Forget Brexit. We’re all thoroughly fogged, if not despairing—perhaps angry, impatient, and worn down. Fortunately, there is another world. It’s represented by the country house. I’ve spent all my working years, over forty of them, writing about country houses, which might be regarded as a Wodehousian existence (just ask my wife). Strangely, with affairs of state so tangled, the country house has come to seem a lot more like real life than real life.
I make this reflection as I research a book examining what these extraordinary cultural entities mean by looking at just twelve in particular. Those that have staggered on through the dark times, avoided the terminal consequences of wastrel heirs, dodged the worst of taxes, and escaped the leveling tendencies of the age have morphed. They are rarely completely private (all my dozen open to the public in some way). When I was beginning my career, acres of ancestral roof might be replaced by full or partial government grant: a reflection both of the impoverishment of ancient families and the historic importance of their homes. Those days have long passed. Economic conditions have improved in the interim; taxation is lower. But the state still helps out, by exempting important objects and works of art from inheritance taxes in return for a degree of public access. It also interferes. Statutory legislation to protect the fabric of significant buildings (not just stately homes) means that they cannot simply be upgraded to meet the requirements of modern life. This only happens after a process of negotiation with officialdom. So we have a paradox: private properties that are not wholly private packed with treasures that cannot realistically be sold; family homes that are also businesses; patches of rural paradise that will throw open their creaking gates for any event that cares to pay, from wedding parties to rock concerts.
The ways of these places are sometimes esoteric. Their values do not in every respect accord with those of today.
The ways of these places are sometimes esoteric. Their values do not in every respect accord with those of today. The fortunes that built them came from dubious sources, often involving peculation on a grand scale or selfish exploitation of the earth’s resources. Industry polluted; the hugely profitable sugar economy of the West Indies ran on slavery; the corruption of the East India Company was legendary. Too much of the life supported by these ill-gotten gains was spent gambling, drinking, fox-hunting, and whoring. Of course, I write of past times. Gone are figures like the Fifteenth Lord Saye and Sele, whose profligacy, in the first half of the nineteenth century, caused every stick of furniture to be sold from Broughton Castle; when a new servant asked if he had any orders, he was told, as his lordship went in to dinner: “Place two bottles of sherry by my bedside, and call me the day after tomorrow.” In this fallen age, there are fewer butlers and the substance of choice would not be sherry.
Gone—but the country houses remain. The world at large now knows more about them than might have been the case before the first season of Downton Abbey was broadcast in 2010. I have a friend who has done quite well from introducing rich Asian businessmen to dukes; they want to have dinner in white tie (because dukes always wear white tie) and have a selfie taken with His Grace. While their historical or cultural interest in the stately surroundings is limited, they know their dukes from their earls and viscounts, and they pay accordingly.
But then, for those who have been brought up in one of these mega-dwellings, they are also homes. It is fairly obvious that they are different from other kinds of homes. They are, to put it mildly, larger than the national average. Young children were romping in the kitchen of a house I visited recently—all part of normal family life, except that the young ones were dwarfed by the height of the room, which was twenty feet. One of the delights of being an eleven-year-old daughter of the Duke of Argyll is that you can ride a Segway around the basement corridors of Inveraray Castle (not allowed on the ground floor, she told me, because it might damage the paintwork, but the basement is stone). Unlike other homes, they are often shared with members of the public (warning: change out of your pajamas before they come). They are also very old.
Again, that might seem self-evident. It has struck me in a new light while researching my new book. Each of the houses I have included turns out, by complete chance, since this was not a criterion for selection, not to have been sold for five hundred years. (Well, all right: four hundred years in the case of Burton Agnes Hall in Yorkshire. Parvenus.) It’s not absolutely true to say that they’ve been in the unbroken ownership of the same family. They often went down the female line—a fact disguised by the husbands who married heiresses, taking the family surname and sometimes its title. A hiatus in the transmission of Doddington Hall came in the nineteenth century. Beer brewed for young John Delaval’s coming-of-age party is still in the cellars: he died of consumption before the event. This meant that the house descended to a relation, Sarah Gunman. Sarah was about to marry, for the second time, when she too was carried away by consumption. As a testament to her love, she left Doddington to her fiancé—a dashing soldier. It went out of the family, but it has not been sold.
Half a millennium is, by anybody’s standards, a long time. These country houses represent continuity on an epic scale. It is not so surprising in Britain, where families such as the Grosvenors in Cheshire or the Clintons in Devon still own land that they acquired in the years after the Norman Conquest in 1066. But many of Britain’s biggest landowners are now not families, as would have been the case in the nineteenth century. Rather they are institutions such as the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence, and the National Trust. In London, there are no houses, beyond the royal palaces, that are still owned by their eighteenth- or nineteenth-century families; very few people live in the same properties as their grandparents. It is different in the country.
