Registration for our third seminar goes live on Monday 1ˢᵗ March 2021. To book your place, please email us at or contact us here. Seminar registration is free and open to all; please contact us with any queries relating to accessibility, scheduling, or other matters.

30th March 2021, 18:00-19:30 BST: (De)constructing empire in the country house

Our third seminar assesses the relationship between the British Empire and country houses, paying attention to how such sites are tightly bound up in legacies of colonialism – and how they might be unravelled. This event features three speakers and presentations – full programme:

Rebekah Hodgkinson (University of Oxford) — ‘The Monumentalisation of the Country House: The National Trust and Coloniality, c. 1895 – c. 1940

An important yet overlooked aspect of the colonial histories of British country houses is the way in which they have been monumentalised through preservation. This paper will consider this process in the context of the National Trust’s early development. In its first decades, the Trust was engaged in the construction of a vision of the English past through the preservation of landscape and buildings. In dialogue and collaboration with preservationists in the US, these efforts centred on an idea of a white, “Anglo-Saxon” heritage thought to be shared across the Empire. From the 1930s, the Trust saw what has been termed an aristocratic “turn”, culminating in the Country Houses Scheme. Many individuals involved in the Trust’s work came from similar backgrounds, often having worked in British colonies or in government roles related to the Empire. I suggest that the monumentalisation of the country house was influenced by these individuals’ visions of empire and of Britain, and that their uncritical preservation has further shaped perceptions of the British past in ways which naturalise colonialism from the perspective of the coloniser. These racialised and imperial dynamics are important to understanding how preservationists shaped perceptions of the past. This institutional history can contribute to our understanding of how heritage in Britain was structurally designed to speak of and to white identities. In questioning the history of the country house as a heritage site, we can get closer to answering how the country house’s role in British society has changed throughout the past century.

Rebekah Hodgkinson is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford working in collaboration with the National Trust. She is researching photographs connected to the British Empire in the Trust’s collections and situating these within the Trust’s history and its relationship with changing perceptions of the past. She is active on Twitter and Instagram and can also be reached via email.

Isabel Gilbert (University of Sheffield) — ‘What can British country house museums learn from the plantations of the American South?

Historically, heritage organisations and museums have failed, consciously or otherwise, to explore or interpret their connections to the violent and exploitative legacy of British colonialism. In the absence of contextualising interpretation or acknowledgement of the complexity of colonial history, many country house museums exist as polysemic signs, largely understood in a way that is considered conducive to carefully constructed, triumphalist and patriotic narratives. This research explores how the country house could become a more engaging tool with which to explore a diverse range of histories, taking inspiration from work already undertaken by plantation house museums in the United States.

In terms of visitor experience, there are a number of similarities between the British country house and the plantations of the US South. Much like British country houses, plantation house museums must contend with their own well-established narratives of nostalgia and rural simplicity, as well as family legacies and pro-Confederate Civil War memory, in order to address the complexity of their histories. At the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the conventional focus on the life of the site’s white inhabitants has been subverted in favour of a museum dedicated almost entirely to the experiences of enslaved people. This presentation examines how Whitney, and other counter-narrative sites, have shown that large country houses are a tool or vessel with which any number of stories can be told, and that it is the mandate of the organisations responsible for these places to enable a more complete, complex history to exist.

Isabel Gilbert is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield undertaking research into the interpretation of colonial history across the heritage sector and its role in the perpetuation of systemic racism. Isabel has several years’ experience working in the heritage sector. She is currently a freelance Heritage and Inclusion consultant, working with companies and charitable organisations to provide educational sessions contextualising the Black Lives Matter movement’s recent rise to global prominence, enabling a broader understanding of colonial history and its role in upholding white supremacy. She offers advice on the creation of more inclusive organisational cultures and understanding the difference between performative activism and meaningful allyship.

David Stapley (University of York) — Empire and the Victorian Country House: Finance, Exoticism, and Dominion

Elite country houses occupy an influential space in our understanding of the past in this country. Very often they are seen through the lens of aesthetic value, and until recently this has been the main interpretation in the public perception of these places. This however sidesteps a reality; that these buildings were deeply intertwined with the process of empire, and the families that occupied them were often directly engaged with colonial exploitation. The ways in which this manifested itself in the material of these places is thus important to unpick, and changes by a number of factors, most importantly with time. This presentation focuses on later Victorian country houses in general, and on Bamburgh Castle and Cragside in particular. Through these two buildings, constructed for the wealthy industrialist Baron Armstrong, it aims to unpick the various manifestations of empire in the country house in the late Victorian period. First, it examines the financing of these structures, and how this rested on imperial connection and expenditure through which Armstrong amassed his wealth. It then examines the collections of these houses, focused on the objects obtained through these imperial connections, and how they variously arrived in these locations. Finally this paper examines how the psychology of empire manifested in built space, and how these places are built with a specific view of history, inflected by Victorian perceptions of empire.

