Englishmen’s Castles

Gavin Stamp

  • The Victorian Country House by Mark Girouard
    Yale, 470 pp, £14.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 300 02390 1
  • The Artist and the Country House by John Harris
    Sotheby Parke Bernet, 376 pp, £37.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 85667 053 7
  • National Trust Studies 1980 edited by Gervase Jackson-Stops
    Sotheby Parke Bernet, 175 pp, £8.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 85667 065 0

Who can resist the appeal of the English country house? Publishers are well aware of their popularity – which is doubtless explained by snobbery and the antique trade as much as anything – so we have a constant stream of books on the subject as well as the phenomenon of those cognoscenti aptly characterised recently in the pages of Harpers and Queen as the ‘National Trust Navy’. When we write about churches, mausolea, town halls or power stations, the only purchasers are from that small, incestuous public interested in architecture, but country houses manage to secure a much wider, even popular, audience. Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House has actually become a best-seller – extraordinary in the field of architectural history – and its unprecedented success has encouraged Yale to issue as a companion volume a new edition of his earlier The Victorian Country House.

The first edition was published by the Clarendon Press in 1971 and it remains, it may well be argued, the author’s finest achievement. In a field in which Georgian ‘taste’ and ‘proportion’ were still uncritically revered, the book was one of the first which did not treat Victorian country houses as monstrosities or as jokes: instead, their complex stylistic and formal evolution was examined in a scholarly and perceptive manner. If Girouard was far from the first to appreciate High Victorian Gothic eccentricity – that honour lies with H.S. Goodhart-Rendel – his book was conspicuous for taking seriously the extreme ‘Muscular’ and ‘Vigorous’ Gothic mannerism of men such as S.S. Teulon, as well as the secular Gothic of Scott and Butterfield. It was also valuable for its discussion of the origins of the domestic styles of Nesfield and Shaw, and for dealing at length with the work of George Devey, that recondite designer of genuine Jacobean houses for Liberal politicians.

Dr Girouard has always wanted to combine social and architectural history, and rightly so, since the building of so many new and extravagant country houses in a variety of historical styles during the 19th century was a remarkable social phenomenon. Our appreciation of these houses – so very few still lived in today – is enhanced by knowing how they were used, by what sort of people and with what beliefs and attitudes, and whether they were paid for with stocks and shares, wool, biscuits or guano. The author performed a great service by demolishing the standard generalisation that ‘hideous Victorian’ architecture was a reflection of the vulgar tastes of the new industrial bourgeoisie: in fact, some of the most extreme muscular polychromatic buildings were commissioned by the old aristocracy. Teulon’s Bestwood Lodge, for example – whose over-buttressed porch is the subject of the old photograph used for the frontispiece – was built for the Duke of St Albans. The real nouveaux-riches opted for a French château style, but only after the 1860s: a truly English middle-class domestic architecture had to await the advent of the ‘Queen Anne’ style.

Dr Girouard is entertaining on all of this, illuminating about the obscure complexities of country-house planning, and, above all, readable and consistently interesting: the book is a classic of unpedantic scholarship. This new edition has been revised, and now includes detailed accounts of two additional houses. One is Tyntesfield; the other is that amazing Jacobean and Baroque pile near Grantham, Harlaxton Manor (strictly pre-Victorian, and omitted earlier). It is now owned by the University of Evansville, Indiana – what can their students make of England when they arrive there?

The first edition cost £12, so this new edition has defeated inflation: but it also witnesses to a sad change in the general quality of book production. Why do publishers think that the increasingly poor results of modern litho printing can be made acceptable with a few colour plates, and that novel and usually irritating ingredient called ‘book design’. The Clarendon Press book was planned to complete the Country Life series on houses, and it was properly printed with superb plates on separate pages of art-paper. I am glad I still have my copy.

I am also very glad to have a copy of The Artist and the Country House for, doubtless with an eye to their principal business, Messrs Sotheby Parke Bernet have carried John Harris’s research in a heavy and lavish volume with 419 plates – some a little grey, alas, but there are 26 good ones in colour. This may not be the first book on the subject, but it is a scholarly work of great scope and interest. As Mr Harris explains in his preface, ‘the title of this book pays homage to that edited by John Steegman and Dorothy Stroud … Since 1949, the subject has been neglected by nearly everyone with the exception of Mr Paul Mellon, whose Collection, now partly at the Yale Centre for British Art, is steeped in this type of estate portraiture.’

This is a work of reference which, like Girouard’s book, is not merely for the architectural historian: the genre of country-house views is involved with the history of our national landscape-painting tradition, and many of the pictures themselves – those big dirty canvases in funny perspective hung in obscure corners of country houses – reveal a wealth of detailed information about rural life. Some depict the owner and his family looking grand, setting off to hunt or being benevolent to their social inferiors: the most interesting are those wide comprehensive views from an elevated position which depict landscape and activity in extraordinary detail. The most enchanting example reproduced is a painting of Dixton Manor of the 1720s (now in the Cheltenham Museum) in which morris dancing as well as hay-making can be seen.

