Britain’s Country Houses

I was pleased to read Sam Knight’s long, thoughtful and well-informed account of the travails of the National Trust and how it interprets the history of the country houses in its care. It is well balanced, helped by the staff of the National Trust and by conversations with its critics, including Charles Moore.

I would make a couple of additional comments. It is often assumed that the narrative surrounding country houses used to be purely celebratory. But there has long been a more exploratory, sometimes critical and historically informed counter-narrative, inaugurated by Mark Girouard in his Slade lectures of 1974 which resulted in Life in the English Country House, published in 1978. No reader of Girouard would be surprised that they involved power, prestige and possible plunder. In the 1980s, there was not only the deeply informed critique of the romanticisation of British history by the heritage industry, On Living in an Old Country by Patrick Wright, but also critical articles on the excessively celebratory tone of the 1985 Washington exhibition by both David Cannadine and Linda Colley. Attitudes to the country house were not quite as innocent, or historically ignorant, as is sometimes suggested.

The second thing which was perhaps glossed over in the article was that what aroused the ire of the National Trust’s critics was not so much Corinne Fowler’s report on the history of its properties as the report prepared by Tony Berry, the Trust’s Director of Visitor Experience, which suggested a deep antipathy to the Trust’s historic and statutory responsibilities to look after for the houses in its care, together with a plan for large numbers of redundancies from its specialist staff. It’s good that this has been, to some extent, abandoned.


2 thoughts on “Britain’s Country Houses

  1. sandynairne says:

    I agree that Sam Knight’s piece is very good. And I also agree about taking more account of Mark Girouard’s and Patrick Wright’s work. However, fotgive me if I’ve said this before, but Tony Berry’s think-piece about the future of National Trust houses was never even a plan, and was not considered by the Executive, nor by the Trustees. Tragically, because of Covid, the Trust has had to make reductions in staffing; though the losses of curatorial and conservation staff have, in the end, been able to be kept to a minimum.

    • Dear Sandy, Yes, you may have, but unfortunately what Berry wrote read as if it encapsulated a set of attitudes from someone very senior in the Trust and as if it would receive widespread support, even if in practice it didn’t. Charles

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