Category Archives: Men and the Country House

Past and present research on topics concerning men and the country house

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Part II: Whitley Beaumont

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.

Whitley Beaumont Hall c.1900 ? Image taken from http://mirfield-2ndlook.info website

Whitley Beaumont Hall c.1900 ? Image taken from http://mirfield-2ndlook.info website

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)

Ordnance Survey section dating from 1894 (old-maps repository online website)

 

Modern satellite image of Whitley Beaumont - Google imaging

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 map, facing north east through woodland and across the bridge in Coal Pit Scroggs. Author's own image

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 n the 1894 map looking northwards toward to site of the house. (Author's own image).

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).

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.

Links to local projects and sites:

http://thefolliesofyouth.co.uk/?page_id=25 and http://thefolliesofyouth.co.uk/?page_id=176

http://wyorksarchivestreasures.weebly.com/beaumont-of-whitley-family-and-estate-records.html

Follies relating to the Beaumont family including ‘Whitley Moor Gazebo’ http://jimjarratt.co.uk/follies/page20.html

Child friendly walks around Whitley http://www.kirkburtonparishwalks.co.uk/Grange%20Mo…pdf

More general links including local news

Black Dick’s Tower http://www.examiner.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/black-dicks-famous-tower-could-5082838

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitley_Beaumont

http://www.lostheritage.org.uk/houses/lh_yorkshire_whitleybeaumont_info_gallery.html

http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1604-1629/member/beaumont-sir-richard-1574-1631

http://www.examiner.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/lepton-estate-capability-brown-9100637

Location of Beaumont family archives http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/rd/b69946eb-8d76-4e39-8f22-a9db6f034d7f

 

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Filed under Men and the Country House, Parks and Gardens, The Destruction of the Country House

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Part I: Marking the Tercentenary of his Birth

by Nathaniel Dance (later Sir Nathaniel Holland, Bt), oil on canvas, circa 1769

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

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.

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 pf Stephen Beaumont

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.

Links:

Exhibition link http://www.capabilitybrown.org/event/noble-prospects-capability-brown-and-yorkshire-landscape or simply http://www.capabilitybrown.org/ and Facebook link with good options to read reviews and articles elsewhere https://www.facebook.com/nobleprospects

The hosting website http://www.capabilitybrown.org/

The Guardian exhibition review https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/aug/24/research-shows-capability-brown-earned-equivalent-of-500m

Historic Houses Association http://www.hhacapabilitybrown.co.uk/

Other events running into Autumn and beyond including associated landscapes and sites:

The Embroiderer’s Guild are holding exhibitions across several sites into 2017 https://embroiderersguild.com/index.php?page_no=278&page_menu=capability-brown-festival

Wimpole Hall – https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wimpole-estate

Croome Court – https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/croome

Kirkharle Courtyard – http://kirkharlecourtyard.co.uk/capability-brown/about-capability-brown/

Sherborne Castle – http://www.sherbornecastle.com/

Harewood House – http://harewood.org/

Scampston – http://www.scampston.co.uk/

Further reading:

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)

Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown (1975)

 

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Collections, Exhibitions, In the News, Men and the Country House, Parks and Gardens

Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

blog kirby frieze

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

 

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

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

 

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

1090673 hatton npg

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, Men and the Country House, Spotlight On ....

Genre: The Country House Novel – the Social House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and suggested reading:

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814).

Ned Beauman, Boxer, Beetle (2011).

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

Lord Julian Fellowes, Snobs (2004).

E. M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910).

John Galsworthy. The Country House (1907).

Linda Gillard, House of Silence (2011).

Mark Girouard, A Country House Companion (1987).

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

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

Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day (1989).

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

Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton (1896).

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

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

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

Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001).

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

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

Jane Sanderson, Netherwood (2011).

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (1993).

Giles Waterfield, Markham Thorpe (2007).

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

Lucie Whitehouse, The House at Midnight (2008).

Links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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East India Company at Home Mid-Project Conference, 31st May – 1st June 2013.

Since the East India Company at Home Project started in September 2011, there has been a buzz surrounding its methodological framework, its research findings and range of subject matter. I last covered this project here after they released their first case study.

