Friday, 23 December 2011

The East in blue and white

The Far East remained mysterious and unknown throughout the eighteenth century, viewed as a distant land of wealth and splendor. Even with the busy trade of the East India Company, Europeans were forbidden to wander farther than the city walls of the only Chinese trading port, Canton. This literal distance and lack of knowledge of the East led to the creation of an exotic and fanciful interpretation of what countries like China and India really were like.

This fascination for the East led to the artistic term chinoiserie which refers to architecture or decorative arts created in the West but with a stylised Oriental theme. Popular blue and white porcelain is a clear example of this.

Originally all porcelain was imported from China through a monopoly held by the East India Company. In fact, in the 1777/8 season the East India Company imported 348 tons of Chinese porcelain! This was then sold to dealers wholesale at huge auctions, before being displayed in their individual shops.

East India House in Leadenhall Street, London, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, c1817

Chinese porcelain was made using a substance called kaolin and hand-painted in China using designs solely for the export market. In fact, specific requests were made by the East India Company for suitably West-friendly exotic designs and shapes. Meanwhile potters in Europe tried but couldn't work out what the mysterious ingredients were that the Chinese used in order to create this mystical substance themselves.

Finally, after much experimentation across Europe, the production of hard-paste porcelain (i.e. like Chinese porcelain) developed, the Meissen factory being one of the first. (Funnily enough, the man who made this amazing discovery was a chemist at Wittenberg University called Johann Boettger who had initally been given the impossible task of trying to change base metals into gold.) In Britain, the first potters to make porcelain focussed on copying Chinese designs, which had been popular with shoppers for decades. Interestingly, the development of home-made porcelain took off at the end of the century, co-inciding with the dramatic decision of the East India Company to stop importing Chinese porcelain.

Plate showing The Two Temples, by Miles Mason, c1805
held at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Technological developments meant that, unlike Chinese porcelain which was hand-painted, British items could be mass produced. Indeed, it was in the second half of the eighteenth century that patents were taken out for transfer-printing, starting a revolutionary and labour-saving process in ceramic production. Now Chinese images could be printed easily onto porcelain, using designs engraved into copper plates. These copper plates could be sold to many factories meaning that different potters were creating products depicting identical images. Possibly the most famous image is the Willow pattern, created in England, for British consumers, and based on an original Chinese design. The charming story behind the picture however is likely to have been invented as a clever marketing tool.

The famous Willow pattern

Into the nineteenth century, developments in transfer printing led to the use of other colours, and we start to see other exotic elements coming through, including Indian scenes.

Plate depicting Wild Sports of the East, by Spode, c1815
held at the Victoria & Albert Musuem

Friday, 18 November 2011

Making music at home

Before television and radio a family's home entertainment system was naturally rather more home-made in nature. It was most common for young girls to be trained in music, particularly the piano, and then it was believed girls could not only amuse and soothe the weary souls of their fathers and brothers, but also learn about their domestic responsibilities, such as duty and home-making.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries boys were not pushed into music in quite the same way, it being seen primarily as suited to a woman's warmer, emotional nature. The involvement of the men was more to do with one-off expensive purchases, such as that of the piano itself, and this gesture was limited to fathers and husbands (or husbands-to-be, hence the gossiping and eyebrow-raising that the gift of the piano caused in Jane Austen's Emma). Men were expected to be connoisseurs in music - to be able to recognise good from bad - but in the home, it was the role of the women to play.

Women sung a broad range of music from popular ballads to Italian opera arias, as well as playing piano pieces which needed no singing. Sadly it could often be the fate of the girl most gifted at the piano to have to play when there was a dance at home, meaning she was unable to join in the dancing herself. If a girl's family were able to afford the most expensive singing masters, as in the case of aristocratic families, girls would be expected to sing and play complex pieces, otherwise the reserve of the professional musician.

'Farmer Giles and his wife showing off their daughter Betty to their Neighbours on her return from school' by James Gillray, 1809

Women could purchase and collect single sheets of music, which they could buy directly from London or from regional music shops, and they could then bind them to make their own personal music books, annotating them with their own particular embellishments in pencil. Girls and women shared music they liked with each other, by copying pieces out and giving them to friends, which was an important part of female social bonding. Just as now, some girls resented their rigorous training while others found solace in their music. Either way, girls were expected to have some proficiency at music - it was seen as an important female accomplishment and sign of taste. Some contemporaries even noted it as an important strategic way to ensnare a husband as the following two quotes attest:
"Every well-bred girl, whether she has talent or not, must learn to play the piano or sing; first of all it's fashionable; secondly, it's the most convenient way for her to put herself forward in society and thereby, if she is lucky, make an advantageous matrimonial alliance, particularly a moneyed one". (Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, 1800)

"Miss and her sisters sit down by turns, and screw themselves up to Ah vous dirai, or 'I'd be a butterfly' - till some handsome young fellow who has stood behind her chair for six months, turned over her music, or accompanied her through a few liquorish airs, vows his tender passion...and at length swears to be her accompaniment through life". (Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, 1828)
For further information, see or read '"Girling" at the Parlour Piano' by Ruth Solie from Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Three Georges

Who were the Georgian kings and what did their reigns really mean to the British public?

After Queen Anne died without issue in 1714 the kingship passed to the House of Hanover via the most senior Protestant descendant of James I, Georg Ludwig. There were others with a closer blood link to James I however the Act of Settlement of 1701 made it impossible for Roman Catholics to take the throne. Therefore in 1714 Georg Ludwig of Hanover became king of Great Britain at the age of 54 and on his death in 1727, his son became king George II (aged 44).

Kings George I and II
Kings George I and II filled an important role for the British. Although they remained distant and different in their German ways to the British public, most were happy that Protestants were ruling the kingdom as opposed to the Catholic son of James II, James Stuart (The Old Pretender). There were some Jacobite uprisings and support in the early eighteenth century by those who felt the throne rightfully belonged to James Stuart however popularity was short-lived and never wide-spread enough to allow full military or financial support.

George I and II were both German born and arrived at the British throne as middle-aged men. This and a variety of other reasons meant that their personalities remained distant from the British public. One reason was that there was little propaganda or royal reporting of them, and little public ceremony which only served to make them seem aloof from the British public. In addition, they never travelled to some parts of the country during their reigns, creating a lack of visibility across the country. Furthermore, their fear of Jacobite sympathy within the Tory party meant they favoured the Whig party, and this favouritism naturally distanced some and meant they could not be seen as neutral British figureheads.

King George II painted by Thomas Hudson (1744)

Receiving insufficient money from Parliament they could barely afford their lifestyles (once they had used this money to pay the salaries of courtiers and ministers etc), meaning they were unable to lavish sums on one symbolic royal palace or residence like Louis XIV had done at Versailles. This had the impact of there being a relatively small royal court and rather than court defining good taste and fashion and being leaders in culture, instead Kensington Palace, Hampton Court and St James' were merely cultural venues among many others in London. Polite culture was being formed by opera houses, pleasure gardens, and magnificent artistocratic town houses more than it was by the royal circle.

King George III
George III however gradually washed that aloof public image away and by the end of his reign he was deeply mourned. He ascended the throne at just 22 in 1760 and had the benefit of being born and growing up in England.

George III was much better at what we would now call PR and ensured paintings of himself were distributed. His sons travelled the length and bredth of the kingdom, making royalty visible and he himself engaged in active ceremonial display. The public finally had a king they could recognise and see. Celebrations such as the Jubilee of 1809 were popularly attended by all classses of society, and towns competed with each other for the best celebrations. In fact it was during his reign that the song 'God Save The King' was increasingly sung and became popularly known as the national anthem. The increase in the press and transport developments such as the turnpike roads led to increased propaganda and royal reporting.

1809 Jubilee celebrations for King George III at Berkshire Record Office (D/EX225/Z4)
 Additional Parliamentary funds enabled him to invest in public splendour and he renovated many of the royal palaces, while as his eldest son lavished sums onto Brighton Pavilion and his London residence at Carlton House. In addition, the French Revolution created a mixture of feelings in the British; the bloodshed and brutality causing many to feel protective about their royals.

Furthermore George III's percieved political neutrality (any serious Jacobite threat had now gone) enabled him to embrace all his subjects without alienating any politically. Finally, his morality and vulnerability (due to his illness) meant that often the public looked on him as a Father of the People as well as a normal man.

