Wednesday Book: A good deal of taste, all of it bad

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THE RISE OF THE NOUVEAUX RICHES BY J MORDAUNT CROOK, JOHN MURRAY, pounds 25 NOUVEAU RICHE, arriviste, parvenu, millionaire: why were Britain's new rich called French names? It was a reflection, suggests Professor Joe Mordaunt Crook in this well-illustrated social-cum-architectural study, of the French taste prevalent among Victorian and Edwardian plutocrats. They were devotees of the belle epoque style, typified by the gilded, marbled and bronzed opulence of Luton Hoo. Yet the Gallicisms were also, surely, a chic expression of patrician hauteur, a reminder that rough diamonds lacked French polish.

Certainly the Duke of Omnium felt challenged by the advent of Sir Georgius Midas, whether he was sausage-maker, tea merchant, soap manufacturer, cotton-spinner, shipping magnate, opium trader, ironmaster or gold-digger. As Lady Dorothy Nevill wrote, during the half-century or so before 1910: "The old social privileges of birth and breeding had been swept aside by the mob of plebeian wealth which surged into the drawing-rooms of Society."

In fact, the English nobility had never been an exclusive caste and the translation of cash into rank was a perennial process. "Gentility," as Sir Thomas Holles had said in Elizabeth's I's reign, "is nothing but ancient riches." And there were always worries about the power of money to upset the social hierarchy. In Dr Johnson's words, "Silver and gold destroy feudal subordination." But during the late 19th century, as the old territorial aristocracy suffered from the prolonged agricultural depression, new fortunes were made at an unprecedented rate in commerce and industry.

To acquire status matching their wealth, the nouveaux riches invested in land. It might not give a good financial return but, at a time when 710 individuals owned a quarter of England and Wales (a situation paralleled only in Hungary or Bohemia), it paid priceless social dividends. Between 1884 and 1914, 200 new peers were created, half from non-landed backgrounds. A third of them bought big estates to assist in their elevation. By the 1980s, 80 per cent of the country houses being built or rebuilt belonged to self-made men.

On the whole, as Mordaunt Crook's fluent, witty and erudite survey reveals, their architectural and decorative achievements were deplorable. As Beatrice Webb remarked of Joseph Chamberlain's house, "There was a good deal of taste, and all of it bad." Pretension and vulgarity were the keynotes of the parvenu. Unlike blue-bloods, who favoured neo-Gothic, he preferred neo-Classical - the style of the ruling class (and of dictatorships). But he embellished it with "heavy Italianate trimmings".

So his Venetian palazzo or miniature Versailles usually had a touch of Monte Carlo. Similarly, the Scottish Baronial style affected by Glaswegian millionaires was over-turreted, over-castellated and over the top.

Randlords, members of the beerage and so on surrounded their mansions with aviaries and orangeries, palm houses and winter gardens, fountains and follies. They filled them with nests of Faberge bibelots and Bond Street bric-a-brac, herds of Stags at Bay and Monarchs of the Glen, cornucopias of crystal and onyx, masses of marble and malachite and, above all, "oodles of ormolu". One guest described Baron Alfred de Rothschild's Halton House as "an exaggerated nightmare of gorgeousness and senseless and ill-applied magnificence".

Some ostentation took bizarre forms. The Duke of Roxburghe's American wife installed Louis Seize light switches in Floors Castle. Sir Henry Meux built a roller-skating rink at Theobalds Park. At Witley Park, for reasons best known to himself, the fraudster Whitaker Wright constructed an underwater billiards room. In the pearly drawing-room at Port Lympne, Sir Philip Sassoon whitewashed Sert's famous frescos. It was said that Sassoon's Baroque was worse than his bite.

Sneers at the new rich were sometimes prompted by anti-Semitism: Surtees called the Vale of Aylesbury, haunt of the Rothschilds, "Jewdaea". But good old-fashioned snobbery provided much of the animus. Nevertheless, there were undoubted triumphs of plutocratic taste: Waddesdon gardens, the Music Gallery at Witley, the Durbar Hall at Eleveden. At Thomas Baring's Hampshire seat, Norman Court, wrote Henry Adams, "there could not be more luxury with less show". It was, moreover, a calumny to say that "one's ear is offended by the rustle of banknotes".

Yet it was important that visitors should see, if not hear or smell, the lucre. A peacock display of wealth signalled the eagerness of the plutocracy to merge with the aristocracy. Mordaunt Crook shows how the fusion between new and old money produced the modern upper class. Occasionally, he is not quite clear about what constitutes a nouveau riche: the Guinness fortune, for example, was founded in the 18th century. And in avoiding academic prose he slips into demotic: too many dashes, sentences without verbs and a populist use of the historic present.

These are quibbles. Mordaunt Crook combines keen aesthetic appreciation with deep social understanding. Only the French term properly describes his sumptuous book: it's a tour de force.