How the Country House Became English by Stephanie Barczewski - review by Adrian Tinniswood

Adrian Tinniswood

Waddesdon Revisited

How the Country House Became English


Reaktion 392pp £25

People have been assigning meanings to country houses ever since Ben Jonson eulogised Penshurst Place, with its long lineage and its ancient pedigree, contrasting it favourably with the ostentatious power houses that were springing up all over Jacobean England:

Now, Penshurst, they that will proportion thee
With other edifices, when they see
Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else,
May say their lords have built, but thy lord dwells.

To the Victorians, the mansions of England offered a connection with a pre-industrial Eden, a happier time when the peasants weren’t revolting. Edwardian brewers, bankers and landlords eschewed guilt in favour of gilt. As estate sales and demolitions gathered pace in the mid-20th century, politicians on both sides of the House of Commons declared that the English country house was an anachronistic relic of an undemocratic age. The Lords, on the other hand, argued that they were a vital part of the nation’s heritage and that their guardians deserved handouts from whatever government was in power. Meanwhile, the public began handing over their half-crowns for a glimpse of a sanitised upstairs-downstairs life as the stately home industry, with its tea room in the old kitchen and its gift shop in the coach house, swung into action.

More recently, the country house has become a pawn in the culture wars. It is a symbol of all that is best and all that is worst about Britain and its empire. The stately homes of England are monuments to an indefensible colonial past or shrines to a

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