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by Brook S. Mason
Museum curators, conservators, architects and scholars have long swooned over Great Britain’s storied Attingham Summer School, operated since 1952 by the Attingham Trust in Teddington, England. "Transforming" and "life-enhancing" are some of the terms bandied about for this highly targeted immersion in the world of the English country house, offering behind-the-scenes tours at 29 stately mansions during a three-week stint, chock-a-block with lectures on Sevres, silver and stained glass.

Attingham has always been off limits to journalists, though editors were allowed now and then. So the most recent Attingham Summer School, July 7-27, 2006, had one remarkable difference -- I was the first journalist attendee in 55 years.

Talk about prestigious alums. The upwards of 2,500 Attinghamites include such gilt-edged names in museum and preservation circles as Gillian Wilson of the Getty Museum, Morrison Hecksher of the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing and Desmond Guiness, founder of the Irish Georgian Society. Scratch a decorative arts expert and chances are they’ve attended Attingham. Peter Lang and Alistair Clarke of Sotheby’s New York both matriculated from there. The majority of the Bard Graduate Center faculty and graduate students have studied at the summer school. "Attendees get hands-on experience with priceless collections that remain in situ and not set off by themselves in a museum," says Susan Soros, who founded the BGC and rates the summer school as "intensely rewarding." The decorative arts retain "their full meaning in the context of their original setting," she says.

That kind of deep understanding of the arts as an integral element of the English country house setting was precisely the goal of Attingham creators Helen Lowenthal, who headed the V&A museum education department, and George Trevelyan, warden of Shorpshire Adult College. Back in 1952, they set up the course to teach American curators about the richness of the English manor. Any notion of white gloves and pearls or the blue-hair brigade was quickly dismissed by the sheer rigor of the course. Architecture, landscape gardening and the full range of both the decorative and the fine arts are front and center. Over the years, presentation and marketing have been wedged into the curriculum. Director of this not-for-the-frivolous program is the dynamic Lisa White, an 18th-century furniture expert who combines scholarly incisiveness, humor and grace with a rare eloquence.

What is Attingham really like? Well, it’s been dubbed boot camp for curators, with outings that start at 7:30 am, clotted cream teas, three lectures a day (occasionally) and the ubiquitous brolly and mac (umbrella and a raincoat). But the details pale in the face of the impressive roster of 40-plus scholars and experts who participate in the course. The list of lecturers says it all, an honor roll that begins with Martin Drury, chairman of the Landmark Trust and prior director general of the National Trust, and moves onto professor John Wilton-Ely, considered the definitive scholar on neoclassicist architect John Adam and Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, and Ros Savill, who heads up London’s Wallace Collection and penned the definitive three-volume catalogue of its Sevres holdings.

But Attingham’s hands-on aspect is really what’s so enticing. Savill passed around bits of Sevres for examination, while tapestry-maven Annabel Westman spotlighted period textiles and food historian Peter Brears explained 18th-century kitchen practices. Clock historians, 18th-century plaster experts, landscape architects and more were on hand, as well as a bevy of National Trust and English Heritage personnel.

Overall, the course is endlessly fascinating and its initial setting -- West Dean, an early-19th-century castle -- could not be more sublime. Covered with magnolias and the largest flint stone building in all of Britain, West Dean is nestled in a 6,000-acre park. It’s the ancestral home of the late American Edward James, a patron of both Dalí and Magritte. Inside are paneled creations by the supremely talented Rex Whistler over doors, stuffed giraffe heads under glass and even a snarling, taxidermied tiger or two encased in glass.

Above all, Attingham is about context, context, context. Nothing else takes the place of actually seeing antiques in situ, whether treasured or relegated to the attic. Take Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, long adored by country-house owners. At Petworth, one of Britain’s great Baroque houses and a place best known to art aficionados as a retreat for J.M.W. Turner, 23 different blue-and-white vessels -- the baluster kind, three feet high -- lined one particular room. At Chatsworth, three enormous blue-and-white examples, one for spring bulbs, were tucked into a fireplace. Coromandel screens were the rage in the 18th century, and at Chatsworth, one was cut up to form a chest, proving the fashion for reinvention.

