British Country Houses

British Country Houses Study Project WS 07-08
Prof. Dr. Leo Schmidt and Dr. Anne Bantelmann

British Country Houses was the deceptively simple title of the Study Project in the winter term 2007/8. The title does not reveal much and yet encompasses many subjects that were subsequently investigated by the participants. The country houses of Britain are icons of British architecture; some even go so far as to see in them the epitome of European architecture. Simon Jenkins writes in his book England’s Thousand Best Houses: “The Englishman’s home is more than his castle. It is his face, his taste, his refuge and his family hearth.” These houses were of course built to be lived in but as Jenkins suggests they are far more than that.

For centuries, anybody who aspired to a prominent role in society and politics needed to own a Country House, a Seat surrounded and supported by an estate. Land and the income of the land were the basis of a seat and only with an appropriate estate could a family climb the social ladder, ideally acquiring a peerage on the way. The seat was handed on from one generation to next, frequently altered and rebuilt to new standards and new needs. Country houses were rarely sold, unless as a result of utter ruin, but kept as the pride and figurehead of the ancestors and family. Architectural style reflected not only the taste of a family; it always embodied a certain attitude, a statement which contemporaries were able to read and understand. This was true not only for the architecture, but also for the designed landscape surrounding a house and also its interiors with the furniture and fittings and collections of all kinds of art like paintings, sculpture, silver, porcelain, etc.

The socio-economic structure that revolved round the Country House continued to function for centuries from the Middle Ages until the 19th century, when industrialization transformed society. But the country house has always shown an amazing ability to adapt to new social and political situations. As the old families lost their grip, Nouveaux Riches built country houses without any particular family background but with a confidence based on their wealth and newly-won importance for economics and therefore politics. With the changing role of the landed classes and the aristocracy towards the end of the 19th century, the role and perception of country houses changed as well. State regulations and a persistent agricultural crisis weakened the owners economomically and the country house as a self-supporting body frequently ceased to exist. The crisis of the Country Houses deepened in the 20th century, with the two World Wars having a catastrophic impact both on the landowning families and on their economic base. As a consequence, hundreds of country houses were demolished, many more were converted to hotels or institutions (sometimes rather unsympathetically). The tide turned in the 1970s with a public outcry bewailing The Destruction of the Country House, as a highly successful exhibition in the Victoria & Albert Museum was called. The Country Houses were now again seen as important symbols of British History as well as objects of art and architecture. In recent years, the country again seems to re-invent itself, being sought after by rich celebrities and trendsetters.

Most of the existing houses are still in private hands, often managed, for tax reasons, by trusts; many belong to institutions, to local governments or to English Heritage and Historic Scotland. The two National Trusts are the best known and probably the most important organisations that own country houses and open them to the public. Not all houses are still lived in but what other purposes are possible for such great buildings? How can they be maintained and presented as objects of history and as holistic “Gesamtkunstwerke”? Do Country Houses still have a purpose, do they have a future?

The students decided to approach the theme in two steps. The first step was to concentrate on one Country House each. The department offered a range of Country Houses of different characters and backgrounds, among them the great house of Chatsworth in Derbyshire which became a symbol of the revived Country House in the 20th century, and Blair Castle in Scotland, which is also in private ownership and has found its own ways to adopt to the challenges of the present times. An extraordinary case is Goodwood House, still in private hands, owning very fine collections, but particularly famous for its entertaining races on the site. There is Tyntesfield, a fine Neo Gothic Victorian country house built not by an aristocrat but by an industrialist. The House was recently taken over by the National Trust and it is one of the few buildings where the furniture and fittings are still in situ and therefore authentic features of the house. There is Strawberry Hill, the first Neo Gothic country house in Britain, dating back to the mid 18th century, built for and by Horace Walpole, the son of the first Prime minister of England, Sir Robert Walpole. The latter had built a great Palladian country house, Houghton Hall. The articles on these houses and others form the first part of the publication. Each student investigated his or her own house involving the family history, the architecture and design, the building history and the situation today. In doing so they became aware of different aspects related to the very individual situations of their respective house. This led them to the second step: various over-arching subjects related to the country houses.

Most of the subjects focus on country houses today: on the problems and challenges the owners have to face; how to present the houses to the public; their significance for the British and their idea of heritage and national identity. Some of the articles are more from a historical perspective, with students looking closer at aspects regarding the functioning of the country houses at the time when they were built. This led to papers on dining in Victorian times, on literature, on landscape, on the rôle of women in country houses.

During the winter term, the students had the opportunity to meet and to speak to various people associated with country houses in Britain. There was the Earl of Hopetoun, owner of Hopetoun House near Edinburgh, there were architectural and art historians such as Peter Burman and Lorraine Hesketh-Campbell or curators such as John Hardy. They came to Cottbus to talk about their work and their experiences with country houses. At the end of the term, in March 2008, there was a study tour to London to visit some country houses in and close to the metropolis. To see the buildings and their parkland in reality, to enter them, to explore the rooms and to feel the individual atmosphere of the different places was a great experience.

The country house holds many fascinating and very diverse topics for further research, and it is a happy aspect of the study project that it has led to several MA theses that are now being prepared. These will no doubt prove to be fruitful contributions to the country house research that has been going on in Cottbus for some time.