The National Trust: Quis Custodiet?

IN 1995 A paintings exhibition at the National Gallery, In Trust for the Nation, marked the National Trust’s centenary. An editorial in this Magazine noted the Trust’s paintings were late-comers to its prodigious portfolio, which comprises over 200 houses and their contents, some 160 gardens, 775 miles of coastline and 600,000 acres.1 

During the last twenty years, property acquisitions have slackened: even Enterprise Neptune, set up in 1965 to save the coastline, concentrates on maintenance. Yet while its estate has become relatively static the National Trust has doubled its membership to 4.5 million and paying visitors have surpassed 22 million. Running this agglomeration is demanding and delicate, with many tensions to resolve and priorities to balance. The National Trust also has a public face and for decades, not least through the National Trust Magazine, sent to the mass of members enticed by free entry, this has stressed its environmental role. But what of the country houses, that aspect of the Trust closest to the concerns of this Magazine?

A temporary display in Ickworth’s Library in 2015, when original furniture was replaced by bean-bags (responding to visitors’ confusion when confronted with ‘so much stuff’, to cite the Director-General), acted as a lightning rod for disquiet. In many other properties are more or less egregious instances of insouciance about interventions and insensitivity to that ‘spirit of the place’ central to National Trust philosophy. Recent Trust doctrine has awarded Property Managers plenary authority, and those appointed to this demanding role are natural scapegoats when matters go awry. Inevitably many lack curatorial knowledge or experience and, as few have in-house curators, details, crucial in visual and historic contexts, can easily be botched. When in 2002 the Trust’s Regions in England (Wales and Northern Ireland stayed separate) were cut from thirteen to six their support to properties became more remote. The supervisory Regional Committees became ‘Advisory Boards’.

The central Finance and Properties Committees, with origins in 1897 and 1900, were abolished and a Board of Trustees, with only twelve members, replaced the Executive Committee, an original element from 1895. This drastic cull decimated the engaged and expert volunteers with direct influence on Trust decisions.2 The old system, well though it worked, could be characterised as time-consuming and diffuse, and the siren call of brisk corporatist efficiency had proved seductive. Under the new Board a spirit of dirigisme infected the Director-General’s Execu-tive Team, freed from the old committee structure, and thence, via the reduced Regions, the Properties.

Large bodies may display solipsistic tendencies. The National Trust is no exception, often revealing itself as both assertive and defensive. A symptom was the creation in 2009 of its own typeface. Traditionally the Trust avoided too much branding, too many notices; now the shackles often seem to be off. Its language, relentlessly chirpy and winsome, appears pasteurised by a public relations filter. The shops and tea-rooms appear even less indi-vidual. The push for revenue, centrally driven, has a further homogenising effect. Southwell’s ‘Victorian Workhouse Christmas’ (‘sing along with the pauper choir’) may echo its ‘spirit of place’, but stock events, including Halloween (Knightshayes had a ‘Dracula’s coffin’ on its billiard table), are ubiquitous, echoing a commercial calendar. The historic properties are precious and sensitive: there is room for liveliness, but calm, informed appreciation and respect should surely prevail.

Recent achievements include stakhanovite cataloguing of the libraries and heroic conservation campaigns at Knole, Mount Stewart and The Vyne, numerous acquisitions, including Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Procession to Calvary at Nostell Priory in 2010 and Isaac Oliver’s Lord Herbert of Cherbury at Powis Castle in 2016, when Gainsborough’s Chevalier de Champcenetz was repatriated to Knole after eighty-five years, and substantial books on Ham House (2013) and Hardwick Hall (2016). Such hard-won progress reflects the knowledge and skill of the Trust’s curators, beleaguered though they felt when allocated, with the conservators, to a ‘consultancy’ whose relationship with properties was oblique, even opaque. Their morale has suffered.  In 2015 a ‘Collections and Interpretation Advisory Group’ yet to earn its spurs superseded the Arts Panel, a distinguished team founded by St John Gore in 1971, and the more recent ‘Learning and Engagement Panel’. Increased opening hours and seasons and slackened controls on physical access have compromised carefully calibrated conservation and security policies. A new guidebook formula has reduced information on works of art, and a proliferation of unsightly laminated information sheets is no substitute. 

In 2014 awareness that all was not well led to the short-lived appointment of a Curatorial Director, under the Director of Strategy, Curatorship and External Affairs; to a top-down concept of ‘transformation projects’ in selected properties (stillborn); and to the commission from the Head Curator (now departed) of a sensible report on curatorship. This last prompted a decision to dramatically increase the curators from thirty-six to about sixty-five, under a new ‘Director of Curation [sic] and Experience’. The proliferation of overlapping, abstract and sesquipedalian titles, a National Trust speciality, is not reassuring and this sudden leap, albeit welcome, reflects a serious neglect of curatorship. It will be hard to find so many curators with the right knowledge, sensitivity and experience at short notice, but it is to be hoped that this increase will strengthen the Trust’s talented curatorial community, resurrect its influence on properties and not be dissipated.

The National Trust needs money and has recently delivered good financial results. But its system of governance would better serve its core purpose, ‘for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty’, if the checks and balances secured by wider direct outside participation were reinstalled. The disbandment of committees and of the Arts Panel has been noted; recently the Architecture, Archaeology and Gardens Panels, each skilled at delivering targeted and independent advice, have been replaced by an amorphously titled ‘Historic Environment Advisory Group’, incorporating a small ‘Design Advice Forum’, created as a sop to those who rightly argued that the Architecture Panel’s role was crucial. A charity that exists for ‘for ever, for everyone’ should surely cherish the direct engagement of those candid friends, whose memories are its memories, and whose wisdom and wide outside experience can mitigate the serious dangers of short-termism and oligarchic insularity.


1 Editorial, ‘Paintings in Trust’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 137 (1995), p.791. 

2 The National Trust Council survives, but this large body, recently reduced from 52 to 36 members, meets infrequently and exercises little direct power.