We have just visited Tyntesfield House for the first time. This is a home acquired by the Gibbs family in 1843 and transformed from what was then a Georgian mansion into a Victorian Gothic Revival extravaganza. Now I could just write the usual travelogue style post with some super pics to give you an idea of what it all looks like and so on ( I have created a gallery that can be viewed with this post) but I would like to try and stretch myself a little bit and examine my feelings about these sorts of places and the place of organisations such as the National Trust and the Historic Houses Association in the national psyche. Not too heavy I hope.
Firstly, a little bit of the history of Tyntesfield will help to create some context. My sister-in-law from Chicago asked how an estate such as this acquired its name. That’s a good question and my generalised response was along the lines of “Well, often from existing place names or family names or perhaps after an event of some sort”. As I write this I have just given up for a while as I acknowledge what a massive effort it actually is for me to write a halfway intelligent and interesting post, however I am determined to conjure up an articulation of my feelings.
Research on the NT website and Wikipedia indicated that the estate did indeed take its name from the Tynte family going back to the 1500’s. Thereafter it passed through various hands until the Gibb family acquired it in 1843. How were they able to afford the property? I will quote directly from Wikipedia as there is nothing to be gained by me paraphrasing:
“In 1843 the property was bought by businessman William Gibbs, who made his fortune in the family business, Antony Gibbs & Sons. From 1847 the firm had an effective monopoly in the import and marketing to Europe and North America of guano from Peru as a fertilizer. This was mined by indentured Chinese labour on the Chincha Islands in conditions which the Peruvian government acknowledged in 1856 had degenerated “into a kind of Negro slave trade”. The firm’s profits from this trade were such that William Gibbs became the richest non-noble man in England“.
There is a great deal that could be said about that which just this one paragraph tells us about the social and class history of England. This is an example of one of the avenues by which substantial country properties came into the hands of individuals and families which in my understanding were: after conquest from Norman times, or in later times as reward for service to the crown often of a military kind, or through the rise of self-made men through success in agriculture, trade or industry. All of these generally led to generations of inheritance that kept properties in the same family until modern times, usually until after WWII, although sometimes after WWI, when it was no longer possible to generate the kind of income necessary to maintain such large properties or to afford the death duties then in place.
It was at this stage that many of these country estates began to be acquired by the various Trusts such as the National Trust to be used for the benefit of the general public and from this has developed the particular way, for many people, of experiencing the country’s social and economic history. And so back to the Gibbs of Tyntesfield. The special point of this house and estate is that it is a remarkable example of a style of architecture that itself represents a view of English history and culture, an attempt to recreate an “Imagined World” from the past. I quote again from Wikipedia:
“The architectural style selected for the rebuilding was a loose Gothic combining many forms and reinventions of the medieval style. The choice of Gothic was influenced by William and Blanche Gibb’s Anglo-Catholic beliefs as a followers of the Oxford Movement. This wing of the Anglican Church advocated the view set out in the architect Augustus Pugin‘s 1836 book Contrasts, which argued for the revival of the medieval Gothic style, and “a return to the faith and the social structures of the Middle Ages”. The Oxford Movement, of which both Pugin and Gibbs were disciples, later took this philosophy a step further and claimed that the Gothic style was the only architecture suitable for Christian worship. Thus it became a symbolic display of Christian beliefs and lifestyle, and was embraced by devout Victorians such as Gibbs. The completion of the mansion’s chapel further accentuated the building’s medieval monastical air so beloved by the Oxford Movement’s devotees.”
Tyntesfield is what might be called a “flagship” NT property. It has a collection of over 50,000 items that came with the house. It has 75 full-time employees (of whom 12 are materials conservators) and 850 volunteers to keep it running. When it was acquired it required a multi-million pound renovation programme and this is still an ongoing project.
This is an indication of the scale of upkeep required to keep these properties going and also of the deep level of public support for the NT as an organisation. Anyone who has visited a NT property will attest to enthusiasm and knowledge of the volunteer guides and the inclusiveness that they evince when discussing the properties, their history and maintenance. And yet, and yet. I cannot help my uneasiness when there is too much emphasis on the former owning families. I wouldn’t want to say “fawning” but the element of forelock tugging is still there. Perhaps only someone with a chip on their shoulder would feel it but the fact remains that Britain was, and still is, a deeply class society.
I like the fact that all the architectural and artistic glories of our past are now available to anyone who wishes to see them. What was once the preserve of the privileged and wealthy few can now be enjoyed by all. History has had its revenge on these people whose wealth was derived from historical accident or the appropriation of the surplus value of the labour of others or worst still the slavery of others. Indeed there is not a little Schadenfreude to be had from all of this.
I have touched on all of this before in my post “The Weight of History” and here I want to suggest that there are certain parallels to be found between the escapism of the Gothic revival medievalists of the Victorian age and the wholesale conversion of the English countryside into a kind of historical theme park in which we can forget about the horrors of modern capitalism amongst a world of paternalistic certainty where everyone knew their place and was better for it, a la “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs Downstairs”. Anyone who doubts that the type of privilege that these Imagined Worlds supported still exists might like to read this cri de Coeur from a young modern regarding one of those bastions of such a time.
As a kind of footnote to all of this we ended our day with a visit, in the rain, to Blaise Hamlet:
“a hamlet in north west Bristol, England, composed of a group of nine small cottages around a green. They were built around 1811 for retired employees of Quaker banker and philanthropist John Scandrett Harford, who owned Blaise Castle House.
The hamlet was designed by John Nash, master of the Picturesque style. He had worked for Harford on other buildings. The hamlet is the first fully realized exemplar of the garden suburb and laid out the road map for virtually all garden suburbs that followed.“
This is utterly charming and looks totally absurd at the same time. It exemplifies the notion of Imagined Worlds that I have put forward here. The wealthy imagined a picturesque style in which they thought it appropriate for their employees to live to create a world of their imaginations. Not so very far from Marie Antoinette and her Hameau de la Reine.
To the Barricades Comrades!