‘One of the many contradictory qualities of the British,’ James Lees-Milne rightly notes in his attractive if angry anthology in piam memoriam Bladesover, ‘is to revere, and even lament, the things they are in the process of destroying.’ You cannot, he seems to be saying, have conservation without destruction, or a stay of execution without a sentence. This is not, of course, a universally valid dictum. Even the combined and mellifluous resources of Mark Girouard and Yale University Press have yet to unfurl the full panoply of best-selling nostalgia on behalf of such doomed and dodoed delights as education before the comprehensive (Life in the English Secondary Mod?), arithmetic before the pocket calculator (The Victorian Counting House?), American politics before Watergate (The Return to Camelot?) or British politics before Thatcher (Sweetness and Light?). Many such lost causes pass unlamented – more likely to be powdered into dry-as-dust dissertations than instant coffee-table books. We know too much about them to regard their passing with unequivocal regret.
But elsewhere, the plague of nostalgia rages with ferocious and seemingly incurable vigour, as shown by the remarkable sales of the Girouard oeuvre (as much a social phenomenon as social history) and the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (Mrs Dale meets the Archers). Indeed, a glance in any bookshop will reveal row upon row of such rustic and escapist volumes, dwelling with dewy-eyed and treacle-tongued rapture on the idyllic delights of cottages, villages and country houses, gardens, forests and mountains, birds, flowers and animals, all the way from James Herriot’s Yorkshire to Angela Rippon’s West Country. The world we never knew becomes the world we have lost and thus the world we want to find again: the only paradise we really seek to regain is the one which was never ours to lose. Not since the 1890s or the 1930s has the worship of wistfulness been so widespread. And there, in part, lies the explanation: then, as now, depression is the begetter of nostalgia, disenchantment the handmaid of escapism. As before, when the shopkeepers go out of business, we become a nation of ruminators.
Lees-Milne’s pocket anthology provides fascinating fodder for such digestions, even though it also contains an unexpected (perhaps unintended?) antidote to the nostalgia disease. Drawing widely on the printed memoirs, diaries and correspondence of natives and foreign visitors, he compiles a memorable picture of life in the English country house, as described by some of its more outspoken and opinionated habitués, the cumulative effect of which is to leave an overriding impression of eccentricity and bad temper. We meet Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, lamenting her ‘misfortune to suffer very great mischiefs from the assistance of architects’; Sir John Cope, of Bramshill, whose ‘apartments are so vastly spacious that one generally sees Sir John toward the winter put on his hat to go from one room to another’; John Mytton, of Halston Hall, who consumed between four and six bottles of port a day, and once set fire to his nightshirt to frighten away the hiccoughs; Disraeli, gazing into the fire at Hughenden, murmuring ‘Dreams, dreams, dreams’, and being refused in marriage by the Countess of Cardigan because his breath smelt of ‘the ill odour of politics’. And there is – as one might expect – the by now obligatory quota of quotes from Brideshead.
Funnily enough, it is not only the people, but also the houses, which emerge rather less saccarine-sodden than one might have expected. In the first place, as Lees-Milne points out, many contemporaries (especially 18th-century) were highly critical of the mansions of their own day: Westcombe House ‘must have been built by somebody that is mad’; Blenheim was ‘execrable within, without and almost all round’; Kedleston ‘would do excellently for a town hall’; Hardwick had ‘vast rooms, no taste, much indifferent tapestry’; Powderham was ‘not worth a halfpenny’; and Hagley was ‘deficient in water and gravel, two great charms’. To judge from such opinions, contemporaries like Horace Walpole and Arthur Young would have regarded the present cult of the country house with amazement and incredulity. Moreover, the life which was actually lived within their walls emerges as far from beguiling. Most country houses were cold, gloomy, eerie, filthy, smelly and insanitary; they were too grand or too small, too plain or too ornate, too shabby or too vulgar; the food was bad, the company often boring, and there was little to do except hunt; and the servants were frequently dishonest or incompetent, while the nannies were sometimes wicked and tyrannical.
