Art and the Country House: a research project by the Paul Mellon Centre

Essay by Martin Postle

Art and the Country House was conceived in 2015 as a five-year research project, focused specifically on the collection and display of works of art in the country house in Britain from the sixteenth century to the present day. Through a series of carefully selected case studies, the project seeks to address two closely related issues: the formation, character and function of country house art collections, and the conventions, development and dynamics of pictorial and sculptural display within the country house.

The crucial importance of the country house in understanding the history of art collection and display in Britain is indisputable and of longstanding interest to historians of British art. Building on generations of scholarship, the present initiative aspires to introduce new perspectives and voices, turning a fresh eye on the collection of art in the country house, in order to shed new light on the wide range of motivations and circumstances that have shaped such collections. The project also extends to the country house a growing scholarly interest in modes of pictorial display, which had hitherto tended to focus on the display of paintings, sculpture and prints in more urban and public forms of environment and in the exhibition space in particular.

From its inception, the project has set out to concentrate attention on the ways in which country house collections were formed and on the reasons why they took the shape they did. It looks to address the impact on collecting practices of such factors as dynastic ambitions and familial alliances, the growth of continental travel, the development of a sophisticated art market, fluctuations in taste, as well as the ebb and flow of familial wealth.1 It has also sought to explore the conditions, facilities and habits of display in the country house, investigating such issues as the shifting modes of the picture hang, the introduction of dedicated gallery spaces in the country house, the relationship between the country house and the townhouse as sites of collection and display, the development of cataloguing and the growth of professional curatorship.

Eight country houses are presented as case studies in the project: Castle Howard, Doddington Hall, Mells Manor, Mount Stuart, Petworth House, Raynham Hall, Trewithen and West Wycombe. They were selected so as to ensure a broad range of research topics and to provide an appropriately varied set of examples, in terms of their geographical location, scale, patterns of ownership and chronologies. Needless to say, all the houses involved have impressive art collections. Some, like Castle Howard and Petworth, have been the subject of significant campaigns of research in the past; others, such as Mells Manor and Trewithen, have not. All of them have a living presence, in terms of the families that continue to own and inhabit them or to act as their custodians (fig. 1). From the outset, each house was approached on its own terms and research questions were selected in order to explore issues particular to the property in question. In some instances it was deemed necessary to compile a catalogue of art works, for example at Doddington, Mells, Raynham Hall and Trewithen, since through this granular approach to a house’s collection further research questions could be better teased out. In certain houses the presence of significant archival material, including inventories, proved a driver, as at Castle Howard, Mount Stuart and Petworth. There were also instances where individuals and owners had left a particularly significant legacy in shaping the collection. These included the 3rd Earl of Bute at Mount Stuart, Sir John Delaval at Doddington Hall and the 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth. There was also, of course, the questions generated by especially significant or striking groupings of objects encountered in these houses, examples of which included the remarkable but little known Print Room at Petworth, the important series of early Italian pictures at Mells Manor and the family portrait collection at Trewithen.

Lord Egremont in the Red Library at Petworth House

Figure 1.
Lord Egremont in the Red Library at Petworth House, 2008. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of Clive Boursnell / Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)

Drawing on the many strands of research that compose Art and the Country House some preliminary conclusions can be made, which challenge many of the conventional perceptions associated with the subject. The first perception, or rather misperception, is that country house collections are static groupings of objects contained in a hermetic time capsule which provides some sort of fixed portal or window into the past. In fact, such collections are constantly in flux, as objects enter and leave, are moved around different properties or simply sold. Also, within any house there is not one collection as such: there are collections, as successive owners bring to a property, through marriage or inheritance, objects made for discrete settings. Fashions and trends in display also shape the arrangement of art objects within the country house interior far more frequently than is supposed, often over decades rather than centuries. To attempt to present a house as if time had stood still at a specific moment in history is a futile and misleading exercise. Rather, we should strive to communicate the multiple chronological and decorative layers of such properties, in order to enrich our understanding and analysis of the successive assemblages of art objects that have been gathered within them.

With regard to the art works themselves, what also became apparent as our project unfolded is that much remains uncertain, even in houses that have been subject to significant campaigns of research. Dates and attributions require constant questioning and re-evaluation. Finally, with regard to archival material, even from the relatively small number of documents examined in this project, it is clear that this remains a vastly underrated resource, ripe for further exploration. In some instances, such as Mount Stuart and Raynham Hall, huge amounts of on-site documentation still await investigation and interpretation. Elsewhere, the holdings of regional record offices contain treasures in some ways as rich as the houses themselves, which can be used to open up new research routes and options that stretch far beyond the remit of the present project.

