I recently had the privilege to see inside Cliveden House, once a residence of the Astors, now a luxury hotel. I went there primarily to interview MD Andrew Stembridge in relation to a piece of research on service design, but did not want to miss the opportunity to have a look round this historically significant and beautiful house.
(NB Cliveden is most often noted now for its part in the Profumo affair: the location of THAT swimming pool. Which is all I’m going to say on that front.)
I had actually been to visit the gardens – a National Trust attraction – before. On that occasion, being welcomed as a member of the public into the wonderful landscaped grounds with all their follies and exotic planting and statuary, there was a sharp contrast with the inaccessibility of the house. Now run as a private (and very sumptuous) hotel, it is beyond the reach of lowly National Trust daytrippers. Looking along the tree lined vista to the facade of the house, I wondered if this is what mere mortals felt like in the old days, gazing wistfully at the great house and only able to guess at what went on inside.
It also reminded me of the reciprocity that exists in the composition of house and gardens of this kind – both designed to frame the spectacle of the other. Being enveloped in the gardens is one thing, but their entire arrangement can only be realised from an upstairs window, when they reveal themselves to be one vast canvas. Unfortunately, at Cliveden one can only appreciate both dimensions of this relationship if you can pay.
I have mixed feelings about this inaccessibility: my initial sense of exclusion was moderated after a tour with the very lovely and knowledgeable Operations Manager, and not just because I had been admitted inside.
A little potted history of Cliveden: an aristocratic residence placed at just the right distance from London to receive Royal visits, it was absorbed into the Astor dynasty in 1893, and given to Waldorf and Nancy Astor as a wedding present in 1906. When Nancy finally died in the ’60s it was given to the National Trust, briefly became an educational establishment, and finally turned into a 5-star hotel.
Houses of this size and age frequently seem to risk bankrupting the families that run them. The theme running through many big house histories is that of the labour of love that eventually overwhelms its creator. They are essentially giant works of art, and the detail and care and investment is mind-boggling. Anyone who has ever tried to work out how to arrange furniture, or what sort of picture might suit a wall, can imagine that the composition and construction of these homes – stuffed full of art and artefacts – is a life’s work. This is why the resource of the National Trust is so valuable, in providing a way to preserve these artworks, and at the same time democratise them, opening them up to the public. Indeed one could argue it is only by democratising them in this way that the old elitism they represent can be reconciled with the democratic sensibilities of the 21st century.
The difference with Cliveden was the Astor’s stipulation that the House must not become ‘a museum’. The property was given to the Trust on the condition that it continue to be (as it had been all its life) a place of parties and fun. Its current incarnation as a luxury hotel lives out this stipulation. But it also maintains its elitism.
This raised an interesting conundrum for me, as it must have done for the National Trust. The Trust, for all that it preserves the rich materiality of these places, is rarely able to keep their meaning intact, precisely because their mission to ‘preserve for the nation’ transforms it. The life of such properties, the private histories and political significances, founded on class and elitism, is normally at least part of their interest and the reason they were worth preserving in the first place. This ends as soon as they pass into public hands and inevitably become museum showpieces: they stop having their own life, or start having a very different one at least.
With somewhere like Cliveden, that deeper meaning, the life beyond the bricks and mortar, was only ever accessible to the well-heeled few – and this (with the exception of a scheduled house tour on Thursday afternoons) continues to be the case. Whilst it would of course be a shame if the house were lost altogether, and there is a certain romantic attraction to the idea of the living artwork, the question for me is: what is the nature of the value to the public in preserving a place so far beyond the reach of most? Tricky…