family in opening the house to the public.
The trustees of the new WWPT are: The Duke of Devonshire, Lady Juliet Tadgell, Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland, Julie Kenny (Chair), Timothy Cooke, Martin Drury, and Merlin Waterson.
For more information please contact Marcus Binney or Mike Fox at SAVE on 0207 253 3500 or email@example.com, or Julie Kenny, Chair of WWPT, on 01709 535218
Notes to Editors:
The Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust has been established to secure the long term future of Wentworth Woodhouse.
SAVE Britain’s Heritage has been campaigning for historic buildings since its formation in 1975 by a group of architectural historians, writers, journalists and planners. It is a strong, independent voice in conservation, free to respond rapidly to emergencies and to speak out loud for the historic built environment.
A portion of the cast from Dowton Abbey giving their acceptance speech at the Screen Actors Guild in Los Angeles 30 January 2016
In 2012, I wrote a piece here about the current trends in country house studies as well as general literature and popular culture. A lot can happen in four years, so I thought a return to the subject matter seemed overdue. Spurred on by the recurring themes of country house social history highlighted by this blog’s statistics, there is indeed some things to be thinking about in 2016.
Since 2012 the country house has been discussed a lot less on British television that’s for sure and in hindsight, programmes like The Country House Revealed from 2011 seemed like a passing phase. That’s probably more to do with the producers of popular TV rather than the wider interests of those watching. Yet, there has been a shift and without doubt there is a strong fan base surrounding the country house united by the subject’s social themes more than anything else in 2016. That’s not to say that architectural history and the decorative arts have dropped from favour, but overall there appears to be a collective demand for knowledge about how people interacted with the country house; as designers, owners, servants or suppliers. This is not new, and there has certainly been an excess of publications on the country house servant specifically since the 1950s – partly as a result of the decline of the country house and the nostalgia that followed. Yet, the social history of the country house in the second decade of the millennium is rather more epic in its presentation.
In order to support this view, there is no need to look any further than the global appeal of Downton Abbey. At the close of 2015, rumours of a film abounded but as I write this blog post, it is neither confirmed nor denied as to whether the cast and crew are set for a large scale production. However, coming up trumps with a win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles for Best TV Ensemble, Downton Abbey shows its exceptional success in the US particularly and a continued appeal which looks set to blaze through many other countries still.
And it is the word ‘ensemble’ which is really intriguing! Of course the SAG Awards are identifying the on screen cohesion of a large cast, but in writing country house histories it has never been a word I thought to use – or one suggested to me as a PhD student. The country house hierarchy of servants is indeed an ensemble; the household is an ensemble of characters that work together. Acting these parts on screen is part of the story-telling process which has created the mass appeal of Downton which is an admirable achievement. It also goes to show the curiosity and demand for ever more detail and individual accounts (fictional or otherwise) set against the historical backdrop of the country house and its estate.
Rather more tentatively I would also say that the architectural aspect of the country house has become academic for most in 2016. Downton Abbey is certainly popularist but it allows some themes of the country house to become accessible to many – a point made time and again in this blog. Yet, I always feel a little dismayed at the types of literature available either online or at the local bookshop dedicated to the country house. The architecture of the British (mainly English) country house is confined to glossy coffee table tomes which lack depth and lengthy discourse. The most recent additions to my local bookshop’s shelves are repetitive and assert the author’s own connections to particular sites and families. More importantly, they’re out of many enthusiastic readers’ budgets.
As for the social histories, there are the semi-autobiographical pieces hidden away in the history section or selected for their seasonal relevance – usually at Christmas. Based on the literature being published alone, the argument would be that studies of the country house have become divisive in recent years. In academia this is reinforced by the capabilities of departments seeking funding for projects based on the specialisms of their existing staff, and in most cases one is either an architectural specialist or a social historian. For the moment, one cannot be both.
My diagnosis of this issue is the speed at which academic institutions are encouraged to deliver and the place these institutions have in our cultural landscape. It is easier to divide themes and examine them more closely that way, but also reach the targets set by funding bodies and peer group assessment. At the same time as academic institutions turn inwards to their research (be it architectural, material culture or social history), the well-connected TV broadcasters are inviting more viewers to think about past lives and discover semi-fictional accounts of families from ‘the big house’. Thus, it is television which is currently at the forefront of presenting the country house to a wider audience and not the traditional body of academics and curators and their respective assistants.
So are things shifting again in 2016? Perhaps taking advantage of the popularity of Downton but also as a means of identifying as well as dismantling the popularist aspect of country house social history, it is my ambition this year to focus on the country house servant and household and the material culture that supports these. Not in the usual sense though – the nostalgia and ten-a-penny reminiscences – instead it will something more constructive and debatable. Of course, personal experiences are always valued and are critical to social history, yet the social history of the country house covers huge ground; it is every aspect of human life literally under one roof. This year in blogging will see highlighted discussion concerning not just servants and their roles, but also love, marriage, children and parenthood, and even crime. Themes which themselves are an ensemble of varying aspects of day-to-day routine or circumstance influenced by or indeed an influence upon the country house and its development.
Let’s not forget that Downton Abbey is complete and its final series was aired in the UK in September 2015. Long may its reign continue, but something will move into the void left behind. I am not convinced academia will manage this without looking more outwardly than it does currently in Britain at least. Yet, there are many findings to hit the shelves in 2016 and I look forward to reading into these. It may still be possible to unite the architectural with the social before we meet 2017 and I hope to offer a narrative as we go!