Conference 2020

To mark the 18th Annual Historic Houses Conference, which was due to take place on 11 and 12 May 2020, we will upload over the next two weeks synopses of the many interesting papers which were to be delivered. These are the synopses which would have appeared (and hopefully will) in our conference programme.

Good ears and fine fingers, the drawings of Lord Mark Kerr (1776-1840)

by Anne Casement

While the role of painting, sketching and drawing as acceptable country house pursuits is well known, the deliberate employment of works of art as a means of amusing and entertaining fellow guests, and their families, is less widely appreciated. In this context, this fully illustrated lecture will examine the work of Lord Mark Kerr, born in 1776, the third son of the 5th Marquis of Lothian, a wealthy Scottish peer.

As was customary with their class, Kerr and his growing family spent considerable portions of each year visiting friends and relations with large country houses. Wherever they stayed, Kerr made drawings and watercolours of what they saw, partly for himself, but also it seems with the specific intention of sharing them with his fellow guests. These were supplemented by drawings of quite another kind. Being very much a child of the Romantic era, Kerr was possessed of a lively and vivid imagination, which found expression in the creation of a an ‘other world’ peopled by imaginary, grotesque beings. These images were not designed to horrify or shock, but to amuse and tickle the imagination, and could thus be happily exhibited alongside his topographical works

Catching flies

Well, what did you see there? Visitors’ descriptions of country house gardens in the eighteenth century.

by Michael Cousins

This paper focuses on the period from 1714 to 1800, and on estates with parks, gardens and associated buildings. Particular emphasis will be on who made these visits, and how people travelled? Where did they go, what were the most popular destinations and why? What did people see, and what hazards did they encounter, especially since admittance could not always be taken for granted? Of particular use are the travel journals of Sir Roger Newdigate, and the notebook of Edward Knight, as well as accounts of other figures including overseas visitors to England.

Image from George Moutard Woodward’s Eccentric Excursions

Birds, Bats and Bees: Managing Pesty Guests in the Country House

by Emma O’Toole

The country house has always been a haven for animals of many kinds. From nesting in roof rafters and gutters, to burrowing holes in furniture and textiles, both the country house’s built material and internal furnishings have provided the perfect home for various forms of pests. This paper will explore different kinds of pests that have taken up residence in the Irish country house, both past and present. It will consider the impact that they have made on historic properties and their collections. Particular focus will be placed on protected species, such as various Irish bats and Ireland’s native black bee. How can we can best preserve these houses and collections, while safeguarding, and even welcoming, these ‘pesty’ guests?

A hive created by the Native Irish Black Bee in the boudoir ceiling at Johnstown Castle, Wexford

Lady Louisa Conolly’s management of visitors to Castletown House

by Ruth Thorpe

This paper focuses on the last four decades of the eighteenth century when Lady Louisa Conolly established Castletown’s pre-eminent status in Irish country house hospitality, hosting elite society from Ireland and England. It examines the strain Lady Louisa felt as hostess with such large gatherings and how she craved time for her family and interests. This led her to devise a strategy for fulfilling her numerous social obligations that also eschewed the customary female practice of making and receiving ritual visits. She fulfilled the necessary civilities at Castletown on her own terms. Sunday was designated as the day visitors were always welcome, but on other occasions she pointedly excluded visitors or invited guests whom others deemed inappropriate. How Lady Louisa managed these various types of visitors and obligations offers an insight into the modus operandi of an experienced eighteenth-century hostess.

Lady Louisa Conolly by Stephen Catterson Smith the Elder after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Photo: Davison and Associates

How to Sit 500 for dinner: large-scale entertaining at Holkham Hall under Coke of Norfolk

by Katherine Hardwick

Due to a quirk of dynastic fate, Thomas William ‘Coke of Norfolk’ was the first man permanently to reside at Holkham Hall. He filled it with his young family and political acquaintances; under his tenure, Holkham witnessed some of the largest parties ever to cross its threshold, all in service of Coke’s political aims. The first of these was a ball to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. After 1800 Coke staged annual agricultural festivals – known as ‘sheep shearings’ – which cemented his place as one of the foremost agricultural innovators of the age. This paper will examine the challenges of staging such grand events, drawing upon contemporary accounts, newspaper articles, and archival material.

