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The National Trust: guardian of past glories

It's a familiar story in Britain: the manor house becoming too expensive to maintain, too valuable for the owner to keep in the family. One attractive way out is relinquishment of the property to the National Trust, the largest private landowner in the country, with hundreds of historic buildings and some of the finest works of art to be found anywhere now under its care. Among the latest and most impressive of such properties to go this route is Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, considered one of the finest 18th-century houses in the world.

Americans will get a glimpse of its glories through a traveling exhibition that includes original designs for Kedleston, many by architect Robert Adam. These reveal one of the most complete examples of the neoclassical style in domestic design in all its detail, from the grand fa,cades to the arrangement of the pictures on the walls. The drawings have been on exhibition in London and are about to open at the Cooper-Hewett Museum in New York (June 30-Sept. 30).

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Then they will go to the Octagon in Washington, D.C. (Oct. 1-Dec. 31), and further showings are expected at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art; the University of Texas, Austin; the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.; and the Frick Art Gallery in Pittsburgh.

Numerous organizations around the world have names akin to ``National Trust,'' often implying a government-owned or sponsored body. The National Trust for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, however, is a private charity with no government strings attached, although it does receive substantial government grants. It was formed in 1895.

Donation of a property like Kedleston to the trust offers various advantages to the owners. In return for the gift of the property, and in most cases a similar value in endowments, the house and its family associations are preserved intact. And frequently, provision is made for the previous owner to continue living in a portion of the house.

The sums involved at Kedleston were so great that the government had to be involved, through its National Heritage Memorial Fund, which acts as distributor of government funds to needy heritage cases. The fund contributed a massive $21.1 million, which, together with the Scarsdale gift of the property, left a balance of $3.3 million for the trust to raise to purchase many of the original contents.

Dame Jennifer Jenkins, newly elected chairman of the National Trust and wife of former Labour government cabinet minister Roy Jenkins, does not appear to be much daunted by the formidable task of rescuing Kedleston Hall.

In addition to raising the needed funds, she speaks enthusiastically of making greater use of the important but less spectacular vernacular buildings, the barns, cottages, schools, and shops of which the trust owns hundreds.

And she is also committed to exploiting the trust's potential as an educator, owning as it does much of the visible remains of the country's history.

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No one doubts that in acquiring Kedleston the trust has taken on a masterpiece. Architect Adam designed it for the first Lord Scarsdale of the Curzon family in the early 1760s. His work led a revolution in design that has had far-reaching effects on architecture and interiors in Britain.

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