The project (EICaH for short) began at the University of Warwick but has since been transferred to University College London (UCL) for a variety of reasons, but mainly due to funding opportunities and departmental interests.* The premise of the project is to examine the British country house in an imperial and global context through material culture and the families linked with these houses on the one hand and the connections they may have had with the East India Company on the other.

EICaH wallpapers[2]

Helen Clifford and Emile de Bruijn presenting their paper on Chinese wallpapers in National Trust properties ‘every good country house has its Chinese wallpaper’!

What makes the EICaH project so unique and perhaps even dynamic, is its attempt to pull together knowledge from a spectrum of sources and people. By putting this bluntly, the project’s diverse pool of thought comes from academics, museum professionals, archivists and librarians, students, local and family historians and independent scholars. The core team consists of Professor Margot Finn, Helen Clifford, and Kate Smith. Then there is an Advisory Board consisting of those affiliated with institutions like the V&A, the British Library or local authorities to mention a few. Project associates make up the next segment of those involved and are a healthy mix of those with interests in the British country house, the East India Company, trade and consumption and all the bits in the middle. I’m a project associate simply because I clearly adore country houses and the mixture of histories which can be applied to them.

I don’t want to talk at length about the details of the project as this is fully accessible through the links already given. What I do want to do is address the topics discussed at the mid-project conference which took place at the end of last week.

The conference was split over two days and roughly by content and methodology. The link to the programme is here. On Friday some fascinating papers concerning particular people and places associated with the East India Company were presented to the cosy audience of about 70 avid listeners.

EICaH John McAleer

John McAleer and the architecture of the East India Company’s Offices (image courtesy of Rachael Barnwell)

My favourites were Georgina Green’s research into supercargoes and the roles of East India Company captains; John McAleer’s look at the architecture of the Company’s offices; Stephen McDowall’s extensive and thoughtful examination of material culture and the meanings placed upon specific objects; and Janice Sibthorpe’s Sezincote’s case study. In the evening a keynote lecture by Giorgio Riello about the trade and consumption of cotton textiles finished the day on a high.

Saturday was the day of debate with the focus on how collaboration between academic institutions and those outside the ‘academy’ work effectively or otherwise. Here it was necessary to understand the structure of the project – its framework, but also the questions it was hoping to ask as well as answer. There was  lot to cover.

The most anticipated part of the Saturday sessions was undoubtedly the trip to Osterley Park (which I was unable to attend) but for me in particular it was the discussion concerning the methodology of the project since I was taking part. Upon the very kind invitation of Margot Finn, Helen Clifford and Kate Smith, also participating were Margaret Makepeace (Lead Curator of East India Company Collections at the British Library), Cliff Pereira (Public Engagement Consultant), and Keith Sweetmore (Development Manager at the North Yorkshire Country Record Office) That’s the four of us pictured below.

EICaH me

In the words of Margot Finn, the project is fairly ‘experimental’ in terms of previous attempts by historians to collaborate. I’ve found other projects to be rather formulaic and incredibly constrained by academic protocol (for want of a better word) and so I was eager to see some part of the discussion aimed at how the EICaH project had been able to challenge this. My belief is that for something of this scale to thrive, individual academics must be willing to show motivation and share their professional development both within their respective departments but also elsewhere.

I, for one, despise the Research Excellence Framework (replacing the Research Assessment Exercise) since it encourages exclusivity through peer review whilst exposing a neat way to keep academic research knotted tightly to the academy. In more simple terms, any research undertaken by an academic institution, regardless of wider collaboration eventually becomes the possession of that institution and the doors close to those without academic affiliation.

So where does the EICaH project fit in? I understand there to be two distinct parts to its methodology and its collaborative efforts represent the major part; the role of the country houuse as means of posing and answering questions, the lesser part. Margot Finn and Helen Clifford are the highly motivated academics who initiated the project and discussed its possibilities long before it began. They also have a desire to promote greater dissemination of their own findings to wider audiences. Inevitably, they are bound by academic protocol because funding for projects like this comes with certain criteria to which any published material or outcome must adhere.

