James Lees-Milne: the acid tongued art connoisseur 18 April 2016

A watercolour painting of Polesden Lacey

James Lees-Milne was quite a character. But who was James Lees-Milne and what part did he play at Polesden Lacey? He was a dandy, a gossip, an aesthete and most importantly a key figure in the history of the National Trust.

Who was James Lees-Milne?

His work with the Trust began in wartime Britain, a period of our history which caused subsequent austerity, and in terms of the longevity of country houses, a real low-point.  Country houses were being demolished in their hundreds during this period, as financially, their owners struggled to maintain them in the new modern world.
 
The key facts about this fascinating gentleman: he worked for the National Trust between 1936 and 1973, he was a writer, an expert on country houses, an architectural historian and luckily for us, a diarist and biographer.
 
Lees-Milne is famous for his diaries that he kept throughout his career, and which were published with some scandalous consequences in 1975.  His work with the National Trust involved visiting the owners of country houses and helping them settle their financial difficulties, by encouraging them to donate their house and/or collections to the National Trust.
 

Cheeky pen portraits

Lees-Milne was a thoroughly engaging writer, who had a flare for describing the people he came into contact with.  Some pen portraits of these country house owners were not always very flattering and thirty years later in 1975 when these diaries were published, many of these owners weren’t too pleased to find themselves in print for all to read.
 

‘It is filled with good things...’

Happily Mrs Greville and Polesden Lacey avoided any censure in Lees-Milne's diaries.  Revisiting his entry from Wednesday 14 October 1942, when he first visited Polesden Lacey, Lees-Milne was really quite pleased with both the collection and our Maggie Greville.
 
Listen to the bees buzzing in the lavendar garden
The lavendar garden at Polesden Lacey
 
"I motored with Captain Hill to Polesden Lacey.  The house was built by Cubitt in 1818 and looks from a distance across the valley much as it did in Neale's view of that date.  The interior was, I imagine, entirely refitted by Mrs Greville, in the expensive taste of an Edwardian millionairess.
 
But it is not vulgar.  It is filled with good things, and several museum pieces.  The upstairs rooms are well-appointed, in six or seven self-contained suites with bathrooms attached.  There is a grass courtyard in the middle of the house. Mrs Greville has been buried in the rose garden to the west of the house, next to the dog cemetery in accordance with female country house owner tradition.  
 
" The gardens are unostentatious and rather beautiful: the grounds are very beautiful, with a splendid view across the vale from the south front to the wooded hill beyond. Queen Mary's Walk is a straight grass ride bordered with yew."
- James Lees-Milne

Pieces of museum quality

There are all sorts of insights into Lees-Milne’s character and the attitude of the National Trust in this passage, most notably in his reference to ‘museum pieces’.  What is a museum piece then?  
 
Would it be Polesden’s world class Dutch Old Masters paintings, the Renaissance maiolica ceramics or the collection of silverware?  Or would it be the daily household objects, pots and pans, brushes and chairs, that were considered useful rather than beautiful?  
 
I think James Lees-Milne was more concerned with the former, and so to him, museum quality meant the paintings, ceramics and silverware.  But is this actually true, or was Lees-Milne ruling out a section of history that he had no right to?
 
Now before we ourselves delineate a judgemental pen-portrait of Lees-Milne, let’s remember that we all have our perceptions of what a ‘museum quality’ object is.  We all have objects in our house that we consider to be sacrificial, boring or not worth keeping.  We all have objects from the recent past that we don’t consider to be historical – that old kitchen implement that isn’t as quick as modern gadgets.
 
In short, we all have the perception that some objects are historically worth more than others, and in this vein we all have our own ideas about what should and shouldn’t be a ‘museum quality’ object. 
 

Forever for everyone

Agree or disagree, like him or lump him, James Lees-Milne was a key figure in the history of the National Trust, and certainly helped shape our current thinking of opening our houses to the public, and allowing as many people to enjoy them as possible.  He helped to  save dozens of country houses from the chop and maintained our heritage  ‘forever, for everyone’.
 
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