Jeremy Musson goes round the houses to explain why, when it comes to stately piles, it’s not just outward appearances that count but inner beauty, too
TO ANYONE INTERESTED in history and culture it is obvious that the great country houses of England, centres of the historic landed estates, are the repositories of much of value in the story of our national history. Not least this is so because the wealth of centuries has been poured into their architecture and decoration. The skills of the best artists, both native and continental, were lavished on the aesthetic impact of these houses. The intensity and richness of this display derived from the role these houses enjoyed role as centres of regional power and both of economic patronage and culture. But more than this, beauty and magnificence were considered a patriotic duty — the glory of each place reflecting glory on the nation.
In the 21st century, the landed aristocracy is no longer a dominant political force, but these aristocratic houses remain important centres of our shared national culture. In other European countries because of the effect of revolutions, wars and the Code Napoleon laws of inheritance, it is rare to find survivals of interiors with the extent of original furnishings and collections that we encounter in a significant number of the great houses of England. Many of the worst ravages of such interiors and collections were the result of high taxation in the mid-20th century. A Labour government under Attlee, rattled by the sales and closing down of these national gems (even demolitions of entire houses), commissioned a report from the civil servant Sir Ernest Gowers, who warned of a cultural disaster the equivalent of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the middle of the 16th century. The National Trust ‘country houses scheme’ played a rescuer’s role, but it could only ever be responsible for a handful.
Today, almost all the major British country houses of importance are open to the public — and play a nationally significant role as places of cultural and social refreshment and simple entertainment for hundreds of thousands of visitors. This public access has a long tradition, but it is also an essential part of the 20th-century arrangements between the families who built, furnished and still owned the houses and the state. These settlements were arrived at to avoid the closure of these houses and the international dispersal of their collections.
Of course, when we visit a historic house on a Saturday afternoon in June, we do not need to know all about the plasterwork and painted decoration to enjoy visiting them. We do not really need to be told that these interiors represent the finest work available at the time — this much is obvious. The theatrical magnificence and quality of invention and detailed decoration speaks for itself.
But there are other narratives we should be aware of. The English aristocracy battled with a perennial inferiority complex when faced with the dazzling magnificence of Louis XIV’s Versailles, and, it seems, were provoked into competing with his grands projets. The palaces of Rome and Italy, and the awesome ruins of ancient Rome, also offered the young aristocrat — on his educational travels, long dubbed the ‘Grand Tour’ — an intoxicating vision of grandeur and beauty which subsequently informed their own domestic projects in both town and country houses.
The inspiration of the Classical world is ever-present in this story (although initially often approached through French exemplars). Ancient Classical art and architecture had an overriding cultural significance — even a political message, sowing the seeds of imperial ambition. Renaissance Classical references appear in plasterwork, and panelling in the awesome grandeur of Hatfield House, built for Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury — where the Cecil family celebrated their 400 years of occupation this year. Classical inspiration is even more obvious in the finest house of the reign of Charles I, Wilton House, in Wiltshire, where architectural form and interior detail again remain to illustrate the cultural ambitions of the courtier class — before the civil war.
The now mellow interiors of Boughton, created in the 1690s for the highly cultured 1st Duke of Montagu, reflect the ancient rivalry with the French in pursuit of magnificence. The Duke had been the ambassador to Louis XIV’s court and made both his London house and his country seat at Boughton examples of the best that could be done, both in terms of their architecture and interiors, employing the finest artists of the day and filling the rooms both with Boulle furniture, Mortlake tapestries and paintings. Much of the original contents survive in situ.
Recent works by the Chatsworth House Trust at Chatsworth in Derbyshire have been aimed at recapturing the late-17th-century gloire of the famous state apartment there. The meticulous restoration of the state bed and the rearrangement of the pictures and contents in the style of the 1680s and 90s, using the evidence of late-17th-century paintings has transformed the intense, stately glamour of these spaces.
The Grey Drawing Room at Waddeston Manor
The English baroque has always suffered in reputation as a result of the withering scorn about the ‘licentious’ folly of Classical work which bore no real relation to the antique world. The Palladian champions led by Lord Burlington and William Kent, who trained in Rome, were active propagandists in their field. At Holkham Hall you can see the original collections of paintings made on the Grand Tour, landscapes by Claude, hanging in the room they were bought for, and a sculpture gallery filled with the Classical sculptures collected in Italy for that very space.
The influence of Rome only intensifies in the 18th century, most notably in the work of Robert Adam, who had himself studied in Rome, observing at first hand excavated buildings which provided more evidence of the actual interiors of the Classical world. Adam prided himself on having created a revolution in interior design and at Syon, he created a series of rich interiors of vivid contrasts — a sequence of moods — which each in their own way represent a revival of ancient Rome. His patron, the Duke of Northumberland, wrote about Syon’s fireplaces that were ‘adorned with medallions after the most beautiful manner of the Antique finished in a remarkably light and elegant style at least equal, if not superior, to any of the finest remains of antiquity’.
A shifting European scene, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars created another turn of the kaleidoscope with variants of Classical, Gothic (a celebration of our native visual traditions) and other more exotic styles, such as Egyptian (as in the dining room at Goodwood, celebrating the Battle of the Nile). But taste has become more catholic and rooms are contrived into strongly contrasting styles, neo-classical and French rococo. The full force of the Gothic Revival can be seen at Arundel Castle, the seat of the Duke of Norfolk, where the castle was rebuilt by architect Charles Buckler, in the Puginian spirit. The frankly Christian architecture of the Middle Ages was an important motivation to the premier Catholic peer, who also filled the castle with suitable antique furniture.
The typical country house of the early 20th century was more probably an aesthetically restored manor or castle than a particular type of new house. During the 1920s, every room in Berkeley Castle was stripped back by the 8th Earl Berkeley and refitted with fine panelling and carved medieval stonework, bought from all over Europe to re-create the medieval magnificence of the castle which had been lost under Georgian and Victorian accretions. Lord Berkeley’s American wife wrote: ‘If you went away for few days, you’d come back to find the side of your room had been taken off and all the furniture moved out.’
The history of decoration and collecting for the greatest country houses came to a shuddering halt under the pressure of taxation, inflation, and the economic and social impact of two world wars. Many of these ‘stately’ houses went through periods of uncertainty, but those that have survived, through public opening, the creation of dedicated trusts, the attentions of experts and skilled conservators, are in a new and interesting phase of their history, and one that all of us can share in.
In several of the houses featured there are also subtle touches of the modern, pieces by Edmund de Waal and paintings by Freud at Chatsworth, changing displays of modern furniture are shown in one of the upper rooms of Waddesdon. But what is even more consistent throughout these great houses is how much has been done in the past twenty years — even in the past ten — to make these interiors as coherent and attractive as they can be.
The achievement of the private owners — and other bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage — is to have brought important historic buildings and collections in their care safely into the 21st century, to the benefit and delight of so many visitors. This should be celebrated as a great national achievement. Let us hope our visitors in the year of the Olympics (snatched from the teeth of our ancient rival the French, after all) will be encouraged to visit and enjoy these glories of the nation.
Jeremy Musson’s English Country House Interiors is published by Rizzoli International Publications