Brideshead Redecorated

  • Now and then, a shadow of anxiety is seen to cross the broad, luminous face of American democracy. Was the Revolution a social mistake after all? Should Benjamin Franklin have gone to the French court in a wig instead of his own egalitarian hair? Was it really such a good idea to get rid of George III and Lord North? Given the uninflected worship of money that marks the 1980s, it is no wonder that the spectacle of privilege enjoying its own toilette has become America's hottest cultural ticket. Thus Lord Marchmain of Brideshead becomes the Blake Carrington of the American upper middle classes.

    Museums have learned their part in this vicarious regilding. They supply a sense of history as spectacle. This seems to work particularly well with English history. Relatively few Americans can imagine themselves as King Tut, Rudolf II of Prague or Lorenzo de' Medici, but there is no shortage of people who feel that with the right decorator, their homes might become facsimiles of English landed estates, complete with an old red setter molting on a new reproduction William Kent sofa.

    An ideal museum show would therefore be a mating of Brideshead Revisited (the only vulgar novel Evelyn Waugh wrote) with House & Garden. It should borrow widely and set forth an impressive parade of authoritative objects, with special attention paid to the decorative arts. It should sketch a portrait of a vanished order without revisionist detail, thus provoking intense and pleasurable nostalgia for a past that none of its audience has had. Its opening nights should be long, socially frantic and attended by as many titled lenders and assorted Chinless Wonders as can be flown across the Atlantic. Royalty should be present, enabling museum officials to fall, Bernini-wise, into swooning postures of gratification, one eye on the Princess of Wales and the other fixed on the box office. In short, it might not be unlike "The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting," which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington on Sunday.

    It is by far the most assiduously promoted exhibition to be seen in the U.S. in years. Its catalog weighs as much as a young salmon (6 1/2 lbs.) and is about as hard to carry. Though the National Gallery's director, J. Carter Brown, is accepting most of the credit for it, the main work of selection, cataloging and arrangement was carried out by its English curator, Gervase Jackson-Stops, architectural adviser to the National Trust in London. He did the job with wide knowledge and, in the matings of some objects, a dry wit. One could be fatigued by the result but never bored, for Jackson-Stops is a dab-hand at fitting potted histories around incompressible works of art. One is firmly led through the mutations of English taste, as early Elizabethan patronage becomes the acquisitive connoisseurship of the late 18th century, and the tiny enameled world of Nicholas Hilliard opens to the spacious marmoreal one of the Grand Tour and Burlington House. Only after the 1930s, | with the ethos of country-house patronage in full retreat before the incomprehensible 20th century, does the show become a bore--a silly diminuendo of John Piper watercolors and Asprey-style silver humidors. The cutoff point should have been 1914.

    The narrative is set forth in more than 700 remarkable objects. These run from Isaac Oliver's exquisitely realized miniature of three reflective siblings of the Montague family, clad in sober Catholic black, to an intimidating silver wine cooler half the size of a Jacuzzi; from Johan Zoffany's courteous but plainspoken portrait of a plump earl on the Grand Tour raising his hat to shield himself from the Florentine sun, to the boot-licking Edwardian rodomontade of John Singer Sargent's huge portrait of the Duke of Marlborough and Consuelo Vanderbilt; from a marble mock-Greek portrait by the sculptor Francis Chantrey of two woodcocks he had shot at Holkham Hall, to the Calke State Bed, a sumptuous four-poster whose hangings of gold-embroidered blue-and-cream silk were recently found in their original box in Calke Abbey, as fresh as the day they left China nearly 250 years ago.

