Richard Hopton, Sherborne Literary Society
Noble Ambitions by Adrian Tinniswood (Jonathan Cape)
The English country house is one of our national glories, collectively, a unique treasury of architecture and artefacts. For much of the 20th century, it has been under attack, its future the despair of architectural historians and social conservatives alike. 'The Destruction of the English Country House', the V&A’s 1974 exhibition, starkly illustrated the extent of the loss.
Adrian Tinniswood’s new book, 'Noble Ambitions’, is a thoroughly absorbing investigation of the story of the country house since 1945, a blend of architectural and social history, of high culture and scurrilous gossip. Tinniswood is equally at home explaining the technicalities of the Historic Buildings Councils and recounting the eccentricities of the people who owned the houses. Many owners of country houses might have been burdened by debt and dogged by a leaking roof - ‘the moat is overgrown and the earl is overdrawn’ - but many of them muddled through and they certainly had fun while doing so. If some of the social history - for example, the Argyll divorce and the Profumo affair - is well rehearsed, Tinniswood includes other stories which are less well known. In the 20 years between the two world wars, more than 420 country houses were demolished in England alone. Reduced agricultural incomes, loss of heirs in the trenches, high taxation and wider economic depression were all to blame. One cynical peer remarked that, ‘If you need to dynamite a country house, do it early on a Monday morning.’The bigger houses required large numbers of servants to run them; once these were no longer affordable or available, the houses themselves became unsustainable. Worse, houses requisitioned during the war were frequently returned to their owners in poor condition.
After 1945, owners of the large country houses were forced to confront the new reality. Many did so by selling outlying parts of the estate; both the Marquis of Bath and the Duke of Devonshire sold large tracts of land to meet death duties. Others rationalised their houses by demolishing unneeded wings: Bowood, Woburn and Knowsley were all greatly reduced in size. Some were demolished altogether: 48 in 1955 alone. Some houses were rescued by the National Trust; many others received restoration grants from the Historic Buildings Councils. Many country house owners embraced a new commercial spirit: Longleat may have been exceptional in its lions but many a stately home converted a
disused stable into a tearoom for visitors, put the family treasures on display and employed guides.
Tinniswood’s book is, for all its tales of demolition, sale and retrenchment, essentially optimistic. In the 1960s and ‘70s a new generation of pop stars and actors began buying country houses. In the thirty years leading up to the ‘Destruction' exhibition of 1974, a coterie of talented British architects built well over 100 new country houses. Now, in the 21st century, a new breed of the super-rich, oligarchs, tech wizards and hedge funders are breathing new life into these old houses. As Tinniswood says, the country house isn’t dying, it’s adapting to a changing world.’ Twas ever thus.