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From the NS archive: The meaning of Mentmore

8 April 1977: Hospitals, homes for the aged, schools, libraries: all were graciously conferred by charity in an epoch that has passed away.

By New Statesman

National parks, museums and art galleries are hugely important to the British public, as are stately homes, the maintenance of which in particular is expensive, assured by a mix of subsidies, National Trust grants, loans and tax concessions. This unsigned 1977 editorial argues that “if it were not for the intervention of the state acting on the part of the community, all or most of them would have crumbled into ruins”. Mentmore, the 19th-century Buckinghamshire country home of the Rothschild family, was the latest at risk of demolition, and help was needed from the Labour Party to ensure that not only the building but the “astonishing” collection of paintings and furniture it contained were protected. “All that is valuable in human terms has been transferred by degrees from the sphere of private patronage to that of national responsibility,” the author wrote.

Easter, the climactic moment in the established religion of these islands, is in a secular age the most ample of holiday weekends. Thousands of people will spend it in national parks such as the Lake District, the Peak and Dartmoor. They owe their easy access to deliberate social planning which has triumphed over the restrictive privileges of private landowners. Thousands will be in the cities, crowding into museums and art galleries. Without an assumption of public responsibility, these institutions would not exist. Thousands, again, will be visiting the stately homes – Woburn Abbey, Longleat, Chatsworth and the rest.

When due allowance is made for the drawing power of fun-fairs, miniature railways and safari parks, it remains true that the interest and beauty of these monumental artefacts is an immense attraction. They are not a minority taste; the gate money, in the course of a year, exceeds the total chalked up by football matches. The maintenance of the stately homes is assured by a complex mixture of subsidies, grants to the National Trust, loans and tax concessions; what is certain is that, if it were not for the protective intervention of the state acting on the part of the community, all or most of them would have crumbled into ruins.

But, in unsystematic British style, there has never been any guarantee that the work of conservation would be consistently kept up. In recent years, losses have been disturbingly frequent. It must be stressed that the word “loss” has to be used in a literal sense; what is gone is gone, irreparably, and can never be regained.

In 1972, the New Statesman protested in vain against the demolition of Grange Park. In 1975 the owner of Brough Hall was permitted to destroy all but a remnant of that remarkable building. In 1976 Stonor Park was thrown on to the market. In 1977 we have had the scandalous cliff-hanger over the fate of Mentmore. Here what was placed in peril was not simply a building but an astonishing collection of paintings, furniture and objets d’art which – by a process not entirely explicable in logical terms – had been welded into a harmonious whole.

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It is universally agreed that the terms on which state responsibility for Mentmore can be secured are a bargain. Nothing was needed except an act of decision on the part of the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Peter Shore. The months went by, then the weeks, then the final agonising days; Mr Shore took no action until the eleventh hour, as though the saving of Mentmore were an act of clemency instead of a duty.

To idealise the past owners of Mentmore is no part of our argument. Baron Mayer de Rothschild, who had the house built and assembled the collection, was an acquisitive banker who recognised no social obligations. Lord Rosebery, who became the proprietor at the close of the 19th century, was a grandee in what had already become an anachronistic style, and incidentally a bad Prime Minister.

None of these people – down to the present Dowager Countess with her half-ludicrous and half-offensive remarks to the press – ever saw themselves as trustees for society. For them, works of art were objects of private enjoyment. The history of capitalism, as it has shed the lingering traditions of feudalism, shows a transmutation from ostentatious display to calculating commercialism. The maxim is: when it is no longer advantageous to keep, then sell. Buyers, no doubt, are available. The unity of Mentmore is intangible, not to be priced at Sotheby’s. A Renaissance masterpiece may go to an American gallery; the Rubens fireplace may adorn a home in Bishop’s Avenue; the Louis XV table may wind up in Qatar or Dubai.

All that is valuable in human terms – all that constitutes, in a phrase once popular in Labour Party oratory, “the quality of life” – has been transferred by degrees from the sphere of private patronage to that of national responsibility. Hospitals, homes for the aged, schools, libraries: all were graciously conferred by charity in an epoch that has passed away. In the cultural sphere, as much could be said for orchestras, opera houses, theatres. In our time it should be the pride of a Labour government to assert the public interest over the cheeseparing of reactionary Philistines.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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