What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the 1920s

Warning: Might contain some mild spoilers especially for those who have not seen series 5 (and 4) yet


Just as the 1960s are glamorised as the so-called “Swinging Sixties”, the 1920s has mostly been distorted through the lens of the so-called “Roaring Twenties” with its clichéd images of flappers, jazz, cocktails and the Bright Young Things. Those clichés are true to a certain extent but they were experienced by less than 1% of the entire population of the UK then and were mostly confined to Central London. For the majority, life more or less went on as it did before the war and any changes came slowly.

The reality of life during the 1920s was much more complex and interesting than the images of the flappers, fashion and parties suggest. This was the era when Hollywood became popular, consumer society expanded due to greater disposable income, women were taking their baby steps towards gender equality and full suffrage, and the Labour movement had taken the first step towards being a fully-fledged member of the Political Establishment; as well as advances in science and technology especially in the field of transportation and communication.

Of course, life wasn’t all good. Absolute poverty and disease was still rife, racism was very much endemic, there were threats to political stability and life choices were still more or less determined by birth, gender and class. However compared to even thirty years before, people had every reason to be optimistic during the 1920s; after all, the Great War had ended and a bright future was being promised not just by the state but also by demagogues and marketing men.

Some of our knowledge of life in the 1920s is gleaned through fiction and period drama with Downton Abbey being the latest to attempt to show the viewer what life like during the third decade of the 20th century. However, Julian Fellowes, instead of attempting to be original with his narrative has instead fallen back on the default clichés of the 1920s which are glaringly at odds with the reality for a great many people during this period. Chief among his major omissions are  –


How Downton Abbey portrayed this:

In Series 3, it was revealed that Lord Grantham unwisely invested the bulk of his wife’s dowry in a railway business that collapsed after the war. The family were then faced with the prospect of having to sell the Abbey and retrench. While some members of the family were resigned to the inevitable, Lady Mary wasn’t about to give up. First, she connived with her paternal grandmother to ask her maternal grandmother for help then when that failed, she nagged her fiancé Matthew to accept the money left to him by the father of his deceased fiancée. Matthew hesitated until he decided to finally do so, reaching an agreement with Lord Grantham and as a result his inheritance saved Downton again. He then embarked on a programme of economising and modernisation which was cut short due to his untimely death.

Come Series 4 and 5, all talk of economising seemingly has gone out of the window as the Crawleys are seen endlessly entertaining guests, hiring Dame Nellie Melba to perform (a move which has been criticised by music historians and opera experts), having a jazz band come for Lord Grantham’s birthday and hosting a lavish season for Lady Rose. Viewers are also surprised that the Crawleys have a Gutenberg bible, a Piero della Francesca painting and a London property (Grantham House).

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The reality:

If the decline of the aristocracy began in the 1870s then the war and the 1920s speeded up the process further as increases in the rate of income tax and death duties further hammered the traditional landed aristocracy; this resulted into sales of works of art, jewels, silver and antiques. The auction of whole collections of art particularly Old Master paintings became front page news and as a matter of patriotic pride appeals were raised in order to save important works of art for the nation.

Meanwhile, acres of land were sold off for development into housing, factories and parks. London properties and stately homes were sold then demolished or converted to other use (such as schools, hospitals, offices, convents and monasteries), while others were handed to the National Trust or to the nation as places of historical interest to be opened to the public (Kenwood House being one example). Many people viewed the selling and demolition of Devonshire House (owned by one of the richest men in the UK at that time) in 1920 as symbolic of aristocratic impotence, not just on the political but also on the social and economic front as well.

This also meant that the aristocracy could no longer afford to live the same lifestyle they did before the war. House parties became shorter (and simpler affairs) or many abandoned them altogether due to several factors such as the loss of appetite for entertaining, less servants and most importantly, the expense both on the part of host and guest. Many accounts from this period survive about people dreading being invited to house parties given the lack of money (which was necessary for tips to be given to servants) and the expense of the clothes required for the still endless round of changes for the appropriate time of day and activity.