Something must also be said here about the format of Art and the Country House, so obvious it might be overlooked or taken for granted: this is first and foremost a digital publication project and was conceived as such from the beginning. The digital format has many advantages in a project of this kind. First, it allows far more content, and of a more varied nature, than could be presented in conventional book form. Art and the Country House brings together detailed catalogues, lengthy documents with transcriptions, essays, an abundance of high-resolution digital images and commissioned films. Through its search facility, objects, artists, art works and bibliographies can be located and compared in what we hope will prove new, productive and more rapid ways. In addition, if required, contributions can be downloaded, preserved in hard copy and shared. Finally, in its digital form Art and the Country House is, like the Centre’s previous research project, The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018, available free of cost or other access barriers.

The Paul Mellon Centre and Country House Scholarship

Art and the Country House has a close association with the Paul Mellon Centre’s long-term commitment to country house studies. Since its foundation fifty years ago, in 1970, the Centre has supported numerous publications dedicated to the history of the country house, both in terms of sponsoring monographic studies and general surveys relating to architecture, interior design, gardens and art objects (fig. 2). The Centre’s own collections contain extensive research resources in this area: archival materials, correspondence, more than 1500 country house guides, sales catalogues, books and photographs. It also contains the archives of a number of prominent art historians, whose pioneering research was related inextricably to country house studies, Ellis Waterhouse, Brinsley Ford and Oliver Millar, to name but a few (fig. 3).

Apethorpe: The Story of an English Country House

Figure 2.
Montage of Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art country house publications, Apethorpe: The Story of an English Country House, ed. Kathryn A. Morrison, Yale University Press: London and New Haven, 2016; Christopher Rowell, Ham House: Four Hundred Years of Collecting and Patronage, Yale University Press: London and New Haven, 2013; Patricia Mccarthy, Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland, Yale University Press: London and New Haven, 2016; Andor Gomme, Design and Plan in the Country House, Yale University Press: London and New Haven, 2007.

Journal XXII

Figure 3.
Oliver Millar, Journal XXII, detailing visit to Raynham Hall, Norfolk, 8 April 1995, pp. 18-19. Collection of the Paul Mellon Centre, Oliver Millar Archive (Ref: ONM/1/2/22).

Digital image courtesy of Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. (All rights reserved)

Over the years, the Paul Mellon Centre has also convened study days at major country houses, including Arundel Castle, Burghley House, Castle Howard, Raynham Hall, Waddesdon and Welbeck Abbey, bringing together a range of scholars to learn from one another and share the fruits of their experience and research. Art and the Country House, however, seeks to go further and capture the wealth of experience and knowledge that exists on this topic, through commissioned essays and catalogue entries. The project also involves the voices of emerging scholars, such as Esther Chadwick and Helen Wyld, who have made innovative contributions on the Print Room and tapestries at Petworth, as well as the research team assembled to undertake the Raynham Hall case study. The series of eight films by the Centre’s Research Fellow and Filmmaker, Jon Law, provide an imaginative and thought-provoking perspective on the country house, complementing the other kinds of scholarly research that have taken place for the project, while adopting their own independent stance. All these instances combine fresh art-historical approaches with new kinds of digital and film scholarship.

Building on the Courtauld Institute’s Photographic Survey

The origins of Art and the Country House, before the current research programme began in 2015, was a pilot project suggested by the late John Guinness and funded by the Paul Mellon Centre, to photograph the art collections in two little-known Cornish country houses, Prideaux Place and Trewithen. In doing so, the Centre was consciously reviving the spirit of the Photographic Survey of British Private Collections, instigated in the early 1950s by the Courtauld Institute of Art, for the benefit of scholars, students and country house owners through the provision of images of works of art in their possession. The Photographic Survey was administered by Rhoda Welsford, the formidable librarian at the Courtauld (fig. 4).2 Initially funded by the Pilgrim Trust, it also received financial support from the Frick Art Reference Library in New York. Its purpose was to record the works of art in private collections in England, Wales and Ireland and to make their existence known to scholars.

Rhoda Welsford, Librarian, Courtauld Institute of Art

Figure 4.
Rhoda Welsford, Librarian, Courtauld Institute of Art, 1953. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of Courtauld Institute of Art. (All rights reserved)

The survey commenced in earnest in the summer of 1953 following a lunch given for the philanthropist and art collector Helen Clay Frick, by the director of the Courtauld Institute, Anthony Blunt, and Ellis Waterhouse, the director of the Barber Institute, Birmingham. Frick was to provide key financial support and set up the American part of the subscription scheme, whereby prints could be ordered by research libraries for a fee. Blunt was aware of the possible pitfalls of demanding campaigns of photography in beleaguered country houses. In a letter to Miss Frick, of 23 September, he pointed out that the full co-operation of the English butler, ‘that most remarkable but prejudiced race of men’, was ‘absolutely essential in these projects’.3 As revealed in Max Egremont’s essay in the Petworth case study, Blunt was also at that time instrumental in the transformation of the collection displays at Petworth in order to reflect their transition from the private realm to public ownership. However, despite his determination to reform Petworth, Blunt was less than enamoured with certain aspects of the collection, including the Turners, which he disliked, the ‘dreary beauties’ by Lely, and the sculpture gallery, which was ‘rather dull’.4

The Photographic Survey was, in some senses, a continuation and formalisation of something which had always existed. The art historian Robert Witt with his wife, Mary Marten, had formed a collection of 500,000 photographs, including images of art works from notable private collections, which was bequeathed to the Courtauld Institute on Witt’s death in 1952. It was therefore natural that the Courtauld, which had just been gifted Witt’s collection, should continue the work. Aside from Blunt and Waterhouse, other key figures were W. G. Constable, curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Oliver Millar, then the Deputy Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. Waterhouse and Millar each received lists of the houses photographed and offered advice on the vexed issue of attribution for the lists which circulated with the photographs.

