Category Archives: Collections

Noteworthy visits

Guest Post: Professor Terence Dooley and the Irish Historic House.

After attending the Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference in October, I thought it only appropriate that I share some of the thoughts that were featured. In my last post I hinted at my own desire to obtain a greater understanding of the interpretation and presentation of the country house outside Britain. Several papers at the Conference opened my eyes to the architectural heritage of historic houses around the world. These also offered up a fascinating insight into how vastly different socio-economic and political backgrounds have provided contrasting approaches to modern-day heritage management.

One such paper was given by Professor Terence Dooley from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM). Dooley’s own specialisms are in Irish social and political history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with particular focus upon the Irish country house and the landed class. A quick read of his staff profile will tell you he is well-versed in ‘policy matters relating to heritage and restoration’. Moreover, he has placed a great deal of energy into creating fantastic links with fellow academics, researchers and those working directly in country house management at an international level. This has been a significant accomplishment, and one which stems from the establishment of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE), of which Dooley is currently the Director.

The main aims of the CSHIHE are to secure and enhance public appreciation of historic properties by supporting education, research and scholarly publication. Its foundation was in large part due to Dooley’s report, A future for Irish historic houses? A study of fifty houses (2003) which was jointly commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Irish Georgian Society. This was crucial in informing government policy as well as leading to the establishment of the Irish Heritage Trust. Dooley’s conclusion to the report stated that,

An appreciation of historical and cultural heritage values should be promoted through exhibitions of historic house art, contents and archive collections and conferences to raise public awareness. Houses should be regarded as an educational asset, offering a unique insight into the country’s social, economic, cultural and political history as well as the architectural heritage which they represent.

It is with many thanks to Prof. Terence Dooley that I can now include the following overview of the activities and developments of the CSHIHE since the delivery of the report.



Prof. Terence Dooley

National University of Ireland

In 2004, the proposal for the establishment of a Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth was enthusiastically supported by the Office of Public Works (OPW). Its main strength was perceived to be that the central thrust of the Centre would be educational in the broadest sense: to support teaching and research on Ireland’s country house heritage at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels at NUI Maynooth; to initiate an outreach programme with local schools; and to collaborate with those involved in the heritage industry in Ireland. The CSHIHE is now a unique public-private venture with no equivalent elsewhere in Ireland or Britain.

As part of its educational brief and to provide a forum for debate and the dissemination of new heritage-related research findings, the CSHIHE embarked on a series of annual conferences at Maynooth. These conferences have attracted audiences from a broad cross section of Irish society and overseas including owners and managers of historic properties; heritage professionals; academics and students; specialists in architecture, landscape and conservation; secondary school teachers; and those with a general interest in the built heritage. The success of these occasions has been determined by the range of topics, the quality of speakers, and the mix of audiences. Moreover, overseas speakers have generously facilitated tours for groups from the Centre to Paris, Moscow and Sicily.

At university level, educational initiatives have included the development of modules at undergraduate level on the social, political, economic and cultural history of Irish country houses, their architectural evolution, their material culture and the creation (and destruction) of their surrounding landscapes. Teaching modules have also included visits to the UK which have enabled a comparative study of country houses in Ireland and Yorkshire in collaboration with the Yorkshire Country House Partnership.

An important recent development has been the introduction in September 2010 of an MA in Historic Houses Studies, offering modules on historical context, architectural design, material culture, heritage and tourism, restoration and conservation.

stairwell at fota

Stairwell at Fota House, County Cork (Irish Heritage Trust)

The work of the Centre is also focused upon linking the fruits of academic study with contemporary heritage issues at historic properties, and collaboration has been at the heart of these activities. The Historic Houses Association of Ireland (founded in 2009) has been a welcome partner, keen to show how many of their properties have educational assets that could be deployed in a number of ways. There is the acknowledgement that countless projects could be fashioned in relation to specific houses that would allow students and owners to work closely to the mutual benefit of both parties; the ‘Music in the Irish Country House Project’ and ‘Famine and the Country House and Estate’ being cases in point.

In 2008 the establishment of the Archive and Research Centre at Castletown, under the joint auspices of the OPW and NUIM, has presented further opportunities for those working in architecture, the decorative and fine arts, landscape, and conservation. Launched by President Mary McAleese, the Centreaims to facilitate the care and study of archives that deal with the history of Irish estates, their houses and inhabitants. The transfer of the Strokestown Park archive signalled a pioneering collaboration between a house in public ownership, a privately owned house that incorporates the National Famine Museum, and a third level institute. Dr Ciaran Reilly was appointed Post-doctoral Research Fellow to investigate the archive and organise a series of public outcomes relating to his research.

