Guided missel: the rise of the country house guide book

‘Dear Picture Editor for the 2017 National Trust Handbook

National Trust Guide Book 2017
National Trust Guide Book 2017

Yours is a challenging job. Faced with selecting one cover image to represent the National Trust for an entire year and with the myriad opportunities presented by having over two hundred country houses (unfortunately now minus Clandon), hundred of thousands of acres of countryside, and 775 miles of coastline, such a welter of natural and man-made beauty makes your task both enviable and daunting.

It’s therefore somewhat odd that the 2017 image is a close-up of a couple and their slightly disdainful-looking dog getting caught in a wave on a beach. The lady in the couple looks distinctly unhappy, the chap is possibly saying a swear word. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that the bloke is wearing a bowler hat. For a walk on a beach. Of course, you would know that the bowler was created in August 1849 by the famous London hat-maker, James Lock, for the Coke family at Holkham Hall to help protect their gamekeepers from branches; both those attached to trees and those wielded by poachers. Holkham Hall, awkwardly, is not one of the many country houses (minus Clandon) under NT care so this image is, on many levels, a bit silly.

For next year, may I personally suggest a country house. Though I fear that they, as a class, appear to somewhat out of favour in the upper echelons of the NT, hopefully by appearing on the cover of the handbook, it may remind them that they are custodians of one of the finest groups of country houses one could dream to care for in perpetuity (minus Clandon).’

Guide books have long been a source of fascination for those who visit country houses. Topographical guides have been written for hundred of years to help those of us fascinated by country houses to determine which we might be able to gain entry to and revel in, whether in splendour or shabbiness.

Country house tourism is not a modern phenomenon.  Whether pilgrim or royalty, the idea of visiting houses was an ingrained part of the tapestry of life in the Middle Ages for providing hospitality.  One key difference can be seen in the preferences of Henry VIII who largely visited his own houses compared to Elizabeth I who frequently visited those of her favoured courtiers. Thus the concept of the country house (or palace) being built as much for display and prestige as the more mundane practicalities of large scale domestic occupation became a core characteristic of aristocratic life.

An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen [1806]
An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen by John Brittan [1806]
In the Georgian era, the burgeoning wealth of the expanded upper classes afforded increased leisure opportunities for travel and cultural pursuits. Their desire to assimilate themselves into the attitudes of the existing aristocracy fuelled a natural curiosity about their lives and tastes.  With frequent wars on the Continent often thwarting the traditional Grand Tour destinations, travellers now looked more domestically to visit their extended families and their friends. Even without the wars, it’s likely that the opportunities for women to travel were more restricted and to visit other ‘good’ families in their homes would have been an acceptable way for them to broaden their knowledge and tastes, thus cross-pollinating ideas, styles and fashions.

However, a family’s immediate social circle might contain only a limited number of contemporaries with whom they would be comfortable lodging.  Therefore, when visiting an area, either as a family guest or staying in accommodation, for example during the Season in Bath, day trip visits to other country houses was a favoured activity.  Despite the expectation that an owner would, as part of their duty to better society, open their house, the key question was how to find them and to determine whether they would even be amenable to visitors, no matter how genteel. Much as today, in fact, and hence the birth of the country house guidebook.

Opening Times in 'An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen' by John Brittan [1806]
Opening Times in ‘An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen’ by John Brittan [1806]
By the latter part of the eighteenth-century, an infrequent stream of visitors had become something of a torrent, if not a flood. Houses near large conurbations were particularly susceptible as Horace Walpole found at his charming neo-Gothic villa at Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, described as ‘the prettiest bauble you ever saw’.  Writing to his friend Sir Horace Mann in July 1783, Walpole complained that ‘I am tormented all day and every day by people that come to see my house, and have no enjoyment of it in summer.’  Areas with a higher density of fine houses, which were within a day or two ride of a city or existing tourist destinations, such in as Norfolk, Derbyshire or Wiltshire, were soon part of an unofficial British Grand Tour. This was a natural progression for a society structured around the idea of circuits; domestically through suites of rooms and socially through visiting friend’s houses and at functions and balls.

Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire (J. Skelton, 1825)
Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire (J. Skelton, 1825)

As the idea of country house visiting grew, so did the need to manage the number of visitors and their conduct whilst in the houses. Some simply refused access – a galling experience for those who might have travelled long distances such John Byng, who despite being just a civil servant, toured widely.  On being refused access to Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire, he splenetically cried ‘Let people proclaim that their great houses are not to be view’d, and then travellers will not ride out of their way with false hopes.’ Owners increasingly favoured knowing when visitors may appear and so started having set days of admission. By 1760, Chatsworth was specifically open on two days per week. In 1774, Walpole, though ‘very ready to oblige any curious persons with the sight of his house and collection’ started personally issuing tickets and rules for good conduct.

The internal tours of country houses were usually conducted by the housekeeper who would provide rich accounts of the history of the building and family and details about the works of art – and sometimes the information was even true.  Unfortunately many myths about a family’s history and unwarranted artistic attributions for paintings are likely to have been started by the imagination of the unwitting guide. As the hobby of visiting grew in popularity so too did demand for more accurate accounts; giving birth to the new concept of the guidebook. The earliest from the 1730s-40s were more for reference at home rather than from a carriage and usually focused on individual houses, giving a history,  a catalogue of art works and sometimes a plan for the route to take through the house. These quickly spawned more democratic versions from competing booksellers, sometimes for the same property such as Benton Seeley’s ‘A Description of the House and Gardens…at Stow‘ (first published 1744, totalling twenty-two subsequent editions)

'Plan of the Library Story' from 'The Peak Guide; containing the topographical, statistical, and general history of Buxton, Chatsworth, Edensor, Castlteon [sic], Bakewell, Haddon, Matlock, and Cromford' by Stephen Glover of Derby [1830]
‘Plan of the Library Story’ from ‘The Peak Guide; containing the topographical, statistical, and general history of Buxton, Chatsworth, Edensor, Castlteon [sic], Bakewell, Haddon, Matlock, and Cromford’ by Stephen Glover of Derby [1830]
The guidebooks were both guide and tutor, ushering the visitor through an agreed route around a house but also providing sometimes detailed entries on each individual art work with the expectation that the visitor would view and gain a deeper understanding. This can be seen in ‘The Peak Guide‘ by Stephen Glover [1830] where the entry for the most significant house in the county, Chatsworth, runs to a generous thirty-seven pages. Starting with a description of the immediate vicinity, the bulk of the text runs to great detail on the Cavendish family, the architectural history (including the architects, painters, plasterers, even the plumber’), and the expected walking tour of the house.  A typical entry reads

The second Drawing-room is 36ft by 30ft hung with Gobelins’ tapestry, representing the Death of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter and John healing the cripple, and Paul and Barnabas at Lystra. In an oval compartment in the ceiling is painted the discovery of Mars and Venus. In this room are the following portraits, viz. William, first Earl of Devonshire, in his state robes, ascribed to Mytems; and declared by Mr. Walpole to be one of the finest single figures he had ever seen. Two fine whole-length portraits, said to be the Earls of Pembroke, with pointed beards, whiskers, vandyke sleeves and slashed hose; James, Duke of Ormond, and an Earl of Devonshire, in the costume of the seventeenth century

The level of detail created almost the sensation of a virtual tour, allowing those who could afford a copy of the book, or at least get access to one, the chance to imagine inhabiting the palaces and houses which may be socially or physically out of reach.

Guidebooks have evolved continuously as the requirements of owners and visitors have demanded. Early National Trust books were written by noted historians such as John Cornforth and maintained the seventeenth-century principle of guidance and education. However more recent editions have dispensed with much of the in-depth information in lieu of more pictures of daffodils or scones (and let’s not even get started on the paucity of information about the houses on the National Trust website *sigh*). Happily, other private owners have created lavish books very much in the form of those earlier versions – Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and Boughton, Northamptonshire, are notable examples.

Whatever their role, the guidebooks are an essential component to the experience of the country house. Without them, the rooms would simply be an anonymous store of gilded treasures, without context or understanding. The books remain the key which unlocks the secrets of the houses; the owners and their motivations, their collections and tastes.

