Saving Country Houses and their Collections in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

Essay by Ben Cowell

Art sales and national decline

A three-part article published in The Times in May 1909 drew attention to the problem of the sale of artworks from country houses and bemoaned the reversal of Britain’s role in the world art market. Whereas in the eighteenth century Britain had been a net importer of works of art, to furnish and decorate its country houses, it was now a net exporter. According to the article’s anonymous author, Britain did not have ‘the excuse of poverty’ for this switch. Rather, the truth was that ‘other countries are richer than they were, and they are more anxious to obtain works of art than we are to keep them’.1

The Story of Lucretia

Figure 1.
Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Lucretia, circa 1500, tempera and oil on panel, 83.8 × 176.8 cm. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (P16e20).

Digital image courtesy of Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, Boston. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

These ‘other countries’ knew of the treasures to be found in British collections: paintings, sculpture, manuscripts and books. The Earl of Darnley sold Titian’s Rape of Europa (1562) to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Boston collection in 1896, where it joined Botticelli’s Tragedy of Lucretia (fig. 1), sold by the Earl of Ashburnham two years earlier.2 The threat was not only from wealthy American collectors. ‘The Berlin Museum is as dangerous a competitor as any millionaire or body of millionaires’, claimed the article, citing its purchase in 1892 of Albrecht Dürer’s Madonna with the Siskin (1506) from the estate of the late Marquess of Lothian at Newbattle Abbey. Meanwhile, Lord Ashburnham sold Rembrandt’s portrait The Mennonite Preacher Cornelis Claesz. Anslo and his Wife (1641) to Berlin in 1894 (fig. 2), seemingly ‘while our National Gallery authorities were asleep’.3

The Mennonite Minister Cornelis Claesz Anslo in Conversation with his Wife, Aaltj

Figure 2.
Rembrandt, The Mennonite Minister Cornelis Claesz Anslo in Conversation with his Wife, Aaltj, 1641. Oil on canvas, 176 × 210 cm. Staatliche Museum, Berlin (828L).

Digital image courtesy of Staatliche Museum, Berlin. (Public domain)

The roll-call of artworks travelling to either America or Berlin from British country house collections was presented as evidence of a worrying exodus of national treasures. As the author of the article pointed out, the loss was not necessarily a result of comparative national economic decline. After all, such sales might equally have demonstrated owners’ abilities at managing their diverse assets, comprising as they did both real and personal property. Rather, the outflow of treasures was happening in conditions of ignorance or, worse, philistine indifference:

We lose some of our greatest treasures, not because we cannot afford to keep them, but because we do not know we are losing them, or are indifferent to their loss … unless something is done, and done quickly, this country will soon be drained of most of the great treasures of art which remain in it.4

The second part of the article went on to sketch out solutions to the problem. This entailed: first, ensuring that the directors of national collections were informed of all potential sales of works of art overseas; second, some sort of export control system; and finally ensuring British public collections had acquisitions budgets to enable them to compete with foreign purchasers.5 An export control system would necessitate no less than a national register of works of art, and such an unprecedented interference in the domain of private, personal property was considered justifiable in the face of the calamitous draining away of the national patrimony. (One correspondent a few days later wrote to the editor to ask, ‘Could anything more clearly show how deeply the doctrines of Socialism have penetrated all strata of society?’6) For the time being, the author of the article applauded David Lloyd George’s 1909 budget decision to extend death duty exemptions to items of purely artistic (rather than associated historic) significance. It was a small measure that might encourage owners to hold onto their artworks in the face of temptation from overseas buyers.

The ideas proposed in the article presaged aspects of the regulatory framework for the art market as it developed over the course of the twentieth century: export controls, fiscal incentives for owners and funding for public institutions to ‘save’ art. In 1909, however, the sale of artworks overseas was interpreted as a manifestation of the diminished role and position of country houses and their owners in the face of challenging economic and political circumstances. An agricultural depression began in the early 1870s caused by several years of disastrous weather conditions combined with an increase in cheaper agricultural imports from the Americas, Australia and India.7 Rents fell by an average of 26 per cent between the middle of the 1870s and the middle of the 1890s with the effect starkest in predominantly arable parts of the country.8 David Cannadine estimates that the capital value of land fell by 30 per cent during this time: to take one example, the gross annual rental of the Holkham estate had almost halved by 1900, from £59,702 to £31,393.9

