Saturday, 8 March 2008

On hating stately homes

Visiting Chatworth (Derbyshire) ten days ago with Jim and Katy I was relieved that the house was closed for the season. For us walking in the estate was the point: the landscaped contours, fine trees, idyllic river and the deer.

I've frequently been bored and hostile inside stately homes. I know too much about where the money came from and what life was like for their tenants, who often had their houses cleared for the sake of a view of nature unencumbered by human clutter (see Raymond Williams, The Country and the City). Chatsworth House from the outside had the air of a corporate headquarters plonked arrogantly down in the prime spot in a stretch of beautiful countryside – a crude and vulgar flaunting of wealth and power. The inside, I was sure, would have conveyed that offensive opulence even more unmistakably, and would have been in the worst sort of 18th century bad taste: gilt chairs, furniture with over-luxuriant carving, endless paintings of stuffed-shirt nonentities and their dogs, fat beds with gold curtains held back by brocade ropes, expensive clutter. And reverential guides relentlessly explaining.

This week Angela took me from York to visit her local stately home, Castle Howard, where Brideshead had been filmed. I didn’t object because landscaping is almost always pleasure.

The weather was dull and chilly and the house wasn’t lit by sun as in this picture (not mine, I'm afraid; as is my habit I forgot my camera). It looked as oppressive and over-ornate as Chatsworth, and much of the stonework was still blackened, whether by industrial pollution or a 1940 fire I don’t know. We put off the decision whether to go inside and started with the grounds. As landscape these were lovely; there were two lakes, on either side of the rise on which the house stood, one with a bridge, as Angela said, from nowhere to nowhere; a broad green walk up a hill, along the edge of and then into a rising wood, with paths also descending to the valleys on either side. Immediately in front of the house was a formal layout of lawn and squared hedges, as for all that amorous strolling in costume dramas. If asked I would usually say I prefer something less artificial, but this was satisfying, as geometry and as green architecture: the hedges were the right height and thickness in relation to the spaces, and the whole array was given sharpness by periodic classical statues and, centrally, a fountain with a huge basin in the middle of which a squatting muscle-bound Atlas almost crushed by a huge world poured water. Again, the scale seemed perfect.

In the wood on the hill was a square, domed and columned Temple of the Wind, with crumbling steps on each side and pairs of statues, cloaked deities, facing east and west from the raised base. It was a good building, for some reason enhanced by the irregular blackness of the sandstone except where recent erosion had exposed its pristine colour.

We descended to the north lake to the back of the house, an expanse of wind-troubled water that extended, from the lakeside, as far as the eye could see. At the near end fish-ponds had been divided off by low banks, and some way out was an island of which nothing could be seen except its covering of dense and ragged winter trees. By the lakeside was a wooden pavilion where refreshments were served in season and through which we got to a spacious deck with tables. Standing here we watched the hundreds of different waterfowl, near and far, until we got cold. It was a constantly changing drama of duck courting and aggression, the solitary cruising of what looked like mergansers and coots, and further out and sometimes hidden behind the island a huge noisy flock of Canada geese that sometimes rose and wheeled over the lake and the woods. On a bare tree on the island were perched twenty tall birds in silhouette; one took off and passed low and dark over the water in a wide circuit, finally returning to the tree and standing as if carved with wings extended. The sun moved in and out of cloud, the wind came and went and the light constantly shifted over the water.

Finally into the house. Entering at the end of the west wing (the family live in the east) we were faced by a fine stone staircase occupying almost the full width of the space.

Where I was expecting a chilly austerity of stone, the inside was lively with light and warmth. The roof was glass and the stairs and landing were flooded with light; the stonework was plain, without excessive decoration. The upper walls displayed full-length portraits of generations of head Howards -- Earls of Carlisle, as it turned out. The landing led into a further space of similar dimensions, over which the glass roof continued, with more portraits and the first of a sequence of poshly dressed but friendly and sometimes humorous Yorkshire ‘explainers’.

Then into an extremely high and spacious central atrium lit by a glass dome. The designers, masons, woodcarvers and painters had been given their head here: we had different marbles, fake marbles, sandstone Corinthian columns, varied woodwork, a huge fireplace and more paintings. This was one part of the building in which one might have expected a chilly and vulgar ostentation; in fact the experience was enjoyably luxurious – the thing had been made for the sheer pleasure of its scale and variety.

Similarly with the bedrooms that followed – opulent, certainly, but not offensively showy and in every case comfortable. There was a long corridor, on the colder northern side, lined on the left by windows, with small Roman statues on pedestals disposed at intervals – not too closely – along its length, each one rewarding a look: the head of a Roman boy-emperor, a hero fighting a snake, the bust of a warrior. Not ostentatious, just devised for pleasure and stimulation. Even the long gallery, grand though it was, was somewhere one could imagine a family being at ease rather than on show; the textures were warm, the room light from its long south-facing windows.

The exploitation and cruelty that must have lain behind the wealth of the Howards was no less a reality for the charm and good taste of their house. The interior radiated life and suggested the pleasures of a cultivated (if selectively forgetful) existence. But I realised again, as I suppose I already knew from fine buildings I'd seen in Europe, that the ugliest and most piratical military, political and mercantile lives can nevertheless produce cultural works that continue to enliven us.

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