By helping to bring royalty back into the limelight George III turned the tables on his forbears and paved the way for modern kingship.

King George III pained by Zoffany

Friday, 26 August 2011

Who were the Great Britons?

The Act of Union in 1707 united the England and Wales with the Scottish kingdom for the first time into the new United Kingdom of Great Britain. But how united were the British and who were they?

One important factor that united the new Britons was a sense of shared religion. Unlike most of Europe, the new kingdom was Protestant. Anti-Catholic sentiment was rife and the British prided themselves on their freedom from 'Popish tyranny'. It seemed that their religion was favoured by God especially, delivering them from the world's evils and giving them victory in war. In fact anti-Catholic legislation existed between the late 17th century right up until 1829, banning Catholics from parliament and state offices. It could be said that British Catholics were even seen as unpatriotic and hence 'un-British'. Much anti-Catholic literature was published, from popular almanacs to highly subjective histories. In 1780 the Gordon Riots erupted in London, in which anti-Catholic protesters rioted due to the proposed repeal of Catholic discrimination. The author Frances Burney was in London at the time and her family home was only spared by her father shouting out anti-Pope slogans. Protestantism joined the nation together, making it very different from the Continent, linking the people together in a shared, Divinely protected, nation.  The lyrics of Jerusalem written by William Blake in c.1804 emphasise this sentiment.

The Gordon Riots, London, 1780

Throughout the 18th century Britain was almost constantly at war, particularly with France and Spain. There was the Nine Years War, the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the War of Independence and the Napoleonic War to name a few. Overall Britain had victory after victory, establishing national pride and reaffirming the widely held belief in the nation's superiority and Divine preference. In fact evidence of this blessed nation seemed to stem from the new Protestant Hanoverian kings, further proof that Britain was a truly special isle.

Similarly, the Grand Tours, which any upstanding young gentleman went on, had the result of 'proving' the supremacy of Britain over its European neighbours. Gentlemen came home from the Grand Tours sure in the knowledge that Britain was the most free, liberal and democratic country. Other countries were simply despotic, backward and corrupt. The British parliament was seen as superior, efficient and more unrestricted than other governments in Europe at the time and the author Daniel Defoe rather proudly wrote that "we are a nation of liberty".

A gentleman on the Grand Tour, painted by Pompeo Batoni
Fast urban growth and the proliferation of printed material and news also played their part in increasing a sense of unity. Likewise a rigorous success in commercial trade played a part in establishing British people's sense of their country. In 1718 in The Present State of Great Britain it was written:
"Next to the purity of our religion we are the most considerable of any nation in the world for the vastness and extensiveness of our trade". 
All these things set Britain apart and helped create a sense of national identity. However it is worth noting that Britain of course still remained a very varied nation, with different languages, cultures and customs being practiced throughout the kingdom.

For further information, read Linda Colley's book entitled 'Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837' and also see 

Friday, 5 August 2011

The reading public

Remember the fears and concerns generated when the internet began? People were worried it was too vast, had no regulation and would soon be full of dross information, swamping access to correct knowledge. Those same fears were present in the early eighteenth century when the new printing boom exploded.
"the multitude of BOOKS has been long complained of: they are grown too numerous, not only to procure and read, but to see, learn the names of, or even number" [Chambers's Cyclopedia, 1738].
In the seventeenth century printed books were relatively few in number and were mainly confined to the subjects of theology, history, polemics, the classics and the Bible. Books were read with care and often scrutinised several times. Book ownership was limited to the gentry and nobility and literacy was low and restricted to their class alone. Authors could only get books published using the patronage of a wealthy individual, copyright rules were restrictive and the strict control of the press meant that all publishing took place within a few streets in the city of London.

A Book of Common Prayer, 1676
Then in 1695 the Licensing Act lapsed, effectively ending censorship (although the printing of blasphamy, obscenity and seditious libel continued to be repressed) and strict control of the press ended, allowing the printing industry to finally take off in England. Provincial printing developed for the first time and the cost of the expense could be shared between printers by splitting the copyright, or by getting individuals to subscribe in advance. The market exploded with new types of publications.

