This is a little book called English Country Houses and it is by Vita Sackville-West. I went to a very interesting talk at work about Virginia Woolf, Orlando and Sackville-West this week, and it reminded me that I hadn’t shared this book, even though I found it half a year ago when we visited Middleham and stayed in a tower.
It seems to be from a series called Britain in Pictures – the back cover tells me it featured such titles as Horses of Britain, British Children and Women’s Institutes. It was first published in 1941. I found it in a very muddled second-hand book shop.
Vita and I are actually doing something fairly similar, flitting through country houses and prosing selectively on their architecture, history and mood. Her prose is of course and unarguably superior – her passages on stone colour prove she is a woman after my own heart:
Dark tales; but Berkeley Castle is not dark. Not even the great yews on the terrace, cut into the shapes of elephants carrying howdahs on their backs, can sadden its beauty. It is rose-red and grey, red sandstone and grey stone, the colour of old brocade; the colour of pot-pourri; then there is a sudden buttress of yellow stone, and then a dark purple lump of masonry; red valerian juts out from the cracks.
—on Berkeley Castle
But we differ in a few others ways than the gap in skill with a pen. Firstly, her tour is judgmental, hierarchical, concerned with sifting the wheat from the chaff. Country houses are placed in order with a wave of her hand, and told to know their place. I like to tumble everything in together, and the prominence of each place is mostly dictated by how many of my film photographs came out alright. Sure I’ve my favourites, but it doesn’t mean they’re better (it probably just means they’re Elizabethan).
Secondly, Vita would have (and probably did) sweep straight through the front door/main keep/classical portico of these houses, where as I would certainly have been sent around to the servant’s entrance. She was brought up in a country house herself (Knowle) and in turn raised her children in one (Sissinghurst). She is part of the long gilded chain of people who belong in these houses.
For my part – this blog is about second-hand things – it would like to renounce ownership as a measure of value. The joy of visiting the places I photograph is that they are there for everyone to experience. Sackville-West writes, of the houses’ future: Museums? A museum is a dead thing; a house which is still the home of men and women is a living thing which has not lost its soul. We each have our biases, but for me a house which is delicately cared for and visited by happy, interested, curious people is a living, wonderful thing.
I am sorry, this post surprised me by turning out longer and more solipsistic than expected. So even though it isn’t half of what I could say about country houses (I wrote a very hasty essay on To Penshurst as an undergraduate, so there’s more in the tank), I’d better stop, especially as I started out just meaning to say that I really like the book’s cover.
p.s. if you’ve got a favourite country house or castle, let me know and I’ll tell you whether V S-W mentions it and what she says.