A taxonomy of guidebooks

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.

31 Responses to “A taxonomy of guidebooks”

  1. Mark Nokkert Says:

    Hello Emile,

    Lovely subject! Thanks for this.
    Just wondered: having seen and used so many different guidebooks over the years, would you say there are certain winning/ best formulas? Which ones, for instance, would you recommend to look at if a property intends to rewrite their guide book?

  2. Andrew Says:

    Gosh – I am envious. We have a good shelf of guidebooks gathered over the years, but not as many (or as many repeats!) as you.

    It seems to me that more recent guidebooks tend to have more photographs and rather fewer words – and therefore more visual appeal but less factual information – than older ones. As a parent of young children, the guidebooks is something to savour after the event, but I rather like the short guides (often a folded piece of A4) which have enough information in one paragraph to put each room in context and point out the key items; we often get both (his and hers). There are some properties where there are good information or activity sheets for younger visitors (spot the animals in the plasterwork, etc) which are always helpful. And I believe are there some guidebook apps for mobile phones these days?

  3. Margaret McAvoy Says:

    Is anyone else salivating at the sight of the shelf-long collection of Trust guides? What fun!

  4. Michael Shepherd Says:

    Hello Emile,

    As a collector of NT guidebooks and guidebooks to stately homes in general I must say that the quality of the guides has plummeted over the last few years. Those written by Gervase Jackson-Stops and Tim Knox in the 1980s to the 1990s were of an excellent standard with much in-depth and detailed information especially those published under the Book of the House imprint. The recent move to souvenir guides has seen an increase in the number of photographs and illustrations at the expense of any detail and can only be seen as a general dumbing down of standards across the NT. As an example of good guidebooks those produced by English Heritage are worthy of the title whilst those produced by Heritage House Group for Haddon Hall and Parham are of excellent quality. I only hope that those responsible at the Nt are able to stop the decline!

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mark, your question is very interesting – and extremely difficult to answer 🙂

    A guidebook obviously needs to reflect the unique identity of the house or garden or estate in question, but one also needs to think of the intended audience (which is why there are now sometimes several differently targeted guidebooks for the same property) – so there you have two important factors.

    There seems to be a trend at the moment towards greater diversity in guidebook design, reflecting the greater freedom that the individual properties are now given to express their own identity and history in their publicity and signage and so on (Upton House and Attingham Park being good examples).

    Personally I think really good images are very important in guidebooks, as they can be such an effective and persuasive way to communicate with the visitor/reader/viewer, and as the visual beauty of places is such a big part of what we are about.

    And I am something of a traditionalist in believing in the importance of the serious, meaty guidebook. Our guidebooks are often the only easily available general introduction to the history and significance of a particular place, and I think we have a duty to keep making that available. At the same time we need to make sure that our guidebooks are as accessible and atrractive and well-written as possible.

    In addition there are now more conduits for more specilised information, such as the PDF catalogues on particular collections that can be accessed on our website, our Historic Houses and Collections Annual, our publications programme, and so on. But I think the guidebooks still have the role of providing an all-round, serious, fund and beautiful introduction to the places we look after.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, yes you list even more of the various types of information available at the property itself, and you rightly point to the importance of having something suitable for children too.

    Andrew and Margaret, I have indeed been a slightly obsessive scavenger of guidebooks, rescuing them whenever colleagues were chucking older ones out. Apart from everything else it clearly appeals to my inner stamp collector 🙂

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Michael, I share your appreciation of excellence in writing and research, but I don’t quite agree that there has been an absolute decline in the quality of the guidebooks. There certainly is a greater diversity of publications now, to cater for different audiences, but at the same time the more ‘serious’ guidebooks are still being published and updated.

    Indeed, there is now a programme of publishing a kind of ‘guidebook plus’: books that are slightly larger than the traditional guidebook and deal with places with particularly rich histories – the volume on the right in the images with the Stowe guidebooks above is an example of that.

    And conversely some of the older guidebooks (of course excepting those written by Gervase Jackson-Stops and Tim Knox, engaging stylists both) were so densely laden with information as to be almost – not quite, but almost – off-putting. I think we need a healthy balance between word and image, research and entertainment.

