From Power to Enslavement: Recent Perspectives on the Politics of Art Patronage and Display in the Country House

Essay by Oliver Cox

Mark Girouard opened Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History, published in autumn 1978, with the deceptively straightforward question: ‘What were country houses for?’1 His answer has remained one of the most influential formulations of the purpose of the country house and the formation, character and function of country house collections. The country house was a place for the creation and confirmation of elite identities, where the personal, political, artistic and architectural combined in the service of their owners. ‘They were’, Girouard suggested, ‘power houses – the houses of a ruling class … People did not live in country houses unless they either possessed power, or, by setting up in a country house, were making a bid to possess it.’ For the power house to function fully, the connection between power – in all its variant social, economic, cultural and political guises – and the land needed to be maintained:

Land provided the fuel, a country house was the engine which made it effective. It achieved this in a number of ways. It was the headquarters from which land was administered and power organised. It was a show-case, in which to exhibit and entertain supporters and good connections … It was an image-maker, which projected an aura of glamour, mystery or success around its owner. It was visible evidence of his wealth. It showed his credentials – even if the credentials were sometimes faked. Trophies in the hall, coats of arms over the chimney-pieces, books in the library and temples in the park could suggest that he was discriminating, intelligent, bred to rule and brave.2

The power house embodied in architectural form the nexus of power, wealth and status of the political elite. For Girouard this was no more clearly expressed than in the new-build home of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall (fig. 1). A country house like Houghton ‘was an expensive piece of plant which needed constant alteration as well as constant maintenance if it were to continue its functions’.3 Such alteration could extend out to the conventions and dynamics of pictorial and sculptural display, thereby reinforcing the link between art patronage and collecting, and the upholding and reinforcing of the image of the power house.

Sir Robert Walpole and Catherine Shorter

Figure 1.
J.G. Eccardt and J. Wootton, Sir Robert Walpole and Catherine Shorter, circa 1754. Oil on canvas, 50.8 × 101.6 × 23 cm. The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University (sh-000035).

Digital image courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. (Public domain)

This essay is a study of approaches to country house scholarship and the new methodologies and concerns that have emerged in the forty years since the publication of Life in the English Country House. It focuses on three main themes. Firstly, it explores the ways in which the practice of politics and political allegiance could be made manifest through decorative and artistic decisions. Second, it documents how recent scholarship has extended the political field of vision beyond local and national politics to consider the country house as an active participant in imperial politics. Third, it suggests that picture and sculpture collections have been key assets for the traditional British elite in adapting and changing to a new position as the guardians of a newly constructed ‘national’ heritage, and that this national heritage was best cared for in situ by its existing owners. Or, in the words of Giles Worsley, ‘the country house has learnt to survive by disassociating itself from power’.4

Running throughout this essay is an emphasis on how country house collections are, more often than not, artistic and architectural expressions of a shared political and socio-cultural world view: one that cherished property ownership as the founding principle of political stability,5 and in the nineteenth century harnessed reverence for the past, Christian values, and the primacy of local community to enable parliament and the country at large to navigate political and industrial revolutions at home and abroad.6 Since the publication of Life in the English Country House an exploding galaxy of studies on individual country houses and broad thematic surveys have invariably contextualised paintings, furniture, material culture and decorative assemblages as supporting the core function of country houses and their owners in a variety of ways: maintaining and creating status; navigating changing conceptions and understandings of power at local, regional, national and international levels; demonstrating masculine and feminine identity; diversifying an investment portfolio and masking the original source of capital (especially important for wealth derived from the trade in enslaved people); and negotiating challenges around assimilation, acculturation, integration and difference, especially for plutocratic and Jewish wealth in the nineteenth century. In using country house collections as a tool for exploring these more expansive themes, the challenge facing current scholarship is to remain conscious of the potential for significant regional variations: the local political context of Norfolk remained distinct from Cornwall or Cumbria even if the political actors operated within an increasingly global context from the mid-eighteenth century.7

The country house and the business of politics

The country house encased in stone, brick, plaster and timber the economic, social and political power of the elite from the late medieval period to the late nineteenth century. The entire organisational structure of government – from Justices of the Peace to the Palace of Westminster – was driven almost exclusively by the active engagement of country house owners. Before mass enfranchisement, politics was personal, and the country house was the base through which power was maintained. Networks and alliances blended personal and familial connections to enable the maintenance of power and advancement. The prosopographical editions of the History of Parliament are gazetteers of country houses, their owners and their archives, a fact keenly appreciated by one of the project’s founding fathers, Sir Lewis Namier.8 As assets of a ruling class, and in their fully working form, country houses were spread across the British Isles ‘as bastions of power, as expressions of wealth, and as assertions of status’ and existed to ensure the transfer of this power, wealth and status across the generations.9

The country house is arguably the strongest visual signifier of the structures of wealth and inequality that secured enormous amounts of power and privilege in the hands of a minority of men who dominated British politics and the British empire into the twentieth century.10 Country houses also act as an index for understanding the shifting composition of the British elite over time – from agrarian to plutocratic wealth – and how different styles of architecture and types of patronage and collecting could support, celebrate and enable different levels of political ambition across generations. Crucial to the membership of this elite social grouping were certain shared codes and expectations in which, as Joan Coutu has explored, ‘the act of collecting – of gathering objects and placing them on display – [was] a component that made up the erudite, landed gentleman’.11

