85 of the National Trust’s best-selling guidebooks can now be purchased online through our website.
I use the guidebooks a lot in my work, to quickly check facts about certain houses, gardens, rooms and objects. Over time I have collected different editions of the same guidbook, and it is interesting to see how they have changed over the years.
The earliest National Trust guidebooks were small, sober affairs, as befitted the austere 1940s and 1950s, and for quite a long time the guidebooks kept that restrained look.
I can remember buying one at Clandon Park in the mid-1980s which was fairly substantial in size, but still had the self-consciously ‘tasteful’ green cover. Inside some of the pages contained text only – extraordinary by today’s standards – and the relatively sparse illustrations were mainly in black and white.
Even so, to me as a teenager just becoming aware of ‘heritage’ it was rather thrilling to have all this diverse information about a house, its garden, the people who lived there and the things they collected – a biography of a place, effectively – in one booklet.
In some cases I have managed to find the pre-NT guidebooks as well, published when the house in question was still privately owned, and which show different and understandably more personal approaches to presenting a family’s heritage. And in places where the ‘donor family’ has a lot of input, such as Waddesdon Manor, the guidebooks still have a distinctive identity.
Today the guidebooks are much more visually stimulating both outside and in, as they have to compete for attention with the plethora of other products on offer in the various National Trust shops. And in some places there is now more than one type of guidebook, to cater for the different needs and tastes of different visitor groups.
It is probably not too far-fetched to say that the guidebooks mirror the development of the National Trust as a whole, and reflect trends in our appreciation of the past more generally. Perhaps – and I say this only half in jest – the time has come for a proper sociological and art-historical study of the subject?
Update: It had slipped my mind that our guidebooks editor, Oliver Garnett, has published a fascinating article on country house guidebooks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, on pp. 7-9 of the October 2010 issue of ABC Bulletin. Hopefully he will soon produce another article on the history of National Trust guidebooks.