The CSHIHE, in association with the OPW, has also organised a very successful series of seminars at Castletown, addressing key issues relating to the management and understanding of the historic house in Ireland. These gatherings are aimed at those working across the historic house sector – managers, curators, academics, administrators, guides, education officers, marketing personnel, house staff and other heritage professionals.


The 1841 Irish Testimonial to Lord Morpeth (collaborative research between YCHP and CSHIHE and others)

Since 2004 the Yorkshire Country House Partnership (YCHP) based at the University of York, England, and the CSHIHE have held a highly successful series of seminars, conferences and exhibitions in Yorkshire and in Ireland. Like the CSHIHE, the YCHP is committed to re-evaluating the role and meaning of the historic house in its broadest understanding, encompassing architecture, families, collections, landscapes and archives. It has been widely acknowledged within the heritage sector that these events have been instrumental in refashioning the interpretation of the historic house in the UK, Ireland, and Europe.

In 2007, the YCHP and CSHIHE launched a joint scoping exercise aimed at exploring and recording the connections which existed between landed estates in Yorkshire and Ireland, and the respective families connected to these estates. This exercise was carried through by Desmond Konopka, a PhD student of Dr Dooley’s, and David Ghent, a PhD student of the History Department at the University of York. Their findings have yielded a great deal of material that is already supporting new post-graduate research at the University of York, and post-doctoral research at Maynooth on the Lord Morpeth Testimonial of 1841 under Dr Patrick Cosgrove. These projects have opened up an additional dimension to the collaboration between Maynooth and Yorkshire.

Borris House County Carlow (Irish Historic Houses Association)

Borris House County Carlow (Irish Historic Houses Association)

Such is the extent of its activities in the eight years since its inception that the Centre can fairly be said to be leading and determining the debate with regard to historic houses in Ireland, and, indeed, much further afield, both in academic terms (through research, teaching and publication), and in a more general political sense. In September 2005 the internationally renowned Arts journal, Apollo, described the CSHIHE as ‘an academic endeavour that has no parallel in England’ and generously praised its educational efforts particularly the outstanding success of its annual Historic Houses of Ireland Conferences.

The range of organisations, departments and individuals linked with the Centre through these diverse activities is testimony to the central tenet that those working across the entire spectrum of the built heritage sector cannot do things in isolation. Academic research needs to demonstrate a public outcome in addition to its own intrinsic requirements; equally for those who work in the heritage sector their knowledge and understanding is best enhanced by taking advantage of such research. Moreover as the historic house grows in significance so too does its appeal as a visitor attraction. Consequently the collaborative efforts of scholars, owners, managers and other professionals can also translate into economic activity with a defined public value.


Staff profile for Dr. Terence Dooley and the homepage for the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates

Full links for Irish Historic Houses Association and the Irish Heritage Trust

Archive and Research Centre Castletown

Yorkshire Country House Partnership

The 1841 Irish Testimonial  to Lord Morpeth (George Howard, later 7th Earl of Carlisle)

Strokestown Park: Irish National Famine Museum


Filed under Architecture and Design, Collections, Non-British country houses, The Destruction of the Country House

Out with the Old, In with the New.

The last few weeks have been particularly hectic for me. I have been massively distracted by the Olympics, and needless to say, I wish I’d maintained the skills I had in hockey when I left college! Nevermind though, perhaps I could take up handball in time for Rio. Apart from sport, I have kept to my books a little bit, and whilst I clearly haven’t attended to my blog, that doesn’t mean to say that it hasn’t been a platform for activity.

I have had several requests and queries from folk including the desire of an elderly lady to deposit her great great grandfather’s photograph album of Halton House, Buckinghamshire at the archives there, through to prompts and ‘shout-outs’ regarding academic courses, image copyright and project developments.

Besides all that, I’m about to move house too. After almost two years in rural Oxfordshire, I am packing my things and going to the Big Smoke of England – London. And so, this got me thinking about elements of house moving on a larger scale than that of a standard three bedroomed semi-detached house. Typically, the country house is synonymous with patrilineal inheritance, static wealth and legacies, so much so, that we forget how common it is for houses themselves to have had several occupiers and owners over the decades or centuries. Houses and portions of estate might have formed part of a bargaining tool in times of political turmoil, or merely advertised as leasehold properties in newspapers, rented out to close friends or family, or simply sold on the market. Whatever the circumstances, many houses have seen a great deal of movement. Imagine the hubbub as the house move gains pace; the packing of crates and boxes, the taking of inventories, the to and fro of servants and agents, the anguish over a lost item.