In the light of all this, it is not entirely clear why the editor waxes so eloquently angry at the demise of a way of life which, even as described in his own anthology, seems relatively unappealing. Whatever may be said in favour of the country house as a mode of government, way of life, shrine of culture or architectural artifact, there is clearly much to be said against it too, in part because so many country-house owners seem to have been so peculiarly insensitive to, and unappreciative of, their privileged surroundings and position. From the 1880s, however, such devil-may-care indifference could no longer be successfully sustained, as the landed establishment was increasingly forced on the defensive. Such, at least, is the argument of Heather Clemenson’s admirable study of 500 English landed estates during the last 100 years. The late 19th century, she suggests, was an especially trying time for landowners, as their political power, landed wealth and social status were undermined by the agricultural depression, the reform of local government, the extension of the franchise, the imposition of death duties, the introduction of industrialists into the peerage, the Liberal attack on the House of Lords, and the disproportionately heavy losses suffered by the landed élite in the First World War. The result was that most landowners stopped building houses or buying land; there were massive sales of acres and mansions immediately before and after the First World War; and in the 1930s the actual demolition of country houses became a noticeable trend for the first time.
So, although Lees-Milne is quite correct in asserting that country-house life survived until 1939 virtually intact, it is clear – at least in retrospect – that the writing was on the wall from the 1880s. It is against this background – which might usefully have been filled in more thoroughly – that Clive Aslet sets his tastefully-written and beautifully-produced account of country houses built in England between 1890 and 1939: the final flowering of this ostensibly and intermittently arcadian way of life before the Second World War, the demise of living-in servants and the rise of taxation brought it to an end. Here is nostalgia at the end of the road (sorry, lane), the last fling of the private patron as country-house client and the architect as country-house designer. By this time, of course, the patrons were an unprecedentedly mixed bag, as very few of them were authentic landowners. Reduced rents, diminished acres and eroded confidence meant that only the super-rich, such as the Portmans, Norfolks, Cadogans and Butes, with incomes massively augmented from mineral royalties and urban rents, could still afford to build. But, in the main, the patrons tended to be the new Late Victorian and Edwardian millionaires: brewers, contractors, newspaper tycoons, financiers and Americans, with enormous (but not always respectable) riches, who found an admirer in Edward VII and an outspoken critic in H.G. Wells.
Faced with such varied material, Aslet sorts his houses into two basic types: the social and the romantic. The social house was built on the grandest of scales for the richest of the rich: some patricians, most parvenus. Smart, glossy, luxurious and up-to-date, such mansions boasted telephones, automated laundries, lifts, sewing-machines, marble bathrooms and central heating. They were all of a piece with bridge, women and champagne; with gargantuan meals, extended waistlines and dispeptic digestions; with pheasant shoots, the baccarat table and big game hunting. One such house was the staggering, swaggering baroque of Bryanston for Lord Portman; another was the castellated, constipated confection of Skibo for Andrew Carnegie; and a third was the ebullient, flamboyant Renaissance of Sennowe Park for Thomas Cook’s grandson. These houses were for social advancement, self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption, where display meant more than beauty, opulence was preferred to taste, and wealth mattered more than lineage. Harold Nicolson explained:
Edwardians were vulgar to a degree. They lacked style. They possessed only the hard glitter of their own electric light: a light which beat down pitilessly upon courtier, ptarmigan, bridge scores, little enamel boxes and plates of food. They lacked simplicity.
It was in conscious reaction against such bloated, boorish excesses, and in deliberate pursuit of reticence, enchantment and ‘simplicity’, that other country-house patrons – still rich enough to afford expensive, handmade products, but less gorged with wealth than the super-rich – opted for the romantic house instead. Two extracts from Lees-Milne express the lyrical, idyllic ideal they sought to re-create: one is Henry James’s evocation of Compton Wynyates’s ‘ivy-smothered brickwork and weather-beaten gables, conscious old windows and clustered mossy roofs’; the other is Waugh’s celebration of Brideshead as a house ‘that grew silently with the centuries’. The results were such warm, mellow, glowing, welcoming houses as Deanery Garden and Plumpton Place (by Lutyens, for Edward Hudson, proprietor of Country Life), Rodmorton Manor (by Ernest Barnsley, for the banker Claud Biddulph), and Hilles (by Detmar Blow, for himself). Here was the setting for a simpler way of life, less artificial and self-indulgent, more artistic and literary, a world lit up by devotion to dying rural crafts, romantically identifying with the land and the countryside, and characterised by traditional values, anonymous craftsmanship and oak furniture. While the social house had an affinity with Harrods (or Selfridges), the romantic house was closer to Liberty’s (or Laura Ashley).