Holkham Hall

When my Master came: the seventeenth century re-establishment of the Willoughby family at their principal country seat: Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, England

by Megan Doole

After a period of setbacks in the early seventeenth century the Willoughby family retreated to an older, secondary house in Warwickshire. However, estate records from the 1650s onwards provide evidence of ongoing repairs and improvements to the Wollaton estate in Nottinghamshire, along with brief visits by the ‘Master’. These works on the estate, deer park, mansion and garden indicate the family’s continuing commitment to Wollaton, foreshadowing their eventual return. This research replaces the current narrative that Wollaton Hall was abandoned by the Willoughbys, and reveals how and why an absent landowner visited the principal family seat.

A depiction of Wollaton Hall, sketched by R Hall and engraved by Hollar for the book:
Thorpton, Robert, The Antiquities of Nottingham, Extracted out of Records, Original Evidences, Leiger Books, Other Manuscripts and Authentick Authorities (1677)

Trespassers and local relations around country houses in 1920s Germany

by Christoph Schlemmer

By examining the sensational story of ‘Shooting Kaehne’, a Brandenburg Junker living on his estate, Schloss Petzow, on the outskirts of Berlin, this paper sheds some light on how country house owners negotiated ideas of property rights, democratic participation and public commitment. Who received permission to enter the property and who did not? Why did Kaehne invite hiking groups from Berlin to his hunting lodges, but at the same time attack local fishermen? He would invite members of the press to boast about his weapons but also present himself in court as a victim of an out-of-control urban population. Kaehne’s example illuminates the practices of sociability between country houses and local populations. He is more than an example of an anti-modern Prussian Junker: his understanding of public and private ground, and his ambivalent relationship to the surrounding villages and the nearby metropolis of Berlin illustrate a form of self-conception in a rural environment.

Castle Leslie and its Visitors, 1871-1963

by Emma Lyons

In 1665 John Leslie, Bishop of Clougher, purchased the Glaslough Castle and Demense in Co. Monaghan. Since his acquisition of the estate many visitors have crossed the Castle Leslie threshold and been welcomed to the Glaslough estate. These include Jonathan Swift, Lords Kildare and Rossmore, members of the Hope, Jerome, Churchill, and Gladstone families, as well as more recent guests, including Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. The visits, and visitors, have been recorded in a series of visitor books dating from the late eighteenth century. This paper will examine the visitors to the Castle Leslie estate during the tumultuous nineteenth and twentieth centuries, highlighting how important historic information from them can shed light on Castle Leslie and the social connections of the Leslie family. 

Visits and visitors – the Kerry country house, 1918-39

by John Knightly

The diaries, letters and visitor books of Major Markham Richard Leeson-Marshall (1859-1939) of Callinafercy House, Co. Kerry record everyday life as well as every visitor and visit made by Leeson-Marshall and his family between 1918 and his death in 1939. They give a detailed description of life under duress between 1918 and 1923, recounting in detail how this house and numerous others in Kerry were raided or burnt. Yet they also reveal how life after the Civil War returned to its old form remarkably quickly albeit on a reduced scale. Focusing on a core group of families that remained in Kerry such as the Godfreys, Kenmares, MacGillycuddys, Blennerhassetts, Leslies, O’Connells and Magills, this paper chronicles their different strategies for survival, their relations with local communities, their engagement with local agriculture, and ambitions to make Kerry a premier tourist destination. 

Knowsley Hall, visitors in the twentieth century

by Stephen Lloyd

During the course of the twentieth century, Knowsley Hall, the Lancashire seat and estate of the earls of Derby near Liverpool, hosted two contrasting sets of visitors: royal and aristocratic shooting parties were interspersed with periods of occupation by the military during the two world wars, and local constabularies from 1970 to 1997 when the house was let as a police headquarters for the Lancashire and later the Merseyside police. Exotic animals housed on over a third of the surrounding park have also created a highly successful Safari visitor attraction since 1971. Over the last twenty-five years, the 19th earl and countess of Derby have restored the hall as a working stately home, hosting corporate and charity events, filming and weddings. Using recently catalogued papers from the Derby archives, this paper will demonstrate the resilience of the hall and its surrounding park – from the onset of the First World War until the Millennium.