Sales of works of art were one response to these conditions, albeit that artworks had always been bought and sold for a variety of reasons. The Duke of Marlborough sold valuable pieces from the collection at Blenheim in the mid-1880s. Twenty-five of them were offered to the National Gallery for £400,000, although all but two were declined. (The two acquired for the nation were Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna (fig. 3) and Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I on horseback, purchased for £87,500.10) The National Gallery also bought works from the Earl of Radnor’s collection in 1890 for £55,000.11 The contents of Hamilton Palace (which included parts of the collection amassed by William Beckford at Fonthill) were sold by the Duke of Hamilton in two sales, in 1882 and 1919. The sale of the Hamilton manuscripts to the German government for £80,000 in 1882 led to one of first public agitations against the export of national treasures in this way, while the sale of Lord Ashburnham’s library the following year gave rise to diplomatic embarrassment when the French claimed that part of the collection had been illegally stolen.12 Earl Spencer sold as many as fifty thousand volumes from the library at Althorp in 1892, citing the decline in agricultural rents as his primary motivation.13

The Ansidei Madonna

Figure 3.
Raphael, The Ansidei Madonna, 1505. Oil on poplar panel, 216.8 × 147.6 cm. The National Gallery, London (NG1171).

Digital image courtesy of The National Gallery, London. (All rights reserved)

As well as declining incomes, owners of country houses faced new political pressures at this time. The Return of Owners of Land (1873), or ‘Modern Domesday Book’, published just as the agricultural depression was getting underway, drew attention to the inequality inherent in British society.14 Proponents of the survey had initially hoped a nationwide investigation might demonstrate that political fears about the over-concentration of land ownership were misplaced. However, although the survey proved that nearly one million people (out of a population of thirty million) owned some portion of land, it also revealed that 80 per cent of it was in the hands of fewer than seven thousand individual owners.15 Liberal and radical politicians alighted upon this and made it one of the defining political issues of the later decades of the nineteenth century. A more balanced fiscal system became one of the policy objectives of successive Liberal governments. Sir William Harcourt was Chancellor of the Exchequer in William Gladstone’s fourth administration and his budget of 1894 introduced a significant increase in the death duties payable by estates at the point of succession.16 Some death duties were already in place: probate duty of 3 per cent on personal wealth, and a succession duty of 1 per cent on settled property. But landed estates were considered to be relatively lightly taxed, and no duties were payable on personalty under settlement (heirlooms and artworks), making the death duties a target for reform.17 After 1894 an estate duty was payable on all wealth, real and personal, settled and free, of up to 8 per cent for estates valued at more than one million pounds.18 The level of these duties rose in subsequent decades to 15 per cent (1907–14), 40 per cent (1919–30), then 50 per cent (1930–4) and finally to 60 per cent by the outbreak of the Second World War.19 David Lloyd George’s contested ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909 added various forms of land tax (Incremental Value Duty and Undeveloped Land Duty), as well as a Super Tax of sixpence in the pound on incomes over £5,000.20

These taxes were one aspect of an anti-aristocratic turn in politics and public life, in which there was a diminishing sense of sympathy for landowners generally. Harcourt’s 1894 budget was widely interpreted as ‘the second son’s revenge’, since Harcourt was only second in line to inherit his family’s estate, Nuneham Park in Oxfordshire. (The revenge proved pyrrhic, as Harcourt inherited Nuneham anyway, along with a double dose of duties, after the deaths in succession of his elder brother and then his brother’s unmarried son.21) Spring cites the Duke of Bedford as one of the aristocratic voices at the time to bemoan their lot. Bedford attributed the ‘broken, bankrupt condition of landlords’ to the actions of the government, ‘our Imperial masters’, who have ‘worried land as though its very presence was a grievance’. He anticipated the debts that would arise on his Thorney estate were he suddenly to die, though Spring argues that his fears were exaggerated, pointing out that the decline in agricultural rents at Thorney was more than matched by the increased rents from Bedford’s London properties.22 It became easier to sell entailed property after the Settled Land Act of 1882, and the Bedford estate indeed sold Thorney (to its tenants) in 1909, raising £566,000.23

High-profile sales added political momentum to the idea that the fiscal framework could incentivise owners’ actions in the interests of saving the national heritage from excessive loss. Sir William Harcourt had introduced the idea of exempting artworks from inheritance duties if they were sold to public collections.24 His Tory successor, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, expanded on this idea in 1896, when he determined that settled heirlooms deemed by the Treasury to be of ‘national or historic interest’ could be exempted against death duties. This exemption was a significant concession to landed interests. Harcourt called it ‘an enormous present to the richest millionaires in the country’, while Lloyd George unsuccessfully attempted to make it conditional on the provision of public access to the artworks in question.25 A further tax exemption was created in 1910, when the concept of an acceptance in lieu of tax payment was introduced, though the measure was little used at first mainly because the Treasury continued to insist on a cash reimbursement of any tax foregone in this way.26

