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The Country House Experience


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Professor Kate Retford
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

Country houses are a dominant presence in British culture. Recently, the National Trust, which maintains more than 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments, made the news when its membership hit 5 million. A report published by Historic Houses (the association concerned with privately and charitably owned properties) declared that 24 million visits had been made to its members’ properties in 2017. Yet these are well established as fraught sites within the field of heritage studies: the homes of the gentry and aristocracy; the ideal long established as descent through the male line; some built with the proceeds of empire, even slavery.   

In this module, we will explore such issues and place them in historical context. We will consider the functions and purposes of these properties, and their place in our understanding of gender, class and national identities. We will not provide a history of architectural styles in the British country house, nor an overview of the art collections to be found in these buildings. Instead, we will focus on what the country house means, and has meant, to various ‘stakeholders’ over the last 300 years. These include those who have owned them, and those who have lived in them, but also country house tourists, from the eighteenth century through to the present day.

Indicative syllabus

  • The country house: politics and power
  • The country house: gender and the family
  • The country house and empire
  • The early days of country house visiting
  • The Treasure Houses of Britain: country houses as repositories of art
  • Country house tourism: the National Trust and the stately home business
  • The destruction of the country house
  • The country house: the nation’s heritage?

NB: this module will consist of eight evening classes at Birkbeck, and two Friday field trips to country houses. Please ensure that you are aware of the dates for these site visits, and are able to participate, before choosing the module.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • have developed acuity in considering visual culture at postgraduate level
  • understand this visual culture within the social and cultural context of its production
  • have knowledge of methodologies concerned with the study of country houses
  • have engaged constructively in current debates concerning the study of country houses and its changing nature.