Book review: English Country House Interiors

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English Country House Interiors
Jeremy Musson (Rizzoli, £37.50, *£30)

Jeremy Musson, for many years Architectural Editor of Country Life, emerges as a worthy heir to the late John Cornforth in his latest book on country-house interiors. Fourteen great private (or, in the case of Waddesdon Manor, quasi-private) houses are intelligently assessed and illustrated by photographs of breathtaking beauty taken by Paul Barker.

Each great house is chosen to exemplify a particular era or taste: Hatfield House for the Jacobean court style; Castle Howard, Vanbrugh; Houghton and Holkham representing different aspects of Palladianism; Goodwood House, the Regency; Arundel Castle, Gothic Revival. Robert Adam gets two opportunities to show off, at Harewood House and Syon House. The interiors of Berkeley Castle that medieval fortress-are rightly discussed as a romantic creation of the early 20th century. Parham Park, decked with early English portraits and textiles, is the perfect English manor house.

Of course, many great homes are layered places and thus, although one chapter discusses Chatsworth as a great Baroque palace, the early-19th-century contribution of the 6th or ‘Bachelor’ Duke of Devonshire his Library, Dining Room and Sculpture Gallery-reappear in a later chapter entitled ‘Regency Reinvention’, together with the Gothick cloister at Wilton and the astonishing Honduras maho-gany Library at Arundel Castle.

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The book concludes with a penetrating essay charting the way that taxation, World Wars, interior decorators and scholarship have affected the look of country houses today. Mr Musson’s sympathy and understanding of the people who actually own and live in these great houses is evident, and his is a generally upbeat story of eventual triumph over adversity.

Perhaps it is his good manners that forbid mention of the pressure owners are still under-and of the inevitable sales of works of art that have occurred from half the houses he writes about. Of course, everyone has the right to clear out their attic from time to time, but it is the sheer richness and depth of inherited collections that distinguish the interiors of British country houses from those, say, in Ireland, France or Italy. More attractive inducements are needed to protect these collections from the attrition of sales forced by taxation and the cost of maintenance.

What the author does celebrate are the ambitious restoration projects that have transformed many houses in recent years. Particularly memorable is the King James Drawing Room at Hatfield House, which has been thickly hung with old tapestries to serve as a foil to family pictures, or the dazzling confection of the state bed at Harewood, rehung in 1999 with shimmering blue damask.

Goodwood House and Arundel Castle have been entirely refurbished with great taste and flair, and the new proprietors of Chatsworth and Wilton House are still making changes the Devonshires, in particular, introducing contemporary art and furniture to sit beside their inherited treasures. Boldest of all, probably, is the indefatig-able Lord Rothschild at Waddesdon, who springs almost annual surprises-Mr Musson shows the zany plastic chandelier and chairs added into the Rococo Blue Dining Room by Brazilian designers Fernando and Hum-berto Campana in 2010.

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