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|Consuming the country house: from acquisition to presentation|
University of Northampton, 18-19th April 2012
Session 1a. Food and drink in the country house
Paul Cleave (University of Exeter)
Dinner is served: the significance of food in the country house and its presentation to the public
Mandler (1997: p 1) suggests that country houses are perhaps quintessential symbols of Englishness, epitomizing the English love of domesticity, the countryside, of hierarchy, continuity and tradition. This paper aspires to demonstrate how; within such symbols of Englishness food has played a vital role in the life and evolution of the country house. As an example, food (ingredients and dishes) will be presented in the background of the country house that is open to the public. The paper utilises a National Trust property to show how the consumption of food influenced the design and organisation of the country house. A timescale of the twentieth century identifies opportunities to illustrate the relationships between the spaces of masters and servants in the context of food. Current interests in diet and food, and social history reflect consumers’ growing interests in all aspects of country house life, above and below stairs.
Food reflects fashions, trends and tastes in consumption. It is also a vehicle for presenting the country house to the public. Three eras will be used to present food in the country house, the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s - World War Two. These provide opportunities to connect social change (and the world order) to the life of the country house and the significance of food consumption. Equipment, utensils, recipes, and table settings may contribute to the interpretation and presentation of the country house. It is often the seemingly mundane and everyday dimensions that attract the visitors’ interest, the storerooms, larder and servant’s quarters. Food is an important factor in the presentation and interpretation of the country house. From the provision of hospitality and entertaining to the domestic arrangements food reflects the status and lifestyles of its occupants, masters and servants.
Annie Gray (University of Liverpool)
Broccoli, bunnies and beef: the raw and the cooked in the Victorian country house
Culinary history is increasingly recognised for its ability to shed light on past societies. Study of dining etiquette and the material culture of the table in particular has been instrumental in considering the way in which class and gender were negotiated through apparently everyday actions. The ways in which raw ingredients were acquired, transformed and eventually disposed of have been less studied, except in passing, to inform displays at the increasing numbers of historic kitchens open to the public.
This paper uses data from Audley End House (Essex) and Ickworth House (Suffolk) as well as other examples, to consider the relationship between the dining table and its suppliers through the vital hub of the country house kitchen. It will look at influences on the choice and acquisition of ingredients, in the shape of cooks, mistresses and advice book writers, as well as the suppliers themselves; and demonstrate how dining fashion could be adopted or resisted through the way in which ingredients were obtained and prepared. It will also consider the relationship between the various groups connected to the supply chain and how the act of acquiring, transforming and disposing of goods could be used in the negotiation and expression of status within the household.
Overall, the paper will demonstrate the importance of viewing the country house in the context, not just of its estate, but of the wider physical landscape, including local (and not so local) shops. It will highlight the tension between technological and attitudinal changes in the culinary sphere and the specific needs of country houses, including consideration of the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ money.
Session 1b. Memory and the country house
Henrika Tandefelt and Marai Vainio-Kurakko (University of Helsinki)
The manor house and the country estate as heritage. A case study of manorial culture in Finland in a time of social and political change 1880–1960
Our paper deals with the layers of meaning as well as the concrete living space of a mansion. Our case study is Sarvlax (also Sarvlaks), a mansion dating from the late 15th century, with a corps de logis built in the 1680s, situated in the south-east of Finland, some 70 kilometers east of the capital Helsinki. Sarvlax is situated in a prosperous part of Finland, and has been a significant mansion in a national context. Yet, Finnish mansions have been in the margins of a rich and influential European elite culture. On the other hand cosmopolitism and a feeling of belonging to a European cultural context has always been a vivid part of the self-conception of the nobility. With three owner families (Creutz, von Morian, von Born, since the mansion was twice handed down on the distaff side) and a large estate and family archive, Sarvlax offers a rich material for the study of material culture, economy, life style and values.
