National Trust ‘stuff’ debate: ‘Re-presenting the Country House’ – Ben Cowell, Director, NT East of England

Since the earliest days of the country house, one of their primary roles has been display; conveying meaning through designs, devices and decoration. Through the generations this role remained, though each age had their own influence, mostly evolutionary or occasionally a more dramatic change.  The clearest messages were to be found in the houses which had remained in the family with their collections but as this became a rarer combination in private hands, the National Trust became one of the most important custodians of this legacy.

Library, Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)
Library, Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)

However, in an interview with Dame Helen Ghosh, the Director General of the National Trust, surprised many by saying:

People were also put off because there is “so much stuff” in some of the stately homes. The Trust was now looking at featuring only a handful of interesting artworks in some homes to see if it increased their appeal. Dame Helen said: “We just make people work fantastically hard, and we can make them work much less hard.” [Daily Telegraph – 23/03/15]

Cue much consternation – in his article ‘What’s wrong with the National Trust?‘, eminent art historian Bendor Grosvenor asked ‘Has the National Trust lost interest in art?‘. Mr Grosvenor then visited Ickworth and his follow-up article contained photos of the library, formerly full of contextually appropriate furniture, which now had bean bags.  I shared this via Twitter, prompting a spirited debate which raised the obvious curatorial and aesthetic concerns – who were these visitors who struggled, what about those who visit specifically to see the glorious contents? I confess to being firmly in the latter camp and have stated as much.

In the spirit of an honest debate about this important topic and to put the National Trust’s position, I offered Dr Cowell a guest blog post which he has taken up and is below.

After reading it, I understand why the National Trust feels it has a role to play in developing the interpretation of the country house.  Almost inevitably, these activities are going to be criticised. This is especially true where they conflict with the strongly held views of why most of the National Trust’s members visit these houses, namely, to see their unparalleled collections, married to the interiors for which they were intended.

The controversy is perhaps less about the experimentation and more about the less than transparent way that it has taken place.  One always fears that any action is the thin end of a wedge which permanently compromises what many would accept is the best way of displaying this historic collections. This is unfortunately compounded by Dame Helen’s frustratingly disrespectful description of the matchless art and furniture as mere ‘stuff‘, implying a rather disposable attitude.

Handled differently, I suspect that there would be much less outcry and reputational damage if they were less opaque and perhaps:

  • Shared, before changes were made, the proposed alterations and the research which led to them
  • Gave a clear indication of whether these changes were permanent or temporary (and, if the latter, for how long)
  • Indicated where the contents had been moved to if within the same building or that it was not available

I would also suggest that the National Trust facilitated a more formal feedback mechanism so that experts – both internal and external – can debate the merits of the changes along with contributions from their 4m members who care so deeply about the houses.  This would enable a more quantifiable response which could then feed into future proposals. Simply changing things is not sustainable if the National Trust wishes to retain the support and trust of their members and the wider heritage community.

Dr Ben Cowell, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England
Dr Ben Cowell, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England

Valiantly defending the position of the National Trust online is Dr Ben Cowell FSA, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England.  Dr Cowell is also Deputy Chairman of The Heritage Alliance. He worked formerly for English Heritage and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and has published widely on aspects of history and heritage.

Below is his specially commissioned response to the debate and the controversy, putting the other side to the argument about how the country house can be presented today.


‘Re-presenting the Country House’ – Dr Ben Cowell

Visitors to Dunham Massey this year, as last, are shown a different version of a house they might know well. The saloon, a masterpiece of Edwardian country house design, has been stripped bare. In place of the fine furniture are metal beds, medical cabinets and hospital screens.

The Saloon, Dunham Massey - contrasting traditional and WWII themed presentation (Images: ©National Trust Images - James Dobson/Andreas von Einsiedel)
The Saloon, Dunham Massey – contrasting traditional and WWII themed presentation (Images: ©National Trust Images – James Dobson/Andreas von Einsiedel)

Dunham Massey has been returned to the time when it was Stamford Military Hospital, a place of repair and recuperation for soldiers from the Western front during the First World War. The effect is electrifying. A team of actors has been engaged to re-enact imagined scenes from the lives of those – both soldiers and nurses – who were known to have been at Dunham during this time. The details of their lives have been carefully researched, even if the dramas are fictions, albeit highly engaging ones.