Handbook reviews

Hudson's Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums & Heritage Sites 2017
Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums & Heritage Sites 2017

Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums and Heritage Sites 2017

Content (design/layout): Having now been published for 30 years, the Hudson’s guide is a unique oracle for identifying ‘historic houses & gardens, museums and heritage sites’ for your visiting pleasure. In slightly-larger-than-A4 format, this is a book to be enjoyed as much at home, with full-page entries for leading houses, enhanced by full-colour photos. Bonus features include interviews and number of interestingly varied articles (including location filming / James Paine / The Clive Collection / Indian influences on the Royal Pavilion) and thematic guides such as dog friendly sites, events venues, and which properties have guided tours. If there is any criticism it’s that some of the smaller entries for houses read as though it were copied from their usual leaflet and sounds a little off-key.  However, given the comparatively almost lavish space, most sites have an informative, rather than purely functional, write-up with history and details on the art and architectural features.

Comprehensiveness: Unrivalled – the guide is invaluable when in an unfamiliar area and need to plan days out. It includes private properties, National Trust, HHA, plus other heritage sites.

Convenience: The larger-than-A4 format and number of pages means this is not one for the pocket and would be a bit hefty to carry all day. That said, the design means that planning your itinerary is both practical and a pleasure.

Verdict: Even if you get other member handbooks for free, for those wanting more detail or looking to visit a broader range of heritage sites, the Hudson’s guide is unequalled and definitely worth the modest investment. (Available on Amazon or all good bookshops)

*Transparency notice: Hudson’s did send me free copy to review but had no editorial input to any part of this blog post and I’d buy a copy anyway.

National Trust Members Handbook 2017

Content (design/layout):  As the product of many years of refinement, the guide is an excellent way to plan your visits. Set out with listings by county, each property or location has a brief write-up though some properties eclectically get more space and further details. All the useful information is in there including opening times and facilities. Bonus content includes a clever themed index highlighting which properties tick boxes for ‘Adventure playground, boat hire, bicycle hire, camping and caravanning, gardens, ghosts, and industrial heritage’. Note that neither ‘art’ nor ‘architecture’ make the cut as categories. Ghosts though, do.

Comprehensiveness: Unsurprisingly, it only covers National Trust properties.

Convenience: About the dimensions of a paperback novel so easy to leave in the glove box of the car or add to a rucksack.

Verdict: A benchmark for member organisation guides – one that marries convenience to practical information to help plan visits. Just wish it felt able to give equal billing to the houses and their contents as much to the playgrounds and cafes.

Historic Houses Association Friend’s Handbook / English Heritage

Unfortunately I’m not a member (there are limits to funds and time, you see) so I haven’t seen a copy of the latest version – but if said organisations would like to send me this year’s edition, I’ll add details to this page.

Other suggestions

If anyone can suggest other guides (either members or general) then please do comment below.

Find out more

The first architect? 400 years on from death of Robert Smythson

To be regarded as the first architect is quite an accolade and, in the UK, Robert Smythson is widely viewed as holding this title – but as with many things, this is not quite the whole story.  With competition from others interested in developing the idea of architecture, Smythson might have lost the crown of being first – though with buildings such as Wollaton Hall and Hardwick Hall he would have undoubtedly still been regarded as one of the finest architects the nation has produced.  October 2014 is the 400th anniversary of his death, an apt opportunity to look at both his career and the house which launched him, Longleat.

Longleat, Wiltshire (Image: jetstoneblue via flickr)
Longleat, Wiltshire (Image: jetstoneblue via flickr)

Little is known of Smythson’s early life – even his date of birth is only narrowed down to either 1534 or 1535. There is some suspicion that his ancestors may have been masons but his level of schooling or training is a mystery.  The first documented mention of Robert Smythson is his arrival at Longleat, Wiltshire in March 1568 to work as Chief Mason for Sir John Thynne.  He bore a letter from Humphrey Lovell, the Queen’s Master Mason, stating that he was ‘not doubting him but to be a man fit for your worship‘. Smythson had previously been working at the now distantly lost house of Sir Francis Knollys at Caversham, Berkshire, built in the 1550s-60s, but described as ruinous by the diarist John Evelyn in 1654.

Although Smythson was a master, leading his own team of masons, Longleat was to prove to be his education and a spring-board for his own genius for design.  The house was an architectural onion; layers of building, wrapping each phase around the earlier one. The core was formed of the original monastery buildings which had been bought by Sir John Thynne, in 1540, using wealth accumulated in his job as Secretary to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who, as Lord Protector (albeit briefly), was one of the most powerful men in the country.

