Sunday, 17 September 2017

Lost Causes

Back in May, we visited Hinton Ampner, a local National Trust property, where I came across this out-of-place Roman-style bust on a plinth in a nondescript little structure like a bus-shelter in the grounds. It is not labelled or protected in any way, and I assume it is just a piece of low-value garden furniture from the NT's central bric-a-brac store.

At first, it was the incongruity that attracted me, but when I looked closer I became intrigued by the androgynous weirdness of the lop-sided face, with its odd hairstyle, apparently broken nose, and blank stare from a pair of mismatched eyes (onto one of which someone seems to have attempted to pencil an iris and pupil). Depending on your inclination, you might even say she or he is what the French call une jolie laide or un beau laid (literally "a beautiful ugly person"), expressions which lack an English equivalent, but which mean something like "an attractive person who defies conventional notions of beauty". A magnetic minger, maybe?

Of course, it could also simply be an atrocious and talentless bit of sculpture, on a par with a shop-window mannequin or that recent hilarious rendering of Diana (which, for me, does nonetheless seem to open a window onto that strange woman's blank soul). Naturally, I have been using this oddly compelling face in my picture-making. It seems to suit a certain sort of iconic presentation: Our Lady of the Squint, perhaps.

Like so many card-carrying pensioners, I am also a card-carrying National Trust member, although I find I am increasingly out of sympathy with that organisation. I could just about live with the gift shops, with their tea-towels and souvenir pens, and even the genteel volunteer "guides" lurking in every room like pub bores, but the NT's urge to restore, tidy up, interpret, and make "accessible" the historic piles of the aristocracy has started to destroy the very things that made a visit to such places worthwhile. For me, anyway, but then I am an incurable romantic with a taste for picturesque dilapidation.

All may not be lost. Apparently, Dame Helen Ghosh, who has been Director General of the NT since 2012, is to step down from that role, as she has been appointed as the new head of Balliol College Oxford, a slightly more exclusive club, of which I also happen to be a member. (The person in that role is formally known as the Master of the college; it'll be interesting to see how that plays out with its first female incumbent.) Who knows, it may be that her successor at the NT will share my taste for elegant disrepair, cracked windows and weed-grown pathways, but somehow I doubt it. As far as I'm aware there is no group that lobbies for heritage disrepair, no Campaign For the Dilapidation of Rural England.

My lost-cause relationship with the NT is exemplified by my dealings with their property Mottisfont Abbey, near Romsey. Back in the late twentieth century, in what proved to be the last hurrah of my film photography, Mottisfont was a wonderful place to explore and document, especially its grounds surrounding the river Test, which were full of unexpected nooks and crannies as well as, admittedly, life-threatening trip-hazards and pitfalls. I developed a close relationship with the place and its management, resulting in an exhibition of my work, The Colour of the Water, that ran from March 2003 to November 2004 (described here).

Then, there was a change of philosophy at the National Trust, and of management locally. No doubt money needed to be made, targets needed to be met, boxes needed to be ticked; anyone who has worked in a large organisation will have been there, and suffered the clipboards and flipcharts of outrageous managerialism. No doubt, also, there were urgent repairs to be done. I have no problem with that: I've just had our leaking roof fixed, too. But then the improvers moved in, clearing out the nooks and crannies along with the trip-hazards and pitfalls, followed by the interpreters with their signage and primary-school-level history lessons, and then came the adventure trail and playground installers, and eventually the public-works artists, recruited by competitive submission for site-specific works emphasising the need for relevance to and engagement with the specified target audiences. More boxes to be ticked.

A few years ago, having revisited my Mottisfont material, I sent in a proposal for a new exhibition. Now, when I approached the previous estate manager he had invited me in for a chat, looked at some work, gave me out-of-season access to the grounds, and finally provided me with exhibition space and, very generously, offered to cover my costs. I like to think it was a win-win situation; not many exhibitions remain on show for over a year and a half, and I let them keep the takings from sales of a little catalogue I had made. In contrast, though, the new manager didn't reply at all until I prodded her for a reaction after six months' silence, and even then she merely explained that exhibitions in the new dedicated exhibition rooms were organised centrally and circulated to various properties by the Trust, and she had no autonomy in that respect. You would have thought that response would have taken ten minutes, not six months.

