|Picture: Lynn Roberts|
Recent trips to National Trust houses prompt me to add to Art History News's concerns about this failing institution.
Last week I went to Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire with friends. It was seven hours of driving, and one of our party had traveled from the US, but worth it to see one of Adam's masterpieces, stuffed with fabulous furniture and baroque pictures. But the drawing room - one of the highlights - was in darkness. We couldn't see any of the pictures. The room has been set up to recreate the sense of an eighteenth century party. It fails on so many levels. It stops us seeing the things we had made great effort to visit. It patronises us by asking us to imagine a party at Kedleston, then assuming we're incapable of imagining and have to have the whole thing set up for us. And it fails because the execution is so feeble: a few wine glasses, electric lighting, and added spotlights on the gilt furniture for effect.
Tracy Emin would do a better job (and I never thought I'd say that). The National Trust panjandrums are using great houses as backdrop for their own art projects. I am just furious that we weren't allowed to see anything in the room because of this childish prank. And I'm embarrassed that my friend, who is a passionate connoisseur of the Italian baroque, will now likely never get to see the pictures. They threaten to extend this throughout the house:
Adding to the sense that the National Trust doesn't care for the things in its trust is the dumbed-down guidebook. The original guidebook lists virtually all of the pictures. The new guidebook just mentions a couple in passing. In the library one pictures is listed, and we are told the theme of another (Diogenes), but they don't even give the artist (Asserto, according to the old guide I own). Stourhead, which I also visited recently, is even worse. It has one of the best picture collections of any National Trust house, and the old guidebook I own provided a separate handlist of all the pictures on display, and discussed some in detail in the main guidebook. The new one mentions just half a dozen paintings in the picture gallery, but speculates that the collector 'was especially moved by female distress', seemingly on the evidence of two pictures he bought. This kind of gossipy human interest speculation is typical; the older guide discussed his taste in the context of eighteenth century collecting and stylistic preferences that make historical sense.
As I child I don't remember ever going to an art gallery, but my parents did take me to National Trust houses. I was enthralled, and I used to devour the guidebooks. Learning about this 'stuff' set off a lifelong interest in art history. Now they think I should instead have been distracted with gimmicks. The new guidebooks give a fraction of the information in the old. And instead of encouraging children to enjoy the houses and look at their contents, they put toy animals in the rooms and ask kids to locate them. I'm all in favour of engaging children with activities, but couldn't they make the activity in some way relevant to the house? They can play finding games anywhere. Here's the cat that I found:
Our visit also reminded me of all that is wonderful about National Trust houses. Kedleston really is one of the great neoclassical houses, with a vast entrance hall whose proportions work so much better than you'd imagine from pictures, its Roman austerity softened with alabaster pillars, leading through to a giant rotunda. Not everything works at Kedleston; the oddly reduced proportions of copied classical sculptures seem lost in the niches, and the functions of some rooms seem rather overwhelmed by the grandeur of their setting; modest bookcases are out of place in the library. But the collections are largely intact and so well-suited, the wonderful Linnell furniture and Italian pictures. Reminding us of the good work still done by the National Trust is a fine new acquisition, a delightful Carlo Dolci that was owned by the family until recently. For all its prejudice against 'stuff', they still acquire good things.