Hunting and shooting also were affected. Many aristocrats could no longer afford to become members or master of hunting packs owing to the expense involved while the carnage witnessed during the Great War meant that there was less inclination and interest in the wholesale slaughter of animals. The days when aristocratic men could bring down a large number of game birds in one afternoon were long gone.

In light of this, the Crawleys would hardly have been immune to the financial pressures of the 1920s especially as there are more than enough clues that they were solely reliant on agricultural land as their source of wealth and income. The Gutenberg bible, the Piero della Francesca painting and Grantham House would have been sold back in Series 3 (and technically the first two should have been sold the first time the Crawleys went bust in the 1880s as none of the surviving Gutenbergs and Piero della Francescas were in private hands by the turn of the last century) as well as acres of land and trinkets such as jewels, silver, other paintings. Given too the amount of money Lord Grantham lost in that ill-advised investment, any member of the family who bailed him out would have to have been in the same league as the Duke of Westminster and the Earl of Iveagh (the richest and second richest man in the UK respectively at that time) in terms of wealth.

What has been disconcerting is that the Crawleys’ attempts at tackling their financial issues are at best half-hearted, and miraculously they are rescued, either by a fortunate bequest or the sale of a valuable painting, so they do not have to retrench and sell in the ways that even the wealthiest peers had to do. Once Matthew is dead, all talks of economising are shelved then forgotten and come series 4 and 5 the family behave as if they’re billionaires awash with cash.

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How Downton Abbey portrayed this:

Issues of logistics have always meant that the programme never has the full contingent of servants needed in a large house. Conspicuously missing are members of the kitchen staff required to do the baking and making of preserves and condiments, those whose main roles were to see to the candles and gas lamps and the outdoor staff (after watching the first series on DVD my father emailed to ask me why there was no gardener).

The death of William Mason and departures of Ethel Parks, then later Jane Moorsum in series 2 as well as the promotions of Daisy Mason, Thomas Barrow and Anna Bates in series 3 meant that certain positions were left vacant. This gave the opportunity to introduce three new servants as well as two who have made brief appearances in series 4 and 5, while a new lady’s maid (who has a mysterious past) for Lady Grantham was introduced halfway in series 4. A temporary footman was introduced in the last episode of series 5 and made another appearance in the recent Christmas special, whether he stays on remains to be seen.

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The reality:

The Second Industrial Revolution (beginning around the 1870s) together with the expansion of the railways meant that there were greater employment opportunities for working class men and women. As a result, the first seeds of the “servant problem” were sown as many households struggled to attract people into service or stem the tide of the huge turnover of servants. Accounts from the late 19th century refer to the trouble with retaining good servants, many of who moved jobs, going on to other households for promotion or higher pay. There were also problems with trying to replace servants who had been sacked for being drunk, theft, falling pregnant or simply doing an AWOL from their jobs. In many communities, service was the only source of employment or the only option to escape the workhouse but for many others, especially after basic education became compulsory, there were other options available and more and more men and women preferred the factories and shops to being at the beck and call of the local lord, with hardly any time of their own for leisure.

The First World War further accelerated the servant problem as millions of men rushed to enlist and women took on the work men left behind.  When the war finally ended, many were unwilling to return to a life of service while others who attempted to return found that their former employers could no longer afford to re-hire them. Those who managed to return to their pre-war posts were not replaced when they retired or passed away

While there were schemes to use service as a way to train orphans and women who had fallen on hard times as well as attempts to form a union for servants, these schemes were not very successful. As many households retrenched, the numbers of servants were reduced and many took on multiple positions. It was common to have households headed by a butler/valet and assisted by a housekeeper/cook. Other positions that gradually became merged included the head housemaid/lady’s maid or even housekeeper/lady’s maid. Junior housemaids and footmen were gradually replaced by day servants or agency staff for a particular event.