  8. Margaret McAvoy Says:

    I will agree with Andrew in remarking that I prefer the “substantive” text of older guidebooks as well. And while the entire premise of my industry is visual, I’m a softie for the older, solid covers! I don’t think that I know of a design enthusiast who isn’t a stamp enthusiast as well…and you may appreciate my very (!) first post 😉 (…and haven’t I been rather negligent since!) http://mcavoyanddaughters.wordpress.com/2011/12/ …all the best!

  9. Michael Shepherd Says:

    Hello Emile,

    I am afraid that we will have to agree to differ both regarding NT guidebooks and its publishing priorities in general. The new The People and The Place imprint of guidebooks which commenced last year with Stowe was again disappouinting since it is only a re-editing of the previous guidebook: indeed, even the chapter headings are the same. Moreover, there is no plan of the gardens included nor tour included which rather makes the term guidebook somewhat of a misnomer! This is made even worse by the fact it costs £14-99 whilst that for Petworth is listed at £16-99!!
    Regarding the NT publishing policy: the plan to publish regional guides to the Trust’s collection of portrait miniatures stopped after 2 volumes!!!

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Margaret, yes that Benjamin Franklin stamp is a very effective design, isn’t it, helped by the fact that the sitter had a rather iconic profile 🙂 I like those classic stamps of the (British) Queen too, again a profile, and issued in all those different colours.

    Michael, I appreciate your concern, which is obviously motivated by a wish to see the National Trust do better.

    The new People and Place books are indeed similar to previous guidebooks in some ways, but they are improved and updated in other ways. And the main point is that they are one way to ensure that the more in-depth information remains available.

    I am not quite sure why the series of miniatures catalogues hasn’t been completed yet, but I don’t think that that is because of a deliberate policy change.

    And on the plus side we have recently seen the publication of Mark Purcell’s deeply researched (as well as very readable) book on Ulster country house libraries. Furthermore, a book on the collections at and interiors of Ham House is about to come out, the product of an art-historical conference. And several other in-depth books on various aspects of the National Trust’s collections are at various stages of completion. So please don’t give up on us just yet 🙂

  11. graham daw Says:

    The first National Trust house I can recall visiting was Dunsland Court and in return for 6d my parents handed me a single sheet guide.It had a plan of the house’s historical development and a picture of an elaborate fire surround.Some years later, on a melancholy return, I was able to purchase, from the surviving small stable ,the full guide. This would have been available to visitors in the house’s first full year of opening.Now however it was a memorial guide book to a house that burnt a few weeks after my boyhood visit.

  12. style court Says:

    Emile, I’m just happy to learn about both resources! Thanks for such a beautifully illustrated post.

  13. style court Says:


    Kudos to the designer behind the Claydon cover. And I’ll be the one to say it: Erddig’s cover so evokes Downton Abbey’s opening credits 🙂

  14. Andrew Clegg Says:

    Hello Emile

    A particular area of interest for me is the provenance of the paintings at NT houses – something the guidebooks generally do not cover adequately if at all. On a recent visit to Polesden Lacey I spotted one of the room guides with an official looking paintings catalogue showing provenance etc yet despite offering to make a substantial donation to the Trust to acquire a copy I was told that it was not available to the general public. Please, please, please can you (1) arrange for the Polesden catalogue to become generally available (it will raise money and bring the collections alive) and (2) encourage more houses to follow Polesden’s bold lead.

  15. CherryPie Says:

    This subject chimes so much with me 🙂 I collect all the guidebooks from my visits and also collect the new one if it has changed on a subsequent visit.

    It interests my how the style and content of the guidebooks has changed over the years. I think the current guidebooks explain the information more easily but the earlier guidebooks gave more background information. I like to read the different guidebooks in conjunction with each other.

  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes that Claydon image is captivating, isn’t it? It seams to speak about serenity and harmony and the way architecture and decoration can work together. It is exactly what I meant by the importance of great images, how they communicate subliminally and emotionally. And another message ‘hidden’ in the image is that it is not just a nice picture, but you can actually go there and experience it in three dimensions.

    And yes those charismatic call bells in the Servants’ Passage at Erddig are very eloquent as well, being not just beatifully crafted objects but also emblematic of the intricate social and employment structures that used to exists at such houses and estates.

    But I think you are in danger of developing a serious case of Downtonitis, Courtney 🙂

    Andrew, yes detailed picture catalogues used to sometimes be included in guidebooks in the past and less so nowadays. But at the same time we have been developing other formats to make that kind of information available.

