Saturday, 13 August 2011

The National Interest

When your trip to the countryside is spoiled by the rain, the thing to do is nip into the nearest National Trust stately home, where treasures and curios of all kinds reveal some of the more intimate details of English history. It’s the museum world’s equivalent of the celebrity gossip column. On such a day in North Wales (they are frequent) I went to explore Plas Newydd, the home of the 7th Marquess of Anglesey.

The lady at the ticket desk took the customary opportunity to try to raise the value of the transaction by offering to sell me printed guides and histories but I declined them; I had another plan in mind. My father, who used to embarrass me by his habit of striking up conversations with strangers, would never have bought a booklet. His preferred approach to history was the handed-down verbal tradition, nicely spiced with nods and winks. I knew that, in each room of the house, there would be a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guardian who, if asked, would tell all they knew about the place and its history and I intended to use my father’s method.

I got a result straight away when the lady in the grand hallway told me that the Marquess still lives there (in a rather nice five-roomed flat upstairs) although the Marchioness retreated to Knightsbridge and has not been seen since the estate was ‘given’ to the National Trust. She, apparently, could not stomach the fact that visitors no longer needed royal connections in order to gain entry to the Plas.

In the next room I was drawn to the 1890s photo portrait on the sideboard: it is of the obviously gay Henry, the 5th Marquess, posing in a very elaborate and fanciful theatrical costume. My interest elicited the story of how he spent his way to bankruptcy and caused the main estate in Staffordshire to be sold off in the 1930s. The family subsequently had to eke out a living from what was left in Derbyshire, Dorset and Anglesey. I suggested it was unfortunate but, since it had all been stolen by the Normans and then dished out to their friends anyway, this could be seen as a step in the right direction towards the redistribution of wealth to the English natives. The guardian chose not to take me up on this line of discussion looking, instead, to anticipate the queries of the next visitor.

Nearby was a specially designed and constructed ‘rent table’ which evoked, to me at least, a scene of the tenant farmers shuffling, in line, into the estate office where they respectfully doffed their caps and stumped up tithes to their God-given master who, depending on his predilections, might either re-invest it into the estate or squander it in fashionable London society. This time, however, I kept my thoughts to myself.

I then turned my attention to an old photograph of two very young girls. “Yes” said the guardian “that’s Kitty and Henry, taken in 1924, when they were two”. “Henry?” said I, “Was it her nickname?” “No, it’s the present Marquess. It was common, in those days, to dress little boys as girls so as to fool any would-be kidnappers. Girls had no inheritance, you see.” Another photo of the same vintage showed the four older sisters dressed, boyishly, all in identical dungarees and with pageboy haircuts. “It was the fashion of the day” she explained. But this wasn’t just fashion – this was ultra-cool fashion and not representative of society in Anglesey at the time. This was London calling and these girls were dressed to impress. They had work to do, attention to attract and inheritances to bag.

The eldest of them, Caroline, in her teens and already looking like the beautiful, bisexual tearaway of later repute, broke the heart of (among others) Rex Whistler. His extraordinary, fantastical painting, which covers an entire wall of the long dining room, includes allegorical references to their relationship which, without the conspiratorial assistance of the room’s guardian, I would certainly have missed. Thanks, Dad.

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