Monthly Archives: January 2012

Thinking about the Country House in 2012.

I started this blog in March 2011 after failing in yet another job application with an academic institution. You see, academic institutions like you to be ‘active’ and attend conferences, give seminar papers, publish, publish and publish some more. I’ve done all this, but at my own expense, and there’s more financially rewarding things for me to do than spend money on train tickets (especially in Britain), a hotel for the night, dinners, conference tickets and incidental publishing costs. So, I decided to do what I like best, and simply write about the country house in a way that suited me.

Over the last 10 months or so, the blog has proved fairly popular and I have been thinking about why this might be. One specific thread of thought concerned our present day perception of the British country house. For example, I’ve often been asked why I haven’t posted a blog entry on Downton Abbey. I can spend days completely consumed by the country house, the people who lived and worked in them, the furniture, the paintings, the architecture … the list could be endless. To be honest I haven’t watched a full series of Downton Abbey, and don’t wish to; I think I’d be country house saturated if  did, and I need to admire other things sometimes. However, I have read several articles about the impact Downton Abbey has had (and is still having) on international audiences, especially those in the US and Canada. Authors of these articles perceive the Downton Abbey watcher as romantically inclined, sentimental and detached. Presumably that would mean that those who would hate to watch Downton Abbey are somehow realistic, sensible and switched on. I’m none and yet all of these things. I love period dramas, but I also have a car that needs fuel, a family to feed and a rather more humble house to look after. So for an international audience that enjoys a country house epic the drama is purely escapism. It’s the British version of the Hollywood silver screen where the people are model types of their real life counterparts. And who cares ? Even Shirley Maclaine is due to join in the performance.

And yet there is something more profound about the country house than a setting for a period drama. Recently, a handful of British academic institutions have been focussing their attentions on the country house in detail. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has a lot to do with changes in the academic system. When I started at university, my degree was in the History of Art, Design and Architecture, by the time I’d finished three years later, the university had renamed it the History of Material Culture. This new degree title is still in operation and represents the current trend for learning about our heritage through objects. It would be petty to discuss how architecture fits into this criteria, as degrees on architectural history exist, but the built environment is not regarded as truly object based learning. Therefore the country house has been able to establish itself as a separate area of academic interest. Best of all, the country house is full of material culture; not to mention the social, local, art and decorative art histories.

Website banner for the University of Northampton's project on consumption and the country house

Another reason for this academic attention is the shifting zeitgeist within a new generation of country house visitors. Those houses lost to fire, town planners and developers are no longer part of living memory. The houses that still stand are only partially open to the public (if at all) and are architectural exhibits in their own right. Very few country houses are working histories with large families and servants. To grasp how the country house worked, people want to visit pantries, kitchens, stable yards, nurseries, go down dark passageways, go through every door, and understand every space. Academics see their role as being one to aid the development in understanding this area of our heritage. As ‘thinkers’ however, the interpretation of the country house in this way can be lost on those visitors who helped establish the shift in the first place! I will be writing about two of the most prominent academic projects in the next few months.

Perhaps it really is romanticism that drives our interest in the country house though? A lost world we might never regain in that same shape and form? The academic will study the ceramics and chairs, the visitor will remain curious about the attic windows and service passageways, and somewhere inbetween there is always an element of supernatural interest too. I’ve often heard the most open-minded and sophisticated of curators question whether the portraits take a mortal sigh and step down from the walls at night. And such a statement is revealing in another way too since the country house connects with us; it can be welcoming or dismissive, but it holds our attention through novels, in films and television dramas. They were built to inspire awe and curiosity, to display wealth and family connection – all devices which keep us modern-day people eager for more.

Further Reading.

Mavisbank, A Tragically Neglected Eighteenth-Century Country House and Playing the Part of Downton Abbey. From Two Nerdy History Girls blog.

Inspired by Downton Abbey. From The National (UAE)

A Memorial to the Lost Houses of England. Fantastic website dedicated to the lost country houses of England.

The New Build Country House and The Country House and the Artocracy. From The Country Seat blog.

Downton Abbey and the Cult of the English Country House. Robert Fulford in the Canadian National Post.

Back from the Dead – the English Country House. Harry Mount for The Telegraph.


Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, The Destruction of the Country House

Country House Amenities; Part III, Heating.

William Kent design for a fireplace and overmantle, published by John Vardy in 1735.