No longer were books limited to a few academic subjects. Now people could read books on any topic, from romances and poems to 'how to' manuals and even travel journals. Newspapers, magazines and periodicals blossomed and were widely read. At the same time literacy rates rose and all classes finally gained access to literature. Books could either be bought or borrowed, either from circulating libraries, books clubs, coffee houses or neighbours. The 'gentile' practice of reading aloud was a desirable attribute, and families and friends read aloud to one another. Women working at chores at home, such as sewing or preserving fruit could be read to by another woman, thus making domestic chores more interesting, while disseminating knowledge. It was seen as "a specimen of English freedom" that everyone now participated in reading, as Thomas Campbell wrote in 1773 of the Chapter Coffee House in London (where you could pay a shilling for the right of one year's reading there):

"A whitesmith in his apron & some of his saws under his arm, came in, sat down and called for his glass of punch and the paper, both of which he used with as much ease as a Lord".
The Coffee House by Rita Greer, history painter, 2008
Authors, although generally badly paid, had more freedom and were no longer at the mercy of finding a high status patron - the patron now was the reading public. Authors could be anyone, including women, and publish articles and reviews in cheap magazines as well as books. Simultaneously hack journalism developed and chapbooks and abbreviated novels were widely sold by itinerant pedlars. Although books and publications could still be attentively and regularly read, they were more likely to be borrowed, skim-read and returned, rather than laboriously scrutinised as in the previous centuries. Light reading for amusement took off as a past-time. This in itself was initally seen as a worrying development. Some critics were concerned that light readers, especially women, could be corrupted and led astray by extensive reading of frivolous literature.

Tales of Wonder! by James Gillray, 1802, satirising the trend for Gothic novels

A contemporary, James Beattie (1735-1803), warned young women against novels:
"A habit of reading them breeds dislike to history, and all the substantial parts of knowledge; withdraws the attention from nature, and truth; and fills the mind with extravagant thoughts, and too often with criminal propensities".
In practice however men were just as likely as women to read the "swarms of insipid Novels, destitute of sentiment, language, or morals" [as noted in the New and Elegant Amusements for the Ladies of Great Britain published in 1772] and the reading public has never looked back. Contemporary criticisms that the classics were being swamped admist the burgeoning trashy novel and magazine slowly lost emphasis as the printing industry ballooned, and thankfully today, we can continue to enjoy an enormous range of publications, trashy or instructive.

For further information on London coffee houses and their role in stimulating literacy, see

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Doing the business

In period dramas and contemporary novels you rarely see the characters doing the more mundane, daily routines in life, and one question I am often asked is "Where did they go to the toilet?"

Flushing toilets as we know them didn't come into popularity until the Victorian period, so what did people do before this? In English country houses there was no separate toilet or washroom - instead the facility came to the Lord or Lady in the form of chamber pots. These had the benefit of being exceedingly practical (particularly when you had the convenience of servants to take them away) and could be brought to you anywhere.

In each bedroom in high status houses there would also have been a night table, also referred to as a pot-cupboard or commode (not to be confused with a French chest of the same name). In these walnut or mahognany chests, chamber pots and sometimes seats, were hidden. In fact the reason that night tables were referred to as commodes in England was because of their striking resemblance to small chests and cupboards - commode in French.

This Georgian night table would have had a chamber pot placed discreetly inside -
to be removed by the servants in the morning

Monday, 16 May 2011

Dining in 18th century England

Dinner in the eighteenth century was, as now, the main formal meal of the day and was originally taken at 12 noon. During the century however it gradually crept later to mid-afternoon, often at around 3pm or 4pm. In the cities, where 'fashionable hours' pushed everything later and later, dinner could be held at 7pm, significantly earlier than in the country. By the end of the long eighteenth century, in the Regency period, 7pm had been firmly established as the usual time for dinner. Throughout the period however class differences continued with the labouring class eating much earlier than the aristocracy.

In country houses, formal dress was worn for dinner and guests and hosts met in a saloon or drawing room first before filing into the dining room in order of precedence. Ladies sat at one end and gentlemen at the other. However by the end of the century 'promiscuous' seating was permitted where men and women sat alternately.

