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When the market for stately homes all but vanished in the years after the second world war, desperate measures were required. Boom! “If you need to dynamite a country house, do it early on a Monday morning,” instructed the Marquess of Normanby, though at Mulgrave Castle in Yorkshire he obliterated only the servants’ wing. In 1959, the Birmingham Daily Post ran a profile of John Riley, a 49-year-old Irishman who led a demolition team specialising in ancestral seats. This sounds like a niche business, but Riley, who liked to live on site in a good state room as fireplaces were removed and explosives laid, must have been busy. In 1955, some 48 such buildings were lost, of which the most significant was Bowood House in Wiltshire, whose lovely Robert Adam dining room is now to be found, somewhat incongruously, inside Richard Rogers’s Lloyds building in the City of London.
In Noble Ambitions, Adrian Tinniswood’s preposterously entertaining history of the postwar country house, Bowood and its ilk are mourned, but only quietly; if the author bows his head at their passing, he’s certainly not about to collapse into histrionic sobs. Gazing at what remains of Stratton Park in Hampshire after its demolition in 1960 by John “Basher” Baring of the banking family – a sole Doric portico by George Dance the Younger sits beside the ugly modern house he commissioned to replace it – you can almost hear him laughing, in fact. In truth, he’s more interested in the living than the lost, and with good reason. As he notes, even when the demolitions were at their height, new houses were still going up and existing ones being reinvented, remodelled or sold to new owners – a fact that, thanks in part to the V&A’s famously emotive 1974 exhibition The Destruction of the Country House, has long been obscured in the public mind.
Tinniswood’s book, then, is about those aristocrats who were either rich enough to keep going, unimpeded by rising taxes, or who cleverly adapted to the new order, opening their drawing rooms to the public and populating their parks with lions; and those non-aristocrats who could afford to snap up places now going cheap (George Harrison trumped the other Beatles, the Stones and the Who by buying the biggest pile of them all: Friar Park in Henley-on-Thames, a Victorian Leviathan that came with a ballroom, 25 bedrooms, and gardens that included a network of caves – one, accessible only by boat, was a replica of the Blue Grotto at Capri – and a miniature Matterhorn on which were perched model chamois). Naturally, none of them could possibly survive without help, and in the postwar world, this meant not only domestic staff – tricky, because no one wanted to work as a servant any more – but the myriad interior designers, architects and party planners who also inhabit Noble Ambitions. Thanks to this, reading it is rather like leafing through an old leather-bound Smythson address book whose well-connected owner has helpfully added waspish notes, gossip and the odd family tree. In other words, it’s heaven.
It can be funny, looking on as toffs such as Lord Lichfield and the Marquess of Londonderry try to be groovy
Tinniswood begins, not unpredictably, with the owner of Longleat, Henry Thynne, the Marquess of Bath, who announced to the people of Corsley in Wiltshire at their annual flower show in 1945 that he, their landlord, would be selling off their village (no more homemade Madeira cake for him). A recent Labour budget had raised estate duties to 75%, and thanks to this, his father’s death had left him with a tax bill of about £100m in today’s money. But even this wasn’t quite enough to save him. Two decades later, Thynne, now in partnership with the circus trainer Jimmy Chipperfield, would fill the grounds of Longleat with giraffes and baboons.
The Marquess, though, is one of the book’s quieter and more sane characters. From hereon in, it’s loopiness all the way. Heading north, we visit Inverarary Castle, where the Duke of Argyll, and his third wife, Margaret, are not getting on (in 1963, their divorce case would make the Duchess notorious when her husband presented to the court photographs of her fellating a headless man). Margaret adored Inverarary, a turreted monster of a house on Loch Fyne that James Lees-Milne, the National Trust’s resident bitch, once likened to a hydropathic hotel, and she wanted to cling on to it come hell or high water. Having first forged letters to suggest the Duke’s sons from his first marriage were not his, she hatched a plan to buy a Polish baby to pass off as the real heir; in order to appear pregnant, she wore padding, as well as her famous Asprey pearls.
It can be funny looking on as toffs such as Lord Lichfield, the photographer, and the Marquess of Londonderry, whose wife, Nico, will run off with singer Georgie Fame try to be groovy. At Wynyard Park in County Durham, Londonderry posed for Vogue with a Beatles album prominently on display (his true love was Liszt). Lichfield wasn’t terribly keen on the “hordes” who visited his Staffordshire stately, Shugborough Hall, but when David Bailey boasted of his Leytonstone roots over dinner, he was all ears.
But perhaps it’s even more excruciating watching non-toffs such as Dirk Bogarde and Norah Turner, AKA Lady Docker, whose roots were working class, try for acceptance in this realm. John Fowler, of Colefax & Fowler, the country house decorator of choice, was not fully posh himself, which may be why he was so very finicky, using no fewer than 12 shades of white in one room at the Duke of Northumberland’s Syon House. The 60s were supposed to usher in a new, more socially fluid Britain, yet hunting, among other minority pursuits, was flourishing as never before. In the end, the true subject of Tinniswood’s book is class, and it’s this that makes it so unnervingly and deliciously vivid. Having paid up for our ticket, we see some quite gruesome aspects of ourselves reflected back at us in that mottled mirror at the end of the long gallery – whether we care to admit it, or not.
• Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the Post-War Country House by Adrian Tinniswood is published by Vintage (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply