Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Wrest Park

Our local history group recently went on a summer outing to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. 

Wrest Park is an English Heritage property, having been acquired by the Government after the Second World War. For many years the house and wider estate were used by the Ministry of Agriculture as a research establishment. In the 1980s the Government transferred the estate on lease to a commercial research company, but more recently English Heritage has done much to restore the gardens and take the house back into direct management. Commercial businesses remain based at Wrest Park, using an industrial estate that sits just beyond the house, out of sight of visitors.

We had two guided tours on our trip. The first was to rooms in the house that are not normally open to the public, because of their particular conservation needs, owing to their beautiful wallpaper. The first two rooms contained examples of handpainted Chinese papers, full of life and drama depicting scenes from everyday life in 18th century China. 

The colours on these papers have been retained, because in part they were boarded up while the house was being used as offices (although in one of the Chinese wallpaper rooms we were told that the wallpaper had remained on full show, and that the colours had been damaged by the steam from repeated use of electric kettles). In another room, we saw wallpaper that had been printed from hundreds of wooden blocks, their combinations making unique dioramas of different landscapes from across four continents.

The second tour was of the gardens, and encompassed the Orangery (where a brass band was playing), a plunge pool folly, the Archer Pavilion, and a column erected in honour of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who was engaged to improve the gardens in particular the water courses.

Wrest Park is the creation of the de Grey family, who lived there for more than 800 years. The house that is there today replaced a house of medieval origins with a classical fa├žade. This house stood amidst formal gardens laid out in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in imitation of those seen on the continent. Jemima, Marchoness Grey, later commissioned Capability Brown to make subtle alterations, but insisted on keeping the formal look of the gardens still visible today. 

By the 1830s, Thomas, Earl de Grey decided that a new house was needed, and built a French-looking building to his own designs. (De Grey became the first ever President of RIBA). This is the house visible today; it stood at some distance from the original house, which was demolished, but the symmetry of the gardens was preserved. 

The de Grey family continued to live at Wrest, but by the early twentieth century that connection ended. Wrest became  the first country house to be used as a hospital for soldiers in the First World War. Sold again to a private owner between the wars, it was acquired by the Sun Insurance Company in 1939 and then bought by the Government in 1946. It was put to use as a research facility for the Ministry of Agriculture, later leased to the Silsoe Research Institute. 

Wrest is a good example of what happened to many country houses as a consequence of war. Given alternative uses during both conflicts, it never recaptured the glories of its heyday. While grand, the house today retains a slightly institutional feel, and there is realtively little by way of furniture or collections. There were some very well produced exhibitions, however, one about Wrest Park during the First World War and one detailing the history of the house and its gardens.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

'Lost' heritage and the Country House

Sadness at the loss of cultural heritage has been on my mind recently. News filtered through this week that Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque and minaret have been deliberately destroyed by Isis forces. It is yet another shocking example of heritage being deliberately targeted in times of war and conflict. Few would agree that this sort of willful destruction can ever be justified – indeed, it may well constitute a war crime.

Yet built heritage is constantly facing loss, in the face of time’s depredations, the pressure of maintenance costs, and sometimes public disinterest or apathy. Buildings cease to serve useful functions, and are either adapted or supplanted. Or, as TS Eliot  says in The Four Quartets,

‘In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored’ 

For ‘houses’ substitute any form of built heritage you like: places of worship, factories, thatched cottages, bridges etc.  Should we care, and if so, how much?

Recently I attended an event in London to mark the publication of Curated Decay, a wonderful new book by Caitlin DeSilvey which offers a polite and beautifully written provocation to some established heritage norms and values. The book explores examples of where entropy and decay have not been arrested but instead acknowledged and accommodated. In some cases, this has been due to the very nature of the asset at risk: a 19th-century harbour wall facing ever-destructive inundations from the sea, a lighthouse on the edge of the Suffolk coast that could soon be completely gone unless it is rebuilt brick by brick further inland. DeSilvey notes that the process of decay is constant, and she suggests that, in some cases, the heritage sector would do well to develop new techniques for embracing this sort of change, rather than deluding ourselves that we can prevent it altogether. Curators might help communities to celebrate the lives of their buildings, even while the buildings themselves may ultimately face complete destruction, which, after all, in the long run, everything does  (as Keynes once pointed out). 

Caitlin’s book contrasted with a conference I was lucky enough to attend, in Dublin, also this week. The conference was entitled The Country House Revived? and concerned the state of the country house in the early 21st century. Nearly fifty years ago, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, there was considerable public concern about the fate of country houses. 