In this paper we will focus on the time of the last private owners and their descendants in the 19th and 20th centuries. We discuss the meaning of heritage in the culture of the nobility, and study how this influenced the ways in which the mansion was furnished and refurnished as a stage for a noble way of life. To this context we bring the conception of the country house and the estate as a home for a family, with emphasis on the idealization of the home in late the 19th and early 20th century. The ideal and memory of the home forms a strong narrative in the traditions of the owner family since the 1880s. We will show how the 19th century bourgeoisie ideal of the family and the home as a kernel of society became a part of the heritage that the owners of the Sarvlax estate passed on to the following generations. Today the estate is owned by a foundation, but in accordance with the last owner’s will, Sarvlax should always be inhabited by a descendant of the last owner family, preserving the atmosphere of a home in the old house.
Michael Ashby (University of Cambridge)
Memory, heritage and the episcopal palace from the civil war to the present day
In the midst of attacks on bankers and their multi-million pound bonuses, it is easy to forget that the Church of England retains vast wealth in its episcopal palaces, a group of buildings that occupy a dominant place in most cathedral cities and their surrounding countryside. Yet, today these buildings—some of which enjoy nearly a thousand year history—are in a precarious position: Rose Castle, until recently the residence of the Bishops of Carlisle, faces an undecided future following the Church Commissioners’ decision to sell, while Hartlebury Castle, home to Richard Hurd’s eighteenth-century library, shares similar uncertainty. Operating in a political climate hostile to old wealth, and with maintenance costs soaring, the Church of England is struggling to justify its continued association with buildings that now seem out of religious fashion. As the current Bishop of Carlisle, James Newcome, suggests, ‘in these days of challenging choices, it is right to prioritise spending on the mission of the Church above preserving this historical connection.’
Such uncertainty over the future of the bishop’s palace raises problems in terms of both history and heritage. On the one hand, there is a range of questions that historians have not yet put to these buildings: how did contemporary expectations of the episcopal palace differ from those of the ‘ordinary’ country house?; in what ways did the decoration and layout of its rooms reflect the palace’s clerical role?; and how far were habits of consumption constrained by a Christian vision of modesty and humility? But, on the other hand, there are more pressing concerns regarding heritage: with the Church of England loosening its grip on buildings whose layered structures reflect a complex Christian past, there is an imminent need for heritage organisations to help ensure that this past is not forgotten. In light of these concerns, this paper will chart the history of episcopal palaces from the civil war, focusing on the ways in which memories of these buildings have changed since the mid seventeenth-century upheavals threatened to eliminate them altogether.
Session 2a. Consuming and displaying art
Nicola Pickering (Kings, University of London)
Mayer Amschel Rothschild and Mentmore House: consuming le style Rothschild
My paper focuses on Mentmore House, a grand country mansion commissioned by Mayer Amschel de Rothschild (1818-1874) near Leighton Buzzard, Buckinghamshire, in 1851-55. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, the mansion was the first of seven to be built by the Rothschild family in the Vale of Aylesbury in the nineteenth century. As I will show, the interiors of Mentmore epitomised a style of decoration and collecting which came to be known as le gout Rothschild. I will argue that one of the primary reasons for the construction of Mentmore was Mayer Amschel’s conspicuous consumption of certain luxury goods (namely antique paintings, furniture and objets d’art), and his desire to create a suitable setting in which to display them. I will further assert that Mentmore was one of the most lavish and luxurious examples of a nouveau riche residence, and that its collections illustrate to an exceptional degree the contemporary opinion that newly-rich men of the nineteenth century were ‘maniacs for collecting things’ (Spectator, 1872). I will also propose that the reception of the house and its interiors by visitors and the general public (which reveals just quite how impressive many thought the decoration and collections were) suggests le style Rothschild had a very particular function for the Rothschild family.
