If the second son of an ageing Marquess decided to dress in a pink bikini, rename himself Madame Frou Frou and hung the family Canaletto sideways in his crumbling Lincolnshire pile while lighting his farts we’d all chortle at the charm of the eccentric English toff. You can get away with almost anything if your lineage is sound. When Deborah Devonshire moved into Chatsworth in the 1950s, she sliced a portrait of General Monck by Peter Lely in half to fit in a lift bringing food up from her new kitchen. Hint at anything as half as crass as this if you run the National Trust and all hell will be unleashed. Things, the critics say, were always better at some undisclosed point before the vulgarians arrived.
This summer’s storm is over a proposal to change the way the Trust manages its houses. Here, Harry Mount has written a nice bit of polemic against the trendies he believes are dumbing everything down. The Times has piled in too. You’d almost believe the Trust is ripping down the Grinling Gibbons to build a gender-neutral diversity workspace.
It bewilders me why people who think of themselves as intelligent conservatives should throw so much energy into smashing up good institutions these days but that doesn’t mean we should tolerate it. The Trust matters too much for us to allow it. No one has noticed, for instance, that the Covid-forced cuts the Trust is making to its marketing budget are more than double those being inflicted on its art experts.
Of course the Trusts’ critics hide behind a shield of antiquarianism, as if it was simply longer essays on Carlo Dolci’s painting of Saint Agatha, newly-returned to Osterly House that they wanted. Actually they’d never read them. Their real target is the Trust’s sensible effort to respond to the world as it is and adapt.
But what’s the alternative? Does anyone think the houses should go on as they are for the next 1,000 years, sitting almost as they were inherited from aristocrats who ran away with their tax break gifts? You can bet that if these piles were still in private hands they would be changing daily. In fact, we don’t need to speculate. Just look at what is happening in the ones still lived in by families who have to pay the bills.
The Trust’s beige, prim, nothing-too-challenging day-out-and-a-nice-tea mentality has its charms but it’s no more an authentic way to keep country houses going than the 18th-century habit of knocking down cosy Tudor halls to build frigid Palladian piles in their place.
The Trust has long been in the grip of a curatorial old guard which resents change and which has targeted each Director-General in turn for daring to suggest things might be different. Everything is very well cared for, and the dusting is great, and there are beautiful things if you know where to look and arrive with the right knowledge, but it’s not much fun and it’s not actually intelligent, either.
The dumbing down is not what’s happening now but the failure over decades by those in control of the houses and their contents to talk to anyone outside their own narrow specialist world. Heaven forbid visitors might learn something other than not to step over the red rope in the blue drawing room.
This pinekty introvertness has distorted the whole point of the English country house, which has been to show off and shock and have fun. These places are not cloistered colleges. If a past Duke picked up some good Roman sculpture on the Grand Tour as a young man it was probably only to impress. And the reason books on the shelves of stately home libraries have smart gilt bindings is that this was the only part most people ever saw since they never opened the pages.
The Trust’s problem is not that its houses are becoming too vulgar but the opposite: locked away under frigid control they have become boring. A bit less roped-off reverence and a bit more messing around isn’t the same as a Maoist cultural revolution against learning.
Wouldn’t variety be a good thing? Why can’t you bring in families to enjoy dressing up as scullery maids in the kitchen at the same time as offering members something more demanding than the Trust has attempted before? Spectator readers could be invited in to smoke cigars beneath the Van Dycks. We might even be allowed to read the books.
The banal magazine the Trust sends its six million members isn’t a patch for interest or seriousness on the journal the London Library manages to offer a much smaller readership. Why haven’t the curators done something about that?
The Trust isn’t just about buildings, of course. Some say the landholdings are separate and should be broken off, but that is a misreading of all that made England’s great houses so special. They are part of the land which surrounds them. Great private estates know that: but it is to the National Trust's shame that it took privately-owned Knepp, in Sussex, to start the craze for rewilding.
Any proposal now to change the way the Trust manages its farms leads to howls but it has to happen. We need more nature in our landscape. We need to educate people, too, who know nothing about how to respect natural beauty. How else can the Trust keep our countryside wild and special when it is under assault from a society which seems to have decided that dumping your tent in the countryside is fine after a night of camping?
Any big institution will make silly mistakes and play into its critics’ hands. But eccentrics have been doing strange things on our great estates for generations. At Welbeck, the 5th Duke of Portland built a maze of tunnels and ended his days living in five empty rooms, all of them painted pink and reputedly empty apart from a toilet in the corner of each one.
He also owned one of the finest art collections in the country. It is still there. The toilets have gone. We need a bolder National Trust to keep such spirits alive.