Within the self-fashioning of the gentry and aristocracy objects that spoke to continuity and lineage were of as much importance as new purchases in the best possible taste. Inherited objects enabled individuals to demonstrate their pedigree and signal their belonging to a like-minded elite social group, while simultaneously marking themselves out in opposition to other social or cultural groupings, particularly an upwardly mobile, middling sort who lacked the cultural capital provided by inherited collections. What distinguished this elite in their self-fashioning was the character, quantity and quality of the objects through which they could communicate messages of family and lineage: family portraits, decorative china, silver and gilt ware, furniture, and the rooms and buildings themselves adorned with crests, coronets and coats of arms – all were mobilised to convey the core message of difference. The accreted, inherited nature of most objects spoke to a social class secure in their political hegemony. Collections were thus innately political, acting as a ‘weapon in defensive consumption, delimiting membership of the elite in terms of a certain hard to define but unmistakable quality’.12

To drill down beyond these generalised observations, it can be problematic to assert that collectors chose to acquire specific sculptures or old master paintings, commission new works, or move inherited paintings to new locations based on their political persuasions or affiliations. Such a level of political determinism has the danger of being too reductive and of overlooking the potential importance of regional variations in the business of politics. However, in exceptional cases it is possible to recover specific political messages that often depend for their meaning and, by extension, value on specific constellations of personalities, place and understanding at a particular moment in time. A topical political allusion for one generation could quickly become an anachronism for the next.

In some cases political statements were far from subtle and could be carved into fabric of the country house. In 1628 at Temple Newsam, in lettering that adorns the balustrade along the roof line, Sir Arthur Ingram celebrated the reign of Charles I, proclaiming ‘True Allegiance To Our Gracious King Loving Affection Amongst His Subjects Health and Plenty Be Within This House’. Others had a more contentious relationship with the sovereign. In 1732 the 10th Earl of Derby included a strikingly direct comment on Charles II’s failure to reward his family’s sacrifices in the name of the crown over the south front of his newly rebuilt Knowsley, eighty years after the event in question:

James, Earl of Derby, Lord of Man and the Isles, Grandson of
James Earl of Derby, and of Charlotte, Daughter of Claude
Duke de la Tremouille, whose Husband James, was beheaded at
Bolton, XV Oct. MDCLII, for strenuously adhering to Charles the Second,
Who refused a Bill passed unanimously by both Houses of Parliament, for restoring
To the Family the Estate lost by his loyalty to him.

At the close of the eighteenth century at Arundel Castle the 11th Duke of Norfolk commissioned J. C. F. Rossi to sculpt a striking Coade-stone tableau of King Alfred Instituting Trial by Jury on Salisbury Plain as part of a series of extensive restorations and alterations that told the story of English liberty in stone, inflected with the duke’s own partisan interpretation (fig. 2).14 At Holkham the Earl of Leicester commissioned a frieze of panels illustrating the triumph of liberty over despotism for the central lobby. One panel shows King John signing Magna Carta surrounded by parliamentary-minded barons, each of whom has the face of a member of the Whig government of 1830.15 As Leslie Mitchell has argued, for Whigs who lived among ancestral portraits ‘every figure so represented admonished each new generation that they must use the privileges that great wealth afforded them to fulfil the obligations for which their forebears had suffered and bled.’16 Specific political moments could also be painted onto the walls of country houses. At Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire, for example, Thomas Vernon commissioned James Thornhill in around 1710 to paint the hall, withdrawing room, a bedchamber and the staircase. Thornhill’s painted staircase includes an assembly of the gods with Mercury holding the print of a portrait of Dr Henry Sacheverell, which is set on fire by the Furies (fig. 3). For the committed Whig Thomas Vernon, Sacheverell’s incendiary sermon The Perils of False Brethren was full of Tory bias and a treacherous act contrary to the revolution settlement of 1688. Thornhill’s addition to Hanbury bolstered and enhanced Vernon’s Whig credentials both within Worcestershire and nationally. Buscot Park in Oxfordshire contains perhaps one of the last overt political comments painted onto the wall of a country house. Gavin Henderson, 2nd Lord Faringdon, had from the mid-1930s used house and gardens as a venue for advancing Labour and Fabian politics, and he commissioned Diego Rivera’s English pupil Jack Hastings (16th Earl of Huntingdon) to decorate the walls of the East Pavilion with scenes of local political life. Lord Faringdon can be seen scaring the horses at a meeting of the local Faringdon Labour Party (fig. 4), the artist suggesting what might have happened if his patron had ever been given the chance to address such an audience in real life.

North Side of Quadrangle, Arundel Castle

Figure 2.
Benjamin Brecknell Turner, North Side of Quadrangle, Arundel Castle, circa 1852-4. Albumen print from calotype negative, 26.1 × 38 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (PH.44-1982).

Digital image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Life of Achilles, view upwards on the Painted Staircase in the Hall at Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire

Figure 3.
Sir James Thornhill, The Life of Achilles, view upwards on the Painted Staircase in the Hall at Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire, 1710. Oil painting on plaster and wooden laths. National Trust, Hanbury Hall (181608).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images/John Hammond. (All rights reserved)

The rally

Figure 4.
Jack Huntington, The rally, circa 1936-7. Fresco. The Faringdon Collection at Buscot Park.

