Upstairs Downstairs

28-08-2005

The State Institute for Monument Preservation was recently proudly publicising the first stage of its restoration of the interiors of Lednice Castle in Moravia. Lednice was the country palace of the Leichtensteins - and like its Schwarzenberg rival, Hluboka, is a huge neo-gothic affair, built to be Imperial Austrian versions of Windsor Castle. Despite efforts to keep them intact as museums, both castles suffered under Communism. Since 1989 the work on Lednice has been impressive. Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park, with its many romantic follies, has received help from the World Monuments Fund amongst others. So it was with pleasure that I saw a recent Czech magazine promoting an article within on the newly restored interiors.

Lednice, photo: CzechTourismLednice, photo: CzechTourism But the pictures it showed were a shock. They looked like rooms straight out of a Laura Ashley Home Furnishings catalogue from the 1980s - plenty of floral wallpapers, the odd oriental rug... actually rather comfy. But Austrian neo-gothic? Not a bit of it.

What the restored rooms tell us is how remote the pre-1948 aristocratic life has become, so that no-one can really recall enough to reconstruct interiors from a way of life that didn't just gently pass into history, but was butchered into oblivion. Real Victorian interiors were crowded with furnishings, the walls hung in a solid mass of pictures and were often far from comfortable, in our sense, being used for the variety of starchy, formal rituals that life in clothes you could hardly bend down in, let alone run free anywhere, demanded. You see, servants did all the bending and stretching.

In Britain and France large numbers of castles and country houses have been preserved with all their contents intact, many of them lived-in by their heirloom owners who remember the palmy days even if they cannot quite re-live them. So furniture is not displayed as in a museum but as it would be in use, and the functions of the hundreds of rooms in the bigger houses are still either remembered or kept - from the Brushing Room (where skirts that had trailed in the garden were brushed daily) or the Ironing Room (where the master's newspapers and banknotes were ironed crisp and his pocket change washed bright) to the grand Withdrawing Room (where the ladies would retire after dinner while their menfolk smoked cigars and passed the Port round the Dining Room table) or the State Bedroom (where the best bed would be kept in readiness for a visit from the sovereign).

Czech castles have lost all this memory. Most of them are just so many empty rooms - and those not lucky enough to be State Museums on display or crammed full of confiscated German furniture, perpetually 'in store' - were used for anything from prisons to low-grade workshops to cowsheds. In 1946 Russian army trucks backed-up to several castles so that whole libraries could be shovelled out of the windows into them; and antique furniture was nice dry wood to burn in the harsh winter of '47. So of course it is good that restoration at a castle like Lednice has started, but it will take more attempts to get it right.

The paradox of the Communists' display of Czech castles, given their anti-bourgeois crusade, was that mainly only impressive (and very bourgeois) State Rooms were opened to the public. One or two kitchens were shown and none of the servants' halls or the garrets under the tiles where they were lodged. It's odd they wanted to show the fairy story and not the social reality and yet wherever these service interiors are displayed as well as grand rooms in other countries, they are always immensely popular.

28-08-2005