The role of government and the National Trust

Art sales continued to increase in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. 1909/10 was a record year, with over a million pounds’ worth of sales.27 Public concern at the draining away of artworks led to the creation of the National Art Collections Fund (NACF) in 1903, to support the acquisition of art by public institutions. It proved a popular cause: by 1914 the NACF had three times as many members as the National Trust, founded eight years earlier in 1895.28 In 1913 the trustees of the National Gallery set up a committee under Lord Curzon to quantify the scale of the issue and to make recommendations. The committee reported on the number of artworks leaving the country, mostly to America or Berlin, noting that eleven works by Holbein, twenty-one by Rubens and fifty-two by Rembrandt had gone in this way.29 Yet the committee was disinclined to recommend new controls on art sales, given that artworks were ‘brought into this country by almost exactly the same means by which it is now sought to take them out’. The committee articulated the perspective of the private owner: ‘To place upon owners the burden of very heavy taxation and then to deprive them of what are in many cases the sole means of meeting it would be almost a refinement of cruelty.’30

It has been estimated that in the years following the First World War as much as a quarter of all land changed hands.31 Many owners chose to sell their London houses at this time, consolidating their holdings at their country estates. At the same time, there were continued threats to houses and collections. An estimated 221 houses were lost to demolition in the years 1920–39, compared to 79 lost between 1870 and 1919.32 Lord Beauchamp urged government to take positive action to support the hard-pressed owner who ‘maintains on account of its historic and artistic value a structure which is ill suited for modern requirements’. He had in mind new forms of tax reliefs and maintenance grants, in return for public access. The plea fell on deaf ears: Beauchamp’s report was buried by the Office of Works.33 Works of art continued to be sold from country houses, such as the sale of the Anglo-Saxon Blickling Homilies and other treasures from the Blickling library in 1932.34

Blickling’s owner, Philip Kerr, 11th Marquis of Lothian (fig. 4), added his voice to that of Lord Beauchamp when he made an intervention at the National Trust’s AGM in 1934 in support of country houses and their collections. Lothian called on the Trust to do more to save the country house, by taking more of them into ownership. Until then, the Trust had not been especially keen on country house acquisitions, having had its fingers burned by the experience of Barrington Court, Somerset, in 1907. The annual costs of maintaining a house such as Barrington deterred the Trust from actively pursuing further country houses, but Lord Lothian’s efforts resulted in advantageous changes to the Trust’s legal powers. The National Trust Acts of 1937 and 1939 gave the Trust powers to accept land in place of a cash endowment for a property, as well as to take on properties that might be held under complex forms of settlement. The Trust established a Country Houses Committee and commissioned experts at Country Life to prepare a list of the six hundred most important houses that it might actively consider acquiring. National Trust acquisitions in the 1940s and 1950s were helped greatly by the establishment of the National Land Fund, founded to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Second World War. Alongside legislation establishing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the National Land Fund proved to have an important legacy for the nation’s heritage, built or portable. Effectively the Fund was used to oil the wheels of National Trust country house acquisitions, since it provided monetary compensation to the Treasury for the tax revenue foregone in acceptance-in-lieu cases. However, there remained differences of opinion as to whether the long-term future of the country house lay with the National Trust, the private owner or even the state. (After all, an estimated two thousand country houses were requisitioned during the Second World War and used for a variety of purposes as military bases, hospitals or schools.35) The post-war Labour government offered the option of nationalisation for certain heritage assets, as demonstrated in the case of Audley End in Essex (fig. 5), purchased by the Ministry of Works in 1947.36

1935. Photograph. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x23515).

Figure 4.
Howard Coster, Philip Henry Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian, 1935. Photograph. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x23515).

Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. (All rights reserved)

The Saloon at Audley End

Figure 5.
The Saloon at Audley End, 9 April 1992, Country Life Picture Library (672315).

