For many people, old toffs’ houses are the stuff of Tory ascendancy. We are supposed to prefer the architecture of 1970s housing estates or the gross ostentation of the Shard to Palladio, the Italian genius who inspired Clandon Park’s lost elegance. You think I am exaggerating? Step forward Labour leadership hopeful Chuka Umunna, who in today’s Observer suggested moving MPs out of “the relic that is the Palace of Westminster and into a new, modern, accessible site fit for purpose”.
When it comes to country houses, I share the guilt. It embarrasses me to admit I have never watched a single episode of Downton. To do so would somehow feel like voting Tory. But it’s just a TV drama. Nothing gets better in the world because lefties choose a box set of Better Call Saul instead.
Why are stately homes so unappealing to the progressive mind? Well, there are the cosy tea shops and garden centres the National Trust tends to put in them – would Vietnamese street food in the butler’s parlour make the trust hipper? Yet the more serious reason is that all those lovely lakes and sloping lawns byCapability Brown were created for the pleasure of ruthless predatory agrarian capitalist milords. The stately homes of Britain are symbols of wealth, power and social deference. Or so we’re schooled to think.
The great treasures of the past, from the Parthenon (built by a slave society) to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (ditto) have their dark underbelly. By comparison, British stately homes were created by a dynamic modernising nation that was creating the world as we know it. Their architectural harmony can be seen as an optimistic vision of a decent way of life. Clandon and 18th century houses like it are manifestations of the Enlightenment.
It is nonsense to identify social progress with one kind of style – to think of modernism, itself now a venerable, century-old legacy, as inherently more radical than Palladio or gothic. Is it because the architecture of the past is comforting that the left is so suspicious of it? In former ages, when life was short and uncertain, people loved buildings and landscape paintings that communicated permanence and timeless beauty. Every weekend people still flock to stately homes to enjoy that sense of peace – ignoring calls to go and look at the Westway instead.
I recently went to one of these places myself. How we enjoyed the Victorian billiards room where the owner of the house would play against his butler. How we admired the gardens where he counted birds and voles. In the study it was easy to envy the life of a Victorian country gent. And there on the bookshelves was the copy of Das Kapital that Karl Marx sent to his hero.
Disdain for “heritage” and robotic deference to “modern” culture is ignorant, crass, and cuts us off from Britain’s landscape and identity. Those relics happen to be part of who we are. To understand them is to understand England, which it seems the left needs to do pretty urgently. The eccentricity, character, grandeur and surprise of all those old houses and gardens is more human and joyous than a hundred pretentious art fairs. The real reason we need to go to stately homes and enjoy their afternoon teas is that they enrich us as people. That is what they were designed to do.