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The history of collecting: Not something to frighten the horses

An exhibition on the art in British country houses aims to show the public that these collections play a modern, vital role in the nation’s culture

It is revealing that the scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where Elisabeth realises she is in love with Mr Darcy occurs as she is touring his country house. She admires his able stewardship in the well-maintained gardens and perceives his benevolence in the loyalty of his servants; she even sees in his long family-portrait gallery a kind of justification for the pride that had so infuriated her before.

“In celebration: the art of the country house” at the TateGallery (10 November-28 February 1999) may not elicit similar responses among its viewers. But on the fiftieth anniversary of the Historic Houses Association, it seeks to assert the important role played by the owners of country houses in stewarding their art collections for future generations and to dispel public prejudice against what is often seen as inherited privilege.

“The owners of country houses come from a rather narrow class—not exactly the most downtrodden,” said curator Giles Waterfield. “But my hope is that, at a time when there is a great deal of public debate about national heritage, people will realise that country houses and their collections do have an educational and cultural role and are an enormous responsibility and expense to keep intact.”

The point of this exhibition is to show that country houses are not only repositories of family art treasures but also important social documents of Britain’s patrimony. “In this way it is different from the ‘Treasure houses of Britain’ show that toured the US in the 1980s,” explained Mr Waterfield, formerly director of Dulwich Picture Gallery and now director of the Attingham Trust for the study of country houses and collections in Britain.

“That was a largely celebratory show which was rather unquestioning about the way it presented the objects. This show will be smaller—it takes up only two rooms at the Tate—and has more of an advocacy role. We want to show the diversity of the different collections—all of which are open to the public. We also want to make a point about how these collections are different from museums because of the close associations between patrons and artists and place.”

As an example Mr Waterfield points to a painting by Sir Peter Lely of Charles I with his son the Duke of York. The work was commissioned by the Duke of Northumberland, who cared for the children of Charles I while he was imprisoned and still hangs in the Duke of Northumberland’s collection in Syon Park.

Beyond the predictable portrait gallery of aristocrats, their dogs and properties, the exhibition contains some more modern surprises, including works by Vlaminck, Schiele, Laura Knight, Lucian Freud and the first photography album of Julia Margaret Cameron.

“Another difference between this exhibition and the ‘Treasure houses’ show is that we are interested in libraries and archives,” said Mr Waterfield. “One of our gems is the first illustrated text from Shakespeare: Henry Peacham’s manuscript text of ‘Titus Andronicus’ from 1595.”

The exhibition also includes historical relics, such as a seventeenth-century Garter ribbon, Mary Queen of Scots’ Cross and Rosary and a death mask of Napoleon. And unlike previous exhibitions, it highlights the role of women in country houses. “When we read that the Duke of so-and-so installed himself in a new house or remodelled an estate, it usually means that his wife did it. An example is Lady Grisell Baillie’s detailed household book from Mellerstain, which shows her as a very shrewd manager of her estate. Today she would probably be successful in the City.”

Mr Waterfield maintains that this “modest exhibition” is intended as a springboard to further study and discussions about how these houses are to survive in the future and how their existence increasingly depends upon collaboration between the private and public sectors. He is the first to admit that this can be a fraught affair because, on the one hand, if we lose the private, family connection of the houses, we lose their mystique. But, on the other hand, there is increasing pressure to make country houses more accessible to the public.

“I think by now we have learned that the theme park approach will not work,” says Mr Waterfield. “Great houses, like museums, should stick to what they are good at—opening their doors and letting people see the world within. There is enormous scope for using country houses in a more imaginative way.”