Nurse closing the shutters at Dunham Massey (Image: Christopher Davies / Correct Aperture Photography)
Nurse closing the shutters at Dunham Massey (Image: Christopher Davies / Correct Aperture Photography)

Not everyone has appreciated what the National Trust has done with Dunham Massey during its temporary ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ re-fit. But huge numbers have. The property has had its most successful year by far, and recorded levels of visitor satisfaction have rocketed.  People love the sense of connection with lives as they were lived a century ago in the midst of unparalleled global conflict.

Does this inevitably point the way for every National Trust country house? Of course not. Has ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ been such a success that we are now wondering where else we might make other temporary, experimental interventions? Of course.  And there is nothing new here, since we have perpetually made changes to the way the rooms of our mansions are shown, whether to draw out a particular theme or highlight a particular age in a house’s history.

The National Trust is committed to offering ‘experiences that move, teach and inspire’ by raising the standard of presentation and interpretation across our historic mansions. That is apparent from our recent strategy document, Playing Our Part.  There is no single policy or approach. Curatorial decisions are made in situ, respecting the genius loci.  The curatorial eye needs to be constantly on the move, seeking out new ways to display or experience things, in order to delight or otherwise engage visitors.

Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra)
Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra)

Two examples from my patch exemplify this. At Ickworth, following the highly successful recreation of the basement rooms, our attention has turned to the grand display rooms above them in the Rotunda. These rooms were conceived by Ickworth’s creator, the 4th Earl Bristol, as a gallery for his impressive collection. In the same spirit of wanting to show off the artworks to best effect, we are trying out some new approaches, confined to just a few rooms on the ground floor.

In the Library we’ve temporarily left the room bare (following cleaning work on the electrolier chandelier) in order to focus attention on the pictures and the chandelier itself.

Ickworth Electrolier: throwing new light after its clean (Image: ©National Trust)
Ickworth Electrolier: throwing new light after its clean (Image: ©National Trust)

Informal seating has been provided in order better to allow visitors the chance to stop and pause. When the project is complete (we’re only part way through the re-presentation at present), lighting elsewhere in the Rotunda will be enhanced, allowing works such as Titian’s portrait of an unknown man to be seen wholly afresh.

Up at Felbrigg, on the North Norfolk coast, another experiment is about to begin. Here, the grounds of the house are the venue for Wolf’s Child, part of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Wolf’s Child is a perambulatory work of drama, experienced at nightfall. Visitors will move on a pre-determined walk through the woods. The story is drawn from Ovid; the tales explore all manner of human-animal transformations.

Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler)
Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler)

Is this the ‘right’ way to experience the Felbrigg landscape? Ought we not to have moved a single piece of furniture in the Earl Bishop’s palace? There are those who are steadfastly certain of the answers to these questions. I am not one of them. All I know is that there can be no progress in the field of country house interpretation unless we are open-minded to the possibility of experiment.

We must do so in a way that is respectful of the spirit of the place, and we must never make permanent changes that would damage the inheritance that we hold in trust. We will make mistakes from time to time, and will be rightly chided for them. But to not explore different ways of seeing is surely to blinker us to the possibility of greater glories.


I very much thank Dr Cowell for his contribution to the debate and hope that it has helped provide an alternative viewpoint.  Comments can be left below but please remain respectful and on-topic.  The views expressed in the introduction are mine alone and have not been vetted or approved by the National Trust.

‘An agreeable surprise’ – the country house and garden sculpture

Statue - Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Statue – Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

The country house has long been at a nexus of art, display and tourism with the treasures, mainly statues, collected by the owner shown in a grand gallery which often formed one of the main staterooms.  Whereas the house provided the setting for the art, outdoors, the gardens and parkland provided a setting not only for the house but also for the many sculptural works they had acquired – a trend which continues today, though often with a necessarily more commercial edge.