However, it should be noted that the EICaH project is perhaps transitional. Finn declared it to be experimental, indeed there is still more to be said about exactly how the country house community and household may be placed within an imperial and global context, but the project can provide a working model for future historians.

At the end of the conference though, I came away satisfied that history can be made more accessible both to bigger audiences and to those wishing to undertake historical research. The academic can put something into context, and the museum professional can provide layers of interpretation, but a historian is not limited to fancy apparatus like the scientist, or material compounds like the chemist in order to test a theory; history is about thinking. Many of Britain’s archives, libraries and collections are freely accessible to everyone, working collaboratively can enrich the pools of thought and maintain a flow of intellect whether someone has an academic tenure or not.

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* Warwick University links are still accessible and currently functional. I have left the original post on countryhousereader (dated March 2012) with these links in tact. The same case studies are also available on the UCL blog which has transferred everything over to this new site. The links in this post are for the UCL blog.

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Genre: Country House Poetry

The country house genre: put simply, this literary genre places the country house within the main narrative as an essential piece of subject matter. Its varied history is as old as the country house itself. Based on G. R. Hibbard’s article (see references below), the scholarly view is that the country house poem (or country estate poem) of the seventeenth century which praised the houses and estates of the landed elite was the early form of this genre. By the end of the eighteenth century, the genre had taken on different characteristics, and the house itself became the focus. It was no longer the subject of direct admiration and instead became a symbol of the ‘other’; of foreignness and the gothic.  Throughout the nineteenth century the genre evolved further and has since become recognisable in recent decades in works of historical fiction.

The genre’s ability to adapt is a consequence of contested views about town and country, about wealth or the lack of it, and about active and passive ownership. The literary country house is then either a part of a nostalgic vision surrounding an imaginary stable society or a symbol of England’s imperial past. No matter how simplified, these constructions are ever present throughout the genre right up to the present day.

The country house has therefore been cast in different literary interpretations, but themes of social and political hierarchies, the roles and responsibilities of man, and notions of spatial definitions have always provided continuity. This post is one of three which offers an overview of the country house genre from its early incarnation in the seventeenth century to its development into mainstream literature today.

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Thou hast no porter at thy doore

T’examine or keep back the poore;

Nor lock nor bolts: thy gates have bin

Made onely to let strangers in;…

Thomas Carew (1595-1640), ‘To Saxham’ (ll. 49-52)

Country house poetry is a form of ‘courtly compliment’ which idealised particular elite estates and patronage, but also celebrated man’s participation in the natural world. Classed as country house panegyrics, works like Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ (1616), Thomas Carew’s ‘To Saxham’ (1640) or Andrew Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ (1681) act as descriptions of elite splendour as well as philosophical statements upon natural and artificial social constructions.  Indicative of their early education, writers were much influenced by Horace, Martial and Statius and themes of man as a moral being and landownership as a metaphor for the state are heavily embedded in the country house poem.

Thomas Carew (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Thomas Carew (National Portrait Gallery, London)

The seventeenth-century country house poem is both commemorative and quixotic, and academic criticism of the genre’s tradition and longevity is divided. What is certain is that its poetic version was founded upon a heritage of patronage poetry and pastoral discourse. How the genre has survived since has much to do with perception of the country house at any given time, but especially in the context of wider economic developments.

Such theorising makes the genre appear fusty and somehow exclusive. Yet, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of great social and political upheaval in England. The country house poem in this instance provided a snapshot of a time when the rural landscape, the seasons and nature’s bounty were the vision of an English idyll. The country house poem made its subject a real-life Arcadia which was simultaneously idealistic and tangible. This was the nostalgic vision.

No forraigne gums, nor essence fetcht from farre,

No volatile spirits, nor compounds that are

Adulterate; but, at Nature’s cheap expence,

With farre more genuine sweetes refresh the sense.