I will discuss the deliberate interior schemes for Mentmore devised by Mayer Amschel in light of his conspicuous consumption and considered display of his luxury goods. I will consider Mayer Amschel’s collecting activities in terms of his exceptionally lavish tastes, as well as contemporary fashions in collecting and interior decoration (and particularly the nineteenth-century nouveau riche man). Of note is the fact that Mentmore’s interiors were on the whole foreign in character and designed specifically to recreate French historical styles. Mayer Amschel’s collections within these rooms were equally interesting: composed almost exclusively of Old Master paintings and eighteenth-century English portraits, French furniture, and porcelain of the same period. Mentmore and its collections will be compared with other nouveau riche country residences in order to show that the interiors and collections were some of the most luxurious examples of this category, and well-known by contemporaries as such. It will be revealing to examine the processes and economics involved in Mayer Amschel’s collecting, some of which diverted from more usual behaviour. That the very specific needs of Mentmore’s owner dictated the function of certain rooms, will reveal it as a showcase for the luxury collections, an entertainment venue, as well as a lived in space.
Hélène Bremer (Independent Historian)
Staging the Grant Tour: collecting and presenting classical sculpture in 18th-century England
The exhibition Anticomania mounted by the gallery of the brothers Kugel at the end of 2010 was a very good example of a presentation of Grand Tour collection of classical sculpture. Staged at their Parisian hôtel particulier this exhibition had a commercial goal, it felt though as if you entered in a private house. The visitors were able to walk around the freestanding sculpture, antique fragments were used as support for other works of art and the lighting was perfectly done. The classical sculpture filled the domed central room whereas in the adjacent cabinets ceramics, bronzes and other the smaller objects as well as paintings were displayed. In England collections with a similar content can still be found in some of the country’s greatest country houses. Some of the Grand Tour collections can still be seen in their more or less original setting dating back to the eighteenth century, like for example at Holkham Hall, Castle Howard or Woburn Abbey. For my PhD research I am looking at the display of classical sculpture in eighteenth century private collections in Europe. The aim of that research is to find Italian examples for the British country houses, not so much for the architecture, but to the way the collectors installed and displayed their treasures.
For this paper I will look at the descriptions noted by visitors from the British Isles to Italian (mostly Roman) collections to reconstruct the way the Italian palazzos were opened up to foreign visitors. Most of these visits had a rather formal character and people would need to have introduction letters to enter a collectors home. But when invited in the private house the interested tourists and artists could walk around, admire and sometimes even draw the works displayed. It is interesting to see that some of the British visitors who became collectors themselves used the impact of their Italian impressions on staging their own collection of classical sculpture and other memories of their travels to Italy in the form of paintings, gems, books and objects of virtue.
M.J. Von Ferscht-Fountain (University of Cambridge)
The heirloom portrait as a visual record for the material culture of 17th-century British society
This paper will seek to address a curious incident in the history of British art where the traditional genre of still life painting with its allusions to the vanity of the material world was subverted by revered portrayals of their patron’s most prized possessions. Focusing on the Anglo-Dutch artist Pieter van Roestraeten (1630-1700) who came to England in 1660 we find a transformation of the genre of still life to suit the taste of a patronage mainly concerned with dynastic portraiture, the only stable market at the time. These still life paintings are more than the moralising vanitas paintings so keenly admired on the continent, but rather naturalistic representations of precious decorative objects, which might be termed ‘heirloom portraits.’ As was the intention of ‘heirloom portraits’ the objects depicted allude to the identity of the collector, especially when the objects that still survive have a full provenance. This will be explored in the case study of the Whitfield Cup and the still life painting in which it is depicted.
Such paintings therefore are not just to be considered in traditional art historical terms because they act as an invaluable visual record of material culture in this period. The paintings reflect the aspirations, value systems and social projections of ‘objects’ for their owners, especially when we consider that the artist was also painting for a more middling market as well as an elite patronage. In some cases it will be shown that such value was attached to these ‘treasures’ that those of a more modest income could purchase ‘off-the-shelf’ compositions because it was the closest they could get to ownership of the real objects in this burgeoning consumer society. The decorative objects depicted in these paintings vary widely, recording the fascinating collecting fashions of newly imported materials from the new world (including the first known images in Britain revering Chinese porcelain for tea drinking). These paintings also display the beginnings of an admiration for antiques, such as silver, usually with some heraldic association.