Downton Abbey has rarely explicitly addressed the “servant problem” and only when Molesley the former butler/valet of Matthew Crawley turned footman attempted to clarify his position once the other remaining footman had been sacked. The main issue with the way servants are portrayed in the programme has been addressed by critics and other bloggers; nevertheless, one problem I have is the circumstances by which servants are hired and retained. Would Lady Grantham have really hired Alfred Nugent simply because he was the nephew of her maid Sarah O’Brien? Or what about advertising for a lady’s maid In the Post Office window instead of through the proper channels, which led to the hiring of someone who had faked her credentials for some nefarious scheme to victimise a member of the family? What about Phyllis Baxter especially when her past was finally revealed? Another recurring complaint is about Thomas Barrow. He was about to be sacked due to bullying and theft (a very serious offence which spelt the end for a job in service). How he’s managed to stay on is a mystery and a constant source of bemusement and irritation for several viewers.


How Downton Abbey portrayed this:

The PR for Series 4 was mostly about how Lady Mary will pick up the pieces of her life after Matthew’s death; and apart from learning about estate management her story line in the next two series was about two men competing for her attention – a childhood acquaintance Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake, a civil servant who was later revealed to be in line for a baronetcy and an estate in Northern Ireland. While Lady Mary dithers over both men, in the end she chooses neither but a putative new suitor is waiting in the wings for series 6.

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The reality:

The number of men who perished in the battlefields of the First World War has given rise to the pronouncements of a lost generation and the decimation of the “flower of England’s youth” which sounds hyperbolic to modern day ears but there is a kernel of truth in it. There is enough evidence and recollection from those who were children during the interwar period that while there were children and middle aged to old men there were hardly any men in their mid-twenties to thirties to be seen in the streets.

There were those who managed to return home alive but were physically disabled owing to war wounds for instance amputated arms and limbs, facial disfigurement or respiratory issues due to inhaling poison gas. Others who returned might not have been missing an arm or a leg or disfigured but were wounded in mind with many suffering from shell shock or others turning to the bottle. Still others who felt guilty for having survived while many of their comrades died or were severely wounded became reclusive and succumbed to depression.

While the marriage rate did go up during the interwar years those women who were in their late twenties to their early thirties when the war ended were more or less resigned to a life of widowhood or spinsterhood. Many took advantage of this lack of prospects for marriage and motherhood as an opportunity to forge an independent life as career women and entrepreneurs.

One of the issues I have with Downton Abbey since series 2 is how the First World War has been swept under the carpet when in reality its immediate effects continued to be felt until the eve of the Second World War. This is shown most obviously with the story line of Lady Mary and her suitors; and leaving aside that it is quite difficult to tell both Lord Gillingham and Mr Blake apart (and the putative new suitor is hardly an improvement), she would have been in her thirties by the 1920s and by the standards of the time, middle aged. Eligible men would have more likely preferred younger women without a child; and with the crop of new debutantes emerging every year then Lady Mary would have faced stiff competition indeed. It’s hardly likely that with a surplus of women of marriageable age two men apparently sound in mind and limb would be happy to remain single for five years on the off chance that a woman might make up her mind to marry one of them; especially as neither of them seem to be that much in love with her. It’s much more likely that surrounded by hordes of women husband hunting one or both would have been snapped up almost before they were out of uniform.

Another thing that baffled several viewers is the absence of any disabled veterans walking the streets and among Lady Mary’s line up of suitors; which again is consistent with the programme’s collective amnesia over the war and its aftermath. Looking at demographic patterns after the war, it is highly unlikely that Lady Mary would have married again and if she did, her second husband would have either been significantly older than she was or someone her age but very likely wounded in body or mind.


In my first blog entry, I have mentioned the main gripe that many critics and bloggers have about Downton Abbey but as a history anorak, the main problem I have with the programme since series 3 is that there no context in its wider world, no sense of what other peers are having to do or what’s going on outside the gates. True there were no major historical events on the scale of the First World War during this period but the 1920s themselves were a period of major change for everyone in society, high and low. Not all of them were glamorous and exciting but they helped shape society and institutions as we know today.

