Turning into a Cultural Legacy
Between 1920 and 1938, more than 100 country houses were demolished in England by owners who could no longer afford to maintain them (James 2010, 378). Between 1945 and 1955, hundreds of further country houses met the same fate (Sackville-West 2010, 254). This dealt a shattering blow to the English nobility, because landed property had been their mainstay. But this was happening everywhere as increasing numbers of noblemen chose to take up occupations that were not typical of noblemen, as our case study of the Finnish nobility showed earlier. However, as we also saw, large numbers of noblemen still followed the nobility’s traditions when making their occupational and spousal choices. In the same way, many English noble dynasties were able to maintain their country seat, in some cases in their direct possession but quite often through the National Trust programme. In Finland, the National
Board of Antiquities under the Ministry of Education and Culture has the same responsibility for the maintenance of mansions owned by the state. I shall not delve into these here—history books provide plenty of descriptions—but instead I focus on the legacy of nobility, its very last vestige that converted the glory of the privileged few into a national cultural heritage, put on display for all people as a tourist attraction. This metamorphosis was striking, affording the public a last glimpse of the nobility’s glorious heyday and the houses they had not been allowed to see before (Agamben 2011, 253-6).
It is noteworthy of this last display that virtually everything that is exhibited publicly consists of performances of noble status. In other words, what is put on display is status, just as craftsmen’s cottages and factory worker compounds as well as bourgeois and artist homes are turned into museums to show to the public not only how craftsmen, workers, the bourgeoisie and artists lived, but also what they were like in terms of their status. This is not done intentionally—in democracies this would be considered unsuitable—but unintentionally. Together, these family museums perform the whole social structure so that it can be observed by everyone, in its bare truth. This is possible because the residences have been restored to the grandeur of the nobility’s heyday.
Residences were typically built to reflect the rank of their noble occupants (Sackville-West 2010, 16; Eriksson 2011, 150-2). In their feverish pursuit of esteem, many members of the aristocracy decided to fashion their residences after their sovereigns, or at least to make the house big enough to warrant being called a chateau (Macknight 2012, 67; Hutchinson 2009, 211). No wonder that these palaces were to become the grand monuments of the noble legacy, among them Blenheim and Castle Howard in England, real monuments to the triumph of the aristocracy (Sackville-West 2010, 109). The Duke of Marlborough, who wanted to be equal to the Howards, hired the same architect who had designed Castle Howard, but the Duke of Marlborough also dreamed of having a Versailles of his own (Lovell 2012, 10). These dreams found their fulfilment in the magnificent Blenheim Palace, the apotheosis of baroque architecture (Paterson 2012, 46). Blenheim remained a private property, but it was opened to the public in 1950 (Montgomery-Massingberd 2004, 166-201; Cannadine 1999, 647). Castle Howard has belonged to the Carlisle branch of the Howard dynasty since the early eighteenth century—the dynasty of the Dukes of Norfolk whom we met earlier when discussing two of King Henry VIII’s (r. 1509—47) noble wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. The castle came into the possession of the Howards through the Fourth Duke of Norfolk’s third wife, who inherited it from her late husband. To keep this landed property in the Howards’ possession, the Duke married off his three sons to his stepdaughters, who were his third wife’s daughters from her previous marriage (Hutchinson 2009, 216). Castle Howard is nowadays a private stately home. There are a couple of other country houses in England that are almost as large. First, there is the Chatsworth House of the Dukes of Devonshire, which was taken over by the National Trust and opened to the public. Each year three-quarters of a million visitors pay to enter the house and its gardens (Hattersley 2013, 433-4). Then there is Highclere Castle, the palace of the Earls of Carnarvon, which was renovated by Rothschild money, a handsome dowry received by Almina, the bachelor Alfred de Rothschild’s illegitimate daughter, when she married the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon in 1895 (Carnavon 2011). She was showered with more wealth after Alfred’s death. Highclere is still home to the Carnarvons, but open to the public. These few palaces are only a fraction of the 600 houses that were opened to the public between 1950 and 1965 in order to raise money for their maintenance (Cannadine 1999, 647).
In Finland, the grandest mansions were owned by councillor dynasties. In contrast to the majority of the nobility’s residences, they were made of stone and fashioned after the palatial style. Louhisaari came into the Fleming family’s possession in the mid-seventeenth century, but they sold it off in 1795 to the Mannerheim high noble family, who to clear their gambling debts sold the house to the state. Since 1967, Louhisaari has been a museum open to the public. Another grand mansion is Malmgard, which has been in the possession of the Creutz councillor dynasty since 1615. It remains their private home, but can be visited by booking a tour in advance. Koylio, the mansion of the Cedercreutz councillor dynasty, has also been the family’s private home, in their case since 1754. Before that the mansion was owned by the De la Gardie family, a powerful Swedish councillor dynasty. Even though the mansions of the Finnish high nobility are more modest than their English counterparts, these houses are treasured as an important part of history. This is also true of smaller mansions that have long since been sold to commoners: one example is the cluster of ten wooden mansions around Lake Somero in southern Finland (Tiirakari and Karki 2012). These mansions have in fact been sold and resold several times because of difficulties to pay for their upkeep. The contemporary owners are keen to restore the houses to their original style, in every detail. Most of the houses are now private homes, but some of them are occasionally open to the public.
But palaces are important in another way, too. While they were meant to be performances of status, the houses were decorated in the royal style, though rarely if ever as extravagantly as royal palaces. In the same way as monarchs commissioned the best architects, artists and craftsmen to fabricate their residences in the monarch’s honour, noblemen of aristocratic dynasties wished to do the same, in accordance with their status just beneath the monarch. The standard and style they applied to manifest the royal and noble magnificence were of a certain type: baroque, renaissance, rococo and classicism. For latecomers, the revival style in the late nineteenth century was a useful alternative that copied the old styles. I have not found a single noble palace designed in the style of modernism. In the same way, art collections amassed by noble families on their grand tours comprised the Old Master paintings from Italy, France and the Netherlands (Sackville-West 2010, 128), in other words, works of arts that came to be the very canon of Western art history. The nobilities were thus involved in the making of art history, not as art historians but as notable collectors. In these multiple fabrications, the noble status has been engraved into our collective memory, to be replicated in the cinema, television series, literature and other cultural products.
Popular television series such as Upstairs, Downstairs as well as Brideshead and Downton Abbey have been particularly important in this respect, profiling the parallel lives of noble families during the early part of the twentieth century. Elegantly and attractively reconstructing the world of the aristocracy (James 2010, 380), they have reached huge audiences around the world. Brideshead was filmed at Castle Howard and Downton Abbey at Highclere (Carnavon 2011), which certainly added to the appeal of the series by bringing the fictive figures to life. But the fascination of these television series, films, books and magazines also grows from their depictions of a life in luxury, taking viewers and readers into a world of dreams, a holiday-like moment that gives a sense of luxury in what otherwise is a rather dreary everyday existence.