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.
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.
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.