We watched the film, Coup 53, which reveals how Norman Darbyshire, an MI6 officer stationed originally in Teheran after the war and then in Cyprus engineered the brutal assassination of Mahmoud Afshartous, the chief of police under Mohammad Mossadegh, and the subsequent military coup d’etat, the first of many to protect American interests, but in this case was as much to protect access to the oil wells at Abadan, which had been under the control of Anglo-Iranian oil until nationalised by Mossadegh. We found it fascinating not least for the film footage of Peter Avery, who worked for Anglo-Iranian oil in the early 1950s before teaching Persian at Cambridge and who in retrospect may have maintained some level of contact with MI6.
We drove down to Winchelsea to see the sea, through the lush villages of the Weald – all barge boards and village greens – to the bleak view of Winchelsea beach, looking out across pebbles and sand, past Rye and Camber Sands, to a distant view of Dungeness:-
I have been reading the diary which Hugh Casson kept and published in 1980 when he was President of the RA. Of course, I should have read it when I was at the RA – all the usual problems, not enough money, exhibitions over-budget, helpful people from the City, differences of opinion over enlargement of the membership; but what I hadn’t expected was the catholicity of his architectural taste – a great enthusiast for Lutyens’s Delhi, making a television programme about Castle Drogo, unexpectedly knowledgeable about Thomas Archer’s personal circumstances, writing a booklet about St. John, Smith Square, keen on the Frogmore mausoleum which he drew for a Christmas card, knew about the Farnborough mausoleum, was involved with the National Trust as well as an ex officio trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. I thought he was a modernist, but if he was, a modernist with wonderfully catholic architectural taste.
We are gathering our forces for the forthcoming public hearing about the fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. I thought I knew most of what there is to know about its history, but have been impressed by the fact that Thomas Marks, the editor of Apollo, has spotted that John Summerson, the greatest historian of eighteenth-century London, described the group of buildings occupied by the Bell Foundry as ‘the most remarkable group of its kind in London’. This is not insignificant. He described the buildings thus in 1945. He was a modernist, a member of the MARS Group. Historic England has consistently argued that the buildings themselves are of no architectural interest or significance, only the contents, and refused to upgrade them to Grade 1. Why the disparity ? It must be that Summerson recognised and understood the importance of eighteenth-century industrial architecture, as did Ian Nairn, in a way that Historic England has not.
The hearing is on October 6th. Let’s hope the buildings can be properly preserved as working industrial architecture, not an ersatz hotel.
In order to take a break from National Trust bashing which I can imagine is dispiriting for those involved, not least – let us not forget – the many experts who are in danger of losing their jobs, I thought I would draw up my list of top ten properties, which I hope will stay open, not least to remind myself of how precious the experience of these properties has been:-
1. Seaton Delaval Hall
Acquired relatively recently and most of it a ruin, so hard to let out for corporate entertainment, but an example of how the National Trust can intervene to save a house of extraordinary and slightly savage grandeur.
2. Waddesdon Manor
No problem here, I hope, since the management of the property has been sub-contracted to Jacob Rothschild, who has run a consistently innovative exhibitions programme, including Edmund de Waal and busts of Pope, as well as having an excellent shop.
A great house, which, when I visited recently was exceptionally well displayed and I had forgotten how wonderful its collection of sculpture is. No possibility, I hope, of it being put in store.
I haven’t been for years – maybe this is a prompt – but I discover that only the park is currently open, no substitute for the experience of a great and important historic house.
5. Penrhyn Castle
I choose Penrhyn over Plas Newydd, because of its immense grandiosity and unusual neo-Norman design. We went recently. I can’t imagine that this would lend itself to anything other than low-key stewarding, not, please, guided tours.
I have thought of this a lot recently in the light of the current controversy, since its acquisition in the 1970s demonstrates that the National Trust can be very pioneering in terms of social history when it chooses to be.
Again, a good example of pioneering practice in the 1970s when very low visitor numbers – only 5,000 per annum (in those days the Trust revealed its annual visitor numbers) – encouraged the Trust to develop a pioneering partnership with the NPG.
Antony in Cornwall is probably one of the smaller properties which is at risk under the new policy, but is still lived in and cared for by the Carew Poles who have been admirable stewards/tenants, demonstrating the value of working closely with the donor families.
9. Upton House, Warwickshire
A reminder that the National Trust has so many houses with exceptionally important art collections. I would be surprised if the terms of tax exemption do not require regular opening.
10. Sutton House
They are not all relics of landowners, who we are now being encouraged to hate, but there are some more local properties, like Peckover in Wisbech, which probably do deserve a different approach, but not, surely, closure.
I could list another ten easily. The more I think of it, the odder it seems that the National Trust should regard the incredible wealth of its holdings as problematic, instead of the most wonderful rich resource, to be enjoyed and explored, not packed up into storage and given over to corporate hire. What happened to its spirit of innovation ?
But then, I’ve just remembered, I’m not their target market, being an enthusiast and worse, I could be regarded as a member of that odious species, the cognoscenti.
I have now had a chance of reading the National Trust’s document Towards a 10-Year Vision for Places & Experiences. Since there has been much criticism online of people – I include myself – for being critical of what has been proposed without adequate background information, I would like to make the following suggestions, which are intended to be helpful, not just destructive, since lives and jobs, particularly of junior staff, are at stake:-
- I see absolutely no reason whatsoever why the National Trust cannot make the document available to its membership instead of suffering it being discussed in newspapers and online without its members being able to read it and judge it for themselves. It is a perfectly serious document which has clearly been the result of considerable thought. Since it is the basis for radical proposed changes in the way the Trust operates, it would surely benefit from being discussed from the original rather than secondhand and its assumptions canvassed and tested more widely.
