This spring sees the launch of a series of exhibitions devised by the Yorkshire Country- House Partnership on life on the Yorkshire country The house estate. Entitled ‘Work & Play’, this project follows on from the success in 2004 of ‘Maids & Mistresses’, which highlighted the role of women in Yorkshire country houses.

Stretching from the East Riding across to Doncaster and Leeds, the six houses participating in these interlinked displays Brodsworth Hall, Burton Agnes, Burton Constable, Harewood House, Sledmere House, and Temple Newsam are a reminder of how large Yorkshire is. The exhibitions, which have received Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) support, have an outdoor and an indoor focus, and include a series of attractive free guides, which incorporate an outdoors trail around the grounds and wider estate landscape. Each house has a specific story to tell, but they share a number of common themes, in particular, the idea that the estate is a populated, working community based around the big house. The best way to understand this social structure is to follow the outdoor trails, which lead to an astonishing array of buildings in each locality. Stables, churches, war memorials, pigsties, ice houses, schools, cottages, orangeries, farms, police stations and pubs all testify to this sense of small communities whose daily patterns of work, leisure, learning, faith, and discipline were manifested in these vernacular buildings, many of them of architectural distinction.

At Burton Agnes, an ornamental dog kennel of 1859 graced with an ogee arch, and a 17th-century donkey wheel illustrate the value placed on animals as both pets and working creatures. One of the delights of ‘Work & Play’ is to see an emphasis on the 20th century: the Chichester Bungalows, built in 1937 at Sproatley, near Burton Constable, belong to the same tradition as the earlier 19th-century estate housing in the village of Colton, adjacent to Temple Newsam, and the 18th-century cottages in the village of Harewood. At the same time, any sense of unchanging rural tranquillity is quickly dispelled at Brodsworth and Temple Newsam, where extensive mining disfigured the landscape even as it raised vital revenues for each estate. This juxtaposition of cows and collieries forces us to realise how, for some estates, industrial ventures existed beside the traditional structure of agriculture.

To wander through the estate villages as well as the parks and gardens that surround the houses is, however, only half of the experience. Indoors, at three of the participating houses (Brodsworth, Burton Constable and Temple Newsam), there are displays of maps, paintings, photographs and archival material chronicling in more detail the lives of landowner and labourer alike, and recording the balance between a landscape that was both ornamental and productive. Estate maps are functional, quasi-legal items denoting ownership and boundaries, but in some cases they are works of art in themselves: meticulously drafted, richly coloured, and filled with fascinating minutiae. In 1892, the resident agent at Brodsworth fitted together 18 coloured Ordnance Survey sheets to create, literally, a wall-sized map of the estate. At Temple Newsam, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s ‘Intended Alterations’ of 1762 have at last been realised, albeit in miniature, in the form of a 1:1,500 scale model of the park executed by A. D. Modelmaking of Frome; appropriately, the model is on display in the Georgian Library overlooking the very landscape Brown surveyed two centuries earlier.

The most startling exhibit, dominating the hall at Burton Constable, is the skeleton of a sperm whale washed up on the East Yorkshire coast in 1825. The Seigniory of Holderness, a post enjoyed by the Constable family for 300 years, meant that the family could claim items recovered on the seashore. Here, the fruits of the sea went hand-in-hand with the fruits of the land. Big houses traditionally meant broad acres, and although many estates have contracted in size over the past century, these exhibitions, indoors and outdoors, tell a compelling story about the intimate relationship between people and place. For further information and opening times, visit www.ychp.org.uk, www.burton-agnes.co.uk and www.sledmerehouse.com