18 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 33

Put not your Trust in princes

James Lees-Milne


Barrie & Jenkins, £16, pp.336

This is a painstaking work — a full- blown history of one of the great institu- tions of our time. It is the harvest of the late John Gaze's indefatigable researches and interviews throughout the years of his retirement from being the National Trust's Chief agent. Besides modesty and generos- ity of spirit the book evinces many endear- ing qualities of the bluff, bullish blagueur, as I recall him, notably sensitive and understanding. It is sad that he died before its revision because for the general reader Figures in a Landscape (a slightly ambi- guous title; why not have settled for the Subtitle, A History of the National Trust?) is frankly too long. The first and last three chapters could have been scrapped or concertina'd. Furthermore, the type is small and the pages are correspondingly large. Nevertheless, being a National Trust enthusiast acquainted with several of the figures depicted in Gaze's changing land- scapes, I have read every word with fascination. The style is direct. The author carries one upon a stream of enthusiasm and affection for his subject.

Gaze makes William Wordsworth the National Trust's patron saint, whose in- spiration was active between 1799, the year in which the poet withdrew to the Lake District, never again to leave it, and 1850, the year of his death. Thus the National Trust was infused with that 19th-century do-goodism so derided by Mrs Thatcher's critics (would, however, that she were a more positive sympathiser).

Gaze analyses the widely differing mot- ives of all the founders (hitherto consid- ered a triumvirate and now promoted to a quartet by the addition of that generous and hard-working pioneer, the 1st Duke of Westminster), including the formidable lynch-pin Miss Octavia Hill who claimed John Ruskin as her spiritual father. Although the four ranged politically from extreme radicalism to extreme Toryism, something — Wordsworth with a dash of Ruskin — united them in a common desire not only to preserve historic buildings and land of natural beauty, but to give the widest possible benefits to the down- trodden poor and underprivileged. The two most bustling of the quartet were Sir Robert Hunter, solicitor to the Commons Preservation Society (parent body of the National Trust) and later to the Post Office, and Canon Rawnsley, who fought like a tiger against deplorable philistine projects in the Lake District.

Hunter's victory in saving Epping Forest from speculative builders, those perennial enemies of all civilised beings, sparked off the National Trust's conception in 1894, leading to its birth the following year. The Trust was established by parliamentary statute, the articles of which were drawn up by my old friend Benjamin Home, one of the rarely human solicitors I have encountered; he was still acting for the Trust when I joined the staff. Of some of the earliest committee members I have vivid memories. If Nigel Bond was repre- sentative of his colleagues (he was Secret- ary from 1901-11) they were a sterling lot. And the first President, to be succeeded by Queen Mary, namely Princess Louise, artist and friendly daughter of Queen Victoria, seemed to enjoy before her death in 1939 the occasional visit of a callow youth, when there was no one more important available at the office, to regale her with the National Trust gossip, on the strict understanding that he was not to be over-familiar.

If the Trust's progress was slow until the 1930s the threats to England's still fairly green and pleasant land were not over- looked by its wise governors, presided over by chairman John Bailey, esteemed man of letters, and secretary S. H. Hamer, a languid but wily owl. The Bailey-Hamer partnership should not be belittled. It saved the setting of Stonehenge and ac- quired Ashridge park against fearful odds. It is true the Trust was severely hampered by lack of funds, and its growth and activities were restricted by a minute staff. In 1935 its subscribing members were about 5,000. It was screaming loudly for more. Today it has 11/2 million! Ironically, a chief problem now is how to protect National Trust properties from the wear and tear caused by the cherished visitors' hands and feet.

If the Trust's sad misses and exiguous hits in the Thirties were caused by the deficiencies just described, its reputation stood high largely owing to the benefac- tions of individual committee members like the distinguished historian, G. M. Treve- lyan, and the 3rd Viscount Esher. At head office a fervent crusading spirit prevailed. The excitement aroused whenever Fergu- son's Gang in the guise of the Bloody Bishop and Red Biddy broke into the building and deposited a spotted handker- chief filled with bank notes and coins was indescribable. So too was the jubilation over the acquisition of new properties, not always chosen with discrimination. The Trust was so pleased to be given anything that to turn down an indifferent offer caused anguish. The staff were by today's standards amateur romantics.

Then Lord Lothian's famous speech of 1934 calling the Trust's attention to the plight of historic country houses resulted in a spate of acquisitions towards the end of and just after the war. For several years the public came to associate the Trust with country houses almost exclusively, to the detriment of open spaces. This clearly did not accord with the founders' intentions. So the Executive Committee did a right- about turn towards landscape and the sea coast. In the latter field it has had notewor- thy triumphs. At the same time the Trust's reluctance to garner further country houses, in the belief that it has enough period specimens already, that taxation relief by recent governments ensures the safety of those still left in private hands, and that the smaller manor houses can be trusted to take care of themselves, seems to me a fallacious and short-sighted policy. The continuity of the great country house and large estate as a domestic unit in one family's possession must be doomed for reasons too obvious to specify.

Only once does the kindly Gaze become slightly uncharitable when he assesses Lord Esher as autocratic and supercilious. In fact Oliver Esher abounded in wit and wisdom. Throughout his long chair- manship of the General Purposes and Historic Buildings committees he fought uncompromisingly for dominance of the aesthetic over the managerial aspect of the Trust's constitution. In this struggle he was not ultimately successful. The conflict was brought to a head in 1969 when several other facets of the constitution were pub- licly criticised by a posse of malcontents. Member rose against member and commit- tees were riven in twain. The independent Benson Committee was set up to resolve the conflict. Its Report was accepted. Many of its findings were salutary. Others were not, especially that which determined that 'regional agents and custodians should not have equal status and that the former should be in charge', an inversion of the purpose for which the National Trust was set up in 1895 and stoutly maintained by Lord Esher. However, so united in their loyalty to the Trust are the agents and custodians of the Trust's architecture and works of art that to the casual outsider the present system seems to work smoothly. May it continue so. Yet were a serious conflict of interests to arise again, would the cause of art and aesthetics prevail over practical or financial expedients? I doubt it