- The document refers to input from Insight and external sources for its projection of future trends in the way people visit and consume culture, without giving an indication as to exactly what these sources are. It would be useful to know.
- The reference to what is described as ‘an outdated mansion experience’ states that ‘our reliance on outdoors for growth has left us with a mansion offer that is still (despite cosmetic improvements) fundamentally unchanged since the 1980s, serving a loyal but (by 2030) dwindling audience’. But no statistics are given, nor is there any indication of changing patterns of visits which might justify a view that the public is no longer interested in such houses as Petworth and Uppark, Ham House and Shugborough, not to mention Plas Newydd which has always been packed with visitors when we have been, suggesting a growth in public interest in recent decades, not a reduction. One wants statistics in order to be able to understand the reality of current trends.
- The document suggests, as has been much quoted, that the National Trust should ‘dial down’ its role as a national cultural institution, equivalent in value to the British Museum and the V&A. But isn’t this just what its members and its donors want it to be, an institution that looks after the past with care and intelligence, encouraging as many people as possible to enjoy it, rather than locking up the houses and putting the collections into storage ? I find this aspect of the document counter-intuitive.
- There is a suggestion that the Trust should devote its resources away from ‘the enthusiasts, the specialists, the experienced and the cognoscenti’ towards ‘the people’. But surely the whole point of differentiation in the way houses are presented, which is what the document sensibly advocates, is not to treat everyone as if they are the same – a homogeneous, undifferentiated lump – but precisely that everyone has the capability of enjoying houses as enthusiasts and cognoscenti. This is certainly the way that museums have changed.
- The document states that National Trust houses should ‘move away from our narrow focus on family and art history, and explore the wider stories and connections that these places open up – from archaeology and local communities to colonial links and social history’. But isn’t this exactly what the Trust has been doing for the last fifty years ? The whole point of what it did at Erddig in the 1970s was to move away from a narrow art historical interpretation towards thinking about the house as a document of social history.
These are my thoughts. But I would be interested in what the staff think and whether they share and are inspired by one member of staff’s opinions. Do they share the views expressed in the document, particularly the younger staff whose views should surely be canvassed since they are going to be tasked with putting the collections away in store ‘to create the more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in future’? We deserve to know, surely, what these ‘active, fun and useful experiences’ are going to be which are going to replace the experience of learning about furniture and looking at art.
I have been alerted to the attached article written by Eleni Vassilika, the former curator of antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum who was for a time herself curatorial director of the National Trust. It gives a good account of the tensions within the National Trust which has led to the writing of the consultation document whose ethos – that detailed curatorial expertise is now redundant – appears to underpin the radical proposed restructuring, itself caused by the financial difficulties of the closure of so many properties. It is unfortunate that neither of the proposed documents is in the public domain, so the public is forced to judge what is happening on the basis of secondhand press coverage. But it sounds as if Tony Berry, the director of visitor experience, may have seized the opportunity of Covid-19 for a grand carve-up, which, whatever its rights or wrongs (without the relevant documentation it is impossible to judge) in terms of managing properties and their collections, looks like being a catastrophe in terms of PR.
Not surprisingly, I have been following the online discussion of the proposed changes to the structure of the National Trust with the utmost interest. Not least, I listened to the defence of the two internal consultation documents by Hilary McGrady, its Director General, on the Today programme.
She is planning the cuts with regrets and a feeling of their necessity, because they are not willing to draw on their reserves. But there was one obvious problem in her response. She said that the curator of textiles would be able to apply for one of the new curatorial posts. But the new curatorial posts are concerned with interpretation and the management of change. So, the curator of textiles who is likely to have a very deep material-based expertise is unlikely to be especially well qualified for a post concerned with public interpretation. In other words, specialist skills are being sacrificed, because, as Julian Glover makes clear in the Spectator, specialists stand in the way of change.
But the change which Glover recommends as being a necessary form of modernisation is allowing readers of the Spectator to smoke cigars in the library. Is this really what we want of National Trust houses ? That they should be available for rent by the oligarch friends of Spectator readers, instead of available to the widest possible audience every day.
I was pleased to see Bendor Grosvenor’s piece about the planned changes in the National Trust (see below). He has obviously seen the internal review document which plans wide changes. I was particularly interested to read that the purpose is to ‘dial down’ the National Trust’s role as a ‘major national cultural institution’. Why, one might ask, should their marketing department be so keen to do this ?
They certainly seem to have chosen the best and most effective way of doing it. Maybe there will be a change of title soon, too, which will abolish those unhelpful words ‘National’ and ‘Trust’, both of which are now so clearly redundant.
As I drove past the gates of Plas Newydd this morning and saw that its gates were firmly closed (I now discover owing to the storms), although the signs indicated very clearly that it was open, I couldn’t help but think about the news this morning that in future it plans to keep only twenty properties open, which is presumably very unlikely to include Plas Newydd with its Rex Whistler murals or Penrhyn Castle, which have both been good wet weather destinations for us over the years, let alone a host of other important historic properties from Berrington Hall in Herfordshire to Felbrigg in Norfolk.
I am, of course, aware that the move to take on responsibility for country houses is mainly post-war, owing to punitive taxation, and that in recent years, from Fiona Reynolds onwards, the National Trust has, for good reasons, re-emphasised its responsibilities towards landscape, the countryside and environmentalism. But only 20 ? Where does this leave its charitable responsibilities, its duties towards the owners from whom they took ownership on, and indeed their status as the primary national body responsible for the care, preservation and, most especially, access to, country houses ? Has its governing body, one wonders, discussed and agreed to this radical change ? And what are its over five million members going to think when it finds the gates to so many country houses closed as in the eighteenth century ?