The end of the country house as we know it? Thoresby Hall, Hardwick Hall and Alton Towers and the legacy of WWII

Alton Towers is probably not something you would expect to find mentioned in a blog devoted to Renaissance issues and written by a Renaissance art historian, but bear with me on this one. Because what interests me about Alton Towers is less it’s incarnation as one of Merlin Group’s most successful theme parks ( Wikipedia suggests that Alton Towers is one of the most popular entertainment venues not Just in the UK but in Europe) , but rather Alton Towers’origins as one of the homes of the Earl of Shrewsbury. I have written elsewhere on Alton Tower’s theme park incarnation, but for this particular piece, I am concerned with the hall and especially decisions made by the family about the fortunes of a building that ceased to serve a function as a place of habitation.

On the roof of Hardwick Hall

On the roof of Hardwick Hall

Once you make the connection as one of a concern about grand provincial houses and their twentieth- century histories, and then remember that Hardwick Hall was built by Bess of Hardwick, Countess Shrewsbury ( hence the famous ES symbol of the parapets), and that one of Bess’ other properties in Derbyshire was Chatsworth, my interest in Alton Towers may seem less random and much more logical for an art historian who is concerned with strategies of self fashioning and an interest in cultural relations between centre and provinces. There is of course also an element of the ‘magnificent’ about the grand country houses, where architecture served as a means of establishing and expressing a family’s identity, and often an identity that was facing both inwards and outwards. What I mean with this is a sense that these houses were built as statements of political significance on the one hand, as well as a means of standing in for the family who might have been absent for large stretches at the year at the court in London. The house, in other words, came to stand in for its owner, expressing their importance and status and thus in turn also serving as a marker for the family within the provincial gentry. So, these houses faced both towards their centre, but also made centres within the periphery. And of course, when the family were ‘in’, a magnificent house such as Alton Towers, Hardwick Hall and Thoresby Hall provided just the backdrop and setting that reflected status and expressed significance. houses that asserted significance.  Alton Towers, like Hardwick Hall, was built as residence for a provincial landowner, as a symbol of power for landed gentry,  and both houses remained occupied and in use by successive generations until well into the twentieth century. Of course, this is where the crux of the matter lies: these are houses that were built for a social and cultural context where elite living and nobility required access to a working base in London, to be in vicinity and present at court, and this metropolitan presence was balanced and complemented by a family’s presence on their lands, harking back to a sense of defining nobility through feudal land ownership. Of course, their dependence on a complex social structure makes these houses vulnerable in the face of large scale restructuring of modes of living.

Thoresby Hall

Thoresby Hall

One example for this is a house that is maybe less well known than either Alton Towers or Hardwick Hall, but with a story to tell: Thoresby Hall. While the hall has been converted into a luxury estate, the Thoresby estate, one of Nottinghamshire’s magnificent estates in the so-called Dukeries, remains home to the Pierrepont (Earl Manvers) family, with one descendant still living within the grounds. Of the three houses I am interested in, Thoresby Hall  was the only house that remained occupied well into the twentieth century; it is also the only one of the three that remains a living, breathing estate, with the hall functioning as a hotel, but surrounding the hall and adjacent to it are the wonderful grounds and a stable yard complex, the Courtyard, that is home to a thriving arts gallery, local arts businesses, a riding hall to rival the one at Bolsover, a military museum and an especially fine cafe. In fact, of the three houses and estates, it is Thoresby that offers the greatest insight into the legacy of the country house after World War II. Thoresby has become a focus for my research in recent years, producing an initial outcome in August 2013 with the Wander Thoresby project and exhibition, and I am very much enjoying developing further links with the estate and delving deeper into its history and significance.

Researching Thoresby and its history and legacy is an art historian’s dream: not only is the hall intact, but the social structure of the Estate remains in place. Thoresby remains at the heart of a community that centres round the Estate’s village, Perlethorpe, complete with a wonderful church that has served as the burial place for the estate’s family, the Pierreponts, since the 18th century. In addition, Perlethorpe’s church has the most complete parish register of ANY church in England, reaching as far back as the sixteenth century.

Thoresby Courtyard

Thoresby Courtyard

The church, rebuilt in the 1880s by Salvin is an amazing building in itself, and will be blogged about in a separate post, but the church gives us an insight into how Thoresby has maintained its identity as a living, working, breathing estate, whereas Alton Towers and Hardwick Hall has lost this vital part of their previous existence. But there is one final ace up Thoresby’s sleeve, and that is the presence of quite a unique chronicler, by the name of  Marie- Louise Roosevelt Pierrepont, Countess Manvers. Countess Manvers, who makes a regular appearance in the Times’ Court Circulars throughout the 1920s and 1930s as Mrs Captain Gervase Pierrepont, moved to the estate as Countess Manvers in 1941, and remained there until her death in 1984. And for those 40 years at Thoresby, Countess Manvers painted, and in doing so, provided an unrivalled insight into the changing world of an aristocratic landowner. It is Countess Manvers’ work that gives me a source I can work with and reflect on, and the more of the story I am unpicking, the more I find to fascinate me. So, watch this space for more discussion on Thoresby, but these links may provide you with a few tasters of what Thoresby has to offer:

Ian Gordon Craig, Reflections of the Legacy of Marie-Louise Roosevelt Pieerepont, Countess Manvers

Gabriele Neher, Wander Thoresby 

BBC Your Paintings: Marie-Louise Roosevelt Pierrepont 

So, in conclusions there are three houses, all with distinctive histories and legacies, each telling a different story. One, Alton Towers, has effectively abandoned all attempts at maintaining the integrity of the house. Where the house and gardens once were part of a thriving tea shop, it now generates income as a theme park complex with resort hotels, employing as many as 2,000 temporary workers each summer and offering a massive boost to its local community, as well as a set of concomitant problems. Hardwick Hall has become one of the National Trust’s most visited houses, and is part of a very distinctive ‘brand’ of preserving the historicity and historical ‘flavour’ of a house that has effectively become a museum, opened to visitors during the day, carefully closed in the winter, painstakingly restored. Thoresby Hall has gone its own way too, and its in looking at all three that one gets a sense of both the diversity of legacies of these grand houses, and rather than lamenting their fates as a story of decline, surely, the opposite is the case, of these houses demonstrating once again how they remain functional and play an important part in their local communities. And if all they do is inspire visitors to come and see these incredible places for themselves, so all the better.

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