This week, President Trump visits three English houses of fame and distinction: Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Duke of Marlborough; Chequers, the prime minister’s country house; and the grandest of all, Windsor Castle. It was hardly a worldwide story last month when I visited about a dozen National Trust houses — no state dinner for Brian — but I had the time to look deeply at the work of this unique organization.
The privately run Trust was founded in 1895. It owns and opens to the public more than 350 historic houses and gardens and has about 620,000 acres and 775 miles of coastline. I wanted to see a range of houses period-wise as well as the quality of the Trust’s stewardship of history, art, gardens, and architecture. Have standards of interpretation stayed high? Yes, and so have standards of display and care. How do they speak to 21st-century audiences? With growing relevance and imagination. The Trust still treats people with the assumption that if they’ve gotten themselves to one of their properties, they have a functioning brain, good taste, and discernment.
I’m focusing here on four houses.
Powis Castle in northeast Wales started life as a medieval fortress, moat included, and has evolved for 900 years.
Wightwick in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands is a Tudor Revival tour de force, built between 1887 and 1893 as a weekend and an events space advancing the owner’s political career.
In the 1720s, Stourhead in Wiltshire was one of England’s first Palladian-style villas. Today, its garden is best known. It’s a three-dimensional, living, breathing version of a Claude Lorrain landscape based on the travels of Aeneas, the founder of Rome.
The version of Kingston Lacy we see today belongs to one man, William Bankes. An explorer, collector, and archaeologist, Bankes was discovered in flagrante in Green Park with a soldier. Gay sex was a capital crime then, so he fled the country. While in exile in Italy in the 1840s, he redecorated Kingston Lacy via exacting letters to his sister. Historians conjecture that he made occasional, surreptitious visits home, smuggled in by the estate manager. But wherever he was, he continued to buy art and antiques for this plush palazzo dropped in Dorset.
As many as two-thirds of visitors to the Trust estates with gardens never go indoors. The interiors are by nature static since they preserve designs and furnishings developed long ago, often hundreds of years.
Three of the four houses — Powis, Stourhead, and Kingston Lacy — have big, historically significant gardens and landscapes that draw large crowds of strollers, families, plant-lovers, and dogs. They’re exceptionally beautiful public parks whose gardeners are, in my opinion, among the most knowledgeable in the world. Powis’s garden dates to around 1700. Big, symmetrical terraces descend from the castle to a structured formal garden at the base. It’s a conservative, Baroque-style garden.
Stourhead’s, created a generation or so later, meanders and undulates, more narrative and subtle than assertively manmade and dotted with lakes, temples, and grottoes. As many as two-thirds of visitors to the Trust estates with gardens never go indoors. The interiors are by nature static since they preserve designs and furnishings developed long ago, often hundreds of years.
How to get people inside? The Trust has a new strategy: tweaking its interior presentation by focusing each year on a new theme. This year, each house will explore the centrality of women in decorating the houses, squandering fortunes, or rebuilding fortunes squandered by previous masters. It’s the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the U.K. Each house is developing its own programming, which has an improvised, pop-up feel. It looks temporary because it is. Preeminent are the historic interiors.
The yearly themes will add new context without moving anything or adding new objects. Wightwick’s builder, who owned massive paint factories, collected art by Pre-Raphaelite women. They’re a mixed bag of pictures but a surprise to me and nicely contextualized. At Kingston Lacy, a small show focused on “Brave Dame Mary” Bankes, the first chatelaine. In 1643, she and a small band of servants held off a siege by the anti-royalist Roundheads for nearly four months while her Cavalier husband served on the side of Charles I.
The easiest way to approach these houses is through the families that owned them. Most eventually faced Hydra-headed perils: wastral owners, high death taxes, fortunes too dependent on agriculture, the “hard to get good help” syndrome, and the decimation of heirs during the First World War. Eccentrics, heroes, villains, booms, and busts are plentiful in endless permutations. Viewers of Masterpiece Theatre know some of the storylines.