Whatever their differences in style and purpose, both types of house were exercises not only in escape but also in self-deception. Owners of social houses aspired to make them powerhouses, to entertain the King and members of the Cabinet. But insofar as high politics remained a country-house pursuit, it was still carried on in the homes of the Derbys, Devonshires and Salisburys, who despised ‘middle-class monsters’ – be they buildings or businessmen. The social houses were powerhouses only in the sense that they were wired for electricity. They also sought to give the semblance of landed life, the illusion of a great mansion in the midst of a broad-acred estate. But none of these houses was the centre of a self-contained, self-sufficient economic unit; nor were they rooted securely and socially in their locality. The estates were rarely of more than a thousand acres and were more likely to be used for sport than farming; the houses were sustained by revenue from the Stock Exchange or South Africa; and instead of spending half the year in the country, renewing local contacts, the owners now motored down from London for the weekend. These were country houses only to the extent that they were houses in the country, symbols of self-made triumph rather than expressions of hereditary grandeur. Their affinity with such stately homes as Chatsworth or Blenheim was architectural but not functional: they were the playthings of plutocrats not the GHQs of grandees.
As for the romantic house, it, too, was a sham from start to finish. These houses expressed a love of land and hatred of industry: but the money which made possible this arcadian self-indulgence in most cases derived from this much-despised source. Although these houses appeared to have grown silently with the centuries, in fact they exploded noisily with the days, as their owners, too impatient to let time take its course, demanded the illusion of instant antiquity. By definition, such Arts and Crafts houses should not be machines to live in. But most owners wanted the quaintness of the past with the technology of the present: a Garden of Eden with the serpent removed but the servants retained. As Waldorf Astor explained before embarking on his millionaire’s Tudor fantasy of Hever Castle, he wished to live ‘in comfort in his medieval stronghold, having no desire to call up from the past the phantoms of the plague’. And at its worst, such naive and selective romanticism turned into plunder, pillage and rape, as crazed, obsessive, megalomaniac fanatics like William Randolph Hearst ransacked Europe for furniture, pictures, staircases, fireplaces and roofs that might be fitted into their Xanadu-like dream homes.
Not surprisingly, the inhabitants of these fantasy houses seem at least as bizarre as those who flit across Lees-Milne’s pages. There was Andrew Carnegie, welcoming his sovereign to Skibo with the catastrophically accurate salutation ‘Hail fat Edward.’ ‘That’s you,’ Carnegie added, pointing, just in case the King had misunderstood. There was William Randolph Hearst, described by Teddy Roosevelt as ‘an unspeakable blackguard’, who told his wife that St Donat’s Castle, his recent Welsh purchase, was Norman. ‘Norman who?’ she replied, wondering. There was William Waldorf Astor, who was so anxious to hear his praises sung in the press that he instructed his office to release the false news of his death so he might enjoy his obituaries, and who kept the public out of Hever grounds so effectively that it was supposed his middle name was Walled-Off. There was Sir Philip Sassoon, the homosexual politician who added a bachelors’ wing to Port Lympne around a Moorish courtyard which Honor Channon likened to a Moorish brothel. And there was Lord Charles Beresford, on a country-house weekend, bursting into a darkened bedroom he thought was occupied by his lover. ‘Cock-a-doodle-do,’ he cried lustily as he leaped on the bed – only to find himself between the Bishop of Chester and his wife. One of the houses in Aslet’s catalogue is described as ‘now a mental institution.’ To judge by the antics described here, some of them always were.