Digital image courtesy of The Faringdon Collection at Buscot Park. (All rights reserved)

Political connections and alliances could also be expressed through individual collection items, especially collections of portraits and portrait busts. When politics was familial, ancestral portraits and new commissions took on particular political relevance. At Clandon Park five portraits of the Pelham family in rich carved and gilt frames were listed in the State Bedroom, presumably brought together as a consequence of the marriage of the 1st Earl of Onslow to the Duke of Newcastle’s niece in 1753. The 1st Duke had been the earl’s political mentor, and the five paintings – all reduced in height to fit the overdoor panels – provided a painted reminder of the earl’s marriage vows and his new familial links into the heart of national, rather than purely regional, political life.17 For the Duke of Newcastle at Claremont, at the top of the political pecking order, fidelity to the Hanoverian monarchy was utmost in importance. Sophia Newdigate, visiting in the mid-1740s, noted how the ballroom ‘has in it two marble chimney pieces over one is a Busto of ye present King over the other the late Queen & between both, on a Pedestal one of King George ye First’.18 Indeed, it seems that constellations of marble busts could also provide some form of political and personal solace for late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Whigs.19 At Wentworth Woodhouse the Rockingham Mausoleum mourned the party that never quite was: the prematurely dead Rockingham encircled by his friends and political allies (fig. 5). At Woburn Abbey the dramatically top-lit Temple of Liberty dedicated to Charles James Fox reminded early nineteenth-century Whigs of their core values during their prolonged exile from government. For subsequent generations these buildings were not much more than desiccated memorials to past political triumphs, and for twenty-first century visitors the intertwined webs of family connections underpinning not only Whig but Tory politics too can make the ‘conversations’ between portrait groups within a country house challenging to interpret.20

Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire.

Figure 5.
The Rockingham Mausoleum, Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire.

Digital image courtesy of Darren Flinders. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Politics could also feature in the landscape, encompassing a broad view of collections that extends beyond the chattels and moveable objects in interiors. Sophia Newdigate, visiting Bulstrode in Buckinghamshire (fig. 6), seat of the Duke of Portland, saw the twin messages of family and lineage demonstrated in the landscape as well as the interiors:

1790-4. Paper, 10.1 × 15.5 cm. The British Museum (1890,0512.30).

Figure 6.
Richard Courbold, Bulstrode Park, Buckinghamshire, 1790-4. Paper, 10.1 × 15.5 cm. The British Museum (1890,0512.30).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The gardens are 70 acres laid out by ye Earl of Portland Grandfather to ye present Duke who came over with King William & brought ye dutch taste along with him in which they still continue. I was extreamly pleas’d wth a myrtle hedge that grows ye whole length of ye house wch is sixteen windows in front, at seven foot asunder stand Orange trees nail’d against it full of fine fruit.21

At Bulstrode the landscape celebrated the values enshrined in the Glorious Revolution, presaging the celebration of a particular brand of patriotism at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, Gibside in Tyne and Wear (fig. 7), and Stourhead in Wiltshire, to name but three.22

circa 1817. Watercolour on paper, . The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.

Figure 7.
J.M.W. Turner, Gibside, County Durham. Seat of the Earl of Strathmore, circa 1817. Watercolour on paper, . The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.

Digital image courtesy of The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle / Bridgeman Images (BWM155783). (All rights reserved)

New approaches: patterns of consumption and the global country house

Specific collection items could therefore have particular political resonances. This understanding of the country house as a statement of an individual, family or dynastic identity is indebted to the approach pioneered by Girouard, whose concept of the country house as first and foremost a political power house, where ‘revolutions in planning’ are required ‘to fit the owners’ changing self-image’,23 has been remarkably resilient. It has shaped scholarly and popular understanding of the country house for two generations, even as ‘the automatic correlation between the ownership of an estate and the right to execute power … vanished’ in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.24

It has become an article of faith to see Girouard’s work as the breakthrough moment for country house studies, ‘essentially a pioneering work’ that for the first time connected architecture with social change and development.25 Peter Thornton, one of the co-organisers of the Destruction of the Country House exhibition in 1974, was rhapsodic, arguing:

Our whole attitude to country houses is going to be fundamentally changed by this book. No single action, no piece of legislation or fiscal legerdemain, nor even a massive transfusion of cash, could possibly be as effective as the publication of this work in the fight to preserve our country houses in a sensible and telling manner.26

One of the few critical voices was F. M. L. Thompson, who probed the extent to which ‘the generality of even the largest houses followed a lead given by the few’, wondering instead what happened to ‘the great mass of less-known, and smaller, country houses’.27 This temptation in country house studies to rely on exceptionality remains, although growing focus on houses such as Mells Manor and Trewithen, included among the case studies in the present project, emphasises the importance in seeking connections across the differing scales of land ownership, capital reserves and ambition.

Recent scholarship tends towards nuancing and extending Girouard’s arguments rather than comprehensively refuting them. Monographs on individual houses now approach their subject from a variety of different angles, often utilising a team of specialist authors to explore properties from a variety of methodological approaches,28 pivoting, as James Legard notes in his PhD thesis on Blenheim Palace, ‘away from narrowly historical researches towards broader questions of architectural meaning and significance’ in the attempt to unpick the relationship between collecting and display, social context and historical meaning.29 The questions scholars ask are not just limited to the state rooms of country houses. As Sophia Newdigate’s diary entries suggest, landscapes could have political resonances too. In the famous case of Stowe this meaning could shift almost yearly, depending on which incident in Georgian political life was being commemorated (fig. 8).30

The Temple of the British Worthies, Stowe, Buckinghamshire

Figure 8.
William Kent, The Temple of the British Worthies, Stowe, Buckinghamshire, 1731-5.

