This is a historic moment for us here at Historic Houses. We’ve changed the way we present ourselves in public, by adopting a new logo, a new typeface, and a new set of colours. But a rebrand should be so much more than a cosmetic makeover. When it comes to thinking about brand, it turns out that choices about logos, colours and lettering are very final pieces of the jigsaw. The kinds of questions that come first are – ‘who are we?’, ‘why are we here?’, and ‘what makes us different?’.
These were the questions that our collaborators Johnson Banks asked of us when they began the process of thinking through a new brand image for the Historic Houses Association. (Legally and constitutionally, this remains the name of our organisation.) What emerged was a clearer sense of who we were – a diverse association of historic houses and gardens, some of the finest in the country in fact, and all of them united in being wholly independent in their ownership and operation.
But how to make a coherent story of this eclectic collection? What struck Johnson Banks the most, as they toured the country visiting some of our member houses, was the fact that these houses remained, for the most part, lived-in family homes. Our member properties simultaneously tell the story of some of the most epochal moments in our national past, while at the same time remaining someone’s home.
This interplay (between grand history and the quotidian realities of domestic life) is therefore at the heart of our new identity. It’s why we’ve called ourselves Historic Houses – the two-word formation acting as a form of binary, the better to contrast the significant with the everyday. (We did consider other names, but none worked as well as the simple form Historic Houses). And that’s why the imagery you will see on our website tends to focus on the details of everyday life – a cup of tea being brewed in the kitchen, a set of boots by the back door, children’s toys in the hallway.
The National Trust tried something similar a few years ago, after their Chairman at the time, Simon Jenkins, called for its mansions to be ‘brought to life’ by amplifying their domestic registers – pianos being played, cakes being baked, that sort of thing. In the case of Historic Houses properties, no curatorial artifice is necessary. The fire in the hearth and the dogs padding through the drawing room really are the realities of life in hundreds of historic houses across the UK, where family homes are integrated into the stones, bricks and timbers of buildings that could be 300, 500 or even 800 years old.
All we want to do with our new brand is to draw attention to the fact that so much of our national heritage (Grade I and II* houses and gardens) remains under the watchful custodianship of independent owners. The care that families give to their properties is extraordinary, and it is done for the most part without direct public grants. Our job at Historic Houses is to press for improvements to the conditions in which this heritage is being looked after.
At the same time, we never miss an opportunity to show how much of this heritage is on public access. More than 900 of our 1,650 member houses offer some form of admission (whether through tickets on the door, or organised tours and events). We are proud to say that more than 320 houses can be visited through the Historic Houses membership scheme, which now features a beautifully produced Handbook.
We often receive the feedback that visits to lived-in historic houses prove much more interesting than visits to houses where the owners have long since departed. Historic Houses members love to contrast the old with the new, and to see for themselves how these homes are adapting to 21st-century life. The fact that it could be the owner showing them around only adds to the charm and the appeal. We hope our smart new look will raise our profile and attract many more people to try out Historic Houses membership, helping them to discover more about some of the most intriguing and fascinating homes in the country.
Ben Cowell, Director General