Upon reading this article’s title, you might be asking yourself how we get from point A to point B. Point A being the decline of the British aristocracy, and Point B being historic houses in 3D. Thus assuming that my ‘e’ key functions properly long enough to type this out, let’s explore this, shall we?
The Decline of the British Aristocracy
As a holdover from feudal times, Britain maintained a robust aristocracy for a long time. And while some would have us believe in the simplistic notions of enlightened Lords, empowered and freethinking servants, and so on (I’m looking at you, Downton Abbey), this simply wasn’t the case most of the time. In fact, most of the hereditary houses of Great Britain had as their heads greedy, self-serving wealth accumulators who were somewhat less concerned with the welfare of the common person, and somewhat more concerned with the fullness of their own coffers.
While we largely view the British aristocracy today as a quaint holdover from bygone days, there’s actually a lot of dark history here for those that want to delve deeper. During the Great War, for example, many barons were resentful at the requisitioning of their estates to build training camps, airfields, and so on. Of course, many weren’t, and that ought be noted. But in general, the prevailing attitude was “not my problem”. After the War, their fortunes declines, as prevailing attitudes towards an elite few owning a majority of the land turned sharply against them. Even moreso after the Second World War. “Gently with Class“, one of my favorite Inspector George Gently episodes, deals directly with this notion.
But one of the defining features of the aristocracy has always been its estates. Lords built great, bombastic monuments to themselves, often with dozens – or hundreds – of rooms. These historic houses were to be passed on down the lineage; shrines to the family’s supposed greatness. Only problem is, insanely large estates are expensive to heat, to light, and so on. With the increasing power of the common man, there were fewer servants available to work for mere room and board. The coffers, as it were, were emptying.
Historic Houses Become Tourist Attractions
As society on the whole began to reject the hierarchical view that the noble class were rightly at the head of the table, their monuments were likewise relegated to burdens. These grandiose estates, with their grandiose decorations and grandiose names, were in trouble. Many started slowly shutting down, section by section, unlit and unheated. First a floor here might be mothballed, then a wing there. Some of the nobles “donated” their historic houses to the National Trust. Others set up their own trusts, which allowed them to maintain de facto ownership while charging the public to gawp at their wealth. Blenheim Palace – featured in today’s stereoviews – currently charges £24.90 for the privilege of seeing one family’s unattainable wealth.
By the mid-1950s, many of these grand aristocratic estates had to open their doors to visitors. Previously unaccessible grounds, gardens, parlors, and atriums were now open to the public, often on a single day of the week. This allowed the supposedly “elevated” to keep their lights on and keep food on the table; it allowed the public a glimpse of the formerly arcane. Make no mistake – these historic houses are impressive. It’s the dark history of the many on whose backs these palaces of the few were built that most intrigues me. But in any case, intriguing they were, because many came, and many of those bought souvenirs. Can you guess where this is going yet?
VistaScreen Series 24 “Historic Houses”
The historic houses of the aristocracy were (1) British, (2) accessible, (3) photogenic, and most importantly, (4) endowed with gift shops. So while they had great appeal to the masses, their greatest appeal was likely to none other than one of this blog’s frequent… I can’t use the word “heroes”. Protagonist? Topic? Well you’ve likely guessed it by now – Stanley Long of VistaScreen.
This series was among the initial 20 sets produced by the fledgling company, and it’s honestly quite good. It makes sense, of course, that it’s quite good – Long shot entire boxes of plates, likely all 5 he’d carry with him, at each of these houses. So for this introductory set, he could select from dozens of images, and pick the best from each estate. These would be collated into “Historic Houses”. Then, the outtakes would be sold only through the estate in question, or through mail order:
Note that, while an image from Beaulieu Abbey appears in today’s series, it was not released as an exclusive set (C79) for another year. I doubt that anybody knows why this was the case. At any rate, the Historic Houses set – and all of these location-exclusive souvenirs – sold remarkably well. Buy any large lot of VistaScreen packets, and you’re liable to come up with a handful of these.
But in any case, the symbiosis between VistaScreen and the various historic houses that the company worked with is obvious. VistaScreen got exclusive material, as well as this set. The individual houses got exclusive rights to sell their house’s series – with a kickback to VistaScreen. This was a win-win, both for the barons who wanted to keep their lights on, and for the new British stereography outlet that needed content and customers.
VistaScreen “Historic Houses” Stereoviews
Here are ten views from ten historic houses photographed by Stanley Long for VistaScreen. When I get around to posting the individual house sets on these (I’m only missing one at this point), I’ll start a bullet-point list below with links to individual estates, so you can sit in your comfiest armchair and pretend to be a Lord yourself one day – because isn’t that the point of touring rich folks’ homes?