Photographing art works in country houses at that time was not straightforward and placed considerable demands on photographers, on-site assistants and the house owners themselves.5 Pictures were removed from the wall or, when absolutely necessary, photographed in situ, a process which was extremely labour-intensive, as well as time-consuming, often requiring scaffolding and the creation of an improvised studio (fig. 5). In the 1970s, the Courtauld purchased a van specifically for use on photographic expeditions, with a roof-rack for carrying an extra-long folding ladder (fig. 6). It could be turned into a basic darkroom so that film could be changed in the dark-slides that were then needed for the plate cameras still used in much fine-art photography.

The Photographic Survey, visit to Tabley House, Cheshire

Figure 5.
The Photographic Survey, visit to Tabley House, Cheshire, undated. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of Courtauld Institute of Art. (All rights reserved)

The Photographic Survey van

Figure 6.
The Photographic Survey van, undated. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of Courtauld Institute of Art. (All rights reserved)

Over the years, the format of the Photographic Survey, established in the 1950s, did not change: paper lists, compiled with advice from a small number of academics, remained with the black and white photographs; both were circulated to an increasingly narrow group of subscribers. It was mothballed in 2009, by which time it had accumulated some 70,000 photographs. A significant historical resource, the Survey comprised an invaluable archive of images but was otherwise largely forgotten. It was in order to utilise such images to fuel new research that John Guinness approached the Paul Mellon Centre, and it was from this initiative that the Centre began formulating the idea of a major research project devoted to the subject of country house art collection and display. New photography of art works has represented a significant component in the project and thousands of high-resolution digital images of paintings, prints, drawings, tapestries, architecture and interiors have been generated (fig. 7). From the beginning, however, it was not the intention simply to build a database composed of digital images of these art collections but to use photography as a driver for new and innovative research.

Tom St Aubyn photographing at Raynham Hall

Figure 7.
Tom St Aubyn photographing at Raynham Hall, 2017. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of Martin Postle. (All rights reserved)

The Country House: Collection and Display

At the heart of the present project are the contributions by more than forty authors to its eight case studies and by those who have supported and assisted with their research. They include curators, university academics, conservators, archivists, independent scholars and, crucially, the owners and administrators of the houses. The principal focus has been on paintings but there are also essays addressing the role of tapestry, sculpture, architectural drawings, manuscripts and architecture. In addition, seven essays have been commissioned on themed topics, ranging from the evolution of customised picture galleries, the conscious preservation of the past, women’s collecting and display strategies, to country houses as homes and tourist destinations and to the economic and political structures that underpinned the extravagant acquisition policies of the owners of so-called ‘power houses’. Collectively, these essays serve to amplify and provide a context for the materials and topics explored in the case studies. Together, all this scholarship offers what we hope will be a rich, sharply focused set of new perspectives on the country house and on the role of art collections within the dynamics and history of such properties.

Mark Girouard, the doyen of country house studies, has observed that the country house and estate traditionally had four key functions: income, power, prestige and the provision of a pleasant way of life.6 In the late nineteenth century major country house owners continued to own vast swathes of the British countryside, as they still do today.7 In 1873 it was calculated that 80 per cent of the acreage of Great Britain was owned by less than seven thousand people; most owned country houses.8 These individuals also ran local and national government and had considerable property in towns and cities. Income was derived from rents on land, primarily from tenant farmers, who also supported the country house owner through voting for him in Parliament. Owners also appointed the vicars in their parishes and the Members of Parliament in the local towns. The owner’s network of power was termed their ‘interest’, a polite way of saying ‘control’. By the Georgian period, the country house and its valued contents occupied the epicentre of this powerful network, sited not in splendid isolation amid rolling acres but strategically positioned as the visual expression of conspicuous consumption and personal possession that reflected local, national and global interests.

Art played a powerful role in such environments. Increasingly, from the seventeenth century onwards, picture and sculpture collections were installed in dedicated galleries, even at relatively modest country houses, where owners, fresh from the Grand Tour, could flaunt their prized acquisitions and demonstrate their Eurocentric sophistication. Around the British Isles, and in Ireland, country house owners embarked on extravagant building schemes, creating opulent interiors intended to replicate the Grand Tour experience on home soil. Paintings and statuary, together with lavish furnishings and carpets, served to provide an ambience of grandeur, which reflected power and disposable income as well as taste. In the present project no house represents this more visibly than Castle Howard, where the young spendthrift 5th Earl of Carlisle (1748–1825) managed to accrete art objects faster than he had time or space to consider their display.