Moving House by Vincenzo Campi 1580-90, Oil on canvas (previously shown at the V&A)

Another aspect of the large-scale house move would be in building and creating the country house from the moment the first stone was set. Landed gains of the 16th century after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, or industrial wealth of the 18th and 19th centuries are part of this debate, but I want to take a peek at one family – the Cokes. Their ‘house move’ epitomised the desire for residential expansion in the 18th century as well as conspicuous consumption of fashionable goods and design on a large scale. It also highlights the giant sense of resettlement in order to gain dynastic stability for an elite family.


The Cokes owned the manor of Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire from the turn of the 17th century.  The manor house at Minster Lovell is now a ruin perched romantically on the edge of the River Windrush as it winds away from the Cotswolds.

Minster Lovell

Minster Lovell (owned by English Heritage, author’s own image)

There had been a house on the site since the 12th century, but the ruins are mainly what remains of a large new structure built in the 1430s by William, Baron of Lovell and Holand. William and his descendants, most notably his grandson Francis Lovell were to make good political connections and riches through marriage, and loyalty to the king. This was, however undone when Francis supported Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. The Lovell estates were turned over to the Crown, and so Minster Lovell was stripped of its owner/occupier. The Cokes made their appearance by 1603 when it came into the possession of the most successful and influential lawyer of his time Sir Edward Coke, who may have viewed the manor house as a retreat or lodge close enough to England’s capital, but far away enough to experience peace and serenity. In any case, the house itself provided him with a good rental income.

Portrait of Thomas Coke by Francesco Trevisani (Earl of Leicester Collection)

It his descendant, Thomas Coke, (1697-1759, Earl of Leicester created 1744) who is important here as it is claimed he was in residence at Minster Lovell in the 1720s, even advancing to the peerage with the title of Baron Lovell of Minster Lovell in May 1728. Coke had been on an extensive Grand Tour as a teenager and returned to England in 1718 with a plethora of goods including art works by Claude, several sculptures and some works of Leonardo da Vinci – most notable of his Grand Tour treasures being the Codex Leicester. It is unlikely that any of these fine things ever reached Minster Lovell, as Coke had other plans. The family obviously held other estates. Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire was where Sir Edward Coke retired to in the early 1600s, but it was in the possession of Sir Richard Halsey by the 1720s. So, where else was there? John Hostettler in his book on Sir Edward Coke mentions ‘the estates’ as a collective and only one in particular – Holkham in Norfolk.*

It is likely there was a residence on the Holkham estate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though much of that part of the Norfolk landscape was barren marshland before Thomas Coke reclaimed it in 1722 for landscaping. As far as I can tell there seems to be a connection to a Waterden Hill Hall which was described as ‘near falling down for want of an inhabitant’ in 1678. Today, wherever Hill Hall existed (possibly now known as Waterden Farm), it is only 3 or 4 kilometres n0rth from Waterden farmland to one of the most gorgeous pieces of Palladian architecture in England.

The south front of Holkham Hall, Norfolk.

Thomas Coke started Holkham Hall in 1734, with the intention of housing his wealth of Grand Tour treasures as well as showcasing his appreciation of classical art and culture. The awesome nature of Holkham is found in the magnificent Marble Hall with its plaster dome ceiling and alabaster shipped from Derbyshire – ingredients which marked the beginning of a new era in country house building and design. There is much to be said about Holkham Hall and Thomas Coke. He was well acquainted with Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington and William Kent, he was clearly a key part of the social network known as the ‘dilettanti’, but like many elite men of his generation he made hasty investments and financial losses during the South Sea Bubble in 1720 delayed the building work. It is likely therefore that Holkham may have been started even earlier if it was not for this depletion of funds.

Conjectured view of Minster Lovell Hall and Dovecote in the 18th century (copyright English Heritage)

Minster Lovell and other Coke estates were but stepping stones to greater things. The old Oxfordshire manor was incredibly outdated, dusty even, it was too compact and secluded. The characteristics which presumably had made it attractive to Sir Edward Coke were now disadvantageous. The new house at Holkham was meant to be an architectural cabinet of riches. Coke’s sculptures were to be displayed in his Marble Hall, and so numerous were they, that some were placed in the dining room and a gallery which incidentally was also used for entertaining. The experience of visiting Holkham Hall both in the 18th century and today is certainly one of pomp. The educated Coke returning from the European Continent was a sophisticated, well-connected young man, and was eager to declare this to a wider audience. Upon advancement to the peerage in 1728 with a title which linked him so closely to Minster Lovell, Coke had already been planning his new house, he was just waiting for the right moment to begin.

