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Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

A matter of Trust

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Last weekend, we decided to take a trip to visit Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire, a property held by the National Trust (NT).

For those unfamiliar with the body, the NT is a charity in England and Wales (there is a separate National Trust for Scotland) which exists to safeguard places and buildings of exceptional historical or architectural merit, or outstanding natural beauty. It started out as a philanthropic exercise to make such places available to everyone, in an arts-and-crafty, vaguely small-s ‘socialist’ way. It has been at the forefront of conservation, often before that word was fashionable; it nowadays has an air of comfortable, middle England respectability, which makes it all the more interesting from time to time when it opposes things politically, such as the current Coalition Government’s proposals to streamline the planning process. (In my experience, when a government wishes to ‘simplify’ or ‘streamline’ a process, inevitably there are all sorts of unforeseen circumstances that creep out of the woodwork years later that everyone wishes hadn’t happened…)

We had decided to visit Hardwick because it had been on television recently with repearts of Lucy Wordsley’s series for the BBC on the history of English domestic interiors; Cathy hadn’t been there before, and I hadn’t been for around twenty or possibly even thirty years. It also featured in one of the recent Harry Potter films; and so, given the unseasonably hot weather, a lot of other people decided to visit Hardwick on the same day as well.

The house has an interesting history; it was built by Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, better known as “Bess of Hardwick”. She was born in Hardwick Old Hall, adjacent to her later house, as daughter to a middlingly prosperous local squire; but by virtue of some very judicious marriages and innate business acumen became extremely wealthy. Her second marriage, to one William Cavendish, established one of the great family lines of the English aristocracy. During that marriage, she carried eight children to term, five of which survived; the surprising thing perhaps is that she also survived, at a time when wealth and position were no guarantee that a woman would survive childbirth once, let alone eight times. She outlived all her husbands, and built the current Hardwick Hall at the age of seventy, a  prodigious age for Elizabethan England. She lived a further ten years. If ever a life story needed to be made into a film, it must be hers, especially as she had connections to Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and to the Stuart succession. She was also responsible for the building of one of the other great Derbyshire houses, Chatsworth, and the family tree since her time keeps cropping up with the names of the Good and the Great.

Of course, in her time, the likes of us wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the property in the way that visitors are now, given that neither Cathy nor I have anything much of nobility in our backgrounds. One of the things that the National Trust has done is make us take it for granted that stately homes and other great houses will be open to the public; indeed, it’s quite noticeable when you travel to other countries that you find equivalent properties are not generally open in the way that we accept as the norm in the UK.

The NT nowadays is as excited by the acquisition of ordinary houses, such as an Edwardian villa in Worksop (Nottinghamshire) or the “Back-to-back” houses in central Birmingham, as they are by the great country estates. But though these vernacular buildings are special survivors, as their ordinariness makes them more liable to redevelopment by a succession of owners, there can be no doubt that it is the great houses of the country that are the more notable properties to the average visitor.

And Hardwick is a very notable house. Strangely enough, although I’d visited the house three or four times as a child and young adult, I had never appreciated fully how extraordinary a building it really is until this visit. Suddenly I realised that the property had massive state function rooms, lit by towering windows at least twenty feet high. The tall window embrasures suggest the building styles of the twentieth century rather than the early seventeenth. This was a building designed to impress; and although I have been in larger properties, I cannot think of one with so many rooms that enclose such huge volumes of space.

Given that I had not visited for so long, I suppose I approached the building with almost new eyes. One thing that was very new to me was the old Hall, adjacent to the newer building. I had always known that building as a ruin, cordoned off for safety reasons. Now, parts of it have been restored, and the whole building is in the care of English Heritage (the arm of Government previously known as the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works); and it is accessible to the public in a way previously unimaginable.

Another thing that has changed a lot is the NT’s attitude to photography at its properties. For a long time, interior photography was not allowed in NT properties, mainly for reasons of security. Restrictions were eased a little in the 1980s and 1990s on a trial basis at a few properties, although flash photography was (quite rightly) not permitted under any circumstances, given the fragility of some of the materials on display. But it has only been with the rise of digital cameras and phone cameras that the NT has bowed to the inevitable and has started permitting indoor non-flash photography at most sites. There are a few where it still isn’t permitted, mainly in situations where the property still contains works of art owned by the family who bequested the property to the Trust in the first place, and therefore where they wish to retain copyright on the artworks. But otherwise photographic restrictions are easing inside properties, and this is a good thing – although one does worry a bit that some visitors end up appreciating the property through the camera lens rather than experiencing it directly.

When I take interior photographs, it tends to either be things that appeal to me that may well not be shown in the guidebooks, specific architectural details, or scenes which I think capture the atmosphere of the place and which I have a direct artistic reaction to. So that means that my photographs of a place like Hardwick consist of a series of disconnected views which appeal to me and reflect my reaction to the property – unlike one visitor who was filling his camera’s memory card with multiple views of almost every step of his visit. That just seems plain wrong to me.

Having said that, the NT’s attitude to what people do with their pictures is still rather restrictive. They say that any photographs taken on their property are subject to their clearance as to non-personal use; commercial use, even if unpaid, is not permitted. I can see their point, sort of; but equally, I feel that their desire to control every type of use is a little too restrictive. If a third party wishes to re-use a photograph with the photographer’s permission, and it is not a commercial transaction, I get the feeling that the NT’s insistence on their clearance is going one step too far. Were there to be issues of public safety on a particular site, under their current rules the NT has the ability to close down public debate on issues that might be illuminated by relevant photographs being widely circulated. I’m not casting aspersions on the NT’s standards here; but I do worry about the thin ends of wedges. It’s a bad habit of mine, but I know a thin end of a wedge when I see one.

It’s not only about third party use. The NT has some excellent photographers working for them; I understand that quite a few of them are freelancers who have got into a selling relationship with the Trust. This is all very well and good; but it used to be that you could submit your work to the Trust and they would decide whether to take you on or not. That has changed in recent years, and now they are saying that they have no need of any further photographers. I think this is short-sighted. By closing their doors to new photographers, they are effectively locking the current view of a handful of photographers and picture commissioners into the NT’s mindset for quite a few years to come. And that will mean that their photographic signature, the images of the Trust that are presented to the outside world, may over time stagnate. If the NT isn’t being exposed to new views of their properties and activities, then they may wake up one morning to find that the rest of the world’s view of them is that once again, they are old-fashioned and pedestrian, and that they look after old piles of stones with no relevance to the outside world.

I have a proposal. I suggest that once every few years, the Trust runs a photographic competition for the best pictures taken by amateurs, professionals and semi-pros of Trust properties or taken on NT land. The prize would be, say, a photographic bursary, or admission to the Trust’s list of preferred freelancers, or some similar such arrangement. That way, the National Trust can refresh its view of itself and the picture it shows to the outside world; new photographers can get their work seen by a highly-influential potential client; and everyone would benefit.

Meanwhile, here are some pictures of Hardwick, just to give you an idea of what so impressed me…

 

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Written by robertday154

October 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm

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