The most fascinating bit of preservation has to be the humongous 110-room Calke Abbey, which can serve as the exemplum for a new chapter headlined "benign neglect." It’s a time warp overseen by the Harpur and Harpur-Crewe families, who eschewed modern conveniences -- they only installed electricity in 1962 -- while ratcheting up eccentricity in their collecting of taxidermy, never throwing a thing away. Back in the 1950s, with stupendous death duties prevailing, English country houses in general spiraled into a devastating decline and many were demolished. Now, Calke Abbey encapsulates that particular vanished era, with its tattered rugs and collections preserved intact.

The Attingham course is also about changing tastes in preservation, which is demonstrated by decorator John Fowler’s (1906-97) trimming up of the 17th-century Sudbury Hall (the lavish interiors of which were featured in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice). Fowler had said once, "I like the decoration of a room to be well-behaved but free from too many rules." He was a genius at choosing colors.

Attingham is also about extraordinary access, access, access, far beyond the forbidding velvet robe. Who else but Attinghamites get to alight on the roof of Hardwick Hall, the Tudor home to Bess of Hardwick, the richest woman in England in the 1500s? She built perhaps the most expensive home in the entire country at the time. Bess made huge windows the fashion of the day, and she also had a prescient sense for monogramming, placing her initials some two feet high atop the roof line. And who but Attinghamites get to lunch with the Duke of Devonshire or dine at Winkburn Hall or wander through the breakfast room of Arundel Castle or peek into the kitchen of the 21st lord of Broughton Castle?

But add to access and context the interplay of a diverse student body, which makes for another level of enrichment. The head of the Royal Collections of Sweden, the V&A’s metalwork specialist, a preservation architect from Croatia and countless architectural historians, museum curators, interior designers and scholars made up the mix this summer.

Detail, the kind of evocative minutiae that adds spark, rigor and realism to understanding taste, is another essential part of the Attingham experience. Why were tapestries banished in 18th-century dining rooms in favor of intricately carved creations by Grinling Gibbons? The woven pictures would absorb food, so Gibbons’ virtuoso 3D reliefs of crayfish and lobsters, like those found at the 17th-century Petworth House in West Sussex, were right in sync with room set for meals. Van Dyck charged more for portraits in which the figure’s hands were displayed. The grandest and most costly piece of furniture in the 18th century was the state bed (think staggering drapery fees).

After West Dean, attendees head north for a week in Nottingham and a final week in Manchester. The locale for the third week always varies and this year, Tatton Park, Little Moreton Hall and Henbury Hall, a 20th-century recreation done in the style of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda (1552), were on the roster.

The transformation of these houses is riveting. Goodbye landed nobility lording it up in the castle, hello college, with organic farming joining with cabinetry and tapestry courses, not to mention two million pints of milk annually and, at West Dean, hundreds of lamb chops. These days, weddings are big business for houses like Capesthorne Hall, the 18th-century Jacobean-style manor in East Cheshire. Others turn to rock concerts to snare new audiences. The medieval Broughton Castle near Banbury has cleverly corralled Hollywood, serving as setting for The Madness of King George, Shakespeare in Love and other celluloid tales.

The British National Trust, which boasts over 612,000 acres and 300-plus buildings and gardens, counts more than 12.5 million visitors to its manor houses each year. English Heritage has some five million attendees, and its Historic Houses Association a staggering 15 million. In the U.S., our National Trust toted up a more modest attendance of 786,918 at 28 historic properties last year. That’s a telling comparison of our interest in and reverence for the past. Could it be that we lack an Attingham-like legion of grads to lead the way?

BROOK S. MASON is chief correspondent for Art & Antiques.