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

Stafford Cripps, who succeeded Hugh Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer in November 1947, had less reason to think government ought to take on direct responsibility for country houses and their display. In 1948 Cripps commissioned a committee chaired by Sir Ernest Gowers to report on what role government should take in relation to Britain’s country house heritage. The committee included among its members the art historian Anthony Blunt, the archaeologist and Director of the National Museum of Wales Sir Cyril Fox, architect William Ansell, Ava Anderson (later Viscountess Waverley) and the trade unionist Jack Little. The committee’s brief was to report on ‘what general arrangements might be made by the Government for the preservation, maintenance and use of houses of outstanding historic or architectural interest … including, where desirable, the preservation of a house and its contents as a unity’.37 In one sense the policy debate had moved on dramatically since the early 1930s. The issue now was not so much whether houses and collections should be protected, but rather how this should be done.38 The committee took evidence over the course of 1949 from a wide range of organisations and individuals, and visited numerous houses, among them Longleat, Knole and Wentworth Woodhouse. There were concerns at the time that the committee would instigate a new era of state-led nationalisation for country houses and their collections. As news of the committee’s work spread, James Lees-Milne, Secretary to the National Trust’s Country Houses Committee, recorded in his diary that one major donor to the National Trust, Ernest Cook, was ‘very worried’ at the thought that the government ‘would seize his houses on his death and they would never come to the Trust after all’.39

Cook’s concerns were misplaced. The report presented to the Treasury in March 1950 called time on the idea that the government itself should be active in acquiring houses (fig. 6). Historic houses acquired by the state, the report asserted, ‘are liable to prove white elephants’, requiring significant expenditure on repairs and maintenance. The choice of acquisition would inevitably be determined more by ‘the needs of public service’ than by the quality of the house, and change of ownership in this way would lead to a house ceasing to be a home and being adapted instead to some form of institutional use. This would, in the words of one witness, ‘deprive them of their intrinsic character and rob them of their “soul”’.40 If the owners had no choice but to divest themselves of their property then the committee recommended that the National Trust’s Country Houses Scheme was the best mechanism, with the owner ideally remaining in residence. The Trust, it was felt, ‘has a character of its own, and represents an element of freedom and individuality which it would be lamentable to lose’.41 If there were differences in the strength of feeling among witnesses and committee members regarding the use of the Trust’s Country Houses Scheme in this way, there was unanimity on one point: ‘that the owner of a house is usually (though not of course invariably) the right person to preserve it, especially if it has long been in his family’. The primary need was therefore, in the words of one witness, ‘for owners to be given help instead of being, as at present, discouraged to the point of despair’.42 This help was recommended to come through grants and loans from a new Historic Buildings Council and, crucially, through fiscal means such as exemptions from income tax and death duty and the establishment of individual maintenance funds for private properties.43

Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest: Report of a Committee Appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1950)

Figure 6.
Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest: Report of a Committee Appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1950),

Digital image courtesy of Ben Cowell. (All rights reserved)

Country house collections and national heritage

The Gowers committee’s conclusions were largely accepted by government and proved an epochal moment in the relationship between country house collections and the state.44 Outright acquisition of houses and their collections was now to be considered only as a last resort and was ideally to be achieved through transfer to the National Trust rather than by state purchase. It was accepted as better for houses to remain in private hands, albeit assisted by advantageous tax rules and by maintenance grants. This became the abiding policy of successive post-war governments and indeed remains the stated policy of government today.45 Cornforth observes, however, that the committee may have underestimated the specific problems associated with artwork held in country houses.46 The thrust of the committee’s report was focused on houses as architectural entities rather than as collections of works of art. The committee declined to seek any further restrictions on the powers of owners to sell artwork beyond the controls on overseas exports that had been introduced during the war.47 Nor did the committee think that there was a role for government to preserve the ‘unity’ of a collection by purchasing it outright. They played down the threats, asserting that the number of houses where ‘this matter of unity of house and contents is really important’ was ‘comparatively small’. Rather, they felt, any financial assistance offered to private owners ought to be contingent on owners not selling chattels that were integral to the listing of the property without the prior approval of the Historic Buildings Council and the imposition of a covenant to ensure the repayment of any grant if this condition was broken.48

Export controls on the sale of works of art became a permanent feature of government policy in 1952 with the adoption of criteria established by Viscount Waverley. Export licences for artworks would be granted subject to consideration of three criteria: whether the artwork was closely connected with British history and national life; whether it was of outstanding aesthetic importance; and whether it was of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history. An expert panel, initially chaired by the economist Lionel Robbins, took judgements on individual cases.49 As well as regulation, the tax system was adjusted to encourage owners not to sell their treasures overseas by widening the range of objects that could be accepted in lieu of tax. In 1953 the purposes of the Land Fund were extended to include art and chattels, making it possible to claim acceptance in lieu against the contents of houses as well as the houses themselves. Numerous houses with significant collections came to the National Trust via this route, such as Ickworth (1956) (fig. 7), Hardwick (1959) and Sudbury (1967).50

The Drawing Room at Ickworth House

Figure 7.
The Drawing Room at Ickworth House, 10 March 1955, Country Life Picture Library (679169).

