The grand Art Deco entrance hall of Eltham Palace, Greenwich

Historic Luxe

6th July 2018

What better place to look for interior inspiration than in the homes of the historically richest, most famous and most powerful families in the country? Deborah Mulhearn takes a peek inside Britain’s greatest houses…

Maybe it’s the 'Downton Abbey' effect, but visiting historic houses is a lot more fun than it used to be. Spaces once stuffy and dusty are now vibrant with imaginative art interventions, exhibitions and performance. No more shuffling through dreary rooms and gazing reverentially from behind red ropes, or being prevented from sitting down by judiciously positioned pine cones or a sharp word from a stern guide.

Nowadays you are as likely to hear the intriguing tales behind the paintings and objects, or to take a tour below stairs where you can literally feel the heat of the range and relish the glorious smells of baking (and sometimes enjoy the results!).

The National Trust and other organisations and owners with properties open to the public are using their rich collections as inspirations to tell often untold stories – even where they may be unsavoury: taking a hard look at how the inhabitants came by their money, for example, or the improprieties and court cases family members became involved in. These days, nothing is brushed under the (rich, luxurious, beautifully patterned) Axminster carpet. Historic houses are a mainstay of our tourism economy after all, and welcome everyone from local people living in their vicinity to overseas tourists, who often cite visiting them as their main reason for coming to the UK.

And sometimes they – and you – can even sit down. Make Yourself Comfortable was an exhibition at Chatsworth in Derbyshire of historic and specially commissioned new chairs that positively encouraged visitors to take the weight off their feet and enjoy a different perspective of the house.

With around 620,000 visitors a year, Chatsworth is one of the most popular historic houses in the country. The huge honey-coloured stately home of the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire contains important fine art and decorative collections amassed over centuries, and has a lavish and luxurious atmosphere. Many visitors, however, come along to enjoy the extensive garden and estate parkland but don’t always enter the house. To counter this, new spaces and rooms have been opened up and parts of the interior have been redesigned to increase the appeal. This includes a dedicated cabinet room for the family’s important Old Master drawings, many of which have not been on display for a century.

Flow through the rooms has also been improved, but the main emphasis has been to develop a much stronger exhibition programme. Last year’s House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion was an ambitious undertaking, curated with the close involvement of the family, using costumes from Chatsworth’s historic and contemporary collections and other sources. These were displayed throughout the house so visitors could see them in their setting and in the context of the family’s story.

“Chatsworth is imbued with the family’s – and staff’s – living story,” says the director of collections and exhibitions, Kate Brindley. “We want visitors to see more compelling narratives that give greater insight into the history and workings of the family and estate.”

Unlike in a museum display, she points out, historic houses rarely use text labels, because the idea is to evoke the rooms as they were lived in. “But there is a hunger for more information, so we have to work out how you keep the balance between the ambience of a room and information for those that want to look deeper into an exhibit or theme. There are a myriad ways to do this: events, audio, live interpretation – it’s about finding the right solution for the context. What’s important is how we diversify and work with new audiences, and that’s a huge and exciting opportunity.”

English Heritage is better known for looking after atmospheric ruins, where imagination is often allowed to take precedence over interpretation. But in the small percentage of historic houses in its care, the focus is on bringing the stories of the inhabitants vividly to life. “Our curators work closely with our customer-facing staff and together they work out how to make the houses’ stories sing in ways that are true to the history of the property,” says EH’s curatorial director Anna Eavis.

Again, the emphasis is on drawing visitors into the house from the grounds. “The size of a house such as Audley End in Essex can be quite daunting, and the lives of the long-dead and extremely wealthy inhabitants can feel distant, so we have to work hard at tempting people indoors and keeping them engaged when they do come in,” says Eavis.

A recreation of the Victorian nursery, where the stories of the children who lived there are told through period furnishings, furniture and toys, has proved very popular and now 85% of families go into the house, says Eavis.

“The starting point is always the specific history of the site,” she explains. “From there you need really good research and confidence in the material. It’s possible to recreate an authentic sense of what an interior was like at a particular period, and then animate it with stories of the occupants, even when you don’t have original material. And a good visitor experience is often dependent on well-informed and articulate guides and volunteers who can make it much more compelling.”

Not everybody wants to have a conversation, but house volunteers play an essential role in engaging and sharing stories with visitors. They can point people to other parts of the collections and objects – and their knowledge and enthusiasm are vital elements in bringing the rooms to life.

Hundreds of thousands of people tramping through these grand houses takes its toll on the structure and furnishings, so English Heritage has been making a virtue out of a necessity by showing the process of conservation work to visitors. At Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire, for example, rooms have been left in their ‘shabby chic’ state, and tours can be taken of the ongoing conservation works.

And at Eltham Palace in South London, an Art Deco mansion, built in the 1930s by millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld on the site of a medieval palace, hand-painted maps were found under layers of paint and wallpaper. “These were the maps where Virginia planned and illustrated her travels, says Eavis. “They are quirky with wave designs and sea animals, and people in national costume. We’ve made the process of uncovering this fascinating and very personal scheme a transparent one, and linked it to other collections and objects in the house. Part of the fascination, when it’s possible to do this, is enabling the visitor to share in the process of discovery,” she adds.

“It’s crucial to have that curatorial credibility. The map room has the patina of age, and where you have the genuine article you don’t want to compromise it. But it can be a mixture, and as long as there is intellectual rigour behind the interventions, as at Audley End, it can be highly engaging and rewarding for visitors, which it has proved to be.”

Sumptuous Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire was built in the 1870s in the style of a French chateau. It was never designed as a home, however, but as a showpiece for the magnificent art collections of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. “In a way it’s like Versailles or Buckingham Palace, where you are seeing the interiors but you know it’s not the rooms where people actually lived,” explains Waddesdon’s archivist Catherine Taylor. “And that can make it a challenge to make it accessible in an engaging way.”

Waddesdon was a place of excess, but also of great entertainment and hopsitality and this aspect of the life of the house has been revived for present day visitors. “For the past three years we have been putting on the 'Feast' festival every June, where people can bring their own food or buy on site, and the whole community sits down to eat and be entertained at a long table along the North Front,” says Taylor.

'Feast' is a great example of inventively bringing the stories of the house to life. A programme of performances is inspired by the Baron’s Treat and Alice de Rothschild – who is played by a performer in character – greets visitors in the Breakfast Room to answer questions and talk about the beautiful gardens at Waddesdon and the famous ‘Miss Alice’s Rules’. “As well as being huge fun, this reflects Ferdinand’s renowned hospitality, and his treats for staff and villagers, and we see a good mix of ages, with families as well as the traditional older profile.” says Taylor.

'Electronic Menagerie' was a light projection by American artist Lauren Booth inspired by Waddesdon’s famous Aviary. Booth’s pieces respond to both the Aviary’s history and its present-day activity. Neon animals and birds evoke the historical experience in Baron Ferdinand’s time when parrots would have been tethered to stands on the lawn to be admired by his guests. “We are continually finding new ways to articulate the Waddesdon story,” says Taylor.

'Downton Abbey’s' Dowager Duchess Violet may not know what a weekend is, but today’s visitors to historic houses are certainly enjoying theirs.

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