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the dispersal of art collections was also becoming a factor for those country house owners who had overstretched their resources. In 1848 the sale of the contents of Stowe House, the seat of the Duke of Buckingham, hit the headlines (fig. 8). As The Times commented:

During the past week the British public has been admitted to a spectacle of painful interest and gravely historical import. One of the most splendid abodes of our almost regal aristocracy has thrown open its portals to an endless succession of visitors, who from morning to night have flowed in an uninterrupted stream from room to room, and floor to floor – not to enjoy the hospitality of the Lord or to congratulate him on his countless treasures of art, but to see an ancient family ruined, their palace marked for destruction, and its contents scattered to the four winds of heaven.9

The State Drawing-Room, Stowe

Figure 8.
Joseph Nash, The State Drawing-Room, Stowe, 1845. Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour, 31.7 × 44.5 cm. Royal Collection (RCIN 920174).

Digital image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020. (All rights reserved)

The sale seemed to some not just a dispersal but a desecration. In 1922 the house, devoid of its contents, was sold. It was turned into a private school, which it remains today, complete with a golf course straddling Lord Cobham’s historic landscape garden, the latter now administered by the National Trust.

At the time it was commented that the sale of art objects and associated chattels from Stowe had raised a mere £75,000. More recently, Francis Haskell confirmed that ‘the contents of Stowe were not of the greatest importance’, compared, for example, to the art objects disposed of at sales by Blenheim Palace in 1844 and Hamilton Palace in 1882.10 Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, was the seat of the Dukes of Hamilton and a treasure house extraordinaire (fig. 9), including major works by Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck and Reynolds. The house, which was begun in 1695, was only completed at vast expense in 1842. Following the sale of its contents, Hamilton Palace fell gradually into disrepair, the financial overheads of maintaining it proving too burdensome. In 1921 its fixtures and fittings were sold off and the house was demolished.

Interior view of the Gallery at Hamilton Palace

Figure 9.
Interior view of the Gallery at Hamilton Palace, 1919. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of Alfred E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)

The threat to the country house and its collections was fuelled by the collapse in land values in the late nineteenth century, the imposition of inheritance taxes, the impact of the First World War on the labour market and changing social attitudes to work and service among those who had traditionally been employed in houses and on estates. It should also be stressed that the parlous situation in which many country house owners found themselves was shaped by their inability to adapt to the modern world, in which they were no longer the focal point of the universe or even the county. The relevant issues are discussed in greater detail by Ben Cowell in his ‘Saving Country Houses and their Collections in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries’: suffice to say, it has been claimed that between 1918 and 1921 up to eight million acres changed hands as landed families give up their estates.11 Country house demolition rates also increased rapidly. Indeed, well over a thousand properties were demolished between 1875 and 1975, about a quarter of the total number; half of these were demolished following the Second World War. By 1945 those country houses that had been requisitioned for war use had often suffered great damage. Some were converted into schools and hospitals and others demolished. It was in the wake of such depredations that the National Trust embarked on a mission to ‘save’ the country house. This new initiative was spearheaded by the architectural historian James Lees-Milne, who acted with messianic zeal in persuading owners that ceding their properties to the Trust could at a stroke solve their financial problems and boost the nation’s heritage assets. It also effectively signalled that the country house could rightfully be regarded as a ‘museum’ rather than a private residence. The shift in perception also begged the question of what was to be expected of the country house for those visitors who paid hard cash to gain entry – the expectation of an instant thrill set against raw materials that often spoke more of a hermetic family legacy over a prolonged period of time.12

English Country House Style

And yet, despite the decline in numbers, and the continued reference to its ‘demise’, the country house has survived both as an entity and as a source of revenue and employment. In the post-war period entrepreneurial owners increasingly found new ways of promoting the country house brand, from safari parks and tourist trails to farm shops, restaurants and wedding venues, while additional revenue was raised through the steady haemorrhaging of art works onto the market via art dealers and auction houses. This new-fangled, more savvy approach to country house stewardship depended to a great extent on the ability of owners to capture the public’s imagination through an appeal to traditional values and the aesthetic excellence of their collections, which were upheld as ‘heritage’ assets of universal value.

For the roots of this new-found confidence we can look back to the 1930s and the emergence of the so-called ‘English Country House Style’, the brainchild of a wealthy American heiress, Nancy Lancaster.13 Focusing on interior decoration and garden design, Lancaster imposed her brand on a number of properties, using faded colours, chintzes and painted furniture, a facet of a broader neo-Georgian revival, displayed notably at her own country house, Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire (fig. 10). Her business acumen, as well as her confident taste, led her to acquire the decorating firm run by Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler, which still operates today. Lancaster, who worked alongside Fowler, aimed to produce comfortable, elegant interiors with soothing colour schemes and lighting, all of which acted as sympathetic mood-music for the display and appreciation of art objects. In other words, Lancaster created a ‘world of interiors’ that still continues to mould taste and condition middle-class aspirations to country house living. Once more the country house represented the pinnacle of taste, and the ability to enter its cultural milieu was predicated on the ability of upwardly mobile individuals to enhance their social status through material investment in the brand.