    There are ideal juxtapositions, as with the Chippendale sideboard, wine cooler and pedestaled urns from Harewood House, whose rich tones of rosewood and satinwood are echoed and amplified in the glossy coats of the Stubbs horses hanging above them, borrowed from a different estate. The cast list of painters and sculptors, silversmiths, ebenistes and potters is immense, and though there are disappointments--Turner, for instance, is poorly represented --there are also some startling moments. It would be difficult to find a clearer or fresher Canaletto than his view of the Thames from Richmond House, for instance, or a more precocious early Rubens than his enormous, little- known portrait of the Marchesa Caterina Grimaldi from Kingston Lacy, or such a drop-dead showpiece of neoclassical metalwork as John Flaxman's silver- gilt Shield of Achilles, based on Homer's description of the "wonderful shield" wrought by Hephaestus in the Iliad.

    The agenda of the show is plain, and who could object to it? It is a fund raiser, aimed at drumming up more American support for that collectively unique, financially insecure, historically indispensable phenomenon, the Stately Home. These country houses, once the center of political power in a society where wealth was reckoned in acreage and rent-rolls, make up an endangered species today. Everyone wants to look at them; in 1984 the historic houses of Britain received 45 million visitors. Four out of five were British, which shows a public loyalty to haunts of privilege that Engels might have found hard to explain. The truth is that neither English history nor English culture can be understood without these places; they matter far more as social evidence than most Italian palazzi or French chateaus. The ritual of public visits is not at all new. Some great houses have been open to curious strangers since the day they were built (even the 1st Duke of Marlborough was pestered by tourists in 1711 while building Blenheim).

    But the problem, for the past 100 years, has been paying for them. As the land-owning families of England were depleted by the long agricultural depression of the late 19th century, by the introduction of death duties and by the slaughter of their sons in the First World War, so their houses declined. In the century from 1875 to 1975, over 1,100 were demolished, more than half of them since 1945.

    Today, thanks partly to the English National Trust and partly to better tax arrangements--whereby families can give a house of major historical interest to the government in lieu of death duties but continue to live in it as long as they keep it open to the public--the tempo of loss has slowed. But there are few estates that do not face their annual nightmare of rising damp, falling cornices, skyrocketing repair bills and shrinking rents. These shared threats induce the mood of solidarity fondly guyed by Noel Coward decades ago: "Though if the Van Dycks have to go/ And we pawn the Bechstein Grand,/ We'll stand/ By the Stately Homes of England." As one should, for there is no parallel to the stubborn integrity of their collections among the stripped and much-looted palaces across the Channel.

    The parade of valuables in Washington might suggest, to the uninitiated, that the British can easily afford to maintain them. Some mildew and burst upholstery would lend poignancy to the subliminal cry for help. In any case, a collection is not a house, and the catchpenny title "Treasure Houses"-- suggesting Palladian Fort Knoxes inhabited by Volpones from Debrett's--does not convey the agreeably worn mixture of the grand and the scruffy that often defines their charm. The show embraces conventions of glamour (mainly about Georgian England) that few social historians would accept today. It rehearses the conventional picture of enlightened Augustan Whigs, adored by the whole inferior creation from their wives to their dogs and filling their rotundas with the works of Claude and Praxiteles. Surely by now an American museum can admit that a few of these paragons were educated brutes with Titians, like a few of their modern counterparts? Or that their ideology of cultural property was underwritten by their power to hang men for poaching a stag or breaking down an ornamental shrub? Or even that England, particularly from the Civil War to the rural riots of the 1830s, was by no means the serene garden of precedence and patronage suggested by the masterpieces of Gainsborough or Robert Adam?

    The point about patronage is that it is not an extension of rights but a form of social control. The Benevolent Peer did, of course, exist. There were always English aristocrats willing to espouse liberal views, and they are commemorated in this show by Francis Wheatley's genre painting of John Howard, the pioneer of English carceral reform, visiting a prison in 1787. The work once belonged to the reforming, antislavery Tory, Lord Harrowby. But the show and its catalog broadcast together on a narrow band of social meaning, emitting what is basically a fantasy about relationships between taste, property and justice. The show has done an extraordinary job of conveying the opulence of its subject. But the other side of the coin is worth remembering, even as one gapes.