The National Trust: Self-preservation society?

It is now the biggest conservation group in Europe. But, argues Stephen Bayley, beneath its respectable, tweedy surface lies a divided, directionless organisation that is pouring a fortune into a growing list of ill-considered projects
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Last summer, sitting congruously in a Tuscan ruin, I wrote a heretical article for these pages called "Let it Rot", which attacked Britain's cosy heritage culture. This excited a lively correspondence, especially from The National Trust's Merlin Waterson, who accused me of not knowing enough architectural history. As a student, I had sat in the Bloomsbury Square study of the great Nikolaus Pevsner so I found this very amusing and, like so much of the trust's communications efforts, a sort of demented special pleading. I thought it was protesting too much. I have always found The National Trust a strange organisation. Thanks to a remarkable new documentary, now we can all know it is.

The National Trust, a new five-part series on BBC4, shows an organisation in crisis. Lacking plausible methodology, intellectual consistency and artistic credibility, it holds a distorting mirror (in a hand-carved, gilt, rococo frame) up to our heritage. It is the largest conservation group in Europe and the third-biggest landowner in the country. But, a senior official admits on screen, it does not know exactly what it is meant to be doing. It is a private organisation, one of the biggest members' clubs in the country, at odds with government: relations with English Heritage are, for instance, distinctly cool. (They are engaged in a bitter scrap over Stonehenge.) Yet the trust makes exceptional demands on public funds, redistributed through the munificence of National Lottery managers who have been drubbed by tweedy aesthetes into supporting pet projects and are, perhaps, too philistine or ill-briefed to articulate any refusal: "National Trust? Heritage? Oak leaves? Forever, for everyone. Must be a good thing; give 'em £40m."

I have always thought The National Trust wrong-headed, preposterous, and even occasionally pernicious. But I also used to believe it was staffed by experts. I thought they knew (all too much) about how to organise what are now called "visitor attractions". If you need anything in this country Disneyfied (and I don't think we do), call in the trust. I thought no organisation had better scholars or a surer grip on its subject. I thought they knew extremely well how to run that car-parks-and-toilets culture that despoils the country and turns it into an artificial, managed entertainment.

But no, I was wrong. The TV series shows The National Trust in a hilarious push-me-pull-you quandary. In any case unaccountable to you or me, the trust now makes its business not so much the perpetuation of a highly selective view of history as the promotion of a portfolio of personal scholarly interests. At the same time, all decisions are informed by the corrosive distemper of a vulgarian populism. Just as Birtian television was ruined by the madness of percentage audience share, so the trust justifies its activities not with any intellectually rigid defence or lucid schedule or systematic educational initiatives, but by counting the heads of docile, uncritical visitors. Think about it and it all becomes very strange. Patrick Forbes's programmes allow you to do this. They are brilliantly observed: he stands back and lets the trust explain itself.

Thus, so very reluctant ever to demolish any buildings, The National Trust earnestly sets about demolishing itself in a toxic orgy of uncritical self-regard. Precious scholars preen on screen, the ghosts of stately homos prowl. There seems to be an obligatory National Trust uniform: lovat suits with round-necked jumpers, blue-and-white striped shirts, silk ties, if in the country, a Barbour. The taste for costume among the staff artfully externalises the cosmetic philosophy that makes the trust's activities so dubious to the intellectually curious. Its two most famous current projects lavishly reveal the absurdities and conflicts at the core of this apparently unmanagable and directionless organisation. One is the house where John Lennon lived as a teenager. The other is the Gormenghast pile built near Nailsea by a Victorian fertiliser tycoon.

I grew up in Liverpool, close to Lennon's home and it is fascinating that the singer's hard-bitten image was a calculated device; he grew-up in circumstances of noteworthy gentility. It was the pretty boy McCartney who was raised in a rough council house (now, of course, owned by trust). There can be no argument about the influence of this built environment on Lennon's world view. So when Yoko Ono bought 25 Menlove Avenue and offered it to the trust forever, for everyone, it seemed like a good idea.

Yet not even Beatle John in an acid-crazed delirium of 1966 vintage could have envisaged the surreal performance of the trust when let loose in his old home. Architecturally, the house is no more or less interesting than any other arterial, pebble-dashed semi in any other middle-class suburb. Its special value comes from the vicarious, mystical contact with genius.

The problem for the trust's architectural historians is that, since the house was pretty much denuded of its contents; there is no possibility of vicarious, mystical contact with the genius's telly set, kitchen unit or any other artefact that might afford an insight into the inspiration that gave us such a torrent of brilliant words and music. So, they set about faking it.

The National Trust, in fact quite rightly, prides itself on its access to expertise. It has some of the world's leading architectural historians on its staff and they went out to buy the stuff to recreate Lennon's home. But when scholarly expertise is focussed on junk, in a magical mystery tour of some dingy Liverpudlian dealers, scholarly expertise looks silly. A crap medicine cabinet is admired for its authenticity. The lino is subject to scrutiny worthy of a Donatello relief sculpture. They can find the conical legs of the television set, but not the set itself. "This is what the trust is about, getting the details right," says a scholar holding some brass curtain rail. They source a Hygena kitchen unit. A gardener, more used to the princely vistas of Stourhead, arrives to have a go at the rhododendrons. I do not know that they have recreated the smell of suburban damp and burnt toast I so well recall, but if you are doing the long and winding road of fakery, where do you stop? In the dreamworld of folk memory and fantasy, is the answer. At Belton, in Lincolnshire, the trust encourages visitors to believe in ghosts. In the end, Yoko arrives and questions the correctness of a bedspread, rather as Berenson might descend to authenticate a disputed Fra Angelico.