… to remove the fireplace from the English home would be to remove the soul from the body.’ (Hermann Muthesius, The English House. Part III. 1904-05 )

Often when I visit country houses, it’s the fireplaces which hold little interest to me. I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s the emptiness of the black dusty mouth-like thing that should be giving warmth. It is apparently an instinctive characteristic of humans to need a focal point in a central living space. This is an obvious statement when we consider that a fire also provides heat and light, but in modern life this focal point has shifted to entertainment centres and huge televisions. So much so, that many builders will throw up houses without any semblence of a fireplace; where do we sit to converse and keep cosy? Of course, there is more to heating a home these days than a burning fire, we have central heating systems which can be fixed into corners and walls, under floors, and under cupboards. We have the freedom to move about our homes without passing into cold hallways. The concept of setting timers to ignite boilers would be intriguing to many of our elderly relatives, nevermind ancestors of long ago!

In the country house, these developments have not gone unnoticed. As residences it is necessary to keep warm; this is beneficial to the humans inside as much as it is to the fabric of the building. As places of historic value and as tourist attractions, the country house has to be warm a great deal of the time. Lighting a fire has the added attraction of nostalgia for visitors, and in winter offers a depth of living history to the static exhibits. In most country houses the developments in heating exist all over the building. Some will be very obvious, others not so much and might be well hidden underneath panelling and eras of later alterations or simply not accessible to someone coming in through the ‘front’ door.


Heating materials. Coal and charcoal, peat, wood. All are early fuels, and where one was used, it was probably supplemented with another. Surface coal deposits were used by the Romans to help with their hypocausts, but wood was the most common fuel to the point where laws had to be passed prohibiting the felling of trees to make charcoal. Coal in the Middle Ages was viewed as crude because it was used by blacksmiths, but with shortages in wood, coal became the choice of many in towns and cities. Prejudice over the use of coal was also bourne out of its heavy smoke and strong smell neither of which were favourable to the expensive country house interior. Clever devices within the hearth as well as in the flue reduced some of the smoke but cleaner methods of heating were not available in Britain until the 18th century.

Location of heating. From generous to stylish – the fireplace.

          In the Medieval predecessors to the country house – the castles and manor houses – a fire would have been placed at the upper end of the communal area but the fireplace as we know it was established once a hood or alcove became part of the architectural design. In early country houses, especially those of the 16th and 17th centuries, these large fireplaces held a dual purpose for those who had profited from good relations with the king and had gained landed wealth which once belonged to the Church or ‘wrong-doers’. Grand rooms like great halls and chambers were now fantastically embellished with family mottos and coats of arms; devices that aimed to promote the supposed ancient heritage of those who now owned the property. What better interior place to position these things other than the fireplace and overmantle? Afterall, this is the focal point of the room.

The Holbein Hall 16th century fireplace at Reigate Priory, Surrey (previously at Nonsuch Palace and later Bletchingley Place) Copyright Ian Capper

German tiled stove from 1577: decorative and efficient. (V&A Collection)

Christina Hardyment notes of this period,

Open fires remained far more popular in Britain than they were on the continent. At a time when the Dutch, the Scandinavians, the Russians and the Germans were constructing tiled room -stoves [see left] … the Elizabethans were building chimney pieces like elaborate altarscreens around huge open hearths.                 (Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements, 1992, p. 156)

          The example above from Reigate Priory in Surrey is relevant to this development simply because it reflects the status of the ornamental fireplaces in large establishments. The massive carved oak surround was originally commissioned by Henry VIII for Nonsuch Palace, and is believed to be to the design of Hans Holbein. It was later installed at Bletchingley Place by Henry VIII perhaps as part of a ‘gift’ for his divorced wife Anne of Cleves. As Bletchingley fell into decline in the 17th century, the surround was removed to its present position at Reigate Priory in about 1655. The Reigate Priory estate was (as the name suggests) once monastic lands, but with the Dissolution of the Monasteries the land was granted to Lord William Howard – uncle of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s unfortunate 5th wife. It is the Howard coat of arms which can be seen on the stone section of the surround. The wealth and status these magnificent pieces conveyed was important to their longevity. They would go out of fashion in the late 17th century, but their dark splendour proved inviting for the romantic sensibilities of the early 19th century. If you see something on this scale be sure to check its provenance!

          The evolution in architectural styles of fireplaces from the earliest country houses onwards changed significantly, eventually becoming an important fashionable feature in any living space. Yet, such style evolution would require discussion in an altogether separate post. The size of hearth and overmantle generally grew more compact as spaces became recognised as more private interiors. In the older houses this evolution in style might be evident under layers of more modern decoration. Clearly, the fireplace remained a key element in design. The sought after architects of the time like Inigo Jones, Daniel Garrett, William Kent (see first image above) and Robert Adam in the 18th century, or Augustus Pugin and Sir Charles Barry in the 19th century, all incorporated elegant versions for their commissions. However, there came (somewhat overdue in Britain) to be more sophisticated methods of heating the country house than the open-hearth from the 18th century onwards, and architects were more than happy to accommodate designs for these amenities and their structural requirements.

