Category Archives: Non-British country houses

…In Time for Halloween : What Makes Victorian Houses look and feel Haunted?

Heck-Andrews House in Raleigh, North Carolina (Worldwide Public Domain)

The Heck-Andrews House in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As my hectic year draws to a close and I can soon pick up where I left off with my blog, I thought it appropriate to add a lovely guest post by author Stephanie Carroll. It is no secret that the purpose of the post is to add a certain flavour to any up and coming Halloween festivities, but both Stephanie and I agreed something should be said about how a particular era and its architectural styles project peculiar and eerie feelings for the viewer.

The focus of the piece is nineteenth-century US domestic architecture which had its origins in Europe, but came into its own across a fairly widespread area of the country with industrial expansion. Many of these styles exist in the UK, but a viewer (even with limited architectural knowledge) will quickly recognise the cultural differences. Reinforced by film and literature, there are certain architectural qualities which we today associate with certain emotional responses.

These are not country houses, but historic houses and are subject to care and conservation in the same way. For example, Stephanie has pinpointed the incredible Doyle-Mounce house, Hannibal, Missouri as a main influence on her writing. The image below comes from Dave’s Victorian House website which I say illustrates Stephanie’s piece perfectly.

hannibal09

The Doyle-Mounce house, Hannibal, Missouri (copyright David Taylor)

Stephanie Carroll is the author of Gothic Victorian novel, A White Room, a story inspired by Art Nouveau furniture and a house with a mixture of Gothic Revival and Second Empire characteristics called the Doyle-Mounce House. As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. She holds degrees in history and social science. Her key inspiration comes from authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).

Find Stephanie Carroll on FacebookTwitterGoodreads or on her website at www.stephaniecarroll.net. The blurb for A White Room follows the post. Enjoy!

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How is it that some Victorian houses are the cutest darn things you’ve ever seen and some are right out of a Gothic horror story? It’s not as simple as adding dark colors. There are particular styles, cultural symbols, and historical associations which make some Victorian houses scarier than others.

Architecture

There are several different types of Victorian architecture. Some like Queen Anne houses, Greek-Revivals, and Italianates are really cute, usually painted in pastel colors, and represent refined prominence and achievement. There are probably some houses in these styles that one could say look creepy, but that is usually due to deterioration as opposed to the original appearance. The two types of Victorian houses that seemingly represent the quintessential haunted house are designed in either the Gothic Revival or Second Empire styles.

Gothic Revivals are literally a throwback to the Gothic castles and churches of the medieval period, and include steep or peeked rooftops, arches, pinnacles, and decorative ornamentation especially over and around windows. Arches were also popular for entryways, doorways, porches, windows, etc. Sometimes these types of houses will have a lot of height to them or may include a large tower.

The original Gothic horror stories were all set in or around decaying Gothic churches or castles from medieval times and the architectural style became a worldwide symbol of the horror genre. The look of Gothic architecture is culturally embedded into our minds as a symbol of something dreadful and sinister. Nineteenth-century writers developed this further within literature as the Gothic genre evolved new tactics for creating fear. Gothic Revival houses and mansions not only look reminiscent of the horror story castles, but they became a fundamental setting for Victorian Gothic literature. Recognizable symbols of Gothic literature still commonly populate modern day horror genres.

Second Empire architecture was inspired by the reconstruction of Paris, France under the direction of Napoleon III who had much of the city torn down and rebuilt with wider roads and large elaborate buildings. Victorian Second Empire houses are usually very large and ornate, with lots of floors and windows. They are styled in a box shape with mansard roofs and often include a foreboding tower as a focal point. Some people have said the squared levels and roofs make these houses resemble stacked boxes or a tiered cake. Second Empire houses have been used in twentieth century Halloween and horror movies including Psycho, The Adams Family, and Beetlejuice.

