We have by now visited quite a few National Trust properties as well as a few properties run by other organisations or which are still in private hands. Most notable among the latter category are those that are part of the “Great Treasure House of Britain” group of houses. Of the ten houses in this group we have so far visited Blenheim Palace, Burghley House, Holkham Hall and Hatfield House. Whilst I do find it interesting to visit these places and many of them are set in beautiful countryside and have wonderful gardens and tell us a great deal about the social, political and economic history of Britain I find that I cannot entirely overcome my misgivings regarding the styles of presentation.
It cannot be forgotten that almost exclusively these more or less grand houses represent the triumph of wealth over the lower orders. This wealth may have come from many different sources but as often as not it was due simply to the ownership of land itself. There are of course plenty of examples of self-made men either acquiring or building grand houses with the wealth that they have accumulated as merchants or by some quasi-monopolistic control of a resource whether they were supplying guano to agriculture, or water to London or running the Postal Service and so on. Equally as many may have originally acquired land in the service of the monarch going back, of course, to Norman times.
Nevertheless, these families would then pass their wealth down through the generations and the inevitable problem at the heart of all inherited wealth and position invariably reveals itself in the highly variable heirs of which there seems always to have been those who built wealth and those who merely used it – usually to improve and enhance the properties and indulge their various whims and fancies – and those who dissipated the wealth.
Often these people would occupy various high offices, be MPs and JPs and so on and we are usually invited to admire this without reference to the fact that these roles were almost always filled by those already wealthy and powerful whether talented or not. They may have served in the military or the navy but once again we have to remember that commissions were often bought and that these men would often leave and join as the fancy took them. Certainly some were killed in the service of King and Country but is this not doubly true of the many more humble men who often had vary little choice in the matter.
It has become clear to me that the National Trust in its efforts to present the history of its properties to as wide an audience as possible has chosen to focus on the personal histories of the families that owned the houses and to try to tell the history of the property through the family. Now I am not saying that there isn’t something valuable to be learnt about our social history in this way and to be fair there is some attention paid to the lives of those who lived and worked “below stairs” as the expression so prominent in our TV culture would have it but I find this popularising to have a disturbing air of forelock tugging about it. This came to a head for me during our recent trip around Suffolk and Norfolk in visits to Oxburgh Hall, Felbrigg Hall, the Blickling Estate and Holkham Hall.
Standing in the family chapel of the Bedingfeld family at Oxburgh I overheard one of the worthy National Trust volunteers waxing lyrical to a group of visitors: “What makes the house so interesting is the family. It was a real family house and they were so interesting” or words to that effect provoking in me the immediate reaction: “No they weren’t particularly interesting actually. They were no more interesting than any number of ordinary or middling sort of people. They just happen to have inherited this house.” And here is the thing, these people were Catholics and the house had a large, well-preserved Priest’s Hole which meant that they were traitorous Papists but this is glossed over and subsequently we hear that whilst they were Catholics and clearly on the wrong side in the Civil War in 1661 Sir Henry was made Baronet by Charles II in lieu of Civil War losses. What!
I can forgive the National Trust somewhat but my queasiness again comes to the fore when visiting the grand homes still in private hands. These of course must be run as businesses that are in the leisure and entertainment industry but part of this usually involves a marketing effort around the current family intended to simultaneously soften and glamourize their image. To this end we find antique tables groaning under the weight of family photographs intended to show that they are really just like us when the locations, clothing and style of these pictures tells that they are anything but “just like us”. Also any normal person must feel a certain twinge of voyeuristic discomfort at gazing into these lives of privilege whilst at the same time being so firmly excluded from any real contact.
This process has recently been raised to what I suppose could be called an art form by the Earl of Leicester and his family in a photographic project undertaken by Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins who spent a year recording “life” on the Holkham Estate. You can view the results in the gallery in the right sidebar.