Downton Abbeys

A writer takes a behind-the-cordon tour of England’s great country houses
illustration of an English country home
The ninth Duke and Duchess of Devonshire take tea with their family at Chatsworth. Illustration: Paul Cox
January 3, 2013

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The lilting voice that floated across his grand garden proved to be nothing less than a siren song for Sir Harry Fetherstonaugh, the 70-year-old bachelor squire of the fine country house known as Uppark, in West Sussex. In younger days, Fetherstonaugh (1754–1846) had been a boon companion of the profligate Prince of Wales, since enthroned as King George IV.

But retired to Uppark, the aging baronet was belatedly to discover domestic bliss in a most unlikely place, namely the farmyard of his estate. Just months after first hearing her sweet voice, he married his 20-year-old junior dairy maid, the rather plain Mary Ann Bullock. It was, of course, an act of social suicide—Mary Ann, even after a trip to Paris to acquire the social graces, spoke with all the polish of the flower seller Eliza Doolittle.

Such upstairs-downstairs stories are irresistible to Americans and Britons alike. Lately, they have been a mainstay of the PBS series Downton Abbey, a sudsy cocktail of love and war with the deeper narrative of the British ruling class: the struggle of Lord Grantham and his family to maintain their equilibrium in the face of dramatic shifts in their social landscape. Downton—like the works of Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austen—offers a glimpse of an ordered world now faded. So, too, do the historic house museums the aristocracy has left behind: great mansions like Uppark, set in immense parklands and home to priceless canvases and objets d’art.

In 2011, I spent my summer vacation in Lord Grantham’s world. I was one of four dozen fellows of Britain’s Attingham Summer School, which, each year since 1952, has filled a coach bus with an international coterie of curators, architects, college professors, archivists, conservators and other devotees for a private tour of English country estates. The stops are mostly to houses operated as museums, but sometimes they include homes rarely, if ever, open to the hoi polloi.

Our group was on the road every morning and afternoon, visiting more than three dozen country houses over the course of three weeks. In the evenings, we listened to lectures on ecclesiastical architecture, Baroque (that is, “Baa-ROCK”) furniture, and a dozen other specialties, accumulating stores of knowledge about such matters as the tapestries at Hardwick Hall and the famous Holbein portrait of Henry VIII at Belvoir (pronounced “Beaver”) Castle.

The food historian Peter Brears delivered one of the best presentations. This bearded bear of a man—he’s a serious cook, with a belly to match—explained the houses’ array of food preparation areas, which might consist of more than a dozen discrete spaces, among them a salting room, brush room, bakehouse, brewery, still room and buttery, in addition to larders and pastry, vegetable and main sculleries and, finally, the kitchen. Such talks left me, even after 12 hours of touring and highbrow discussion, bound for the pub to compare notes with other Attingham Fellows.

As I took in the world of the English aristocracy, the hierarchy of the peerage assumed a new significance (in descending order, it’s duke to marquis, earl, viscount, baron and baronet). I learned that the country house, which depended upon income from the estate, was truly home, even though one might go to London for “the season.” That home was linked through a matrix of socioeconomic factors to its surrounding community—villagers, local business and even factories and extraction industries. More than a few aristocratic families in earlier centuries secured their position with the profits from coal dug from their acres. At one estate, Erdigg on the Welsh border, the colliery extended beneath the house itself, which, as a result, began to subside into the earth.

Crossing the Velvet Ropes

By my second week as an Attingham Fellow, I felt empowered to step over the velvet ropes into territory normally forbidden to visitors. The conservators in the group liked nothing better than to invert a chair and investigate its webbing, glue blocks and secondary woods. At one house, a Dutch decorative arts curator removed a pair of stools from the foot of the bed in a state bedroom. “It is wrong,” he observed dryly, his English as impeccable as his suit. “They were never there.”

Watching him carefully reset the pieces, I recognized my good fortune to be in the company of such well-versed fellow travelers to the past. My colleagues possessed expertise in ceramics, silver and the Red Books (volumes of “before” and “after” views) of the landscape designer Humphry Repton. The painting curators talked of attribution, varnishes and impasto; the architectural historians sought clues to how and why structures had changed over the centuries.

