Capability Brown knew a thing or two about social distancing. Approaching Petworth House under big, cloud-scudded Sussex skies, I can see why the National Trust felt comfortable making the 700-acre expanse of his deer park an exception to the rule that closed its gardens back in March. There could be 30 people in view, dog-walkers tracing the outline of the lake and picnickers sitting in the shade of artfully scattered copses, but there’s little danger of anyone coming too close.

Inside the house, one of seven historic Trust buildings reopening this month as part of a nationwide pilot, it’s not quite so simple.

Andrew Loukes, house and collections manager, walks ahead of me, turning on lights and unshuttering windows as he explains how it will all work. Visitor numbers are being sharply reduced, down from an average of 1,000 a day to a maximum of 540, with pre-booking for particular time slots. There will be a one-way system, achieved through the simple expedient of locking a few towering white doors. Banisters in the 14th-century chapel have been wrapped in plastic. And — perhaps hardest of all to imagine — a reduced pool of the Trust’s famously talkative volunteers are under strict instructions to curb their instincts and keep the crowds moving through.

Much remains to be done. But there’s a palpable sense of excitement among the staff preparing the house. “These interiors are designed to be looked at,” says Loukes. “It feels right that people are coming back.”

If all goes well, a further tranche of properties will be opened in August, salvaging something from a year that was supposed to be a party. A 125th anniversary event had been planned at Buckingham Palace in May, to be attended by members selected by ballot and presided over by Prince Charles, the charity’s president. But then coronavirus struck and, like so many birthday gatherings this spring, it had to relocate to the internet.

General manager Adam Hastie prepares for the house’s reopening . . . 
General manager Adam Hastie prepares for the house’s reopening . . .  © National Trust Images/Hannah Elliott
. . . with new safety measures including one-way systems, limited visitor numbers and advance booking
. . . with new safety measures including one-way systems, limited visitor numbers and advance booking © PA

Still, set aside the immediate circumstances and there was plenty to celebrate. From small beginnings in 1895, when Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley acquired a section of the cliffs above Barmouth in north Wales, the Trust has grown into an organisation that boasts 5.6m paying members, dwarfing the combined total of Britain’s political parties by a factor of five. In addition to more than 500 heritage properties encompassing country houses, ancient monuments and industrial sites, it owns 780 miles of coastline, 56 villages, nine lighthouses and a gold mine. In a normal year, it would expect to serve more than 4.5m cups of tea — though this, of course, is not a normal year.

John Orna-Ornstein, director of culture and engagement at the Trust, estimates that the charity will lose £200m of income in 2020 as a result of the shutdown of its properties. While membership has held up well, the financial impact will continue as its sites run well below capacity. 

But it could be that the biggest challenge the Trust faces in the months ahead comes from another source entirely: those days in June when Black Lives Matter protests led to the toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, igniting a media debate on contested monuments in which the spotlight immediately fell on Britain’s largest heritage organisation.

After criticism that it had been slow to address the legacy of slavery and colonialism, the Trust announced that it was accelerating the publication of a report commissioned last year from a team led by Corinne Fowler of the University of Leicester. Delayed days before its planned publication this week and now due in mid-September, the study is expected to identify links at about 100 of the charity’s houses and gardens, roughly a third of the total.

The Grand Staircase, with a view of Louis Laguerre’s 1720 mural of the Duchess of Somerset riding in triumph through the grounds of Petworth House
The Grand Staircase, with a view of Louis Laguerre’s 1720 mural of the Duchess of Somerset riding in triumph through the grounds of Petworth House © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel
The Beauty Room, created by the 6th Duke to showcase paintings of the ladies of Queen Anne’s court
The Beauty Room, created by the 6th Duke to showcase paintings of the ladies of Queen Anne’s court © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

“I would say that we have been addressing these issues for some time at a number of our properties,” says Orna-Ornstein, pointing to programmes at Penrhyn Castle in north Wales, founded on money from plantations in Jamaica, and Colonial Countryside, a child-led history and writing project also overseen by Fowler’s Leicester team. But he accepts that the Trust has work to do in this area. “Black Lives Matter has absolutely made us realise that we need to move more quickly to address those histories and to be as open about them as possible.” 

Petworth House, though not a place you would expect to be high up on the report’s list of priorities, in some ways illustrates the scale of the challenge. For even here, an estate rooted in wealth from Norman Conquest land gifts, historians have uncovered a connection: shares in a Barbados sugar plantation owned by George Wyndham (1751-1837), the 3rd Earl of Egremont, whose patronage of the painter JMW Turner furnished the house with some of its most luminous possessions.

Petworth’s art collection, considered the finest in the Trust, also includes a small number of works from the 17th and 18th centuries depicting people likely to have been slaves.

National Trust tourism map

As we drink coffee in the old servants’ quarters, Loukes and general manager Adam Hastie show me some research into Petworth’s “global connections” produced this year by the Leicester academics for distribution in the house. I’m impressed, particularly by the material on paintings such as Sir Peter Lely’s 17th-century portrait of Lady Elizabeth Wriothesley, which parses the social context and symbolism of the image of a white woman seated beside a black child in the clear, measured language of the modern museum. However, the concluding line — “We do not know the identity of the child” — points to another problem: while it is relatively straightforward to acquire biographical material on the likes of the 3rd Earl, the stories of countless less fortunate country-house dwellers, servants as well as slaves, can be recovered only with great difficulty, if at all.

Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of Lady Elizabeth Wriothesley
Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of Lady Elizabeth Wriothesley © Derrick E Witty

There is some doubt when I visit the house as to whether these handouts will be made available as planned: strictly speaking, they are a Covid risk, vectors for a virus that will also rule out more high-tech means of providing context such as audio guides. But when I call later in the week to find out how things are going, it turns out that a work­around has been found, with the research displayed on an easel next to a bust of the earl in the Oak Hall.

Loukes, 51, has been at Petworth for 11 years, and lives in the old chauffeur’s house. Prior to this, he spent a decade as a curator at Manchester Art Gallery, so he has a clear perspective on how spaces such as Petworth differ. For a start, visitors are not all here for the paintings. Some come more in a spirit of escapism and nostalgia, for the “country-house experience” of programmes such as Downton Abbey and The Crown. Others are interested in the social history of life below stairs, something that, along with audio guides and paper handouts, is looking like a casualty of Covid-19 — the magni­ficent kitchens at Petworth, which we pass on our way through the servants’ quarters, are reached via narrow passageways that are not deemed safe to open just yet. 

But the key difference, in Loukes’ view, is that Petworth is preserving not just artefacts but also the rooms for which they were acquired. “The more alien paraphernalia that you introduce into these spaces, the more you take away from their power to impress as historic interiors,” he says.

I see what he means when we arrive at the Carved Room, and open the curtains to reveal what must be the 3rd Earl’s finest achievement: a wall crowded with the elaborate wood-carvings of Grinling Gibbons and dominated by an imperious Henry VIII from the studio of Hans Holbein. Four Turners are displayed at waist height, two of Petworth Park itself, an arrangement that once allowed diners to take in the paintings and then look out through the windows at the real thing.

An imperious Henry VIII, in a portrait from the studio of Hans Holbein, looks down on the Carved Room
An imperious Henry VIII, in a portrait from the studio of Hans Holbein, looks down on the Carved Room © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Curatorial purism feels justified at a place like Petworth and, as Loukes and Hastie point out, there are other ways of providing context — even if Covid-19 complicates some (and the thick walls of the house can be a barrier when it comes to making use of visitors’ own phones). But at more problematic Trust sites, I can imagine such calculations shifting. Powis Castle, home to a collection that includes war spoils from the East India Company’s defeat of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, could hardly expect the same reverence. And occasionally, as last month in the case of a statue of a kneeling black man outside Dunham Massey Hall in Cheshire, removal rather than contextualisation may be deemed the best option.

Country houses, as it happens, did not loom particularly large in the Trust’s founding vision. Born, like so many late-19th-century institutions, from an anxiety about the effects of industrialisation on nature and the urban poor, the charity initially focused on wild spaces, and its broadly liberal politics often led to clashes with landed interests.

David Cannadine’s In Churchill’s Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain crisply charts how this changed in the 1920s and 1930s, as the countryside became venerated as a source of “spiritual values” and the Trust’s senior personnel grew ever more aristocratic.

Map of Sussex

That set the scene for the charity’s postwar role as the saviour of Britain’s then embattled country houses, 78 of which came into its possession between 1940 and 1970. The terms could seem very favourable to former owners, allowed to stay on in a wing or private apartment, in return for sometimes minimal public access. 

From the mid-1960s, internal discord and some external pressure from the Labour government of Harold Wilson led to the Trust reconstituting itself in something like its present form: a public-facing mass organisation that has tilted increasingly back to its original role as a protector of wild spaces, while at the same time embracing monuments to the very industrial revolution from which its founders had recoiled.

Yet if the modern Trust can seem to marry a huge range of interests and pursue occasionally contradictory aims, its rapid growth in recent decades shows that it has generally found a way to balance them.

Today, extending this would seem to depend on reaching out to younger visitors, particularly in cities; determined action on the Trust’s colonial collections would clearly help here. I’m persuaded by the argument that most members would welcome more museum-style context, and Orna-Ornstein cites survey evidence in support of this view.

Reached via passageways too narrow for visitors to navigate safely, the magni­ficent kitchens remain out of bounds
Reached via passageways that make social distancing impossible, Petworth’s magni­ficent kitchens remain out of bounds © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

If there is resistance, it seems most likely to come from the ranks of the Trust’s 65,000 volunteers, who naturally have a more independent relationship with the charity than those it employs. Resentment at progressive initiatives can easily blow up into a “political correctness gone mad” narrative: take the complaints in 2017 from volunteers at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, upset at having been asked to wear rainbow lanyards to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Nonetheless, Maria Misra, a University of Oxford historian who writes on empire, nationalism and postcolonial identity, believes that the Trust is just one among many institutions where forward-thinking leaderships now have an opportunity to push through reforms; as another example she cites Oxford’s Oriel College, finally setting out a process for the removal of its controversial statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Though Black Lives Matter may have changed the weather in the space of weeks, Misra points out that the debates it has opened up reflect transformations wrought by more than two decades of academic work — a “global history revolution” that has affected every area of the curriculum and made it impossible, outside the popular accounts often written by politicians, to present colonial exploitation as incidental to Britain’s rise. Heritage sites can hardly be insulated from this. “I’m not suggesting that these places become chambers of horrors,” says Misra. “But we’ve got to get away from the idea that criticising British history is a kind of lèse majesté.” 

Walking back through the pretty lanes of Petworth town, it doesn’t feel much like revolution is in the air. But as the work under way in the house shows, global perspectives are already filtering out of universities. And the Trust, if its first 125 years are any guide, will be apprehensive about change but also conscious of the risks of standing still.

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