The Statue Gallery at Holkham Hall (copyright England’s Finest)

This was all about consolidating funds and creating a grand establishment from where the Coke estates could be efficiently administered. Anything resembling a residence on the other estates could be leased and therefore generated further income. However, the Cokes still held onto the manor at Minster Lovell, even selling off building materials from the house in 1747. The remainder of the land still in the possession of the Cokes (mainly woodland) was sold by 1854. Unfortunately, Thomas Coke never got to see his new house on the Holkham estate finished, dying in 1759 around the age of 62 and still struggling to recover his financial losses: it would take another five years for the house to be completed. His descendants still reside at Holkham throughout the year, and make regular use of the state rooms out of season.

My house move is rather more ordinary. I do not have estates to manage, or capital to expand. My dynastic legacy will still be a suburban semi-detached house with a garage and garden. Nor do I have aspirations to appear on Grand Designs, but if I did have the finances, I’d be sure to purchase a good bit of land and build something suitably generous and accommodating.

* According to the index of Holkham Hall papers, audit books for the 1720s show estates in Suffolk, Kent, Dorset, and Norfolk, amongst others.


Minster Lovell Hall (English Heritage)

British History Online – Minster Lovell

Some gorgeous pictures of Minster Lovell

Historic Houses Association and Holkham Hall

Art Collections at Holkham Hall

Creating Holkham Hall

A visit to Holkham


Olive Cook, The English Country House. (1974)

John Hostettler, Sir Edward Coke: A Force for Freedom. (Chichester, 1997)

Leo Schmidt and Christian B. Keller, Holkham. (2005)

A. J. Taylor, Minster Lovell Hall. (English Heritage Guidebooks, 1985)

Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley, The Building of the English Country House. (2000)


Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, Collections, Men and the Country House

Montacute House and Blog

I can sit at my computer and trawl the internet for facts and interesting stories all day and everyday when it comes to country houses and anything related to them. Sometimes I need to have something pointed out to me though because it is easy to overlook the finer things when there’s so many others shouting louder at you on the web. A few days ago, I was shown in the direction of a relatively new blog for National Trust property Montacute House in Somerset. Having perused several pages dedicated to activity at the house, I’ve become greatly aware of how much work and dedication goes into running this property. That’s not in utter ignorance, as any large property takes insurmountable levels of physical and mental energy to keep itself in order. What is striking about this blog is its coverage of several aspects of country house organisation, conservation and collections management. I’ve made it sound a little stuffy, but it’s not that at all. This blog has some fantastic illustrations and anecdotes relating to some of the most important pieces of fine art and architectural heritage there is in Britain. There is also a lovely Facebook page that includes some great photos of the house, its collections, and the staff involved in maintaining the property.

Built in the remaining years of the sixteenth century, and with a long gallery acting as a regional outpost for London’s National Portrait Gallery, Montacute House has come to be regarded as one of the finest examples of Elizabethan architecture. I don’t want to give too much away since that would defeat the object of the blog itself. But be sure to check on the return of the portrait of King James I by John de Critz, the restoration of the Orangery, and the ‘Skimmington Ride’ posts. I would like to see some of the posts extended and their subjects given some greater attention, but then I like reading!

The Montacute House blog is the product of an intern at the house (with input from one or two others) and was begun last summer in 2011. Having worked as a volunteer behind the scenes in a country house alongside interns I know what an ‘average’ week entails. The blog is a good instrument in highlighting the responsibilities of interns in the modern-day country house hierarchy, and shows how much enthusiasm everyone must have in disseminating the heritage of one particular place. The UK National Trust is making attempts to offer greater access to its properties within a local and national context, and so this blog is one of several hoping to meet this objective. I like this motive, and I know many don’t agree. Visiting a National Trust property can still feel a bit static and museum-like; due in the main to the Trust’s role as ‘guardians’ of our heritage. Thus conservation is high on its agenda. The Montacute House blog can provide a little background detail not otherwise gained on a general visit, and it’s good to see!


Full link for Montacute House blog

Montacute House from Wikipedia

DiCamillo country house database

National Portrait Gallery link


Filed under Collections

‘Old English Furniture’. A Connoisseur Booklet.

          Occasionally you come across those odd finds in charity shops or the crevices of secondhand bookshops which you end up buying because it’s something to read on the bus home. This is my logic anyway, since 50p for a book rather than £3.99 for a magazine seems quite reasonable really. This is one of those finds.