The first country house owners to place statues in their English gardens were the Romans.  However, as homes became castles, gardens fell from favour and with them, the ornaments to decorate them.   The trend for statuary only really returned with the Tudors and their love of the outdoor space as an extension of the symbolism they incorporated into the architecture of their houses.  One of the earliest collectors, and most acquisitive, was Thomas Howard Arundel, 2nd Earl of Arundel, who, as a youth, had been at the excavation of the Roman Forum, which had sparked a live-long passion for antiquities.  Arundel amassed one of the greatest collections of the age, rivalling that of the King, including a famed selection of Graeco-Roman statues found in Turkey, which became known as the ‘Arundel Marbles‘. These statues were then displayed at both their town and country seats, both indoors and out – though later, by the mid-17th-century, as a result of the uncertainties of the Civil War, John Evelyn found the Marbles “…miserably neglected, & scattred up & downe about the Gardens & other places of Arundell-house.”.  The statues were later donated to the Ashmolean Museum where they remain today.

The later rise and popularity of the Georgian grand tour firmly embedded the desire to purchase statues along with the requisite paintings. They provided a visual clue as to both the learning and wealth of the owner and so were displayed prominently, especially indoors where they might be shown in the entrance hall where guests would inevitably look at them as they waited. Some of the most famous dedicated indoor galleries include those at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire (though sadly now not as shown in previous link as it’s now a wedding venue).  Other notable galleries, though now lost due to dispersal or demolition, were those at Clumber Park, Ickworth House and Hamilton Palace, the latter described as “…peopled with bronze statuary on Irish black marble bases polished to such a gloss that they reflected the pavement like a mirror.“.

Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)
Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)

Outside, the display was no less formal – symmetry and structure dominated.  However, by the 1730s, the more formal display of statues outdoors gave way to a more naturalistic style whereby they became almost secreted amongst a more informal – but no less planned – landscape.  One thing often forgotten now is that we see gardens after over 250 years of growth, but when first planted they would have been much sparser giving the ornaments greater prominence.  The return of the Roman influence can be closely linked with the rise of Palladianism and the influence of Lord Burlington and his circle; most notably, the brilliant designer William Kent. Other notable influences include Batty Langley, who published his ‘New Principles of Gardening‘ in 1728 and Stephen Switzer’s ‘Ichnographica Rustica‘, published in 1718 – the latter of which was the first to show serpentine walks and streams. Life also imitated art, with the popularity of the Arcadian visions of painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicholas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa also inspiring those who collected the paintings to attempt to bring them to life.

Temple - Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Temple – Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The more secure and rising wealth of the 1730s enabled owners to create larger estates and so giving them more space to indulge their plans.  However, no stream will rival a raging river so to create a sense of theatre, the landscape was used and moulded to create a series of views which took advantage or distant landmarks or by introducing elements such as statues, temples and obelisks.  Often these gardens were designed to entertain the knowledgeable visitor with allusions to myths and noble virtues – though in one lesser known example, the owner of the famous Vauxhall Gardens in London, built a darker memento mori‘ garden at Denbies, his home in Surrey.

However, the main aim was to delight and to stimulate emotions. One of the most famous Georgian gardeners, Philip Miller, wrote in his 1739 edition of his ‘Gardener’s Dictionary’:

“In laying out these walks through woods there should be a great regard had to the neighbouring country, so as whenever there are any distant objects which appear to the sight, there should be openings to which the serpentine walks should lead, from whence objects may be viewed, which will be an agreeable surprise to strangers…”

Bridge - Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)
Bridge – Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)

These principles were translated according to the whims and finances of owners across the country, leading from the sublime creations of Stowe, Stourhead and Studley Royal to many lesser known and private gardens.

The statuary could sometimes cause the odd drama. Dallam Towers, Cumbria was archly described by Pevsner as “…undoubtedly the finest Georgian facade in the county; but what the visitor may not realise is that, behind all the stucco, there’s the finest Queen Anne facade in the county.“. Between the facade and the landscape once stood (or perhaps still stands) a line of statues standing guard between the garden and the ha-ha. Yet this line is slightly marred by one of the statues being headless – the unfortunate outcome of a 1820s dinner which led to a very ‘well-refreshed’ Lord Milthorpe.  Thinking he had seen a poacher, he grabbed a rifle, and despite the protests of his guests, he duly dispatched the ‘poacher’/statue; a loss for the world of garden ornaments but perhaps a gain for the forces of law and order.

