Country houses…in England and Wales


Throughout the month of July, I had the good fortune to be able to travel in England and northern Wales as part of the Attingham Summer School, a study program run by The Attingham Trust.*  My classmates included architectural historians, curators, conservators, and preservationists from around the world (Russia, Australia, Switzerland, India, etc.).  For three weeks we traversed the countryside of England and Wales visiting country houses to study their architecture, collections, and the manner in which they present these things to their visiting public.  Some were public museum buildings, but some were private residences.  The ability to see these places and their collections, and discuss them with colleagues of such diverse backgrounds, was amazing.
In attending this program, I hoped to not only learn about the specific sites we were visiting and life in the English country house in general, but I also came with a specific goal of looking for ideas and inspiration to bring back to Stratford Hall.  Because Stratford is in essence an English country house in Virginia, I knew that some parallels would present themselves, and perhaps I could learn some things to help solve mysteries of room use and layout that had puzzled the Stratford staff for some time.  Specifically I was looking to understand service spaces “below stairs” and how the spaces in our lower level might have been used in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  I also wanted to see what other historic houses were doing as far as exhibits and interpretation.  Below, are just some of the things and places that inspired me.  Note:  much of what I show will be from public houses, as most of the private houses do not allow published photography.
Petworth House in Sussex was one of the sites we visited during our first week.  In addition to glorious state rooms and a sculpture and painting gallery, this site has amazing service spaces.  Often you see these sorts of rooms relinquished to staff offices or other purposes.  But Petworth showcases its service areas with great enthusiasm – interpretive signage and knowledgeable docents throughout the spaces.
Here (left), the housekeeper’s chamber (you can see her portrait above the fireplace).  The estate also has a dairy building (with ice house below – which we got to tour!) and adjacent cow yard, a wood house (for house’s firewood storage), and an early-18th century kitchen block with kitchen, larder, cook’s room, scullery, china closet (for storing dishes).  In the 1870s an extension was added with a steward’s office (the steward was the household manager).  There was also a bake and brew house at one point, but the structure was removed a few decades ago.
Some were separate buildings (like the dairy/ice house), but others were part of a ‘below stairs’ block of rooms.  Thinking about these functions in the context of Stratford’s lower level was helpful – did we have a brew house, for instance?  Beer was the common beverage in the 18th century – small beer was what children drank – but where did the Stratford beer get brewed?  Something I need to think about…
Erddig in Wales, visited in our third week, had another impressive set of service spaces and a strong servant interpretation.  Here (above), the main house with service wing just visible coming in from the right and extending into the lower level.
Visitors to Erddig are taken on an unusual path – starting with the service areas, and then traveling upstairs to the more “posh” family areas.  Do you think this makes them look at spaces differently?
The 1770s kitchen was originally a separate building, but was eventually connected with the main block of the house, along with a scullery, bake house, laundry, and cook and housekeeper’s rooms.  The servants hall in the lower level of the house is original to the 1730s (around the same time as Stratford’s main house was built) and features original portraits of servants from the 19th century.  Further study of these spaces and their evolution will be really helpful in our own interpretation….
Chatsworth (have you seen The Duchess?!), a massive private estate in Derbyshire, is beginning to study and interpret their servants and service spaces.  Here (above), you see the impressive Great Dining Room complete with a mannequin exhibiting the livery uniform worn by the public servants.  Adjacent to the dining room, they have a small display in the original mid-19th century Vestibule that discusses how the space was used as a staging area for dining, as well as the larger topic of service (and servants) at Chatsworth during the 19th century.  I like the idea of incorporating service in the discussion of dining in a very visible manner and need to think about how we might do that better at Stratford…
And finally, our last day took us to Attingham Park (after which the trust and program were named) in Shropshire (right).  Hands down, I found the most inspiration for historic house interpretation at this site.  They have a very active and lively set of programs that keep this site alive and relevant to visitors.  Children were invited to follow a trail and find toy mice hidden in some of the rooms (so they could go on the tour with their parents and not get bored).  Docents are well trained and provide up-to-date information on new projects like wallpaper restoration/conservation.  And visitor feedback is sought out daily, so that the site knows what their visitors think.
The interpretation of the house centers around Attingham Rediscovered, an intriguing project that creates continuing change to the historic house.  Faced with a site that visitors found ‘cold’ and unchanging, the staff now continually work to research and reinterpret their spaces so that visitors come back to see what is new.  Restoration projects happen within sight of the visitors, so that they can ask questions of craftsmen or conservators.  This make the project take a little longer (and cost more), but visitors feel part of the process.  Plus, the staff ask the visitors what they think; what choices they would make along the way.
Getting repeat visitors is a challenge for many house museums, so I was truly inspired talking to the staff at Attingham Park about how they have worked to make visitors feel invested in the site and what is happening within the spaces.  See their AttinghamParkTV channel for a taste of what they are doing.  I’ll definitely be watching…
Thanks for traveling along with me as I reviewed some of the highlights of my Attingham Summer School experience.  To say goodbye, a picture snapped at Powis Castle, which had an amazing falling garden…and a couple of very friendly peacocks!

*I was able to participate in this program as the Helena Hayward/Alison Ledes Scholar through the generous support of the American Friends of Attingham, an honor for which I am extremely grateful.