Digital image courtesy of Daderot. (CC0 1.0 Universal)

Within this increased scholarly output surrounding the country house two trends are particularly pronounced: first, the emphasis on the country house as a site of a wide range of social, economic and political processes, of which art patronage and collecting is one part out of many; second, the significance of the country house as both a site of, and an archival resource for, British history within a global context. For heritage organisations opening country houses to the public, there is a third trend, which has become even more urgent in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the reanimation of the Black Lives Matter movement: the need to make visible change in the way in which collection items associated with the histories of enslavement and colonialism are interpreted.

The first trend seeks to bridge the gap between research into the intrinsic material or aesthetic qualities of a collection and the processes and practices underpinning its collection and display. Scholars including Jon Stobart and Mark Rothery emphasise the extent to which country houses ‘were lived spaces, created by habitual behaviour, as well as preconceived spaces of power and display’.31 They challenge the notion that a country house can be understood as a single integrated expression of identity, arguing instead that houses were ‘a collage of interacting spaces, each with [their] own meaning’.32 The focus is increasingly on the processes that coalesce to create the mutable product of the country house, where each individual has the potential to make and remake meaning in response to social, cultural and technical change. Judith Lewis, Amanda Vickery and Amy Boyington have reinserted women into the narrative, reclaiming female agency from the condescension of posterity in terms of architectural, artistic and aesthetic decision making for the eighteenth century,33 while Megan Leyland has explored the significant role played by women in the complex series of negotiations and renegotiations involved in nineteenth-century country house building, and Adrian Tinniswood has emphasised the role of female tastemakers in the twentieth-century country house.34

Stephen Hague’s work on the entry level of the country house – smaller gentlemen’s houses in the British Atlantic World – is equally significant in exploring these buildings as material forms that signalled status in specific ways. The compact classical houses that form the focus of Hague’s transatlantic study were, by and large, not aspirational but confirmatory of status, with the emphasis on conservative stylistic choices and the limits to emulation apparent in their collections and display, occasionally outweighed by individualism and eccentricity.35 Hague’s emphasis on conformity in country house design and collections is valuable for reminding scholars not to succumb to the lure of the new at the expense of the inherited and the conservative, while confirming the extent to which art and architecture was a visual prompt through which status was continuously assessed and reassessed.36 Similar questions about aspiration, confirmation and assimilation animate a new pan-European project on the Jewish country house, which, in uniting within a single analytical framework all the actors involved in creating, maintaining and decorating Jewish country houses from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, interrogates anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish ‘difference’ to explore the political meaning of collecting and display by elite Jewish families.37

The second significant trend in recent country house scholarship is the global turn. The country house and its collections increasingly function as pivot points out from the rural, the parochial and the English into global sites that help scholars explore the structures of power and inequality that sustained the British empire. The recently concluded East India Company at Home project is exemplary in articulating the extent to which the country house must be considered as part of an entangled network stretching from Asian centres of production and exchange to a nexus of European consumer markets, as well as the importance of critically engaging with the ‘colonial amnesia’ of East India Company men and the families in ‘purchasing, furnishing and populating their stately homes’.38 Central to this research is an emphasis on the ‘mobility, impact and instability’ of objects and the important role played by collections ‘for manufacturing memorial and meanings, and the liability for such strategies to fall prey to alternative counter-narratives’.39 Likewise, Stephanie Barczewski emphasises how ‘a country house that was purchased with imperial funds was a very large, very powerful, very physical symbol of the wealth that the Empire could generate, a symbolism that was rendered all the more potent when it displayed imperial architectural influences or contained imperial commodities and decorative objects’.40

These connections could be clearly shown: for example the two busts until recently in the Marble Hall at Clandon Park depicting the enslaved people who worked on the Onslow family’s Jamaican sugar plantations (fig. 9),41 or the collection of ivory-inlaid furniture from Vizagapatam brought into the Townshend family by the 3rd Viscount Townshend’s wife, Audrey Harrison, on the death of her father, Edward Harrison, Governor of Fort St George (Madras), in 1732. The busts at Clandon were exceptional in their direct reference to the sources of the Onslow family’s rehabilitated fortunes. More typical was the use of the country house as a masking device for those involved in the Atlantic slave economy to distance themselves from it.42 The Legacies of British Slave Ownership project, based on compensation records produced after the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape in 1833, enables scholars to probe the fungibility of slave-resourced capital with both investment decisions and the purchase or commission of artworks, further charting the link between slavery and the country house. The extent to which art and material culture was a tool for normalising the power and political inequalities at the heart of the British imperial project is now of particular interest to scholars working on country house collections.43

Door surround with broken pediment, featuring the bust of an enslaved man

Figure 9.
Door surround with broken pediment, featuring the bust of an enslaved man, 1730s. Marble Hall, Clandon Park, Surrey.

