Country Journal. Forget Britain's historic homes. Here's a tale about two famous houses of the 1930s. One will be saved for posterity; the other has been broken up.
THE style favored by one generation -- be it in clothes, art, or architecture -- faces grave danger from the disdain of the next generation. Once a style passes that hurdle safely, it often garners respect -- and even veneration -- from the following generation. Two rural English houses, both of which hold a small place in the history of modern art and literature, have recently met this generational crisis head-on. One house has passed the crisis and is set for a long future; the other has failed the test and is already beyond redemption.
The fate of the two houses, Charleston and Monkton, has provoked a heated debate here about what should be preserved of the 20th century.
Charleston is a ``happy ever after'' story. The house is unremarkable in itself: A picturesque, 18th-century farmhouse on the Firle Estate near Lewis, it is not unlike the thousands of other rural dwellings scattered throughout Britain. But this was the home of artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, noted leaders of the Bloomsbury Set (of whom Vanessa Bell's sister, Virginia Woolf, was perhaps the most famous). The Grant m'enage began to rent the house in 1916. Here, over the years, they played host to many of the leading literary and intellectual lights of the day. Both Ms. Bell and Mr. Grant worked ceaselessly in the house for the rest of their long lives. But they by no means confined their talents to their canvases: They painted the walls and much of the furniture, designed fabrics, and made pots and tiles to decorate the house. When Grant died in 1978, Charleston was left in a run-down condition. The house might easily have been broken up at that point, if it had not found a friend who recognized that here was something worth preserving. Deborah Gage, a member the family that owns the Firle Estate, set to work to save the house. Members of Grant's and Ms. Gage's families formed a trust -- at first with no resources and no assets. But the Firle Estate trustees gave her a year to prove that the scheme was viable. ``Only just enough [time],'' she says.
The National Heritage Memorial Fund, which distributes government grants to heritage causes, turned down Gage's immediate appeal for funds flat. But the artists' family responded quickly and generously -- first with a gift of the family papers, which were sold by auction and raised an initial 100,000, and then with the donation by Angelica Garnett, Grant's daughter, of the entire contents of the house, which her father had willed to her.
Other support followed. The English Heritage Commission was enthusiastic and made a substantial grant. The largest private donation came from America in the form of an offer from the late Lila Acheson Wallace, co-founder with her husband DeWitt, of Reader's Digest, to restore the flint-walled garden. In all 675,000 has been raised.
Work on the restoration of the house was begun immediately. The unique decorations were restored by the artists' children, Angelica Garnett and Quentin Bell. The greatest care was needed to preserve the fragile atmosphere, of which a certain run-down coziness and clutter was an essential element. The house has just been opened to the public. Because of its small size access is restricted to small parties.
The National Trust is now prepared to accept Charleston; it is hoped that the trust will eventually take on the administration of the house. This, however, it cannot do until a further 750,000 has been raised for its endowment. The National Trust no longer accepts any property that is not self-supporting. Although Gage's challenges are not over, she has shown what can be achieved in saving a small, remote, and fragile house.
The story of Monkton could not be in greater contrast. Loved but seldom lived in, remote and superbly sophisticated, fragile and ultimately friendless, it was a dream house -- a Surrealist dream house -- of the late Edward James.
To enter Monkton was to enter the mind of a modern eccentric, a poet, and an collector of avant-gard art who had a special penchant for the Surrealist movement.
Mr. James himself said that his imagination and his eccentricity developed early. As a small child he was kept in his cot for long periods. There, like many children, he created a fantasy world, turning his pillows and covers into mountains and valleys, demons and kings. But James, who was possessed of a great American fortune, pursued his dreams for the whole of his life. A kindly man, he bought pictures from the Surrealist and Neo-Romantic painters of the interwar years more as a way to support them financially than with the intention of forming what became one of the greatest collections of its type. James bought all of Salvador Dali's work for one whole year, and he counted Picasso and Magritte among his many friends.
After a brief, disasterous marriage to a beautiful Austrian dancer, James retreated to a holiday home on the Sussex Downs.
But this was no mournful retreat. James boldly transformed the cottage into a series of visual jokes and delights that some conservationists have seen as the latest flowering of the rococo spirit. He covered the brickwork with a concrete render and had it sprayed purple, the window sills hung with concrete drapery, a chimney stack mounted with a clock to tell not the time but the day and the front door of impeccable classical style flanked by imitation palm trees. The palm tree motif is repeated in the back garden (in plastic) and in the master bedroom (where fake palm trees form the supports of a four-poster bed, a replica of Nelson's hearse).
The rest of the interior was equally exotic. It housed some of Dali's outrageous furniture (including a sofa in the form of Mae West's lips) and the James collection of Surrealist pictures. Many of the textiles were at least unconventional: the stair carpet woven with the paw prints of a favorite dog, the dining room carpet of billiard table felt, the study walls covered in blue serge to match the suit James happened to be wearing the day it was chosen, and the drawing room walls covered in the kind of buttoned silk padding one would expect to find on a sofa.
But creating a dream was more satisfying than living with it, and James was seldom at home.
His death last year raised the question about what should be done with Monkton. The beneficiary of his English estates is West Dean College, which James established as a school for art conservation and restoration. The trustees of the college were keen that Monkton should be given a chance to survive, even though they had no wish to be involved. The executors of the estate offered the house, some of the contents, and the option to buy the pictures at a later date to the English Heritage Commission, with seven months to produce the funds. The failure to find the solution in the allotted time has stirred up anger and bitterness with conservation lobbies at each others' throats.
Those who wanted to save Monkton claimed it to be a unique Surrealist work of art assembled by a master, a miniature great house in the 18th-century tradition, and the only good 30s house left in Britain. Detractors dismissed the house as merely the whimsical folly of a rich eccentric; they said the cottage was too remote, too small, and too delicate to open to the public. Unhappily for Monkton, the detractors were near the source of possible public funds. The appeal, slow to get off the mark, did not reach a wider public until it was too late, and the contents of Monkton fell under the gavel at Christies, the British auction house.
Monkton has gone, but the question remains, should we be updating the criteria in deciding what of the 20th century should be preserved?
Britain's country house heritage is 500 years old and of almost embarrassing profusion and richness. But only a very few people are concerned for the relics of this century. Yet this epoch may, oddly enough, be the most vulnerable. Modern houses present special problems. Almost all are small and are built as practical homes in a way the more stately homes of the past never were. Consequently, they are subject to more wear and tear, alterations, and changes of ownership. Very few are likely to survive.