The Blue Drawing Room, Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire

Figure 10.
Alexandre Serebriakoff, The Blue Drawing Room, Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, circa 1948. Watercolour. Private Collection.

Digital image courtesy of The Estate of Michael Tree. (All rights reserved)

Lancaster’s creation was developed and promoted in the 1950s through to the 1970s by Fowler, to the point that his imprint on country house properties became the ‘correct style’, not least through his numerous interventions in properties acquired by the National Trust, including Claydon House, Buckinghamshire and Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, now home to the Trust’s Museum of Childhood (fig. 11).14 Although his approach has been questioned in recent times, Fowler still continues to cast a long shadow over the presentation of the country house interior, colouring – literally – our understanding and interpretation of these spaces and compelling the visitor, it may be argued, to don a pair of rose-tinted spectacles that occlude reality. Since Fowler other designers have come forward to assist in the representation of historic country house interiors. Notable among them is the artist, writer and conservator Alec Cobbe, who has worked on a number of major houses including Petworth, which forms the subject of his own contribution to the present project.15 Cobbe has also played a major role in the re-presentation of Hatchlands, Surrey, the former home of the Boscowen family, now owned by the National Trust and tenanted by Cobbe, whose picture collection is displayed there (fig. 12), with an extraordinary eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosities and an internationally renowned collection of musical instruments.16

The Long Gallery, Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire

Figure 11.
The Long Gallery, Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, undated. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of David Dixon - (CC-BY-SA/2.0)

The Saloon, Hatchlands Park, Surrey, hung by Alec Cobbe with paintings from the Cobbe collection

Figure 12.
The Saloon, Hatchlands Park, Surrey, hung by Alec Cobbe with paintings from the Cobbe collection, 2018. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Photo library / Alamy Stock Photo. (All rights reserved)

What then are the conclusions to be drawn from this new packaging of the country house, in the context of the present project? The first is that owners and designers are often working to agendas that compete with and complicate the collections and display of art in the country house and thus nothing can be taken at face value. What may appear to have been in situ for decades or even centuries may in fact have been imposed in the recent past – or be a work in progress. Now, as I write, Castle Howard is undergoing a major makeover that will transform the ways in which its collection is appreciated and understood. Secondly, this project has taught us that researchers must pay close attention not merely to particular objects that appeal to their own interests and expertise but to the whole mis en scène, taking nothing at face value but attempting to fathom what lies beneath.

Country Life

Today, Country Life, for so long a proponent of the country house, retains a significant role in its interpretation and presentation. Founded in 1897 by a country house owner, Edward Hudson of Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland, Country Life promoted the country house and its estate as an aesthetic experience and a property portfolio. Indeed, high-end advertising of country house properties and estates remains one of its main reader attractions and income streams. The magazine, published weekly, has maintained a familiar format over the years, with copious features on privately owned stately homes, estates and gardens, as well as dogs, horses, rural sports and young women of a certain class.

With a niche market aimed at a readership who live the ‘country life’ in its traditional connotation, or who aspire to it, the magazine has provided a virtual portal to houses, interiors and objects, through its invaluable photographic records and descriptions of buildings and contents. A roll call of its contributors and editors over the years – Clive Aslet, Marcus Binney, John Cornforth, Mark Girouard, John Goodall, Michael Hall, Christopher Hussey, Jeremy Musson, John Martin Robinson and Giles Worsley – underlines that the tie between modern country house scholarship and Country Life is inextricable. Indeed, articles published initially in Country Life often formed the basis for subsequent country house histories. This was especially the case with Christopher Hussey, whose Country Life contributions (fig. 13) were the basis of his trilogy of books on the English Georgian country house, published in the 1950s and, in terms of text and image, still regarded as indispensable.17

Country Life

Figure 13.
Christopher Hussey, 'Raynham Hall - I. Norfolk. The Seat of The Marquess Townshend', Country Life, 14 November 1925, p. 742-743.

