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"No more than an imposing folly": James Fenton at Mentmore

20 May 1977.

The 7th Earl of Rosebery.
The 7th Earl of Rosebery at the Mentmore auction. Photo: Getty Images.

James Fenton’s portfolio is extensive. As critic, columnist, political reporter and theatre reviewer he has written both variously and extensively. His earliest years were at the New Statesman, where he was a political correspondent.

Fenton made the decision to become a journalist after graduating from Oxford University. It was there that he became friends with Christopher Hitchens, who also joined the New Statesman both as a writer and foreign editor. As political correspondent, Fenton showcased the kind of witty and masterful writing for which he has become known. He is first and foremost a poet.

Even before graduating, Fenton won the Newdigate Prize for best poem by an Oxford undergraduate, and later won an Eric Gregory Award when he published his first full poetry collection, Terminal Moraine, in 1972. Since then, Fenton has gone on to become, as the Observer put it, “the most talented poet of his generation”.

The following article exemplifies the kind of wit and flair with which Fenton writes about every kind of topic. Mentmore Towers is a stately home in Buckinghamshire, named for the village in which it sits. Fenton writes about the controversy surrounding the sale of the house’s contents after the death of the Sixth Earl of Roseberry in 1973. The Labour government refused to accept the contents of the house and after three years of discussion, the executers of the estate decided to sell it all by public auction. Fenton laments their lack of clarity.

Introduction by Sarah Howell.

Final View: Mentmore

I went last week to a charity open day at Mentmore, an occasion I would not have missed for the world. It was like being in at the kill. It had a splendour and a cruelty, a finality that was horribly fascinating. It was true that every attempt had been made to depersonalise the occasion. In the whole house there was practically no item which indicated that the place had recently been inhabited by human beings. There were no personal effects, no paperbacks or Tauchnitzes, no toothbrushes or letters, no pens except a box of swan quills. There was very little bedding. The feather mattresses had for the most part been burned. There was one rubber hot water bottle hanging on its peg.

And the crowd, for the most part, was searching for precisely such evidences. On the ground floor, in the vast hall, we were respectful and impressed. In the bedrooms we felt more at ease. In the servants' quarters, among the junk furniture, we were completely at home. "Well," said one lady, settling into an arm chair, "if I'd been in charge, I can only say that the place would have been a great deal cleaner." This was just the attitude one expected to find behind the green baize door. We felt immeasurably superior to the Roseberies. Another lady said airily: "I do hate to see beautiful furniture left in the sun, so that the veneer is allowed to crack." In her house, we were supposed to understand, such things would never have happened. Cowed in the presence of superior wealth, we fell back on superior discernment, taste or practicality.

There was not much, we told ourselves, that we would actually, personally, have wanted. Quite frankly, these Boulle armoires were not what we went in for. And yet had the collection been presented not as a series of numbered lots, but as a museum, our reactions would have been quite different. What a superb museum it was. There was a political, a historical character to the collection - it constantly evoked images of blood and the tumbrils. Here was the furniture and the frippery of the ancien régime. Here too were reminders of what had happened to the ancien régime. And here finally were reminders of what had happened to those who overthrew the ancien régime. How appropriate that, among all the ormulu and gilt, one should come across the thin-lipped sneer of Voltaire, Zoffany's painting of the crowd ransacking the wine cellars of the Tuileries palace, and a tiny, grey, menacing Fragonard depicting a tribunal. There was a series of revolutionary portraits, some of them purporting to show the leaders at the height of their power and at the moment of their eclipse — "Couthon au tribunal, Couthon sur la charrette", the pride of the orator, the humiliation of the tumbril.

No doubt the owners of Mentmore gained great satisfaction from contemplating such contrasts. But for us there was little satisfaction in observing the disintegration of a collection we could have owned. Mentmore was a museum. What can it possibly become when stripped of its collection? No more than an imposing folly. The philistinism of Peter Shore and the spinelessness of Shirley Williams have combined to throw away what could have been so easily preserved. Such thoughtless destruction makes one shudder. To save Mentmore was a mere matter of good book-keeping. To replace it will be impossible. Why does the Government think that by adding vandalism to its other vices it will repair its popularity? Are they hoping to appeal to the punk element in the electorate?