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The National Trust, the greatest “museum” in the UK celebrates its centenary with an exhibition of paintings from country houses at the National Gallery

A gentle heritage

The greatest museum in the British Isles is a private body, a charity. The National Trust’s collections of works of art run into the tens of thousands; the pictures alone number 8,500, over three times the contents of the National Gallery. This year around 10 million visitors will have come to look around its historic houses, compared to the 6 million or so who went to the UK’s most frequented museum, the British Museum. The Trust has a faithful supporters club of 2.2 million members, whose dues make a sizeable contribution to its basic annual budget of £150 million.

This immense organisation, dedicated to passing on the best of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’s natural and man-made patrimony is a hundred years old this year.

It has grown in the English manner, organically, empirically. Its administration, for example, is largely devolved to the regions, to be close to the properties that it looks after. Simon Jervis, former director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, who has recently been given overall responsibility for all the Trust’s historic properties and their contents, emphasises its avoidance of rigid ideology. “The National Trust does not aim to cover the story of art systematically; in that sense we are more like a menagerie than a zoo. However, as its properties are now so numerous, we do have in our charge a range of works that represents much of the national heritage”.

To celebrate this remarkably successful century and remind the public—and politicians—what treasures are scattered throughout Britain in its historic collections, the National Trust is holding an exhibition of seventy-two paintings from twenty-nine houses at the National Gallery in London until 10 March 1996. Alastair Laing, who is in charge of paintings for the Trust and is curator of the show, says, “Each room focuses upon a particular kind, or kinds, of painting; and each is intended to exemplify one strand of patronage and collecting of art in Britain”, a story the Trust is particularly qualified to tell, having both the historic contexts and the documentation.

The groupings are: “The portrait gallery” with Van Dyck through to Carolus-Durand; “Conversation pieces, narrative paintings and sporting art”, with Jan Wyck through to Tissot; “Topographical landscape”, with Cuyp through to Benjamin Williams Leader; “The ideal landscape”, with Paul Bril through to L’Orizzonte; “The picture gallery”, with del Sarto through to Vernet, and “The cabinet”, with Lucas van Valckenborch through to Boucher.

The catalogue also demonstrates that the Trust’s scholarship is quite up to top museum standards. Simon Jervis’s comment on this aspect of its activities is that the Trust is not a museum, just as a cathedral is not a museum; but “it has the duty to behave like a museum in certain circumstances”.

In fact, Mr Jervis’s function when he replaces Martin Drury, who becomes Director General 1 January 1996, is to guide these more museum-like activities and ensure that the highest standards of presentation and conservation are achieved. He accepts that in the past the Trust has published too little, partly because of the pressures of running the properties, and partly for reasons of cost. As the National Trust is its own publisher and cannot carry losses, he may be looking for outside partnerships.

On the research front, Tim Knox succeeds the late Gervase Jackson-Stops for architectural and interior decoration studies. The Historic Buildings Representatives also fit in research as and when they can, and regional teams have begun to be organised to do archival research. Finally, the Trust’s educational scheme, Minerva, aims to develop internships for university students to work in the Trust sifting the archives and cataloguing.

Mr Jervis says that the most original contribution by the National Trust has been less in conventional art history than in the area of physical care. The kind of internal research, both documentary and comparative, done before any refurbishment is attempted in the properties, is at a very high level indeed. The National Trust has also been a pioneer in conservation techniques; for example, in the recreation of lime-mortars which are more friendly to old structures than the harder materials now in use. The fire at Uppark was a disaster, but its rebuilding demonstrated the whole palette of techniques available to the Trust, and it led to the rediscovery of the art of free-hand decorative plastering, which had died out.

Mr Jervis believes that the Trust needs to communicate its peculiarly holistic and thorough approach to historic properties, and in April 1996 there will be conference on archaeology and the Trust at the Society of Antiquaries in London. “It will show that we study field patterns, hedges, parks, architecture; everything is taken into account when we decide, for example, to change crops or to build a car park, or cut down trees to restore an ancient park, and then whether to leave them so as to provide a habitat for beetles”.

The inventory and numbering system is as in a museum. It has grown up organically and is still manual, but a major computerisation scheme is being constructed at present to help manage cleaning, conservation, loans etc. Conservation has developed a great deal in recent years and the Trust held a conservation day at the Royal Institution a few months ago on everything from stuffed owls to musical instruments. The Trust does little conservation itself, except at the Blickling Textile Conservation Centre, but it has first-rate access to conservators and it is now a big influence on the conservation scene in the UK.

It concentrates its own research on the effects of climate, light, and wear and tear on buildings and their collections. Its understanding of the micro-climates represented by each house is one reason why it is chary of making loans. The humidity levels in most British country houses are higher than in museums and exhibition spaces, and as the Trust’s properties are closed to the public in the winter, they are not heated. The shock to furniture or paintings when they move from such an environment to the theoretically “ideal” environment of a museum can be very damaging.

The Trust is working to quantify its conservation backlog. “We know how much needs to be invested to make sure that everything can get restored when its moment in its life-cycle has come”, says Simon Jervis. “Some works need attention every fifty years, others, every hundred”.

Perhaps the only area, besides that of blood-sports on National Trust land, which has provoked serious criticism of the Trust has been where an expert or man-of-taste has taken violent objection to how some historic house has been redecorated or rearranged.

“We try to keep the genius loci”, says Mr Jervis. “What suits one place will not suit another”. Calke Abbey and Kedleston illustrate the opposite poles of this approach. The former is a sort of complete “archaeological” deposit of everything that survived in the house and the National Trust has left it as it was when they took it on, with its cases of stuffed birds and even with the restored appearance of dirt in the Great Hall after they repaired it.

Kedleston, on the other hand, is not provincial; it is a great international masterpiece by Robert Adam and the Trust has therefore adopted a back-to-Adam approach, eliminating later accretions.

There is no doubt, however, that the study of interior decoration has become more sophisticated and catholic over the last few decades. An example of this is the Treasurer’s House in York, a pre-war interpretation of a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century interior. In the 1970s the National Trust painted it a “genuine” eighteenth-century stone colour, but now it is restoring it to the strong colours its donor, Mr Frank Green, liked and making it again into the interesting twentieth-century house it once was.

And what of the accusation levelled at the Trust that it is elitist and only interested in the aristocratic part of Britain’s heritage?

Simon Jervis replies: “We have always had large holdings of vernacular buildings beside the historic houses. It would be an exaggeration to say that we have been even-handed, but we have never been exclusively aristocratic in what we have saved. Recently, in a completely new departure, we took on a lower middle-class town house in Worksop with its 1920s contents completely intact”.

“We have also considered a workhouse and two garages. There is an irony in the latter because in the 1920s the architect Clough Williams Ellis was trying to save Britain’s heritage from garages. Basically, however, merit always counts for more than a strategic approach, although history is also important”.

And so it looks as though the National Trust will continue to shape itself gradually, and without grandiose statements of intent, to changing demands and tastes. It can demonstrate that it is surviving the swing of fashion’s pendulum against the Eighties’ “country house style” of Interiors magazine and Laura Ashley by its consistently high attendance figures and growing membership, and it has even absorbed one of the most biting, anti-elitist critics of the British heritage industry, the academic David Cannadine: it persuaded him to write an essay in the Trust’s centenary volume, The next hundred years.

“In trust for the nation: paintings from National Trust houses” is sponsored by Barclays Bank. The catalogue is published by the National Trust (£19.99 p/b, £29.99 h/b).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A gentle heritage'