Digital image courtesy of Country Life. (All rights reserved)

The nexus for scholarship in Country Life, aside from the air of well-bred gentlemanly connoisseurship shared by many of its contributors, has always been an assumed familiarity with houses and owners; its writers formed an exclusive, and almost exclusively male, coterie that served as guardian and gatekeeper, providing an enticing peephole into elite private properties through a kind of cultural voyeurism. In some instances, it was a familiarity that verged on obsession. Ellis Waterhouse, an authority on Baroque and British painting and a distinguished museum director (as well as the first Director of the Paul Mellon Centre), dedicated decades to the inspection of country houses and their collections; his notebooks, correspondence, photographs and auction catalogue collection form a tremendous repository for ongoing and future country house research. Waterhouse had a formidable knowledge of genealogy, of crucial importance in understanding the ties which bound the dynastic owners of myriad country house properties. He also had a photographic memory, which, assisted by habitual note-taking, enabled him to recall precisely where he had seen a particular picture.18

Of a slightly younger generation than Waterhouse, but equally significant in promoting a more robustly academic approach to the country house, was Oliver Millar, best known today perhaps as the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and the Director of the Royal Collection. Throughout his life, Millar, like Waterhouse, trawled tirelessly through country house collections, making notes, formulating attributions, cultivating contacts and forging friendships. Millar’s country house notebooks and his research papers – including his collection of photographs – are now housed in the Paul Mellon Centre’s archive (see fig. 3).

While acknowledging the various contributions of those scholars of the twentieth century whose research has formed the bedrock of country house scholarship, the current project aims to shake off the habits of mind that have become embedded in such scholarship by seeking to question and comprehend rather than to endorse or celebrate. Rather than taking on the role of agent or apologist, which has sometimes been the case with earlier writers on the topic, its contributors have sought to bring not only a fresh but also a more critical eye to the country house art collection, using new art-historical approaches and new instruments of research (including a vast corpus of relevant online materials) as they do so.

The Treasure House and the National Trust

So, to the recent past and the present day. In many ways the situation regarding the survival of the country house is far healthier than it was a hundred years ago. For one thing, access to houses for the general public and for scholars has improved greatly and many owners are less guarded about revealing the contents of private collections. In 1985 a ground-breaking exhibition, The Treasure Houses of Britain: 500 Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting, was hosted by the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and curated by Gervase Jackson-Stops, the Architectural Adviser to the National Trust. Boasting some seven hundred art objects from more than two hundred country houses, it also provided a useful shop-window for those who for various reasons desired, or were required by financial constraints, to sell off family chattels. On a less cynical note, there can be no doubt that it formed a catalyst for further scholarship and research. By this time, with the formation of the Historic Houses Association in 1973, country house owners had gained a collective identity and found a network for promoting common interests and concerns. Today, the website of Historic Houses, as it is now branded, promotes private (‘independent’) country houses that, according to the advertising rubric, form ‘Britain’s lived-in heritage’.19 Unlike museums, the properties represented by Historic Houses are ‘lived-in family homes, with resident families often able to trace their lineage there back hundreds of years’. As such, they are, according to Historic Houses, distinct from English Heritage or the National Trust.20

Established in 1895, the National Trust was initially more concerned with preserving the landscape than the built environment. In 1937, however, a second National Trust Act was passed, allowing country house owners to transfer a house and its contents to the Trust, with an endowment in the form of land, permitting them to continue to live in the house while allowing a degree of public access. From this developed the ‘in lieu’ scheme whereby owners could settle tax bills by transferring works of art to the Trust. Petworth House – one of the houses that features large in this project – was the guinea pig for this scheme, of which the owners expressed conflicted opinions, not least concerning the way in which their collection was cherry-picked by the Trust and the hefty endowment they provided in order to maintain the house and their own presence there.

The National Trust, in addition to promoting ‘great days out’ for the public, has fostered scholarship through the employment of a range of specialist curators. It also has a substantial publication record. Initially, focusing on modest guidebooks, the Trust has in recent years produced more weighty scholarly volumes, notably the multi-authored books on Ham House and Hardwick Hall, both of which were published with the support of the Paul Mellon Centre.21 The Trust has also expended considerable effort in placing collections online, encouraging the virtual exploration of the bewildering range of objects in its care, from armchairs and old-master paintings to bedknobs and broomsticks.22 Now, however, in 2020, the Trust itself is under intense scrutiny as it absorbs the impact of a global pandemic on its economic viability, visitor numbers and employees, while at the same time engaging in challenging debates surrounding those historic properties in its care which are tainted by the legacies of slave ownership, unscrupulous investment and colonialism. In order to see what has happened over the last five years, we can refer to one notable case history, Clandon Park, Surrey.

On the morning of 29 April 2015 the nation woke up to the news that Clandon Park had been gutted overnight by a devasting fire (fig. 14). The house, designed in the early 1730s by the Venetian-born architect Giacomo Leoni, with sculpted chimneypieces by the Flemish sculptor John Michael Rysbrack, contained one of the most captivating country house interiors in the south of England, popular with scholars and the public alike. In the aftermath of the fire, the appalling extent of the damage was immediately apparent. The house was now a shell and almost 95 per cent of the interior had been destroyed. Countless precious works of art had gone up in smoke, including paintings by Johan Zoffany (fig. 15), William Hogarth and Wright of Derby, as well as sculpture, decorative plaster work, ceramics and textiles.23

The day after the devastating fire at Clandon Park, 29 April 2015

Figure 14.
The day after the devastating fire at Clandon Park, 29 April 2015, 2015. Photograph.

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Photo library / Alamy Stock Photo / Photo: John Millar. (All rights reserved)

The Mathew Family at Felix Hall, Kelvedon, Essex

Figure 15.
Johan Zoffany, The Mathew Family at Felix Hall, Kelvedon, Essex, circa 1763-4. Oil on canvas, 118 × 156 cm, destroyed. Formerly on loan to Clandon Park, Surrey.

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images. (All rights reserved)

The National Trust, which had owned the property since 1956, reacted by stating that because of the ‘the enduring significance of the architect Leoni’s original designs’ the house should be returned to its ‘original glory’. The Trust’s Director, Dame Helen Ghosh, went so far as to exclaim that the conflagration represented ‘an exciting new chapter in the Clandon story’ and that there would be an architectural competition for new design options.24 Rather differently, the former owner, the 8th Earl of Onslow, whose ancestors commissioned and paid for the house, and inhabited it for more than two hundred years, stated that it should remain a ruin: ‘We believe that the insurance money would be better spent saving a historic house which needs saving. This one, sadly, is dead and should be left in peace and not treated like Frankenstein’s monster’.25 Both parties had a point. Clandon, as it had been in its glory days, was no more. The architectural interior could be replicated at a considerable cost but the paintings and furnishings were lost in perpetuity. It could be recreated faithfully, even if its contents could not be recovered – but would an entirely new design mutate Clandon merely into a new form of visitor attraction, just another potentially ‘great day out’? Even before the cataclysmic event of 2015, what did Clandon mean beyond the realms of academe and scholarship? The Daily Mail, which took a special interest in the fire and its aftermath, described the house in terms that would be most familiar to its readership: ‘Keira’s movie mansion’, a backdrop to the 2008 film The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes as the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – who, of course, had lived in a far grander country residence, at Chatsworth, Derbyshire.26

Scroll forward to 2020 and view Clandon as it is now featured on the National Trust’s website, under the banner ‘Clandon Park’s connections to slavery and colonialism’, with a link to the Trust’s recently published colonialism report.27 Plans are still being discussed for the future of post-fire Clandon but rather than referring its ‘original glory’, the Trust now puts a spotlight on the context of its creation and the fortune based on plantation ownership and enslavement that financed and furnished it.28 Circumstances forced on the Trust, it may be surmised, have led to this change of focus, rather than a proactive initiative to step back from the former celebratory tone that characterised its approach to country house custodianship. It is easy to be wise after the event, however, and due credit should therefore be given to the Trust for grasping the nettle and seeking to engage in important and long overdue debates on the role of colonialism in contributing to the social and political infrastructures that gave rise to the country house and all it represents, and indeed all it contains.


Here is not the place to indulge in polemics on the validity of the country house in the twenty-first century, either as a historical visitor attraction or an elite private residence. However, if we can accept, as this project does, that the art contained in the country house is worthy of serious scholarly investigation, then some points may be offered for final consideration. One point is that houses need curators. Whether in the private or public realm, objects deserve to be cared for by individuals with knowledge and expertise, who can in turn interpret the meanings of objects and share their knowledge with others. Secondly, there is, to put it bluntly, the issue of class snobbery. There is an urgent need to expand the visitor-base attracted by the country house, beyond those who assume such houses are part of an automatic birthright, whose culture and aesthetic somehow belong exclusively to them. Too often, cultivating a knowledge of the country house and its collections has been used to affirm class status and social superiority. Appreciation of art objects is vital but space needs to be made to accommodate critical voices and the questioning even of the most basic assumptions about these houses, the objects they contain and their very raison d’etre.

The requirement for such a space became even more apparent over the summer of 2020, during which this project came to a close, when Black Lives Matter protests erupted across Europe and North America and institutions such as the National Trust became subject to completely new kinds of critical scrutiny. This leads to a third and final point: the need for a more diverse community of scholars working on the country house, in terms of ethnicity, race and gender. As Oliver Cox notes in his thematic ‘From Power to Enslavement’ for this project, recent scholarship has done much to unearth the relationship between country houses and the legacies of slave ownership, empire and colonialism. Even so, far more effort needs to be made to diversify not only the subjects investigated in country house studies but also the community of scholars working in this field of research.

It is in this way, through a deeper understanding of history, through an active engagement with emerging cultural and political debates and through a new commitment to diversifying the voices and perspectives that we bring to the topic, that the country house and its collections of art objects can continue to remain relevant. From the perspective of Art and the Country House, it seems imperative to encourage similarly innovative and experimental object-based research projects that can probe further the contexts that have made the collection and display of art such a crucial aspect of British country house culture. The building and furnishing of country houses was an activity originally undertaken by, and intended to appeal to, a tiny privileged minority of the populace. Yet, as a phenomenon, it has impacted the lives of many generations of people across the globe, both positively and negatively, and as such ought to be reclaimed as a viable and valuable area of ambitious and rigorously critical scholarly investigation.