The period between the wars is one that is slowly passing out of living history as more people who grew up during that period are dying off. The time will come when there will be no-one alive who remembers the 1920s and it’s a shame that Downton Abbey has squandered the opportunity to be more imaginative with its story lines and hold up a mirror to an era of change beyond the well-worn clichés of flappers, jazz, cocktails and parties.

Further reading:

Martin Pugh. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2009)

Jeremy Musson. Up and Down Stairs (London, 2010)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2013)

Pamela Horn. Life Below Stairs: The Real Lives of Servants, the Edwardian Era to 1939 (London, 2012)

Pamela Horn. Flappers: The Real Lives of British Women in the Era of The Great Gatsby (London, 2012)

Mollie Moran. Aprons and Silver Spoons (London, 2013)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

David Cannadine. Aspects of the Aristocracy (London, 1994)

Juliet Nicolson. The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War (London, 2010)

Virginia Nicholson. Singled Out (London, 2008)

Sian Evans. Life below Stairs (London, 2011)

Mark Girouard. Life in the English Country House (Yale, 1978)

David Reynolds. The Great Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (London, 2014)

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)



Book Review: The Mystery of Princess Louise by Lucinda Hawksley and Those Wild Wyndhams by Claudia Renton

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In writing a biography of Princess Louise Duchess of Argyll (1848-1939), Lucinda Hawksley ran into two crucial obstacles – she was denied access to the Princess’s papers at the Royal Archives at Windsor and the same was the case when she tried with the papers of her husband, the 9th Duke of Argyll at Inveraray Castle. A question arises, what is it that is so sensitive about this princess and by extension her husband who have been dead for more than seventy and one hundred years respectively?

Like her older brother Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), Louise has been dogged by rumours chief among them; of having lovers (the sculptor Edgar Boehm and her brother-in-law Prince Henry of Battenberg among others), bearing an illegitimate son (the father was said to be Walter Stirling, a governor to her younger brother Leopold) and that her marriage to the 9th Duke of Argyll was a sham owing to his homosexuality. Unlike Bertie however whose numerous affairs are public knowledge and have been verified by various sources, Louise’s own affairs are fated to be mere speculation so long as historians and biographers are denied access to her papers.

Undaunted, Hawksley makes the best of trying to make sense of the mystery by using available sources to flesh out the rumours but without access to the main primary sources, any hopes of shedding light on the mysteries that surround Louise’s life are doomed to fail. And this is where the book falls short.

Where I believe this biography is much more successful is her examination of Louise as an individual against the backdrop of a large family headed by a mother who was later described as a mother to the nation and empire but hardly had a maternal bone in her body and a father who was intelligent and cultured but damaged by the trauma of his own family life. Described by Queen Victoria several times as “difficult”, perhaps it’s not surprising as Louise was born in 1848, the year of revolutions. It was a debut to an interesting, turbulent and in her own way revolutionary (by the standards of her time and status) life.

Louise was a princess with ideas and interests far ahead of her time. She and her husband were supporters of women’s rights, female suffrage and both had a genuine concern for the poor. There was also the determination to pursue a career as an artist, forging a wide circle of friends and being the first female member of the royal family to attend a school. Even within the constraints of her role as a Princess of the Blood, she went further than the usual ribbon cutting and laying of foundation stones by being a tireless worker for the charities she was associated with, championing unfashionable causes and through her husband’s stint as Governor-General of Canada, a bridge between Britain and its largest dominion which earned her and her husband the affection of the Canadian people. However, Louise was not all sweetness and light, she could be spiteful, petty, and neurotic and longed for the spotlight, all of which could be traced back from her desire for the affection and love she craved as a child.

Despite Hawksley’s best efforts, Princess Louise’s story is destined for now to remain an unfinished puzzle so long as the custodians at Windsor and Inveraray keep a tight leash over Louise’s and the 9th Duke’s papers. Hopefully if the fullness of time, the-powers-that-be will relax their grip on the primary source materials which will undoubtedly help shed more light on the life of this interesting princess.

