Features December 2020
An interview with Clive Aslet & Dylan Thomas
A conversation with the founders of Triglyph Books on British country homes.
Editors’ note: This past October, Benjamin Riley, the Managing Editor of The New Criterion, spoke by telephone with the architectural historian Clive Aslet and the photographer Dylan Thomas from their homes in England. The two founded Triglyph Books, a new publishing house focusing on architecture. Old Homes, New Life, which was published in July, profiles twelve country houses in Britain, ten of which have not been sold for over five hundred years.1
The New Criterion: How aware of the architectural significance of these homes are the current residents?
Dylan Thomas: I would just talk about an individual house. Take Helmingham Hall; [the Tollemaches] have this wonderful asset that they’ve become the keyholders of, but they’re aware that they want to modernize, they want to change a kitchen. How do you do that without offending or changing the exterior? As a functional thing, they’re aware of the difficulties, because of the listed element.
Clive Aslet: I think Dylan has nailed it by saying that all these buildings are protected, and that is one reason why [the owners] have to be much more aware, in the same way that because of the rise in the value of works of art, they know much more than would have been the case, say, in the Edwardian period, when they might have used family portraits as a dartboard or something. That doesn’t happen anymore because everybody knows [the paintings are] worth lots of money. But I think that there are different levels of response to the architecture. At Helmingham, they’re actually very aware of the fact that the previous generation did a lot to it and are incredibly sensitive to this sense of transition, which is an important theme. So they’re very conscious, not just of the importance of the house, but they’re aware of what Ed [Tollemache]’s parents did to it. Somebody like Martin Fiennes at Broughton Castle just adores every aspect of the house. Everything about it. He’s so intellectually curious. He works in Oxford. His family basically lives in Oxford. But for Martin, [Broughton] was where he grew up. And he is just so interested in the armor, which was all assembled, some of it faked, in the 1860s.
tnc: Fiennes said something astounding, that owning the house, you could find “fifty different things that could become areas of interest or hobbies.”
ca: That’s exactly right. And he really means it. And so going around with him is just wonderful because he’s a volcano of enthusiasm. That’s not the case with everybody. Some of them are just more aware than others.
tnc: Something I noticed about Helmingham was that it has very chic interiors by a twentieth-century decorator.
ca: They’re largely from the Seventies and Eighties. David Mlinaric, the decorator, did them. And he was a great friend of Lord Tollemache. So there’s a very high level of taste in that house.
tnc: But it’s interesting to see because some of the houses are very “period room,” focused on recreating authentic furnishings. And then you have something like Helmingham where it’s a contemporary take on the country house look.
ca: I think that’s true. But of course, it was done a generation ago. Thinking of recent interviews I’ve conducted with [the decorating firm] Colefax and Fowler, one of the things they said was that these interiors which were done by John Fowler, sometimes as long ago as the Fifties, really keep their quality. They need to be refreshed a little bit, but it shows that if you get a really good decorator it can last; at least it can last if you’re in England. I don’t think that’s really the case in America, where fashion changes more quickly.
tnc: We have a much more transactional view of these things.
ca: Well, we [in Britain] have a much meaner [stingier] view.
tnc: That’s right. Since probably the 1880s in America, there’s been so much more money kicking around than in England. Houses are discarded, new ones are built, new furniture is bought with every successive generation, which seems to be something that most British people, regardless of the size of their homes, generally can’t afford. And there’s no culture of doing so.
ca: That’s true. Of course, the people that we were writing about, they’re part of families who have lived in these houses, most of them over five hundred years. It wasn’t intentional, but when we made the selection, we realized that the absolute newcomer had been there for three hundred years. There’s a lot of longevity. These are all people who’ve been living in these houses for a long time. So they don’t have that kind of megabucks.
tnc: There’s a fundamental difference between the people who build new classical country houses and the people who live in crumbling old ones.
ca: That’s right. I keep thinking of our last few days with Colefax and Fowler. For them an aspect of comfort is that you don’t think this thing has been done yesterday, even though it has. Part of the art for them is to make it look as though it’s always been there. I think that’s quite a common way of people seeing things [in Britain], which wouldn’t be the case in other countries so much.
tnc: The fact that in Europe, the descendants have to split things equally [owing to remnants of the Napoleonic Code] means that houses get out of the family very quickly, which is not true in England.
