Past Events

“Things in their natural surroundings”?: Marketing the British Country House as Home

Podcast – Kate Retford

  • 17 June 2020
  • The British Art Talks podcast is a new audio series from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. It features new research and aims to enhance and expand knowledge of British art and architecture.

Photographic image of a man, woman, and two children within a stately interior. When John, 13th Duke of Bedford, opened up Woburn Abbey to the paying public in 1955, he took care to maintain the sense that this was his family’s home, even though they occupied only a section of the house, away from the tourist route. As he recorded, his wife, Lydia, ‘succeeded most cleverly in arranging the main state-rooms for show while still making them look as if they were lived in’. To see great treasures such as the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, the Sèvres dinner service gifted by Louis XV, or the family’s famed Canalettos ‘in their natural surroundings’ was, the Duke averred, much preferable to seeing them ‘displayed along with rows of others in some impersonal museum'.

This paper will sketch out the emergence of this now very familiar trope of the country house as ‘family home’ (whether actual, past or imagined) as an ideal setting for works of art, preferable to ‘some impersonal museum’. It will look at its history from the National Trust country house scheme of the 1930s, through the stately home business of the 1950s, to more recent presentations, as a cornerstone of the case for continued private ownership developed into a fully fledged marketing tool. It will consider the work that this concept has done, both for owners and visitors, and its role in country house presentation today.

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Kate Retford

    Kate Retford is a professor of art history at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on eighteenth-century British art, particularly on portraiture and the country house art collection. Her work includes The Art of Domestic Life: Family Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century England (2006); Placing Faces: The Portrait and the English Country House in the Long Eighteenth Century, co-edited with Gill Perry et al. (2013); and The Georgian London Town House: Building, Collecting and Display, co-edited with Susanna Avery-Quash (2019). Her recent book on the eighteenth-century British conversation piece, The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, was published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in 2017, winning a Historians of British Art award. She is currently working on a book about print rooms in eighteenth-century country houses, and developing a new research project looking at the presentation of the country house as family home.