This paper relates to the consumption of the country house because many of these paintings were originally found in provincial collections, and record the collecting and consumption of decorative objects, which have often been dispersed or lost to us today. The paper relates not just to art history but also to material culture, social and economic history as well as anthropology.
Session 2b. Ancient and modern: continuity in the country house
Hannake Ronnes (University of Amsterdam)
A sense of heritage: renewal versus preservation in 17th- and 18th-century Dutch country houses
The country house is generally portrayed as a power house, a symbol of wealth, standing and authority. Given its status as an instrument of power, the country house was required to be big and up to date with the latest fashion. This perspective on the country house leaves out a different and much less told story of the same building. The country house often also functioned as a Stamschloss encapsulating and representing a genealogy or family history. Instead of modern and fashionable, these houses could also ooze an air of times gone by - of history - with their owners keen to maintain and pass on their antiques. Frequently, owners aspired for modernisation and preservation at the same time in the same house. It is this conflict of renewal versus preservation in the 17th- and 18th- century country house that takes centre stage in the proposed paper.
Hannah Waugh (University of Northampton)
Fashion and affectionate recollection: material culture at Audley End, 1762-1797
Gradually restored and remodelled by Sir John Griffin Griffin at a cost of over £72,000, Audley End has long been recognised as a well-documented example of consumption in the context of a substantial country house. Most prominently, the alterations included Robert Adam’s creation of a series of reception rooms within the south wing of the building; Sir John is also known to have spent c. £12,000 on furnishings, turning to the highly-regarded London firms of Chipcase & Lambert and Gordon & Taitt. Albeit displaced and reassembled during the nineteenth- and twentieth centuries, many of the eighteenth-century purchases remain today within the house.
This is not, however, a balanced picture, for despite Sir John’s extensive programme of repair-work and decoration, the number of rooms comprehensively furnished anew was limited: even in the Adam Library and the gilded Saloon, much of the inherited furniture was repaired or re-upholstered but never replaced. This introduces questions of practicality and economic sense, as well as the degree to which the resulting palimpsest was regarded as a virtue or compromise. ‘I am pleased you took possession of dear Audley End on his birthday’, the widowed Lady Howard wrote to her husband’s successor, the new occupant of their Essex country seat. ‘The best return you can make me, is living in this place with comfort to yourself & affectionate recollection of those who have inhabited it with so much delight.’ Often overshadowed by preoccupations with fashion and novelty, this paper examines the co-existing themes of tradition and continuity in the context of an eighteenth-century country house.
Elizabeth Griffiths (University of Exeter)
Renaissance man in the Norfolk countryside. Sir Hamon le Strange of Hunstanton, 1583-1654
By any measure Sir Hamon Le Strange was a Renaissance man; he collected and wrote books, played the viols, designed buildings, dabbled in science, enjoyed sports, educated his children, improved his estates and performed military and civic duties for his county and country. These activities were played out in the Norfolk countryside which in itself was a conscious decision. As a very young man he appeared destined for royal service, but on his marriage in 1604 he opted for a life in the country. Such a course, newly identified as the virtuous path, was entirely in tune with the spirit of the times. What makes Sir Hamon unusual was the evidence he left of putting his knowledge into practice; this allows us to explore the impact of courtly behaviour and classical influences on the countryside. At the same time, Sir Hamon was shaped by his ancient lineage, the family’s long association with the locality and his physical environment. The result was an interaction with, rather than an imposition of, new ideas and attitudes. By his wife’s account, Sir Hamon rebuilt his estate ‘out of the ground’, a process which included the completion of Hunstanton Hall and the construction of well-equipped farmhouses.
This paper will focus on that building programme as it demonstrates most vividly the interplay of different cultural forces and how these major items of consumption, which defined the status of the family, were decided and acted upon. Many of these structures still survive, raising the question why the Le Stranges adhered to such old fashioned designs while other Norfolk gentry families, such as the Townshends at Raynham, embraced more fully the Classical model. To provide a coherent narrative for visitors, we need to explain the history and philosophy behind individual country houses which ultimately determined their development, character and appearance.