An exhibition at the V&A museum catalogued the loss of hundreds of country houses in the UK from 1875. Many of them were deliberately razed to the ground, as owners found they could not afford to keep them going in conditions of high taxation and reduced agricultural rents. In the Republic of Ireland there was a political motivation too, with Terry Dooley (co-convenor of the conference) estimating that almost 300 houses were deliberately burned during the Irish revolutionary period between 1920 and 1923. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe former Soviet states witnessed similar events unfolding in different circumstances, as houses and estates were seized after 1945 and converted to institutional uses or sometimes ruinated altogether.

The conference was a very positive event, reflecting on how far the country house has come in the last half century. Houses across Europe are in rude health, as owners find new ways to keep them in good order and open them to the public. Former Eastern bloc countries have seen the restitution of houses back to the families from which they were requisitioned. Houses have drawn their strength from new functions and uses, and are now found featuring retail and catering developments, high-quality holiday accommodation, and offering special bespoke tours and events. All this activity has helped to reinvent the country house for the modern era.  

So how worried ought we to be about the ‘loss’ of country houses? Matthew Beckett’s Lost Heritage blog records more than a thousand houses lost in the UK since the 19th century. Admittedly the rate of loss has slowed right down in recent decades, with one index being the reduced number of houses that nowadays need to be rescued by the National Trust. Yet there remain problems.  Undoubtedly life is hard for many country house owners as they try to find the resources to meet the repairs, labour costs, and energy bills that are all required to keep a house going. Within the UK the organisation I work for, the Historic Houses Association, estimates that country houses face a £1.38 billion repair backlog, of which nearly £500 million is urgent.

We heard at the conference about one of the most famous problem cases, Wentworth Woodhouse. Here there is a happy ending (we hope), since a new trust has taken on the house (with one of the largest facades in England), with a £7.6 million grant from the government. But question marks remain over other houses, such as Kinloch Castle on Rum in Scotland.

The message of the conference was that solutions can be found to intractable problems, but they depend on entrepreneurial and imaginative thinking, some measure of support or assistance from the state, and careful thought for what modern audiences, inhabitants or the next generation might want from country houses. In other words, things must change in order for things to stay the same. Whether an organisation like the National Trust or English Heritage would ever want to ‘curate decay’ at one of their mansion properties, as Caitlin DeSilvey might propose, is another matter altogether (though do visit Calke Abbey in Derbyshire for the closest approximation to this).

Sunday, 28 May 2017

A Trip to Newmarket

On Saturday 27 May the Newport Local History Group made a trip to Newmarket, the home of horse racing. This was the first of our two summer excursions, and was inspired by the fact that an object from Terry Searle’s collection, Sir Carl Meyer’s racing purse, is on display at Palace House. Palace House has recently been fully refurbished, and the museum is currently shortlisted for the prestigious Art Fund Museum of the Year Award.

Before visiting the museum, however, we called in on the Jockey Club Rooms, a private members club in Newmarket with a unique historical pedigree. We had a very pleasant 90-minute tour here courtesy of the General Manager, Charles Howard, who kindly broke into his otherwise very busy day to welcome us (the Club was hosting a wedding in the afternoon). We began in the Steward’s Room, sat around a horseshoe-shaped table which is where the Jockey Club would have its Stewards’ enquiries in the event of a dispute over a race’s outcome. Charles explained how Newmarket was the Las Vegas of 18th-century England, because it was a town whose fortunes were built on gambling. If it moved, the Georgians would place a bet on it, and besides horseracing there was cockfighting, bear baiting, and bare-knuckle fighting. Several Newmarket inns and hostelries still have their original fighting pits: their trade, then as now, was entirely dependent on the practice of making bets on the outcome of sporting competitions.

These days of course the competitions are much more genteel. Horse racing has developed into a highly professional business, even while its origins may have been rather more unruly. The Newmarket race track was often the route from the centre of the town to Six Mile Bottom, or vice versa races would start there and then finish just outside the Jockey Club itself. Disputes would be resolved in the Steward’s Room, the walls of which were lined with horsehair-stuffed leather, to prevent the sound of the proceedings from leaking out. We also saw the Coffee Room, where the first wagers were placed. Gentlemen would sit in alcoves, getting steadily inebriated and placing wagers on the outcome of races. These would be marked in a book, hung from a nail in the wall. The making of these books gives rise to the word ‘Bookmaking’.