Digital image courtesy of Country Life/Jonathan M. Gibson. (All rights reserved)

Still, there were concerns that the tax framework did not go far enough ‘to prevent the dispersal and export of collections which are of national importance in themselves apart from their setting’.51 In 1956 the scope of acceptance in lieu was widened further to cover individual pre-eminent works of art, not just artworks that were associated with a particular house. A douceur was introduced to encourage owners to take advantage of the acceptance-in-lieu route, whereby items were valued net of three-quarters of the tax that would have been paid, had the object been sold on the open market, with the remaining 25 per cent accruing to the owner. The option of ‘acceptance in lieu in situ’ was introduced, whereby artworks could be transferred to public ownership in lieu of tax even though they were not physically relocated. Reynolds’s portrait of the Earl and Countess of Mexborough was the first artwork to be accepted in lieu in this way, now owned by Temple Newsam in Yorkshire but still hung in its original location at Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire (fig. 8).52

The Earl and Countess of Mexborough with their son, Lord Pollington

Figure 8.
Joshua Reynolds, The Earl and Countess of Mexborough with their son, Lord Pollington, 1763. Oil on canvas, 258 × 290 cm. Long Gallery, Doddington Hall.

Digital image courtesy of Dave Penman. (All rights reserved)

Hence, the fundamentals of the current mixed-economy approach to the preservation of country houses and their collections were largely put in place from the mid-1950s. The new Historic Buildings Council, established through the 1953 Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act, was empowered to offer grants to privately owned houses in need.53 Numerous houses benefited, Doddington, Burghley, Holkham and Browsholme among them.54 This was also the time when many houses started to open, or in some cases reopen, to the visiting public. An early exponent was Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in Hampshire, who even wrote a book on the subject: The Gilt and the Gingerbread: Or, How to Live in a Stately Home and Make Money (fig. 9).55 Beaulieu opened in 1953, joining Castle Howard which had opened in 1952 (following the devastating fire of 1940), Longleat and Hatfield which opened in 1949, and Arundel, Burghley and Holkham which all opened in 1946. Cornforth notes that nearly six hundred houses were open by 1966.56

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, The Gilt and the Gingerbread or how to live in a Stately Home and make money

Figure 9.
Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, The Gilt and the Gingerbread or how to live in a Stately Home and make money, (London: Michael Joseph, 1967).

Digital image courtesy of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. (All rights reserved)

The image of the stately home open to the public was therefore firmly established in the national consciousness at this time. Yet, so too was that other persistent trope: that of the country house in crisis. Demolitions of country houses continued apace in the years after the Second World War, as houses were returned from wartime use and families decided they could no longer afford to keep them going.57 In Essex, for example, nearly forty country houses were demolished in the course of the twentieth century, most of them in the 1950s.58 Perhaps the introduction of the listing of buildings in 1947 hastened the losses, as families divested themselves of their responsibilities for maintenance and upkeep in advance of them becoming statutory obligations. Hundreds of houses were lost in this way: one count suggested 431 houses in England were demolished, in addition to 175 in Scotland and 23 in Wales.59 The number of demolitions had almost certainly peaked by the time of the V&A’s exhibition, The Destruction of the Country House (fig. 10). Politics was at the heart of the exhibition’s concerns, which opened on the day before the second general election of 1974. Ruth Adams has written of how the V&A’s director, Roy Strong, was directly motivated by the threats of new capital taxation, which, if applied to owners of historic houses, would see (in his words) ‘the end of a thousand years of English history and culture, as pell-mell the contents are unloaded into the saleroom, the houses handed over to the Government or demolished. I can’t tell you the horrors looming unless one fights and intrigues at every level behind the scenes.’60 The exhibition catalogue (fig. 11) carried an essay by Sir Oliver Millar, Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures, which stressed the value of the country house art collection: ‘It is no exaggeration to claim that these collections illuminate the history of civilization in the British Isles.’61 Millar regretted the ill-advised sale of works of art from country house collections, even if this was necessitated by ‘compelling financial necessity’. Post-war sales from Woburn and Kimbolton were highlighted as examples, but few collections were considered to be immune from losses incurred at the auctioneer’s hammer. Sir Oliver ended with a plea for a more enlightened attitude to collections to take hold – a ‘more wakeful and less Olympian approach’.62

The Hall of Destruction, The Destruction of the Country House exhibition

Figure 10.
The Hall of Destruction, The Destruction of the Country House exhibition, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1974.