With such vast quantities of marble scattered out the gardens, occasionally a prized statue may slip slowly into obscurity. This can lead to discoveries in the same way that an Old Master may be found in the attic, so they can also be found in the shrubbery, such as this rare Chinese Ming tomb horse or the lucky owner of a castle somewhere in northern Europe who had a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Adriaen de Vries.

The tradition of sculpture in the gardens of country houses is certainly alive and well today and has developed beyond the more formal Roman statuary towards a decidedly more contemporary ethos – though perhaps more commercial than for simple pleasure.

'Huge Sudeley Bench' by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)
‘Huge Sudeley Bench’ by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)

At the beautiful Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, Christies are holding their selling exhibition of contemporary sculpture from luminaries such as Marcel Wanders, Marc Quinn and Pablo Reinoso.  Over in Sussex, the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood, hosts a regularly changing line-up with a focus on supporting emerging talent along with the more established artists such as Lynn Chadwick and Anish Kapoor.  One more recent venue is the Jupiter Artland at Bonnington House in Scotland, just outside Edinburgh.  The vision the Wilsons, who own the house, Jupiter Artland features large-scale works such as the monumental ‘Life Mounds’ by Charles Jencks’ who specialises in landscape art that I suspect would appeal to the likes of ‘Capability’ Brown if he were around today.

These are just some of the examples of contemporary schemes which are taking place across the country. Each is enlivening the grounds of a house and again maintaining that artistic thread which has been spun out over hundreds of years, linking country houses, an owners’ taste and some of the best art in the country.

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More wonderful examples of works available outdoors can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library collection.

This blog post is a little off my usual patch so I’m grateful for the research of David Stuart in ‘Georgian Gardens

What goes around; the use of rotunda in UK country houses

The UK aristocracy brought back many souvenirs from their grand tours to Italy – pictures, sculpture, drawings etc – but also a delight in the architecture inspired by the ancient ruins.  This fascination manifested itself in country houses across the UK with a profusion of arches,  Serlian windows, porticos and pediments.  However, one device, despite its impressiveness, has been notable by its relative rarity; the rotunda – that grand circular space often featuring a parade of columns leading the eye up to a spectacular dome.  So why would this grand centrepiece be so infrequently used inside our country houses?

Italy - Villa Capra or 'La Rotonda' (Image: Marco Bagarella / Wikipedia)
Italy - Villa Capra or 'La Rotonda' (Image: Marco Bagarella / Wikipedia)

The most famous rotunda, and that which was so influential on the Anglo-Palladians, was the Pantheon in Rome.  Built in AD 124, this vast space under a 142ft diameter dome was closely studied by Andrea Palladio and became a key destination for UK architects who later travelled to Rome.  Palladio then developed the use of the rotunda as the central circulation space in his residential villas, most famously with the Villa Capra or “La Rotonda” in Vicenza, begun in 1567.

Palladio was not the first to use a rotunda in a residential setting; the artist Mantegna built his own home in Mantua in the 1470s using a layout and scale very similar to that later used at Villa Capra, using a design probably suggested by the architect-engineer Francesco di Giorgio.  Palladio then modified it and used it to great success to create what is regarded as one of his finest houses.  The rotunda would have neatly solved the challenge of the Villa Capra in that a visitor may at any front, thus negating the traditional linear plan which assumed only one main entrance.

Mereworth Castle, Kent
Mereworth Castle, Kent

Looking through Colen Campbell‘s ‘Vitruvius Britanicus’ – a highly regarded collection of plans and prints of the best Georgian houses published between 1715-1725 – that over the three volumes a rotunda is only used twice.  The first is in a proposed (but never executed) design for Goodwood House in Sussex for the Earls of March designed by Colen Campbell in 1724 which featured a 40ft diameter space.  The second is the 35ft diameter version which forms the dramatic central hall of Mereworth Castle in Kent.  Mereworth (built 1722-25) was one of only four Georgian houses to be built in the UK which closely followed the design of the Villa Capra; the others being Chiswick House, Middlesex (1726-29), Foots Cray Place, Kent (1754 – demolished 1949), and Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire (1757 – demolished 1929).

