The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House, 1918-1939. By Adrian Tinniswood. Basic; 344 pages; $30. To be published in Britain by Jonathan Cape in June; £25.
Partying, hunting, shooting
May 7th 2016
LOOKING back on the years before war broke out across Europe in 1914, Vita Sackville-West, an aristocratic English novelist, remembered an upper-class world of “warmth and security, leisure and continuity”. For many of her aristocratic contemporaries in the 1920s and 1930s, the Edwardian country house was the heart of that world. For them, the pre-war age of innocence stood in stark contrast to what followed. In many memories, it was a period of decline and decay.
One-tenth of titled families had lost their heirs in the trenches. Mansions and estates were put up for sale at an unprecedented rate, which rose further after the stockmarket crash of 1929. Some were torn down, others abandoned: in the 12 years to 1930 more than 180 country houses were destroyed. Wollaton Hall, one of the most flamboyant Elizabethan examples, was transferred to the local city council and became a museum; Claremont in Surrey became a girls’ school. As the importance of land declined, mansions and family seats no longer had much use as a home.
The inter-war era has long been seen as an “Indian summer”, awaiting the death knell of the second world war. But as Adrian Tinniswood argues in an engaging new account of inter-war country-house life, this has obscured a world of energy, invention and change. “Fast”, the byword of the era, applied not just to Soho “flappers” and Jazz Age ballrooms, but to the country-house set, too. The loosening bonds between family, mansion and local community meant the country house was changing, but it was not dying. New owners—often Americans—brought “new aesthetics, new social structures, new meanings”.
A “spirit of restlessness” characterised the age. Country-house parties could last from 48 hours to three weeks. The word “week-end” entered common usage as expanding rail networks and car ownership meant that people could dash to the country on Friday and return on Monday exhausted after a race, a ball, a shoot or a political gathering. (Although, as Mr Tinniswood points out, the phrase in polite circles was still “Saturday-to-Monday”, to distinguish the leisured class from those who had to be at work on Monday morning.) Women, in particular, were confronted with gruelling social expectations: a seven-day shooting party, for example, would require multiple outfits for every day of the week, and spending whole seasons like this was arduous.
Only a fraction of all country houses, mansions and estates was destroyed. And new ones were built. Philip Sassoon, a hyperactive Conservative politician, built Port Lympne in Kent as a “fairy palace”—a gaudily theatrical Cape Dutch-style red-brick mansion overlooking Romney Marsh towards the English Channel. To its architect, it stood as a declaration that “a new culture had risen up from the sickbed of the old, with new aspirations.” There were modernist novelties, too—Crowsteps near Newbury, Joldwynds in Surrey—shocking the public with their shiny white walls, flat roofs and angular façades. But these were anomalies: most of the design in this period was backward-looking, as aristocrats and nouveaux-riches seeking stability and refuge embarked on a frenzy of castle restorations in a bid to “domesticate the past”.
The picture was never uniform. Mr Tinniswood provides rich detail from all corners, uncovering plenty of angst, but also much optimism—until 1939. When the next war came, the idea returned that the world was lost, symbolised, to many people, by the disappearance of domestic service (which, contrary to some alarmist inter-war accounts, had held up buoyantly for most of the preceding two decades). In the 1950s, the National Trust came into its own as a flood of houses passed into its stewardship. The “English Country House” became an object of nostalgia. Mr Tinniswood’s book is a work of historical scholarship, not heritage fetishism. For all its merits, though, it still seems to be a product of the mindset. The English country house casts a long, rose-tinted shadow.
From the print edition: Books and arts
Waugh's Country House: Through the Vita-glass Brightly
Posted on May 9, 2016 by Jeffrey Manley
A new book out this week is described as a social history of the interwar period. This is called The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House, 1918-1939 by Adrian Tunniswood and is reviewed in the current issue of The Economist. According to portions of the book available on the internet, Evelyn Waugh is cited on elements of country house style and design. A discussion of country house modernization mentions an ad featuring a refurbished 15c. house near Chelmsford with a "Vita-glass sunroom" as well as a swimming pool. Tunniswood cites Waugh's use of this same glass in his fictional creation of Margot Beste-Chetwynde's replacement of her Tudor country house King's Thursday by modernist architect Otto Silenus. In this new structure, "the aluminium blinds shot up, and the sun poured in through the Vita-glass, filling the room with beneficent rays." (Decline and Fall, New York, 2012, p. 176). As explained by Tunniswood, Vita-glass was a British invention that was marketed as allowing into the house all the healthful ultra violet rays of the sun (promoting suntan, vitamin D and even killing germs) just as though one were outdoors, where one also had to cope with unheathful English cold and damp.
In another context, the book describes the transformation of socialite Sybil Colefax into an interior decorator, necessary due to diminution of her husband's income in the 1930s. The results of her work have not, according Tunniswood, withstood the test of time. Evelyn Waugh recommended her to his brother Alec to decorate his house at Edrington. Evelyn urged that "you will be saved the kind of mistakes that are made by decorators who are not used to dealing with persons of quality, and she's businesslike" (Alec Waugh, Best Wine Last, London, 1978, p. 57). Neither of these predictions turned out to be the case. According to Alec, Colefax was always late for appointments, filled the house with inappropriate furniture, and hung the drapery inside out.