    On the one hand a number of National Trust historic houses now have dedicated collections guides in PDF format, available via our website (http://bit.ly/ytkvuQ). We currently have guides on the pictures and sculpture at Blickling Hall, Cragside, Ham House (the Green Closet), Kingston Lacy, Sizergh Castle and Stourhead, and there are also guides on the carriages at Arlington Court and the historic lighting at The Argory. I will check if a Polesden pictures guide is in the offing and let you know.

    On the other hand we are trying to make all our collections available through our public database, National Trust Collections (http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/). This is a work in progress (so do let us know if you spot anything that can be improved), but it may help you to find information about specific pictures.

    Cherie, I salute a fellow guidebook geek 🙂 I often use several versions of a guidebook at the same time too.

  17. Madame Guillotine Says:

    This is brilliant news! I use my old guide books a lot when researching my books and articles and often have to resort to the local Book Barn or Ebay to track down particularly helpful ones. 🙂

    Thanks so much NT! 🙂

  18. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Je vous en prie, Madame 🙂

  19. style court Says:


    What a brilliant observation. The dimension captured by the photographers (thinking of both Claydon’s architectural detail and Erddig’s bells) really does beckon the viewer — entice us to experience the houses in person.

    Downtonitis struck me a while back but I’m recovering.

  20. Andrew Says:

    Thank you, Emile. I was not aware of the PDF collection guides, which are good, if somewhat limited in range. The collections website is also excellent, but not quite the same as sitting down with a narrative story of the house and its contents.

    The best guidebooks explain the history of the family (or families) who lived there; the development of the house and estate; and allow you to recreate your visit by describing each room in turn. A picture is worth a thousand words, of course, but the text is important: a guidebook is not a photographic catalogue.

  21. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, I can recommend watching the 1980s Brideshead Revisited television series as a way to get over Downton Abbey – with the risk of course of developing Bridesheaditis instead…

    Andrew, you make a very eloquent plea for the continuing validity of the comprehensive guidebook. I know that our guidebook editors have been reading this post and the various comments, and I am sure they will note your view.

    Perhaps the ‘multi-platform’ approach that the National Trust seems to be moving towards at the moment is a symptom of our increasingly fragmented knowledge and media world; or perhaps the pendulum will swing back towards more comprehensive, all-enveloping formats?

  22. Michael Shepherd Says:

    With all this talk of Downtonitis readers may be interested in the splendid guidebook that was published for Highclere Castle in 2011. A detailed but most readable volume it does include a section on Staff at Highclere but, alas no mention of Lady Mary!

  23. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Graham, my apologies for the delay in making your comment visible, the spambot had somehow got hold of it. How poignant, the guidebook as memorial to a lost house. And it is interesting how clearly one remembers those ‘firsts’.

  24. Andrew Says:

    Interesting difference between the reaction to Dunsland in the 1960s and Uppark about 20 years later. But demolition of country houses was still in full swing in the 1960s.

    It seems Dunsland burnt down shortly before its official opening to the public, after 15 years of restoration. See http://www.thisisnorthdevon.co.uk/Trust-hoping-rekindle-history-Dunsland/story-12162728-detail/story.html and http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/after-the-fire-the-difficult-choices-raasay-house-scotland/

  25. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, thanks very much for those links. When I am back in the office tomorrow I will look up if Merlin Waterson’s history of the National Trust mentions anything about the circumstances surrounding the decision not to rebuild Dunsland.

  26. Andrew Says:

    Also perhaps worth mentioning Coleshill, which – as I understand it – was demolished by the National Trust after a fire in the 1950s.

  27. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes back then it was thought that such houses, once lost, could never be recreated, but nowadays we are more confident and ambitious.

  28. CharlecoteNT Says:

    Reblogged this on Charlecote Park: Uncovered and commented:
    2nd hand book shops at National Trust properties are a great place to pick up old guidebooks…

  29. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes indeed: always look out for the second hand bookshop when visiting a National Trust place 🙂

  30. Heather Says:

    We have a large collection of guides to historic houses, National Trust, English Heritage and others. Would like them to go to a good home. Anyone interested?

  31. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Heather. We may be able to use them in our central library. I will contact you directly.

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