Dinner was a social affair and the vastness of the quantity of food and drink could be daunting to foreigners. Contemporary Francois De La Rochefoucauld wrote:

"Dinner is one of the most wearisome of English experiences lasting, as it does four or five hours."
Dinner usually consisted of three courses, the first being soup and fish, followed by a course of cooked dishes such as fricassees and ragouts and finally a course of meats such as roasts which were carved by the host in an elaborate symbolic display of their generosity. Then the tablecloth was removed and desert was served. (Incidentally the tablecloth was a huge piece of fabric reaching down to the floor and was used by guests to wipe their mouths until the early 19th century when napkins became fashionable.) Desert was not in fact puddings as we know them but generally fruits, nuts and sweetmeats displayed in beautiful china baskets as well as jellies, ices or syllabubs.  

Each course was laid out in its entirety by servants (service a la francaise), so a table was covered with all the different dishes of each course at once and this formed the table 'decoration'. Guests could either help themselves to dishes near to them or if they were lucky they could catch the eye of a footman so that they would bring them a dish from the other side of the table. However it was seen as rude to do this too often so it was common to have to suffice with dishes near to you and often food was cold by the time you ate it.

Service a la russe was introduced in Paris by the Russian Ambassador in c1810 and had eventually completely replaced service a la francaise by the 1860s. Rather than having all the different dishes served and displayed all together, now the table was laid out with a profusion of cutlery and crockery, flowers and decoration. Servants could then bring dishes to each guest and the tablecloth was retained for desert, and this service style would be much more familiar to modern diners.

A profusion of crockery and glasses in Service a la Russe

After desert, the servants would exit and there could be half an hour of wine drinking before the ladies retired to a drawing room to prepare and serve tea (at first green tea, then later black tea was more commonly drunk) while the gentlemen smoked and drank port. A servant then called the gentlemen to tea and coffee with the ladies, and cake or thinly sliced bread was eaten with the tea and these could be followed by cards and dancing. At midnight there may even have been a supper of foods such as cold meats and fruits before guests went home.

A surtout de table, in imitation of a garden

See also for useful information.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The fashion for deshabille (undress)

When we think of Regency dress we often visualise a thin white dress, drawn in under the bust rather than the waist, resembling a Greek statue. Such dresses are often referred to as chemise dresses, or deshabille, as such thin items were used to being worn close to the skin underneath one's clothes, rather than one's outer garments (hence the use of the French word deshabille meaning to undress).

Chemise dress, 1799

Fashions for women during the eighteenth century had become increasingly ostentatious and grand, with hoops, panniers and trains, and with hairstyles to match, so enlarged that doorframes were often too low and it led to such ridicule that a contemporary said women aimed to have their mouth exactly equidistant between their feet and the tops of their hairstyles.

C18th court dress, a visible sign of wealth through sheer quantity of fabric

Then in the early 1780s the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, began to be seen in much more informal clothes and with unpowdered hair, sending shock waves through the fashionable elite. These included a chemise-like dress, like those worn by creole women in the French Caribbean colonies, and had no need for a bodice or hoops. Her fashion became known as chemise à la reine but was much critisized initially for being too informal for a Queen. It consisted of a white muslin dress, tied with a silk sash and often worn with a straw hat, bringing to mind a quaint pastoral shepherdess. When she was painted in this style of dress in 1783 it immediately became the rage to copy the style by the most fashion conscious and in 1784 she sent samples of her dress to supportive aristocratic ladies. Ironically the fashion became associated with liberation and freedom, following the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette, 1783

In England several famous and fashionable women took on this new trend, including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. However it has been argued by Paula Byrne in her excellent biography entitled Perdita that this style was first brought to England by the actress (and one time lover of the Prince Regent) Mary Robinson. A lovely quote from the Morning Herald in October 1782 states:

"The Perdita [Mary Robsinson's nickname after a character she played] has recieved a dress from Paris which was introduced this Autumn by the Queen of France, and has caused no small anxiety in the fashionable circles."
Then one month later the same paper printed that:

"Ladies of the first style adopt it, and gentlemen patronize it. The Chemise de la Reine, in which Mrs Robinson appeared at the Opera, is expected to become a favourite undress  among the fashionable women, who are either by necessity or inclination put to their shifts, the ensuing winter!"

Over the ensuing years the fashion held sway and the sash at the waist gradually moved higher to the bust line (Empire line) which we often think of when we think of Regency styles used in many Jane Austen television adaptations, and trains gradually disappeared.