ca: Of course, one of the themes is the subject of transition and quite a number of the families who are now in the houses have taken them on from parents, because there’s not much point to these houses if there’s only two people living in them, with grandchildren coming every so often. Besides, it must be terribly hard work, so there’s this discussion that has to be had in the family as to who’s going to take it on. And of course, it was really rather easier in the old days when there was primogeniture, because there was a rule. But it’s obvious now there isn’t a rule. And so those discussions get rather more complicated.
tnc: Dylan, what kind of challenge is it to get shots of places that are so big, and how do you think about a mix of showing the whole house versus certain parts? What’s the goal, and how do you approach it?
dt: That’s really the biggest challenge. You have to think how traditionally a picture editor or a magazine editor would want to be able to tell a story. So you can’t just focus on the big hero shots. You’ve got to look at some of the more interesting nooks and crannies, and those nooks and crannies tell a story that has a little bit more soul and history to it than the big hero shots. So what was very good about this project was that [Clive and I] visited together at all the properties. We met with the families; we got the atmosphere, got the green light to say, “Okay, you can go in and impose respectfully your presence and document.” And that gave confidence to them and to us, so I could go and photograph pretty much everywhere and anywhere. And that really gave the stories the honesty.
tnc: It seems to me that there’s a tension, but a good tension, between the lifestyle shots and the architecture shots. And they need to work together towards one goal.
dt: That was great because I went around these homes and appreciated that people have pictures on the grand pianos that are their historical records of their ancestors’ times. And one of the pictures I wanted us to get [in the book] was one that would be comfortable to sit on that piano. And I hope that ended up on that piano. At the same time, I didn’t want the pictures to feel like they were all contrived portraits. I wanted to show a little bit of a documentary life.
tnc: There are a lot of children and dogs around, which can’t be all that easy to corral.
dt: Unfortunately, animals and children aren’t the easiest. But there was a pot of Maltesers [chocolates] in one of the shots that gradually just went down in height—as these children became more and more hyperactive—and Maltesers helped them to do what “instructor” told them to do. And they’re very happy. It was fun. It was really enjoyable. Everybody was on board. There was never one moment of “No, we don’t want to do that.” Or “That’s a bit odd.” They were very prepared to go. And at the end of the day, they could refuse the images, and that gave them confidence.
tnc: One of the things that the book talks about is how, in one way or another, each of these properties is open to the public. But there aren’t really shots of the public. Was that by design, you wanting to capture the houses as homes?
ca: It’s meant to be a beautiful book, Ben!
dt: I worked without an assistant. So that meant walking around these huge places. There were a lot of footsteps, but also I removed endless pinecones that were on seats that were supposed to stop the visitor from sitting, or barriers preventing them from going into rooms. I pulled every trick out to make these homes feel like homes, because they told me, “We live in these homes; we entertain when we can.” I think we’ve got to appreciate that that’s how they want these homes to be seen as well. They don’t want them to be seen as museums, and they’re not.
ca: We were writing about them as they were lived in, and of course it’s true that some of them have a lot of public visitors. Inveraray is one which has a lot of people going around. But mostly they don’t have such a very large number [of public visitors], so the focus was on the living in the house. And so the public was there and we didn’t show them. I think the book would have become rather unfocused if we’d had another element like that.
dt: I think for future books, on that theme, you could push it into how these families do involve themselves in the communities, because, whether they are hosting the local fêtes or opening a new building, they’re very much a part of—are in fact big pillars of—the community. And I think that would have been a lovely side. So for example, at Broughton, one evening they opened and I was there. They had an orchestra and it was a fantastic evening, and I did photograph it, but because I only photographed one house that was being used as an event space, it just didn’t seem right to put that in and not include all the other things that they do to make money and keep the lights on.
tnc: One of the other compelling aspects of the book is that relationship with the community that you talk about. Obviously Inveraray gets a huge number of visitors; it’s a big tourist attraction in Western Scotland. But then you have smaller-scale things that sound a lot more traditional, like having the local children in for tea at Christmas. And the fact that Doddington Hall has as many employees now on the estate as they did at its agricultural height, that’s fascinating. Because all you hear about is how these places are really not providing the care for their communities that they had in the past, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case at all.