Most people, including Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, thought that the Second World War had delivered the coup de grâce to this way of life.
In 1982, Yale University Press published my book The Last Country Houses. It would have been better if I had stuck with my first thought for a title, which was The Edwardian Country House. Admittedly, the reign of Edward VII, the nine years from 1901–10, did not quite fit the chronological range, since I was looking over a period from 1890 until the Second World War—initially a time of supreme comfort and, sometimes, wild creativity, in which the enormous fortunes amassed from finance, commerce, armaments manufacturing, oil, and South African gold and diamonds opened the door to fantasy, idealism, and excess. The back of this movement was broken by the First World War. In 1938, Noël Coward parodied the bankrupt state of country houses, as well as their idiotic owners, in “The Stately Homes of England”:
Though the pipes that supply the bathroom burst
And the lavatory makes you fear the worst,
It was used by Charles the First
And later by George the Fourth
On a journey north.
The State Apartments keep their
Historical renown . . .
Most people, including Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, thought that the Second World War had delivered the coup de grâce to this way of life. There followed a long twilight, as country houses struggled—or failed—to recover from being requisitioned by the armed services. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s “Destruction of the Country House” exhibition in 1974 catalogued a dismal toll of demolitions. Where new country houses were being built, they were part of managed retreat, providing a neat neo-Georgian box, perhaps on a site previously occupied by a larger edifice, into which the owner of a massive pile could downsize. Hence The Last Country Houses . . .
It seemed to me then that the conditions that gave rise to the Edwardian country house had gone forever. It was not that certain rich individuals could no longer afford to live on the scale of the plutocracy of previous ages, but rather that the desire to do so had passed; hostesses did not want to be bothered with dozens of weekend guests, preferring to pack most of their visitors off to their own homes, easily accessible by car, after entertaining them for dinner; the desire for privacy militated against employing the battalions of servants who would have been needed to run mega-houses. There were exceptions, for whom entertaining was often seen as an extension of the business realm, but not many.
I should, though, have called my book The Last Mammoth Country Houses. Because since 1982 there has been a revival of country house building, admittedly not on the scale of loose baggy monsters such as Tylney Court or Danesfield, built at the turn of the twentieth century, but gathering an ever-greater head of steam with the re-emergence of plutocratic super-wealth. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, with the rise of a global class of billionaires, for whom owning property in the United Kingdom seems to be practically de rigueur, it is almost as though Edwardian conditions are reasserting themselves. The Last Country Houses was indeed a poor choice of title. The breed survives.
The 1980s turned out to be a decade of some glory for the country house. It was a noisy time of Big Bangs and Lawson booms. In 1985, the magnificent “Treasure Houses of Britain” exhibition opened in Washington, feeding a taste for the “country house look”—swagged curtains, fringed upholstery, “tablescapes”—which not only colonized the drawing rooms of Manhattan but also found an echo in the council houses that had been sold to tenants in Margaret Thatcher’s property-owning democracy, their windows hung with festoon blinds. Carried on the new political winds of the 1990s was a different attitude to the home. Chintz sofas and tasseled tie-backs blew out of the window. Into the vacuum came minimalism. For some, the preferred building type was a converted loft rather than a country house. But the long boom that only ended with the crisis of 2008 generated the money for many country houses to be built.
The owners of ancient country houses are not usually in this league of super-wealth; if they have assets, they are difficult to get at. But they do not feel quite as isolated from their peers as their parents or grandparents might have.
And even 2008 did not restrain all appetite to build. If anything, those who had the money to create palatial homes did so on a larger scale. Modern requirements have ballooned. Space is needed for contemporary art installations and collections of classic cars. Swimming pools are accompanied by spa suites and party barns. The master bedroom, with attendant closets, dressing rooms, and bathrooms, may take up an entire floor. Space is a luxury, and the rich want plenty of it. The owners of ancient country houses are not usually in this league of super-wealth; if they have assets, they are difficult to get at. But they do not feel quite as isolated from their peers as their parents or grandparents might have.
For to keep an ancient country house going through the dark decades after the Second World War, when the country was on its knees, taxation high and labor expensive, required an obsessive devotion on the part of some families. They exchanged the chance of a comfortable existence in London, or a manageable farmhouse, for a daily battle against antiquated plumbing, leaky roofs, and dry rot. Even today, the Victorian wing of one house takes two whole weeks to heat up to an acceptable temperature; the surrounding moat does no favors on that score—although the owner does get pleasure from raising the drawbridge at night. That house had been all but abandoned in the 1930s. Fortunately, the owner who inherited after the Second World War was a businessman, able to contribute money generated from a source besides the landed estate. But he had to start a dairy herd to get electricity installed—new lines could only be laid to agricultural units, not homes.
