An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 119

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 15, 2021 - Issue 119
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The British monarchy is seen by many as an antediluvian institution, one that has no use and is simply a cost to the taxpayer. That argument is not one that I wish to discuss, but it is relevant in an ancillary way when I talk about country houses. I have suggested that country houses were institutions, instruments designed to keep the populace happy and productive. If not happy, then at least productive. The power of the local landowner was a function of their relationship to their tenants, the general populace and with the monarchy. In their own right, they were like mini-royalty keeping the countryside productive while the monarch, and at the beginning of the 18th century the Parliament as well, cared for the larger issues such as keeping the country free from invasion. The trade off seems to have worked until the mid-19th century when the industrial revolution was in full swing and agrarian Britain was in decline. A whole new set of concerns arose for the government to deal with that landowners could not--to wit, the labor force required to maintain factories. The ownership of land and a grand country house faded in importance. In essence, the oligarchs, save for the House of Lords which has played an important, although minor role, were supplanted by industry. Such generalizations. overly simplified herewith, did not lead to the extinction of the oligarchs, however, although many houses were torn down between 1880 and 1950 for a variety of reasons, the estate tax being one of the heaviest burdens that helped eliminate country seats. This brings me to my one and only visit to the great Elizabethan house, Longleat in Wiltshire, the home of the Marquess of Bath.

In 1974, I was invited, through a friend of a friend, to visit Alexander Thynn, also known as Viscount Weymouth, later to become the Marquess of Bath. Alexander was a classic English upper class eccentric, the type of person whose life was defined by the accident of his birth. He was very welcoming ushering us into his private apartments after showing us the paintings that he and a friend had done on some of the walls of Longleat--impasto like oil paintings, thickened with sawdust to make them three dimensional. They were quite lurid, if I remember correctly, with lots of body parts on display. In any case, it was a slightly awkward visit as the Vicountess was there with their young son--she lived in Paris most of the time--and the friend of a friend was a paramour of Alexander's. He wasn't abashed in the slightest as he believed he should populate the world with his children and felt that polygamy was legitimate, at least in his case. After tea, we were shown around the house and what I remember best is not the interior, which was very grand--you can see that in the photos in the links below--but that his father collected paintings by both Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler. I don't remember if he had any Eisenhower paintings, but neither Churchill or Hitler had much artistic talent.

The most interesting thing about my visit to Longleat, however, stems from how the sixth Marquess of Bath, Alexander's father, dealt with the problems facing the ownership of a country seat. Today, there is a formula that is fairly standard used both by privately owned houses and the National Trust, which is to rent out parts of the property and offer venues for events. There is also always a long list of items that one can purchase at the on site and online shops. It seems like a simple formula, but it had to be developed and it took years of trial and error and is still in that process, particularly for large scale operations like the National Trust. (I know this well as one of my brother's makes products for sites that have a high visitor count--mostly museums, but other venues as well. He suggests that retailing is both an art and a science and that it is an organic process that waxes and wanes.) The Marquess of Bath took a different tact, first opening up the house to visitors in 1949--a scandalous idea at the time--and then he decided to open a safari park in 1966, the first drive through safari park outside of Africa. I don't, of course, know the impetus behind this idea although I remember that "Born Free" was a hugely popular movie at that time. I also don't think that the Marquess was that short on cash, but he must have felt that he needed an attraction to keep people visiting. And now, apparently, it pays for the upkeep of the grounds, another Capability Brown project, and the house. 

As for the interior of the house, it is pretty splendid. Elizabethan houses all had long galleries, usually for paintings and a state bed, although Longleat's has tapestries of all sorts. There are bound to be a few good items around the house although not necessarily English. For example, I espied a fabulous ivory inlaid Italian bureau bookcase in one of the photos. Ivory may be a market no-no these days, but great ivory inlay is always quite amazing to see. There is also a set of Sinhalese ebony dining chairs that are made in the Tudor style although not with the high backs. They are caned which is a bother, but they are also very stylish. I think it is fair to say that Thynn family, particularly the current Marquess, has transcended the eccentric and chosen to run his estate as a business and life's work. For descendants of the oligarchy, it is far easier than it is for the descendants of the Royal family as was proven recently in the interview with Meghan and Prince Harry. Or is it the Duke and Duchess of Sussex?  The Wikipedia entry on Longleat. You can follow the links to read about Alexander and his wife or his father.  A Vanity Fair profile of the next generation, now the new Marquess of Bath and his wife, Emma.  Interior shots of the house.