Interestingly, I've had a similar lack of response from Bateman's (Rudyard Kipling's house in Sussex, also run by the NT) when sounding them out about my "Puck's Song" work – six months now and counting – and presumably for similar reasons. Now, you get used to rejection (I've lost count of the commission submissions and exhibition proposals I have had rejected over the years) but the sheer discourtesy of such prolonged silence still rankles. It speaks volumes about an organisation's ethos, I think: nobody is so busy that they can't find time to dictate a brief letter brushing off some idiot's unsolicited enquiry about their bizarre art project. But a misplaced sense of self-importance and a blind adherence to the Mission Statement will do it every time.


Paul Mc Cann said...

Phew. Bet you were glad to get that off your chest Sticking it to the NT with a side swipe at Saint Di as well

I think you are a little hard on the NT but i have to agree wih your comments about lurking genteel guides whose erudition is often questionable.

Anonymous said...

Re improvers: From my visits in the UK I got that the NT commonly doesn't seem to be in high esteem (except maybe among the aristocracy, who appreciate being able to socialize the maintenance cost of their estates). It can get worse, however: In 1937, archaeogists discovered a neolithic stone cist grave in the outskirts of my hometown. A year ago, the city council in earnest decided that the location of the burial site was "bad" because being not easily accessible, and that it would be desirable to move it to a "more prominent" location - and opted for a place in the middle of a traffic roundabout! Thankfully, the town archaeologist put in a veto.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Well, that sort of bureaucratic arrogance really pisses me off... I was willing to write it off once, but twice? I'm pretty sure that Mottisfont would never have replied without me chasing it, and that Bateman's never will. It not as if I'm a *complete* lunatic...


Have you heard about the plan to dig a road tunnel next to Stonehenge? Now that's "improvement" gone seriously mad... English Heritage, this time, who are rather worse than the NT, imho, when it comes to ruining ruins...


Gavin McL said...

We were in Northumberland over Easter and went to Seaton Delaval Hall a National Trust property in that rather bleak ex industrial landscape North of Newcastle. The main hall was burnt out some time ago. The family that owned it only had enough money to put a roof back on so in order to save up they moved into the servants quarters (what happended to the servants I'm not sure) They never managed to restore the main hall and it now sits burnt out, bricks and stone exposed, scarred with heat. Cracked stone torsos are secured in their niches. I did think of you as we wandered round. But you'll have to move fast - I don't think they are planning a full restoration but they have plans...

Mike C. said...


Sounds great, but of *course* they have plans! It's a perfect blank canvas for an interactive "Seaton Delaval Experience" setup...


Gavin McL said...

You jest but there once was a seaton delaval experience. The family were found of practical jokes and the guest wing was rigged. One bed could drop you into a a cold water tank, the walls between the guest rooms could be lifted into the ceiling as everybody changed for the night and one room had all the furniture secured to the ceiling and guests who passed out at the dinner table were left in there to wake up. Unfortunately that wing was completely destroyed in the fire. Perhaps by a guest?

Martin said...

We're 'regulars' at Mottisfont, usually for an exhibition, or a mooch about the rose gardens, when they're in full bloom. But I agree with every word you say. I think the new entrance/shop speaks volumes, and I'm seriously thinking I won't renew my membership this year, even though it is discounted.

Mike C. said...


Hmm, now you're selling me on the idea..


I'd forgotten about that new entrance! It really turns it into the equivalent of a visit to the zoo, doesn't it? Don't think I'll cancel the membership yet, though -- we still get around to enough places in a year for it to be worth it.


Huw said...


Our summer holiday was in France and we spent a week in the Loire valley, so chateau visiting was all but compulsory, and I had similar thoughts: Villandry was clean and regimented and entirely soulless (you literally couldn't walk round much of the famous gardens, and it was run for tour groups), whereas Gizeux was rackety, slightly run-down, but full of immense charm and depth. We spent three times as long there and enjoyed it ten times as much. The owners were having a barbeque round the side and it felt properly loved. But there were no tour groups and I'm sure the struggle to keep such a place from falling down was constant. I don't know the answer.

I do like Bateman's though because it retains a strong sense of Kipling, and all the contradictions and genius he embodied. Nice cakes too (sorry). Bit like Clouds Hill.


Mike C. said...


The French relationship with their heritage does seem to fall on the "tidy it up" side more frequently than ours, at least in my experience: they've even made a lifesize replica of the Lascaux caves for visitors! Sensible, but... Maybe that's the answer for Stonehenge!

Not visited Bateman's yet, but high on my list, once I've got over being ignored.