Such pure and uncompounded beauties blesse

This mansion with an usefull comelinesse,

Devoide of art, for here the architect

Did not with curious skill a pile erect

Of carved marble, touch, or porpherie,

But built a house for hospitalitie…

‘To My Friend G. N. from Wrest’ (1640?), Thomas Carew (ll. 15-24)

The hospitality of the country house is what connects the dweller to the wider world. For the poet, the dweller (the landlord) represents the fertility of nature. By sharing and dividing their wealth and the abundance of nature, the dweller fulfils their moral obligations. The country house estate is part of a hierarchy which therefore relies upon the co-operation of many in order to succeed – like a quasi-commonwealth, ‘They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan’ (‘To Penshurst’, l. 46). If the landlord is not wasteful, then he is celebrated, if he hankers after ostentation and conspicuous consumption, then he is to be reminded of his natural role and responsibilities. Either way, the pastoral ideal is the platform for persuasion and the model to which man must adhere.  Appreciation of life and the correct use of possessions have Classical resonance. Assimilation with the natural order of things underlines most Biblical teachings.

Ben Jonson (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Ben Jonson (National Portrait Gallery, London)

At least this is the stylistic formula of the country house poem. To a great extent it is the landscape which is the main focus; a mythical Arcadian world where lasting relationships are formed. The house itself is the accumulation of this natural order and substance;

Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,

Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.

Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;

Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,

Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,

Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;

That taller tree, which of a nut was set

At his great birth where all the Muses met.

‘To Penshurst’ (1616), Ben Jonson, (ll. 7-14).

All is green and ripe, plump and rosy; pike, partridge, cherries, figs, pears, ‘The blushing apricot and woolly peach.’ Such hospitality is the product of civility and gentility, but also of a virtuous life.  This metaphor is also something Milton utilises in Paradise Lost in which Eden represents the very first ‘landed’ estate. The sensuality of nature’s bounty is further alluded to, particularly by Jonson, in the context of patrilineal inheritance with the family itself a representation of the fruit of the virtuous lord and lady.

The style of country house poetry changed over the seventeenth century, and developed what have been identified as sub-genres. Poems of appreciation, as an example, suit Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst,’ and what is known as the retirement poem best describes ‘Upon Appleton House’. The latter was probably penned in the 1650s when Andrew Marvell stayed at Nun Appleton in Yorkshire, to tutor Mary Fairfax, the daughter of parliamentarian general Thomas Fairfax. Here the country house and estate are places of retreat from a disruptive world. For Fairfax, his Yorkshire home was the private sphere from to which he could escape the chaos of the English Civil War.

Andrew Marvell (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Andrew Marvell (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Crucially, emphasis upon the right use of life and possessions morphed into an exploration of man’s role in life. Rather than being purely didactic pieces, themes of experience and the impact of surroundings played a larger part in the country house poem of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Of men Recorded or who then Exceed

To urdge their Virtue and exalt their Fame

Whilest their own Weymouth stands their noblest Aime.

But we Presume, and ne’re must hope to trace

His Worth profound, his Daughters matchlesse Grace

Or draw paternall Witt deriv’d into her Face

Though from his Presence and her Charms did grow

The Joys Ardelia att Long-leat did know.

‘To the Honourable Lady Worsley at Longleat’ (after 1690) Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea (ll. 91-98)

Themes of virtuosity remained strong but with emphasis on more give and take. Writers were sure to allow their protagonist thoughts of resourcefulness and pragmatism but also stated the benefits of retreat upon such a mind, body and soul. In many secondary sources it has been suggested that this literary device stemmed from the changing economic landscape; a shift from a feudal system to that based on capital and monetary values. The country house was an administrative base for the estate, but its owner had shifted his attention to the city with its attractive financial and parliamentary offices. The old halls were being replaced with ‘carved marble’ and filled with foreign goods from the East India Company, land was enclosed and smooth uninterrupted parkland rolled over acres of fertile soil.

Land was an exchangeable commodity and the country house was now a decorative item in the distance. The dweller used it as an alternative site for conducting business, but it was no longer perceived as the tangible vision of Arcadian mythology. It was now the retreat of the few, to be admired from afar and provide respite for those locked in matters of national importance. Virtue was the outcome of an individual’s own experience and quality of life from which he was to influence those less fortunate. The literary country house was a private domain, and one which symbolised the contested views of town and country, of private ownership and public office. If the pastoral was the seventeenth-century fantasy, then the mysterious other was to be the eighteenth-century fantasy.