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While Princess Louise’s name lives on due to a Canadian province, a lake and an army regiment among others; the Wyndham sisters (Mary, Madeline and Pamela) have passed on to relative obscurity, appearing as mere footnotes on any study about late 19th and early 20th century British political and social history. If they are remembered at all, it’s for the famous John Singer Sargent portrait that was exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1900 which led the Prince of Wales to dub it “The Three Graces”.

Claudia Renton’s debut biography chronicles the life of Mary (1862-1937), Madeline (1869-1941) and Pamela (1871-1928) Wyndham, the daughters of Percy Wyndham, a wealthy politician and his wife Madeline; they were brought up together with two brothers into a life of wealth and privilege. Befitting women of their class, they received the education deemed suitable for them and were expected to make good marriages and raise children to which they fulfilled, but with heart-breaking consequences.

Of the three, only the middle daughter Madeline had a happy and contented marriage with Charles Adeane, a landowner and farmer while the other two Mary who married Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho (later 11th Earl of Wemyss) and Pamela who married Edward Tennant (later 1st Baron Glenconner) found that marital happiness eluded them. Both marriages were punctuated by infidelities on both sides (the Elchos) and on hers (Pamela who carried on an affair with Harry Cust among others who her parents had forbidden her to marry) played against the backdrop of holidays abroad, secret assignations, letters and illegitimate children. Percy Wyndham once noticed that of his daughters, Madeline with her level headedness was the only one who was neither mad nor sane which does contrast with Mary’s Eeyore-ish sense of gloom and Pamela’s bouts of self-absorption.

What makes this biography interesting is giving us a glimpse of the world the sisters inhabited and the people they knew as friends and acquaintances from the likes of Oscar Wilde to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (who would have an affair and a daughter with Mary Elcho) and Marie Stopes which was a carryover from their childhood when their parents entertained a diverse group of people in their home. Importantly, the sisters (especially Mary and to a lesser extent Pamela) became involved with the “Souls”, an artistic and intellectual group that sprang around Arthur Balfour, a rising star in the political scene and a future prime minister.

Renton subtitled her work “Three Sisters at the Heart of Power” but in my opinion, this is misleading. It’s true that Mary and Pamela were intimate with two statesmen – Balfour and the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey respectively but those “Souls” who were in politics despite their potential and hype were never destined to reach the Olympian heights that they were expected to. If anything, the sisters’ story represents a case study of the decline and fall of the aristocracy, their gilded life and loves masking the growing impotence and redundancy of the aristocracy as they were increasingly being eclipsed by the middle and working classes as a political, economic and social force to be reckoned with.

In the end, it’s the First World War that sounds the death kneel for the pampered and cosseted world of the Wyndham sisters – Mary and Pamela suffered tragedy when they lost sons in the battlefields of France and the Near East and by the 1920s and 30s, the sisters were feeling the economic pinch and increasingly taking a back seat to a different type of social group of which one of Pamela’s children (Stephen) was a leading member. The sale of their beloved family home, Clouds in 1932 was the final severance of the link to a way of life that had vanished with the Great War.

Despite the bewildering array of names and events, Renton has managed to produce a readable and fascinating account that does contribute in some way to understanding the changes Britain was undergoing during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.


Both reviews are based on the paperback versions released in December 2014.

The Earl of Iveagh and Kenwood House: the Ascendancy of the New Aristocracy over the Old

As a volunteer at Kenwood House, the three questions that I am usually asked are the following (and variations thereof):

  1. Are the paintings all original and how much would they be worth?
  2. Who is Lord Iveagh and how is he related to the Earls of Mansfield?
  3. Why is entrance to Kenwood free?