As these stories imply, Aslet is better at anecdote and illustration than at argument and analysis, largely because his material is too refractory to be put into neat conceptual categories. The houses were so diverse, and their owners were so varied, that it is impossible to link social change and architectural development as Girouard did in Life in the English Country House. And the mansions were not of sufficient complexity or decorative interest to justify the extended individual treatment that their 19th-century predecessors received in The Victorian Country House. Even the distinction between the social and the romantic house seems too crude for comfort: what were Hever or Skibo or Bailiffscourt – romantic in form but social in intent? It is also not at all clear that the inter-war world (when the country-house practices of Lutyens, Kinross and Blomfield all but collapsed) can be treated in the same way as the years of high Edwardian opulence. Nor is the analysis of ‘the servant question’ entirely satisfactory. There may have been anxieties about domestic help in the early years of the 20th century: but there were still well over one million of them employed in 1939. And the chapter entitled ‘The Road to Good Taste’ seems an unconvincing (and unexplained) amalgam of Arts and Crafts oak dressers, Louis Seize gilt sofas and Modern Movement glass tables.
At the most general level, however, Aslet is surely correct in asserting that the Second World War had a much greater impact on life in the English country house than the First – on both the social and romantic houses of which he writes, and also on Clemenson’s more authentic stately homes. In some ways, of which as yet we know very little, the Second World War was the country house’s finest hour. Demolitions were temporarily halted, and many mansions were put to use in the service of the state, as military hospitals, convalescent homes, POW camps, training centres and command headquarters. The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the D-day landing was planned in Inigo Jones’s double cube room at Wilton. Yet in other ways, these were terrible times, as owners watched helplessly the inevitable destruction and abuse which requisitioning brought with it, made worse by the loss of servants, the limited supplies of fuel, and further increases in taxes. The best pictures of this twilight world are the prologue and epilogue to Brideshead and the splendid, poignant volumes of Lees-Milne’s own diaries.
The decade after the Second World War witnessed renewed sales of land on a large scale, the greatest demolition of country houses ever, and the sale of many which survived to local authorities or to educational foundations. And, although government intervention has effectively curtailed further destruction since the mid-1960s, the combination of rising capital taxation, spectacularly increased fuel costs and spiralling land values has led to further disposal of land and houses, of which the sales of Mentmore to Indian transcendentalists, and Warwick Castle to Madame Tussaud’s, are the most famous. By 1980, a quarter of the mansions of Clemenson’s original survey were demolished or ruined, and half of the landowning families in 1880 had parted completely with their land and their home. And, with the levying of CTT and the prospect of even higher taxation from any future radical government, it may be that the remaining mansions and estates will not survive another generation. Even so Lees-Milne’s lament that landowners have been ‘liquidated by the state with constant thoroughness’ seems much overstated. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a great revival of country-house life: in his preface to the second edition of Brideshead, Waugh admitted that it was a panegyric preached over an empty coffin; and in the days of Macmillan’s cousinhood government, Chatsworth and Hatfield were still the powerhouses they had always been. And the opening of stately homes to the public on a commercial basis – initiated by the Marquess of Bath at Longleat in 1949 – has enabled their owners to tap new sources of revenue, both public and private. In the 18th century, Arthur Young regretted ‘the vile custom of not being able to view a house, without paying for the sight, as if it were exhibited by a showman’. But nowadays showmanship is the key to survival. And survival there certainly has been. After all, nearly 80 per cent of Clemenson’s houses are still standing; half remain in private ownership; and one-third of the families with houses and estates in 1880 continue in possession of the mansion and at least a thousand acres. While the stately homes of England may no longer prove that the upper classes still have the upper hand, they have certainly survived dissolution in the 20th century more successfully than did the monasteries in the 16th.
In a sense, then, the most fascinating and equivocal phase in the history of the country house is in our own time, since 1940, for which Clemenson provides the statistical skeleton to which someone else might add the flesh. As is always the case in writing of landowners and country houses, the hardest part will be to strike the right balance between change and continuity, decline and survival, nostalgia and realism, saccarine and scholarship. That point is well illustrated by considering Gladstone’s prediction, made in the 1890s, that a hundred years hence England would be a country in which the great landed estates would still be intact.