An art exhibition full of variety and surprises has no unifying theme save that the paintings all come from National Trust houses. Marc Jordan is inspiredby Marc Jordan / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The national trust is a curious hybrid, a kind of push-me-pull-you of the heritage world. Its founders set it up at the end of the last century to protect landscape of outstanding natural beauty, then as now threatened by industry, housing and farming. One hundred years later the Trust is one of the largest landowners in England and Wales. Most of us, though, think of it as the guardian of a huge portfolio of country houses, ranging from quaint old manors to classical piles; acquired almost by stealth.
Visiting these buildings is a mass sport in the summer, to such a degree that some might be worn away, like an overused footpath. It would be nice to believe that we have a particular appreciation of our history and of the cultural and aesthetic role that the English country house has played in it. Perhaps we do. We are also addicted to the contact with upper class life that country house visiting provides. Compared to France and Italy, where the aristos withered a long time ago and historic buildings generally have the antiseptic character of well run museums, Trust properties give the impression that a Wodehousian earl will come in to poke the fire at any moment.
This has a lot to do with the Trust’s palimpsestic view of history. Not for the Trust a spuriously “authentic” attempt to restore its houses to an arbitrary point in time. The lived-in atmosphere, so admired by foreign visitors, is the result of the Trust’s policy, when it takes on a house, of trying to secure its contents as well, which may mean pre-war Peter Jones armchairs in the same room as 17th century Mortlake tapestries. The Trust owns furniture, silver, porcelain, textiles and paintings that many world-class museums would be proud to display. But they cohabit with an eclectic accumulation of lesser objects that give them a domestic context. The Trust’s curators usually strike the right balance between scholarship and intuition.
It is as ensembles that these houses impress us. In the case of the Trust’s collections of paintings we can learn a lot about how the English used pictures-new and old masters-in their homes from the 17th century to the 1940s. We can work out what kinds of subjects and which painters they liked at different times. This is social history as well as art history. But it is often difficult…