A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever

by M. Kirby Talley, Jr.

AS KEATS FAMOUSLY PUT IT in his poem Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” As a premise in aesthetics this sentiment is correct. Regrettably in the real world, things of beauty, both great and small, are constantly under threat. One needs only to think of World Wars I and II to realise the extent of irreplaceable losses to our built cultural heritage and the contents which graced their interiors.

During World War II entire cities were bombed to dust. The works of brilliant architects and the extraordinarily talented craftsmen who labouriously brought them to life — which sometimes required centuries to complete — were wilfully destroyed in the fiery twinkling of an eye.

John Ruskin, one of the greatest of all writers on art and architecture, saw buildings in The Lamp of Memory in his Seven Lamps of Architecture almost as anthropomorphic objects. “The greatest glory of a building … is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.” Great buildings stand as sentinels to the ingenuity, creativity, and genius of the human mind, and the desire to achieve a perfect blend of beauty and facility.

While war is the most notorious cause of the destruction of beauty, many others, less dramatic, are just as final. Anyone who saw the 1974 Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, The Destruction of the Country House, 1875 – 1974, or its catalogue, will not forget the intense sorrow caused by looking at photographs of remarkable buildings and interiors, most of which are completely gone and now only known thanks to these haunting images. Fire destroyed many of these houses, poor location others, owners’ whims quite a few, but lack of finances to maintain such establishments counted for the majority of losses.

The 1974 V & A exhibition spurred a renewed impulse for heritage preservation in Great Britain, already a leader in the field with its renowned privately funded National Trust for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (1895/1907), and the National Trust for Scotland (1931). In 1983 English Heritage, a governmental organisation, was established. The United States was not far behind Great Britain with John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Colonial Williamsburg (1928/1970), the Preservation Society of Newport County (1945), and the American National Trust for Historic Preservation (1949). Regardless how many such organisations, whether privately or government funded, are now operating around the world, not enough of them exist to keep up with the daily losses to the global international cultural heritage.

We have a tendency to forget just how many private owners of country houses still exist in Britain who manage to maintain their ofttimes immense domiciles filled with irreplaceable treasures. Their preservation achievements have been the result of love for their ancestral homes, and the landscape settings which set them off to such advantage. Most country house owners today realise they are more custodians than owners.

While financial necessity initially forced many of these owners to open their homes to the public, these days most do so with pleasure and an awareness that such beauty and history should be shared. This was eloquently expressed by Paul Mellon, discriminating collector and benefactor par excellence, when he insisted the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., be accessible for all to “enjoy a five minute reverie with beauty.”

Today it has become ever more important for the private sector to step forward and play an active rôle in the preservation of art and architecture — in fact culture in general — an essential undertaking now being increasingly shunned by governments everywhere due to budget cuts and a distressing lack of understanding of the significance of history. If people are denied — for whatever reasons — the opportunity to properly comprehend the whys and ways of the past and how they brought them to where they are, they will never perceive how they should attempt to best proceed into an unknown and uncertain future.

Dr. Ann and Charles Johnson deserve immense praise for their insightful courage and unstinting determination in undertaking the stunning restoration of Château Carolands, one of the largest private residences ever built in America.

Inspiration for Carolands comes from various sources, primary among them Madame de Pompadour’s Château de Bellevue at Meudon, alas torn down in 1823, and the much earlier Château de Maisons by François Mansart, still standing N.W. of Paris. Actual work on Harriett Pullman Carolan’s dream house began in 1914, but the subsequent history of the building project, and the house’s life after Mrs. Carolan, is not an especially joyful story. That saga is captivatingly told in an engaging and highly informative documentary film, Three Women and a Château.

Over the years, this American Château remarkably escaped several close encounters with the wrecker’s ball. Considering the size of the house — 98 rooms in a 67,066 square foot mansion — and its degraded condition, courage again comes readily to mind when Charles and Dr. Ann Johnson bought Carolands in 1998. A meticulous, multi-year restoration was undertaken and in 2012 the Johnsons donated le château des trois dames to the Carolands Foundation. Thanks to their vision and generosity, this masterpiece of Gilded Age American architecture is open to future generations for their delectation and edification.

Click for Curriculum Vitae and Suggested Reading