A later use of the rotunda was at the slightly eccentric Ickworth House, Suffolk. Built in 1795 and based on the designs of Mario Asprucci, an Italian architect;  it was later adapted by Francis and his brother Joseph Sandys who also oversaw construction.  This later use of the rotunda showed how it could be employed as a single dramatic centrepiece in its own right, not hidden in the centre of the house.

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

Yet, if it was hidden, it could form a dramatic and surprising irregularity to the procession of square and rectangular rooms which often dominated houses.  One example of this is at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire where Robert Adam was inspired by his own 1764 study of the ‘Ruins of the Palace of the Emporer Diocletian at Spalatro [Split]’ which paired the circular rotunda with a square vestibulum. Adam also later proposed to convert the courtyard at Syon Park into a huge rotunda. Perhaps one of the most impressive and beautiful expressions of the rotunda is the central staircase at New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, designed by James Paine, and built between 1769-1776 and later described by Pevsner as ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’.

So, despite its impressiveness why are most entrances and staircases so determinedly right-angled?  Simple finance can explain it in part; it would be more expensive to create a rotunda as they are more complex, require more space and also usually compromises in the floor plan to include the curvature.

Fashion can also play its part. As architectural taste moved in the Victorian era towards a preference for the gothic, so the opportunities for the use of the rotunda diminished. With its origins in the temple ruins of Classical ancient Rome, the most famous Gothic Revival architect, A.W.N. Pugin (b.1812 – d.1852) considered it part of a more pagan tradition – and therefore completely antithetical to his belief that gothic represented the only true expression of Christianity through architecture. And where Pugin led, others followed.

Or perhaps the answer is more pragmatic.  One of the primary purposes of the country house was to impress visitors.  Often a political power base, the grandest houses were designed to create an impression even before the visitor actually met the owner.  As one of the principal spaces in a house, entrance halls have often played an important role in this domestic ‘theatre’ – and the use of a rotunda requires perhaps too many compromises.

Traditionally the grand rooms where visitors would be met were often on the ground floor and would be processed through, with only the most important visitors reaching the best rooms.  Elizabethan houses changed this with the principal rooms moving to upper floors, such as at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, requiring more impressive staircases which, through the use of heraldic and political symbolism in the carving on balusters and handrail could make many a statement before the guest reached the required floor.

Palladian designs continued this with the preference for the piano nobile which moved the principle rooms to a raised ground floor.  The large empty wall spaces of the staircase also formed a useful space for the display of paintings including family portraits or a large selection to show the owner’s taste and style.  The staircase also provided a way to make a dramatic entrance – think ladies in their evening gowns gliding down to join the party.  Yet if a house used a rotunda it compromised both these features.  A curved wall made it difficult to hang the largest and most impressive works of art and staircases were usually spiral and tucked into the walls in the corners, meaning those coming down would only be seen when they emerged at the ground floor – which would never do.

Henbury Hall, Cheshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Henbury Hall, Cheshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Yet, the rotunda has not died out and those with the vision and wealth can still create these dramatic spaces.  One of the most impressive has to be Henbury Hall in Cheshire, built between 1984-86 for Sebastien de Ferranti and designed by the architect Julian Bicknell from a painting by the artist Felix Kelly. A faithful recreation of Villa Capra, the dome rises to 15m with the principal rooms radiating from the central hall.  Nigel Anderson at Adam Architects also designed a replacement country house in Surrey which, according to them, is based (I’d say loosely – at least externally) on Villa Capra.  Another fine example is that at Tusmore Park in Oxfordshire, winner of the best new building in the classical tradition award from the Georgian Group in 2004 where the scagliola columns in the central rotunda are said to rival those of the imperial palaces of St Petersburg.

These examples show that, although comparatively rare, the impressive traditions of the rotunda are being continued by architects and clients determined to create the most dramatic interiors in contemporary country houses despite the compromises which have perhaps unfairly limited their use in previous centuries.