Ickworth House revisited: a stately home stripped bare

Why the National Trust's strategy of decluttering grand interiors is deeply flawed

Ickworth House in Suffolk ranks among the National Trust’s most important stately homes. The creation of one of Britain’s most peculiar aristocrats, the 4th Earl of Bristol (he was also a bishop), the house is composed of an oversized rotunda and two Neoclassical wings. Described in its time as “a stupendous monument to folly”, it was never completed and much of the house was left empty.

The ground floor rooms, however, were finished in some style, and hung with the choicest pictures in the Bristol collection, including a famed portrait of an unknown man by Titian, a large Hogarth conversation piece, a self-portrait by Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun and a portrait of Prince Balthasar Carlos attributed to Velázquez. In the 1820s, the 1st Marquess of Bristol applied a finishing touch, with the addition of furniture made by Banting and France, then the royal furniture makers.

The best-known room in the house is the library, a white cavernous space lit by five floor-length windows hung with bright green curtains. There are relatively few books (not many Herveys have been scholars) and the decor is certainly unusual. But that is the point, for the room is a demonstration of the peculiarities of aristocratic taste. The high ceilings, for example, reflect the Earl-Bishop’s conviction that lofty rooms helped his asthma.   

Aesthetically, the room is pulled together by a suite of Banting and France furniture covered in the same green silk used for the curtains—or at least it was. I visited Ickworth recently and found the furniture gone, consigned to storage. In its place were four leatherette bean bags, two psychedelically covered armchairs and a piano. Three of the five windows were shuttered up, and in front of them sat modern easels, precariously holding pictures brought in from other parts of the house. Piped music emerged from near the piano. Imagine a retirement home for well-to-do magicians, and you get the idea.

Staff at Ickworth say the removal of the furniture—which was bought by the Trust long after it acquired the house, specifically to recreate the library as it was in the early 19th century—is part of an “experiment” to help visitors enjoy a “more immersive experience”. You can now sit, they point out, directly beneath the chandelier and look up at it (I tried it, big deal).

Meanwhile, newly empowered “interpreters” (the volunteers we used to call room wardens) have been tasked with providing “intellectual access” by explaining more about the works of art on display. The Trust calls this new approach “releasing the spirit of place”, and it is a policy being “rolled out”—as the phrase goes—at Trust properties across England and Wales.

Inevitably there has been something of an outcry. The Trust says it welcomes such feedback, but I suspect we will still see more naked rooms in future. The chief executive of the Trust, Dame Helen Ghosh, has expressed her belief that houses such as Ickworth are filled with “so much stuff”. “Let’s not expect our visitors to look at every single picture in a room,” she says. “Let’s pick one lovely thing, put it in the middle of the room and light it really well. Let’s just have six or seven of those things dotted around that anybody would love—it’s not difficult.”

Except it is. How is it possible to decide which items visitors must look at, without damaging the whole? At Ickworth, the Trust has installed key signposts pointing out things it deems worthy of our attention. In the library, the Velázquez is highlighted by a cushion placed beneath it showing a detail of the portrait (and available in the gift shop), and in the drawing room a large, cheap-looking sign points out that a writing case was used for writing. In the same room hang two of Gainsborough’s finest full-lengths, but there is no mention of these on the sign. Similarly, the Titian was hung (on my visit) with neither label nor functioning light bulb. In other words, an inevitable side-effect of what we might call the “too much stuff” strategy is that the “stuff” that remains becomes unjustly ignored, leaving the visitor impoverished.

Greater accessibility can be a good thing. Few of us can be against the careful removal of ropes and barriers in historic houses, and even the clever reimagining of historic settings—a recent Second World War theme at Upton House seems to have been a success. But such interventions must be done intelligently and must add to the integrity of the historic interior, not detract from it. Modern curatorship may mean that the days of wandering imaginatively through stately homes untroubled by the intrusion of the present day are gone forever. But bean bags are not the answer.