Digital image courtesy of Clandon Park, National Trust. (All rights reserved)

For heritage organisations, and privately-owned country houses alike, the question of how to present and interpret these global histories is their biggest challenge at the start of the 2020s. Country houses are crucial sites for public history but are rarely presented to visitors as venues for researching, acknowledging and engaging with the implications of Britain’s colonial past, in particular the place of slavery and the slave trade. Recent academic research, ranging from large-scale ‘big history’ datasets to individual PhD projects, demonstrates not only the extent to which slavery was a part of everyday life in Britain but also the ways in which this intersected with country houses. Country houses and slavery were braided together by owners’ investment in joint stock companies including the South Sea Company; through government offices – in particular the administration of slave colonies; by marriage to ‘West Indian’ heiresses; and in the patronage of leading artists and craftsmen through wealth derived entirely, or in part, from slavery.44 Recent research into Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s clients, for example, highlights the extent to which profits derived either directly from the trade in enslaved people, or ancillary service industries, became part of the designed landscape of England.45

Much has also been written on the extent to which the collective history of slavery in Britain is contested terrain, and how the presentation of country houses to the public has involved a conscious forgetting of the British Empire in general, and the slave trade in particular.46 Historians of Britain and the British Empire recently protested at the on-going misrepresentation of slavery and Empire in the ‘Life in the UK Test’, calling the official handbook published by the Home Office, ‘fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false’.47 Such colonial amnesia, Katie Donington, Ryan Hanley and Jessica Moody argue, is rooted in the construction of a British identity that, from the mid-nineteenth century championed the liberal model of freedom, free trade, democracy and equality. For this to be achieved, slavery had to be forgotten and abolition remembered. However,

while most British people never witnessed the scenes of brutal exploitation upon which the plantation system depended, almost all were implicated in it. The perception that it was only wealthy white male plantocrats who benefitted from slavery has enabled broad swathes of the public to reject any sense of themselves as implicated subjects.48

Historians have, since the pioneering research of Caribbean activist scholars Eric Williams and C.L.R James in the 1970s, worked to demonstrate the extent to which any claim to exceptionality and freedom from the taint of British involvement with the slave trade is palpably false. The consumption of slave-produced colonial commodities, for example, was widespread from tea, sugar and mahogany in the withdrawing rooms of country houses to the coarse cotton which clothed textile workers.49 For Catherine Hall, this is an example of the kind of research that that brings slavery home, ‘tracking all these material traces, following the money and the people, making visible the legacies of slave-ownership, excavating what has been supressed and marginalised’.50 As Simon Gikandi stresses, the enslavement of Africans also shaped theories of taste, notions of beauty, and practices of high culture.51

Yet the question of how to share such research within the context of a country house visit has been the subject of much agonised debate for almost two decades. The initial spurt of activity surrounding the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade in 2007 foregrounded the fault lines that still endure almost to the point of caricature: heritage organisations seeking to attract more ethnically diverse visitors to their properties and a core visitor base uneasy and unhappy with any activity that might dislodge the ideal of the country house as a temple of civilisation. Rather than engaging with the macro-economic histories of the British slave trade, these fault lines invariably develop around particular items in country house collections that include representations of slavery, colonialism and people of colour.

In preparation for re-opening their properties in the aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown, the National Trust required all properties to complete an audit of both objects and narratives on the visitor route, assessing whether collection items included representations of people of colour; images of enslavement; objects associated with colonial violence, slave ownership or income related to slavery; colonial and military posts; items from the Fonthill Abbey sale of 1823; as well as more everyday colonial goods including sugar, tea and spices. Objects were assessed in terms of their level of contention and their prominence in the visitor experience, with any high prominence/high contention subject to three potential approaches: installation of in-situ interpretation, preferably with the participation of communities of interest; movement to a new location for display with more focussed interpretation; or, as a last resort, removal from display.

The example of a lead statue depicting an African man in a subservient position at Wentworth Castle (fig. 10), provides a snapshot of some of the issues at play for it combines both site-specific histories with broader cultural shifts in the display of, and response to, images of slavery. Sir Thomas Wentworth, as one of Britain’s two negotiators at the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, helped secure a lucrative monopoly over the Atlantic slave trade and personally benefitted from the sale and labour of enslaved Africans. These figures – known in the eighteenth century as “blackamoors” – were the most popular of all the lead garden statues made in London during this period, and Wentworth’s commission to Jan Van Nost clearly signifies his desire to celebrate Britain’s commercial success, built on the backs of enslaved Africans.52

Kneeling African Man

Figure 10.
Attributed to Jan Van Nost II, Kneeling African Man, circa 1720. Wentworth Castle.

Digital image courtesy of Kay Roxby / Alamy Stock Photo. (All rights reserved)

Moved from its original outdoor site to the entrance of the Victorian conservatory, the figure escaped notice for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – Laurence Weaver spoke of the figure’s ‘engaging triviality’ in 190953 – until the early 1980s when a group of students who were studying at the Northern College of Residential Adult Education (which had the use of Wentworth Castle since 1978) painted the statue white, as ‘a significant of a role-reversal that stood as a sign of their revulsion at this symbol of black subservience’.54 The now white statue was moved into storage until 2013, when it was restored by Hall Conservation as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and repositioned in the conservatory at Wentworth Castle with new interpretation designed to encourage debate about the politics of representation.55 In addition, the Leeds-based visual arts organisation Pavilion, commissioned a performance piece and textile installation Lead, Thread and Petals from Carol Sorhaindo and Joe Williams designed to make visible hidden narratives within the garden.56 In 2020, additional interpretation was added to the statue by the National Trust, who had taken on management of the castle gardens the previous year:

We don’t want to censor or deny the way colonial histories are woven into the fabric of Wentworth Castle Gardens, but we know this type of statue causes upset and distress to many people. We are therefore exploring how we can use this statue to increase awareness and understanding of the appalling histories of slavery and the slave trade and their legacy. We feel it is important to involve people with personal understanding and experience to ensure we tell these stories in the most appropriate way and we need to identify the best way to do this.

