Past Events

“The Inspection of the Curious”: The Country-House Guidebook c. 1750-1990


  • 6 September 2016 to 6 January 2017
  • Monday - Friday 10am - 5pm
  • Drawing Room, Paul Mellon Centre

The fourth Drawing Room Display, curated by Jessica Feather (Brian Allen Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre) and Collections staff, takes material from the Centre's considerable holdings of Country House guidebooks to focus on three early adopters of the guidebook: Knole (Kent); Blenheim Palace (Oxfordshire) and Burghley (Lincolnshire/Northamptonshire).

The British country-house guidebook is a very specific genre of travel guide, with particular characteristics which have, arguably, remained relatively unchanged from beginnings in the mid-eighteenth century until the present day. Generally small in size, lightweight and inexpensive, they were intended to be portable in order to be carried round the house whilst visiting. The history of the country-house guidebook relates closely to the practice of visiting country houses.

A drawing of a large country estate

17. John H. Brady 'The Visitors Guide' - Frontispiece,

A book cover It is a genre which only developed seriously in the later eighteenth century, some years after houses such as Chatsworth, Blenheim and Burghley opened their doors. A subsequent rise in mass tourism by the mid-nineteenth century, and the appropriation of country houses as part of the national heritage, led to the production of an increased number of guidebooks before the decline in interest in visiting country houses from the 1880s onwards due to economic pressures and anti-aristocratic feeling. This saw a decline in visitor numbers and significant reduction in the number of new guidebooks produced and new editions of older ones. A revival in visiting country houses after the Second World War has been paralleled by the frequent publication of guidebooks in new editions at least up until the 1990s.

Examining the guidebooks of three great houses, Knole, Blenheim and Burghley not only allows us to consider the history of this genre, but also brings the historical narratives of these houses into the foreground.

The Paul Mellon Centre has been collecting country-house material and publications over a number of years both by purchase and donations, including material from the collections of Sir Howard Colvin and John Cornforth. For more information on the Library and Collections please click here.

A black and white photograph of an interior with large suitcase

18. Lionel Sackville-West 'Knole House' - p.26,

The "Inspection of the Curious" display coincides with the Art in the British Country House: Collecting and Display research project and the Art in the British Country House: Collecting and Display conference which takes place in October.