Suggested poems:

Geoffrey Whitney, ‘To R. Cotton Esq.’ and To Richard Cotton Esq.’ (1586)

Aemilia Lanyer, ‘The Description of Cookham’ (1611)

Ben Jonson, ‘To Penshurst’ and ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ (1616)

Thomas Carew, ‘To Saxham’ and ‘To My Friend G. N. from Wrest’ (1640)

Robert Herrick ‘A Panegyric to Sir Lewis Pemberton’ (1648)

Richard Lovelace ‘Amyntor’s Grove’ (1649)

Andrew Marvell, ‘Upon Appleton House’ (1681)

Charles Cotton ‘Wonders of the Peak’ (c.1681)

Anne Finch ‘To the Honourable Lady Worsley at Longleat’ (after 1690)

Mildmay Fane, ‘To Sir John Wentworth’ (unknown ?)

References:

Alastair Fowler. The Country House Poem: a Cabinet of Seventeenth-Century Estate Poems and Related Items . Edinburgh (1994)

Richard Gill. Happy Rural Seat; the English Country House and the Literary Imagination. New Haven (1972)

G. R. Hibbard: ‘The Country House Poem in the Seventeenth Century’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XIX (1956), 159-74.

Malcolm Miles Kelsall. The Great Good Place: the Country House and English literature. New York (1993)

Malcolm Miles Kelsall. Literary Representations of the Irish Country House: civilisation and savagery under the Union. New York (2003)

Gervase Jackson-Stops et al. The Fashioning and Functioining of the British Country House (1989)

Hugh Jenkins. Feigned Commonwealths: The Country-House Poem and the Fashioning of the Ideal Community. Pittsburgh (1998)

Virginia C. Kenny. The Country-House Ethos in English literature, 1688-1750: themes of personal retreat and national expansion. New York (1984)

Kari Boyd McBride: Country House Discourse in Early Modern England (2001)

D. M. Rosenberg. ‘Paradise Lost and the Country Estate poem’ (no year given) http://tiny.cc/4gb7tw

Don E. Wayne, Penshurst: the Semiotics of Place and the Poetics of History (1984)

Raymond Williams: The Country and the City (1973)

Links:

Literary links to Penshurst http://www.penshurstplace.com/page/3053/Literary-Links-to-Penshurst-Place

Bibliographies for the nineteenth-century country house and related themes http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/bibliography4.html

Tom Lockwood (2008) ‘All Hayle to Hatfeild’: a New series of country house poems from Leeds University Library, Brotherton Collection http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-6757.2008.00124.x/full

Judith Dundas ‘The Country House Poem Revisited’ http://www.connotations.uni-tuebingen.de/dundas00801.htm

University of Sheffield, School of English course Literature of the English Country House http://soeblog.group.shef.ac.uk/mooc/

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Review: Great Houses with Julian Fellowes

Before settling down to watch Great Houses with Julian Fellowes, I read the reviews. There’s a mixture of responses to last night’s programme it would seem (especially on Twitter), and after watching it for myself, I can see why.

Fellowes is probably the best frontman for an ITV programme about the people who lived and worked in (large) country houses. Great Houses is a two-part series which shares its stories of Burghley House and Goodwood House between episode one and two respectively. It is a pity that more were not included, but being allowed glimpses of Burghley and Goodwood should please some people. Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford DL to give him his full name and title is an actor, writer, novelist, film director and screenwriter, as well as a Conservative Life Peer. His most popular works to date are Gosford Park, The Young Victoria, of course, ITV’s Downton Abbey.

Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire.

Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire.

