“Everyone is in admiration of it”: visiting the country house

In the second of our Historical Association’s ‘Local and Community History Month’ blogs, we look at the development of tourism of the country house.

In  the modern times the country house has a significant British culture presence, with heritage tourism generating billions of pounds. Yet looking around country houses has long been a popular English pastime. The country house speaks of the power of the landed classes, telling of their interests from classical architecture to landscapes of the picturesque, agriculture and rural improvement, from old master paintings to model dairies. Such establishments were at the height of their importance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And during this period visiting country houses, including such houses in Hampshire, became an established form of tourism.

With the developments in the road network, which enabled easier and faster travel, the number of travellers to country houses increased. Visiting these establishments offered a glimpse at the lives of the rich, an opportunity to view fine collections of art and architecture and to tour the grounds.

"Highcliffe in Hampshire" drawn by Callander, 1784 [Cope Collection]

“High Cliff in Hampshire, the seat of the Earl of Bute”: drawn by Callander; engraved by W.Watts, London, 1784 [Cope Collection cqHIH 72; print number pr599]

For the owners there was no financial incentive to granting access but it was seen as an indication of their politeness, as this letter from Mary Mee, Viscountess Palmerston, to her husband, second Viscount Palmerston, describing a visit by Lord Duncannon to Highcliff, shows.

Lord Duncannon had been in the morning to see Highcliff.  The servants refused him even entering the outward gate. He however sent in a note to Lady Bute and she ordered him to be admitted to the great astonishment of all the servants, but to the housekeeper in particular who could not refrain from exclaiming all the time she was shewing the house “Well I cannot conceive how you got in.  Its the most extraordinary thing I ever knew.  You are the first person that ever was admitted when my lord was down.” 

[MS62 Broadlands Archives BR11/11/1]

The growth of tourism within the UK saw a parallel development in travel writing and production of tour guides.  These guides included descriptions of country houses in their pages, elevating their status to that of public sites of importance.

John Bullar’s tour guide for the area around Southampton, for instance, included a map that listed the country houses. Although the county was essentially rural, comparatively few aristocrats had their principal residence in the area, and there were probably only around 50 families in the county with estates in excess of 3,000 acres.

Map of the county around Southampton for John Bullar (1819) [Cope Collection]

Map of the country around Southampton printed for John Bullar A companion in a tour round Southampton comprehending various particulars, ancient and modern, of the New Forest Lymington, Christchurch, Ringwood, Romsey, Winchester, Bishop’s Waltham, Titchfield, Gosport, Portsmouth, etc., with notices of the villages, gentlemen’s seats, curiosities, antiquities, etc. occurring in the different roads described; and various biographical sketches fourth edition (Southampton, 1819) [Rare Books Cope 04; copy number 52-293007]

Bullar was to describe Broadlands, the seat of Lord Palmerston, in the following terms:

 About a mile from Romsey, we cross the Andover canal, and approach Broadlands, the sate of Lord Viscount Palmerston. The house is highly finished, in a style of elegant simplicity. There is a fine collection of paintings. The park and gardens are excellent. Few dairies are more singular tha[n] that of Broadlands. The cattle are all of the same breed, and are curiously belted round the body with a broad stripe of white. The river Test runs through the park; and the neighbouring bridge across it, is a good object from the house.

Broadlands printed by Ackermann [Cope Collection]

“Broadlands, seat of the Rt. Hon. Lord Viscount Palmerston” [London, Ackermann, 18- ] Aquatint 11.4 x 18.1 cm. Plate 14, vol. 6 of Repository of Arts, 1809-1818. [Cope Collection cq72 BRO; print number pr 41]

The Brayley and Britton guidebook The beauties of England Wales likewise focused on the simplicity of the Broadlands house and its fine art collection

The house is a neat edifice of white brick, standing on the eastern side of the river Test, which flows through the park; it was rebuilt by the late Lord Palmerston, who ranked among the most eminent connoisseurs of his time. The collection of paintings made by this nobleman and preserved in this mansion, is extremely fine.

In their description of Paulton’s, another Hampshire county house, they focused instead on the grounds. Paulton’s grounds, like Broadlands, had been landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and they “present a pleasing specimen of his skill, the area being judiciously opened into ample lawns, which too thickly crowded with timber: the house is in a low and secluded situation”.

[Edward Wedlake Brayley and John Britton’s The beauties of England and Wales; or, delineations, topographical, historical and descriptive...: vol. 6 (London, Vernor & Hood, 1805) Rare Books Cope 03; copy number 59225007]

Lithograph of Paultons, [c.1830] [Cope Collection]

Lithograph of “Paultons, the seat of William S.Stanley esq.” printed by Engelmann, Graf, Coindet & Co. [c.1830] [Cope Collection cq72 PAU; print number pr60]

Whilst the number of visitors in no way compares to those experienced by heritage sites of today, it could certainly be claimed that by the early nineteenth century, country-house tourism had become a significant cultural practice.

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