A Summer Progress: reflections from country house summer school
In July I was lucky enough to attend the Attingham Trust Summer School, on a scholarship from Historic Houses. The Summer School, which has been running since 1952, provides a unique opportunity to study the architecture and social history of the historic houses of Britain, their gardens, landscapes and collections.
Over 18 days, and in the company of 47 other archivists, museum professionals, conservators, gardeners and historic house owners, I visited 29 historic houses, gardens and museums – from the gilded extravagance of Brighton Pavilion in the South, to the Arts and Crafts perfection of Cragside in the North. Generous historic house owners across England threw open their doors to us and let us explore and analyse everything from the basements to the attics, and even one or two roofs. And, just in case we were not totally exhausted by the intensive visiting during the day, there was a lecture every evening – on topics from ‘Female patrons and collectors and the country house’ to ‘The economics of the country house’.
From visiting such a diversity of properties (more than half of them Historic Houses places) it is hard to choose a favourite place or moment. One of the front runners has to be Broughton Castle and the charming, entertaining and informative tour provided by Lord and Lady Saye and Sele, and their son Martin Fiennes. Their love of the property, its collections and history, and their eagerness to share it with us was infectious. (The delicious ploughman’s lunch provided in the grounds didn’t do any harm either!)
As we travelled further north it became clear that I have a liking for declined grandeur, rather than the polished perfection of some of the restorations. I was one of a small number in the group who had a positive reaction to the abandoned rooms, managed decay and eccentric piles of everything in Calke Abbey. I also lost my heart to the eerie beauty of the empty Greek revival mansion Belsay Hall, the visitor experience heightened by a sound installation, The Yellow Wallpaper, created by Susan Philipsz.
Having said that, there is no denying the glories of Chatsworth and Boughton House. In both cases the owners allowed us generous access to their homes and collections, including a masterclass on Broughton’s beautiful Sévres porcelain. A stolen quiet moment under a tree in the grounds of Chatsworth on a baking hot July day, looking out over the house and landscape, was an unforgettable experience.
The ‘Attingham experience’, as it is fondly known by Summer School Alumni, was an amazing, exhausting, exhilarating and inspiring one. I came away with a renewed love of the country house and a deep admiration for their owners and custodians. It has provided me with inspiration for my professional life as an archivist, and food for thought as a Historic Houses Next Generation Member.
Harriet Wheelock, Next Generation Member at Treowen, and Keeper of Collections at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.
Images: Bruce M White
Applications for the 2019 Historic Houses Attingham Scholarship will open in autumn 2018. If you’re a house member or you’re working as a curator, conservator or archivist at a Historic Houses place, and you’re interested in applying, please email Emma Robinson.