This weekend I went to Basildon Park. Some of you will know it as home to Victorian art collector James Morrison, who owned a couple of Poussin's best pictures, plus Rubens, Claude, Rembrandt and modern British pictures, which in his day meant Constable and Turner. Others will know its interiors from Downton Abbey, where it was used as the family's London house. Basildon has been cruelly abused, and had to be substantially re-made in the 1950s. It's not entirely clear from the guidebook which bits are new, but I thought the plasterwork in the entrance hall a heavy-handed caricature of Adam's delicate neoclassicism. It's not clear if it was a heavy-handed eighteenth century plasterer, or modern work. The house is still a delight, and it has some wonderful things, including eight apostles by Pompeo Batoni.
I went particularly to see an exhibition of pictures from the late Brinsley Ford's collection. I have a two volume catalogue of his collection published by the Walpole Society. He owned a superb Michelangelo drawing that was sold a few years ago, and a magnificent Subleyras that is now a highlight of the eighteenth century French room at the National Gallery. But his house was also crammed with 'minor' works, including modern British and pictures related to the Grand Tour, which was a particular interest of Ford's. Basildon is an ideal venue to show the collection, and the display is perfect. It includes fabulous portraits by Batoni and Mengs, a famous drawing of a temporary ballroom attributed to Adam (more likely by an assistant who was actually a better draughtsman), drawings by Tiepolo and a wonderful big caricature of grand tourists by Patch.
I like the dense hang, and it convincingly recreates the feel of Ford's own house, as seen in the Walpole Society volumes. A couple of the pictures are masterpieces, but I enjoyed the mix of more minor works, too. The NT wanted the light off; I don't know why the are so attached to darkness. The room guide sensibly used her initiative on a dull day and turned it on so we could actually see the pictures. Unfortunately they're not allowed to sell catalogues in the house (do they think the guides will defraud them?), so you have to remember to go into the shop before entering the house. But it's only a fiver, and it's very good, summarising the entries from the Walpole catalogue. Good art, good display, good catalogue. The NT has done everything right this time.
The Basildon exhibition will be in place for at least five years, so do try to see it. It's an easy day trip from London. It shows the excellent things still done by the National Trust, despite the best efforts of
Dame Beanbag. Speaking of which, I got a response from the NT following my gripe about Kedleston. The response went from the house manager to the regional manager to the head office, but of course I wasn't given any contact details other than head office. Despite drafting so many layers of management, the response could have been written by a computer, and the needless levels of bureaucracy and oversight are an ominous sign of mismanagement. Especially concerning to me is the delegation of accountability. Silly stunts like the Kedleston party have been encouraged from the very top. But they present it as a purely local decision for which they have no central accountability—except, of course, to coordinate and vet the responses to make sure they are written in the blandest possible corporatese.