Gardens to Gables

Country Houses (of the Bluegrass and Beyond)


I grew up in a country house. To be more accurate, I grew up in a house in the country, as my family doesn’t have an urban townhouse to which we decamp for most of the year. Instead, I spent the first 18 years of life on a farm in the Outer Bluegrass of Kentucky, surrounded not only by tree-lined creeks and rolling hills, but also by the stories attached to a beloved landscape.

The house itself, built by my parents in 1970, is a re-imagining of the 1830s home in Mercer County, Kentucky, which my mother called home. Serene on a hill with clusters of trees, its red brick exterior and traditional form causes it to be mistaken as a historic house many, many times, underscoring its membership in a timeless vocabulary of architecture and landscape. 

 

Great Uncle Harvey
As I went through graduate school, the “historicization” of modern buildings was consistently lambasted as a negative, but I always viewed my childhood home as an organic part of the our family farm, as much a part of the landscape as the black tobacco barns and the catalpa trees that my great-uncle Harvey planted in the 19-teens (in a get-rich quick scheme to corner the market on fence posts and railroad ties. It didn’t work out as he planned). 
Some of Uncle Harvey’s catalpa trees
My mother taught history and my father farmed the land that had been in his family since the 1820s. Family trips centered on historic sites and house museums, where I invariably got in trouble for sneaking up the closed-off staircase to the attics or basements, or opening shut doors when the docent turned around. I knew even then that the best stories were usually hidden away, sometimes literally in a closet. 
I soaked up my parent’s appreciation of history, and from an early age I vaguely understood that I was part of a cycle. My story was only the latest layer. Farming drilled this point home, as life and death could not be avoided. Becoming fond of a calf I raised on a bottle led to trauma and tears when he was sold along with the other steers…but I remained an equal-opportunity eater. 
Stories informed me and comforted me. In school, I naturally gravitated toward both literature and history. Kentucky’s story was my family’s tale as well – from the late-18th century when brothers came to the Bluegrass on a military expedition, and then moved the entire extended family from Virginia to Fayette County. I could point to chairs in the front hall of my house that came through the Cumberland Gap during this journey. Material culture asserted itself at an early age…

 

My great-grandparents.
Westward migration repeated itself on a local level in the 1820s when the younger sons moved eastward in search of cheaper land, and began to purchase the land we farm now.  These men built houses as shelter and as symbols of their place in the agrarian economy, providing fertile ground for me 150 years later, as I wrote my master’s thesis about their architectural and agricultural choices. Their stories intertwine with the landscape of my childhood, always tugging, always remembering. And yet these roots, for the most part, I’ve found liberating rather than constrictive.
The lure of the true English country house then, echoes for me, rather than being something new and unknown. All evidence points to my ancestors leaving England one step ahead of the law, so I doubt the existence of a “genetic memory” that provides me with the connection I feel with the rural countryside of England. Rather, it is the interconnectedness of house, land, and outlying rural communities – combined with a landscape that sparks sudden and tight pangs of longing for the one I’ve known since birth – that pulls and propels me toward the country house. 
 

Petworth House in West Sussex, England
 
And it is also, perhaps, the feeling of obligation – of belonging to something weightier and more important – and occasionally draining and overpowering – than your own daily concerns. Responsibility and stewardship perhaps not sought, and grudgingly accepted. The English country house, of course, carries the weight of these emotions much more so than my own “country” background.  But the basic connections remain intact – and the use of house as a statement of power and prestige is one well-known in antebellum Kentucky, and even in the 21st century power plays of the thoroughbred horse farm world.
Delighted, then, doesn’t even begin to express my feelings upon learning that I had been accepted to the 2104 Attingham Summer School. Ear-splitting, shrieking and a spontaneous jig better illustrate my reaction this spring (thankfully, my co-workers are quite familiar with the impressive range of my voice, both in octaves and decibels). 
Founded in 1952, with the initial goal of introducing American curators to the “fabric and contents of the British Country House,” the Summer School has “enjoyed outstanding success and is highly regarded by museums, universities and historic preservation societies throughout the world for its careful selection of members, and sustained academic standards.” (It’s much better for me to quote from the website than to subject readers to multiple exclamation points along with a stream of sentences most profound, such as “the best 18 days ever.” “Brilliant.” “So awesome.” “I loved it!!!!!!!!!!! Whoops. Those just crept in somehow.)
Sheep grazing at Chatsworth in Derbyshire
Helen Lowenthal, of the Education Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Sir George Trevelyan, a pioneer of adult education and Warden of Attingham Park combined forces to create the summer school. The summer school’s moniker stemmed from Trevelyan’s place of employment, the 18th-century country house in Shropshire, England, which was an adult education center from 1948-1971. 
Eighteen days in England, with behind the scenes access to around 30 houses, with the following purposes (again, I borrow from the Attingham website to best describe this):

To EXAMINE the architectural and social history of the historic house in Britain and its gardens and landscape setting.
To STUDY the contents of these buildings – their paintings, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, silver, textiles and other applied arts – as well as the planning, decorative treatment and use of the interiors.
To STIMULATE debate on problems relating to the conservation and presentation of the country house and its contents.

Did I mention that it was absolutely wonderful? And that 48 scholars (24 Americans and 24 Europeans), traveling together on an un-airconditioned coach (bus) became friends and conspirators as we flew lightning fast from house to lecture to meals, all according to a highly planned and timed schedule, and feasted our eyes on art collections that museums covet, architecture with inspiring rhythms and use of materials, and landscapes that would cause any self-respecting southern belle to fall into a fit of vapors over the joy of it all? I saw and learned so much – and the reflection that will cause these lessons to become a permanent part of my mental fabrications (I hope) will stem from writing about the marvels of the country house in England in July 2014. Stay tuned. And stay tuned as well as my blog gets reworked. Who knows what will happen? A new name (unless you scroll to the very first post, it makes no sense and is offensive), new design…and most importantly, new stories.
 
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