Famous names were not so much dropped as delicately picked up like a teacup and sipped, as lords, ladies and gentlemen -- 70 lenders to the National Gallery of Art's "Treasure Houses of Britain" -- ate crab meat and corn sticks at Kenmore. George Washington's sister's 18th-century house was the first stop on a floating country house party for the peers in plantation Virginia.
Lady St. Oswald turned to sort herself out to her luncheon partner. "The Chippendale doll house in the show is ours. Thomas Chippendale was our undercarpenter at Nostell Priory."
Lady Middleton of Birdsall House was unfortunately without Lord Middleton -- he had to stay behind to respond to the queen's speech in Parliament. Lady Mansfield said her lord stayed behind to tend to his new job as first commissioner of crown estates.
Sir Geoffrey Agnew, of London's prestigious art gallery, reminded the Marchioness of Cholmondeley about a painting she'd brought to him with a small hole to be repaired. "Remember, you said, 'Is it worth it?' And I told you it was quite a nice Ge'ricault.' "
The British carried their titles, their diamonds, their rainy weather, their Scottish woolens and their very proper politeness with them, as they banqueted through the estate country in quest of secrets to keeping mansions alive in the age of the declining pound.
But they were not above sacking the Kenmore souvenir shop for such artifacts of Americana as plastic aprons -- one lit up like a Christmas tree -- and brass-handled walking sticks. At breakfast the next day, Annette Howard of Castle Howard ("Brideshead Revisited") wore her purchase, a sweat shirt with a dog drawing and stitched-on floppy ears.
The tour, under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, moved under the direction of Kenmore Director W. Vernon Edenfield, who summoned his charges with trills on an 18th-century (reproduction) bird whistle. Principal pastime was playing "My House Is Older."
Since A.D. 800, people have lived on the site of the Countess of Mansfield's house, Scone Palace in Scotland. She said, "On a mound near our house, 48 kings of Scotland were crowned, and each shook soil from his shoe to make the mound. Scone was built in 1580."
Lord Neidpath claimed an older house, Stanway, 1533, which has changed hands only once. And David Lytton Cobbold countered with his, Knebworth House, in the Lytton family since 1490. In its natural amphitheater, the Rolling Stones once played to 100,000.
The Duke of Rutland had a different claim: He's the only one of the lenders actually portrayed in the National Gallery show -- as a small boy in the picture of Haddon Hall.
At Camden, a 1854 Italianate river house near Port Royal, Va., the visitors agreed the great ornament to the house is Richard Pratt himself, who is not so much younger than the house. He'll be 100 in January. The lively centenarian described for a BBC television crew how his mother had gone to New York to buy her fine Belter furniture, which even today looks as though it's just been unpacked.
Half the party gathered on the Rappahannock River to try to imagine him sitting on the veranda that surrounds the house and watching for his parents to come back by boat from Port Royal.
At Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County, at dinner in the rustic dining hall, Molly Bruce Jacobs, the Maryland member on Stratford's board, declared the visitors "the most distinguished group of British to be in this house since a small band of rebels met here in the 1700s to plot the Revolution." Stratford was the birthplace of Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Stratford Hall itself was brilliantly lit with flares outside and candles in, and in the Great Hall, called the most beautiful colonial room in America, a woman played the harp while the British debated if indeed the Corinthian capitals were ornamented with tobacco leaves.
Everyone spent the night in the log cabins that usually house Stratford's board members. Lord and Lady Astor, whose house, Hever, was sold not too long ago for a rumored $11 million, came to look in the Nancy Astor cabin to see the scrapbooks of their famous Virginia relative, a Stratford benefactor whose portrait hangs on the wall.
At Sabine Hall, the British, who usually leave their castles to the eldest son, saw a 1730s house big enough for two families, Robert Carter and Toole Wellford, and Joyce and Beverley Randolph Wellford.
At Mount Airy, David Lytton Cobbold found novels by a Lytton ancestor in the library. The red limestone country house was built by the Tayloe family, who were among the first to have a town house, the Octagon, in Washington. A sign on the plantation driveway: "Drive slowly. Dust draws shellfire."
During lunch at Warner Hall, near Gloucester, the Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne, a trustee of Kenmore and the owner of Scotland's great Glamis castle (of Macbeth fame), recalled that the Warner who built the house, an ancestor of her husband's, was an ancestor jointly of Robert E. Lee, George Washington and Queen Elizabeth II.
Bremo, a rarely seen house designed with Thomas Jefferson's help, preceded a stop at the University of Virginia. There, under the welcoming eye of Thomas Sully's Jefferson portrait, the visitors ate pecan pie while Frederick Nichols, the leading expert on Jefferson-the-architect, told them "Jefferson thought France had the best architecture and England the best gardens." The lords and ladies all asked questions. As one of the British put it, "They know what they're talking about. They are not just aristocratic ninnies."
Monday night, the nobility went to pay its respects to Jefferson in his Monticello, counted by many as the greatest house in America, and perhaps the first American historic house to bankrupt its owner. The tax-beleaguered British estate owners could sympathize with that.
Lady Rosebery, of Dalmeny House near Edinburgh, said that after the Roseberys sold the great Rothschild house, Mentmore the 5th Earl of Rosebery married Baron Meyer de Rothschild's daughter , she was faced with combining the collections and learning how to make Dalmeny House pay its way in the world. She came to Monticello "to learn how they trained their guides," and "learned from Disney World that people remember things more if styles and ideas are grouped. Most country houses you know are like fruit salad, with periods all muddled up . . . So now we have the Napoleon room, with the desk and chairs Napoleon used on St. Helena. And the campaign chair of his opponent, the Duke of Wellington."
Lady Mansfield said, "you have to be humble, and learn from everybody." An American she met at an airport told her "I was doing my lunchroom all wrong. I'd tried to increase my profits by giving people good food and pleasant surroundings. But they stayed so long, we didn't make anything off it. After I learned to make the light 18 times brighter and turn up the music, we had an 88 percent increase in profits."
"We are all amateurs," said Lord Neidpath.