A Noble Thing: the National Trust and Its Benefactors, By Merlin Waterson


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What makes someone of great, or little, wealth give it away for public benefit?

Merlin Waterson explores this question with a succession of case studies from the history of the National Trust. It is the story, with some excellent pictures, about the emotional make-up of the donors, with an occasional dip into psychology behind the emotions.

Anxiety that a coherent whole of landscape and buildings will be broken up by bad management and high taxes is usually the starting point. Through the middle of the 20th century there was often no alternative but to hand it to the National Trust or see estates dispersed.

This was the dilemma facing Francis, third Viscount Scarsdale, who in 1984 inherited Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire from his cousin, via a will that left him to pay some big legacies within the family and a large tax bill. The choice was to break up the estate, contents, park and surrounding farmland, or transfer the whole into the hands of the National Trust, keeping a right of occupation for two generations. A package was assembled from public sources which, topped off with a large gift from Lord Scarsdale, put it into the hands of the nation, forever.

He moved into a 23-room wing of the house and life went on as before. But Scarsdale became unhappy with the switch in role from landlord to tenant and with the management of the NT. There was much recrimination as the aftermath to his original act of generosity, inspired by the urge to retain a vast work of art in one piece for the nation, turned sour.

Meanwhile, an elderly couple with no children had agreed to leave their considerable wealth to the Trust. On a visit to Kedleston, they approached the house slowly, in obedience to signs warning of sheep loose in the park, to the frustration of Scarsdale following in his Range Rover. After a confrontation they cancelled the legacy. A gift from one hand was taken away with the other.

Today, the large gifts and legacies that come to the Trust are, usually, cash not kind. Recent acquisitions like Seaton Delaval and Tyntesfield are bought at open-market prices. But the scale of the generosity is still breathtaking, and Waterson's telling of it gripping and revealing.

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