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The Neoclassical country house: A Working Classicist’s nightmare?

The English country house, suggested by the New Yorker as ‘the greatest English contribution to the world’. A symbol of the aristocracy filled with treasures from all over the world. Some were collected from ‘grand tours’ – essentially an 18th century version of backpacking, but rather than southeast Asia the grand tour would take upper-class men (sometimes women were allowed) to the Mediterranean where they could admire valuables from the ancient era.

Most men (and it was usually men) on these tours were inspired by the Greco-Roman world and would promptly bring back whatever commodities they could get their hands on, using these pieces of great cultural importance to decorate their houses.

And so, the Neoclassical movement was born. As someone with a great interest in both the classical world (which I studied at University) and historic houses (having decided against teaching, I now work in the museum industry) the Neoclassical movement should be something I thoroughly enjoy. Which I do.

Sort of.

Of course I, and anyone with even a vague interest in the classical world can’t help but admire a lovely column, a desk decorated with classical features, a clock depicting the muses, or a mythologically inspired wall light. Unfortunately, these items were not acquired to be seen or enjoyed by someone like me. Even the servants, who ensured these houses ran smoothly, would be disciplined for taking time to admire these beautiful items when they should instead have been busy with housework and be grateful for it, despite their pitifully low wages.

Although these may once have been the private collections of the wealthy elites, times have changed. Surely in the 21st Century most of these country houses are under public ownership and can be accessed by anyone, right?

Not quite!

While it is true that many of these houses are now museums, operated by organisations such as English Heritage and the National Trust (which runs over 500 properties), most of these sites are not accessible to the working classes because of geographical, financial and cultural barriers.

First, as Phil and Kirstie argue, Location, Location, Location is key for any tourist attraction and sadly country houses tend to be situated far out in the countryside. With public transport in many areas currently in a terrible state, car travel is the only realistic means to visit many country houses. Even those close to urban centres can be difficult to visit. Using Leeds as a case study (since it’s my hometown and thereby the greatest city in the world), we are fortunate enough to have three historic houses in the local area: Temple Newsam House, Harewood House and Lotherton Hall. These are respectively 4.6 miles, 8 miles and 11 miles from the city centre and yet none of these have a direct transportation link and all involve at least a 20-minute walk from the bus stop to the house. For a low-income family, or those with accessibility issues, such a journey just might not be realistic or possible.

Secondly, financial factors impact a person’s ability to visit a country house, as most are subject to priced entry and/or require a membership. These schemes, whilst relatively decent value to some, can be unaffordable and make little practical sense for a working-class family without a vehicle. Thankfully Temple Newsam (where I work) and nearby Lotherton Hall are both operated by Leeds City Council, so keep ticketed entry at a reasonable price (£9 for an adult).

Harewood House, however, operated by a private trust in which members of the family who historically owned the house are present, charges £18 for an adult. Sadly, this is an industry standard and although it’s important to remember the bulk of ticket funds are directly put into conservation of these properties (The National Trust raised £79 million in 2018 - 2019, of which £61 million was reinvested), that doesn’t change the fact that for a working-class family a country house museum is something they may be unlikely to visit. In my case, I first visited one only after being employed by the organisation.

Finally, cultural factors have contributed to making some people from a low-income background feel that country houses simply aren’t for them. Almost similar to the housekeeper admiring a piece of Neoclassical furniture and then being scolded, working class families have felt they weren’t ‘clever enough’ to visit a country house. Perhaps such a feeling of exclusion because of your socio-economic background sounds familiar? It did for me.

An ornate chair behind a substantial eighteenth century desk.
The Georgian Library, Temple Newsam House. Focused in the Chippendale writing table, made for Harewood house originally, a great example of a piece of neo-classical furniture

Thankfully the museum industry is changing, with fantastic organisations like ‘Museum as Muck’ being a network for museum workers who come from a low-income background. Although in my time working in English country houses, I’ve had to deal with earls, countesses and lords, I have also had the pleasure of working with schools from deprived areas and showing them around a country house, making them feel welcome. I am also planning on creating a specialised tour which looks at the classical elements within Temple Newsam House, and hoping to do some outreach with the inner-city college I attended for Classics A-Level.

Museums, like the study of Classics, seem to be slowly changing and becoming more accessible to people of all backgrounds, with organisations like Museum as Muck and Working Classicists being invaluable to people like me. The next time I admire some Neoclassical furniture at Temple Newsam or another historic house, my inner classicist will undoubtedly geek out, but until such places are more accessible the Neoclassical influence on a country house will still leave a sour taste in my mouth.

Tyler Smith is a Classics graduate and has worked in two country house museums since graduation, he is currently completing an MA in Cultural Heritage Management and is interested in working class people's relationships with country houses.

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