  • Dr Martin Postle is Deputy Director for Grants and Publications at the Paul Mellon Centre. Between 1998 and 2007 he was Head of British Art to 1900 at Tate. Martin's research and publication interests focus principally on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British art, including portraiture, landscape and the history of art academies. He has curated exhibitions on a wide range of subjects, including the artist’s model, the Fancy Picture and the art of the garden, as well as monographic exhibitions on Joshua Reynolds, Johan Zoffany, Richard Wilson, Stanley Spencer and George Stubbs. Martin is project leader and commissioning editor of ‘Art & the Country House’, to which he has contributed a number of essays and catalogue entries.


  1. As Oliver Cox remarks with regard to the Mount Stuart case study, it was the remarkable ability of the Butes to ride different types of financial innovations – from the perks of political office, through coal, a diversified property portfolio and the strategic offloading of assets when required – that guaranteed an investment in the country house and its collections over successive generations from the seventeenth century to the present day. Personal communication with the author, 19 October 2020.

  2. As has been observed, ‘Rhoda Welsford – never seen without her gloves – ran her empire like a Mayfair hostess, with fresh flowers every day and young society gels who sorted out the books’: Miranda Carter, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, London: Macmillan, 2001, p. 359.

  3. Anthony Blunt to Miss Helen Clay Frick, 23 September 1953, Photographic Survey files, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, communication by Jonny Yarker.

  4. Carter, 2001, p. 378.

  5. Writing to the Marquess of Lansdowne in 1954, Rhoda Welsford requested that he provide not only elevenses and tea for the Courtauld staff at Bowood but also three strong men, an electrician and a carpenter, plus a sturdy table. Photographic Survey files, Courtauld Institute, communication by Jonny Yarker.

  6. Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978.

  7. It has been estimated that perhaps a third of England still remains in the hands of the landed aristocracy: Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England? How we lost our Green & Pleasant Land & how to take it back, London: HarperCollins, 2019, p. 107 (Ebook edn).

  8. See Return of Owners of Land, 1873, 2 vols, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode for HMSO, 1875.

  9. The Times, 14 August 1848, under the headline ‘Ruin of the Duke of Buckingham’.

  10. Francis Haskell, ‘The British as Collectors’, in Gervase Jackson-Stops, ed., The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 58.

  11. See David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 18–19. These figures have since been disputed as an exaggeration of the demise of the fortunes of the landed aristocracy in the wake of the First World War: Shrubsole, 2019, pp. 84–5.

  12. I am grateful to Oliver Cox for raising this point with me; personal communication with the author, 19 October 2020.

  13. Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style, London: Frances Lincoln, 2005.

  14. Martin Wood, John Fowler: Prince of Decorators, London: Frances Lincoln, 2007.

  15. See Julius Bryant, ed., Alec Cobbe: Designs for Historic Interiors, London: V&A Publishing, 2013.

  16. Hatchlands Park, Surrey, Cobbe Collection Trust in association with the National Trust, 2002; Arthur MacGregor, ed., The Cobbe Cabinet of Curiosities: An Anglo-Irish Country House Museum, New Haven and London: published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2015.

  17. Christopher Hussey, English Country Houses: Early Georgian, 1715–1760, London: Country Life, 1955; English Country Houses: Mid Georgian, 1760–1800, London: Country Life, 1956; English Country Houses: Late Georgian, 1800–1840, London: Country Life, 1958.

  18. The Ellis Waterhouse Archive, which contains annotated photographs, research notes and correspondence, is housed at the Mellon Centre, (accessed 21 October 2020). Waterhouse’s notebooks and research files, c.1924–79, which include records of his visits to country houses, belong to the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (no. 870204).

  19. (accessed 21 October 2020).

  20. (accessed 21 October 2020).

  21. Christopher Rowell, ed., Ham House: 400 Years of Collecting and Patronage, New Haven and London: published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2013; David Adshead, ed., Hardwick Hall: A Great Old Castle of Romance, New Haven and London: published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2016.

  22. National Trust Collections, (accessed 21 October 2020). At the time of writing, the site contains 1,036,706 items, including about 13,500 paintings, 6000 sculptures and 650 tapestries.

  23. Johan Zoffany’s The Mathews Family at Felix Hall, Kelvedon, Essex, c.1763–4, was on long-term loan to the National Trust from a descendant of the sitters. Like the eighteenth-century owners of Clandon, Daniel Mathew, who features in Zoffany’s portrait, was invested heavily in plantations in the West Indies.

  24. (accessed 21 October 2020).

  25. 8th Earl of Onslow quoted in The Daily Mail, 19 January 2016,

  26. The Daily Mail, 29 April 2015,

  27. See also Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery, (both accessed 21 October 2020).

  28. Among the objects to have been destroyed at Clandon was a plaster bust of an enslaved African above a doorway in the Marble Hall: (accessed 21 October 2020).



by Martin Postle
20 November 2020
Thematic Essay
All rights reserved
Cite as
Martin Postle, "Art and the Country House: a research project by the Paul Mellon Centre", Art and the Country House,