ca: No, I don’t think so. I think that actually it’s something which all houses are very aware of. Of course, it’s really hard work to run these places. I wouldn’t want to live in one myself. They have to give everything, all their time to this house, which is their family responsibility. And they’re all very anxious to not be the generation which drops the ball. That was something several people said, that this has been in our family for five hundred years, I don’t want to be the one who mucks it up. But they have a lot of responsibility. Part of the responsibility is that they feel that they must support their community. These days everybody’s very aware when they’ve got many more assets than everyone else and a more glamorous lifestyle. They know this has never been something that everybody has, and so they feel a very strong desire to support the community in different ways. In the case of Hutton-in-the-Forest, for example, there are very few cultural landmarks anywhere nearby. So if you were to remove Hutton-in-the-Forest from the equation, or even if it were bought by a new owner and they didn’t let anyone go there, the area would be bereft of any kind of visual culture. So they are doing that almost without thinking, but also they’re usually supporting events, which need space and which need a focus. It’s the natural place to go for many of these events, to go to the big house.
tnc: The National Trust [the British charity tasked with preserving the country’s historic heritage] has been in the news lately, for its goal of “repurposing” its properties. You get the sense from reading this book that these owners are thrilled not to be in the care of the National Trust. You had an explicit example at Burton Agnes, where the National Trust man comes around and says something nasty, and, well, that’s the end of that. The National Trust is the big player in the historic house field in Britain; how do these houses fit into that larger ecosystem of historic houses?
ca: [The houses in this book] are so much more interesting. The National Trust is terribly sad because when I started work, the National Trust was an absolute world leader, and there was a tremendous amount of respect and a huge amount of scholarship associated with the National Trust. And so these places were very highly respected. And there was a need. Everybody recognized that; in fact it was really the Labour government after the Second World War which said, “These places are significant and important and we have to think of a way of preserving them.” And there was a political recognition that, actually, keeping private owners in these houses was a cost-effective way of doing it, but the National Trust was another way of doing it, and a tremendous number of houses went to the National Trust. But unfortunately that moment has passed. I wish this weren’t so, because for a long time I almost refused to believe that [the rot] had gone so completely through the organization, but they’re having the most enormous identity crisis. And they’re really very uncomfortable about these houses, and they’re very “woke.” They want to tell the story of slavery. That’s only a tiny part of what these houses were about, but that’s the lens they see it through.
tnc: Dylan, when you’re going around these houses without an assistant, which is remarkable to think in a place like Hopetoun House, how long does it take you to get all the shots you need?
dt: I was very fortunate. I was allowed time, and that was two to three days. So it wasn’t rushed, and every movement was respected. So I waited for rooms to be empty of visitors. I waited for the subjects to be ready. I waited for the lights. So I really cherry-picked the times. And also I shot more than was used. I didn’t want a book of twelve state ballrooms. So I had to think: okay, have I got a good one? Have I got a better one? I’m not sure. Let’s see, let’s also do that. So I know that I could quite easily put another whole book together on the same houses and not show one picture again. And I don’t think it would be much weaker.
tnc: If this sells well, I’ll look forward to the inevitable sequel.
dt: I’ve done the work, but it is also an archive, a very important archive. And I felt this wasn’t a commercial project. It was a fun, “let’s do something good” project. Let’s do it for a subject that is actually maybe a little less fashionable, but also needing a little bit more support. And [the owners] really made it possible and respected it. I don’t think they ever acknowledged it, but I think they respected our understanding of it. We could quite easily do a book entitled Old Homes, New Art, which would be a spin-off looking at something that had a lot of wealth behind it. And it would be very marketable in a contemporary sense.
tnc: And when you talk about it being an archive, it brings to mind the Country Life picture archive, which is invaluable to architectural historians. Do you see these shots that didn’t make it in the book being made public at any point, for the benefit of researchers?
dt: I definitely don’t feel that they need to be hid away. At the same time, I think that each house has enough visual reference in the book for someone to actually feel “I understand it.” Anyone doing a paper would probably ask to get in touch if they wanted to find out more. And I think that’s part and parcel of the return.
ca: In fifty or a hundred years’ time, it’s going to be a portrait of this moment.
dt: I think we set about with the understanding that it will be a historical book. We’ve just done another print run, and I imagine in the next two years, there will be 10,000-plus copies of this book. And, it should be [that way], because I love our angle. Interior books have always been about interiors and less about the people that are creative. I’ve always felt that’s understood and explained in text, but how do kids actually live with their football shirts in these houses? And how do girls play on that grand piano? And that’s it: “Go on, show us—show us your sock drawer.” And this book does show it a little bit.
tnc: One of the other intriguing things in the background of the book, not made terribly explicit, is the difference between the way these houses are thought of in England and the way they’re thought of in Scotland.
