Perpetual Sunshine

David Cannadine

  • The Gentleman’s Country House and its Plan, 1835-1914 by Jill Franklin
    Routledge, 279 pp, £15.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0622 5

With the possible and significant exception of the steam-engine, no artifact in modern England has been the object of such fanciful, romanticised and well-articulated veneration as the country house. Nineteenth-century novelists, like Surtees or Trollope, tended to give minutely-detailed accounts of country-house life, which were more precise than rhapsodic. But during the first half of this century attitudes changed, and one of the most common set-pieces in popular fiction became that magical, glamorous, enchanted moment when the hero or heroine first set eyes upon the mansion which frequently dominated the novel. An early example of this is in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness, where Emily comes upon Palstrey Manor and ‘almost wept before the loveliness of it’. More composed, but no less enamoured, was Harriet Wimsey (née Vane), as she visited Denver Ducis for the first time. Lord Peter assures her that the drive is indeed a mile long, that there are deer in the park, and that peacock do strut upon the terrace. As he observed, ‘all the story-book things are there.’

Similar scenes, evocative rather than detailed, abound in Buchan and Brett Young, in Waugh and Wodehouse: their country-house world was ‘mellow, dignified, creeper-clad and bathed in perpetual sunshine’. Significantly, this attitude prevailed at a time when, for the first long period in four centuries, few new country houses were being built, and many old ones were being vacated by their original owners. Although far from extinct, country-house life during the first forty years of the 20th century was not lived with quite the same sense of effortless, exuberant expansiveness which had characterised it a hundred years before. And, since the Second World War, even this Indian Summer has turned to autumn: the creeper has withered and the sunshine faded. The death toll recorded by Roy Strong, Marcus Binney and John Harris in The Destruction of the English County House tops nine hundred, and few writers set contemporary novels in country houses as they did only a generation ago.

One gratifying consequence is that it has finally become possible to view country houses with some degree of scholarly detachment. Par excellence, they were machines to live in, and architectural and social historians are gradually building up an accurate picture of how these machines worked, as they discard the novelists’ rose-tinted spectacles, investigate downstairs as much as upstairs, and increasingly reveal the country house for what it was – the embodiment and expression of a particular economic, social and political order. The growing fashion for social and women’s history, for instance, has meant a clutch of books on below-stairs life: most notably Pamela Horn on The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s history of the British nanny (which puts Churchill’s Mrs Everest firmly in her place), and Merlin Waterson’s account of Erdigg, which tells the entire story of a country house from the servants’ standpoint. Above stairs, Mark Girouard’s sumptuous study of The Victorian Country House looked in detail at their architecture and their owners; and more recently, in his much-acclaimed Life in the English Country House, he sought to relate changes in the built form to broader social, economic and political developments over five centuries.

Jill Franklin’s excellent book begins where Girouard left-off, and investigates in impressive detail the last phase of country-house building, which he was only able to survey in two rather breathless chapters. ‘To appreciate why Victorian and Edwardian country houses look as they do,’ she explains at the outset, ‘it is necessary to understand their planning, for this in turn expressed their patrons’ view of society.’ Not surprisingly, this familiar, Girouardian methodology yields familiar, Girouardian conclusions. Until the 1880s, country houses, and the life lived within their walls, became more complex, labour-intensive and space-consuming, as life above stairs became ever more elaborate and segregated, the number of servants necessarily grew, and the size and specialisation of their quarters correspondingly increased. By the close of the 19th century, however, country-house life became more informal, and servants harder to obtain, and this, combined with the appearance of labour-saving devices like central heating and the vacuum-cleaner, meant that the number of servants was reduced, and the size of the servants’ wing diminished accordingly.

During the period of which Franklin writes (which could usefully have been extended until the Second World War), the builders of country houses remained the usual mixture of the old rich and the new. Until the 1870s, buoyant rentals, extensive non-agricultural income, and continuing confidence in aristocratic government, meant that a large proportion of country houses were built for the old, landed élite, ranging from the lavish, sumptuous showpieces of Eaton and Trentham (both, alas, demolished) to smaller but no less astonishing creations such as Elvetham, where S.S. Teulon produced such a restless riot of polychrome Gothic as to make even Keble College Chapel seem dull and restrained by comparison. Among the new rich, few bankers, brewers, ironmasters or textile magnates had the panache or the resources to rival these flamboyant extravagances: but Baron de Rothschild’s Mentmore (based on the Elizabethan Wollaton Hall) and Thomas Brassey’s Normanhurst (in the grandest style of a French château) showed what they could do when they put their minds and their purses to it.