Session 3a. Managing expectations and experiences
James Lomax (Leeds Museums)
Reinventing the country house: Temple Newsam in the 20th century
In 1922 the future Lord Halifax sold Temple Newsam, the great Tudor-Jacobean mansion, together with its 900 acre Park, to Leeds City Council for £25,000. The Council were reputedly offered the entire contents for a further £10,000, but turned it down. The house was then left as an empty shell until its ‘adoption’ by Philip Hendy, the Curator at Leeds City Art Gallery, who saw the enormous potential of its interiors as a backdrop for the display of works of art. From the late 1930s through to the early 1980s, Hendy and his successors re-built the fortunes of the house with brilliant acquisitions of furniture, paintings, ceramics, silver and textiles, making it a major collection of British decorative art. In addition, during World War II the house became the home to the City Art Gallery’s evacuated collections and a venue for major exhibitions of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and many others. But somehow it had been forgotten that the most significant item of the collection was the mansion itself with its complex stories involving 500 years of architecture, interiors, collections and social history. Thus from the early 1980s onwards the process of a new re-invention as a country house began. It involved research, restoration, and the continuous (but usually successful) struggle to repatriate the lost heirlooms.
This paper will look at the changing attitudes of curators towards the house during the 20th century as a location for material culture: whether for non-indigenous ‘museum’ collections, for temporary exhibitions, or for the ‘authentic’ display of fine and decorative art in a sympathetic context. It will chart the story of a genuinely organic re-invention which continues today.
Karen Fielder (University of Southampton)
X marks the spot: narratives of a lost country house
Coleshill House was a much admired seventeenth century country house in Berkshire which the architectural historian John Summerson referred to as ‘a statement of the utmost value to British architecture’. Following a disastrous fire in September 1952 the remains of the house were demolished amidst much controversy, shortly before the Coleshill estate together with the house were due to pass to the National Trust. In 1953 the editor of The Connoisseur, L.G.G. Ramsey, published a piece in the magazine lamenting the loss of what he described as ‘the most important and significant single house in England’. ‘Now’, he wrote, ‘only X marks the spot where Coleshill once stood’.
Visiting the site of the house today on the Trust’s Coleshill estate there is still a palpable sense of the absent building, although it is ‘uncurated’ by the Trust. In part this derives from physical signals that remain at the site and around the estate, such as piles of discarded masonry, ancillary buildings, great seventeenth-century gate piers, below-ground remains and historic landscape features. But more than this the house continues to exist there in the realm of the imagination, prompting the visitor to try to recover the lost house and its past life. This site represents a challenge for the Trust in its duties of preservation and promoting public engagement with the historic places in its care. It turns the normal experience of a National Trust country house on its head, and subverts the traditional boundaries between buildings and landscape.
The site of Coleshill House invites us to seek alternative models for thinking about and presenting country houses, when the materiality of the house itself is stripped away and the context is left behind. This paper will address what we can learn from this place in relation to the consumption of a country house today as a heritage site, when we are liberated from the usual materialist constraints.
Lauren Johnson (Past Pleasures Ltd)
Where’s the dungeon?
This persistently asked question at castle heritage sites reflects the image of castles in popular imagination as one inhabited by arrow slits, murder holes and dank corners; four walls of military intimidation and mortal threat. Yet recent historiography has challenged this image of the castle as military installation, locating it instead within the context of the local landscape, social environment and medieval worldview. The interpretation of these sites has also evolved, with more emphasis placed on the castle’s role as home, as symbol of prestige, and as nexus of relations across class (for instance, landowner and tenant). Re-representation of traditional ‘fortresses’ has taken place at a number of sites, including the Tower of London and Dover Castle.
