The Library: Editor's Picks Autumn 2019
James Peill | Constable | £25
Peill, a former Christie’s director and art historian, has been curator of the Goodwood Collection for the past ten years. The depth and breadth of his knowledge is worn lightly in this well-paced history. Good writing and good fortune – in the Dukes of Richmond being an above-averagely interesting aristocratic line – help to put it among the more engaging ‘biographies’ of houses.
The title was created for the illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress, Louise de Keroualle. Their relationship was the result of international intrigue as much as affection and desire. When Charles first met Keroualle, who had been chosen as maid of honour for his younger sister, Henrietta, at her marriage to Louis XIV’s younger brother, she resisted his advances. But her diplomatic usefulness – as a source of information and French influence over the King – was recognized at once by Louis and interests at the English court sympathetic to France. The seventeenth-century equivalent of a ‘honeytrap’ was arranged by Lord and Lady Arlington, to ‘embed’ (in every sense of the word) Louise with Charles at a house party at Euston Hall in Suffolk. Two Duchies resulted: Arlington’s heir (his daughter Isabella) was engaged at the age of five to Charles’ illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, later made Duke of Grafton (whose seat is still Euston Hall); Louise, falling pregnant either at or shortly after the Euston Hall encounter, gave birth to a boy, Charles, who became the 1st Duke of Richmond.
The 2nd Duke was by all accounts an easier man to get on with than his father (whose rather unsuccessful politicking involved a period of exile and no fewer than two religious conversions, in the manner of the ‘Vicar of Bray’). In his sense of fun and bonhomie he set the pattern for his successors, and he even anticipated modern country house attractions by admitting hundreds of people a day to see his remarkable menagerie – two hundred years before Longleat. Birds and beasts came from every corner of the world then being opened up to eighteenth-century science, and were big eaters – 525lbs of meat and 156 loaves of bread were needed each week, on top of, ‘barley and oatmeal for the fowl; greens, apples carrots and bread for the monkeys; sheep’s heads, beef and bullocks’ hearts for the eagles; hay, oats and turnips for the sheep.’
Goodwood’s openness to visitors and guests – especially if they are sporting – is the constant theme of the book. The connections with cricket started at least as far back as 1702 (see The Games Room, Historic House vol. 43 no.1). The 3rd Duke commissioned a (horse) racing track and ‘Glorious Goodwood’ became an annual tradition of the season in 1802. Freddie, the 9th Duke, a natural-born speed freak, who was variously a mechanic, racing driver and pilot (he even designed a new kind of plane) added a celebration of mechanical horsepower in 1948, creating a (motor) racing track. The modern-day ‘Festival of Speed’ brought cars back in 1993 (with the vintage models that would have raced on the track in its first heyday following in the ‘Revival’ initiated in 1998). The volume’s handsome dust jacket, an illustration by James Weston Lewis, sums up Goodwood’s pivotal role in the evolution of several distinctly British sports; the house, in one corner, is surrounded by the paraphernalia of outdoor recreation – shot guns, cricket bats, golf clubs, horses, cars and aeroplanes.
Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland
Patricia McCarthy | Yale | £25
This paperback publication of a 2016 publication brings this engaging work, rich in contemporary illustrations, floor plans plans and quotations from the primary sources as well as modern photos and analysis, within more affordable reach. The book covers the entire island of Ireland (at least five Historic Houses members in the north are mentioned in the text).
Life is examined not just in its grander moments – arriving in state, dining fashionably, seeing and being seen in grand public rooms designed for the discourse of ‘society’ – there are also chapters devoted to more intimate parts of the family home and to the work of the servants who maintained them. These were employed in far greater numbers in Irish houses than was fashionable in their English counterparts in the same period. The Rev. Samuel Madden, of Manor Waterhouse in Co. Fermanagh, is quoted as writing in 1738, ‘We keep many of them in our houses, as we do plate on our sideboard, more for show than use, and rather to let people see that we have them than that we have an occasion for them.’