This makes splendidly entertaining television, but it stretches the credibility of The National Trust as an intellectually respectable organisation. Tim Knox, the trust's head curator, gets in a real strop about this all. He bravely explains on air that as soon as you mention The Beatles, all the trust's normal controls get turned off. He does not actually attribute this to a vulgar lunge at a new form of populism, but it is not very hard to guess what he is thinking. "Now are we going to buy four more houses so Ringo doesn't feel left out?" he moans, eyeballs rolling. Fastidiously faking rock-star shrines is not, Knox says, "what the trust should do". A young member of the trust's old guard - the ones who, like the waspish James Lees-Milne, enjoyed a vicarious contact with titled folk and their grand country houses - Knox believes what the trust should be doing is "more worthwhile things". Fortunately, something he found more worthwhile came on to the market.

Tyntesfield was built by William Gibbs, who made his fortune out of the ossified seabird excrement, guano, that was a favourite fertiliser of Victorian gardeners. It came on to the market when his descendent Richard, Lord Wraxall, died intestate. The first Gibbs was in touch with the muscular Christians of the Oxford Movement and chose as his architect John Norton, a minor figure who knew Pugin. Final plans were submitted in 1863. Tyntesfield is a vigorous Victorian Gothic composition; its dramatic volumes are said by true believers to be an expression of "associationist" theory, the ups and downs of its spaces and projections a metaphor of the tribulations of the Christian journey. Maybe, but, truth be told, it is not a building of outstanding architectural merit. Its value lay, instead, in the extraordinary unity of the house and its vast collection of art and dross. Since this value was measured in many, many millions, Tyntesfield attracted the tinselly blinks of Kylie, Madonna and the tabloids, as well as the steely stare of the trust's Tim Knox.

For the trust, Tyntesfield became an important symbol of its real purposes, the salvage of stately homes. As head curator, Knox adopted an aggressive missionary position over its acquisition. Declaring that it is essential for the progress of civilisation that house and contents remain intact and be put into the care of The National Trust, he makes highly emotional and philosophically incredible claims in the programme about its artistic significance. Never mind that Lord Wraxall had the oddest and most fugitive collecting instincts and that to preserve them at an arbitrary moment in time does little intelligible justice to his memory, curators have instincts of their own and Tyntesfield was a unique, if artistically mediocre, opportunity to exercise them. It was also an opportunity of an entirely different sort to the estate agents Savills and the auctioneers Christie's, who had been put under firm encouragement by 19 of Gibbs's heirs to turn inheritance into pounds.

So here was real drama. Very much under the gun, a public appeal was launched and rather pointedly failed. The Heritage Lottery Fund was compliant and the trust won the battle for acquisition, but has not won the war to explain exactly what it is doing nor, indeed, how exactly it is going to do it. At Tyntesfield, the sums of money involved are astonishing (amounting perhaps to more than £40m), the maintenance and conservation problems overwhelming, the debatable end result not in sight. But the trust's armies fight on; a curator like Tim Knox opposes the natural, vital forces of desire, dismissal and dispersal that make any collection possible. Art is a commodity and should be bought and sold. Instead, he wants a frigid ossuary to support his personal historical interests.

National Trust rhetoric is based on a concept of its properties, once acquired, becoming "inalienable". But this is a concept vulnerable to forces of change, sometimes from within the organisation. At Cliveden, in Buckinghamshire, there are plans to build 191 houses in the grounds. So, there's nothing "inalienable" about Cliveden's grounds, then. And there are other modernising tendencies. At Orford Ness, the trust has acquired the largest vegetated shingle spit in Britain, a site acquired by the War Office in 1913 as an experimental weapons station. Early studies in the mechanics of aerial warfare were conducted there: -Biggles-era buildings remain. Later, they worked on radar. From 1953 to 1971, the site belonged to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and some very sinister Cold-War bunkers remain. It is now bleakly magnificent - rusting iron and stained concrete in merciless North Sea light.

But what is the trust to do? The sand and shingle of Orford Ness are quite literally shifting. Shall we let the wreckage slide into the sea? Shall we preserve the site as it is, or reinvent it as we did at Lennon's house? If we reinvent, where do we begin? Meanwhile, nature, unlike the trust, has no concept of "forever". Orford Ness is impressive, but not because of trust. In spite of it.

Elsewhere in Suffolk, Merlin Waterson is proud of the Sutton Hoo visitor centre. I know: he took me there. The contents of the longship found in 1939 are now one of the British Museum's most popular displays. Only the ghostly burial mounds remain, but the trust has made a rare investment in contemporary architecture - a café (Dark Age-themed food, South American wine), shop and exhibition. The new buildings are splendid, but the contents of the exhibition would bring a Dungeons-and-Dragons plastic-figure sales conference into disrepute. Better, surely, to have left the sepulchres in stately silence. At the unrelated Sutton House in Hackney, the trust has found a new use for a building that once accommodated a Tudor courtier: today, schoolchildren perform politically correct interpretative dances in gruesome period caps and gaiters.

What disturbs about The National Trust is not its concern with fine buildings and natural landscape but its inconsistencies and distortions and its clod-hopping, bureaucratic megalomania in dealing with them. Tyntesfield must be frozen archaeologically, but Lennon can be imagined. Cliveden can be developed, but Orford Ness must remain a desert. Purring over Tyntesfield, Knox expresses his pleasure that he has saved the house from becoming a hotel. I am not so sure: a healthy attitude to buildings allows them to change and adapt. The Uffizi was, after all, originally built as offices.

'National Trust' is on BBC4, Sundays at 8pm and repeated on Thursdays at 8.30pm

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