Bates Motel Set from the movie Psycho at Universal Studio Hollywood CA (Worldwide Public Domain)

Interior Design

Victorian floor plans were designed so that each room came off a central hallway and but were closed off from other rooms. The small enclosed space was easier to heat. Unlike modern living rooms, dining rooms, and family rooms that are bright and open, Victorian common rooms were intimate spaces, but often times dark because heat could escape easily through large windows. If a room did have windows, they would be covered with heavy velvet curtains that kept heat in during the winter. Although parlors and ballrooms needed to be larger to serve their purposes, most spaces in nineteenth century middle-class homes were smaller than modern day rooms.

It’s an almost universal fear to be trapped in a dark, cramped space, so Victorian rooms can easily be used to create a sense of unease, especially if the objects filling the space have the ability to send chills down a person’s spine!

Interior decoration during the Victorian Era was very ornamental, busy, and overbearing. It was also known for a mixture of old world, new world, and multi-cultural styles that created rooms designed like frantic and chaotic representations of the world and beasts that coexisted within it.

1850 New York Parlor PD-US Published Prior to 1923

New York Parlour c. 1850 (Public Domain)

The most popular styles at the time included the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Anglo-Japanese Style, and the Aesthetic Movement. Although each of these styles contributed key characteristics to the creepy Victorian interior design, including the busyness, ornamental influences, and dark colors, none of these were as disturbing as the Art Nouveau Style.

The Art Nouveau style incorporated a lot of animal and human faces or body parts into the designs, such as in the ‘claw-footed’ tub or bedsteads with cherub faces carved into the wood. The style was also characterized by ‘whiplash’ curves and twirling designs. The designers incorporated a life form or some kind of movement into nearly every piece. Art Nouveau furniture, jewelry, and decorations like statues, knick-knacks, mirrors, lamps, etc., were inspired by the world of nature.

There are also a lot of monsters and fantasy creatures like fairies, dragons, and gargoyles in Art Nouveau decoration. This is due to the fact that the movement was a type of rejection of the modernization, industrialization, and technological revolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Some artists wanted to revert to the old world or a world without science where fairy tales and magical creatures ruled the world of fantasy – not scientific discovery.

This type of furniture and decoration was made use of by Shirley Jackson in her 1959 Gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House, which has since been adapted for film twice; in 1963 and 1999, both under the shortened title of The Haunting.

Art Nouveau is also a form of architecture but it wasn’t generally used to create houses. It was used to embellish parts of houses, such as stairwells, doors, archways, etc. Most Art Nouveau architecture came in the form of larger non-domestic buildings.

History

Of course, the history of Victorian homes is what makes them seem quite eerie. It’s common to feel like those who used to live in the house are present when surrounded by the historical objects that remind us how people lived and suffered in the home during this period in history.

Premature death was common during the Victorian Era. A large percentage of babies and children died as well as adults. New discoveries about death spurred even more questions than answers. It wasn’t clear if death occurred due to the heart stopping or the brain dying first or what triggered these things at all. This uncertainty led to societal fear that people could be misdiagnosed as dead and then buried or dissected alive.

Unlike modern times, death most commonly occurred within the home as a result of an illness. Lack of clinical care and instead the use of family members to care for the ill meant that all the messy and difficult parts of an illness were witnessed by the direct relatives. Furthermore, the byproducts of the human body ceasing to function were experienced and cleaned by family members or by servants in an upper class home. Elaborate sets of traditions called Mourning Etiquette were a conspicuous response to the emotional upheaval of losing a family member. For those who could afford it, these traditions involved rather ostentatious funerals and burials as well as keeping memorabilia including post mortem photos, known as Memento Mori, and hair jewelry made with locks of hair from the deceased.

The home was prepared after a death to be a quiet, dark solitude of grief. One Victorian tradition was the covering of mirrors with black sheaths because vanity was considered highly inappropriate; the more sorrowful and pitiful the face, the better. Someone would drape a piece of black velvet over the portrait of the patriarch if he had passed. They would drape the family carriage with black velvet too. They also locked the piano because no one was to play any music, and there would be no dinner parties or festivities in the house for some time.