Hairstyles now resembled those of ancient Greek and Roman women, with pearls or flowers worn in the hair for decoration and with bonnets enhanced with ribbons, ruches and artificial flowers.

Headwear, early C19th
I shall finish with some tongue-in-cheek quotations from Jane Austen in letters to her sister, as an example of how women adapted to new fashions by re-styling their own dresses and hats themselves and also how they felt about fashion in general:

"I bought some Japan [silk] likewise, and next week shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend." (1798)
"Elizabeth was really a pretty object with her nice clean cap put on so tidily and her dress so uniformly white and orderly." (1798)
"Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress, & exposed bosom." (1801)

Friday, 4 March 2011

Furniture designs

Eighteenth century houses were generally designed using graceful classical Roman or Greek influences, however as archaeology was in its infancy (e.g. excavations at Pompeii began in 1748), English landowners had no idea what the interiors of grand Roman buildings looked like nor how they were furnished. Popular influences for furniture design were ornate rococo and baroque, chinoiserie, palladian and gothic.

Baroque and rococo designs are abundant in country house furniture, with their whimsical, asymmetrical and fussy features, such as scrolls, cherubs and putti, shells, garlands and stylised acanthus leaves.

The influence of the East can also be spotted in our country houses, often referred to as chinoiserie. Following increased trade with the East and publications of books such as Sir William Chambers' Designs of Chinese Buildings in 1757, knowledge about Eastern ideas spread. Although Oriental lacquer cabinets had been popular pieces from the seventeenth century, now influences were more widely adopted. Pagoda-style features on furniture, exported Chinese wallpaper and Oriental designs and images on ceramics were very popular.
chinese wallpaper
Chinese wallpaper at Temple Newsam, Leeds

Palladian and neo-classical styles in furniture and interior design are also prevelant, with classical fireplaces (such as those by Robert Adam), marbled columns and plasterwork on ceilings and walls, as well as the use of symmetry and broken pediments in heavy furniture such as bookcases. Items from Roman excavations such as urns and vases were widely reproduced and used as motifs in designs.

 Finally, a stylised Gothic style gained some popularity, pre-dating the Victorian craze, and is epitomised in Horace Walpole's fanciful Strawberry Hill.  You can spot this influence occasionally in a Gothic feel to furniture such as in chair legs and backs.

The Victoria & Albert Museum website has an excellent guide to these and other styles available online.

Although many fashionable eighteenth century houses took on a definate classical look in their architecture, their interior design, fine arts and furniture could vary from the swirling, asymmetrical excesses of the baroque to a sumptious and exotic Oriental style, highlighting the various influences and tastes of the period.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Politics and philosophy in eighteenth century gardens

The gardens and landscapes that surrounded beautiful country houses during the eighteenth century changed in popular style as the century wore on, growing steadily less formal in appearance. Clearly landowners who followed the trends were simply keeping up with fashion. But how large a role did politics and philosophy play in their designs?

Versailles, France
Many landowners claimed they were expressing their patriotism and love of democracy and liberty, in response to orderly, geometric French designs, such as that by Le Notre in Versailles. Contemporary, Horace Walpole sneered "When a Frenchman reads of the garden of Eden, I do not doubt but he concludes it was something approaching that of Versailles, with clipt hedges, berceaus, and trellis-work". This emphasises how then, as now, we take national pride in our rolling landscapes, replete with belts of native trees and serpentine rivers. The trend for avenues of trees, topiary and manicured flower beds was literally wiped out in fashionable country estates in the eighteenth century.

Many contemporaries claimed that to walk in their gardens was an intellectual exercise for the educated elite, emphasising their classical knowledge through emblematic statutory and allegorical features, which would be wasted on the uneducated masses who would simply see what was attractive and miss the intellectual story. The philosopher David Hume wrote in 1757 that "few are qualified to give judgement on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty…When the critic has no delicacy he judges without distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object; the finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded".

At Stowe in Buckinghamshire Viscount Cobham created a garden full of political statements after his falling out with Robert Walpole and resignation from politics. He created a Temple of British Worthies, which held busts of Cobham's supporters alongside historical figures. Furthermore he built a Temple of Ancient Virtue, starkly contrasted with a decaying Temple of Modern Virtue, which rather pointedly held a headless statue of Robert Walpole.