I think it surprises visitors that such a superb collection of paintings can be found in a stately home off the beaten track of London’s tourist trail. The number of paintings displayed at Kenwood can barely rival that of the National Gallery, the Tate or even any of the stately homes and outstanding regional galleries across the length and breadth of the country but they are significant for their quality and the roster of artists in the collection represents a “who’s who” of 17th and 18th century painting. Among the artists included are van Dyck, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Romney; and there is a smattering of titans from the 19th century in the persons of Turner and Constable.

The 60 odd collection of paintings along with the house were given to the nation by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927) under the terms of his will in 1927. His will (reinforced by an Act of Parliament) also contained three important clauses that underpin the way the house and art collection is presented to the public: a) admission is free in perpetuity, b) the house remains open nearly all year round except for Christmas and New Year and c) that the house and its contents present a “fine example of the artistic home of a gentleman of the eighteenth century.”

Lord Iveagh’s story both as a man and as an art collector illustrates the decline of the old landed aristocracy supplanted by a new one whose wealth did not derive from land but from other sources such as manufacturing, banking and commerce. A scion of a family that made its wealth through the manufacture of the famous stout that bears their name, Iveagh followed his father and siblings into the family business and in 1886 floated the Guinness Brewery in the London Stock Exchange. The proceeds from this venture allowed Iveagh to retire from the active running of the brewery and focus his attention on art collecting and charity work with the latter playing an important factor into his elevation to the peerage culminating with an earldom in 1919.


The 1880s and 1890s were a fertile time for art collectors as numerous paintings, antiques, jewels and bric a brac were flooding the market as a result of the agricultural depression of the 1870s. As a consequence of this depression, the aristocracy were forced to retrench and sell what they could in order to make ends meet. Lord Iveagh was part of a group of men such as Lord Rothschild and Sir Julius Wernher who took advantage of the number of Old Masters, early Renaissance and 18th century paintings that had come into the market.

The collection of paintings that Lord Iveagh gave to the nation along with Kenwood (known as the Iveagh Bequest) demonstrates his interests and provides an insight into his social ambition. Already prominent in Irish society, the then Mr Guinness together with his wife Adelaide (known in the family as “Dodo”) were keen to advance into British society. Using his wealth, Guinness entertained lavishly, gave money and time to worthy causes and even lent his support to opposing Irish Home Rule. In addition, he began to adapt the trappings of an aristocratic lifestyle, with homes in both Britain and Ireland furnished with the finest antiques and adorned with paintings with aristocratic provenance; most of which were acquired from one of the leading art dealers in the country, Thomas Agnew and Sons.

Largely self-taught with regards to art and the art market, Guinness didn’t only collect Old Masters and 18th century paintings, but also tapestries and historic textiles as well as patronised Victorian and contemporary artists such as John Everett Millais, G.F. Watts and William Orpen.  The quality of the paintings that Guinness bought especially those he bequeathed as part of the Iveagh Bequest were a testament to his taste, knowledge and business acumen; with the latter especially hailed by the newspapers of the day, who claimed that Guinness was engaged in a rivalry with the American nouveau riche over the acquisition of Old Masters and 18th century paintings. All of which was nonsense, Guinness had already acquired some of the best paintings and did not feel the need to compete with the Americans by paying inflated prices for pictures that did not appeal to him.

The paintings in the Iveagh Bequest can also be seen in the wider context of the times when they were acquired. Visitors to Kenwood have noted that women more than men are represented in the collection; there are portraits of society beauties, courtesans and aristocrats by Reynolds, Gainsborough and Romney to name a few. There’s Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Countess Howe standing confidently in a pretty pink dress, Mrs Musters in the guise of Hebe painted by Reynolds and Lady Hamilton by the spinning wheel by Romney among others. Why is this so? Julius Bryant is of the opinion that the over-representation of eighteenth century women represented some kind of escapist nostalgia; the view that somehow, the eighteenth century society with its beautiful women seemed more civilised and refined, a far cry from the pace of contemporary life with its contentious issues such as Home Rule.