There were a variety of traditions to signal outsiders that the house was in mourning. Some people hung black wreaths on the door, or the family covered the doorknobs in white crepe for a child’s death or black crepe for an adult’s death. Markers like these signaled to visitors that they should prepare to speak quietly and quickly so they would not overtax or burden the bereaved. The family might also muffle the doorbell to prevent any loud noises, which would startle the already anxious nerves of those inside.

Many Victorian houses are quite cheery, but the ones that often times deliberately stand out in movies or literature are the ones that are less so. It’s not just the age or decay that makes them so disturbing or sinister. Certain architectural styles have been manipulated to become the symbols of our cultural fears, the interior layout and decoration can be quite fantastical, and the history of death in the home makes some Victorian houses just more haunting than others.

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A White Room 600x900 by Jenny Q of Historical EditorialAbout A White Room by Stephanie Carroll.

At the close of the Victorian Era, society still expected middle-class women to be “the angels of the house,” even as a select few strived to become something more. In this time of change, Emeline Evans dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when her father dies unexpectedly, Emeline sacrifices her ambitions and rescues her family from destitution by marrying John Dorr, a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family.

John moves Emeline to the remote Missouri town of Labellum and into an unusual house where her sorrow and uneasiness edge toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, people stare out at her from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria, but the treatment merely reinforces the house’s grip on her mind.

Emeline only finds solace after pursuing an opportunity to serve the poor as an unlicensed nurse. Yet in order to bring comfort to the needy she must secretly defy her husband, whose employer viciously hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. Although women are no longer burned at the stake in 1900, disobedience is a symptom of psychological defect, and hysterical women must be controlled.

A novel of madness and secrets, A White Room presents a fantastical glimpse into the forgotten cult of domesticity, where one’s own home could become a prison and a woman has to be willing to risk everything to be free.

Links:

http://www.stephaniecarroll.net/

Stephanie Carroll at The Unhinged Historian http://unhingedhistorian.blogspot.co.uk/

Some fantastic images of Second Empire style architecture http://www.ontarioarchitecture.com/Second.htm#SecondEmpireEurope

National Park Service – National Register of Historic Places http://nrhp.focus.nps.gov/npsbrowse.do?thesaurusID=2&isnatreg=Y

Dave’s Victorian House Site (US) http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~infocom/scndempr/index.html

The Gothic Revival on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_Revival_architecture

Queen Anne Revival (US) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Anne_style_architecture_in_the_United_States

Architectural styles including Second Empire http://nookstowersandturrets.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/name-that-style-second-empire.html

The Psycho House/Bates Motel http://www.thepsychomovies.com/psychohouse/about.html

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Book reviews, Non-British country houses

Guest post: Famine and the Country House and Estate, Dr Ciarán Reilly.

In December last year, I included a guest post by Professor Terence Dooley about the establishment of a Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE) at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Maynooth. Here is a wonderful follow up to that which highlights a particular project currently underway concerning the Great Irish Famine by Dr Ciarán Reilly.

The subject of the Famine is something of which I know very little within the context of the country house. Aspects of Irish history are discussed in English schools as part of GCSE level history, but that’s probably as far as most people take it, and any specialisms only surface at a later stage with further or higher education.  The following certainly pulls the wider histories of the country house into view. As the piece suggests, a great many public outcomes have so far come about because of the project, and it is hoped that the research will have far reaching effects even when the project has been completed, both academically and socially.

Strokestown Park House

Strokestown Park House

Dr Ciarán Reilly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses & Estates at the Dept of History, NUI Maynooth.