By the end of the 19th century, this balance had shifted dramatically. Many among the old élite were hard hit by the agricultural depression, and it was only those with large incomes from other sources who continued to build. The pompous, ponderous, baronial ‘restoration’ of Arundel for the Duke of Norfolk, the swaggering English Baroque of Bryanston for Viscount Portman, and the astonishing, fairytale Cardiff Castle for the Marquess of Bute, all come in this category. But, in the main, it was the new rich who now predominated: mustard manufacturers replaced marquesses as the prime patrons of country-house building. Armstrong at Cragside and the Rothschilds at Waddesdon and Halton were but the most spectacular of these nouveaux riches builders. Significantly, the last great English country-house architect, Edwin Lutyens, built much more for the new rich than for the old. Middleton Park in Oxfordshire in 1936 for the Earl of Jersey is a late exception; Castle Drogo, his masterpiece in this genre, built between 1911 and 1930 for the owner of Home and Colonial Stores, is more typical – in its patron if not in its appearance.

As Jill Franklin explains, this shift in the pattern of patronage also had some effect on the nature of the finished product, as the country house was gradually superseded by the house in the country. The former had included, not only the house, but a park and broad acres, integrated into a coherent and often self-sufficient estate: it was the expression of a landed social order and an aristocratic polity in which broad acres still spelt economic security, social prestige and political influence. Country houses were still power houses, where ministries might be made or unmade, reputations gained or lost, policies espoused or discarded, and electoral contests decided. But by the end of the 19th century, as land ceased to be equated automatically with security, power or prestige, the new industrial rich increasingly preferred a house in the country, without the broad acres, and even sometimes without the park. Such houses had no organic links with the countryside; they were usually sustained by industrial earnings rather than agricultural rentals; and they were the beginning of a new trend, rather than the culmination of the old, setting the fashion for country cottages and weekend retreats.

There are, then, real difficulties in deciding what was or was not a gentleman’s country house during this period. The purpose for which these mansions were built, and the type of life lived within them, might differ considerably, depending on whether it was for the old rich or the new, to be the hub of a great estate or merely a weekend retreat. A country-house party at Eaton in the 1890s, for instance, would have a very different tone from a weekend at Waddesdon or Cragside; and a house like Alnwick, which was the heart of a territorial empire, would fulfil many functions not found in a mere house in the country. Moreover, as Jill Franklin points out, it is virtually impossible to relate building styles to architects, patrons or periods, except in the most superficial way. Men like Water-house, Shaw and Lutyens could and did design in a wide variety of styles; neither the old rich nor the new had marked preferences for Tudor or Queen Anne or Old English; and, although there was a discernible shift from early Victorian Italianate via High Victorian Gothic to fin-de-siècle neo-Georgian, there are too many exceptions to this pattern for much significance to be attached to it.

Nevertheless, it is clear that 19th-century country houses did have enough in common to merit being treated as a coherent group. They accommodated similar people (the master and his wife, their children, their guests and their servants); they did so on the basis of a shared view of a segregated, hierarchical society, in which division and ordering was by age, sex and status; and devising a plan in which each room must have a separate function, and each resident a separate territory, was thus the common problem which beset all country-house architects. The degree of elaboration which resulted – at least down to the 1880s – is well shown in the 70 house plans which are the centrepiece of this book. Above stairs, there was a spatial explosion, as the drawing-room, dining-room, library, hall, staircase, bedrooms, nursery and boudoir were augmented by the study, the billiard room, the smoking-room, the gunroom and the conservatory. And below stairs there was a parallel proliferation, as the butler came to preside over a pantry, a strongroom, a lamp room, a brushing room, a brewhouse and a coalhouse, the housekeeper supervised the stillroom and the laundry, and the cook controlled the kitchen, the scullery and the larders. The climax of this expansion was reached at Kinmel in 1870: a room was built in the servants’ wing in which the daily newspaper was ironed!

Not surprisingly, the greatest mid-Victorian houses mopped up servants like blotting paper, with as many as forty indoors, and almost as many again outside. So, as these house plans eloquently demonstrate, the ground-floor level of the servants’ wing might take up even more space than did the main block itself. Here was an exceedingly complex machine which, when it worked efficiently, earned metaphorically-appropriate praise: ‘It all ran like clockwork.’