In the first chapter, too, ‘Approaching and Arriving,’ space is given not just to the invited guests of the landed families who built Ireland’s great seats, but the (for want of a better phrase) uninvited – the tourists and sight-seers who began to turn up at Irish houses from the middle of the eighteenth century (a little later than in England). As there, owners may have regarded visitors as an irritant to be ensured, or a downright nuisance, as their own characters dictated, but it was more common in Ireland to find inhabitants who welcomed strangers of (more or less) their own class, because, as McCarthy says, ‘those living at a distance from Dublin […] were simply delighted to have the company.’
The more popular houses formalised visitor arrangements in a way that wouldn’t seem out of place to today’s Historic Houses member. Castletown opened to the public on Sundays between 11am and 3pm; Santry House, Dublin issued specially printed cards admitting parties of four or fewer on Tuesdays and Fridays between 2pm and 5pm. Sightseers were, though, expected to be well-dressed and well-mounted – a scruffy German prince and his friend, who were apparently of ‘unpretending appearance,’ were, ‘most discourteously denied admittance,’ to the house of the Earl of Meath in 1829.
Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
Isabella Tree | Picador | £20
An experiment taking place on the Knepp estate in West Sussex may provide answers for one of our most intractable conservation problems: the departure of many plant and animal species from the everyday rural landscape. Against all-too-dismal national trends, biodiversity is now flourishing at Knepp. Over the last two decades, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell have once again heard the songs of nightingales and turtle doves, have caught sight of purple emperor butterflies flitting around the canopies of veteran oak trees, and have witnessed an explosion in the populations of a host of other species including bats, dormice, woodcock and peregrine falcons.
This book is part memoir and part manifesto, combining the personal story of Knepp’s owners with ample scientific evidence of the perils currently facing nature and the solutions that might be possible were there to be a sea-change in attitudes among farmers, landowners and regulators. Realising that their dairy business had little viability in the long-term, the couple made the brave decision to simply stop farming altogether. The requirements of subsidy decreed that the landscape surrounding the Nash-built Knepp Castle had to be kept in reasonably good order, but the rest of the estate was allowed to go wild through a policy of almost total non-intervention. English longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs were left to roam around an increasingly scrub-like savanna, where ancient trees decayed untouched and ragwort and other traditionally undesirable plants could spread at will.
The experiment did not go down well with locals at first, and aspects of ‘rewilding’ remain controversial. But Isabella Tree is a passionate advocate for the value of nature, and this beautifully written account would be enough to convince all but the most sceptical of the vital lessons to be drawn from the Knepp project.
William Cash’s ‘brick lit’ memoir, is out in September (Constable, £20). He told Historic House magazine how doing up his family’s ruined manor house saved his life.
Upton Cresset became my home in the early seventies when my parents moved here from Islington – it was a good time to buy wrecks needing restoration and the heritage boom was just beginning; my father was an early chairman of the regional Historic Houses Association (as it was then) and I was brought up in the ‘punter trade’ leading tours. We were like a small seaside theatre company that could go under after one bad season. I was stagehand, luggage boy, chair carrier, guide and postcard seller. But it gave me confidence, a bit of pocket money, and an understanding of how much our country’s history has been shaped by its houses and the stories of the people who built and lived in them.
When I eventually took over responsibility for the house from my parents the building wasn’t the only one in an advanced state of disrepair, falling apart and in need of fixing up – and salvation.
The house had always been the most durable of my relationships, my ‘safe house’ where I would return when life blew me off course. Living in Los Angeles working for The Times in my late twenties, I felt the pull of its time-worn red bricks and it was ever the setting of my dreams for the future. After a miserable thirtieth birthday I wrote to my then-girlfriend, ‘Life is a long walk which leads to a dark wood, which leads to a beautiful garden, which leads to a fine brick house which leads to a panelled bedroom where the evening sun floods in as the woman I love dresses for dinner…’
It had always been my dream to raise my own family there, but arriving, aged 43, single and childless, after my second divorce, that prospect seemed increasingly distant. With the help of 25 years-worth of love letters found in a former pig shed, I’ve charted my (eventually successful) quest to find a wife and chatelaine. In the process I was completely transformed by the building and its surrounding landscape. The house’s rebirth and my own are inexorably linked.