Another approach takes each room as a total work of art. The biggest pleasure of Trust houses is a unified ambiance of art, furniture, silver, glass, carpets, and room architecture. If a new generation had money, favorite rooms were often redecorated in the latest style.
The sublimely refined library at Stourhead, Richard Colt Hoare’s favorite space, dates to 1792. Designed by Chippendale the Younger, it combines neoclassical coolness and symmetry with Regency flourish and plush.
Kingston Lacy’s Spanish gallery includes paintings but also 16th-century leather wall hangings from Venice, a ceiling with gilded garlands and medallions, and an Italian Baroque illusionistic ceiling. Our libertine exile William Bankes himself designed twelve painted door panels depicting seasonal English weather. There’s a Velázquez portrait of Cardinal Camillo Massimo, a very rare thing, and a lovely copy of Las Meninas by Velázquez’s son-in-law.
Wightwick, built and decorated in less than a decade, is William Morris on steroids. Theodore Mander, the original owner, went to a lecture on design by Oscar Wilde, and this inspired the entire, speedily realized project.
The families often sold the best paintings during bust times long before the National Trust acquired the properties. Stourhead’s wonderful pictures by Turner and Poussin left in 1883, tiding the estate over during an agricultural depression. The fifth baronet’s racing horses were a bit too slow, which didn’t help. Generally, in these Trust houses, portraits abound, stimulated also by obsessive ancestor worship. Less marketable and the most sentimental, they often came to the Trust with the property. At Stourhead and Powis, they constitute some of the best of British portraiture from the early 17th century through the Edwardian era.
The accretion of portraits in a given house shows how conceptions of elegance and hauteur changed over centuries. Powis’s sparkling miniature portrait of Lord Herbert of Cherbury as a melancholy knight from 1600 is one of those pictures I think about like a dog thinks of food. This aristocrat, soldier, diplomat, and philosopher might have been an early British Renaissance man, but it’s his come-hither look that makes any viewer with a pulse his captive. Downstairs, a portrait of his descendent, Lady Henrietta Herbert, was painted by Joshua Reynolds. She beckons us to come hither at our peril, promising a bumpy ride like Bette Davis’s in All About Eve.
The houses might not offer Vermeers or Rembrandts, but in terms of furniture, nothing beats Stourhead’s Sixtus Cabinet, made in 1585 for Pope Sixtus V. It’s the most significant piece of pietra dura, or “hard stone” furniture, in England. It’s a riot of rare, polished stone, from alabaster to turquoise, and purchased by Henry Hoare in 1740 while he was on his Grand Tour of Italy. Powis’s Long Gallery plasterwork from the 1580s and 1590s is a sumptuous example of a distinctly English Renaissance will to leave no space unadorned. And if anyone forgets that opulence is the order of the day, the space includes polychrome bust sculptures from around 1700 of the Twelve Caesars, based on the second-century a.d. biographies by Suetonius.
As dry rot infested the stately rooms, money grew tight, and servants shrunk to a handful, Bankes took over the rooms where, in the 19th century, tenants had come to pay their rent.
The Trust pools the best curators regionally, so scholarly standards stay high and objects get the best stewardship. Head gardeners are serious horticulturalists. Financially, each house is more or less independent, though the Trust centrally provides art expertise as well as marketing and fundraising leadership. Websites for each property have a uniform format with basic information. They’re marketing tools and don’t promote serious learning. I hope the digital revolution over time will provide access to each house’s documentary history as well as to objects not on display. It’s safe to say that almost nothing was ever tossed.
At Kingston Lacy, a note of pathos exists in the few rooms occupied by Ralph Bankes, the last family member to live there. When he died, in 1981, he left the house to the Trust along with 16,000 acres and gardens that had become jungles. As dry rot infested the stately rooms, money grew tight, and servants shrunk to a handful, Bankes took over the rooms where, in the 19th century, tenants had come to pay their rent. His black-and-white portable TV signals a new age, in which the houses moved from centers of private wealth, privilege, and power to the realm of history and artifact.