The doggedness with which impoverished aristocrats clung to their ancestral but practically uninhabitable piles would not have been easily understood in other countries. In the United States, hundreds of homes on the scale of country houses, often surrounded by their own land and farming operations, were built outside New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other great cities between 1890 and the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Few of them were intended as dynastic seats. Owners rarely expected them to be occupied beyond their own generation. Mature trees were brought in, fully grown, to provide an instant landscape; the idea that a landowner would plant his park with timber that could only be enjoyed by his grandchildren did not exist. When the disaster of the Depression struck, taste moved on, and so did owners. Whole areas went out of vogue, and the houses in them were demolished or forgotten. When I began work on a book on some of these dwellings, published as The American Country House by Yale in 1990, some of my American friends refused to believe they had ever existed. The houses were too un-American to have done so.
In Britain, privacy has become so desirable that even country house owners who need—and could afford—staff to help them run their unwieldy domestic operations dislike employing them.
So the sacrifices that were made by the post-war generation—and are sometimes still being made by their successors—to keep the family show on the road, and the family seat from falling down, are more explicable in Britain than in the United States. We also have a Northern European joy in solitude. In France, great families who were forced to economize in the twentieth century unfailingly sacrificed their châteaux in order to keep up their hôtels particuliers in Paris. Italians would no more think of giving up their city life in favor of a castello on a mountaintop than they would fly to the moon. Which is why so many remote rural properties on the southern end of the Continent can be eagerly snapped up by Danish, Dutch, and British buyers, whose domestic dreams are predicated on the absence of other people. In Britain, privacy has become so desirable that even country house owners who need—and could afford—staff to help them run their unwieldy domestic operations dislike employing them. Who wants other people watching as you eat breakfast? Earlier generations treated servants with an emotional detachment that now seems brutal. The artist and versifier Edward Lear was one of the most delightful of people to meet in a drawing room, but he did not bother to discover even the most basic facts about his faithful servant Giorgio Kokali, with whom he traveled for several years. Lear was astounded to discover that Kokali had a wife and family on Corfu, living in what turned out to be squalid conditions. I notice that the new generation of country house owners, when they have staff at all, prefer to employ young people—a butler of a tender twenty-four, in one case—rather than ancient retainers. They multi-task. They are more fun to have around.
Those families who managed to hang on live in happier times than their immediate forebears. Wives as well as husbands can take high-paying jobs. There are new sources of income on the estate. Weddings have been a boon: some country houses have proved such popular venues that the families, ironically, have moved out to live somewhere else—a case of the tail wagging the dog. Firle Place was being cleared for the filming of Emma when I visited (you can never have too many Emmas). Even the central heating radiators were being dismantled. The riding house was recently converted to semi-permanent kitchens for television’s Great Celebrity Bake-Off (a program about competitive baking). Some owners insist that their homes are not homes at all but businesses, and that they always have been. What was a medieval coat of arms, asked one, but a logo? Why did his ancestors want so much land but to enrich themselves?
This strikes me as disingenuous. These are not businesses in the conventional sense. They cannot be sold as such. One that is struggling in a depressed area of the country cannot be lifted up and restarted in a more prosperous region. Certainly estates are more efficiently run than would have been the case a generation ago (land agents are being replaced by ceos), their assets made to “sweat,” but I still detect a special pleading. The business card is played because that is what the public understands. Despite Downton, the populace at large finds country houses difficult to ken. Visitor figures to houses (though not gardens) are falling. When Longleat and Woburn turned themselves into amusement parks after the Second World War, the public flocked to them. There was little choice of entertainment. The idea may have lingered in some minds that viewing the treasures of our nation’s history was self-improving—good for the children. Now, people are more likely to go shopping. Old craftsmanship is no longer something to be marveled at, but is instead lumped with the rest of the general category of “brown furniture” as something woefully out of fashion. Privilege is now hated. Deference is dead. Celebrities are the new aristocracy. Country house owners who might once have been looked up to with a certain awe are now, in the public eye, regarded as weird. No wonder some of them want to present themselves as businesspeople instead.
The fundamental values of the country house are, more than ever, in opposition to the direction of travel taken by the age. Life, powered by the internet, seems to be getting ever faster. Fashion changes more quickly, due to social media. News is instant, but dies away as quickly as it came. Yet the country house stands for longevity and rootedness. For that reason, estates are proving to be far better at building much-needed new homes than the volume house builders, because the people who own the land know that they will have to live with the consequences, as will their heirs. They take a hundred-year view, rather than expecting to get a quick return. They do not build, sell, and move on. They are long-term players, and in this they have something to offer the modern world. One thing that links all owners of country houses is the knowledge that their time is short. Their tenure of thirty years or so will not seem long in the grand scheme of family history, and in relation to their family’s association with that place. Whatever happens with Brexit, whether or not the dogmatic, unlearned Jeremy Corbyn comes to power, they or other descendants will still be there. I find that comforting.