My goodness, so another priceless, irreplaceable country house has been saved for the nation. In case you missed it, the utterly wonderful pile in question is Dumfries House in Ayrshire. I must admit that, until the pressing matter of it possibly being sold to the wrong sort of person came up recently, I had never heard of Dumfries House, nor of its prized contents of very lovely brown furniture. But that’s all right – something like £45m has been found from all the usual sources, including Prince Charles, and the place has been saved for posterity.
I won’t bore you with a description of it. It’s by the Adam Brothers, but looks distinctly dull. This place is no Chatsworth or Longleat, that’s for sure. It’s been sold by the Bute family, Scottish aristocracy who made their pile out of coal mines in Wales and who live, appropriately enough, on Bute. Previous Butes employed that maverick of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Burges, to knock up their Welsh and Scottish homes. Today they run the eponymous fabrics company. Johnny Bute, aka Johnny Dumfries, the current head of the family, used to be a motor racing driver. They built a nice new visitor centre at their family pile, Mount Stuart, a few years back. There you have the sum total of my knowledge of the family.
But Dumfries House? Ah – that was surplus to requirements. It seems the family hadn’t occupied the place for quite some time. So they decided to sell up, with the contents of the house expected to fetch a pretty penny at auction. This is what led to the heritage hand-wringing. On such occasions, everyone mentions Mentmore, a historic example of a house whose valuable contents got sold off in 1977. I can’t help thinking – so what?
Stuff gets sold. Families get poor, die out, sell up or just decide to take a big, big profit from their property portfolio. This has always happened. I don’t get the impression that people were fighting to get into Dumfries House. Nobody ever told me, ‘If you’re in Scotland, you would be bonkers not to blag your way into this fantastic timewarp mansion’. As for 18th century brown furniture – well, I can take it or leave it. Chippendale never did much for me. Given the parlous state of the antiques trade right now, I think it doesn’t do much for most other people, either.
Britain seems to have an inexhaustible supply of such heaps that need saving. Every time one pops up, it is billed as the last-chance saloon for our patrimony. They said this about Chastleton, the Jacobean house in Oxfordshire. They said it about Tyntesfield, the huge Victorian pile outside Bristol. Now it’s Dumfries House. Others will come along, you may be sure. What amazes me is that, somehow, the enormous sums of money required are always found. Nobody ever says, ‘Hang on, haven’t we got rather a lot of country houses already?’. Too many, perhaps, for such a small country?
Even to utter this thought is a kind of heresy. Yet, when these places were in private hands and few knew about them or visited them, nobody felt their lack. Nobody said, ‘Hmm, if only there were two or three more big old houses full of brown furniture we could visit, our lives would be complete.’ The laws of supply and demand don’t seem to apply when it comes to the heritage business. Now, just suppose all that money were poured into building an extraordinary new house somewhere, with newly-commissioned furniture. It would be a wonder. And everyone would say it was a terrible waste of money.