A different approach was taken at Dunham Massey, where an almost identical statue was temporarily removed from the front of the house in June 2020. This was in response to a series of posts on social media that threatened, in the wake of the removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, direct action to remove the statue and throw it into the nearby Bridgewater canal.

This audit will have considerable implications for the way in which art and material culture is displayed and interpreted within National Trust properties.57 Curating objects in context, often as part of complex historic assemblages, has long been the country house’s point of difference from the museum world and has frequently been used as an argument against the standard interpretative tools of labels and re-displaying and re-hanging of collections. The need to provide visible interpretation explaining an object’s context could signify a major departure. Creating this interpretation will also require a considerable investment in research in order to fully understand and contextualise potentially contentious legacies.58 One opportunity of particular relevance could be the twenty-seven portraits within the National Trust’s collections that include black sitters (fig. 11)59 In working to identify and put names to the sitters, such a project would open up the wider histories of black and Asian people who lived and worked on or near country estates from at least the seventeenth century onwards (fig. 12), and also help explain and contextualise other stylised representations of racial difference, including portrayals of the continents such as those created by Antonio Zucchi for Osterley Park and Kedleston (fig. 13) or by Peter Scheemakers for the tympanum of the Temple of Concord and Victory at Stowe. This is also clearly an issue for private owners too. Historic Houses has recently published guidance for its members on addressing ‘the absence or misrepresentation of stories about gay, non-white, female or disabled people and their historical associations with rich or important families and their homes across the UK’,60 while English Heritage and the National Trust for Scotland have both signalled their intent to engage more fully with the global connections at the heart of the country house.61

John Meller’s Black Coachboy

Figure 11.
British School, John Meller’s Black Coachboy, 1770-1779, oil on canvas, 114.3 × 91.4 cm. Collection National Trust, Errdig, Wrexham (NT 1151289).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images. (All rights reserved)

The Belton Conversation Piece

Figure 12.
Philippe Mercier, The Belton Conversation Piece, 1725-26, oil on canvas, 65 × 75.5 cm. Collection National Trust, Belton House, Lincolnshire (NT 436045).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images / John Hammond (All rights reserved)

The Four Continents: Africa

Figure 13.
Antonio Zucchi, The Four Continents: Africa, 1777, oil on canvas, 120 × 120 cm. Collection National Trust, Kedleston Hall (NT 108934.1).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images / Andrew Patterson. (All rights reserved)

Spanning these two recent scholarly interests of consumption and the global links, and the current debates surrounding the representations of slavery, colonialism and people is an understanding of country houses and the acquisition and display of their collections as active historical agents, rather than passive stage sets for human activity. Building on Girouard’s conception of the power house, scholars are more cognisant than ever of the extent to which the meanings of collections varied across time and space and of how these meanings could be ‘activated by contexts, by individuals and by relationships with other objects’.62 Alternative and complementary accrued meanings can exist side by side. For example, objects that may have little aesthetic value or historical significance may have immense emotional resonances for particular individuals who interact with them.

Conclusion: the country house as a site for public art history

Parallel to the expansion in country house scholarship is the continued and enduring popularity of the country house as a tourist destination. With over twenty million visits to National Trust properties and twenty-six million to Historic Houses properties annually, the country house is now one of the most important sites for public art history. As Kate Retford and Ben Cowell explore in their essays for the current project, the history of country house collections over the past fifty years is a fertile area for new scholarship, enabling an exploration of the way in which country house owners have mobilised their collections as a means of finding a new role and position for themselves, utilising the idea of the country house as a home – a site of relaxed domesticity – to connect with the preoccupations and concerns of the visiting public.

Of crucial significance in this shift has been the evolution of the Conditional Exemption Tax Incentive Scheme, which encourages the preservation of national heritage for public benefit in private ownership and enables owners to act as the custodians and guardians of family collections for the nation at large. More cynical commentators have interpreted this as an opportunity for inherited wealth to have its cake and eat it, especially through in situ Acceptance-in-Lieu agreements, by retaining ancestral heirlooms with the cost of conservation (where required) met by the taxpayer through national or regional museums. A recent project at the University of York, funded by the Open Data Institute, took this further, transforming the HMRC database of 36,000 exempt artworks into an online searchable platform. The language accompanying this project was robust, describing the artworks as ‘one of the largest “secret” collections in the country’, but the project has also been short-lived, suggesting the importance of building constructive dialogue between private owners and scholarly and public communities of interest.63

Somewhat unexpectedly, the recent political turmoil caused by Brexit has underscored the significance of the country house as place of political discussion and deal-making. Theresa May’s use of Chequers, and the subsequent ‘Chequers Plan’ (fig. 14), along with Boris Johnson’s meeting with the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Lord Leverhulme’s former home, Thornton Manor, confirmed the continued currency of the country house as an extra-parliamentary political space outside Westminster. This could provide an opportunity for owners and curators of country house collections to re-emphasise the political context and to explore the variety of different ways in which collecting and display were influenced by the pursuit of politics at local, regional, national and international levels.

Prime Minister Theresa May and Cabinet Ministers meet at Chequers for an EUXT Sub-Committee Away Day, 22 Feb 2018

Figure 14.
Prime Minister Theresa May and Cabinet Ministers meet at Chequers for an EUXT Sub-Committee Away Day, 22 Feb 2018,

Digital image courtesy of MoD/Crown Copyright. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


  • Dr Oliver Cox is Heritage Engagement Fellow at the University of Oxford and Co-Lead of the Oxford University Heritage Network. He leads a team that develops mutually beneficial research partnerships with the UK and international arts and heritage sectors.