David Stapley is an MA student in Historical Archaeology. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge, writing a dissertation on the materiality of Christian missions in South Africa. He is interested in the use of space by peoples in the past, and particularly how imperial and colonial ideologies were embodied through the built environment.

27th April 2021: Creative & artistic interventions in the country house (registration TBA)

Past seminars

26th January 2021, 18:00-19:30 GMT: Working-class identities & the country house

This first seminar examined the representation of working-class identities in and of the country house; full programme below.

Dr Ben Cowell (Historic Houses) — ‘From Great Estate to the Great State

In 1912, the Essex landowner the Countess of Warwick collaborated with H.G. Wells, her tenant, on an edited volume of essays, Socialism and the Great State. ‘The Great State’ here referred to the world as it might be after a Socialist revolution. Lady Warwick’s contribution to the volume imagined a countryside transformed, with workers living contentedly in market towns free of overcrowding and pollution.

Lady Warwick had announced her conversion to socialism in 1904 and remained faithful to the cause until her death in 1938. She put her beliefs into practice through the management of her Essex estate. Warwick invited men from the Salvation Army’s Hadleigh colony to camp in her park at Easton Lodge while they worked on a new garden (to designs by Harold Peto). She established a workshop to train local girls in needlework, and founded a school and an agricultural college. She envisaged that Easton Lodge might eventually become a workers’ college, and attempted (unsuccessfully) to give it to the Trades Union Congress and to the Labour Party.

How could such a wealthy landowner adopt a political cause that was so clearly set against theinterests of her own class? H.G. Wells, who became Lady Warwick’s tenant at Easton Lodge in 1910, traced a more subaltern view of the great estate in the opening chapters of his 1909 novel Tono-Bungay. This paper appraises the Countess of Warwick’s revolt against tradition, and compares it to Wells’ own depictions of country-house life.

Ben Cowell‘s PhD at the University of Nottingham (1998) was on the landscape history of late 18th and early 19th century estates in England. His subsequent published work includes a history of the heritage movement, The Heritage Obsession (2008), a biography of the theorist of the Picturesque, Uvedale Price (with Charles Watkins, 2012), and Landscapes of the National Trust (with Stephen Daniels and Lucy Veale, 2015). He has co-edited (with Elizabeth Baigent) a volume of essays on the life and work of Octavia Hill (2016), and wrote a biography of another of the founders of the National Trust, Sir Robert Hunter. Ben is the Director General of Historic Houses, which represents 1,500 of the UK’s historic houses, castles and gardens, all independently owned.

Dr Lauren Butler (Welbeck) ‘Class and Ownership: Revisiting Social History Narratives in the Country House’

The Covid-19 crisis, and the ensuing redundancies at the National Trust and many other heritage organisations, have exposed the fragility of a sector which was already struggling from the effects of prolonged austerity and cuts to arts funding. Although the crisis has highlighted the huge benefits to mental and physical health offered by historical parkland and gardens, the properties at their centre have seen a crippling reduction in income from ticketed visits.

As the UK is set to endure several difficult years of recovery, and the Black Lives Matter movement shines new scrutiny on their links to slavery, historic houses like Chatsworth risk once again becoming the ‘white elephants’ of the post-war years. While they may be protected from the widespread demolitions of the mid-20th century, spending on conservation, curatorship and research in such ostensibly elite institutions may appear frivolous in the face of large-scale poverty and social inequality.

This paper re-examines class relations in the 19th-century country house, at what is considered the peak of the strict servant hierarchy. It considers the role of collections, archives and architectural features like graffiti, in illuminating the multifaceted worlds of country house servants, tenants, tourists and workers, beyond the purpose they served to the landowning family. In doing so, it asks how curators and country house historians might ambitiously re-consider their properties’ relevance to working-class lives, in a way that builds psychological ownership and fresh engagement with new and existing audiences.

Lauren Butler holds an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester and a PhD in History from the University of Sheffield, completed in collaboration with Chatsworth. In 2019 she spent 6 months as Project Curator at Hardwick Hall, before joining the Curatorial Department at Welbeck Abbey. Her research interests include class, gender and graffiti in the 19th-century country house. 

Isabel Budleigh (University of Oxford) — ‘Interventions at a National Trust Trio: Broadening Interpretation and a Changing Purpose’

What, or who, is the National Trust country house for? What stories of the house and its history have been presented to the visiting public? Why and how has this changed over time? This paper will begin to suggest answers to such questions through an exploration of the National Trust’s evolving approach to three of its country houses in the north west (Lyme Park, Dunham Massey and Tatton Park) from the houses first opening to the public up to the present day. In the mid-20th century the Trust was more likely to follow a narrow interpretation of its houses, either as a family home or aesthetic art object, jettisoning all other narratives. The paper will briefly chart how and why the Trust began to make interventions in these interpretations that opened the story to wider areas, initially below-stairs narratives and over time expanding to the wider estate and workers, and more recently networks of connections reaching far beyond the house alongside other previously neglected narratives. Two of these houses have also been run in joint administration with local government, who have often viewed such houses as local amenities over an historic collection. This has led to further interventions that challenge the traditional image of a National Trust house and its purpose, adding a further dimension for this paper to explore. It is posited that examining these histories provides a solid foundation from which to understand the current interventions we are witnessing in country houses, especially within the National Trust.

