The fall and rise of English stately homes after World War II


Editor’s Note: The editors of Adrian Tinniswood’s latest book – Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the English State Home After World War II – have kindly provided us with this excerpt to share with Anglotopia readers. We will have a review of the book in due course. Here is the Amazon link for the book.

The Earl of Rhyall was broke. The responsibility of clinging to his stately home in Hampshire, with all its treasures, beauty and history, weighed heavily on him. Her butler confessed to being bored to death; at any rate, a butler was a luxury he couldn’t afford. Her beautiful young countess, tired of growing mushrooms to earn a little extra money, had started an affair with an American oil tycoon who took her to nightclubs and bought her a mink coat. Worse yet, this distinguished and long-blooded English nobleman had somehow acquired a sorry Mid-Atlantic accent.

Because the Earl of Rhyall was Cary Grant. Her wandering Countess was Deborah Kerr, her oil mogul lover was Robert Mitchum, and the Hampshire country house looked remarkably like Osterley Park in Middlesex. They all appeared together in the 1960 romantic comedy The grass is greener. “He comes to see and stays eyeing at the Kerr in the garage,” was one critic’s magnificent description of Mitchum’s millionaire.

Cary Grant’s Earl of Rhyall was part of a great British literary, theatrical and cinematographic tradition. The impoverished aristocrat trying to make ends meet in his ruined stately home had become a staple on stage and on screen. He (or, more rarely, she) appeared regularly in films, from eccentric Lord Wilcot (Alistair Sim) to satirical comedy Left Right and Center to Lord Whitebait (Naunton Wayne) in Nothing forbidden, who attempted to save Whitebait Manor by asking a friendly burglar to steal his most valuable painting, a work by “Vincent Van Gogough”.

The nearly bankrupt 19th Earl of Locharne (David Tomlinson) had to grapple with the post-war bureaucracy in the form of a Coal Board official determined to requisition his decrepit Scottish castle – “The moat is overrun with vegetation and the earl is uncovered “- like a juvenile vacation home in the 1952 film Castle in the air. Dame Edith Evans played the eccentric Lady Sophie Fitzmore in Crooks and crowns (1969), a bizarre transatlantic crime comedy in which two ex-American inmates, played by Telly Savalas and Warren Oates, arrived in England to rob Lady Sophie’s stately home, but instead decided to turn it into a tourist attraction. And the eccentricity turned into madness with the 14th Earl of Gurney by Peter O’Toole, the main character of The ruling class (1972). in the movie of the vast Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire.

True country house owners rarely resorted to theft or murder to keep towers from wobbling and bailiffs banging on nailed gates, although almost everything else was considered. Desperate to find half a million pounds to pay the inheritance tax on his ancestral seat at Inveraray Castle, the 11th Duke of Argyll sold his name in the 1950s to the American Burlington Hosiery Company, which has advertised his tartan socks as “styled for Bur-Mil by the Duke of Argyll. A photograph of the debonair Duke appeared alongside images of the socks in question, which were apparently” filled with the very flavor of Scotland. ” .

Others rented their country houses to film companies. In 1966 the Duke of Rutland rented Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire to an Italian company for £ 2,000 for ten days. The company was doing Incomparable, an unforgettable post-Bond spy thriller starring Ira von Furstenberg. “When they called me and asked if they could rent the place, I was pretty blunt,” the Duke said. “I told them it was just about LSD” (by which he meant pounds, shillings, and pence, of course, rather than the hallucinogenic drug then in vogue). He was careful to charge extra whenever the director wanted to borrow one of the heirlooms as props. “We need every penny we can get for maintenance. [Belvoir] is like a bottomless pit.

Others were less well equipped to deal with film companies. When Major Benjamin Hervey-Bathurst rented Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire from MGM in 1969 for a crime called One more Time, he had no idea what he was getting into. Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and director Jerry Lewis bounced off the field on mopeds “to save their legs between takes” as an increasingly worried Major Hervey-Bathurst inspected Eastnor’s forecourt, littered with lighting equipment, cameras and film company trucks. , and admitted that he didn’t realize the filming would be such an important operation. “It’s a little scary,” he told a local reporter. Worse, he had a finicky feeling that he hadn’t asked for enough money, even though he refused to say how much the company was paying him. “It’s a pretty painful point now that we’ve seen what’s involved,” he said. “I’m starting to think they got it pretty cheaply for what they’re doing there.”

The Earl of Rhyall managed to resolve his marital problems by The The grass is greener by challenging his rival to a duel in the long gallery and making sure that he, the count, was injured. (Both pistols were blank loaded, and he persuaded his butler to shoot him in the arm.) The resulting flow of sympathy from his wife was enough to put an end to his affair. His financial woes remained at the end of the film, but he did his best to alleviate them by opening his stately home to the public for an entrance fee of half the crown.

The same goes for the 19th Earl of Locharne in Castle in the air and Lord Wilcot in Left Right and Center and Lord Whitebait in Nothing Rod. In fact, almost every fictitious country house owner smiled at the door of their ancestral seat, outstretched to welcome gibberish packed with holiday travelers, each with their half crown ready.

And Art just held a mirror to Life. “Dukes, earls, barons, viscounts, baronets, knights and honorables all board the gilt-edged wagon,” said one amazed American journalist in 1955. “And the plain John and Jane Does are marching by the thousands to take a shot. eye in the ancestral rooms, the corridors, the rooms and the boudoirs.

The trade in stately homes was booming.

About the book


The fall and rise of the English country house after World War II

By Adrian Tinniswood

An exhilarating tour of the English country house after WWII, from Mick Jagger dancing at balls to Princess Margaret scandals.

By the start of World War II, many British country houses – Baroque palaces, quaint Tudor mansions, and sprawling Neoclassical mansions – were on the brink of disaster. They were teetering with rising taxes, shrinking domestic help supplies, and the unpleasant feeling that their landlords represented an undemocratic past. In NOBLE AMBITIONS: The fall and rise of the English country house after WWII (Basic books; September 21, 2021) acclaimed historian Adrian Tinniswood takes readers through these crumbling halls of power and uncovers a parallel story of creativity and vibrant social activity. As the mansions fell and rose, old families funded their stately homes turning them into tourist attractions and a new class of owners, including wealthy American saviors, rock stars and actors, stepped in to embrace the idyllic country life.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the stately home was no longer just for living, but a booming business. Drowned in taxes, the owners opened the doors to paying visitors for the first time. With the price of admission, the public could now visit these two-storey houses, supplemented by cafeterias and newly installed souvenir shops. The stately home also became the site of pop concerts and even safari parks, and by 1972 Britain’s private stately homes admitted more than 6.5 million guests.

When the country houses did come onto the market, new owners were ready to step in. Americans, too, have become obsessed with the country house. J. Paul Getty bought Sutton Place, a magnificent and important Tudor mansion in 1951 and lived there until his death in 1976. Businessman Charles Henry Robinson saved the 14e mansion of the century, Ightham Mote, after being left unoccupied and deteriorating. Between 1966-1977, waves of actors and rock stars, like The Beatles, Mick Jagger, and Eric Clapton, also bought historic country homes and threw extravagant parties.

Some homes have been abandoned, demolished, or turned into schools and institutions, yes, but as Tinniswood reveals, most were not. Through the lens of the iconic country house, he explores the changing fortunes of the British elite at a fascinating time, when members of the crumbling Old Order collided with London. While life in the post-war country house was complicated and messy, NOBLE AMBITIONS show how equally vibrant and exciting it was, sometimes comedic, sometimes outrageous and glamorous.

You can order the book on Amazon here.


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