So, I finally managed a moment of quiet in order to catch up with The Country House Revealed (BBC2 9pm, Tuesdays) and listen to the soft tones of Dan Cruickshank whilst he explored ‘our nation’s hidden history’.
The first episode set out to establish several introductory points in relation to the chronology of the British country house and its owners against the cultural, socio-economic and political changes within the landscape of the nation. Against a soundtrack which mainly consisted of the Boards of Canada’s Dayvan Cowboy, came sweeping views of South Wraxall in Wiltshire, the first of Cruickshank’s studies. Here was, as Cruickshank suggested a fine example of sixteenth-century status architecture, and although he never uttered the phrase ‘power house’ it was clear that South Wraxall was chosen as an example of wealth; an emblem of authority and the physical base for establishing a dynasty.
South Wraxall (Bradford on Avon Museum image)
Cruickshank deftly argued that the Long family of South Wraxall were fine examples of how money and the right connections could be beneficial for manipulating the physical environment. We were told of the Longs’ humble beginnings and shady practices of cattle stealing, and how such crooked dexterity gave them recognition as well as money. Through providential marriages the men of the Long family soon became what their last remaining descendant Sara Morrison called ‘efficient breeders and self-serving individuals’. For the sixteenth-century country house this was set in the very fabric of the building itself as Cruickshank returned time and again to the ever more elaborate fireplaces and mantelpieces throughout South Wraxall. The Long family had risen from their dark past with each successive male heir achieving status in the fields of law, politics and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, landownership. The country house was the cultural statement of this achievement and expressed the self-aggrandisement of its owner.
These themes were a little more complex in Cruickshank’s second episode on Kinross in Scotland. Built by Palladian advocate Sir William Bruce
in the 1680s, Kinross came almost 250 years later than South Wraxall. This was, in part due to the political landscape of England and Scotland between these two dates. South Wraxall had begun as parts rather than a whole working manor with outbuildings and a chapel. Extensions were made eventually uniting these parts to create a block of interlinked living spaces. Cruickshank neatly referred to computerised plans of this development on a couple of occasions.
Yet, it was the style of building which marked the country house out from its predecessor the castle or fortified manor house. Gone were the battlements, towers and winding stairs, and moats. The owners of these new foundations were a part of a different and more stable backdrop. Anything similar in Scotland was delayed until the Restoration when civil war and struggles for outright independence from the English throne had impeded some aspects of cultural flourish. Kinross in this respect was something ‘shockingly new’ on the Scottish landscape and the first house to be inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture in Scotland. While Bruce’s neighbours were still adding to their country piles with turrets and crenellated wings, Kinross represented a side of Scotland’s character which was as Cruickshank exclaimed, eager to ‘shed its Medieval skin’.
Symbolic of this change was the layout at Kinross inspired by growing needs for privacy and segregation between servants and masters. Cruickshank led us through several rooms, often quite dramatically, in order to demonstrate the route of status from the openly public and formal saloon to that of the intimate and informal chamber and closet. With more humbled gestures we saw him attempt to manoeuvre a water-filled chamber pot down incredibly cramped backstairs. It is difficult to imagine the coquettish Lucy Worsley doing such a thing in If Walls Could Talk, but Dan Cruickshank managed mixed expressions of gratitude and humility once he reached the service corridor below.
The similarities to South Wraxall lay in Kinross’s purpose. It was a statement as a place for establishing a dynasty and as the cultural hive for the family. A descendant of Bruce, Charles Wemyss reiterates the same sentiments felt by the Long family descendant. Words like ‘opportunistic’, ‘avaricious’ and ‘irrepressible’ merely echo those made by Sara Morrison. Unlike South Wraxall however, Kinross was to prove a heavy drain on one man as Bruce struggled with bad experiences and great misfortune within his political career.
This was rather more to do with the fickleness of royalty than anything Bruce had said or done but the funds ran out for his building and Kinross was left incomplete. It was at this moment in the episode that Cruickshank’s applied soft tones seemed so appropriate as he read a particularly poignant letter from Bruce’s wife stating her need for decent travelling clothes.
At his conclusion to the second episode, Dan Cruickshank remarked upon the influence and weight of the past of Kinross upon its owners; a single statement which surely emphasised the reason for the choice of country houses throughout the series and Cruickshank’s book of the same title. The modern-day fate of both South Wraxall and Kinross are the same. They have proved difficult places to live in, they are time-consuming, both are financial drains and labour intensive. This is true of any large establishment (see the previous post here on Wentworth Woodhouse – another of Cruickshank’s later case studies). So how do Cruickshank’s choices differ from those of historians exploring the many country houses welcoming thousands of visitors to walk upon their trodden sacrificial carpets every year?
Of course, every country house has a different story and it would be foolish to describe all the disadvantageous
Vogue image of Gela Nash-Taylor (second from right) with husband, son and friend Yasmin Le Bon
factors to which many may have succumbed. Yet, Cruickshank implies that there is a stimulus within some houses as well as external factors which impress upon the owner a desire to maintain their country house, perhaps dynastically or as an expression of eccentricity within a nouveau elite. Cruickshank does not use these terms, but none of his case studies remain in the ownership of their founders. South Wraxall is owned by Gela Nash-Taylor, co-founder of Juicy Couture and wife of John Taylor from Duran Duran.
Kinross was sold at the end of 2010 with plans being made to convert much of it into a hotel. The ‘influence’ of these houses therefore rests with their power to deny absolute dominance. ‘Ownership’ is the title offered to the dweller – the shot of Gela Nash-Taylor shuffling through gravel in 4 inch heels was a delight to see, but does not suggest this family can ever be a part of the building’s fabric. The sheer generosity of the present owners however, has been made into a gift in the hands of Dan Cruickshank who has so far laid bare the vital ingredients of country house histories and their reflection of social and cultural change.
References: Dan Cruickshank, The Country House Revealed: A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home. (BBC books, 2011)
Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History. (Yale University Press, 1978)
Please also see the core reading list provided in this blog, many of these sources will provide further discussion on the building of the country house, including the social and cultural themes offered by Dan Cruickshank.
The Country House Revealed website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01186vq
Kinross: The DiCamillo country house database entry http://www.dicamillocompanion.com/Houses_detail.asp?ID=1181
Articles relating to the sale and plans for Kinross: http://www.perthshireadvertiser.co.uk/perthshire-news/local-news-perthshire/perthshire/2010/12/24/hotel-plans-for-kinross-house-73103-27877815/
South Wraxall: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Wraxall_Manor
Full Vogue USA article 2009: http://www.duranasty.com/scans/vogue_usa_sept_09/vogue_sept_09_jt_gela.htm