Isabel Budleigh is in the second year of a DPhil at the University of Oxford, exploring the history of the National Trust through the lens of its country houses. She looks at how the Trust’s interpretative approaches at its houses have developed from the mid-20th century to the present day, examining the wider forces and motivations that have shaped how these houses and their cultural value and purpose have been perceived across this period. She completed an internship with Chatsworth in the summer of 2020 and completed an M.St. at Oxford in 2018, the latter forming a test case for the doctoral research she is now undertaking.

23rd February 2021, 18:00-19:30 GMT: Queering the country house

Our second seminar interrogated the relationship between queerness and the country house, asking how queer/ed approaches can disrupt heteronormative interpretations of such spaces; full programme below.

Dr Freya Gowrley (University of Derby) — ‘A ‘commitment to overcloseness’: Close Reading, Queerness & Loss in the Country House’

Following Elizabeth Freeman, this paper explores how a ‘commitment to overcloseness’ engendered by a case-study based approach creates a more encompassing history of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century country house, revealing the overlooked narratives and lost histories uncovered when close attention is paid to places and objects. Exploring lost evidence, histories, spaces, and objects, the paper argues that such an approach therefore makes room to explore the potential ‘queernesses’ of the home at this time. The paper focuses on two interconnected country houses, Park Place, seat of Henry Seymour Conway and Caroline Campbell, and Strawberry Hill, home to Horace Walpole and later Anne Seymour Damer; spaces united by both heteronormative familial connections and models of queer kinship. The paper argues that unpacking the relationship between these houses and the idea of loss allows for an unravelling of the queer domesticities of the country house at this time.

Dr Freya Gowrley is Postdoctoral Fellow in History at the University of Derby. Previously, she was a Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art Postdoctoral Fellow, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, and a Visiting Lecturer in the University of Edinburgh’s History of Art department. Her research focuses on the relationship between identity and visual and material culture in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, exploring this connection through three key sites: the home, the collaged object, and the body. Her monograph, Domestic Space in Britain, 1750-1840: Materiality, Sociability and Emotion, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic in 2021, and she has published articles in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Aphra Behn Online: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830, Journal 18, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction.

Anthony Delaney (University of Exeter) — ‘‘Within The Verge of The Rainbow’: The Vyne, John Chute and the Queer Country House’

The study of eighteenth-century country house domesticity has received significant attention, particularly in post-war historiography, although leading historians have tended to adopt an unproblematic, heteronormative approach in their analysis and, as a result, significant oppositions to these dominant narratives have been too readily excluded. Where scholars have attempted to document the ‘queer country house’ the result has often led to discussions around collecting, taste and fashion, rather than affording these buildings the complexities and ‘snugitude’ of home.

Taking The Vyne in Hampshire, home to John Chute (1701-1776) as a case study, this paper draws on a variety of primary material including correspondence, doodles, inventories, and architectural plans in order to scrutinise the explicit connections between the country house, queer identity formation and domesticity, and offers an alternative to the absoluteness of what might be termed the eighteenth-century ‘homonolithic queer type’ by revealing the importance of the country house as a site of retreat, repose and rejuvenation for nonconforming élite men at the time.

Anthony Delaney is a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter investigating Cotqueans: Queer Domesticity in eighteenth-century England. He recently contributed to the research which informed the National Trust’s Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery, which was published in September 2020.

Hannah McCann (University of Sheffield) — Lovers and Literature: Uncovering the queer past of Knole House through the lens of Orlando

Knole House is one of the largest country houses in England and in the 18th century was owned by the Sackville family. In 1928, when the 3rd Lord Sackville died, his daughter Vita could not inherit her ancestral home due to primogeniture. As a gift to Vita, as a way to remember Knole and as an expression of her love, Virginia Woolf began to write Orlando that winter. This novel would chart the life of Orlando from the reign of Elizabeth I to the 1920s. Despite the large time frame, and Orlando changing gender part way through the book, one thing remained reassuringly constant – Orlando’s country house that was based on Knole.

Knole is weaved throughout the book. Paintings of its past inhabitants are used to form Orlando’s likeness. Its corridors, halls and rooms run like veins throughout the text. The original manuscript of Orlando is kept at Knole and is inscribed with “Vita from Virginia”.

Vita and Virginia both had a profound impact on each other’s lives and each other’s work. Despite both being married to men, they were lovers for a time. Vita’s son described Orlando as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’, a ‘love-letter’ inspired by Knole.

Hannah McCann is a second-year undergraduate history student at the University of Sheffield. She is editor-in-chief and writer for the university’s New Histories Online Magazine. She was also longlisted for Penguin’s WriteNow competition for a fictional piece on queer life in Berlin during the 20th century.

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