1. Burghley House, Lincolnshire.

Great houses, according to Fellowes are not ‘for posh people to live in – their history belongs to all of us’. This is partly true, as the landed estate and its corresponding pile accommodated a vast number of jobs before the Industrial Revolution. And yet, the programme seemed to highlight the lofty presence of the owners and their sometimes unforgiving influence over the rest of society. The owners of Burghley being explored by Fellowes were William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-98) and his role in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter (1754-1804) and his relationship with his second wife Sarah Hoggins. Behind the green baize door, Fellowes looked at, amongst others, the ‘savage’ treatment of the Burghley undercook Thomas Brincknell* and his wife, and dairymaid Harriet Clark who concealed her newborn baby in an outbuilding.

Most people according to the world of Fellowes were at the mercy of the Lord or the Marquess. He was quick to add early on however that these were the people governing the country whilst their servants were the ones ‘making the whole thing work’. His mission was therefore not to establish stories we could all relate to, but to pursue a means to an end in enhancing his own fictional characters; in his own words,  ‘I’m trying to find the real Lord Grantham, the real Lady Mary… the real Bates, the real Anna’.

Apart from the lack of investigation into Burghley’s architectural fabric or its collections, this, I think is where many viewers were split in their opinions because Fellowes appears to have two personas. There is the bumbling British peer who is mildly opinionated, highly educated, and polite. Then there is the contemplative, imaginative and sincere version. Put them together, and it is a recipe for a speculative narrative. Time and again, Fellowes was seen conversing with academics, archivists or librarians in a jolly manner. It was bad enough that no-one seemed bothered about handling the odd document without white gloves, but his jovial indifference was beginning to grate. The unconvinced looks thrown up by those he met with seemed to prove this effect. Fellowes had clearly set out to find snippets of country house history which would support his own ideals, where this wasn’t the case, then why not bend the facts or provide a bit of guess work and go with that?

Admittedly, I am being harsh, because Fellowes is not a historian. Nowhere was this clearer than the moment Fellowes found himself feeling deeply uncomfortable in the local library whilst trying to carry out simple searches. But the programme was no worse for this because Fellowes remained both enthusiastic and charismatic. I like to see history made more accessible, and ITV seems to be leading the way with its popular period dramas. Where the country house fits in with this is something I discussed in an earlier postGreat Houses simply adds a little background to the storytelling, and at least we were able to make the short virtual trips to the house, the archives and the libraries with Fellowes as our guide.

Overall, it’s difficult to place Great Houses with Julian Fellowes. A great deal of what was explored can be found easily on the internet and Burghley’s episodes surrounding Thomas Brincknell in the 16th century or the 1st Marquess in the 18th century have been written about by scholars. It may be a case of simply pointing the way in the quickest way possible and to as many people as possible. There may have been moments where I cringed or was left wanting more, but I will certainly watch the second part about Goodwood. Hopefully, by then, I will have formed a more comprehensive view of the ‘great’ country house and its social history according to Julian Fellowes.

* The murder/manslaughter of Thomas Brincknell actually took place in the yard of Cecil’s London house, and not at Burghley House which was still unfinished at the date of the incident in 1567.

References:

Stephen Alford, Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I, (2011)

Andrew Harris, The Vernons of Hanbury Hall, (2012).

Elisabeth Inglis-Jones, The Lord of Burghley, (1964).

Alan H. Nelson, Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, (2003).

Daphne Pearson, Edward De Vere (1550-1604): The Crisis And Consequences Of Wardship, (2005).

Hank Whittemore, Shakepeare’s Sonnets Never Before Imprinted, (2005).

See also, ‘The Cottage Countess’ by Tennyson (first published 1842), which tells the story of Sarah Hoggins.

Links:

An honest, down-to-earth review by Veronica Lee at The Arts Desk http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/great-houses-julian-fellowes-itv1

Radio Times Review (with interesting comments) http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2013-01-22/julian-fellowes-tracks-down-a-country-house-scandal-worthy-of-downton-abbey

A disappointingly childish review from The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2013/jan/22/tv-review-great-houses-julian-fellowes

A short review of the first programme from Burghley in The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9819146/Great-Houses-with-Julian-Fellowes-ITV-review.html

General review from The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/artsandculture/9818183/Great-Houses-with-Julian-Fellowes-small-stories-for-stately-homes.html#

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