There is also room for a bit of detective work, uncovering the hidden tale of an eight-hundred-year-old royalist house whose walls have witnessed some momentous scenes, from hosting the eldest of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ on his way from nearby Ludlow Castle to his murder London in April 1483, to Prince Rupert hiding in the gatehouse during the Civil War. Guests often ask whether the house is haunted. I have never seen a ghost, although I do believe that a house’s walls and rooms can absorb the spiritual warp and weft of former owners to create a ‘spirit of place’.
The book is about both spirit and place – an archaeological dig into both the history of the house and the memories of my heart.
Also recently published
Sussex: West (The Buildings of England)
Elizabeth Williamson, Tim Hudson, Jeremy Musson & Ian Nairn | Yale | £35
There is more to Knepp than its experiments in estate management, or lack of (see ‘Wilding’ above); as this updated Pevsner, the most recent in the thorough and masterful overhauling of the series, points out, the early nineteenth century mock-medieval castle is, ‘flamboyant,’ and, ‘delightful.’ The county is well-endowed with Historic House members, and these are generously dealt with in the text – Arundel Castle’s entry alone extend to over eight pages. The authors have self-confessedly (and surely rightly) sacrificed some Ian Nairn’s entertaining but deeply personal opinions from the 1974 edition (Bosham’s description as, ‘a place to be smart, except that sailing, like flying, can mercifully never be smart’ has been excised) in exchange for a more objective tone. That allows the visitor to make up her or his own mind on the buildings and places catalogued, equipped with the information to do so.
The Churchill Who Saved Blenheim: The Life of Sunny, 9th Duke of Marlborough
Michael Waterhouse & Karen Wiseman | Unicorn | £25
The two authors of this thorough biography enjoy privileged positions – the first a great-grandson of his subject, the second the former Head of Education at his house. The access to archives and primary sources that their connections have permitted enables them to build what is in effect their ‘case’ – that the ironically nicknamed ‘Sunny’, the 9th Duke of Marlborough (taken from his courtesy title of Earl of Sunderland, not his – even in the words of these sympathetic biographers – ‘morose, irritable, highly-strung,’ character) has been treated unfairly by history. His first wife, American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, poured out her (admittedly badly mistreated) heart in her memoirs of an unwelcome and loveless marriage. But he was as unhappy as her, we’re told, and it is hard to not be glad at some level that the cash she injected into what was an estate in financial crisis went a long way towards saving the beautiful palace and park that we enjoy visiting today.
Sarah Hogg | Book Guild | £9.99
It is not unusual for the owners of Historic House member places to have titles. It is less common for them to be life peerages. Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire must surely be unique in our association in being inhabited by two people each ennobled in their own right for contributions to public life in different spheres – Douglas Hogg as an MP and his wife Sarah, author of this novel, as a business woman (the first ever to chair a FTSE 100 company), journalist and civil servant. The hero of the story is firmly the house itself – into its orbit come (and go) a cast of characters spanning more than a thousand years of history, appearing in vignettes, almost short stories, that tell a tale of a place and its inhabitants. The author writes from deep personal interest and pride in being able to add her own name to a list of incumbents headed (in order of precedence if not of chronology) by Katherine Swynford, daughter-in-law of Edward III, great-great grandmother of Henry VII and pivot of the Wars of the Roses, who appears in chapter four.
50 Treasures from Winchester College
Richard Foster (ed.) | Scala | £20
In the more-than nine hundred years since its foundation Winchester College has amassed a collection of historically and aesthetically important objects that would be the envy of many a dedicated museum, from ancient Chinese vases to what might be the world’s longest-running scientific experiment – a sloping trough containing pitch, first filled in 1906, apparently to model the slow but inexorable flow of glaciers. In this lavishly illustrated volume fifty such treasures are displayed in full-page photographs opposite explanatory essays by alumni, staff and governors of the school. That makes it a double celebration of what the college has to show off about (in the best way); though the most touching item, the so-called ‘diary’ of William Emes, who was himself elected a Scholar of the College at the age of thirteen in 1656, has remarkably little to say about his alma mater, despite a career intertwined with the foundation. Though readers can be grateful that he devoted space instead to a wonderfully dramatic description of the Great Fire of London: ‘Ye moone rose […] shee appeare’d as red as bloud, and languid like a piece of Iron red hot…’