Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 30, 2016
James Raven, ed. Lost Mansions: Essays on the Destruction of the Country House New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 150 pp. Cloth $67.50 (9781137520760)

David Lowenthal contends that the heritage conservation movement came about largely as a result of “a sense of loss,” as humans saw their built environment vanish at alarming rates during the last century (David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985). In the United Kingdom, an island nation, the loss of each historic building often seems to be magnified by longstanding introspection, as the British worry over every facet of their culture like aged librarians. When that building is a great country house, it can seem as if the sky is falling.

James Raven has edited a new book of essays that takes up the subject of how England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland have dealt with the destruction of country houses during the past several decades, weighing the economic and social consequences of the eurozone and the Great Recession. Yet these events pale in comparison to what the country endured after the end of World War II, as Britain was brought to its knees dealing with absence and scarcity of every sort.

Indeed, all of the book’s authors make reference to the 1974 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition The Destruction of the Country House, 1875–1975 as a kind of watershed for the nation. The “power houses,” in Marc Girouard’s view, were symbols of not only a vanishing aristocratic way of life, but of the nation’s most glorious achievements, its very soul. John Harris, a co-organizer of the show with Marcus Binney, recalled: “In that dreadful decade of the 1950s over four hundred houses are documented as demolished; in 1955 one house set on its estate a day was demolished” (8). For the English, losses in the postwar decades were traumatic—what other country would have adopted the term “estates” for working-class housing projects? Though Labor and Socialist MPs may have raised their fists after seeing castles implode on the BBC, even the charwomen wept when Hampton Court went up in flames during the 1980s. Everyone in postwar Britain grew up within shouting distance of a manor, mansion, or castle, which is one reason for the cult status of Downton Abbey.

Do millennials in Scotland and Ireland today feel the same about ubiquitous National Trust museums and historic cottage hotels? Raven’s colleagues address questions like this in some refreshing papers that go beyond the standard fare of art history or conservation theory journals. Jon Stobart takes on the issue of “lost aspects” that transcend the physical decay of buildings—material culture, mercantile history, key patrons, and builders. Barbara Wood considers cultural “identity” as a factor when debating how to conserve and interpret great estates. Elizabeth Bowen’s real and fictional country house, Bowen Court, is the subject of Ian d’Alton’s trenchant essay.

This book also breaks new ground by skewing its viewpoint away from England and toward Ireland and Scotland, each of which had an ambiguous relationship with its own country houses following numerous skirmishes with the crown. Terence Dooley chronicles the dreary fate of Georgian manors, Adamesque palaces, and other “Big Houses” in Ireland. Apparently neither Catholics nor Protestants were sympathetic to the tribulations of cash-strapped landlords; they dealt with vacant houses by burning them, often with malicious intent. In Scotland things were more complex, as every minor squire with a tartan seems to have built a “chateau” or a “castle” for himself, leaving far too many historic piles for the government or National Trust to deal with.

From a preservation theory point of view the most interesting essays in Lost Mansions are in part 2, “Debates and Perceptions.” Rather than chronicling the waxing and waning fortunes of the ruling class through their properties, the final three (among seven) essays look critically at how the remaining great houses could fare during the coming century, and what strategies may prove efficacious in stewarding properties under both public and private ownership.

It is perplexing that so important an Elizabethan house as Montecute, in Somerset, has become a burden to the National Trust because visitors no longer relate to its purely aesthetic and historic features. Yet, as Wood explains, new interpretative programs are underway to underscore the significance of not just the house but of the site itself, both as it developed historically and as it exists today. Michael Davis somewhat irreverently discusses the redundant castle dilemma in Scotland by considering the most likely available options: stabilization of existing ruins or wholesale renovation of historic houses by owners who want to leave their own imprint on the buildings. Despite protests from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and related organizations over any form of restoration or renewal, many newly wealthy patrons are buying castles and renovating them as year-round domiciles, using architects and decorators as they might for any new construction. While such efforts might go unnoticed in the United States, many in Britain cling to the Hegelian/Ruskinian idea that every old building must be embalmed as a product of its historical epoch, or alternatively left to crumble.

Raven takes up an even more controversial debate in the final essay, but one that has received considerable treatment in U.S. publications: the recovery through interpretative media presentations of lost buildings or other landmarks. In Seneca Falls, New York, visitors experience a rebuilt space that evokes the interior of the church in which the first Women’s Rights congress convened, though the original building was demolished decades ago. The museum next door offers a compelling multimedia history of the event and the movement it spawned. Ned Kaufmann calls these places “storyscapes.”

Raven presents a somewhat similar case: the Marks Hall Estate in Essex, where a Jacobean mansion was demolished in 1950, but historic gardens and other artifacts were maintained as a public park. Instead of rebuilding an effigy to enrich the popular site, officials now are considering various forms of “photographic, descriptive and even digital recreation” (119) of the lost house, which was well documented in oral histories, estate inventories, and even films. Raven suggests that by presenting an account of the Marks Hall destruction, in historical context, parks managers may educate the public by going beyond the traditional narratives of physical history, thereby mining a deeper and more profound cultural vein. In the context of conservative, stodgily British conservation policies, such a posture might seem preposterous. But this is not 1974, and fewer people remember the privations of the 1950s.

Though statistics tallying the demolition of country houses are dispiriting—one in six had been torn down by 2000, and dozens more have vanished since—Raven correctly points out that many declined as a result of dissolute families, that some have been purchased with new wealth since the 1990s, and that a considerable tourist industry feasts on the myths associated with the “Treasure Houses of Britain,” as curators at the National Gallery in Washington marketed their blockbuster exhibition during the Thatcher era. Many Britons no doubt agree with Simon Schama: nostalgic costume dramas about the likes of Lord and Lady Crawley are just “a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery” (11). Modern Britain is the home of scores of new immigrants and Europe is teeming with refugees, making “one person’s national treasure . . . another’s symbol of vested interest and oppression,” in the words of Stobart (39).

Still, national symbols do not melt away with each passing generation, especially ones as deeply entrenched as this feudal mash-up of land, country, and the peerage. Every great country house exists in the collective consciousness of British citizens, and thus guards its identities as fully as a flag or anthem. Rather than lamenting losses or condemning necessary renewal, contemporary “keepers” (another apt British term) must squarely face the reality of multiculturalism, diminishing resources, and indifferent politicians. This little book lays out some of their challenges, and opportunities, with characteristic clarity and frankness. Though its paucity of illustrations and mundane production will not attract many non-academic readers, both historians and conservationists will find ample food for thought—it is readily available in digital format—on screen or on paper.

Mark Alan Hewitt
Fellow of the American Institute of Architects; Department of Art History, Rutgers University