On 14 October 1942, the architectural historian and diarist James Lees-Milne – arguably the figure most closely associated with the National Trust throughout the twentieth century – paid his first visit to Polesden Lacy in Dorking. The purpose of his visit was to ascertain the worth of the house after the death of its owner, the society hostess Margaret Greville. Lees-Milne, who could be splendidly scathing about both the properties that he visited and their owners (alive or dead), was reasonably impressed by Polesden Lacy. He wrote in his diary that “the house was built by Cubitt in 1818 and looks from a distance across the valley much as it did in Neale’s view of that date. The interior was, I imagine, entirely refitted by Mrs Greville, in the expensive taste of an Edwardian millionairess.”
Although this would seem like a piece of snobbishness, Lees-Milne went on to clarify “But it is not vulgar. It is filled with good things, and several museum pieces. The upstairs rooms are well-appointed, in six or seven self-contained suites with bathrooms attached. There is a grass courtyard in the middle of the house.” Finally, and not without a degree of irony, Lees-Milne noted that “Mrs Greville has been buried in the rose garden to the west of the house, next to the dog cemetery in accordance with female country house owner tradition.” The grand masters of these great houses would be laid to rest in the most prestigious spot imaginable, often in the grounds of their own private chapel; the chatelaines, meanwhile, had to expect second-class treatment, as they would face eternity, as tradition dictated, next to the canine happy hunting ground.
In an uncertain world, the National Trust seemed to be almost a secular church
This anecdote, and countless others like it, goes a significant way towards explaining why the National Trust has such an important role at the heart of British history and culture. From its establishment in 1895 by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Hardwick Rawnsley “to promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the Nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest”, it has become the pre-eminent haunt of the tasteful middle classes, and is as much part of national life as that other much-lauded institution, the NHS. I have fond memories from my own childhood, and beyond, of walking round grand houses and of playing in their lavish and beautifully appointed grounds. Even their names produce a kind of Proustian rush in me – Felbrigg, Blickling, Stourhead, Dyrham Park, Kingston Lacy. In an uncertain and constantly changing world, the National Trust seemed to be almost a secular church, a rather well-appointed and comfortable Rock of Ages in its own right.
Yet we live in a time when a grubby little pandemic has turned all certainties upside down, and so even the National Trust has had to rethink its plans for the future. Unfortunately, its method of so doing seems to be both destructive and ill-considered. Some might call it woke, if it weren’t for the fact that its actions do not seem to be dictated by panicked social change, but instead by the reported £200 million loss that the coronavirus outbreak has occasioned. Despite having an endowment of over a billion pounds, and still retaining the annual memberships of over five million people, elements within the organisation that long for disruption seem now to have grasped the initiative, with potentially disastrous consequences for both the Trust and the country at large.
An internal briefing document that was leaked to the Times by a no doubt furious insider represents a chilling account of a cull of both heritage and expertise. It describes the status quo as “an outdated mansion experience”, and one that exists only to serve “a loyal but dwindling audience.” It plans to deal with this old-fashioned situation by firing dozens of its curators, placing large amounts of art and antiquities in storage, and by closing most of the properties to the public, instead letting them be hired by corporate entities and the well-heeled for private events, or “new sources of experience-based income”. As the document put it, the Trust wishes to “flex our mansion offer to create more active, fun and useful experiences.” Flex. Mansion Offer. We are, it seems, at the end of days.
I briefly considered, before writing this article, attempting to hold a séance to try and obtain James Lees-Milne’s views from beyond the grave, but eventually decided against interrupting his eternal rest to inform him of the disappointing and frightening news. Yet this situation does not need the phantoms of long-dead architectural historians to fan the flames. There are plenty of living people who are equally, and vocally, appalled, ranging from those who cancelled their memberships to the Trust when the institutional ties were no longer available in their gift shops to the curators, historians and architectural consultants who stand to lose both income and professional standing if these ill-considered and short-sighted reforms are brought about.
The Trust claims that its purpose was “to provoke discussion”, which has ended up being more of a horrified outcry
The art historian and broadcaster Bendor Grosvenor has been especially exercised by the revelation of the Trust’s plans. He has described their restructuring ideas in The Art Newspaper as “one of the most damaging assaults on art historical expertise ever seen in the UK.” Grosvenor has since been assiduously passing scathing commentary on the various public statements, of varying degrees of disingenuity, made by various high-up executives at the National Trust, none of which have denied that historic properties will be “repurposed”, that the specialist curator posts will be “closed” and the expert curators fired, nor, perhaps most chillingly of all, that the Trust will be seeking to “dial down” its status as a “major national cultural institution”.
As is now usual, the National Trust has been attempting to move away from the controversy that it has created with a series of mealy-mouthed and evasive comments. While not denying that the leaked document exists, the Trust claims that its purpose was “to provoke discussion”, although unless they had a satirical, Modest Proposal-esque intention in mind, the “discussion” has ended up being more of a horrified outcry.
While they produced a public statement saying “We remain committed to, and passionate about, the country house and arts and heritage”, and promised “We will not dumb down”, there seemed an intrinsic difficulty between reconciling their commitment that “We will always welcome the enthusiasts and the specialists and provide them with experiences that are tailored for their interests, such as at places like Kingston Lacy and Petworth, where we ensure those treasure houses are presented to the highest possible standard”, but also the apparent threat that “we accept that the presentation of some of our houses can be improved and we need to make sure they are meaningful and relevant for the twenty-first century.”
“Meaningfulness” and “relevance” have become two of the most ironically meaningless buzzwords of our age, used at every opportunity by terrified institutions who believe that they have something to hide. It has not gone unnoticed that as many as a third of National Trust properties have links, directly or otherwise, to slavery and colonialism, and for all of their talk of “listening exercises” and “working group recommendations”, it seems inevitable that it will often simply be easier and quicker simply to remove offensive objects and restrict access to controversial houses, rather than running the risk of there being protests on the scale seen in London and Bristol. No institution wants to see their properties trending on social media, hashtagged #DyrhamMustFall or similar.
Yet at the heart of all of the reforms is something that bears a strange resemblance to one of our current government’s central tenets. Dominic Cummings is well-known for his opposition to “the elites”, and there seems to be a general fear amongst its directors that the National Trust, as an organisation composed of a largely middle-class, middle-aged clientele, represents an anachronistic and outdated view of a past when Britain had a sense of national pride, rather than a wallow in perpetual shame at the crimes that it committed against other nations and peoples. Yet rather than construct a sensible and reasoned argument that deals both with the achievements and failings of those who owned the properties, land and artefacts that are in the Trust’s possession, it seems as if the current state of national crisis has been used as a fig leaf to bring about sweeping structural change that risks destroying one of the country’s greatest institutions forever.
The great irony is that a six-part documentary is currently airing on Channel 4, George Clarke’s National Trust Unlocked, which sees Clarke visit many of the Trust’s most prestigious and beloved properties, from Cliveden to the architect Ernö Goldfinger’s house at 2 Willow Road, Hampstead. It was filmed in lockdown, and presumably will have the effect of leading many to sign up for National Trust membership as soon as they are able. If they were fully aware of what is to come, it seems likely that these memberships would not be nearly as desirable, which means that the Trust has two options. Either be explicit with the public about the nature, scope and potentially devastating impact of the changes that it has in mind, and be prepared for the inevitable consequences, or abandon what seems to be a uniquely ill-considered path, and therefore ensure that the likes of a phantasmal James Lees-Milne, as well as more corporeal experts, are not required to haunt the short-sighted directors of the organisation for all eternity.
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