From the first day, however, the most vital moments for me concerned the people for whom these extravagant mansions were home. People like Evelyn Forbes James, who a century ago was the lady of the house at West Dean in West Sussex, and was said to be the illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).

“Lady James called up to the nursery, ‘Nanny, I need a child to go to church with.’ ” Illustration: Paul CoxOne Sunday morning Lady James called up the great winding stair to the nursery. “Nanny,” she ordered, “I need a child to go to church with.”

Wanting to please her mistress, the servant replied, “Which one, ma’am?”

Evelyn James’s answer: “The one that goes best with my blue dress.”

The baby of the family was Edward. Whether or not his mother’s detached approach to nurturance had anything to do with it, Edward became a poet, a patron of the arts and an eccentric with a consuming passion for the surrealists. Thanks to him, the James estate eventually became West Dean College, where students today learn conservation and restoration, as well as tapestry weaving and other crafts.

To walk from room to room in some of the grand houses is to view the ancestral past of a given family and to survey the evolution of British painting—in family portraits by Kneller, Van Dyck, Reynolds, West, Gainsborough, Romney, Lawrence, Sargent and even Lucian Freud. At Chatsworth, a palace that some call “National Gallery North,” all of those artists are represented, along with Da Vinci, Raphael and Rembrandt. And, mind you, this a collection from which the last generation sold a good many of the finest paintings to pay off death duties assessed at 80 percent of the estate’s value.

Charmed, I’m Sure

Chatsworth is currently occupied by the 12th Duke of Devonshire, Peregrine Cavendish, and the Duchess, Amanda Carmen Heywood-Lonsdale Cavendish. When our group visited, the couple served lunch in one of the event rooms, where women from the village waited on us. Perhaps because of my status as an elder amongst the scholars, I was designated to join the duke at table. A one-percenter for the ages (the Cavendish who built Chatsworth was a courtier to Henry VIII), he opened our conversation disarmingly.

“I am embarrassed to say I’ve not read any of your books,” he offered, his eyes hooded, his gaze direct. Why would he have? I asked myself, but before I could respond, he added, “But I think you know something of Mr. Jefferson?”

If he hadn’t read any of my prose, he certainly had gone to the trouble of reviewing my bio—which mentions my two books on Thomas Jefferson—and we were soon swapping stories about American presidents. No doubt he has a rooting interest, as his uncle was married to John F. Kennedy’s sister Kathleen before their premature deaths (his in World War II, hers in a car crash in 1948). But soon enough the conversation came around to Chatsworth.

His family home is quite evidently the duke’s passion, and every detail engages him. The house is now operated by the Chatsworth Trust (the family pays rent for their quarters), but since he succeeded to the dukedom on the death of his father in 2004, there is no doubt who is in charge at the 126-room dwelling. A new master plan he commissioned is in place. Many rooms and objects have been reinstalled.

A man in his late 60s with a mobile face that always seems to convey his interest in the topic under discussion, he offered forthright opinions. We talked of an ongoing exterior restoration, and I asked about the regilding of the windows, a touch that would give the palace the look of an immense jewel box.

“Oh, you mean the bling?” he offered with a sly smile. After a pause, his face suddenly serious, he added, “It will be wonderful to see the house as my ancestors saw it.”

When asked about the absence of labels on the pictures, he gave me an immediate answer. “It’s a house,” he said firmly but kindly. “Not a museum.”

Here, I believe, he was conveying more than a simple insistence on the domestic. Country houses are big business in the United Kingdom; Chatsworth and its surrounding parkland alone welcome some 700,000 visitors a year. And as the duke’s words implied, he is keenly aware that while the properties afford countless lessons about England’s cultural, economic, military and royal history, the paying public often comes to see how the aristocracy really lived—and continues to live.

Downstairs to Upstairs

Visitors to the estates are inevitably awed by the sheer scale of the architecture. As an Americanist, I understood that our greatest early villas were descended from the English country house. But on the Attingham tour, there was no mistaking the vastly larger scale of the English antecedent even in comparison to a vaunted national monument such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon. At Kedleston, a domed masterwork by the architect Robert Adam, my first impression on entering the central hall was that another domed house, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, could be put on display—in its entirety—within the cavernous volume of that one room.

