Apollo Magazine (UK)
The Second World War and its aftermath was an intense period of negotiating the transfer of properties from private owners to the National Trust. As the secretary to its Country House Scheme, James LeesMilne was integral to the process. ‘My loyalties are first to the houses, second to the donors, and third to the National Trust,’ he wrote in a diary entry in March 1943. In the piquant pages of his diaries, he was sometimes scathing about all three: Knebworth House, which did not join the Trust’s portfolio, was ‘undeniably hideous’, its proprietor Lord Lytton ‘pompous, courteous in a keep-your-distance manner, patrician and vice-regal’.
While the links between family dynasties and the histories of architecture and collecting remained a strong theme in the public presentation of historic houses in the decades that followed, by the time my parents bundled me along to them on family holidays in the late 1980s and early ’90s these subjects had been joined by a focus on the work that once went on in the buildings, particularly below stairs. My memory of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire is of tasting bread baked in its kitchen, possibly handed to me by a volunteer ‘cook’ in period dress; of Saltram, near Plymouth, of its vast display of copper pots, pans and jelly moulds.
Reading Emma Barker’s article in this issue, I discovered that Saltram is home to 11 paintings by Angelica Kauffman, one of the most significant holdings of her work in the country (see Diary, pp. 25–26). I don’t think that would have meant anything to me as a seven-year-old; but it is certainly reason to revisit from (and for) a different perspective. Stately homes, their stories and their contents, have a range of significances for different people – which includes the same individuals at different times in their lives. We may return to them like old friends but, just like friends, they can surprise us every time we encounter them. Scholars continue to find new meaning in them, too: in an essay in this issue, Peter Stewart draws out what the sculpture collection at Wilton House can tell us about how attitudes to antiquity have shifted over the centuries; objects once considered pre-eminent later came to be seen as flawed, and now have a refreshed interest (see Feature, pp. 46–51).
In our Forum pages, Olivia Horsfall Turner and Oliver Cox discuss the obligation for historic houses to broaden the range of stories that they tell (see pp. 22–23). This work was thrust into the public eye in 2020 with the publication of the National Trust’s interim report on the connections between its properties and colonialism, including slavery – a publication greeted, as so much is these days, by polemical responses. I found the report helpful: a succinct summary of the current state of research into historical attitudes to land ownership and the sources of wealth, rich in information about individual properties and honest about current gaps in knowledge. It is well worth reading.
Opening up kitchens and laundries to make visible the class hierarchies in country houses was easy enough: the spaces existed in the basement, after all. What is more difficult is to imagine how the sublimated histories of colonialism might be displayed in settings that tend to rely more on the impression of domesticity, however grand, than on detailed labelling or gallery-style displays. As Horsfall Turner and Cox argue, the furthering of our historical knowledge about these houses is to everyone’s benefit; but how to present it in places where experience has often been prioritised over information?
The answer to that lies partly, no doubt, in whether resources are available to develop new object trails and smartphone apps, and whether exhibition spaces are developed at some properties – and potentially in temporary interventions by artists or other types of ‘activation’, too. It requires collaboration between curators who are experts in objects, buildings and gardens and others whose work bears on the fugitive meanings of places and things (the two need not be mutually exclusive; see our review of Marking Time, pp. 88–89). Above all, perhaps, it needs a consensus that widening the conversation does not mean ejecting those who have long taken part in it; there can be more nuanced historical understanding, and we can still have cream teas.