Magazine article The Spectator

Ancestor Worship

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancestor Worship

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1

In Celebration: The Art of the Country House

(Tate Gallery, till 28 February)

Ancestor worship

Martin Gayford

There are occasions when the branding contrives to raise all the wrong, awkward questions. Thus a campaign for the Independent, a while back, insisting that it still was, more or less dared you mentally to reply, `Oh no, it isn't.' Similarly, in a small way, In Celebration: The Art of the Country House (sponsored by Aon Risk Services Ltd, in association with ITT London & Edinburgh) managed to make me contrary almost before I'd got through the door.

It is, however, an unassuming exhibition, marking the 25th anniversary of the Historic Houses Association, and contains a number of exhibits which are well worth examination (to which I'll come a little later). But, right at the start, I found myself asking, `The art of the country house? Exactly what is that, pray?' There's been a good deal of art in country houses over the years -- although at this stage, much of the best has been sold off. But the art indigenous to country houses, created solely for their embellishment, consists almost entirely of pictures of the owners, their livestock and their property.

Of course, there were great collections formed, but these were very much the exception, and existed only for a limited period. Few of the landed aristocracy were interested in purchasing anything but portraits until the 18th century; by the 1830s, as Robert Upstone notes in the catalogue, they had been overtaken as collectors for good - by the nouveaux riches of finance and industry.

The late Osbert Lancaster once conjectured that archaeologists of the future, examining the remains of the style of decoration he dubbed `Scottish Baronial' - featuring forests of antlers and hecatombs of decapitated game - would conclude that the religion of the inhabitants had been some form of totemism. Similarly, entering the average country house one might well imagine that the proprietors had practised ancestor worship.

Although, of course, Anglicanism was the official creed, that guess would not be so wide of the mark. Already in the early 17th century, on inspecting the huge gallery of largely fictional forebears accumulated by Lord Lumley, James I was moved to remark, 'I didna ken that Adam's other name was Lumley' (a surprisingly witty remark for a king).

Subsequently, the philistine insistence of the aristocracy on buying nothing but portraits, of people, animals or estates, did much to stunt and skew the development of art in England. It was - with the added, later, fashion for buying other varieties of painting if and only if they were old and foreign - the subject of much bitter denunciation by artists such as Hogarth. All of this is interesting, but a cause for celebration . . . well, I rest my case.

As far as the show itself is concerned, as opposed to the title, it is a modest affair taking up two rooms at the Tate. When discussing the phenomenon of the blockbuster, Robert Hughes came up with `The Gold of the Gorgonzolas' as an archetypal, all-purpose blockbuster theme. This is more on the lines of `The Lumber-rooms of Littlehampton' - and all the more engaging for that. …

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