Temple of British Worthies, Stowe

Similarly, at that other great English garden, Stourhead in Wiltshire, Henry Hoare dammed the river Stour to create a great lake around which he laid out a beautiful landscape garden, replete with classical buildings and follies. Carved above the door of his first building, the Doric Temple of Flora, is a quote from Virgil "Procul, O procul este, profani" meaning "Begone, you who are uninitiated". Clearly this garden was designed for those who had a classical education and who could appreciate its subtleties and philosophical meaning.

Temple of Flora, Stourhead

Rather than being simply for pleasure, many eighteenth century gardens were created to convey the message that their owner was well educated, democratic and patriotic. William Gilpin wrote of Stowe in 1748 "I must own there appears a very visible connection between an improved taste for pleasure and a taste for virtue: when I...enjoy myself in these happy walks, I can feel my mind expand itself, my notions enlarge, and my heart better disposed either for a religious thought or a benevolent action: In a word, I cannot help imagining a Taste for these exalted pleasures contributes towards making me a better man”. Noble sentiments indeed.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Eighteenth century country houses

In response to decadent, heavy and ornamental C17th designs, country houses of the C18th are often recognisable by their classical simplicity. And as fashions changed, so did the houses. The importance of ensuring your country house kept up with the latest designs was fundamental. Many gentlemen either knocked down the houses and gardens of their forefathers to build new classical houses, others simply re-cased older mansions.

Initially, square red-brick Dutch-style houses with stone ornamental decoration were popular, such as Clandon Park in Surrey, Uppark in Sussex or Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire.

Hanbury Hall, Worcs (built 1701)

Early in the C18th the influences of the C16th Italian architect Andrea Palladio gained popularity in the UK. His publication The Four Books of Architecture (pub. 1570 in Venice) was translated to English and it called for strict proportions, grace and understated elegance in designs. By building your country house in the style of Palladio a gentleman was highlighting his association with the greatness of Rome, its philosophy of liberty and democracy, and even the birth of civilisation itself.

By the middle of the C18th designs continued to draw on the Palladian influence but relaxed in their adherence to strict proportions and gained more freedom in their classical designs.

From the middle of the century going into the C19th new influences intrude, such as gothic and the Greek Revival. Strawberry Hill in Twickenham is the greatest example of this and was built by Horace Walpole from 1749. Other gentlemen added in a touch of the gothic by building gothic rooms or extensions such as gothic libraries (e.g. at the Leigh Park estate near Portsmouth, now the Staunton Country Park), or by building faux ruins in their gardens or even purchasing real ruins and moving them into their gardens like Thomas Dummer of Cranbury Park in Hampshire who bought part of Netley Abbey and transformed it into a gamekeeper’s cottage.

A beautiful example of the Greek Revival is Northington Grange near Winchester (featured in the film Onegin, a beautiful portrayal of the fabulous poem written by Puskin in the 1820s). Wealthy banker Henry Drummond wanted to “show the world a real portico” and between 1804 and 1809 employed the architect William Wilkins to entirely re-case his C17th mansion in the Greek Revival style, the highlight being the imposing Doric portico based on the Parthenon. A visitor in 1823 said “Nothing can be finer, or like the finest Poussin. It realises the most fanciful representations of the painter’s pencil or the poet’s description...There is nothing like it on this side of Arcadia”.

Northington Grange (source: Prosser's Views)

Why were so many houses built or changed in this ‘golden age’ of country houses? Reasons include the rise in land rents and raw materials from the estates, the availability of enclosures of common and waste land, political stability, monies from business investments, e.g. the slave trade, the rise in tourism and house-visiting and improvements in roads and transport, the availability of architectural guidebooks and finally the influence of the Grand Tour. Contemporaries however argued that instead they were showing their patriotism (a reaction against decadent French designs) and expressing their principles of education, morality and taste, as the Earl of Shaftesbury stated in 1731 “Taste founded on truth...and is acquired by toil and study, which is the reason so few are possessed of it”.

As Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown said “Placemaking, and a good English garden depend entirely on principle and have very little to do with fashion”. But do we believe him? Either way, a constellation of beautiful country houses continues to brighten the British countryside as they have done for over 200 years.