Digital image courtesy of SAVE Britain's Heritage. (All rights reserved)

Roy Strong, Marcus Binney, John Harris, The Destruction of the Country House 1875-1975

Figure 11.
Roy Strong, Marcus Binney, John Harris, The Destruction of the Country House 1875-1975, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974).

Digital image courtesy of Thames and Hudson. (All rights reserved)

The exhibition was part of a more general campaign to raise the issue of country house heritage with politicians. The Historic Houses Association, founded in 1973 as an independent body representing house owners, learned the arts of political lobbying early on as it faced into the challenge of a Labour government determined to pursue a more progressive tax policy. The Association commissioned John Cornforth to prepare a report, published in 1974, which appeared with the apocalyptic title: ‘Country Houses in Great Britain: Can They Survive?’ (fig. 12).63 As the threat of a Wealth Tax loomed, a petition of more than a million names was organised through an alliance of the Historic Houses Association, the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, and the National Trust. The petition called for a more moderate approach to the taxation of owners of historic estates and collections. The National Trust wrote in its submission to a Select Committee on a proposed Wealth Tax of its fear that ‘private owners, in whose ownership the bulk of the national heritage lies, may be forced by the new taxes and inflation to dispose of their property and that as a result the national heritage will be greatly reduced and dispersed’.64

John Cornforth Country Houses in Great Britain: Can They Survive?

Figure 12.
John Cornforth Country Houses in Great Britain: Can They Survive?, (Crawley, Sussex: Woodcote Press Ltd, 1974, published by Country Life).

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

The campaign yielded some successes. The Finance Bills of 1975 and 1976 proposed several ameliorating steps, including the possibility of exempting land and buildings against capital taxation, the option of creating maintenance funds and the option to put houses and collections into charitable trusts. Maintenance funds offered the chance for owners to voluntarily put income-generating assets into trusts free of inheritance duties, with the income from such trusts then reserved purely for the maintenance of a historic building of national significance. These measures were not perfect from the outset, not least as maintenance funds initially were irreversible: their appeal increased only as their inalienability requirement was dropped in the mid-1980s. Another anomaly was that income from funds could only be spent on buildings maintenance and not on the restoration of items in collections, even if those collections only had significance because of their association with the building in which they were located.65

Conclusion: a mixed economy

The reforms of 1975 and 1976 went a long way to signalling that the darkest days facing country houses were over. Commander Michael Saunders Watson, President of the Historic Houses Association, wrote in its journal at the end of 1976 that conditions had been set to ‘establish a fair taxation regime which encourages owners to play their part in the preservation of the heritage without creating tax havens for the unscrupulous’.66 Difficulties were still faced by individual houses and their owners, and collections continued to be sold, such as was the case famously with Mentmore in 1977. Warwick Castle sold a number of pieces in 1978, including the Warwick Vase (fig. 13), destined for the Metropolitan Museum in New York until its export licence was withheld allowing time for the Burrell Collection in Glasgow to make a counter-offer. In situ acceptance-in-lieu arrangements continued, such as with the Romney of Sir Christopher Sykes and Lady Sykes at Sledmere in 1986 (fig. 14), and pieces at Powderham, Houghton, Castle Howard and Longleat. By 1985 the new-found confidence of private collections found its expression in the Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition in Washington DC, comprising pieces from country houses transposed into a museum setting (the irony being that many of the pieces shown in the exhibition were later sold). The Ridley Rules, introduced in 1990, allowed works for which an export licence had been delayed to be purchased by private owners, though later this was only permitted in return for a commitment to public access.

The Warwick Vase

Figure 13.
The Warwick Vase, 1979. Marble, 294 cm. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

Digital image courtesy of Edward Hands. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

1786. Oil on canvas, 100 × 63 cm. Private Collection.

Figure 14.
George Romney, Sir Christopher and Lady Sykes, 1786. Oil on canvas, 100 × 63 cm. Private Collection.

Digital image courtesy of Private Collection. (All rights reserved)

Sales of works of art from country house collections continue to this day. Notable recent examples have included the Roman statue of Aphrodite sold from the entrance hall at Syon (fig. 15), as well as significant pieces from Castle Howard, Warwick Castle and Alnwick Castle.67 Such sales are usually acts of necessity rather than being indicative of any inherent enthusiasm to diminish the coherence of a collection. A 2017 survey by the Historic Houses Association found that one in six owners admitted to selling a work of art in order to fund a repair bill or the like. Sometimes owners are able to make carbon copies of the object they are selling, whether an oil painting or a piece of Roman statuary (such as the statue of Venus sold from Newby and replaced with an exact replica cut from the same marble). Modern technology in this way may also have played its part in maintaining the buoyancy of the art market.

