The Destruction of the Country House, V&A Study Day


It has been exactly 40 years since the V&A hosted a landmark exhibition entitled The Destruction of the Country House 1875-1975. To mark the occasion a study day was organised with prominent speakers that curated the exhibition at the time, but also looking at the present state of affairs and into the future. The study day organised by SAVE Britain’s Heritage together with the V&A was split into three sessions.

Session 1: The 1974 Exhibition

 “The last thing an audience wants is to see three old geezers going on about 1974”

Sir Roy Strong

The first session looked back at the 1974 exhibition and the reasoning behind its conception. In contrast to the assertion of Sir Roy Strong, it was exactly to hear ‘old geezers’  that must have been the main draw for many people to attend the event. Sir Roy sketched the context wherein the concept of this exhibition came to fruition, and how the culture has since changed to such an extent that it couldn’t be organised again along the same lines. He also pointed out that this exhibition shouldn’t be seen in isolation, as there were two related exhibitions that followed on churches and gardens.

country house

John Harris shone some light on his part in the exhibition, and the amount of footwork that preceded it scouring the countryside armed with an ordnance survey map and a willingness to scale crumbling estate boundary walls to discover what remained of the houses that once were the heart of the estate, and indeed the community. Harris explained that there were varying reasons for the destruction of these houses, ranging from a post war need for building materials to financial considerations related to cumulative death duties incurred through the loss of several generations during the wars. The requisitioning of houses by the Department of Defence during WWII and the ensuing damage and lack of proper maintenance was also an important factor that made many families decide to throw in the towel. The slide show of houses that are lost in the background was a grim reminder of the of the beauty sacrificed to the wrecking ball.

How the exhibition worked as a catalyst for action was illustrated by Marcus Binney as he discussed how SAVE was founded the year after the exhibition. SAVE was, and indeed is, instrumental in the preservation of built heritage. The success story of the very first acquisition by SAVE (for the sum of one pound) of Barlaston Hall was followed by the complicated negotiations involved in saving The Grange from the threat of being blasted by dynamite. SAVE is currently involved in several campaigns, of which the successful plans to re-develop Winstanley Hall is an excellent example of how Country Houses can not only be restored but be given a use that is relevant and financially viable.

Simon Jervis introduced himself as standing in for the late Peter Thornton, and representing the role the Furniture and Woodwork department of the V&A had in the exhibition. Large pieces of furniture rarely move as Jervis remarked, making it essential for Mohammed to go to the mountain, as the proverb goes. At the V&A therefore those working at the furniture department were accustomed to spending many weekends visiting country houses to inspect, compare and catalogue all manner of furniture, simultaneously familiarising them with the houses and owners. It was a natural decision to add the responsibility of the collection of woodwork, many of it in the form of period rooms, to this department. That it wasn’t just the built heritage under threat  was highlighted by Jervis through the case of Mentmore Towers, the sale of the fabulous Rothschild collections only a few years after the exhibition became a rallying cause for the preservation of such ensembles in the future very much like the loss the Euston Arch became a turning point in the preservation of industrial heritage.

Willoughby Hall002

Session 2: The Succeeding 40 Years

“I sometimes miss the kind of old-fashioned country house tour when the guide would inform you that The tapestries were made by goblins!”

Tim Knox

The second session looked at the afterlife of the exhibition and how country houses fared in the years that followed.  Tim Knox discussed the sale of contents from country houses, picking up where Simon Jervis left off. Despite the popularity for quality pieces with impressive provenance the great flood of attic and estate sales seems to have slowed down. Many country houses have become repositories of contents of several houses after families decided to focus their energies on one house. The recent sale of 1400 lots from Chatsworth House is a good example, though important items were sold most of them came from some of the many other houses once associated with the Dukes of Devonshire, Chatsworth being merely the repository. More worrying for the preservation of important collections is a recent ruling on the sale of a painting by Reynolds from the collection of Castle Howard. The executors managed to argue successfully that the painting of Omai was a ‘wasting asset’ and therefore shouldn’t incur  capital gains tax. If this loophole isn’t closed it might lead to a flurry of sales from country houses in the future.

John Goodall‘s talk was interesting in the context of this conference as his view might be slightly skewed merely by the fact that his work for Country Life means the country houses he sees are generally in a good state of preservation and ready for a glossy photo shoot. It was clear from the many examples that the tradition for living in country houses or  even building them is far from over.

Christopher Ridgway and Oliver Cox discussed two projects that are succesful examples of country houses working together regionally but also integrated with an academic context. The Yorkshire Country House Partnership is linked with the University of York and has successfully developed a programme of exhibitions and events across the houses. The University of Oxford has partnered with many country houses in the Thames Valley Country House Partnership with the aim of integrating heritage within the higher education sector. A sentiment expressed by Oliver Cox that was very much echoed the entire panel was that it is essential for such integration to happen at an undergraduate level, and for this to happen in an engaging and interactive way that brings the field of country house studies into the 21st century.

Destruction of the Country House_credit (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Session 3: The Challenges Today

“Is an Englishman’s home no longer his Castle… if it happens to be a Castle?”

Ruth Adams

The last session of the day was devoted to the various challenges faced by country house owners today. Norman Hudson sketched the differences in the situation now and in 1974, especially related to opening houses for public. Since shops and sports are now also catering to the weekend crowd this means that country houses need to compete, even more so since many more houses have decided to open to visitors. The form of tourism pioneered by Beaulieu has become incredibly succesful, but isn’t without its pitfalls. Especially those houses that are not large enough to become enterprises such as Chatsworth or Blenheim but that are still too large for the family to run on their own are at risk of over extending themselves financially to comply with funding regulations to allow access without reaping the benefits of visitor income. Simply opening a house to visitors isn’t enough anymore, additional income can be generated though filming location hire, especially if the resulting production will generate visitors, and catering for weddings and other events. An interesting example is Riverhill which markets itself as a Himalayan garden , even going so far as to pay a student to dress up like a Yeti…whatever brings the punters through the gates! Richard Compton echoed many of the sentiments expressed by Hudson, but pointing out the discrepancy between the amount of money generated by Heritage Tourism for the UK annually, and the funding available for maintenance and repair. The backlog of urgent repairs is steadily rising amongst the members of the HHA, and at present there are no signs of this trend  slowing down.

How owners of country houses meet the challenges of this century as seen through the medium of television was discussed by Ruth Adams. The popular Channel 4 show Country House Rescue was the focus of her talk which highlighted the contrast between the perception of the owners as inept and out of date that needed rescuing by professionals with a proven track record in entrepreneurship. Central to the show was the idea that these people needed to be helped, if they wanted the help or not.

The conference served as a reminder that the challenges facing houses are far from over, but that at least now there is a network of specialists ready to help and advise on the complex matters involved in protecting this important element of our cultural heritage. SAVE highlights the current challenges in their recent publication 40 Years On, which is full of material from the 1974 exhibition as well as debating issues such as the precarious state of affairs for council owned houses like Wollaton Hall. It also draws attention to the fund-raising campaign to acquire Wentworth Woodhouse for which there is now a master plan, at the time of writing another 3.4 million pounds were needed.

I hope to be around when the V&A organises another retrospective in 40 years, lets hope we can be proud of how we’ve managed our heritage in that time.

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The Bromley-by-Bow room in the collection of the V&A, the house was demolished in 1894.