The first changes to Longleat took place between 1547-53, followed by a more extensive programme between 1553-67, which including adding a grand suite of rooms.  The original building was firmly in the existing Gothic tradition, whilst the second phase added a layer of Classical ornament.  This evolving house was an experiment in merging the existing English tradition with Italian and French influences which would have been somewhat confusing to those who saw it – or as Mark Girouard described it; ‘a kind of degenerate Gothic cake, enriched with occasional classical cherries‘.  We shall never know quite how successful this look was as on 21 April 1567 almost the entire house was destroyed in a fire which burned for 17 hours, leaving just the blackened walls.

Although clearly a serious blow to Sir John, work immediately started to rebuild the house, creating the third Longleat.  It was this project which Robert Smythson joined in March 1658 as a master mason – though not yet as an architect.  The design for the new Longleat is credited to Adrian Gaunt, a French joiner who, in December 1567, was paid for ‘making ye modell for ye house of Longleate‘ – a wooden mock-up (now sadly lost), and the first recorded instance of this in the UK.

So what was Smythson’s involvement in the design of Longleat? If looking at the third Longleat, it would be very little as both the layout and external appearance had been decided and was built as a two-storey house in the style of the previous one. However, in 1572, Sir John decided that his new house needed to be grander still and so embarked on a fourth distinct phase – this was a chance to create a more unified appearance, more in keeping with his classical ideas.

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)
Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)

Over the next eight years, the new building wrapped itself around Longleat, enclosing the two-storey Gothic house in a three-storey Classical cloak.  Most dramatically, the new fronts featured impressive pilastered bay windows which incorporated the Ancient Greek classical orders; Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.  Throughout all this work, Sir John had remained closely involved, with hundreds of letters passing between him and the workforce with his instructions. This was a man who had decided that although his status prevented him adopting the trade of architect, it was certainly not going to stop him acting like one.

However, the documentary evidence of both letters and drawings indicates that it was largely Smythson and a French sculptor, Alan Maynard, who had been working at Longleat since 1563, as the principal designers of the new house.  Girouard believes the division of labour to be that whilst the decoration of the house is Maynard’s, the overall plan and elevations are Smythson’s, who developed the possibilities of the existing compact courtyard house; to turn it outward, and present a most dramatic façade to the world. What Thynne brought to the mix was his passion and critical eye (and huge wealth) which drove and inspired his architects to create a house which matched his ambitions.  Despite all this effort, Thynne barely saw the house complete before he died in May 1580.

Corsham Court, Wiltshire (Image: IBBC)
Corsham Court, Wiltshire (Image: IBBC)

Whilst working at Longleat, Smythson was already developing his architectural career with a commission nearby at Corsham Court, started in the mid-1570s.  Lacking both the budget and passion of the work at Longleat, it is, nonetheless, an interesting and successful fusing of Tudor and Classical.

Around the same time as he was working at Longleat, Smythson had also taken on a substantial side-project; working for Sir Matthew Arundell at Wardour Castle.  Although now a ruin after suffering during the Civil War, Smythson had been employed to refurbish the 14th-century castle, creating a modern house.  Taking what he had learned at Longleat, Wardour’s walls were punctured with windows and classical decoration added to the gateway and doorcases – though the windows were Gothic to keep in style.

Old Wardour Castle (Image: Old Rare Prints)
Old Wardour Castle (Image: Old Rare Prints)

If an architect was to wish for a monument to their work, few could hope for one even half-as-fine as Smythson has in his next commission at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire.  Work started in 1580 for Sir Francis Willoughby, Arundell’s cousin and brother-in-law, and although Smythson’s name first appears in the accounts in March 1582, it is highly likely that he was involved from the beginning – and was still working there when he died in 1614.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire - evening sun showing the lantern effect of the design (Image: adamzy via flickr)
Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire – evening sun showing the lantern effect of the design (Image: adamzy via flickr)

Wollaton is almost a topographical expression of the Elizabethan idea of the internal progression which determined the layout of their houses.  As one of the first houses sited on a prominent hilltop for aesthetic rather than military reasons, it would have been highly visible to all around. Yet, as visitors moved closer they would have been delighted by the gardens and pavilions, before arriving at the highly-decorated Renaissance jewel at the heart of the scheme.

