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Wimpole History Festival: National Trust Curator James Grasby reveals secrets from the homes of the rich and famous

How would the giants of literary history feel about us taking a selfie in their lavatory or leaning against their bedpost? And what do we as visitors take away from that experience?

The National Trust’s James Grasby has curated many historic celebrity homes over the years, and is fascinated by their special attraction for the public.

James Grasby, curator at the National Trust (12352415)
James Grasby, curator at the National Trust (12352415)

He will be at Wimpole History Festival revealing secrets from the stars but also behind the scenes tales about recreating a house and how much ‘fakery’ is acceptable.

“I’ll be exploring how the National Trust has gone about acquiring the houses of famous people, how they choose them and which people are worth remembering forever - as well as which celebrities aren't going to survive,” says James,

He reveals that some famous names whose houses have been acquired by the Trust were not always the cherished national treasures they are today. So, there have to be discussions about who will make the cut “because it is clearly a big thing when the Trust acquires a house and says we are going to keep it forever.”

Hardy's birthplace (12352417)
Hardy's birthplace (12352417)

One example is the novelist Thomas Hardy, whose birthplace in Dorset is one of the Trust’s most popular attractions and was acquired for the nation in the 1940s.

James says: “The Trust was saying at the time the house came up for sale that nobody reads Thomas Hardy and the debate was about whether he was worth remembering. Of course things have rather changed since then.

“In fact, Thomas Hardy was incredibly ashamed of his birth place and in his own lifetime said ‘please plant hedges round it because I don't want trippers with Kodaks photographing the house’. Because he didn't want people to know that he came from a very ordinary household.”

Hardy's birthplace (12352419)
Hardy's birthplace (12352419)

James has to bear all this in mind as he curates the houses that once belonged to famous owners. Whilst working on Lawrence of Arabia’s house he discovered that the mantel piece was built to exactly the right height for him to lean against while eating a tin of sardines. And that he kept a shovel by the back door as he preferred an ‘open air’ loo to the one his mother had installed in the house.

How much intimacy is too much in curating someone’s home? We now know much about the marital secrets of George Bernard Shaw and William Morris from their bedroom arrangements. And the Marquis of Anglesey’s prosthetic leg has become an unexpected exhibition centrepiece, which gives clues to the wearer’s passion for dancing.

“To go and see Thomas Hardy’s lavatory, where we now accommodate people taking their photographs, and to visit Clouds Hill and find Lawrence of Arabia's bed - what is that saying about the contribution those people made and how they would like to be remembered?” says James.

He also puzzles over people visiting houses where none of the original furnishings remain, but is pleased to hear from feedback that visitors have enjoyed their experiences in these places.

Lawrence of Arabia's house (12352423)
Lawrence of Arabia's house (12352423)

“I went to see Paul McCartney’s house in Liverpool, which is now owned by the Trust,” says James. “You walk into this bedroom, which has been completely reconstructed by the National Trust with nothing that is indigenous or anything to do with him, and this room is a complete fabrication. It is presented as the room in which he strummed his guitar with Lennon, but it is complete make believe.”

Most people’s experience of the Beatles is either of seeing them live or from recorded music, but what does it add a faked up interior add?” he wonders.

Over the past 32 years he has spent working with the National Trust, which owns homes belonging to many national figures including Agatha Christie, Elgar, Sir Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Beatrix Potter and Rudyard Kipling.

“Having experienced this, I think it is a form of pilgrimage isn't it? It's getting closer to the place things happened. I think there’s real magic about that.”

There is a long tradition of people wanting to walk in famous footsteps. For example, the home of William Shakespeare has been a tourist attraction for centuries.

James says: “Travellers to Shakespeare’s house in the 18th century left graffiti on the wall and the idea was somehow you imbibed some of that genius because it may bring something to your world. People were also selling cuttings from his mulberry tree for about three hundred years.”

He sees that now with the National Trust’s restoration of Isaac Newton’s House which (possibly) has an offshoot of the apple tree that inspired Newton’s theory of gravity.

Paul McCartney's house in Liverpool (12352421)
Paul McCartney's house in Liverpool (12352421)

“Does it detract from the enjoyment of the house knowing that it may not have been his birthplace at all - its in the small print - it may actually have been the house next door?” says James.

The answer to that is surely yes, but James argues “I don’t think it does matter’.

And he adds that the Trust always acknowledges ‘fakery’ or reconstructions.

“I think what people find in those spaces, authentic or not, those spaces are on the whole the actual locations where things happened. If you think of it as consulting the genius of the place, there could be something about genes and genetic inheritance and nature of something in the water that turned the son of a woman in service and a jobbing builder into one of this country’s most celebrated novelists. There may be something in the air.

“There’s great authenticity in theatre where you suspend your disbelief and there is value in that, regardless of here you are. National Trust houses are places where performances are played out.”

He will be addressing ‘the whole business of authenticity’ in his talk, including the delightful snippet that none of the items in Thomas Hardy’s birthplace or his later home Max Gate are Hardy’s possessions.

“There is not a single thing in either of those places that have anything to do with Thomas Hardy because I bought them all on eBay,” chuckles James.

“All I had were a few contemporary photographs of Hardy in the house and it is no secret that we show it as it might have been. We ask visitors how they feel about it and TripAdvisor reports say it has a wonderful atmosphere there and people really felt the spirit of the man.

“So, maybe the archaeological treatment of the house as found, as in Pompeii, is unnecessary.

“But then another house I was involved with, Lawrence of Arabia’s home, contains an awful lot of his stuff and that, of course, is absolutely magical. To see the seats that he designed for himself in the 1930s that fitted him like the cockpit of a spitfire, where he wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that is absolutely spellbinding. You can almost see his finger prints on it but they are different sorts of experiences.”

Thomas Hardy's house, Max Gate (12352427)
Thomas Hardy's house, Max Gate (12352427)

In the end he sees the houses of famous people as “cenotaphs for people whose contribution lies elsewhere.

“This is all part of the national memory, some of which is accepted as being myth and legend. There’s joy to be had in that because the motive is something bigger really which is to give pleasure and a sense of identity and a real sense of place."

The Wimpole History Festival runs from June 20 to 23. Visit wimpolehistoryfestival.com.

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