My Attingham Experience

  • 07 Aug 2019
  • Article

In 2018, with a year’s temporary post as Curator of Historic Houses member Burton Constable Hall half gone and an uncertain future looming, I applied for the Historic Houses scholarship to attend the Attingham Trust’s Summer School. Originally founded for American scholars in 1952, the course is often described as ‘a Masters in three weeks’ and has an extraordinarily high reputation. My application, then, was not submitted very confidently.

My academic background in Archaeology and Museum Studies and a previous post at a small social history museum left gaps in my knowledge of English country houses. This and the short duration of my post (now made permanent) meant that the enormity of my scholarship request seemed equalled only by its necessity. You can imagine my great delight (and surprise) when I received my letter of acceptance with a full scholarship from Historic Houses to attend the Attingham Summer School! I hoped that ‘doing Attingham’ would allow me a greater understanding of the context in which country houses and their contents evolved, and the architectural and art historical themes which arch across them. Beyond this I did not know quite what to expect from the experience; whatever my expectations might have been, they would surely have been exceeded.

A talk about the grounds at Chatsworth and their relationship to the house by Steve Porter, Head of Gardens & Domain

My time with Attingham covered a vast variety of subjects, from material studies of exotic woods and silver to theoretical lectures on gender studies and questions of ownership through to practical seminars on how the fabrics and furnishings of these spaces were created. With a diverse and wonderful group of 47 other similarly enthralled specialists from very varied backgrounds with a huge range of expertise, I explored 26 houses in a hectic but marvellous 18 days. There are few courses that can offer this breadth of insight in such a short period. Throughout the course we met experts in the forefront of their respective fields, who offered startling insights that were equalled in their practical and knowledgeable nature only by the simplicity of the remarks, changing in a few short sentences a complete understanding of how these homes would have been used, and how their owners would have related to them.

Woburn Abbey seen from the Stable Courts. Still in independent ownership, Woburn has been the family home of the Dukes and Duchesses of Bedford for almost 500 years

The houses visited differed greatly in size, management and ethos. From the beautiful Brighton Royal Pavilion (inspiration for Burton Constable’s own Chinese Room) to the gloriously restored Uppark, from near-empty Wrest Park to the Left-as-Found Calke Abbey and the beautiful family home of Boughton House, we saw houses used, interpreted and cared for in hugely varying ways. Different themes became apparent throughout, however, in the complex layers of history that have built up over the centuries and continue to develop. All have similar problems, too, whether cared for by independent owners or by large national charities, with each site posing different but related challenges.

Perhaps the course’s greatest revelation was the way the expertise of all the scholars blended to give new insights into these vast and complex power-houses – even surprising the owners at times! It was a striking reminder of how important these networks are in country house studies.

It would be impossible to remember every fact heard on the course, though there’s a vast hoard of notes in my (mostly exhausted) journals and a whirlwind of information in my mind. Perhaps as treasured as the information, context and skills learned is the unforgettable lesson about that most precious of resources - the network of peers, colleagues and friends who continue to inform and shape this amazing field of study.

Philippa Wood, Curator at Burton Constable Hall


Applications for the 2020 Historic Houses Attingham Scholarship will open in autumn 2019. If you’re a house member or you’re working as a curator, conservator or archivist at a Historic Houses member property, and you’re interested in applying, please email Emma Robinson.

A group photograph during drinks on the terrace at the National Trust’s beautiful Petworth House

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