At the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses & Estates at NUI Maynooth of the most exciting projects on the Great Irish Famine is being undertaken. Paying particular attention to how the Famine impacted on the Country House & Estate, Dr Ciarán Reilly is presenting groundbreaking findings on how the Famine impacted and unfolded. This research is the result of  the collaboration between the Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park House and the CSHIHE. In 2008 the archive was transferred on loan to the Office of Public Works (OPW)/NUI Maynooth Archive and Research Centre at Castletown House, county Kildare.

The Strokestown Park House Archive is one of the most important and extensive nineteenth-century estate collections in Ireland comprising over 50,000 documents, including rentals, accounts, correspondence, maps and plans, property deeds, rent books, labour returns, pamphlets, press cuttings and even photographs. Of particular importance are the papers relating to the Great Famine of Ireland, 1845-51. Given the paucity of Famine records in a great many other estate collections, the Strokestown Archive has thus an added significance because of the microcosmic insight it offers into the Famine at local level. To date an in-depth analysis has been carried out on what can now be described as Ireland’s most important collection of documents relating to the Great Famine. While the archive details the running of the Mahon (and later Pakenham Mahon) estate from the 1600s until 1979, the majority of the papers relate to the tenantry on the estate. In the case of the Great Famine of the 1840s, the archive reveals the very people for whom Famine was a living nightmare. Here, through daily petitions for food and relief, we see the ‘forgotten voices’ of the Great Famine. It is through the study of such local estates that a greater understanding of how the Famine unfolded and impacted upon local communities can be fully understood. Through themes such as blight, eviction, emigration, murder and the struggle for land, a picture of Ireland in the 1840s and early 1850s is clearly identifiable. Significantly, the archive challenges long held assumptions about the Great Famine.

To date a number of public outcomes have resulted from the project including the annual International Famine Conference at Strokestown Park House. In July 2013 the third annual conference will take place organised by the Department of History, NUI Maynooth (a call for papers will shortly be advertised). In addition, the Strokestown Winter/Spring Lecture Series is also in its third year. The project has also seen an ambitious search for the location of more than 5,000 Famine emigrants from Strokestown who settled in Britain, Australia, America and Canada.

Major Denis Mahon

Major Denis Mahon

In the summer months of 1847 more than 1,400 people were assisted by the owner of the estate, Major Denis Mahon, in emigration to Canada.  It has been estimated that more than 600 never made it ashore in Canada, having succumbed to fever at sea or died in the quarantine station at Grosse Ile. More than sixty children were orphaned at Grosse Ile and through the generosity of the Catholic Church and local people, they were adopted. It is hoped that the descendents of these children and others will return to Strokestown Park in July 2013 as part of the Gathering. 

Links: 

Staff profile, http://historicirishhouses.ie/people/dr-ciaran-reilly

Project overview, http://historicirishhouses.ie/research/postdoctoral/strokestown-famine-project

Strokestown Park & Irish National Famine Museum http://www.strokestownpark.ie/

Putting the Great Famine into perspective http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/famine_01.shtml

Atlas of the Great Irish Famine book with links http://greatirishfamine.ie/

Exploration of the Famine by Professor Cormac O’Grada for the Economic History Society 1992 http://www.ehs.org.uk/ehs/refresh/assets/OGrada15b.pdf

A heavily referenced overview on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland)

References:

The Strokestown Park House Archive: What it tells us about the Great Famine in county Roscommon’ in Journal of the Roscommon Historical and Archaeological Society (forthcoming, 2011)

The Strokestown Park House Archive: Offering new perspectives on the Great Irish Famine’ in The Bonfire: Newsletter of the Ballykilcline Society, vol 13, no 2 (Fall, 2011)

James Donnelly, The Great Irish Potato Famine (Sutton Publishing, 2002)

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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.

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CSHIHE logo

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.

Morpeth2_400x447

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.

