Why are you here?
PUBLISHED: 12:35 22 June 2015 | UPDATED: 13:30 22 June 2015
© Paul Bailey
You may have never heard of Philip Kerr, but he’s vital to the story of the National Trust. Without him, it’s unlikely that Blickling Estate would still be here to explore, as the trust’s Jo Bosch explains.
This marks the 75th year since Blickling Estate came to the National Trust, as a result of Philip Kerr’s untimely death. His short life made a difference to all of us, and we’ll be telling a new story at Blickling this year to celebrate the life and times of this visionary man.
Working alongside November Club, an award-winning arts company known for its unique approach to storytelling, we’ll be inviting visitors to see parts of the house he used privately, as well as for entertaining; and photographs, sounds, objects (and even smells) will create a sense of what it would have been like to be a house guest in the period leading up to the Second World War.
Philip Kerr, the 11th Marquess of Lothian inherited the estate in 1930, having already embarked on a successful political career as secretary to prime minister Lloyd George, between 1916 and 1921. A leading member of the so-called Cliveden Set between the wars, and a statesman respected by all parties, Lothian spent much of his limited spare time at Blickling, where he entertained the social set of the 1930s including Waldorf and Nancy Astor, prime minister Stanley Baldwin, comedienne Joyce Grenfell and (more controversially) German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop. Other celebrity acquaintances included George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Stalin. During this time, he also carried out a number of alterations to the interior of the house and to the gardens, with horticultural advice from famous socialite and garden designer Norah Lindsay.
But matters on the home front also occupied his thoughts. In 1934 he addressed the National Trust’s annual meeting, warning of the perils confronting historic houses and strongly urging the formation of a Country Houses Scheme. He understood the importance that country estates would have in protecting open spaces for future generations, saying: “I venture to think that the country houses of Britain with their gardens, their parks, their pictures, their furniture and their peculiar architectural charm, represent a treasure of quiet beauty . . .”
During a critical period in which he met twice with Adolf Hitler to try to negotiate peace in Europe, Lothian became instrumental in passing the National Trust Act which enabled the first large-scale transfer of country houses to the National Trust in lieu of death duties.
Unable to avert war, he became ambassador to the USA in 1939 and played a major role in encouraging the USA, then neutral, to supply Great Britain with weapons, warships and food to support the war effort, an act which arguably changed the course of the war. He persuaded a reluctant Churchill to write to President Roosevelt, arguing that Britain must put all its cards on the table to show that, if America didn’t help, the war would likely be lost.
Lord Lothian died in 1940 leaving Blickling’s house, most of its contents and 4500-acre estate to the National Trust in his will, “subject to regular access to it by the public”. He understood that the preservation of the fine Jacobean house and its historic garden and parkland depended upon the public visiting it regularly and holding it dear. As it happened, Blickling was one of the first houses to be approved for ownership by the National Trust under the Country Houses Scheme, an irony which wouldn’t have been lost on Lothian.
His bequest enabled the preservation of Blickling and paved the way for the subsequent acquisition by the trust of many of the houses that are visited and loved by trust members in this country and beyond. We hope you will come to admire Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, as much as we do and to understand just how important he is to your life today.
You’ll find things looking a little different inside the hall this year. We hope that it encourages debate and reflection, and helps you to answer the question, “Why are you here?”