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In addition, the acquisition by men such as Iveagh or Rothschild of unwanted ancestor and family portraits from aristocrats desperate to part with them was seen as necessary trappings for assimilation. As mentioned earlier, as the traditional landed aristocracy declined they were supplanted by a new aristocracy consisting of men who were in “trade”. These new peers adapted aspects of the traditional aristocratic lifestyle in order to facilitate their entry into society and unlike their older, landed counterparts, the new aristocracy had the money and means to do so.

This is also true with the acquisition of 17th century Old Master paintings. The two jewels of the Iveagh Bequest are the self-portrait by Rembrandt and Vermeer’s Guitar Player; the former hailed as one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces and the latter cementing Kenwood as one of the three places in Britain that has a painting by the formerly obscure Dutch master. When Iveagh bought the Guitar Player in 1889, Vermeer’s popularity was growing and given that few of his works survive, it is testament to Iveagh’s taste and business instinct that this masterpiece is in Britain to be enjoyed and appreciated by the public.

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Iveagh’s acquisition of art ceased after the mid-1890s but he continued with his involvement with the art world by supporting appeals of acquiring several important paintings for the nation as well as giving generous sums of money for their purchase. By then he had also began to hand over several pictures from his collection to the National Gallery of Ireland. His greatest gift however was yet to come.

By the early twentieth century, the financial woes of the traditional landed aristocracy did not abate. Increase in income tax and the introduction of death duties meant more sales of land, homes, paintings, jewels and objets d’art. The major blow came after the First World War when rates of income tax and death duties increased and necessitated into another round of sales. By then, the sixth Earl of Mansfield had decided to sell his London home Kenwood House and its surrounding lands to developers. A public appeal led by a local resident Arthur Crosfield (who was later knighted for his role with the Kenwood Preservation Council) were able to raise funds to buy out Lord Mansfield and the grounds were opened as a public park in 1925. However, the funds raised were not enough for the house and the remaining 74 acres of land that surrounded it and its future remained in doubt until in 1924, Iveagh initially took on a ten year lease of the house. The Guinness family trust later acquired the freehold for the house and the surrounding land for the price of £107,900. Upon the first earl’s death in 1927, the second Earl of Iveagh carried out his father’s wishes and handed the house and the 60 odd paintings to the nation; and Kenwood in its new guise as a museum welcomed its first visitors the following year.

The saving of Kenwood and giving the house together with a collection of paintings from the greatest names in the history of art can be seen as consistent with the first earl’s personality. As the Times observed in its obituary to the man dated 8 October 1927:

The trouble which he took to secure the most fruitful employment of his gifts was typical of his character. He was naturally modest and retiring, but no one who came in contact with him could fail to be impressed by his high sense of duty, as well as by his unaffected friendliness.

Lord Iveagh’s act of generosity is another manifestation of the decline and fall of the traditional landed aristocracy. No longer were country homes and priceless works of art merely the preserve of the privileged few but were now to be enjoyed by a wider section of society. In 2014, Kenwood House welcomed some 250,000 visitors and here’s hoping that more people will pass through the doors of this magnificent house and enjoy the building and the stupendous works of art just as Lord Iveagh would have wanted.

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Further reading:

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Dominic Lieven. The Aristocracy in Europe 1815-1914 (London, 1992

W. L. Guttsman. The British Political Elite (London, 1968)

Julius Bryant. Kenwood: Paintings in the Iveagh Bequest (London, 2003)

Laura Houliston and Susan Jenkins. Kenwood: The Iveagh Bequest (London, 2014)

Kate Jeffrey (ed.) Kenwood: The Iveagh Bequest (London, 2001)

Photo of portrait of Lord Iveagh by H.M. Paget after A.S. Cope taken by blogger. Special thanks to my husband for his photos of Mary, Countess Howe by Gainsborough; The Guitar Player by Vermeer and the South front of Kenwood House.

I would also like to thank the staff at Kenwood for providing me with the visitor figures for 2014 as well as to them and my fellow volunteers for their part in my enjoyment of volunteering.

A copy of the obituary for the 1st Earl of Iveagh could be found on the Times Digital Archive.