Wollaton is an exceptional house mainly due to the extravagance, but also for having survived. The layout of the house – square with four corner towers and the unusual tall central hall with clerestory windows – had been seen before at Michelgrove in Sussex and Mount Edgcumbe, Cornwall.  What was innovative was the bold play of Renaissance architectural motifs into such dramatic overall impression, creating an almost overwhelming effect – teetering on the verge of being just a bit too much.  Little wonder that after Smythson’s death the inscription on his monument in the parish church reads ‘Architecter and Surveyor unto the most worthy house of Wollaton with divers others of great account‘.

Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire - burnt down 1761 (Image: Nottinghamshire History)
Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire – burnt down 1761 (Image: Nottinghamshire History)

Although Smythson continued to be employed at Wollaton, he was also engaged elsewhere.  One of his most successful projects was the remodelling of the hunting lodge of the Earl of Shrewsbury in the 1580s.  Built as a show of Elizabethan machismo in riposte to Wollaton, Worksop Manor would have been one of the most glorious of the houses of that age, but was consumed by fire in 1761. Again, this was a house set on a prominent site and heavily glazed, catching the sun to dazzling effect.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)

The house which did survive and is rightly considered the high-point of Elizabethan architecture is Hardwick Hall, built between 1590-97.  Tantalisingly, there is no documentary evidence to link Smythson (or by this point, his son John who had also joined the family business) to being paid for the design of Hardwick. However, a series of designs in the Smythson archive which are similar to the executed details of Hardwick, combined with a 1597 accounts book listing a ‘gift’ to Robert and his son John, do suggest that they were closely involved. Most of all, the design of Hardwick Hall is a distilled version of the ideas and experience that Robert Smythson had accumulated over the course of his career. Hardwick is a house with the thoughtful layout of Worksop, combined with technical flair of Wollaton but now moderated and toned down to an elegant finish.

Pontefract New Hall, Lancashire - built 1591, demolished late 1950s (image: Pontefract Heritage Group via flickr)
Pontefract New Hall, Lancashire – built 1591, demolished late 1950s (image: Pontefract Heritage Group via flickr)

After reaching such sublime heights with Hardwick many an architect would have considered their work done and retired. However, for Robert Smythson, the 1590s were a fertile period where he started developing another form of country house, one which combined a compact form but much of the style of Hardwick.  The best example was Pontefract New Hall, built in 1591 and again paid for by Bess of Hardwick, but for her stepson, Edward Talbot. This house took the form of the central core with projecting corner towers but added further recession to the façade to create a complex movement, anticipating designs such as Holland House and Hatfield.  New Hall was derelict by the 20th-century before being sadly demolished in the late 1950s, with the rubble reputedly becoming the A1 motorway.

Chastleton House, Oxfordshire (Image: Brian @ Bury St Edmunds via flickr)
Chastleton House, Oxfordshire (Image: Brian @ Bury St Edmunds via flickr)

Smythson was also involved in designing houses at Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Owlcotes in Derbyshire, an un-executed design for a house at Slingsby for Charles Cavendish (a form of which was created at Caverswall Castle, Staffordshire), who then implemented a small part of a grand rebuilding plan Smythson produced for Welbeck Abbey. Girouard also claims that Burton Agnes Hall is also by Robert Smythson.  Other houses linked stylistically or conjecturally include Chastleton House, Gawthorpe Hall, Fountains Hall and possibly Howsham Hall.

Smythson can certainly be regarded as the parent to the style we would now call ‘Elizabethan’, with buildings which delighted in their inventiveness.  Although the early buildings may have owed a debt to the direction of others, as Smythson became more confident in his mastery of the forms and language, so to do his designs become more skilful, even if he wasn’t always able to restrain the extravagance.  Certainly there were others who were also looking to develop the idea of a professional designer of buildings, but Smythson was the first who we can securely say created a coherent and recognisable style, each house showing the evolution of his skill, each contributing to his claim as the first architect.

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Related article: ‘A minor prodigy: Brereton Hall for sale‘ – looking at the wider context of the Prodigy houses.