Over time, horseracing became the lucrative and highly regulated affair that it is today. Its unruly side was tamed, as courses were more closely defined, and riders were forced to wear their distinctive silk shirts, so that they could more readily be identified. The Jockey Club became a most exclusive venue. Even today its membership is tightly controlled, although the practice of blackballing is no longer followed (where a black coloured ball rather than a light coloured one was dropped into a voting box, to block someone’s attempt to join the club).

Another stunning feature of the Jockey Club is its artwork. Sporting art proliferates, naturally, and there are some truly remarkable paintings, including by Stubbs and Munnings. The evolution of artists’ attempts to depict the horse is on show. Early 18th century paintings are somewhat naive in their appearance, and don’t quite capture the full complexity of the horse’s physique. Close observation and study of the horse led to significant breakthroughs by artists such as Stubbs. The invention of photography helped artists to realise just how horses ran - not, as it turns out, with all four legs in the air at any one time. The Jockey Club walls are also hung with portraits of the individuals that have made a significant impact over time: Admiral Rous (who did much to modernise the sport), Winston Churchill (who prevented the race course from being taken over as an airfield in World War Two), the trainer Henry Cecil, and of course the Queen, who remains Patron of the club and a regular visitor.

As well as paintings, Charles showed us some impressive items from the collection. There was a wheel from the first ever horse box - a carriage designed to transport the famous thoroughbred Eclipse, which avoided the need for the horse to be walked all the way to Newmarket (which had been the practice until then). There were several horses hoofs, saved as momentos of much loved horses, and now used as ink stands or even a very fine William IV snuff box. All in all, the Jockey Club rooms were a fascinating place to spend a little bit of time before moving on to Palace House itself.

As our guide explained, Newmarket features not one but several royal palaces, making it fairly unique as an English market town. Palace House was built for Charles II, who was a fanatical horseman, and a regular visitor (with his wife - and mistresses - in tow). The building is now a temple devoted to British Sporting Art, some of which is now on loan from other museums and galleries (including the Tate).

We were pleased to see that Sir Carl Meyer’s Racing purse was on display in a prominent spot in the Oak Room, at the top of Palace House. It served in some ways to underline the link between Newport and Newmarket. Not only do the two placenames have essentially the same etymology, but there are other links as well. Setting aside the suggestion that Charles II was also responsible for buildings in Newport (Crown House in particular), we can see that the landscape around Newmarket is a vast arena for horseriding, with Newport serving as a sort of perimeter mark. Gentlemen were keen to build houses in our part of north west Essex because of the proximity to the delights of the racing at Newmarket. North of us, Anglesey Abbey can be said to occupy a similar position, and the horseracing was definitely behind Lord Fairhaven’s decision to move there in the 1920s.

Newmarket’s fortunes are inextricably linked to the horse. At any given time, there could be as many as 10,000 -12,000 horses living in the centre of Newmarket or nearby, all of them taken out to train on the gallops each morning. There are 92 yards in the centre of the town alone. As well as Palace House, the Newmarket museum features a stable yard, where former racing horses are being retrained. A series of exhibition spaces explain the development of the sport, and its fascinating history. We could not fault the design of the buildings, and the way so much has been crammed into a single site. Our tickets will give us all the chance to return, and many resolved to do so, in order to learn more of the history of this most fascinating sport, and town. 

We wish the museum all the very best of luck in the forthcoming Art Fund Museum of the Year competition. I am starting to wonder, even, if a small wager could be justified….

Monday, 13 March 2017

Essex Country Houses

Essex is not particularly well known for its country houses. Yet there are far more of them than you might think. 

The most famous is Audley End, an English Heritage property and arguably one of the country's most important mansions. Audley End was principally built in 1605-1614, although the property that is seen to day is around a third of its former size (the courtyard wings were pulled down in the 18th century). With rooms by Robert Adam and grounds by Capability Brown, Audley End certainly meets the criteria of a house of national importance. 
Audley End

But what of Essex's other houses? The National Trust doesn't have a single mansion property in Essex - somewhere like Paycocke's at Coggeshall, charming as it is, is a sizeable merchant's house rather than a country seat. However, the presence of a fair few  Historic Houses Association member properties alerts us to the fact that there were mansions all over the county, of which many still survive. 