Statue of Aphrodite

Figure 15.
Statue of Aphrodite, circa 1st century AD. Marble, formerly Syon House, Middlesex.

Digital image courtesy of Sotheby's. (All rights reserved)

Above all, however, such sales continue to demonstrate the mixed-economy approach to the saving of country houses and their collections. As Giles Worsley noted, ‘Sales from country houses are always written about as tragedies. In fact, the sale of objects has been a key element in the survival strategy of the country house in the twentieth century.’68 While the majority of the nation’s country houses remain in private hands, they do so in circumstances that are defined by a tax regime that became much more sympathetic and benign in the 1970s and 1980s. There are many more artworks held under conditional exemption than there are hanging on the walls of the National Gallery, which supports the assertion sometimes made that country houses serve as ‘the National Galleries of the regions’. Where such artworks might at one time have faced automatic dispersal as families gave up, sold or even demolished their houses, the public benefit inherent in keeping collections together is now writ large in UK Government capital tax policy.


  • Ben Cowell_crop

    Ben Cowell is the Director General of Historic Houses, which represents over 1,500 of the UK’s historic houses, castles and gardens, all independently owned. Ben has worked previously for the National Trust, English Heritage, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. He is the Deputy Chair of The Heritage Alliance, chair of the Heritage 2020 initiative, and interim chair of the Historic Environment Forum. He sits on the Government’s Heritage Council. Ben has published widely on subjects relating to history and heritage, most recently in The Three Founders, published by the National Trust to mark its 125th anniversary.


  1. ‘The Drain of Works of Art from Great Britain, Part 1’, The Times, 21 May 1909.

  2. Charles Fitzroy, The Rape of Europa: The Intriguing History of Titian’s Masterpiece, London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

  3. ‘The Drain of Works of Art from Great Britain, Part 3’, The Times, 31 May 1909.

  4. ‘The Drain of Works of Art from Great Britain, Part 1’, The Times, 21 May 1909, p. 8.

  5. ‘The Drain of Works of Art from Great Britain, Part 2’, The Times, 24 May 1909, p. 6.

  6. Alfred H. Huth, Letter to the Editor, The Times, 3 June 1909, 13.

  7. For a classic account, see F.M.L. Thompson, English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century, London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1963.

  8. David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, London: Yale University Press, 1990, p. 92. For a recent regional study of the effect on country house demolitions, see Philippa Parker, ‘Lost Country Houses in Lancashire: Reappraisal and Analysis’, Northern History, vol. 55, no.1 (2018): pp. 111–23.

  9. Cannadine, 1990, pp. 93–4; D. Spring, ‘Land and Politics in Edwardian England’, Agricultural History, vol. 58, no. 1 (Jan. 1984), p. 22.

  10. Cannadine, 1990, p. 113.

  11. Cannadine, 1990, p. 99.

  12. Peter H. Reid, ‘The Decline and Fall of the British Country House Library’, Libraries & Culture, vol. 36, no. 2 (Spring 2001), pp. 349, 353.

  13. This collection became the foundation of the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

  14. John Bateman, The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland, Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1971 edn.

  15. J. V. Beckett, ‘The Pattern of Landownership in England and Wales, 1660–1880’, Economic History Review, vol. 37, no. 1 (Feb. 1984), p. 1.

  16. See Martin Daunton, ‘The Political Economy of Death Duties: Harcourt’s Budget of 1894’, in Negley Harte and Roland Quinault (eds.), Land and Society in Britain, 1700–1914: Essays in Honour of F. M. L. Thompson, New York: Manchester University Press, 1996; also Martin Daunton, Trusting Leviathan: The Politics of Taxation in Britain, 1799–1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 237–55.

  17. Peter Mandler, ‘Art, Death and Taxes: The Taxation of Works of Art in Britain, 1796–1914’, Historical Research, vol. 74, no. 185 (Aug. 2001), pp. 271–91.

  18. Peter Mandler, The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home, London: Yale University Press, 1997, p. 163.

  19. Cannadine, 1990, p. 97.

  20. Mandler, 2001, p. 174. For Lloyd George’s budget, see Geoffrey Lee, The People’s Budget: An Edwardian Tragedy, London: Shepheard-Walwyn Ltd., 2008 edn.

  21. Peter Stansky, ‘Harcourt, Sir William George Granville Venables Vernon (1827–1904)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2008. The family sold the house to the University of Oxford in the 1940s.