Classical style stove designed by James Wyatt, c.1790 at the aptly name Castle Coole, Enniskillen, Northern Ireland (Photo by Ian West, University of Leicester)

The stove and cast iron elegance.

The open-hearth is messy, and needs daily attention (prepatellar bursitis is an inflammation of the kneecap brought on by kneeling for prolonged periods, it’s more common name is Housemaid’s Knee). The cold, hard floor of the hearth was one of the more uninviting areas demanding a thorough clean. A free-standing method of heating in the country house became popular in the early 18th century, and was much cleaner. This was the hall stove, and was designed to provide a certain degree of warmth to communal areas, and although they were regarded as less cheerful than the fireplace, the stove could be equally stylish.

There are several types of stove to be found in the country house; the anthracite stove, the paraffin stove, and  the coal stove are the main types. Early models would certainly be free-standing with a section for the coal, a grille or grate and pan. There are some fantastic examples in most country houses (see image above left), but may not initially be very obvious to the eye. Decorative art museums

A cast iron stove, probably to the designs by Robert Adam. Supplied to Compton Place, Sussex for Lord George Cavendish, c.1780. (V&A Collection)

will no doubt have some too, like this one from the V&A in London (right). The British take on the stove was nothing compared to what the northern Europeans had been installing in their houses, as size alone simply dwarfs the Wyatt and Adam models (see especially the Gallery at Kuskovo ,Moscow and Tullgarn Palace, Stockholm). Interestingly, cast iron provided a great tool for decorative pieces and many stove makers were based in Scotland where iron industries already existed, and yet the tiled stove afforded better luxury and more surface area for aesthetic display. This was probably symptomatic of British taste from the 18th century which though flamboyant by modern standards was restrained compared to Europe at the time. As developments in heating and comfort continued, Britain would always be slow to catch on.

The introduction of centralised heating systems to the country house was really only the next step from the static stove which pushed heat through floors and wall voids. Some houses made use of their gas supply for fires or had free-standing gas heaters, but these were generally reserved for the service and staff apartments. The Roman hypocaust is a very obvious predecessor to central heating, but technological advances, materials and industrialisation offered something more powerful. Initially, central heating was installed in larger houses in order to warm the air and cure damp in open spaces like the hall stove had done. The radiator as we know it came later in the 19th century, as earlier systems would have included a central heating apparatus which pushed heat through pipes laid in existing gaps and underneath fixed items of furniture like bookcases, or through elaborate floor grates in usually drafty areas like doorways and staircases.

‘Classical’ style radiator in stairwell at Coughton Court, Warwickshire. Possibly made by Vincent Skinner in Bristol (mid 19th century)

A heating system like this had been in use in hothouses, but there was some debate about whether steam heating was as reliable as hot-water heating for interior warmth. By the end of the 19th century, most country houses had some sort of central heating system which incorporated stylistic models used in previous centuries. Newly built houses had central heating put in as a matter of course throughout. Cragside, Northumberland is the most obvious example again, and there are some brilliant images here of how massive the system of pipes are underneath the house. A much older house like that of Coughton Court, Warwickshire (which will have seen every form of heating in its 600 years history) sought sleek ways of placing hot pipes within its walls and interior spaces (see left).

Many houses will still use their 19th-century heating systems, and find them just as efficient as purely modern ones. Of course, there will have been up-to-date repairs and modern fittings added, but the clanking sound of an elderly boiler reminds us that there is a mechanical presence keeping us warm and providing hot water. Once the province of the gardener, these boilers now need certified/registered plumbers and engineers to check and repair them. And this is only right, these boilers are monstrous things and require a lot of room. Even the old coal fuelled things have been connected to the electrical supply whilst their redundant units sit staring stoically at those passing through.

As for the fireplace, and its supposed primeval role in the hearts and minds of the English, it does seem to be making a comeback. More so in the smaller domestic property and countless property programmes will have their presenters ripping out plywood boards or ill-fitting bricks in old fireplaces to see what lies behind it all. In the country house, the fireplace still takes pride of place whether it is ornate or otherwise. Often it is an essential part of a restoration project that sees hearths, surrounds and mantles returned to their original setting, whilst Victorian radiators are left needing a new coat of paint.


Elizabeth Burton, The Georgians at Home, 1714-1830 (1967).

Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House, (1978).

Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements, (1992).

Judith and Martin Miller, Period Details: The Definitive Source Book for House Renovation. (1997).

Temple Newsam Country House Studies, (text by Anthony Wells-Cole and Christopher Gilbert) The Fashionable Fireplace 1660-1840. (1985).

John Vince, The Country House: How it Worked (1991).

Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erddig (1980)

Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley, Creating Paradise: The Building of the English Country House 1660-1880 (2000)


Country House Technology project at the University of Leicester

Commercial site with general history on fireplaces and heating the home

The European stove, its advantages and disadvantages

Extremely useful website dedicated to engineering heritage at CIBSE (Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers)

Castle Coole, Enniskillen, Ireland

Coughton Court

Coping with the Cold at Colonial Williamsburg

Ode to Abraham Buzaglo and his stove (with good references)

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, Servants, The running of the country house

Country House Amenities; Part II, Lighting with Oil, Gas and Electricity.

In the first part on country house amenities, I offered a glimpse into how these buildings would have been lit by candle.

Lamp Room at Port Eliot, Cornwall. (copyright Christopher Hutchinson 1992)

In the era before channelled resources such as gas or electricity, the humble candle offered a brief glow or an otherwise immense show of sparkle depending on the lighting necessities of the moment. The candle would still have great influence for many years with adaptations being made to holders as candle lamps as well as being used in aspects of later lighting design. Things were changing and before the end of the nineteenth century, those once dark corners and passageways were to be illuminated with great effect.



The key types of oil; vegetable/olive oil, used in simple devices such as cressets, betty lamps and crusies but the light they emitted was no stronger than that of a single candle; whale oil, the best quality came from the Sperm Whale, but was expensive; colza, used in more sophisticated devices, but remained messy stuff in the process of lamp cleaning; and paraffin/kerosene, this was a product from the distillation of mineral oil or petroleum, it was lightweight and almost smokeless giving a clear light, discovered c.1859.

Like the candle, oil was another ancient form of light provision. However, it was not used extensively in the country house because of its smell and inefficiency. By the end of the eighteenth century (patented in Britain by Matthew Boulton in 1784) the introduction of specialist cylinders and modes of combustion such as Argand lamps to many country house interiors offered a new form of lighting which would be used throughout the hierarchy of the household. These used colza oil – a variety of rapeseed oil which was less smelly than pure vegetable oils and cheaper than whale oil. Country house historian Mark Girouard highlights Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire in the 1830s which was largely lit by oil and when the family were in residence (a total of about sixteen or seventeen weeks each year) 400 burners were required and about 600 gallons of oil were consumed.

Many candle fixtures were adapted fairly quickly, but more common were the brand new fittings for oil which could be attached to walls, ceilings or placed on tables. The oil reservoir could be disguised as a fashionable classical urn or form part of the column, likewise, the pipes feeding the burner might be intricate scrolls and branches. More humble apparatus would have been the candle-holder inspired night lamps (see below) which crucially still maintained the use of portable light and were essential for the early morning servant.

Hanging Oil Lamp (Early 19th century, Manchester Art Gallery), provenance unknown

Wall lamp possibly from Chatsworth House (Early 19th century)

Visitors to country houses today may still be able to see a lamp room especially laid out for cleaning and trimming ‘cottons’ and refilling lamps. Other houses may have used sculleries for the same purpose. This routine was often done first thing in the morning, when lamps would be collected up to be cleaned and refilled ready for day and evening use. In the 1795 inventory of Harewood House, there was a ‘room where the candlesticks are cleaned’ in the basement, such rooms may well have been adapted later for storage of more modern lighting equipment.   ********Gas and Electricity

Gas lighting was introduced at a commercial level in the 1790s using coal gas but was confined to manufactories and workshops. It was extremely slow to catch on in a domestic way despite its ‘brilliance’ and glorious levels of illumination. For the country house owner in particular, the worries surrounding gaslight were fixed on the supposed purity of this resource; the temperature emitting from the burners, the damage to wall surfaces and even artworks. Add to this the contemporary uses of gas in the industrial workplace, and gaslight was ultimately seen as crude and inferior. If gas was introduced at all, it would have been in the domestic quarters. In the 1860s however, for those planning on building a country house it was advisable to consider the provision for gas lighting with a country house gasworks. This was a new world of lighting amenities and required extensive (and expensive) work if the house were to be linked up to a good supply.

