Richard White

explorations in place and time


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Tyntesfield recuperated, a purchase betrayed.

Disconcerting visit to the National Trust property at Tyntesfield yesterday. Where once this was a fascinating time capsule slowly being catalogued and, I thought, somehow carefully resealed in viewable form it has been given an old school National Trust make-over. A house once alive and vibrant with histories becomes a stage set again.

Where once there were rooms abandoned by  wealthy owners who could no longer be bothered to maintain, them there are themed static exhibits about a Victorian era patriarch.

Where once there was a cluttered library and workroom stacked with books of all ages from battered paperbacks to leather bound volumes, displaying a revealing interest in empire and military history. Now, its tidy with the old books ordered and not a paperback or glossy cover in sight. What was once full of life is now static and life less.

Another study, now locked shut, once mixed late twentieth century entertainment and communication with the Victorian, a television and VHS player, modern cabling running along the paneling totally appropriate witnessed change in a house that once sported the latest in late nineteenth century technology. A more complicated heritage closed off.
Tyntesfield kitchen shelves
As was the kitchen that to me always witnessed the slow decline of the property, as the money was wasted away, capital taken elsewhere. Here alongside huge old cookers that once prepared the feasts for the room with the hand painted wall paper, I always imagined the last wizened old gent in his battered wheel chair wrapped in a blanket and being served toast by an even older family retainer who whispered Somerset in his ear “the ceiling in the west wing has gone sir”. Here it seemed to me the money ran out, rows of old toasters and toast wracks on badly painted kitchen shelves, a rusty old Hotpoint cooker and one of those new fangled microwaves , perhaps bought by the grandchildren for the old boy.

My construction perhaps, but all those things represented layer upon layer of history, rooms full of linen, jars and porcelain including the old mans bedpans. Objects that I recognised from our lives in the late twentieth century..the cooker, the toasters, the books, the up market hifi. Here we engaged with history and spun our stories of this family that made its fortune on Peruvian bird shit dug out by chinese slave labourers.

All tidied away to tell the story of the Victorian patriarch who took the family into respectability, with  a few footnotes of critical information for those who bother to read to the end of the portable panels. The talking posts in the park where we heard the voice ghosts of former servants, all swept away. Even in this year of first world war commemoration, the make up box of a son  who rouged his cheeks so he would not appear to show fear as he urged his fellows to their deaths…… all, all safely locked away.
Tynres
The whole point of the purchase of Tyntesfield was that the National Trust was buying literally the lot, not the cherry picked remains of a country house handed over as  tax dodge, The Lot. …and we all bought into that….And it was so exciting on our first visits when they were still unpacking, cataloguing and fixing the roof. This was a family who had the space to hoard everything from old wall paper samples to carpet off-cuts and rooms full of furniture and relics. A record in ‘stuff’ that went back before living memory but came well within the lives of many visitors and a few surviving estate employees. These riches of Tyntesfield enabled us all to construct our own stories, the layers of history were clearly apparent some more obscured than others, some more decayed than others. What should have been a living time capsule seem to have been stripped out in favour of the old authorised country house story.

I was so disappointed that I even began to think that the cobwebbed chairs in the stable were constructed as nods towards the memories of previous visitors like me, with an old  home brew glass demijohn strategically turned to view, so that the label from September 1989 could be seen. I even overheard that the magnificent dahlias are brought in as mini plants and not lifted and overwintered as my grandmother used to do….and thus began to suspect that even the much loved kitchen garden was a stage set.

It is all a stage set, I know. And I do understand the tensions between restoration and preservation. But where once other stories poked through haphazard and untidy now the stage appears set for a single and decontextalised story safely confined to a dreamy Victorian/Edwardian past. Sadly Tyntesfield has been recuperated in the National Trust spectacle, a potential for showing a new and bold way of exploring  if not even challenging the enchantment of the English Country House, betrayed.

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Bath: the plaqued and the unplaqued

Beagles in the basement, stopped and searched on Bath’s Royal Crescent, an elopement, plaques, parties and hollow pillars. A disenchanted walk across the city, rattling railings.
44AD humanity 2
Setting off from the gallery where the red glow room call to our humanity had yet to be illuminated, but already the question was there. Outside the theatre our first set of plaques that told us nothing about the origins of the wealth or where it went, did Bean Nash die of syphilis and did the woman really end her days in a tree. Good stories so why not? The harder truth was across the road where a casino will be built faux Georgian in the open space once the playground of a school and before that a clay pipe factory.
pipe factory site for casino
Tobacco. The first legacy of the day. The plantation economy produced addiction that generated wealth for Wills. Maybe pipes went down the river but surely the tobacco came up. A commodity worth exploring.

On to the signs that ward off the devil and a collector of watercolours, Mr Braikenridge. A ‘West India merchant’, a euphemism from the era of slavery. Slaveowner. Remembered as a man of letters who gathered picturesque images of the west country, do we view the collection differently, do we see that house on the corner of Queen Square differently? No plaque guides us or protective sign indicates wrongs committed. One lump or two Mr Beckford?
21 Queen Square Braikenridge
On the way up to our mans residence we walk the Royal Crescent, where West Indian merchants retired with their families and ‘servants’.  A story of a house party. A plaque to an elopement,  representing pride or shame or just a good story involving a once famous dramatist? No plaques for slaveowners here. Were they ashamed already? We do Pitman and shorthand but other plaques no general knowledge comes to our aid. Perhaps we should have asked passers by. A stop and search story from a walker brings us to the moment, and the second point of legacy for the day: institutional racism.

We continue up the hill stopping outside the one time residence of Nathaniel Wells, slaveowner, beneficiary of the compensation claims , did he get compensation on his mother, a house slave? Mixed race Mr Wells became Britains first black JP, first black Sheriff and the owner of Peircefield house. Its gardensonce an example of the picturesque, now in ruins on the edge of Chepstow racecourse.

To Beckford’s house we share the story and add our spin, his sexuality and huge slave generated wealth which with the compensation money last him a lifetime without working a day. A story that he bought the house next door to silence a dog barking, another dog further along the crescent popped into memory. Beagles in the basement in the former girls school kitchen. Former girls school once the home of slaveowner and slavery advocate. So we review the liberal myth of Bath. Legacy number three, a language of universal human rights.
18-20 Lansdown Cresecnet Beckford
Simon Barrow former Mayor of Bath, former Alderman and, in the footsteps of Beau Nash, Master of Ceremonies. One of Bath’s Last Legal Slaveowners. …. and Jewish. Stretching the mind to make sense it all, is this assimilation or corruption?
plaqued out Circus2.jpg
Down to the river chewing this over by way of the Circus where caught in the turgid tour guided crowds we reached peak plaque. Livingstone of Africa, Clive of India, where to begin with these Edwardian era celebrated but blood stained builders of Empire? As the good man Dabydeen says, at least with some truth, a disenchantment. At the river we stop to think of prisons, breweries and slaughterhouses. On the purity of water and what has dissolved in it. What is suspended.

Blood, sweat, tears. The bodies of those dumped overboard as rebels or damaged goods.

Finally to a consideration of the possibly not contemporaneous neighbours of Mr Wilberforce, he suitably plaque along with Hannah Moore across the street, the only woman plaque spotted on our journey. But no plaque for the Reverend Scott, The Reverend Scott on whose plantation 110 rebel slaves were executed  in a brutally repressed uprising. The Reverend Scott who received more than ten thousand pounds in compensation for the ‘release’ of his plantation slaves. Scott’s wife is supposed to have a memorial stone in the nearby church. Still looking for it.

Laura fountain7