A life lived among relics

Apparently I’ve been to Anglesey Abbey before, according to everyone else in my family who I am claimed to have gone with (and who I went there with this time). This purported visit isn’t supposed to have involved going inside the house, however, so I think I might be forgiven for having forgotten wandering around a park for a bit fifteen or more years ago. And I think I’d be very unlikely indeed to forget going inside.

The house apparently began life as a medieval priory, but it has been so extensively (and repeatedly) remodelled that it’s very hard to see any sign of its origins today. It fell into dereliction and was converted into a manor house around 1600, passing through the hands of a number of private owners, until it was bought by the Fairhaven family in 1926. This was a family of American industrialists, who had raised their children in England and been ennobled (for ‘services to economic inequality’ or some such, I imagine); the house was occupied by the family’s scion, the 1st Baron Fairhaven (his father having died before he could be elevated to the peerage), until his death, when it passed to the National Trust. Huttleston Broughton (as the Baron was amusingly known) did not produce heirs, and lived an essentially C.18 lifestyle on his inherited wealth, collecting art, books and furniture, and developing his house and grounds according to his whims and interests; the covenant by which he transferred Anglesey Abbey to the National Trust specified that it should be kept as he had occupied it. This is both unusual, and very valuable. The majority of country houses in the Trust’s possession have not transited directly from daily occupation to public access, and even if they have, the Trust has tended to treat them as museums in the conventional sense, displaying whatever objects are kept at any given site according to whatever curatorial priorities may apply at any given time. Here we have instead, effectively, a social museum – not unlike many museums of rural or urban life, but entirely unlike the vast majority of them in the socio-economic class that’s represented.

I may not have an overwhelmingly positive view of the upper classes, nouveau or otherwise, but knowing how they lived, especially as late as 1966, is important, and written accounts give only a partial view. Seeing the bedrooms, studies, living spaces, library, galleries and so on, left almost exactly as they were when the Trust took possession of them, gives a unique insight into the lives lived in the place, by its owner and his staff. Hutty (as I imagine Lord Fairhaven was known to his intimates) hoped that the house and gardens would ‘represent an age and way of life that was quickly passing’. In fact it was one that had almost entirely passed by then, and you have to wonder whether it was his colonial heritage that made him quite so nostalgic for the leisured, cultured existence of an English country gentleman – one which could only be supported by the considerable oil money he had in the bank, since the days when even a large estate provided an income were far beyond living memory by then. Whatever the reason, I’m glad he took that view, because the house and gardens are absolutely fascinating to look around. There are many objects of a considerable age to be seen, including an impressive collection of paintings, but I found myself just as interested to see what a luxurious mid-century bathroom looks like. Where many comparable Trust properties are set out to give an impression of Elizabethan life, or Regency life, or some other era, very few give any idea what a relatively modern lifestyle might look like, lived among the relics of those times.

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