Links:

Staff profile for Dr. Terence Dooley http://historicirishhouses.ie/people/professor-terence-dooley and the homepage for the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates http://historicirishhouses.ie/

Full links for Irish Historic Houses Association http://www.ihh.ie/index.cfm and the Irish Heritage Trust http://www.irishheritagetrust.ie/

Archive and Research Centre Castletown http://www.nuim.ie/opwnuim/

Yorkshire Country House Partnership http://www.ychp.org.uk/main/home.php

The 1841 Irish Testimonial  to Lord Morpeth (George Howard, later 7th Earl of Carlisle) http://historicirishhouses.ie/research/postdoctoral-research-projects/1841-irish-testimonial-lord-morpeth

Strokestown Park: Irish National Famine Museum http://www.strokestownpark.ie/

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

The Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference, 12th and 13th October 2012

Attingham Park House

After a particularly tough house move in the second week of October, the weekend brightened with attendance at The Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference – ‘Looking Ahead: The Future of the Country House’. Always slightly anxious that I might not have my ‘clever head’ engaged at these sorts of things, I was relieved to discover many familiar faces amongst the delegates.

I attended on the Saturday of the conference. Whilst I know those involved with The Attingham Trust will be reading, this was not without purpose. Certainly, I work through the week, but I was intrigued far more by the papers on offer that day. Split into four sessions, the first theme encompassed the ownership of mainly British country houses by national institutions and local authorities. The second looked at the Irish country house particularly in light of funding and a nation’s tumultuous history. The third was, for me, a proper introduction to the ‘historic house’ in the United States, with the final session examining the position of the country house in Australia.

The previous day would have given me the opportunity to hear Tim Knox – Director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, interview John Harris – author and architectural historian about country house snooping, or Giles Waterfield from The Attingham Trust interview Julian Fellowes. Attending as I did on the Saturday only, I felt I had missed a great deal. And not surprisingly, Downton Abbey was thus quite high on the agenda!

Julian Fellowes (centre) with Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville, copyright The Sun

So conspicuous was the latter that I fully understood the intense fever of the ITV period drama outside of the comfort of my own living room. Whenever I tell people what I ‘do’, their eyes light up. Inevitably, Downton Abbey enters the conversation and I am required to smile sweetly whilst all the time supporting their idea that country houses at the turn of the 20th century were ALL like this. Yet, I am not attempting to bite my nose off to spite my face. Downton Abbey has certainly earned its place in the discourse of the country house. It is glossy, television-land escapism – the perfect ingredient for a Sunday evening, and although I do watch it occasionally (given the chance at all), I feel I already know these stories.

Downton Abbey has brought the country house to the masses and has provided a generalised interpretation which encourages people to understand a little more about life in the country house. For several years this has been one of the main objectives of institutions in charge of historic houses. However, there is still a divide of interest amongst those involved in making decisions on how houses should be presented, marketed and cared for. The social history of the country house is still a relatively new ingredient to the visitor experience, but there are those who wish to cling to the old trends surrounding architecture and collections.

At the Attingham conference these ideals were definitely tangled up together within thoughts on the future of the country house. This is typically a British symptom of class and the need to categorise our heritage and the people who should and could visit sites. Anna Keay (now at The Landmark Trust) provided her personal take on visiting a site with her children who were immediately pounced upon by overbearing room attendants. I know this feeling well, and appreciate the need for a velvet rope to provide physical boundaries for my own child in such circumstances! That Keay made a swift apology for the inclusion of an image of herself with her children was frankly strange. But then, so too did Lisa White (Chairman of the National Trust Arts Panel) when she included a picture of National Trust marketing which incorporated children playing in the grounds of a country house. The educational aspect of the future of the country house was therefore made obvious by its absence.

The Attingham Trust is the finest of academies from which to study the country house. And whilst its Summer School remains exclusive to those already working in museums, art galleries or with a conservation body, it provides a fantastic platform from which debates of this nature can arise. This was why I decided to attend the conference on the Saturday.

