Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire

The National Trust should act its age

Our main heritage conservation charity wants to be down with the kids

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I’ve got a soft spot for fine plasterwork. In the century since Adolf Loos’ modernist rallying cry, “ornament is crime”, it has served as a convenient figleaf for naked walls and ceilings, and a lack of imagination in our buildings. Thankfully, the decorative arts still survive in Britain’s historic homes. For a particularly sumptuous example, an acquaintance suggested a visit to the National Trust’s Sudbury Hall, in Derbyshire.

The first challenge was finding the place. Searching information on the National Trust website, I could only find “The Children’s Country House at Sudbury”. I had to double-check it was the same property. The rebrand turned out to be part of the Trust’s “renovation” initiated during lockdown. The target market is now the littlest demographic and, as a new slogan proclaims, it’s all about “having fun with history”.

I decided to bring my two-year-old godson to Sudbury to put this to the test. We drove through the charming red-brick village, which was moved to its current location by George Vernon, who inherited the estate in 1660 and designed and built Sudbury Hall shortly after. As we parked our car, we caught a glimpse of the Hall itself, a handsome Restoration-era structure with striking diapered brickwork (perhaps a nod to the Vernon family arms).

We started with the National Trust’s Museum of Childhood, created in the early 1970s inside the Victorian servant’s wing. Inside, playthings from Betty Cadbury’s collection, dating from the Victorian era to modern day, fill rooms of glass cases. A model train set runs between the ceiling timbers. It really makes you feel old, when toys you once owned have become museum exhibits.

My godson let off steam after the long car journey by racing around, coveting the toys and playing with the interactive displays. Filled by a throng of other families, this space is a child-friendly complement to an otherwise historic destination, but this child-friendliness has now colonised even the most stately rooms in the house. Instead of being able to roam around freely, we were ushered into what was once the Great Hall, now reappropriated as the “Portal” to the “Hall of Wonder”. Within, a cerulean seating island projected a special effects-filled film onto the ceiling, with nary a mention of the house’s history, in an attempt to latch onto the children’s fleeting attention spans. The collection of paintings, including portraits of generations of Vernons and a mural by Louis Laguerre, was relegated to a mere backdrop.

The children seemed uninterested in the film and instead clambered on the antique furniture. Replacing the National Trust’s infamous “keep off” teasels, barely visible signs with a scrawled drawing of a hedgehog were placed on the fragile items. The children didn’t understand them: I watched the comic spectacle of parents struggling to keep one eye on the film and another on their child, bobbing up and down to keep them from damaging the antiques.

“The children’s country house” offers many such perverse moments. A view of the Great Staircase, with its exquisite carved balustrades by Edward Pierce, one of Christopher Wren’s coterie of craftsmen, is spoiled by a swivelling, flower-shaped mirror that seems to have no discernible purpose, neither educational nor entertaining.

Perhaps it is intended to distract the children from one of the paintings, The Rape of the Sabines by Johan Danckerts; or from looking up at Laguerre’s ceiling painting which depicts the lascivious mythological scene of Oreithyia being sexually assaulted by Boreas, the North Wind. Did the fact that these stately homes were designed for worldly adult tastes with plenty of 18-rated content, never cross the minds of the National Trust chiefs? Replacing the original furniture in both the Library and the Dante Room with jarring child-sized armchairs and dangling origami cranes is not going to make the idea of a “Children’s Country House” any less absurd.

In the Drawing Room, children are armed with colouring pencils, which made me anxious about the longevity of the wallpaper. This is also the room that contains the crown jewel of Sudbury’s collection, an overmantel piece from Grinling Gibbons’ early career. Making sure my godson doodled only on paper, I was able to admire its stunningly lifelike depiction of game birds and fish, interspersed with intricate foliage, fruit and flowers, all masterfully carved in wood. Yet it is obscured behind a crude sign centring attention on the black child in a painting of Lady Yonge, dated 1737. The sign speculates on his enslaved status and whether he even existed at all. Rather than waxing hypothetical, perhaps insights about children’s social conditions based on actual historical research would be more enlightening.

For those with a real interest in the history of the rooms and their objects, flimsy laminated A4 sheets of notes are strewn carelessly around, whilst more permanent, chunky backlit signs obtrude into the spaces to force the “Hall of Wonder” concept down your throat. The inane text is content-free, containing pearls of enlightenment such as, “we welcome you to discuss thoughts and ideas, and to chat with friends”.

The final straw for me was the thoughtless treatment of the Long Gallery. Undoubtedly the pinnacle of the house’s architectural drama, it spans the entire 138-foot length of both of Sudbury’s wings. Yet it was interrupted by a “selfie booth” for children to dress up as figures in the family portraits that punctuate the gallery.

Sudbury Hall, the Drawing Room

The Vernon portraits have not been spared humiliation either: under each one, the poet-playwright Toby Campion has added speech bubbles with quips such as: “Looks like they’ve got me dressed in silk sheets. At least it makes me look classy”. The captions are banal and unfunny. Worse, this infantile guff was paid for with public money from the Arts Council. The children paid little of it any attention.

The Long Gallery’s engrossing ceilings are adorned with the immaculate plasterwork of Bradbury and Pettifer. Instead of admiring the decorative details of grasshoppers and acanthus seedpods, I joined other exasperated parents in trying to stop children crashing into the furniture. A bronze, depicting a family-unfriendly scene of the centaur Nessus man-handling Deianira, looked a nudge away from being knocked over. It’s no wonder there have been sotto voce mutterings amongst the Trust’s staff over damage to the house.

We left through the saloon, the most architecturally elaborate and quintessentially Baroque of all the rooms, with more carvings by Edward Pierce that frame the family portraits. Not that they were visible, as the blinds were drawn. String quartet renditions of pop hits played in the background whilst an imbecilic neon sign reading, “Dance like it’s 1699” sat atop the grand piano. Two disco balls illuminated the room. “It’s just like that scene from Saltburn,” a passer-by remarked. Given that its plot revolves around the cynical takeover of a family’s stately home, the irony was not lost on us.

Before the drive back, I had a chance to meet Wendy Sevier, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were head gardeners at Sudbury. As a fourth-generation Sudburian, she was born and raised in the village and remains deeply involved as a member of the local history group. She is one of the few who remember Sudbury as the Vernon family home and the village as the extended family. She filled our conversation with a fount of rich oral history that is at risk of being ignored in the National Trust’s crusade for visitor numbers. When I asked her how she felt about what they’ve done, she said: “I think it’s totally immoral. It’s very abusive to the family, to the property, and to the village.”

A National Trust source subsequently told me the renovation plan for Sudbury specifically proposed turning the house into a “playground” with “outrageous” presentation. On both counts it has unfortunately succeeded. The Trust’s heritage protection duties, on the other hand, have been neglected, with allegedly no conservation input into the process.

The experts consulted instead were 100 child ambassadors aged two to 12, with not one from the local village. Their juvenile whims were indulged by adults who should have known better. It’s a far cry from the days when the Trust’s curators would write doctoral theses, such as Cherry Ann Knott’s tome on Vernon and Sudbury. The Trust’s decision to purge specialist curators for short-term savings is now showing its devastating long-term effects.

Weeks later, I met my godson for another day out: this time to Big Penny Social, a warehouse in Walthamstow that has been turned into a cavernous play area with toys and bouncy castle. His mother and I didn’t have to worry about him scuffing the concrete floors or knocking over irreplaceable objects. He seemed to have more fun than in Sudbury, and no historic homes were harmed in the process.

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