Restoration at Knowsley Hall

The quintessential visitor: Turlough O’Carolan, harper, composer and Gaelic poet

by Seamus McGabhann

Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), the Catholic Gaelic poet and composer won the rare distinction of becoming a legend in his own lifetime. Having been struck blind by smallpox at the age of eighteen, he was taught to play the traditional harp by his Gaelic patrons, the MacDermottroes of north Roscommon. In subsequent decades he composed and played for both the declining Catholic gentry and the newcomers of planter stock, the Protestant ascendancy. O’Carolan thus represents a tentative cultural bridge between the two nations in Ireland during the dark era of the penal laws. Anglo-Ireland relished O’Carolan’s genius. Dr. Patrick Delaney of Trinity College was a patron and introduced him to Jonathan Swift. When Most Celebrated Irish Tunes was published in 1724 half the works in it were by O’Carolan. His creativity was enhanced by the European baroque music he encountered in the Big Houses and in Dublin. O’Carolan’s brilliant technical ability enabled him to combine the traditional Irish mode he had inherited with an overlay of the latest most fashionable Italian and French styles. Since his death in 1738, O’Carolan’s musical legacy has echoed down the years.

Portrait of Turlough O’Carolan by Francis Bindon.
Courtesy of National Library of Ireland

Access denied; access restricted: uninvited encounters at the thresholds of eighteenth-century country estates.

by Peter Collinge

A proliferation of travel guides and rising visitor expectations in the eighteenth century prompted the owners of some country houses to construct inns, and to produce room-by-room itineraries, with housekeepers offering guided tours for a fee. This suggests that if one appeared appropriately dressed and was judged to be of the ‘right sort’, access to houses was routinely granted to those without an appointment. This was not always the case. Lacking letters of introduction, or even in possession of them, uninvited and unexpected visitors could sometimes be denied admittance, or find their visits severely restricted. Disgruntled and inconvenienced by unexpected intrusions, some owners responded with elaborate rules, admission policies, and high walls. This paper uses the evidence of contemporary letters and journals to explore the expectations, experiences and reactions of those visitors whose admission to country houses was refused.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. Image by Peter Collinge

An agitation of greeting: Comings-and-goings in the fictional Irish country house.

by Ian d’Alton

In the real world, the country house was often overwhelmed by a tsunami of guests – for instance, between 1860 and 1900 1,327 people were guests at Emo Court, the seat of the earls of Portarlington. The Big House was also a canvas, a ‘representative of miniature theatre’, as Elizabeth Bowen wrote of her own Bowen’s Court. In these introverted worlds the landed classes wove an intricate social filigree and indulged, amongst themselves, in a variant of Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’. Visitors could disrupt the delicate balances inherent in Big House life: Bowen’s ‘agitation of greeting’ was often matched by an agony of goodbyes. This paper examines country house comings-and-goings through the lens of novels, short stories, plays, and poems.  What can these fictional representations tell us about the nature of the country house and its inhabitants that complement – and maybe contradict – the reality as portrayed in the historical narrative?

Glaslough House Visitors’ Book, c. 1930 by artist Frank Wilson

Knole, the most interesting thing in England?

by John Coleman

In 1791 Edmund Burke described Knole, home of the Sackville family, as ‘the most interesting thing in England’. The house inspired Horace Walpole in his creation of Strawberry Hill, and among its owners the 3rd duke of Dorset lived openly there with his mistress in the late eighteenth century; Vita Sackville-West, novelist, poet and celebrated gardener, was enthralled by the place, and her friend Virginia Woolfe drew on Knole and the Sackvilles for her novel Orlando; and the house likewise inspired her cousin Eddie Sackville-West, 4th Baron Sackville (1901-65). Set in a thousand-acre deer park, Knole’s four and a half acres of buildings has attracted numerous visitors drawn by its legendary status as the largest private house in England. The first guidebooks date from the 1790s and today the National Trust welcomes over 80,000 visitors annually, while the house remains a family residence.

Vita Sackville-West as the eponymous Orlando, one of a number of illustrations to the first edition of Virginia Woolfe’s novel (1928)

Soup kitchens at English country houses 1795-1914: the poor as invited guests, a new perspective on elite landscapes.

by Phil Carstairs

Soup kitchens were not only urban institutions during the long nineteenth century; they were common in rural areas, where the only available venue was often the country house. They proliferated across much of England, first during the famine years of 1795-1801 and again from the 1830s to the end of the nineteenth century. Using case studies and data from local newspapers, this presentation will contend that country house owners continued the long-established traditions of the moral economy by providing food, often in the form of soup, to their local poor. Country house kitchens, breweries, stables and laundries were all used for mass production of soup, particularly during wintertime.  The poor routinely attended the house for the distribution which often assumed a theatrical air, but demonstrated the house-owner’s patronage and power.

A man stands at the open gates of his mansion handing out food to the poor who are gathered around. Etching. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Misplaced hospitality and practical implications: the northern tour of Theodosius Forrest, RA.

by Kerry Bristol

Taking as its starting point the manuscript account of a tour through the East Midlands and Yorkshire c.1773 apparently written by Theodosius Forrest, this paper explores ideas of journeying, hospitality, topographical illustration and the nomenclature of politeness. A practising lawyer, Forrest was also a composer embedded in London’s theatrical world who studied drawing under George Lambert. He was an inveterate traveller, illustrating his journeys with watercolour views of country houses. Forrest and his companions went in search of elite estates and picturesque landscapes ‘to Feast the Eye’, although they were also quick to note evidence of local industry and the habitations of the poor. Ostensibly written as a means of informing family and friends, Forrest’s tour invites discussion of the ‘language’ of eighteenth-century domestic tourism and the role of travel in the education of the artist.

Wentworth Castle

The librarian, the painter, the fine art curator: Lady Louisa Egerton and the development of the Devonshire collections at Chatsworth House

by Lucy Brownson

The librarian, the painter, the fine art curator: Lady Louisa Egerton (née Cavendish, 1836-1907) variously assumed all three of these roles throughout her life. A keen bibliophile, watercolourist and art historian, Louisa was the daughter of William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire, and she exercised curatorial oversight over several Cavendish properties – most notably the family’s ancestral seat, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Her correspondence depicts a woman who consulted a wide range of advisors to professionalise care for the collections at Chatsworth; these letters also reveal her reactions to unwelcome – even uninvited – visitors to the estate. This paper explores Egerton’s integral role in cultivating early visitor experiences at one of the UK’s most renowned historic houses, and the legacies of her dedication to the Devonshire Collections.

Lady Louisa Egerton

Castle Blunden and Hospitality

by Caroline and Jane Blunden

Visitors – invited or not – have always been welcome at Castle Blunden and at The Gate Lodge. The paying guest is relatively new to the country house in Ireland, but a successful stay – for paying or personal guest – depends on the hospitality offered by the host or hostess. In our own travels around the world in the late 1960s we received hospitality in places as far apart as Ireland and Mongolia where such rituals remain important for visitor and guest alike.

Footsbarn Theatre Company being welcomed at the Gate Lodge Castle Blunden

I feel more like Cinderella, than anyone else you can imagine: Elizabeth Gaskell’s visit to Chatsworth

by Fran Baker

The 6th duke of Devonshire was celebrated for welcoming tourists to Chatsworth House. Amongst the day-trippers in September 1857 were the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and her daughter, whose tour was interrupted by an announcement that rooms had been prepared for them. Gaskell’s description of her visit in one of her letters suggests that she fully expected to be summoned to meet the duke, who had read Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte and undertaken his own literary tour to Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire. This paper explores Gaskell’s account of her visit to Chatsworth and discusses the relationship between writers and aristocratic patrons in the Victorian period, and the rise of literary tourism.

19th-century visitors’ ticket that Elizabeth Gaskell used to gain entry to Chatsworth

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