As the papers moved away from matters of British ownership, but still within the boundaries of historic house management and collections, there was an air of optimism which hadn’t been so prevalent in the first session. Both Terence Dooley and Kevin Baird, as representatives of the Irish country house, spoke with charm and enthusiasm about the sites under their guardianship. Plus there was no apology for the inclusion of images portraying children examining objects or peering over reconstructed period dress. Moving onto the later sessions, this mood remained. Admittedly, this could have been the chance for many of the speakers to promote their work, their heritage sites and indeed their part of the world to a largely British audience, but there were many themes I would be interested in covering here. I was particularly intrigued by Craig Hanson’s paper (Associate Professor, Calvin College, Michigan) which noted the activities of women as private citizens during the 1850s onwards for establishing preservation societies and associations in the United States. This was an entirely new concept for me, but one which had clearly resonated with American women like Nancy Lancaster in the 20th century.

By the time Professors Gini Lee and Mark Taylor came to give their respective papers on the Australian country house, the number of delegates had shrunk. Perhaps noticeably, but having watched people leave in dribs and drabs between papers, I was a little disheartened by the change. Understandably it had been a long day, nonetheless, there were some interesting points made, especially given Lee’s own academic background in landscape architecture and interior design, and so this was a refreshing stance on a subject about which many probably knew very little.

Attingham newsletter from 2011

Overall, it was matters of funding that were at the heart of the conference. Visitor experiences, educational outreach, research, acquisitions, and housekeeping all require funding. Heritage is currently suffering from a mixed bag of opportunities which has pushed country house management to extremes. Jeremy Musson (Architectural Historian and TV Presenter) highlighted the plight of one of my favourite houses, Temple Newsam in Leeds, which is struggling under the weight of years of unpredictable local authority ownership. Many houses, both here in Britain as well as abroad have had important cultural legacies established through decades of well-meaning curatorial departments, conservation teams and front-of-house staff. Things have not always been done properly and layers of bad interpretation have had to be stripped back (or re-applied) in order to meet contemporary trends in country house presentation and purpose. By trashing, or at least procrastinating about the past ideals and hard work of those is to forget what history is meant to do. It is therefore unforgivable to see a measly £10,000 set aside for one heritage department merrily scrapped from a budget because it is deemed unimportant or no longer financially viable. There is, or course, no quick fix and every house has its own requirements; like running a business, some demand heavy footfall, while others simply want their stories telling.

The Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference was indeed a great place to shake hands over drinks and to chat with old friends, but it put things into perspective. We need to imagine ourselves in the future already, and to be looking back on how we encouraged those funding bodies to accept the necessity for heritage in its many forms. Places need not become corporate and soulless, but they do need to recognise the expectations and aspirations of those with an inkling of interest in the country house – whether this has its foundations in Downton Abbey or otherwise. The country house audience is changing, and in competing for funding many institutions probably feel overwhelmed in choosing what to present to the public. These are businesses which are uniquely contained within the buildings that defines them and the work they do and so without them the businesses would dissolve. Accepting change is the first part, passing this notion on is pivotal to the future of the country house.

Links:

Full link to the conference programme http://www.attinghamtrust.org/60th-anniversary-conference/programme.pdf and transcriptions of all the papers given here http://www.attinghamtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Conference-Papers1.pdf

The Attingham Trust Newsletter page http://www.attinghamtrust.org/at_newsletter.html

There was a report produced by The Attingham Trust in 2004 entitled OPENING DOORS: LEARNING IN THE HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT which ‘examined the educational provision in a wide range of historic buildings and sites across the British Isles and the Irish Republic. It makes numerous recommendations to Government and to other bodies for improvements in an active but fragmented and heavily under-resourced field.’ Currently the link is not working, but it would make for good reading. It is available to purchase as a book from the Attingham Trust.