HHA member houses in Essex include Layer Marney, Ingatestone, Hedingham Castle and Braxted Park. All of these houses are open to visits, or run for weddings and other events. Each is of genuine historical significance, and lived in by families who have an extended connection with their house stretching back many generations. 
Hedingham Castle
The presence of so many HHA members in Essex is a sign of the attractiveness of the county as a place to site a country residence. Proximity to London, and to the major trading routes via the Thames, led to the decision of many landowners to construct substantial houses. Layer Marney was a remarkable gatehouse of the early 1520s, built from brick in an attempt to transpose Hampton Court to the Blackwater Estuary. Only Lord Marney's death in 1523 put a brake on the ambitions behind the property. Henry VIII visited in August 1522, when on a royal progress that took in New Hall at Boreham too. 

Layer Marney

There were plenty of houses built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Audley End may be the most famous, but in all I found 182 houses in total, many of them built between 1600 and 1800. They included huge palaces, such as Wanstead Park, built in 1715 only to be demolished (for its building materials) 110 years later. North and south of my village are two substantial houses from the late 17th century, Shortgrove and Quendon, although the Shortgrove of today is a modern rebuilding of the house that was lost to fire in the 1960s. 

The truth was that many houses were demolished - I counted 37 in total. The peak of these losses was in the 1950s, when an astonishing number of Essex mansions were either being pulled down because families were unable to keep them going (such as at Marks Hall and Easton Lodge), or were lost beneath the suburbs of east and north-east London. 
Wanstead Park

Nevertheless, many houses survived, and continue to survive, leaving their mark on Essex's gentle rolling landscapes. Today, Essex country houses either survive through tourism (for which see the Essex houses and gardens website), or as wedding venues. The Essex wedding has been the saviour of many an Essex country house, it might be said. 

This blog has been adapted from the 2017 Morant Lecture, 'Some Essex Country Houses and their Owners', given in Newport, Essex, on 11 March 2017 for the Essex Society for Archaeology and History. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Cambridge Bonfires

Our local history group was given a fascinating talk last night by Sean Lang of Anglia Ruskin University on ‘The Cambridge Bonfires’ - moments of civil unrest in Cambridge at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The unrest took the form of spontaneous bonfires in Cambridge’s Market Square, in which both Town and Gown participated. But these bonfires were to mark what today would be considered distinctly reactionary causes: the defeat of an attempt to extend the awarding of degrees to women, and the conferring of an Honorary Degree on Lord Kitchener, victor of the Battle of Omdurman.

Dr Lang recreated a world in which the Cambridge students treated the city much as their own fiefdom. Their territory was, after all, literally being extended. Cambridge university sports clubs were proliferating in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, leading to more and more plots of land in the vicinity of the city centre being given over to sports pitches. The river, while still very much a working channel of trade and communication, was increasingly dominated by athletic young men in rowing boats.

1880 Cambridge University Rugby XV

The masculine culture of the university was offended by the very idea of women (from Girton and Newnham colleges) being awarded degrees. The defeat of this proposal in 1897 was considered a relief by many male students and graduates, who wished to deny ‘Girton Girls’ the public recognition of a full degree. The authorities could do little to prevent the celebratory bonfire in the Market Square that followed.

Picture showing the protest at Women's Degrees in Cambridge, 1897. The effigy of the woman on a bike was cut down and destroyed by the (largely male) crowd

A similar, if larger, bonfire in 1898 marked the arrival of Lord Kitchener in the city, on the day he was awarded an Honorary Degree. Kitchener was a ubiquitous presence at the time - his face was so well-known at the time that the famous poster of 1914 (‘Your Country Needs You’) carried no mention of his name - it was simply not needed. The patriotic bonfire to celebrate this stalwart defender of the British Empire was hot enough to melt streetlamps.

Another bonfire was expected in 1900, in anticipation of the Relief of Mafeking. This time, the city authorities were more canny in controlling the unrest. The Mayor, Horace Darwin (son of Charles) established a ‘Bonfire Committee’ to apply some organisation to the event. The location of the bonfire was switched to Midsummer Common, where its impact could better be controlled. Although the bonfire was huge, its effect on the city was less disruptive. The Market Square, this time, was carefully policed to avoid disorder breaking out.
Dr Sean Lang shows a picture of the Midsummer Common bonfire of 1900

Thereafter, there were far fewer examples of civil disorder in the city. The boisterous student culture calmed; Town and Gown learned to live more harmoniously with each other. How typically British that such violent examples of disorder and unrest were ultimately quelled by means of a local authority subcommittee…. and how sad that it took until 1948 before women were awarded full degrees.

Mayor Horace Darwin