ca: Well, it’s so sensitive. Not from my point of view, but for the owners it’s a very tricky subject to address. Of course there’s a lot of anxiety, you can be absolutely certain. I suppose there’s a particular issue for Scottish landowners, with crofters [small tenant farmers] for example. They have a right to buy the houses they live in, and for an estate that’s very difficult because all these places have to work. You don’t want a little bit of the estate right in the middle that has a private landowner on it. And so they’d rather use those cottages as holiday lets than rent them out to people who would then get the right to buy them. So that’s the sort of issue. But in general, there is quite a lot of anxiety because opinion polls at the moment show that a majority of people in Scotland would vote for independence. Given that the tax base is so small in Scotland, that wouldn’t be very propitious for owners of large country houses. And also there’s a whole mythology in Scotland, like in Ireland. There’s a myth of the landlord as somebody who isn’t resident and who treats Scottish people terribly badly. But of course that doesn’t really hold water in a historical sense, but nevertheless, it’s very, very strong in people’s minds.
dt: I think just from the experience of those two homes [in Scotland] that I photographed, we know that they are very connected with the people on land and they are as active, if not more active, with the community [than owners in England]. I think they appreciated things maybe a little bit more.
ca: Take Inveraray, in particular—Hopetoun is right outside Edinburgh, so it’s not quite so much the case—but Inveraray is way off to the west.
dt: And there’s nothing there.
ca: If Inveraray didn’t exist, what would happen? It is such a big employer and income-generator for the locality. If the Argylls packed up and went to live in the South of France, there’d be nothing for anyone to do.
dt: And Torquhil [the Duke of Argyll] went to the local village school, and he went throughout his education in the local area, which I just think is incredible.
dt: But he’s very passionate, very loyal, a member of a family supportive of tradition.
tnc: Well, that was something that struck me, how at Grimsthorpe there’s not much commercial shooting, but they employ a gamekeeper and, obviously, it’s better for the environment in general, but it also creates a job.
ca: I don’t think any of them do it for charity. They wouldn’t create the job if they weren’t getting something back from it. Really in all these places everything’s got to work. Grimsthorpe has some money in the background; the mother of Lady Willoughby, who owns it, was an Astor. But no fortune lasts forever. So they all have to make these places work.
tnc: At Inveraray, Torquhil Argyll talks about how every aspect of the estate has to “sweat.”
ca: I think that’s really how they all think about it. Firle Place is a good one; they have a very benign view with rents. They own a lot of property and they let it out slightly below market rate. They are very keen to have people who are local, so I suppose that’s a good example of community, but, when we were there the place was being taken apart to be filmed for a screen version of Emma. And they have the television program Bake Off in the riding house.
dt: But going back to those rents, how they are really low in Firle, it’s kept [houses on the estate affordable for] local Sussex people that I think would have been priced out of that area. And you’ve got the most incredible pubs. You’ve got an incredible village school in Firle and there’s a church and there’s a very charismatic priest that really is a bit of a celebrity in himself.
ca: It’s absolutely magical, dream-like really. But they’ve got this enormous estate, eight thousand acres, and it’s in this very prime part of the British Isles. I thought that, given that everybody’s trying to make money, they would have considered building a new village or something. And [Lord Gage] said, “Oh yeah, we’ve got some property plans we’re thinking of. And I may be seeing if we could build a dozen houses.” It was tiny in relation to what they could do. That’s because they just like it as it is. They didn’t really want it to be different, and they own it. So it’s their choice.
tnc: So what’s next for Trigylph Books?
ca: I really thought of this book as being something that was going to be a showcase for what we could do. And we were expecting to do lots of books [as publishers] for other people, but actually I think I can speak for both of us to say that we really enjoyed it. So we’re quite keen to do something which is in the same territory. We’re working on a book on the Ashdown Forest. Because of covid, everybody has been thinking very much about their homes and their own area, and this is Dylan’s area. So anyway, we have projects for ourselves, and we will do other projects around great estates or country houses. And we have some very good projects which are underway. We produced a book for Oliver Cope, an architect in New York, and one for John Simpson about the architecture school that he built at Notre Dame, in Indiana.
tnc: So two American projects for two Englishmen.
ca: Well, it was lovely talking to these decorators earlier this week and they said, “We have to be grateful for the American ladies that came over and turned these old cold houses into homes with bathrooms and soft furnishings.”
1 Old Homes, New Life: The Resurgence of the British Country House, by Clive Aslet, with photographs by Dylan Thomas; Triglyph Books, 304 pages, $65.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 4, on page 40
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