Is outing people really the remit of the National Trust?

After being dumped by Lord Byron in 1812, Lady Caroline Lamb re-evaluated her servants’ livery. She took a keen interest in livery. The new retainers’ outfits would feature specially engraved buttons inscribed (satirising the Byron family motto, Crede ByronNe crede Byron – don’t trust Byron.

Latin, bespoke buttons, hand-sewn alterations: how much easier it is, nowadays, for wealthy employers with a brand new message to refresh their outward-facing look. At the National Trust, for instance, when that body was prompted, on the anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, into an unprecedented show of LGBTQ sympathies, it must have been the work of a moment to issue staff with rainbow lanyards and badges.

Then again, National Trust volunteers can be less submissive than Georgian servants. At Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, as recently reported, the Trust wanted volunteers to signal the inclusion of Felbrigg’s late owner, the writer Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, in a project called Prejudice and Pride, celebrating gay people associated with its properties. But as Ketton-Cremer, also a JP and high sheriff, had neither, his family says, come out nor moved, not lacking for introductions, in circles where homosexuality was unconcealed, some of his relations – and some Felbrigg volunteers – considered that a liberty. A short film narrated by Stephen Fry, in which someone silently impersonates Ketton-Cremer, was undeniably ambitious in imagining how “Robert”, as it calls him throughout, must have felt about his sexuality: unhelpfully, the squire appears to have left no records.

In The Unfinished Portrait, “Robert”, as he seems not, in reality, to have been addressed, is shown wandering aimlessly around Felbrigg, with the artistic addition, at one point, of flapping birds – pigeons? – escaping from his head.

The brilliantly observant, also gay, diarist James Lees-Milne, who arranged Ketton-Cremer’s donation of Felbrigg to the Trust during the Second World War, appears to have missed these signs on his several meetings with “Wyndham”, who also went by “Bunny” to friends and relations. “We talked about his book, Norfolk Portraits. He is a delightful, cultivated man; a most conscientious landowner.” On another visit: “He is a trifle ill at ease rather than shy, yet punctilious, methodical and determined.”

Possibly anticipating objections that Lees-Milne’s was an accurate picture of Ketton-Cremer, and certainly an image the living squire chose to project, Fry concludes the Trust’s celebration of the revealed Ketton-Cremer with a justification. “To do anything less is to suggest that same-sex love and gender diversity are somehow wrong and lets past prejudice and discrimination go unchallenged.” The Trust, if feudalism and sexism merit similar consideration, could be ticking off the past for years to come.

Fry’s implication that critics of the project are homophobic, as opposed to, say, oversensitive, was, until a local standoff developed into a national story, effectively endorsed by the Trust’s outgoing director general, Dame Helen Ghosh. She told mutinous volunteers to “take a back seat”. Her head of volunteering, Annabel Smith, also warned (before a media-induced reversal) below-stairs reactionaries that their unpaid services were not welcome front of house. “All of our staff and volunteers sign up to our core ambition when they join us – we are an organisation that is for ever, for everyone.”

Continually repeated, the core ambition is one visitors might want to recite if they are ever incautious enough to visit, say, “the elegant Palladian home of the Dashwood family” on a Friday or Saturday, when it is closed to the public. West Wycombe Park is one of many places where the Trust struggles to reconcile an inclusive motto with literally exclusive reality: current Dashwoods, thanks to an ancient deal with Lees-Milne, get the place to themselves between September and April.

One evening in 1947, Lees-Milne mourns the separation of another family from its “ancient heritage”. “A social system has broken down. What will replace it beyond government by the masses, uncultivated, rancorous, savage, philistine, the enemies of all things beautiful? How I detest democracy. More and more I believe in benevolent autocracy.” He was too hard on himself: union officials have protested, without success, about the free housing for favoured donors, including, hilariously, the Rothschilds. And as the choice of subjects for Prejudice and Pride films demonstrate, the Trust is still apt, motto notwithstanding, to find property owners more captivating than their servants.

Is outing people really the remit of the National Trust?

Is outing people really the remit of the National Trust?

That Lees-Milne’s Daily Telegraph-based successors should now take so regularly against their natural allies at the Trust testifies to the success of Ghosh, a former civil servant, in reimagining her organisation as an unofficial national conscience, positioned a little above the BBC, the Anglican church, the children’s commissioner and the chief medical officer. Not content to preserve the landscape, which it has done superbly since 1895, her Trust has steadily extended its zones of edification to take in climate change, parenting, the correction of (certain) historic inequalities, provoking bouts of conservative apoplexy that if not intentional, may not be unwelcome. Rows about liberal elite offences against the flapjack or the holiness of Easter eggs eclipse trickier questions of curation or, indeed, what this vast organisation is now for.

As for its great properties, Ghosh has vouchsafed, in an interview calculated to horrify conservationists, that there might be too much “stuff” in them. Paintings, furniture and that. Her organisation’s “21st-century ambition”, though dead keen on being “relevant and necessary to people and their day-to-day lives”, makes no mention of stuff, whether historic houses, art or the landscape itself.

In some important respects, however, the line from Lees-Milne to Ghosh, whose imminent loss is Balliol’s gain, is unbroken. He thought the public philistine: her Trust judges them, in turn, to be so utterly incapable of independent thought as to be unable go outdoors without a prominent sign, or 20, urging visitors to admire the view (the one it just disfigured), eat a picnic or to count something it might find exotic, like a bee. Admittedly that contradicts Ghosh’s worries about the public capacity to absorb more than one thing at a time. “We can make them work much less hard,” she says.

If there is limited sympathy for the volunteers required either to promote Fry’s dire film or to dob themselves in for homophobia, their peremptory treatment suggests that Lees-Milne’s dream of benevolent autocracy has also been partly fulfilled. As Ghosh exits, it will be for her successor to clarify what she hasn’t: how her vision of inclusiveness – or else – can ever accord with those parts of the Trust designed by Lees-Milne, “to preserve the face of England as it was under private ownership”.


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