In his 1616 poem “To Penshurst,” the poet
did much to fortify the image of the English country house as a center of hospitality: “But all come in, the farmer and the clown, / And no one empty-handed, to salute / Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit.” Indeed, such dwellings have had visitors for as long as they’ve stood, some even beginning as monasteries where the weary traveler could pitch up unbidden for some food and shelter.
But country-house tourism as we know it is a 20th-century phenomenon, a result of high inheritance taxes in England, among other economic pressures. As big homes became too expensive to keep, alternative forms of operation had to be found.
The American tourist market has always been a significant one for British country houses, and many houses have released a wealth of media online to satiate the would-be visitor unwilling to navigate Britain’s continuously changing travel rules. But why, exactly, do we visit country houses in the first place? Surely it’s not just to sample cakes and ale from the onsite café. It’s to take in that magnificent combination of beautiful architecture, landscape and personal taste. Whether the result of the efforts of a single visionary owner or the accretion of centuries of family stewardship, these houses offer a picture of life on a grand scale far exceeding any written description or painted reproduction. What follows are six examples of the many forms of the country house.
The massive dome, topped by a gilded cupola, of Castle Howard is the first thing a visitor notices about this Yorkshire seat, formerly home of the Earls of Carlisle and perhaps the classic country house in American minds, familiar from many movies and television shows such as the 1981 version of “Brideshead Revisited” and Netflix’s recent “Bridgerton.” But while the majestic structure, designed by
with the help of
around the turn of the 18th century, is iconic, its less-known interior contents are worthy of the stone behemoth that greets the exterior viewer. The fourth earl returned from his Grand Tour with around a hundred antique sculptures, all today posed in stately array in the “Antique Passage.” The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art—as part of its recently launched “Art & the Country House” digital publication—has essays, videos and more on Castle Howard’s stunning collections. The introductory essay asks, “do architecture and decoration determine the contents and displays indoors or do these elements themselves influence the design and shape of the building?” We are told that “at Castle Howard the story veers between these two polarities.” A virtual tour by Castle Howard’s curator,
available on YouTube, introduces the history of the house and explains how many of its treasures came to reside there.
Blenheim Palace impresses most with its scale, fronted by a great court with wings that draw the visitor to its grand portico, as a brief flyover video posted by the Palace on YouTube demonstrates. Vanbrugh had an easier time at Castle Howard than he did at Blenheim, which was erected by a grateful British state for
first Duke of Marlborough, hero of the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. “Built as a national monument and not a home,” as the Pevsner guide puts it, Blenheim is a stage set, but hardly the sort of house the strong-willed duchess of Marlborough wanted (she had declared that she “mortally hate[d] all gardens and architecture”). Nonetheless, Blenheim remains a striking monument—a continental baroque palace placed on the outskirts of the quintessential Cotswolds village of Woodstock. With 360-degree virtual tours of the interior and exterior, Blenheim’s website gives a taste of this most imposing of structures, though nothing can give a sense of the honeyed stone quite like being there in person.
It is West Wycombe Park’s historically conscious interiors, rather than any showy exterior, that constitute its primary interest, and these may be seen through an eerily soundless X-ray-style reconstruction of the house on YouTube. While Blenheim represents the trouble possible in a client-architect relationship, West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire shows what can be accomplished when a single personality takes charge.
second baronet, was a gentleman amateur architect, keen to fashion West Wycombe as a “three-dimensional recreation of his travels and collection,” as
Jason M. Kelly
puts it in an essay for the Mellon Centre. Dashwood’s irregular Grand Tour, which took him to the Eastern Mediterranean and Baltic in addition to the usual stops in Italy and Greece, brought him into contact with decorative motifs that had long been lost to the Western world. The house, converted from an earlier version between the 1730s and 1770s, includes multiple “Palmyra” ceilings, based on the antiquarian
1750-51 excavations in what is now Syria, and the interior—light and colorful but with an almost archaeological insistence on reproducing antique forms—speaks to Dashwood’s interest in the idea of seria ludo: serious business conducted playfully.
Just north is another house whose reference points are abroad, though one whose exterior and interior are in perfect, ostentatious agreement. Waddesdon Manor, begun in 1877, is
Ferdinand de Rothschild’s
reproduction of a French château. Whereas many of the country houses of the 18th century took inspiration from the temples of Greece and Italy, Victorian Waddesdon looked to Louis XIV’s France, with mansard roofs, oeils de boeuf, and spires galore. Inside, visitors are treated to la goût Rothschild, a combination of ornate French furnishings and the greats of 18th-century British art, among them multiple Gainsboroughs and Reynoldses. Waddesdon’s website offers virtual tours, including of rooms too fragile to be open consistently to the public, while its YouTube channel includes a video on a “Day in the Life of Waddesdon Manor,” offering a whistle-stop tour of the exterior, interior and grounds.
That arch Italian Veronese in Scotland? Find him at Mount Stuart, on the Isle of Bute, which is notable for its collection of over 600 paintings—the house’s principal ornament and a testament to a single family’s taste. The original Georgian house burned in 1877 and was replaced by this neo-Gothic pile. While the art collection began conventionally enough, with a series of ancestral portraits, the third Earl of Bute, who served as prime minister in 1762-63, expanded the holdings significantly, adding in Dutch and Italian masters, including De Hooch, Veronese and Tiepolo. These masterpieces, tucked away in western Scotland, are available to learn about via the house’s website, which also includes a video interview with one of the house’s caretakers and some elusive glimpses of those timeless paintings.
The Royal Pavilion, in Brighton, with its lavish combination of architectural and interior styles—Chinese, Indian, Rococo and Regency—shows that Georgian Britain was hardly parochial. Not exactly a country house, having been constructed in its current form beginning in 1815 as a seaside pleasure palace for King
the pavilion was inspired by the far reaches of Britain’s growing empire. Here exterior minarets combine with interior chinoiserie, all viewable via virtual tours on the Pavilion’s website, to give a sense of a dominion on which the sun was alleged never to set.
—Mr. Riley is the managing editor of the New Criterion.
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