Written by Sarah Greenwood
I join the global sisterhood on Friday 8 March to celebrate International Women’s Day, which features in my personal calendar largely because it is big in ex-Communist countries and I once lived in Romania. Apparently the concept has been around since 1909 but few Brits would have registered it more than a couple of decades ago. That set me thinking about influential women from historic houses & gardens through the centuries and I came up with rather an interesting list.
So here are my personal suggestions for the top 8 Historic Houses & Gardens Women:
First off, it has to be Celia Fiennes. Her tireless journeys through Britain from the Kentish Weald to southern Scotland in the 1680s to the 1700s can still be used as the basis for any trip through today’s Britain. So many of the houses she visited are still there for us to see – some remarkably unchanged; Chatsworth, Uppark or Wilton to name a few. An example to all country house visitors – endlessly curious, meticulous in her descriptions, brave and opinionated– she still makes a great model for the adventurous. Shame she didn’t have a camera as well as a pen and a good eye.
Jane Austen makes it in at number 2. The surge in her popularity in my lifetime means that more and more people are captivated by country house life and the past. Of course, Pemberley has to be Chatsworth but for her other fictional houses, your imagination can get to work. I for one, never quite agree with the film makers, though Groombridge Place did make an atmospheric Longbourn for the Bennets when Keira Knightley was Lizzie.
I asked a couple of other people for their ideas about country house women and both came up with Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury managed to leave us one of the most delightful Tudor houses in Britain – “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall “- which survived little changed mostly because it was usually a dower house for a succession of Cavendish women and never the main residence after Bess’ death in 1608. It still feels very personal; her initials top the walls and her tapestries still hang in her chambers; it’s not hard to picture her swishing slowly down the length of the Long Gallery.
Another long lived matriarch makes it in at number 4; Lady Anne Clifford. She is still revered in Cumbria for her energy in rebuilding houses damaged in the Civil War including Appleby Castle, Brougham Castle and Brough Castle. But what gets her on this list is not her building exploits so much as her tenacity in sticking up for her rights. Her father willed her inheritance to his brother. Ann stood out against her uncle, two husbands and even King James I and pursued her claim through the courts until she finally achieved her independence in her late 50s. Luckily she still had plenty of time to enjoy her wealth and freedom and retired to her Northern estates to enjoy it for the next 30 years.
My number 5 is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Her husband John’s extraordinary military exploits against the French may have been the justification for Queen Anne’s gift of Blenheim Palace, but it was Sarah who devoted herself to the task of completing this monument to greatness. It took her 22 years and an endless round of squabbles with the architect John Vanbrugh. What they left us is one of the most extraordinary palaces anywhere in the world of a grandiose magnificence unusual for understated Britain.
Queen Victoria, another long lived woman, proved herself a great leader of fashion. In building Balmoral in the Highlands she encouraged a nationwide mania for all things Scottish and had a permanent impact on the style of the Scottish nobility and the houses they built and decorated. At the extreme far end of the country she built another influential house at Osborne on the Isle of Wight.
My next candidate is Gertrude Jekyll. This modest woman created a modern style of gardening which is still with us. She had a talent for painting with plants, mixing colours and drifting bulbs to add softness and lyricism to the hard landscape designs of her partner Sir Edwin Lutyens. Many Jekyll gardens survive all over the country. Try Lindisfarne Castle or Whalton Manor in Northumberland or Miss Jekyll’s own garden at Munstead Wood, open for the National Gardens Scheme.
And now to bring my list up to date with a woman for today. I nominate Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Yes, I know we are back to Chatsworth again, but the fact that you can go there and see its treasures is largely thanks to her and her husband. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable tax bill after the war, they moved back into Chatsworth, rationalised their landholdings and embarked on a lifetime of opening the house to the public. It is still a leader in this regard and the Duchess has been consistently at the forefront of its innovation.
And these are my 8 heritage women for 8 March. Who would you pick?