Monday, September 15, 2014

The Attingham Summer School – Exploring the English Country House

 Kelmscott Manor

            In July 2014 I attended the Attingham Summer School, an eighteen-day course which consisted of lectures and public and private visits to English country houses in Sussex, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Gloucestershire. This program provided me with a unique opportunity to become acquainted with the architectural and social history of the historic house. It also gave me a chance to study its contents and design. Lastly, I was able to gain a greater understanding of how these estates are managed and interpreted with a particular focus on issues of conservation and preservation.

            As a decorative arts historian and silver specialist, I came into the Attingham program with a keen eye and ear for seeing works of silver and for hearing stories of their history and their role in the country house. To my great fortune, a pre-course visit took us to Apsley House in London, and a magnificent Portuguese silver-gilt centerpiece whet my appetite for what was to come in the weeks ahead (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Portuguese centerpiece, silver, designed by D.A. Sequeira, Lisbon,
presented to Duke of Wellington in 1816, Apsley House, London.

            Upon the official launch of the program, we visited Uppark in West Sussex where National Trust curator and silver expert, James Rothwell, proved that objects are not static adornments on display, but rather they are instilled with vibrant histories. The dining room served as the perfect setting to demonstrate the theatrical role that a piece of silver could play over the course of a meal. Salvers, a kind of tray used to carry drinks, were instrumental to a pleasurable affair. We envisioned footmen carrying wine glasses to the host and his guests, toasts being made, and glasses being hurriedly refilled.

            Additionally, Rothwell discussed the issues of repatriation as many objects have been dispersed or sold over the years. To the Trust’s good fortune, they have been able to return many family objects. In recent years, they were able to purchase a pair of silver tea canisters at a Sotheby’s auction in London (fig. 2). The canisters are engraved with the arms of Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh and his wife Sarah Lehtieullier, who lived at Uppark during the second half of the eighteenth century. The term ‘heirloom’ took on a more significant meaning as we continued our tour of the English countryside.

Figure 2: Pair of tea canisters, silver, engraved with the arms of Fetherstonhaugh impaling Lehtieullier, 1767, displayed in the Little Parlour, Uppark, West Sussex.

            Part of the Devonshire collection, a stately silver perfume burner took on a presence of its own in one of the bedchambers at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire (fig. 3). Perfume burners served as braziers in which scent pastilles or other aromatics were placed above a bed of burning charcoal. When in use, these vessels produced scented fumes that filled the air with the pleasant smell of roses, lavender, and other flowers and herbs. Embodied with the cultural values of past societies, the perfume burner expresses how people experienced their bodies and the environment around them. Perfume burners ranged from those vessels produced in bronze, brass, or copper to those in silver crafted as elaborate decorative works of art, as seen in the example at Chatsworth.

Figure 3: Perfume burner, possibly Phillip Rollos (fl. 1685-1710), circa 1690, silver, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire.

            While silver certainly was on my radar, my mind was always open to new discoveries and ways of interpretation. Our group had discussed atmosphere on the first day, and Calke Abbey embodied this term (fig, 4). Owned by the Harpur family for nearly 300 years, it was passed to the Trust in 1985 under fragile conditions. Deliberately displayed under these circumstances, Calke Abbey is an example of the decline of a country house, but it nonetheless speaks of deep admiration (figs. 5 and 6). For me, it was a highlight of the course for its ability to inspire and to evoke issues regarding preservation and conservation.

Figure 4: Calke Abbey.

Figure 5: Interior view of Calke Abbey.

Figure 6: Interior view of Calke Abbey.

            Overall, the 2014 Attingham Summer School was about contextualization, lively lecturers, scholarly conversations, friendships, and idyllic landscapes. It also was a unique occasion to network with curators, conservators, and leading figures from such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louvre, Getty, and Victoria & Albert. These connections, my newfound knowledge of the English country house, and my collection of memories have proved to be indispensable. Participating in this program would not have been possible without generous funding from the Chipstone Foundation, secured by Professor Ann Smart Martin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Royal Oak Foundation, and I am truly grateful for their support.

The Attingham Trust,

Ann Glasscock, Project Assistant, Chazen Museum of Art
PhD Student in Art History and Material Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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