    His research interests include the social, cultural and political position of the British country house from the eighteenth century to the present day. He is particularly interested in broadening the range of academic disciplines and approaches that use the country house both as a source of archival material and as a site for knowledge exchange and public history.


  1. Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978, p. 2.

  2. Girouard, 1978, pp. 2–3.

  3. Girouard, 1978, p. 3.

  4. Giles Worsley, ‘Beyond the powerhouse: understanding the country house in the twenty-first century’, Historical Research, vol. 78, no. 201 (2005), p. 428.

  5. Paul Langford, Public Life and the Propertied Englishman 1689–1798, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, passim. For a reflection on the influence of property on eighteenth-century historiography, see Joanna Innes, ‘Polite and Commercial’s Twin: Public Life and the Propertied Englishman, 1689–1798’, in Elaine Chalus and Perry Gauci, eds, Revisiting the Polite and Commercial People: Essays in Georgian Politics, Society and Culture in Honour of Professor Paul Langford, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 241–58.

  6. Angus Hawkins, Victorian Political Culture: ‘Habits of Heart and Mind’, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

  7. John-Paul Ghobrial, ‘Introduction: Seeing the World like a Microhistorian’, Past and Present, 242 (2019), pp. 1–22.

  8. David Hayton, Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019, pp. 156–8.

  9. David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, 3rd edn, London: Penguin Books, 2005, p. 693.

  10. For a consideration of the implications for propertied women’s engagement in a range of spheres typically gendered male, from estate management and improvement to electoral politics, see Briony McDonagh, Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700–1830, New York and London: Routledge, 2018.

  11. Joan Coutu, Then and Now: Collecting and Classicism in Eighteenth-Century England, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015, p. 6.

  12. Jon Stobart and Mark Rothery, Consumption and the Country House, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 262.

  13. Richard Stephens, ‘“Yor Ldships Collection will Surprise the World Very Much”: The 10th Earl of Derby and the London Art Market’, in Stephen Lloyd, ed., Art, Animals and Politics: Knowsley and the Earls of Derby, London: Unicorn Press, 2016, p. 83.

  14. Oliver J.W. Cox, ‘Arundel Castle as a ‘Palladium of English Liberty’, Georgian Group Journal, no. 21 (2013), pp. 123–36.

  15. Leslie G. Mitchell, The Whig World, 1760–1837, London: Hambledon, 2005, pp. 19–20. See also Alison Yarrington, Ilene D. Lieberman, Alex Potts and Malcolm Baker, ‘The Ledger of Sir Francis Chantrey, R.A., at the Royal Academy, 1809–41’, Walpole Society, vol. 56 (1991–2), p. 304.

  16. Mitchell, 2005, p. 20.

  17. Clandon Park, Bromley: National Trust, 2002, p. 9.

  18. Warwickshire County Record Office, CR 1841/7, Lady Newdigate’s Tours in the South of England, p. 22.

  19. Nicholas Penny, ‘The Whig Cult of Fox in Early Nineteenth-Century Sculpture’, Past and Present, vol. 70, no. 1 (1976), pp. 94–105.

  20. Kate Retford, Gill Perry and Jordan Vibert, ‘Introduction: Placing Faces in the Country House’, in Gill Perry, Kate Retford, Jordan Vibert and Hannah Lyons, eds, Placing Faces: The Portrait and the English Country House in the Long Eighteenth Century, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013, pp. 4–8 and passim.

  21. Retford et al., 2013, p. 13.

  22. Oliver Cox, ‘A Mistaken Iconography? Eighteenth-century Visitor Accounts of Stourhead’, Garden History, vol. 40, no. 1 (2012), pp. 98–116; John Dixon Hunt, Site, Sight, Insight: Essays on Landscape Architecture, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, pp. 32–61.

  23. Raymond Carr, ‘Rich men in their castles’, The Spectator, vol. 241, no. 7835 (2 Sept. 1978), p. 18.

  24. Girouard, 1978, p. 318.

  25. John Riely, ‘Review of Life in the English Country House’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 12, no. 3 (1979), p. 400.

  26. Peter Thornton, ‘Review of Life in the English Country House’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 120, no. 909 (1978), p. 855.

  27. F. M. L. Thompson, ‘Review of Life in the English Country House’, English Historical Review, vol. 95, no. 376 (1980), p. 643.

  28. See, for example, Christopher Rowell, ed., Ham House: 400 Years of Collecting and Patronage, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013; David Adshead and David A. H. B. Taylor, eds., Hardwick Hall: A Great Old Castle of Romance, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016; Caroline Dakers, ed., Fonthill Recovered: A Cultural History, London: UCL Press, 2018.

  29. James Legard, ‘Vanbrugh, Blenheim Palace, and the Meanings of Baroque Architecture’, PhD, University of York, 2013, p. 40. See also Jennifer Fraser, ‘A Strategy of Distinction: Cultural Identity and the Carews of Antony’, PhD, University of Plymouth, 2017; and Hannah Armstrong, ‘The Lost Landscapes and Interiorscapes of the Eighteenth-Century Estate: Reconstructing Wanstead House and its Grounds’, PhD, Birkbeck University, 2016.

  30. James Noggle, The Temporality of Taste in Eighteenth-Century British Writing, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 64–95; Oliver Cox, ‘“Rule, Britannia!” King Alfred the Great and the Creation of a National Hero in England and America, 1640–1800’, D.Phil, University of Oxford, 2013, pp. 101–7.

  31. Stobart and Rothery, 2016, p. 72.

  32. Stobart and Rothery, 2016, p. 55.

  33. Judith S. Lewis, ‘When a House Is Not a Home: Elite English Woman and the Eighteenth-Century Country House’, Journal of British Studies, vol. 48, no. 2 (2009), pp. 336–63; Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009; Amy Boyington, ‘Maids, Wives and Widows: Female Architectural Patronage in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, PhD, University of Cambridge, 2018.

  34. Megan Leyland, ‘Patronage and the Architectural Profession: The Country House in Nineteenth-Century Northamptonshire’, PhD, University of Leicester, 2016; Adrian Tinniswood, The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House Between the Wars, London: Jonathan Cape, 2016.

  35. Stephen Hague, The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World 1680–1780, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

  36. See also Paul Honeyball, Architecture and Image-Building in Seventeenth-Century Hertfordshire, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.

  37. Abigail Green and Juliet Carey, ‘Beyond the Pale: The Country Houses of the Jewish Elite’, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, vol. 18, no. 4 (2019), pp. 393–8; Oliver Cox, ‘Jewish Country Houses and Country House Studies’, ibid., pp. 513–19.

  38. Margot Finn and Kate Smith, eds., The East India Company at Home, 1757–1857, London: UCL Press, 2018, p. 9.

  39. Finn and Smith, 2018, p. 15.

  40. Stephanie Barczewski, Country Houses and the British Empire, 1700–1930, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014, p. 15.

  41. It is only in the fourth edition of the Clandon guidebook, published in 2002, that the term ‘slave’ is used.

  42. Madge Dresser and Andrew Hann, eds., Slavery and the British Country House, Swindon: English Heritage, 2013.

  43. Elisabeth Grass, ‘Radical Object: A Nice Cup of Tea? Everyday Ceramics as Sites of Empire’, History Workshop Journal,

  44. Madge Dresser, ‘Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Facing a Difficult Past’, in David Cannadine and Jeremy Musson (eds.), The Country House: Past, Present and Future: Great Houses of the British Isles, Rizzoli: New York, 2018, p. 347.

  45. The tercentenary of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s work in 2016 encouraged a wide range of new research, with a smaller section of publications focusing on the financing of Brown’s landscaping. See, for example, David Brown and Tom Williamson, Lancelot Brown and the Capability Men: Landscape Revolution in Eighteenth-Century England, London: Reaktion, 2016 and commissioned research from Historic England, including: Sarah Rutherford and Ceryl Evans, Capability Brown’s Plans: A Reference Catalogue of Design Plans and Survey drawn by Brown or his Office (c. 1750-83), Swindon: Historic England, 2019; Sarah Rutherford, Ceryl Evans and Steffie Shields, Capability Brown’s Drawings: A Reference Catalogue of Drawings by Brown or his Office (c. 1740s-83), Swindon: Historic England, 2019.

  46. Jessica Moody and Stephen Small, ‘Slavery and Public History at the Big House: Remembering and Forgetting at American Plantation Museums and British Country Houses’, Journal of Global Slavery, 4 (2019), pp. 34-68.

  47. Historical Association, ‘Historians Call for a Review of Home Office Citizenship and Settlement Test’,

  48. Katie Donington, Ryan Hanley and Jessica Moody, ‘Introduction’, in Katie Donington, Ryan Hanley and Jessica Moody, eds., Britain’s History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017, p. 1.

  49. James Walvin, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery, London: Harper Collins, 1992.

  50. Catherine Hall, ‘Doing reparatory history: bringing ‘race’ and slavery home’, Race & Class, 60:1 (2018), p. 17.

  51. Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

  52. Patrick Eyres (ed.), ‘The Blackamoor & The Georgian Garden’, New Arcadian Journal, 69/70 (2011).

  53. David Lambert, ‘Review: The Blackamoor & The Georgian Garden’, Garden History, 40:1 (2012), pp. 161-162.

  54. Gill Park, ‘Making the Invisible Visible in Capability Brown’s Lost Landscapes’ in Nick Cass, Gill Park and Anna Powell, Contemporary Art in Heritage Spaces, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020

  55. ‘African Slave, Jan Van Nost, Wentworth Castle’:

  56. Site-specific artists’ projects in country houses offer a significant opportunity for new ways of viewing and understanding country house collections. See, for example, Trust New Art: Celebrating 10 years of contemporary arts at National Trust places, Swindon: National Trust, 2019.

  57. This work has been led by Tate Greenhalgh (National Trust), Charlotte Holmes (National Trust) and Emily Pringle (Tate) as part of the AHRC funded project ‘Provisional Semantics: Addressing the challenge of representing multiple perspectives within an evolving digitised national collection’:

  58. The demise of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, Michael Hall suggests, will seriously impact such research outside of the country house context: ‘Remove the Evidence, Remove the Deed’, The Burlington Magazine, 162:1409 (2020)

  59. Paterson Joseph has used the Art UK platform to suggest that this must be an urgent priority for all museums:

  60. Daniella Briscoe-Peaple, ‘Telling “difficult” stories at historic houses’,

  61. Jennifer Melville, ‘Throwing new light on difficult histories’,

  62. Finn and Smith, 2018, p. 430.




by Oliver Cox
20 November 2020
Thematic Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Oliver Cox, "From Power to Enslavement: Recent Perspectives on the Politics of Art Patronage and Display in the Country House", Art and the Country House,