  22. Spring, 1984, pp. 19–20.

  23. Cannadine, 1990, p. 110.

  24. Mandler, 2001, p. 167.

  25. Daunton, 2001, p. 248.

  26. John Cornforth, Country Houses in Great Britain: Can They Survive?, London: Country Life for the British Tourist Authority, 1974, p. 43. Michael Sayer, The Disintegration of a Heritage: Country Houses and their Collections 1979–1992, Norwich: Michael Russell, 1993, p. 70.

  27. Cannadine, 1990, p. 113.

  28. Mandler, 2001, p. 172.

  29. Sayer, 1993, p. 68.

  30. Jonathan Conlin, The Nation’s Mantelpiece: A History of the National Gallery, London: Pallas Athene, 2006, pp. 114–15.

  31. Thompson, 1963, p. 332. A more rounded assessment of this post-war land market is however given in John Beckett and Michael Turner, ‘Land Reform and the English Land Market, 1880–1925’, in Matthew Cragoe and Paul Readman (eds), The Land Question in England, 1750–1950, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010: 219–36.

  32. Cannadine, 1990, p. 117–19.

  33. Mandler, 2001, pp. 239–40.

  34. Reid, 2001, p. 357.

  35. John Martin Robinson, Requisitioned: The British Country House in the Second World War, London: Aurum, 2014.

  36. Simon Thurley, Men from the Ministry: How Britain Saved its Heritage, London: Yale University Press, 2013.

  37. H. M. Treasury, Report of the Committee on Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest, London: HMSO, 1950, p. 1. Hereafter Gowers Report.

  38. Cornforth, 1974, p. 51.

  39. James Lees-Milne, Midway on the Waves: Diaries 1948–1949, London: Faber, 1985, pp. 136–7.

  40. Gowers Report, pp. 16, 42–48, 30.

  41. Gowers Report, p. 27.

  42. Gowers Report, p. 42.

  43. Gowers Report, pp. 49, 50.

  44. Mandler, 2001, p. 344.

  45. H. M. Revenue and Customs, Capital Taxation and the National Heritage, (accessed 31 January 2019).

  46. Cornforth, 1974, p. 51.

  47. Sayer, 1993, p. 69.

  48. Gowers Report, p. 40.

  49. This work continues today: see Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Export of Objects of Cultural Interest 2016–17, (accessed 31 January 2019).

  50. Cornforth, 1974, p. 64.

  51. ‘Chattels for Death Duties’, Country Life, vol. 113, no. 2936 (23 April 1953), p. 1234.

  52. Sayer, 1993, pp. 70–1; Cornforth, 1974, pp. 35–6.

  53. For the background to the Act, see Thurley, 2013.

  54. Cornforth, 1974, p. 54.

  55. Lord Montagu, The Gilt and the Gingerbread, London: Michael Joseph, 1967.

  56. Cornforth, 1974, pp. 34, 40.

  57. Giles Worsley, England’s Lost Houses, London: Aurum, 2002; John Martin Robinson, Felling the Ancient Oaks, London: Aurum, 2011; Tom Williamson, Ivan Ringwood and Sarah Spooner, Lost Country Houses of Norfolk, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2015.

  58. James Raven, ed., Lost Mansions: Essays on the Destruction of the Country House, London: Palgrave Pivot, 2015.

  59. Cornforth, 1974, p. 6.

  60. Ruth Adam, ‘The V&A, The Destruction of the Country House and the Creation of “English Heritage”’, Museum & Society, vol. 11, no. 1 (March 2013): p. 5.

  61. Roy Strong, Marcus Binney, John Harris, The Destruction of the Country House, 1875–1975, London: Thames & Hudson, 1974, p. 104.

  62. Strong et al., 1974, p. 106.

  63. Cornforth, 1974.

  64. Quoted in Historic Houses Association Magazine, 1976, p. 24.

  65. Richard Vane, ‘Historic Houses or Modern Ruins’, Journal of Planning and Environment Law, March 1978, pp. 145–53.

  66. Historic Houses Association Magazine, 1976, p. 12.

  67. Tim Knox, ‘The Stripping of the Country House: The Gomes Lecture, 2016’, Emmanuel College Magazine, vol. 98 (2015–16), pp. 32–45.

  68. Giles Worsley, ‘Beyond the Powerhouse: Understanding the Country House in the Twenty-first Century’, Historical Research, vol. 78, no. 201 (August 2005): p. 425.



by Ben Cowell
20 November 2020
Thematic Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Ben Cowell, "Saving Country Houses and their Collections in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries ", Art and the Country House,