Who guards the guards?

May 29 2012


Following my rant yesterday, a reader writes:

My own first encounter with these little tyrants was at Saltram near Plymouth, which I was visiting as part of my research for a Reynolds exhibition. Reynolds was close to the family that remodelled the house in the late 1760s and early 1770s & we were borrowing their two best Reynoldses.

There is an old guidebook to the pictures at Saltram by Nigel Neatby, still useful now but of course the hang has changed over time, so I wanted to make a note of the current location of everything, which I did by scrawling on my paper a very rough elevation of each wall, with a numbered square for the location of each picture. In every room I introduced myself to the steward and explained who I was and what I was doing. In one room, the steward asked me if I had permission, to which I replied that surely I didn't need permission, I was just taking notes of the pictures. This was my mistake. When I was in the Saloon, a very short and angry man stormed up to me and demanded to know what on earth I was doing, that sketching was absolutely forbidden, that I could be a burglar etc. Even the steward in the Saloon tried to intercede on my behalf. The upshot was that I was permitted to continue to make notes, but I could no longer arrange my information within squares, as that would constitute drawing. What made me most cross is that most of the pictures at Saltram aren't even worth stealing.

Come to think of it, when I was at Powis Castle the other month, I asked a room steward if it would be ok for me to check his folder of information as I was interested in one of the pictures. He totally forbade it, and then got very cross and flustered when I asked him to look up the attribution (a Marlow landscape), all the while telling me about the two Gainsborough Duponts either side of it, about which he was clearly more used to talking.

The point is really that life in these National Trust houses seems incredibly scripted. They are used to people filing through and expressing delight at their tired old stories about how the 5th Countess snogged George Bernard Shaw under the sofa etc etc, but too often they cannot cope when a visitor doesn't conform.

Of course, please don't get the idea that AHN is in any way upbraiding the hard working volunteers and wardens who make sure our national collection of treasures is as safe as it can be. I'm merely prompting a debate about the very few who can sometimes over-step the mark. 

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