Frederik Poulsen on English Aristocrats

Frederik Poulsen visited numerous English manor houses while working on his Greek and Roman Portraits in English Country Houses (1929) and scouting works to purchase for the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. He describes these visits in a more informal fashion in several of his works, including in a brief account entitled “Engelske Aristokrater” (English Aristocrats), published in Vi vandrer: Rejseskildringer og skitser (1926).

The Pantheon of Ince Blundell Hall, one of the manor houses visited by Poulsen.

He had scathing things to say about the state of the English aristocracy, whose interests he claimed were limited to hunting, sports and politics. In one passage (p. 47, in my translation below), he employs classical topoi of decline and contemporary European idealisations of the Roman aristocracy. While “small garden temple” hardly fits the Ince Blundell pantheon, the description of a partly deconstructed collection resonates with other accounts of its state in the early 20th century.

Unlike when I was on a summer tour of manor houses on Funen, where the owners both knew and loved their possessions and always showed me their interiors, paintings and porcelain…the English lords completely lacked insight into the artworks of their palaces. At a palace in western England, masterpieces of old Flemish and Italian art were hung alongside fakes (“Fuskerarbejder”) from the 19th century, and inside a small garden temple, development had completely ceased in 1837, the year when the former owner died. The niches stood empty, while on the floor stood statues and busts crammed together with beams and tubs and boxes that were yet to be unpacked. In one box I glimpsed a cast of the Parthenon frieze beneath the decaying, century-old straw. Leaves and earth had flown in and covered artworks whose market value was at least 1 million Danish Kroner. In here I felt the contrast between the ruling classes of ancient Rome and contemporary England that otherwise display so many similarities. A Caesar and a Cicero went into politics, ennobled by the best culture of the time and as connaisseurs of science, poetry and culture. They were aristocrats of the mind (“Aandsaristokrater”), whose conversations were about studies and books. But the English lords were not friends of the Muses. Even when they collected, their taste was poor, and only chance encounters and bulk-buys (in Danish, this is an alliteration: “Slumpetræf og Storkøb”) led precious works to their palaces.

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