John Harris is the architectural historian responsible for making the RIBA Drawings Collection the incomparable archive it is today. In this book, he has had to double up as a historian of painting, and, as he notes, the ‘tools of reference for British art are still antiquated. It seems astonishing to an architectural historian with his second edition of “Colvin” that for biographical information on painters, Redgrave’s Dictionary of Artists of the English School, published as long ago as 1874, has still not been superseded.’ Mr Harris has nevertheless managed to discover a great deal about some very obscure foreign painters and engravers, who are discussed in the introductory essays which precede each section of his catalogue raisonné.

The art history is really that of a predominantly Continental influence in topographical drawing becoming wedded to native skills. Although the first English examples of architectural topography can be attributed to the Tudor engineer John Rogers, the familiar elevated views of house and estate in distorted geometrical perspective were almost always the work of Dutchmen, such as Knyff, Schellincks or Siberechts, or other Continentals, such as the great engraver, Wenceslas Hollar. Only in the early 18th century do English topographical artists appear whose work could equal that of the foreigners: notably, George Lambert, and the delightful Rococco artist who seems to be Mr Harris’s invention – and the subject of an earlier book – Thomas Robbins the Elder. By the end of the 18th century topography is firmly part of English landscape painting in the work of Richard Wilson, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, all of whom are represented.

The value of this book to architectural historians is immense, since many of the houses illustrated have since been altered or rebuilt, or have altogether disappeared, like the famous Nonsuch Palace or Pontefract Castle. The wealth of our country-house heritage is such that a number of houses have even managed to elude identification altogether. This book is also indispensable for a student of the new school of garden historians: here, depicted in tantalising detail, are many of the fanciful formal gardens of the 17th century, full of intricate pattern and extraordinary sculpture, which were swept away by that pseudo-ecological vandal, Capability Brown.

The majority of the pictures discussed and illustrated in the catalogue date from the century after the Restoration (which gave such a boost to the genre). These were the years of Whig rule and settled rural life. After 1800, the number of examples sharply declines, and the final painting is a melancholy view of a Jacobean house by Atkinson Grimshaw. As the author argues, in the 19th century demand fell away as collected engraved or lithographed views of country seats replaced specially commissioned paintings, and after 1870 the tradition died owing to photography and the economic decline of country estates. Nevertheless, confusion creeps into the final pages, for some of the paintings illustrated, such as J.W.M. Turner’s views of Beckford’s fantastic Fonthill or of Hafod, are not picturesque landscape views at all but perspectives prepared in advance of building and commissioned by architects (respectively Wyatt and Nash). If these are admissible, so surely are those superb paintings of Soane’s country houses by J.M. Gandy, and the architects’ perspectives of country houses produced during the following century.

The book lacks completeness because Mr Harris excludes the few country-house painters of this century, notably Rex Whistler, John Piper and Felix Kelly, on the grounds that the tradition had been broken. As their work would scarcely have been disproportionately large had it been included, this is a pity, especially as, in the cases of Whistler and Kelly, it was a conscious revival of the 18th-century tradition. This is a small complaint, however: the authoritative text and the interest of the illustrated material make the book highly desirable – even at this price.

The principal expression of country-house worship is, of course, the National Trust, for whom, in recent decades, the preservation of houses has become as important a concern as the preservation of landscape. The Trust’s houses, collections and estates provide employment for many members of the ‘Navy’ (the magazine Country Life is the other principal ship), while at the same time being an object of concerned scorn on the part of other connoisseurs, for the Trust, more and more, is entering the ‘stately home’ business with a tea-towel and marmalade approach to the public. This tendency is counterbalanced by National Trust Studies (formerly the National Trust Year Book), an annual offering of scholarly art-historical articles.

The material published is impressive in its scope, and the research can often provide a basis for those historically accurate and sensitive treatments of old houses which are common in America but rare in England, where the tasteful hand of the well-connected interior decorator is usually given free reign. The 1980 volume, published (significantly?) by Sotheby Parke Bernet, is chiefly concerned with furniture, sculpture and painting, but there are articles on the decoration of rooms at Ham and at Dryham: the latter discussed by Ian Bristow, a genuine ‘scientific’ expert on paints and colour.

The only truly architectural article is by James Stevens Curl and is not about country houses at all: it concerns the public houses of Belfast, a splendid example of which, the Crown Liquor Saloon, having so far survived bombs and modernisation, has been taken over by the National Trust. It will continue to function properly, one is relieved to learn, and this imaginative decision shows that there is a little more to architecture and our heritage than country houses.