A small Chamber for the retorts, a Tank for tar, a Yard for the gasometer and stowage for coals and coke, are the chief features. These he [gas engineer] will have to dispose together at a convenient angle of the Farm-buildings or perhaps of the Stabling, well removed from the House…

The Gentleman’s House, Robert Kerr (1865).

Kerr offers absolutely no estimates on cost for this aspect of lighting resource, but installing something similar at Hassobury in Essex cost a huge £814 10s 7d in 1870! Fortunately this offset the long-term costs saved in previous lighting arrangements.

          Moreover, lighting the house by gas allowed the owner to re-use several older fixtures intended for candles, especially in larger spaces such as hallways, landings and stairwells. Of course, this would also be true of electrical lighting, and many apparatus were adapted for gas first, and later electricity. The most obvious would be the wall fixtures like sconces and girandoles, as well as chandeliers; such apparatus are usually linked to the electricity supply today, and produce superb illumination of quite vast open space. At Cragside in Northumberland – the first house to be lit by hydroelectricity in 1881 – owner Sir William Armstrong declared to the editor of The Engineer,

          In the passages and stairs the lamps are for the most part used without glass shades and present a very beautiful and starlike appearance, not so bright as to pain the eye in passing, and very efficient in lighting the way… The Library […] is well-lighted by eight lamps. Four of these are clustered in one globe of ground glass, suspended from the ceiling of the recess, and the remainder are placed singly and in globes in various parts of the room, upon vases which were previously used as stands for duplex kerosene lamps.

Page from Lea, Sons & Co suppliers to Cragside in the 1890s (copyright National Trust)

          Existing houses took time to adapt, probably due to the cost of alterations and the willingness of the owner to allow electric power into the building. New houses on the other hand, made electricity a necessary part of the structure. Castle Drogo was one such place, and has already been discussed here, but more notable properties like that of Cragside proved the innovation of their owners as being integral to the foundations of the house itself. Others would follow before the end of the nineteenth century including Tatton Park in Cheshire, Wightwick Manor in the West Midlands and Lanhydrock in Cornwall.

          The use of electric light by the twentieth century heralded a completely new era, and symbolised the final outward spiral of lighting amenities in the country house. Candles and oils produced poor light on their own and had to be used in great quantities for good effect. They could be stored, cleaned and even produced on the estate. Gas light was more reliant upon outsiders to install or adapt buildings and fixtures as well as the provision of gas related equipment, but it did produce a better spread of illumination and was generally cleaner. Electricity could be produced upon the estate using existing features of the landscape, especially in the case of hydroelectricity and other turbine generators, but it would eventually be linked to a national system providing a consistent output for all. Plus, the quality of light from a single fixture could be enough to illuminate one room for extensive periods of time. There was no need for portable lighting equipment like matches, flints or tinders, fussy cleaning accessories or messy oils and dripping wax.

          Peculiar to the country house of the early twentieth century perhaps, was the desire to retain some old world

Set of light switches at Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire (copyright National Trust)

charm. So even where a seemingly small number of owners made dramatic changes to their lighting facilities, many more were seeking to disguise the purity of better illumination through those older fittings. This was more common amongst the plutocracy whose general emulation of ancient landed wealth drove them to construct romantic country piles. When the country house suffered financially throughout the twentieth century it became the turn of organisations such as the UK National Trust and English Heritage to evoke something of this ancient charm, although this time is was rather more to do with necessity than aesthetics.

          Today, lighting the country house is dependant upon the requirements of the owners. Residents of a country house would probably treat it the same way any householder would illuminate their home – for reading, for setting the mood, for hobbies, evening meals etc. For those houses open to the public, there is the need to save on running costs when several rooms have to be exhibited all day whilst also recognising issues of conservation. Consider then, the mix of issues relating to homeliness and conservation when a country house is both a public space and a family home. Thankfully the electric light bulb in its modern form can function at different levels, and the energy-saving variety are proving a welcome device in the twenty-first century.


Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (1978).

Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements (1992).

Robert Kerr, The Gentleman’s House (1865).

Pamela Sambrook, The Country House Servant (1999).

Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erdigg (1980)

Temple Newsam Country House Studies, number 4, (text by Anthony Wells-Cole), Country House Lighting (1992))

Margaret Willes and Maureen Dillon, Artificial Sunshine: A Social History of Domestic Lighting. National Trust (1999)


Country House Technology project at the University of Leicester

Victorian High-Tech – The Argory, County Armagh

The UK National Trust lighting; with electricity and with gas

Lighting the Georgian and Victorian property

Lighting the Victorian Home

Full link for that fantastic essay on Country House Gasworks

The Geffrye Museum, London.

The National Trust changes to energy efficiency 2008 (with video)