Monday, November 25, 2013

Whigged Out: Scratching Below Politics' Surface

http://www.holland-brown.co.uk/project-misc-wentworth.html
The largest private house in England


"Wentworth Woodhouse" sounds like the name of a British writer, like P.G. Wodehouse.

Or, perhaps, the name of a fancy barn, like the place where firewood is kept dry.

But no, Wentworth Woodhouse is the name of the largest private house in the United Kingdom, a sprawling, 300-room mansion that's actually two country manors in one.  Facing northwestward is the first manor house, a mostly-brick structure in the English Baroque style, finished in 1734.  That same year, however, work began on the far more lavish and expansive "frontal" extension in a classically proportional Palladian aesthetic, that faces southeastward.

The reason for such a massive addition had little to do with whether the front of the house faced northwest or southeast.  Nor did it have much to do with the quality of construction on the first, mostly-brick structure.  Or even that it was mostly brick.

No, the reason a new addition had to be constructed resulted from the changing tastes of Britain's powerful Whig political party, in which the family building the house was prominent.  Among other things, the Whigs were a group of self-appointed architectural critics who, by the time Wentworth Woodhouse's first grand house was reaching completion, had decided that the English Baroque style was so last-year.  Whigs found it pretentious and needlessly opulent, whereas the design principles of venerated Italian architect Andrea Palladio were considered far more pure, pleasing, and balanced.

Palladio had died more than a century earlier, in 1580, but even as British aristocrats knew of his signature style in the 1730's, you know it today, too, here in suburban North America.  For example, those palladian windows you see everywhere?  The ones that are curved on the top, and usually flanked by shorter windows?  Those are "Palladian" windows, and they prove how popular and enduring Palladio's ideas have been throughout the centuries.

Big Whig Digs

At any rate, as I was watching a PBS special on Wentworth Woodhouse last night, I learned that politics saturated this house and the families that used to own it.  To have its design dictated by a political party's architectural taste helps express the role politics played in its purpose as a domicile.  Thomas Watson-Wentworth, of the dynasty that owned Wentworth Woodhouse, twice served as prime minister, and his family was perpetually locked in a desperate power struggle against the Tories.  Wentworth Woodhouse helped establish the Whigs as a bastion of respectability and authority.  Like many estates of its day, it served as the economic engine of its community, South Yorkshire, employing at its peak nearly 1,000 people.  Generations of the family maintained a reputation as being among the most beneficent to its workers of all the landed gentry.

Back then, the Whigs stood for preserving the authority of England's great aristocratic families, from which much of Parliament got its members.  This meant that Whigs wanted Parliament to be more powerful than the monarchy.  They opposed Catholicism as a threat to England's sovereignty and individual freedoms, and, among other avant-garde positions, they protected Presbyterians, a fledgling group caught between the Church of England and the Roman Church.

In many ways, the Whigs would probably be considered liberals in the parlance of modern United States politics.  "Limousine liberals," of course, since building what would be - and remain for centuries - the largest private house in the British Empire isn't exactly an aspiration for prim and proper conservatives.  Conservatives who saw their duty as being loyal monarchists, with its heritage of economic patronage.

And, oddly enough, the movement to overthrow British rule in the Colonies was influenced by Whig advocacy in the New World.  Colonists who later would call themselves "patriots" first called themselves "Whigs," expressing sympathy to those back in Britain who were chafing under the rule of the Crown.  How supportive would that be of today's right-wing narrative?

Created Equal, As Long As You're Like Us

Being an amateur aficionado of architecture, I find buildings like Wentworth Woodhouse fascinating not only in terms of their design, but how their design relates to culture, and even history.  After all, it's the rare building where form doesn't follow function.  On the one hand, I find that this particular confection of two mansions of differing aesthetics suffers from too much size and not enough purpose.  According to architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, who hosted the PBS program about Wentworth Woodhouse, it was so gargantuan, guests were provided with different sachets of colored confetti to sprinkle on the floor as they commuted from their guest rooms to the dining room and ballroom.  By doing so, guests could find their way back to their bedrooms, much like the breadcrumb trails of Hansel and Gretel.

What Whigs considered ostentatious in the Baroque style apparently translated differently with the Palladian!

On the other hand, however, isn't the connection between Britain's Whigs and America's Colonial patriots somewhat ironic?  At the time of Wentworth Woodhouse's political prominence, only white Englishmen could vote, and only white male landowners had any power.  Advocating for majority rule in a parliamentary structure differed from an autocratic monarchy in that day and time only by degrees.  Meanwhile, in the United states, democracy, voting, and "all men created equal" rang bitterly hollow as well, at least up until the 1850's.  When our first few presidents were elected, only white men who owned land could vote, and some states refused to let Catholics vote.  Non-white men got the vote in 1870, with ratification of the 15th Amendment.  Women got the vote in 1920, and Native Americans in 1924.  All poll taxes and property requirements in all elections weren't finally abolished nationwide until 1966.

Isn't it tempting to look on the political era of Wentworth Woodhouse's heyday centuries ago with a certain smugness, and even disdain?  We're so much more committed to democracy here in the United States.  We forget that our Founding Fathers would not have let you vote even in our last election, earlier this month, if you don't own land, are a woman, or have any other color skin than white.

Right-wing Texas Senator Ted Cruz, for example, lives in an apartment in a Houston high-rise.  That, plus his patrimonial Hispanic heritage, would have made two strikes against his eligibility to vote, according to the laws approved by our Founding Fathers.  Hmm.

Scratching the Surface

Thankfully, a lot of changes to our voting rights have evolved over time, both in England, and the United States.  Of course, that may not be good news for some people.  If you're an old-time purist, societies have unraveled more than improved, especially when it comes to who has political power.  Last night, as I learned about Wentworth Woodhouse, I marveled at how that big ol' pile of stone, marble, bricks, and Palladian aesthetics in South Yorkshire provides a curious wrinkle to what people expect in their governance, what form they want that governance to take, and those whom they'll allow to select that governance.

If we Americans would open up the Palladian windows of our political discourse, how much might we learn about where we've come from, and how that might not be the most virtuous of foundations upon which to build our current political reality, or our political future?

Recently, Wentworth Woodhouse finally found a buyer after languishing on the market for years.  Its selling price?  Approximately £1.5 million ($3 million US).  A pittance, considering its size, historical significance, and craftsmanship, which Cruickshank testifies is exquisite.  But there's a good - and bad - reason for such a low price.

As it happened, in an ironic twist for this house and its owners, one of their prized assets on the estate, a rich seam of coal the family privately mined for decades, contributed to its decline.  After World War II, while the nation was desperate for coal to rebuild its industrial might, Britain's liberal Labour Party seized the mineral rights to Wentworth Woodhouse.  Strip-mining operations instigated by the government scraped away valuable topsoil and rendered what experts complained was low-quality coal, instead of the high-quality fuel the family had been more conventionally mining far away from the house.

Obviously, the government-sanctioned surface mining was a retaliatory stunt meant to intimidate the wealthy family.  Heavy machinery dug right up to within a reported 16 yards of the house.  Structural engineers now point to cracks spreading about its 300 fabled rooms as being the direct result of the government's plowing and digging.  The home's new owners are suing Britain's Coal Authority so the building's foundation can be repaired, and the rest of their legendary house can be restored.

Wentworth Woodhouse has carved into its pediment the family motto, "Mea Gloria Fides," which translated means "Trust is My Renown."

Maybe instead, it should be, "Scratching the top of any surface rarely helps."


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