          Old English Furniture from Tudor to Regency by F. Gordon Roe came into my hands at a community book fair for about 20p or thereabouts a few months ago. I thought it would make for a good bit of reference material, and yet it is a little more interesting than that because it seems so dated. F. Gordon Roe (1864-1947) was a distinguished painter in his own right, gaining recognition and fellowships with his large historical compositions. He later went on to become a leading expert in antiques with specialisms in oak furniture. The Connoisseur Booklets were published around the middle of the twentieth century and covered a range of topics suitable for the ‘collector’ of antiques: pottery and ceramics, pewter and silverware, furniture, watercolours and clocks. The tagline for these little pamphlets read, ‘A preliminary guide for the collector’.

          The booklets are illustrated towards the end in black and white mainly and include advertisements for reputable antique dealers; presumably according to antique type and relevant to the particular topic of the booklet.

         In Old English Furniture, Roe describes the evolution through materials used in common furniture types from about 1530 to about 1810. He starts with the oak age and discusses examples of this type from church and private collections with acknowledgment of earlier medieval pieces. From the start the pamphlet reveals its age (apart from its pre-decimal era price in shillings and pence on the cover!), as Roe’s use of language asserts, ‘On the other hand, such extreme abnormalities as Elizabethan cabinets in mahogany (!) – one has heard highly dubious rumours of such – may well impose too heavy a strain on our credulity.’ The Connoisseur Booklets clearly had a highly regarded place in the world of antique collecting, afterall they were the product of The Connoisseur – a magazine produced from the turn of the twentieth century under title variations, the main one being The Connoisseur. An Illustrated Magazine For Collectors. Many a country house will have some editions stashed away somewhere, whether it is privately owned or otherwise. Perhaps this is quite ironic for later generations of country house owners since they had to sell vast quantities of household contents to meet growing debts. However, these pamphlets do prove useful and it is interesting to observe the purpose of them within the world of twentieth-century collecting.

Table-desk of 'Nonsuch' type, late sixteenth century (V&A Collection)

      I first thought that this was a good example of the kinds of things you would find at any country house in terms of furniture. On closer inspection Roe uses images from several sources which highlights the importance of antique furniture throughout several layers of society. For example, there are pieces photographed from the private collections of Roe himself and that of a Mr. William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate and amongst other things, builder of Hearst Castle, California. Then there are images of pieces from prominent antique dealers including Phillips of Hitchin Ltd, M. Harris and Sons, and Leonard Knight Ltd. Finally there are pieces which could be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (see above image, also p.23 in Roe). The exclusivity of certain pieces as collector’s items, and the subsequent arenas of purchase highlight the top end of the market. The museum pieces on the other hand mark out the accessibility of pieces for a slightly wider audience, albeit as exhibits.

          What I like so much about this little booklet though, is its place in time. The collectors, the dealers, the specialists, and curators are all part of a fading world which was a predominantly male one. It’s antiquarian and authoritarian – and therefore distinctly ‘connoisseurial’. And there is nothing wrong with this, indeed this type of specialism has delivered many scholarly tomes on various aspects of the decorative and fine arts. Moreover, this connoisseurship helps drive the itineraries of all historical societies today who frequent country houses and galleries in search of craftmanship and examples of specific designers and artists. We can’t all have decorative art degrees, and so where better to start than from the sources themselves? As Roe says, ‘Often one may learn something from such inspections that might be vainly sought in public collections, though these, and especially the great array of furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, can be of the utmost value to collectors and students.’ (p.17)

          Again, the language of the Connoisseur Booklets is tremendously dated, but their content is very useful. Once Roe completes his travels through the ages of English furniture, he carefully points out the value of knowledge in recognising fakes, a piece’s pedigree (provenance), and pests. I was once told that even the smallest of wooden objects infested with wood worm should never be brought into the home because it spreads! The ever anecdotal Roe adds, ‘…one has heard of a primitive method of treatment involving the placing of the infected item in a stone-floored cellar or outhouse with a piece of fresh sap-wood, to which the pest would (presumably) transfer its attentions … a device sometimes more remarkable for quaintness then for efficacy.’ (p.20) At the time of writing, Roe was well aware of proper chemical preparations in ridding wood worm.

        Perhaps these booklets could be put back into print? There are many books and magazines for the modern collector of antiques, some may even contain well-researched essays on decorative art topics. Antiques are extremely popular, and we only need see a rundown of daytime television programmes where about 80% are concerned with period furniture, paintings, textiles, and tableware. There is still a sphere for the collector and antiquarian in modern times since their techniques for learning are still practiced at universities and colleges. The writers of these booklets are almost as significant as the pieces they enjoyed writing about, so maybe their texts could be left unaltered and we could visit this faded world whilst learning a thing or two about objects we never really noticed before.


Search the Collections at The Victoria and Albert Museum

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Book reviews, Collections