Book of the week: Noble Ambitions by Adrian Tinniswood
Tinniswood’s exploration of the country pile and its place in society
Jim Dyson/Getty Images
The postwar period was uniquely challenging for the owners of Britain’s country houses, said John Walsh in The Sunday Times. Having in many cases seen their homes requisitioned during the War, they were then hit by death duties of up to 85% and a top income tax rate of 95%. Maintaining a stately home became cripplingly expensive – and yet selling up often wasn’t an option, since demand for country houses was at an all-time low.
In this “rollicking” book, Adrian Tinniswood explores the “desperate adjustments” the country’s aristocrats were forced to make. While some resorted to bulldozing their properties (or at least lopping off the odd wing), others found enterprising ways to “turn old grandeur into new cash”. Needing £500,000 to pay death duties on Inveraray Castle, the 11th Duke of Argyll teamed up with an American hosiery company to produce a line of tartan socks. Some families rented out their homes to film companies; others responded by “joining the tourism industry”, and letting strangers “mooch around their ancestral fireplaces”.
It was the era of what Tinniswood calls the “showman peer”, said Moira Hodgson in The Wall Street Journal. At Beaulieu, Lord Montagu created the country’s first motorcar museum, and held wildly popular jazz concerts. At Longleat, the Marquess of Bath opened his famous safari park, while at Woburn Abbey the Duke of Bedford turned the stables into a milk bar, and introduced a “Win a Butler for a Weekend” competition. It was put to him that such measures were undignified. “This is quite true,” he responded, but added: “If you take your dignity to the pawnbroker, he won’t give you much for it.”
“In the Swinging Sixties, a new aristocracy of film and rock stars started buying up historic houses,” said Marcus Binney in The Daily Telegraph. Notley Abbey was bought by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh; Peter Sellers moved into Brookfield House in Surrey, before selling it to Ringo Starr.
But the “biggest pile of all” – Friar Park near Henley-on-Thames – belonged to George Harrison, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer: this 25-bedroom “Victorian Leviathan”, which the guitarist purchased in 1970, had a network of caves in its gardens, as well as a “miniature Matterhorn”.
Gossipy and “deliciously vivid”, Noble Ambitions has an amusing cast of enterprising aristocrats, VIP musicians, interior designers, party planners and the like. In the end, the book’s true subject is Britain’s class system – which explains why it’s so “preposterously entertaining”.
Jonathan Cape 416pp £30; The Week Bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)
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