The English Country House: from the Archives of Country Life, Rizzoli, 2017, ISBN 978-0-8478-3057-2, £50, reviewed by Angela-Ellis Jones
‘The English country house is an extraordinary phenomenon that lies at the very heart of England’s history and cultural life’. So begins a magnificent tome which showcases sixty-two houses which have featured in Country Life since the 1980s, when it started printing photographs in colour. The architectural styles span seven centuries, from the mediaeval Stokesay Castle to the newly built, Lutyens-inspired Corfe Farm. Many are still private homes, often inhabited by descendants of the families that built them. The houses show a wide geographical spread – almost all counties boast at least one entry in the book. The variety of England’s vernacular architecture is a testament to the remarkable diversity of its geology.
The book is punctuated by an unusual feature – six leaflets containing essays by leading British architectural historians that set the English country house in its social context and chart the changing tastes in collecting and decorating; the development of ancillary buildings, gardens and landscapes; and finally its influence in the United States. Two demolished country houses – Elizabethan Warwick Priory and mediaeval Agecroft Hall – were rebuilt in the US!
In the first of these leaflets, John Martin Robinson notes how ‘The distinguishing feature of the English country house is that it was the capital of a landed estate, the centre of a social and economic entity with farmland, tenants, woods, pleasure grounds, sporting and subsidiary buildings. Ownership of a landed estate gave its proprietors power and influence, economic security, independence, and an established position in society, as well as retirement, recreation and sport. For many centuries, from the Middle Ages onwards, the ownership of land was the only sure base of power and influence in England, and the only solid long-term investment. Therefore, anyone who made money by whatever means – from the law, from trade and commerce,or from royal service and warfare – automatically invested the proceeds in a country estate and country house and set themselves up as a landed dynasty, and this continued long after the development of a pluralist, capitalist economy.’
This is a correct assessment. However, I think that he errs when he claims that ‘The role of the country house as a political power base began to change with the Industrial Revolution, as acknowledged by the Great Reform Bill in 1832, which tipped the balance of political representation from the country to the town, and all subsequent social and political movements have further acknowledged urban economic realities, though the country house has continued to play a ceremonial, social cultural and figurehead role in its area’. On the contrary, the country house was still of crucial political importance in the years following the second Reform Act (1867), as can be seen from Trollope’s Palliser novels. Indeed, much of the business of politics was still conducted during country house weekends before 1914.
Visiting country houses was a long-established social convention amongst the gentry from the seventeenth century onwards. A strong tradition of country house and garden visiting dates back to the eighteenth century, when large estates had set days of the week when they were open to the public. Today, around 80% of visitors to National Trust properties say that the garden is the main reason for their visit.
The aforementioned leaflets provide a wealth of interesting information and insights. Mark Girouard considered the halls of Oxford and Cambridge ‘the principal still-working survivals of communal mediaeval households in the modern world’ – dons and students resemble ‘the squire or lord and his guests on the high table,the household below’. It is Girouard whom we have to thank for the fact that Victorian country houses, considered unfashionable for much of the past century, started appearing in the pages of Country Life in the late 1950s.
I have only two minor criticisms of this otherwise excellent book. Firstly, more could have been made of the destruction of so many houses in C20th due to the socialist tax policies of both governing parties. For example, a house that has undergone a phoenix-like resurrection is Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, it contains Pugin’s Gothic drawing room, his ‘best surviving domestic interior’. It was a victim of the Agricultural Depression, two world wars and punitive death duties. With little spent on repairs for nearly a century, by the 1970s it was at risk of demolition. Fortunately, this was rejected on the ground of cost, and in the 1980s the sale of a major artwork and English Heritage grants made it possible to carry out repairs, and the castle is now returned to its former glory.
Secondly, there are some surprising omissions, of which the glorious Cragside in Northumberland is one. Fortunately, ‘The emergence of modernism in the English country house is largely absent from these pages, reflecting an editorial decision that the houses built in response to the Continental avant-garde of le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe would be discordant with the general tone and appearance of the book’. But towards the end, several modern houses are featured, which do not fit well. Nonetheless, this book will grace the shelves of many a country house, and delight those who can only participate in the attendant experience by proxy.
Angela Ellis-Jones is a writer and researcher