Richard White

explorations in place and time

Leave a comment

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.
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.


1 Comment

A walk to the view Bath Oct 4

A short walk to Bathwick fields repeated. Disenchanted if possible.Framed view
The route determined by the National Trust published route (2015) “Walk to the View!”,

this route augmented with data from the UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership.

meanderings and wayfarings supplied by the walkers live

The National Trust route offered us the enchantment, both the indications of where to look for the picturesque but also the enchantment of the story of certain individuals who transformed Bath in the C18th.

The UCL research offers both the possibility of insights into a further enchantment, one that we might consider to be evil, but an enchantment nevertheless. To a time when the plantation and slaveowners were being required to abandon some of their productive assets and they in turn demanded compensation.

So where was the disenchantment? I feel we glimpsed it from the start when a walker pointed out that we were looking over the roof of the wrong ice-cream parlour to see Ralph Allen’s house. It was a crowded last day of late summer in Bath with tourists and guided walks all around us, autumn was unfolding as the cold mist lifted.  A real attempt to sense critically from the outset, perhaps too the attempt to perform this live on a smart device and connect with the networks produced a different way of sensing.

At the river the National Trust offered as a triumph of engineering the Navigation from the sea to Bath, we added in our pooled knowledge of industry, mills and pollution. The slaughterhouses sluicing out the offal down the river. What might we have smelt or seen floating down the river? Was there a Bath stench?

view towards weir

We walked on to the Pulteney Bridge and the great palladian estate stretched before us. Trying to decipher the ghost signs on the walls by the church..justice? nuremburg? fresh? finding patterns and making sense. But here indeed was the Bath stench, the Great Silence:

On the walls plaques for Hannah More and William Wilberforce…not to mention others unknown or notorious but not a mention of the slaveowners and the economy that thrived around them. I was shocked that in the dying days of legalised slaveownership  the slave owners fought for compensation for their projected loss. Not that they lost the labour as most enslaved peoples were simply transferred to a form of wage slavery. Each person cold valued in pounds shillings and pence.
18 Gt Pulteney Street
This whole shameful mesh of financiers, insurance, bankers and landowners fought to retain the trade and then to retain their ‘property’ and in Bath they lived side by side. Hannah More for example opposite Charles Blair, great grandfather of George Orwell, who was compensated for the release of 218 enslaved people to the tune of £4442 13s 1d. The enslaved people got nothing. William Wilberforce lived almost next door to the Reverend Alexander Scott who on the basis of the release of  577 people in Antigua and Barbados received approx £10,570 ‘compensation’.

We talked about how these people and these payments should be brought to mind. The slave trade of the C18th supported many of the great estates and buildings of Bath and this massive influx of cash may have fuelled the railway mania of the C19th. There is a conversation to be had about reparations both to the countries of west Africa and to the Caribbean. Building a new prison in Jamaica was not what we were thinking of.

One slaveowner and neighbour of Jane Austen, Bezsin Reece, awarded a total of £3188 13s 11d compensation for the release of 163 enslaved people in Barbados is reported to have “lived in some style with several negro servants” (quote on UCL site) and his wife and daughters (quote on UCL site). The absence of black people in the Jane Austen and related Georgian enchantment was noted. On into the pleasure garden the total enchantment at the heart of Pulteney’s dream new town. Walkers shared that this was also a site of protest and public assembly…another silence.

Stothert bridgeFinally onto the canal and the fine iron Stothert bridges, we made our connections with the almost erased memory of the Stothert and Pitt engineering works asset stripped at the end of the C20th and buried under speculative housing development at the beginning of the C21.

…and out to the fields where the views are picturesquely framed and the city sits in it bowl of comfort dusted by the autumn mist. Even this had its disenchantment and a grounding. Hugo’s bench:
Hugo's bench3

I imagined young Hugo watching the trains, thought of refugees on foot across Europe and people freed at last, but completely displaced and effectively enslaved again in Barbados, Jamaica and Antigua….. as the wealth accumulated and continues to accumulate in this enchanted City. What stories we are telling ourselves…how to take note of, acknowledge, act on these crimes against humanity, how to make recompense, how to learn from the struggle and resistance of people here and abroad?