Many interpretive methods are now being used to enable the public consumption of such previously foreboding ‘country houses’. This paper considers costumed interpretation in the context of Dover Castle and the Tower to show how live interpretation can be used to enhance the public’s experience of such sites. It will argue that, far from dumbing-down, costumed interpretation can render comprehensible to a varied public audience the complex and sometimes alienating worldview of those who dwelt within what are now heritage sites, but were once homes. Working within spaces without barriers, live interpretation offers the visitor a chance to engage directly with the domestic history of such sites: to participate in the relations between lord and servant, to occupy the refurbished rooms by listening to stories told around the dining table, and to perceive not merely the literal use of such spaces (e.g. people slept in the bedchamber) but to connect further, consuming layers of knowledge of the medieval world through active engagement with it. Thus, the tourist who arrives expecting grim dungeons, leaves having a sense of the direct relevance of, and connections between, such medieval sites and their own lives.
Session 3b. Suppliers and consumers in the country house
Jane Whittle (University of Exeter)
The gentry as consumers: social relationships of consumption in the early 17th-century household
This paper will discuss the relative neglect of the gentry as consumers in early modern England in the existing literature. Using a case study from the early seventeenth century of the Le Stranges of Hunstanton in Norfolk, it will illuminate consumption patterns in that period, drawing attention to innovations and traditional forms of consumption. The main focus of the paper however, will be the use of household accounts to reconstruct social relationships of consumption. While most studies look at the things owned, the concentration here will be how they were acquired, and the importance of known producers and suppliers. It will show how webs of social connections can be reconstructed through household accounts, and draw attention to the changing methods of supplying large households across the early modern period and how these affected the gentry’s relationship with the local community.
Rosie MacArthur (National Gallery)
Settling into the country house: the Hanburys at Kelmarsh Hall
When the roof was set on the newly built Kelmarsh Hall in 1732, the owner William Hanbury wrote that ‘nothing could add to the happiness I enjoy’. Eight years later, with the interiors incomplete, the saloon storing meat hooks, and the furnishings of the south east parlour including 48 iron hoops and two old saddles, his excitement may have begun to wane. This paper tells the story of the early years of the new Kelmarsh Hall, built to replace a ‘miserable old’ Jacobean mansion on this Northamptonshire estate. The house was designed by James Gibbs on time-tested Palladian principles, making it both elegant and functional. However research reveals that by 1740 the arrangements of the house did not reflect those intended by the architect, with a disjuncture between the simple, modern architecture and the ramshackle and sparsely furnished interiors. Whilst some new items of furniture had been purchased for the house, the majority of goods seem to have been transferred from elsewhere with kitchenware carried over from the old mansion, books brought up from London and poor quality paintings inherited from aunts. With the costs of building leaving many with little money readily available for the commission of full decorative and furnishing schemes, (especially in the smaller houses of the gentry), the material culture of the country house may often have been mismatching or even unsuitable. At Kelmarsh this had a significant impact on room use, especially in the early stages of the family’s occupancy.
Although not often discussed or analysed in flux, all houses would have had periods of incoherence during their creation, and whenever alterations were made. Examining a house in these circumstances uncovers the processes and difficulties involved in the construction of élite interiors and reveals the ways in which a house and its accoutrements were assembled, used and arranged between the stages of acquisition and presentation to a wider public.
Mark Rothery and Jon Stobart (University of Northampton)
Geographies of supply: Stoneleigh Abbey and Arbury Hall in the eighteenth century
London is often seen as having an overweening importance in the lives of the English elite. The location there of both parliament and court underlined its significance as a centre of supply, fashion and sociability, and made links to and presence in the capital essential. Conversely, country houses and elites are also seen as being deeply embedded in their locality. Food and other goods were drawn from the estate and the surrounding district, whilst the owners acted as employers, patrons and patriarchs in local communities. In this paper, we examine in detail the patterns of supply of two houses: Stoneleigh Abbey and Arbury Hall, situated in close proximity to one another in central Warwickshire. Our aim is to assess the relative importance and role of metropolitan and local suppliers in the construction and running of the country house. Of particular interest are: first, the long term stability of systems of supply (was there a gradual shift towards London taste and suppliers and were there favoured suppliers who served both houses?); second, the ways in which geographies of supply varied with the personal preferences and consumption priorities of the owner (to what extent were individuals making independent choices and what was the basis of these choices?). In addressing these issues, we place the country house more clearly into its layered geographical context.