The weeks amounted to a short course on British architecture. Our travels took us to several buildings by Joseph Paxton, whose 1851 glass-and-iron Crystal Palace was a monument to both the Industrial Revolution and England’s might, and by John Nash, one of the architects of Buckingham Palace. I was amused to learn that, like our countryman Frank Lloyd Wright, Nash repeatedly designed sophisticated buildings with leaky roofs.

The most remarkable architectural features we encountered were not always the work of acknowledged masters. At Welbeck, the intensely shy “Burrowing Duke” constructed two-and-a-half miles of underground tunnels, some of them large enough for a horse and carriage. And at Erddig, an immense house on the Welsh border packed with generations of objects, everything is inverted. Visitors arrive—it’s been a National Trust site since 1973—as if they were tradesmen or servants. The farm and stable yards are on the approach, as are the slaughterhouse, sawmill and a dozen other trade buildings. The kitchen and laundry wing are next, and one enters the house at the servant level, the lower ground floor.

There the basement passage amounts to a kind of long gallery, but one featuring portraits quite unlike Chatsworth’s parade of dukes and duchesses. The paintings in this case are by limners, uneducated itinerant artists who worked before and after the turn of the 19th century. These crudely executed pictures are accompanied by photographs taken 100 or more years later. And every likeness is that of a servant—a carpenter, housemaid, gardener, gamekeeper, housekeeper or butcher—many of them with the tools of their trade in hand.

If Lord Grantham’s kindness to his servants at Downton Abbey seems to some ahistorical, the Yorkes at Erddig amount to a notable precedent. And their example debunks the notion that Britain’s upstairs-downstairs narratives were always confined to the realm of scandal and romance. Indeed, our group learned that a Victorian-era housekeeper at Uppark, the same estate where Sir Harry Fetherstonaugh succumbed to the charms of his young dairymaid, later gave birth to another low-class individual who improved his social standing in a very different manner. The housekeeper’s son grew up to be a writer named H.G. Wells.

For the record, our itinerary did not include Highclere Castle, home to the Earl and Countess Carnavon, the grand Gothic wedding cake of a house that millions have come to know on PBS. Having toured many similar houses, however, I can now both appreciate the drama of Downton Abbey and recognize that its evocation of the past often depends on the mere sketched-in outline of a single imagined moment. We Attingham scholars had one such vignette of our own, though no film crew was at hand. It occurred at Flintham Hall in Nottinghamshire.

“I drifted into Flintham’s library, an expansive space with book-lined balconies reached by a spiral stone stair, and found a number of my colleagues flopped on sofas.” Illustration: Paul CoxLike Downton (I mean, Highclere), Flintham is a mansion of mid-19th-century character that remains in family hands. We had explored the house, visited the garden and chatted with the owner, a London barrister, and were about to walk to the bus when a sudden hard rain delayed matters.

I drifted into Flintham’s library, an expansive space with book-lined balconies reached by a spiral stone stair, and found a number of my colleagues flopped on sofas, idly writing in their notebooks or reading. As the time passed (the shower proved persistent), others wandered in from elsewhere in the large house, where they had been examining furniture and good pictures. Some took photographs of the scene, and the big room seemed happy to absorb us all. The interlude was accompanied by the sound of water running off the 40-foot-tall vaulted glass roof of the adjacent conservatory.

For an instant, the sensation came over me that we were truly inhabiting a country house, not just inspecting it, jotting notes about it or listening to wise people instruct us. This extraordinary group of trained observers—all of whom I had come to like and admire—had become more than tourists. We were, however briefly, accidental guests.

I might suggest we were lost in time. One could imagine that the fox hunters would be back from the fields at any moment, drenched but exhilarated. Or that tea was to be served or whiskey and sherry offered round. And that the monarch was Edward rather than Elizabeth.

None of that was true, of course. But I do think it was why we had come.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Hugh Howard, A74, is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War.

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