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In memoriam: the V&A’s role in the study of historic houses

Care of Ham House and Osterley Park to be taken over by the National Trust

Madam, The news that the National Trust is taking over direct responsibility for Ham House and Osterley Park, which have been administered by the Victoria and Albert Museum since 1948 and 1949 respectively, marks the end of an era. From 1966, when Peter Thornton became Keeper of the Department of Furniture and Woodwork at the V & A to 1984, when he resigned to become Curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum, Ham and Osterley were experimental stations for new approaches to the presentation of the historic interior ensemble. Much that was once controversial — the arrangement of seat furniture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in its original formal backs-to-the-wall conformation, a stress on the importance of textiles, and the creation of museum rooms within houses is now absorbed into the bloodstream of those responsible for historic buildings.

The sources of this V & A approach were complex, including the Scandinavian (Peter Thornton is half Danish) and American examples, and other members of the Department, notably John Hardy, now of Christie’s, made a lively contribution. A new generation is revising and refining their ideas, but the basic methodology, with its stress on research, documentation, function, and that elusive concept, authenticity, remains intact. It is now very difficult to recall a time when almost every house open to the public was arranged according to the undiluted personal taste of the twentieth century owner or administrator/s, a time when there was almost no literature on the historic interior ensemble. That all is now changed is due in no small measure to the example of the V & A’s Department of Furniture and Woodwork (R.I.P.) Le roi est mort, vive le National Trust.

Simon Jervis,

Director, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge