As the administration of my own research steps up a gear, less time will be devoted to my dear blog. However, my aim over the coming months is to invite others to help disseminate and promote what is currently taking place within the study, conservation, restoration and funding of country houses. This may not necessarily be throughout the UK, and I would like to think that I can encourage some guest posts from those working or studying in this field overseas. No doubt I shall drop by from time to time as I am sure many readers will be eager to hear about my research as it unfolds. For the time being though I will hand over to those scurrying away amongst archival papers, dusty workshops, and fundraising events.
The first guest spot is from Dr Ian West, who alongside Professor Marilyn Palmer is co-author of The Country House Technology Project at the University of Leicester. Research began in 2008, and quite interestingly was established within the Centre for Historical Archaeology rather than the more obvious Centre for the Study of the Country House also at Leicester. This approach probably lends a refreshing view to the growing curiosity in how the country house worked and suitably links industrial archaeology with the art and social histories of the country house.
University of Leicester
From the eighteenth century onwards, country houses were seen by their owners as a visible manifestation, not just of their wealth and power, but also of their taste and refinement; increasing emphasis was placed on the comfort and privacy of the family and their guests. Technology played an important role in this: cold, dark rooms became warm and brightly lit, bells were used to summon servants from the basements or service wings to which they had been banished, and lifts and even railways carried food from distant kitchens and coal from the cellars.
Since 2008, I have been working with Marilyn Palmer, Emeritus Professor of Industrial Archaeology at the University of Leicester, on a project studying the adoption of technology in country houses and the impact this had on the occupants of the houses. This work has attracted growing interest, as public fascination with life “below stairs” – fuelled by television series like Downton Abbey and by the popularity of family history research – has encouraged more properties to open up their service areas. Our research is helping in the interpretation of these areas and of the remains of other historic technologies, some of which, like hydro-electric generation, are being brought back into use.
Another manifestation of the interest in this subject was the sell-out weekend conference which the project organised in Oxford in 2010. This month sees the publication of a book based on the proceedings of that event. As well as examining the social impact of domestic technology, the book includes essays on country house lighting, sanitation and gas and electricity generation, together with detailed case studies of the technology employed at Lanhydrock and Holkham Hall, in the gardens at Calke Abbey and the security measures adopted at Wollaton Hall. Beyond the confines of the house, the book also describes the development of industry and model farms on country house estates. Country House Technology, edited by Paul Barnwell and Marilyn Palmer, is published by Shaun Tyas, price £40. With the support of the National Trust, Professor Palmer and I are also working on a major book covering all aspects of country house technology which is expected to be published in 2014.
For more information on the work of the Country House Technology Project, go to: