What a Difference a Year Makes

Audley End. Sketch by author.
 © Aimee Keithan

Sixteenth of July: The calendar assures me it is summer, but the weather doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. It is cloudy and grey in the North of England; the temperature a cool 66˚F. In contrast, 2015 was the UK's hottest July on record. And I spent those sunny, halcyon days touring the British countryside, exploring some of England's most stunning architectural
masterpieces, cramming my head with knowledge of the best kind (hands-on experience), and forming lifelong friendships. In fact, the Attingham Summer School was such an enriching experience I've only been able to intermittenly reflect on it. Over the past year I've found relevant bits of the expert-led country house tours, comprehensive lectures, and knowledge exchange by my colleagues percolate to the surface here and there, adding depth to new experiences I have. So I find myself, one year on, ruminating.

'Capability' Brown landscape at Audley End
© Aimee Keithan 

16 July 2015, under bright blue skies we picnicked within a Capability Brown landscape in front of the sprawling Jacobean manse that is Audley End. The house was originally built in the early 17th century and has been considerably altered over time. Despite many changes, the exterior of the house is remarkably cohesive, presenting a rhythmic facade of stone courses and fenestration; projecting towers and straight expanses of wall. It is cared for by English Heritage, and its curator, the incredibly knowledgeable Mia Jackson provided us with an enlightening and entertaining tour, including the history of Sir John Griffin Griffin (because you can never have too many Griffins apparently) and personal introductions to a colourful menagerie of taxidermy animals.

L-R: Taxidermy hummingbird collection; Drawing Room; Intricate plaster ceiling pendants
© Aimee Keithan 

The house is a masterpiece of high status British architecture from aristocracy's golden age. It ticks all the boxes that have drawn visitors to country houses for centuries. (Country houses were often open to visitors as a way for owners to showcase their wealth and power. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries some houses began to produce guidebooks and set opening days - traditions that developed into the heritage activity many of us enjoy today.) Stunning Capability Brown landscape? Check. Large central hall with heraldry and beautifully carved panelling? Check. Row upon row of gilt spine books? Ornate plaster ceilings? Old master paintings resting on damask silk walls? Check check and check. All of these elements are well worth of the pride of place they are given during a tour of Audley End.

Servant bells at Audley End
© Aimee Keithan
Unsurprisingly, it was Audley End's service spaces that intrigued me the most however. They are fully interpreted, including kitchens, service courtyard, laundry with fittings and even the unique third storey coal gallery. While period props almost gave the appearance that only the servants were missing, it also created a somewhat voyeuristic feel - that of looking in rather than experiencing the space. Audley End has quite laudably experimented with this issue: one of the laundry rooms includes a projection of a servant working, and in the coal gallery there are soundscapes to attempt to convey the busyness of the space. Many historic house museums do not recognise the potential value in including messiness, noise, and life - all things that would have defined these spaces when they functioned.

Adding life to service spaces: (l) soundscapes in the Coal Gallery; (r) projected servant in laundry
 © Aimee Keithan

It is an important issue however as heritage experts call into question the validity of high status spaces to tell the story of the past (and therefore viability of the country house as a heritage asset). Some go further, questioning if we should continue expending money and research resources on an architectural type that represents such a minority of the past - magnificent and intriguing though it is. Is it short-sighted to utilise an interpretive approach that focuses on high status spaces, which by its very nature tells the story of exclusivity in a modern society that values inclusivity? A major component of my research is attempting to prove that this question does not have an either/or answer, but is better answered by a both/and approach. By expanding our understanding of the symbiotic relationships within a country house (specifically between masters and servants, and between these various people and the spaces they used) we can both increase the viability of the country house as an asset type and expand its validity by creating more meaningful connections with the past.

Audley End's laundry drying room
© Aimee Keithan
When we visit country houses today, opportunities to do just this may not at first seem apparent, but they do exist. Tucked away in attics, basements, or outbuildings, lay the stories of how the buildings functioned. And although too often the either/or dichotomy is encouraged by an upstairs/downstairs-focused interpretation, the spaces themselves do contain a foundation from which to work. Even if the houses functioned with such a strong division in place, our understanding should not be limited by that separation.

* I wish to thank the Royal Oak Foundation, who generously made my experience with the 2015 Attingham Summer School possible

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