The great English country house tradition reached its apotheosis in the nineteenth century. Designed by all the most eminent architects of the age, houses constructed during this period were larger, more elaborate, and more lavishly furnished than ever before, and they became famous throughout Europe and America for their luxury, technological innovation, and convenience of plan.
Michael Hall's survey draws on the vast archive of the great British magazine Country Life to present the fullest visual record yet published of the Victorian-era country house in England and Wales. It ranges from the High Gothic of Tyntesfield to Ferdinand Rothschild's flamboyantly French Waddesdon Manor and Philip Webb's Arts and Crafts interiors at Standen. These remarkable photographs are in many cases the only record of the great houses in their heyday; those such as Wrest Park, Thoresby Hall, and Hewell Grange were all sold in the twentieth century and their magnificent furniture and priceless artwork and collections dispersed. Houses that have survived with their interiors intact but are little known or rarely accessible to the public also feature prominently, such as Flintham Hall and the Earl of Harrowby's Sandon Hall. Highclere Castle, now famous as TV's Downton Abbey, features prominently.
Spectacular color photographs provide a fascinating look at some of the most celebrated houses of the period, from A. W. N. Pugin's Scarisbrick Hall and William Burges's Cardiff Castle to J. F. Bentley's Carlton Towers and J. D. Crace's astonishing interiors at Longleat. This chronologically arranged survey of Victorian houses spans the decades from the 1830s to the 1890s and includes not only new houses, but also historic county seats that have been in families for generations and were given major renovations or additions in this era. With over 150 superb color and black-and-white photographs specially selected to highlight the century's most significant houses and their architects and an authoritative commentary by Michael Hall, this book provides a thorough overview of a major period in British architectural history.
Almost everything that it is now regarded as distinctive about the Victorian country house was in place before Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. As John Martin Robinson has written in the preceding title in this series, The Regency Country House
, 'The English country house as we know it – the centre of a self-contained estate and the setting for house parties – is essentially a product of the Regency era.' The concept of an estate as a unified area consolidated in single ownership and centred on a country house, complete with lodges, estate villages and tenant farms under the supervision of an agent, was a creation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The notion of a great aristocrat's feudal domain is so potent that it is easy to assume that, for example, the 1st Duke of Westminster, whose family had been seated at Eaton in Cheshire since the fifteenth century, was simply continuing traditions set by his ancestors in the programme of estate improvements that he began in the 1880s. In fact, before 1811, as Dr. Robinson points out, the land around Eaton Hall was owned by fourteen proprietors, whom the Grosvenors had to buy out.
If the idea of an estate as understood by the Victorians was largely a modern creation, then so also to a large extent was the country house. In the mid-eighteenth century the planning of great houses as sequences of formal apartments, a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, was definitively abandoned in favour of a loose, accretive arrangement of reception rooms – a drawing room and dining room, and usually a library at the very least – around a hall. Many of the features thought of as distinctively Victorian – from service wings and large conservatories to plate-glass windows, lavish upholstery, fitted carpets, central heating, plumbed-in baths and WCs – were all available to the patrons and architects of Regency houses.
The social life for which Victorian houses were designed also continued the traditions laid down in the previous generation. Balls and other parties were a metropolitan fashion, which had spread widely to country houses by 1800. By the early nineteenth century, long house parties, which had been the customary form of country-house entertaining, had been supplemented by 'Saturday to Monday' parties, weekend visits that were facilitated by greatly improved road transport. Thanks to the railway, this form of entertaining became the norm for Victorian country houses. Sport, always at the heart of the attraction of country-house life, had largely been equestrian until the early nineteenth century, when the invention of more reliable forms of gun, and the introduction of driven game with beaters, laid the foundation of the shooting parties that gave Victorian country houses a large part of their raison d'être
in the autumn and winter.
In what ways, therefore, was the Victorian country house distinctive? One evident change followed the death of George IV in 1830. From that point, the royal family never again led fashion in the way that the King, as Prince Regent, had established: there was no replacement for his enthusiasm for artistic innovation and gorgeous display, which had set the fast pace of Regency taste. Yet Victoria and Albert undoubtedly had an influence on country houses. The change in tone in aristocratic life that was so marked by the 1840s – away from private indulgence towards public respectability – had many causes, most importantly the influence of the Evangelical religious revival and the change in the political balance of power after the Great Reform Act of 1832. But a significant influence was the tone of the Court, now the setting for a contented family life, which was in sharp contrast to George IV's domestic circumstances. The Victorian emphasis on country houses as above all family homes would probably not have resounded with such force throughout the century without a royal model.
Excerpted from Lasting Elegance by Michael Hall. Copyright © 2009 by Michael Hall. Excerpted by permission of The Monacelli Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.