Further reading and links in connection with some of the papers given:

Pevsner Architectural Guides http://yalebooks.co.uk/pevsner.asp

Historic Houses Association http://www.hha.org.uk/

The Buccleuch Group and Estates http://www.buccleuch.com/

Burghley House http://www.burghley.co.uk/

Jeremy Musson http://www.jeremymusson.com/

Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates http://historicirishhouses.ie/

Newport Preservation Society http://www.newportmansions.org/

The Royal Oak Foundation http://www.royal-oak.org/index.php

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Non-British country houses, Parks and Gardens, The Destruction of the Country House, The running of the country house

Exhibition: The Dutch Country House.

One day I hope to visit Paleis het Loo , Apeldoorn, Netherlands. This is mainly to see the formal gardens rather than the palace and its interiors. I saw a tv programme years ago which detailed the magnificence of the seventeenth-century formal gardens there plus the private gardens of William and Mary, and I was hooked. The gardens are typical of seventeeth-century design on a large scale, but are something the Dutch did exceptionally well. It is unfortunate then, that the Dutch landscape has been stripped of many of its country houses; some 600 of the 6,000 still stand today – a figure of just 10%.

View from south-east of Amstenrade House and gardens. The house still stands, the majority of the present structure dates from the 1780s.

Not surprisingly, over the last couple of years there has been a growing interest in the Dutch country house both here in Britain through the Attingham Trust as well as in the Netherlands. A handful of seminars and debates have taken place already, and this year marks the collaboration between the Country House Theme Year 2012 Foundation and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. A bit of a mouthful admittedly, but the latter is eager to promote the Netherlands as a ‘designed country’ and one influenced by water and human manipulation of the landscape. What better stage for the Dutch country house to present itself to a wider audience, as it were?
Highlighted here is an exhibition currently underway at Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis.
The following text comes from artdaily.org.
Since the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th Century, those, who could afford it, fled the malodour of the city during the summer months. In a time span of three centuries over 6000 summer residences appeared all over the country and especially around Amsterdam. Today, some 10% of these historic houses for the summer still survive. This exhibition tells the story of these houses, why they came into existence, how the city dwellers spent their time during summer and how the once spectacular gardens and parks of these houses are maintained and reconstructed today.

Elswout House and Gardens by Jan van der Heyden (image from Enfilade)

The themes of the exhibition concern the rich and influential Dutch bourgeoisie families and their exemplary palatial country houses. Many still exist and often the gardens can be visited.  Important exhibits, such as a painting of the country house and gardens of Elswout by Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) on loan from the Frans Hals Museum, a huge painting of a city garden ‘The courtyard of the Proveniershuis’ (1735) by Vincent Laurensz van der Vinne II (1686-1742) on loan from the Rijksmuseum Twente and a large reverse glass painting of the country house of Soelen by Jonas Zeuner (1727-1814) on loan from the Amsterdam Museum, are on view.

Connected to the exhibition is a new website, which stimulates visiting the gardens and parks of the country houses around Amsterdam, which are open for the public. The exhibition was developed in a unique collaboration between the museum and the three largest conservation organisations of the Dutch countryside, Staatsbosbeheer (state forestry commission), Natuurmonumenten (nature monuments society) and De12Landschappen (the 12 provincial countryside trusts).
The exhibition is open to the public from 11th July until 4th February 2013. The museum is open daily from 11am until 5pm and closed on Tuesdays.
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The Courtyard of the Proveniershuis by Vincent Laurenz

The Museum’s website for the exhibition notes how these houses were once the places of entertainment for the urban elite. Now they are publicly accessible green oases in the urban landscape. That alone, prompts me to make the trip!

Links relating to the Dutch country house:
Further reading:
John Dixon Hunt, The Dutch Garden in the Seventeenth Century, Volume 12 DumbartonOaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture, (1990).
David Jacques and Arend Jan van der Horst, The Gardens of William and Mary, (1988).
Eric Jong, Nature and Art: Dutch Garden and Landscape Architecture, 1650-1740, (2000).
Harriet Margaret Anne Traherne, Summer in a Dutch Country House, (reprint 2011).

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Non-British country houses, Parks and Gardens