Thinking about the Country House in 2016


A portion of the cast from Dowton Abbey giving their acceptance speech at the Screen Actors Guild in Los Angeles 30 January 2016

In 2012, I wrote a piece here about the current trends in country house studies as well as general literature and popular culture. A lot can happen in four years, so I thought a return to the subject matter seemed overdue. Spurred on by the recurring themes of country house social history highlighted by this blog’s statistics, there is indeed some things to be thinking about in 2016.

Since 2012 the country house has been discussed a lot less on British television that’s for sure and in hindsight, programmes like The Country House Revealed from 2011 seemed like a passing phase. That’s probably more to do with the producers of popular TV rather than the wider interests of those watching. Yet, there has been a shift and without doubt there is a strong fan base surrounding the country house united by the subject’s social themes more than anything else in 2016. That’s not to say that architectural history and the decorative arts have dropped from favour, but overall there appears to be a collective demand for knowledge about how people interacted with the country house; as designers, owners, servants or suppliers. This is not new, and there has certainly been an excess of publications on the country house servant specifically since the 1950s – partly as a result of the decline of the country house and the nostalgia that followed. Yet, the social history of the country house in the second decade of the millennium is rather more epic in its presentation.

In order to support this view, there is no need to look any further than the global appeal of Downton Abbey. At the close of 2015, rumours of a film abounded but as I write this blog post, it is neither confirmed nor denied as to whether the cast and crew are set for a large scale production. However, coming up trumps with a win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles for Best TV Ensemble, Downton Abbey shows its exceptional success in the US particularly and a continued appeal which looks set to blaze through many other countries still.

And it is the word ‘ensemble’ which is really intriguing! Of course the SAG Awards are identifying the on screen cohesion of a large cast, but in writing country house histories it has never been a word I thought to use – or one suggested to me as a PhD student. The country house hierarchy of servants is indeed an ensemble; the household is an ensemble of characters that work together. Acting these parts on screen is part of the story-telling process which has created the mass appeal of Downton which is an admirable achievement. It also goes to show the curiosity and demand for ever more detail and individual accounts (fictional or otherwise) set against the historical backdrop of the country house and its estate.

Rather more tentatively I would also say that the architectural aspect of the country house has become academic for most in 2016. Downton Abbey is certainly popularist but it allows some themes of the country house to become accessible to many – a point made time and again in this blog. Yet, I always feel a little dismayed at the types of literature available either online or at the local bookshop dedicated to the country house. The architecture of the British (mainly English) country house is confined to glossy coffee table tomes which lack depth and lengthy discourse. The most recent additions to my local bookshop’s shelves are repetitive and assert the author’s own connections to particular sites and families. More importantly, they’re out of many enthusiastic readers’ budgets.

As for the social histories, there are the semi-autobiographical pieces hidden away in the history section or selected for their seasonal relevance – usually at Christmas. Based on the literature being published alone, the argument would be that studies of the country house have become divisive in recent years. In academia this is reinforced by the capabilities of departments seeking funding for projects based on the specialisms of their existing staff, and in most cases one is either an architectural specialist or a social historian. For the moment, one cannot be both.

My diagnosis of this issue is the speed at which academic institutions are encouraged to deliver and the place these institutions have in our cultural landscape. It is easier to divide themes and examine them more closely that way, but also reach the targets set by funding bodies and peer group assessment. At the same time as academic institutions turn inwards to their research (be it architectural, material culture or social history), the well-connected TV broadcasters are inviting more viewers to think about past lives and discover semi-fictional accounts of families from ‘the big house’. Thus, it is television which is currently at the forefront of presenting the country house to a wider audience and not the traditional body of academics and curators and their respective assistants.

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So are things shifting again in 2016? Perhaps taking advantage of the popularity of Downton but also as a means of identifying as well as dismantling the popularist aspect of country house social history, it is my ambition this year to focus on the country house servant and household and the material culture that supports these. Not in the usual sense though – the nostalgia and ten-a-penny reminiscences – instead it will something more constructive and debatable. Of course, personal experiences are always valued and are critical to social history, yet the social history of the country house covers huge ground; it is every aspect of human life literally under one roof.  This year in blogging will see highlighted discussion concerning not just servants and their roles, but also love, marriage, children and parenthood, and even crime. Themes which themselves are an ensemble of varying aspects of day-to-day routine or circumstance influenced by or indeed an influence upon the country house and its development.

Let’s not forget that Downton Abbey is complete and its final series was aired in the UK in September 2015. Long may its reign continue, but something will move into the void left behind. I am not convinced academia will manage this without looking more outwardly than it does currently in Britain at least. Yet, there are many findings to hit the shelves in 2016 and I look forward to reading into these. It may still be possible to unite the architectural with the social before we meet 2017 and I hope to offer a narrative as we go!


Filed under Book reviews, In the News, Servants

8 responses to “Thinking about the Country House in 2016

  1. “The architecture of the British (mainly English) country house is confined to glossy coffee table tomes which lack depth and lengthy discourse. The most recent additions to my local bookshop’s shelves are repetitive and assert the author’s own connections to particular sites and families. More importantly, they’re out of many enthusiastic readers’ budgets.”

    I agree with this.Many of these tomes lack depth and rely on the usual suspects (ex. Julian Fellowes) for forewords which yet again lack any depth and insight. My main gripe is also how expensive they are and its not easy to carry them around to read while going to work or somewhere,

    While Downton Abbey is to be lauded for sparking an interest in the phenomenon that is the British (mostly English) country house, as a period drama it leaves a lot to be desired with its ahistorical take on British history during the period it is set as well as the misrepresentation of the attitudes and behaviour of the era which gives the programme the impression that is is a C21st soap dressed up in period clothing.

    I look forward to reading about your research on the country house servant and your take on country houses this year and beyond.

  2. Hello Julie, very interesting post. As a non-academic social historian, I hadn’t considered how getting research funding tends to compartmentalise subjects. I would say it’s hard to untangle the working lives of servants (and their emotional lives, as much as we can ascertain) from the actual buildings they work in. Underground quarters meant light deprivation and possible depression (see Mrs Wells of Uppark); a huddle of buildings such as bakehouse/stables/dairy/laundry, as at Erddig, lead to sexual intrigue and inter-marriage. There are so many layers to peel back in trying to understand servants’ lives. You mention scandal – and I found in researching The Housekeeper’s Tale (2014) that this is where the archives yielded most information. So yes, I discovered a pregnancy, a prison sentence, a theft, a love affair…
    I look forward to reading more from you this year.

    • I’m intrigued to hear more about your research, Tessa! There is a tendency to forget that whoever the residents are of the country house – be they servants or family – they can generally be fairly ordinary folk negotiating though the life that’s been handed to them. So, looking closer does always reveal those incidences that might have been covered up or not talked about. There are good and bad decisions which then have bearing on those around them and the legacy they might leave behind!

  3. clive

    One aspect not mentioned is what I call the Lucy Worsley syndrome. This
    is where TV saturates the screen with as much saucy and salacious material
    it can scrape together and front it with a pseudo royal plus fellow presentable (female} presenters.This week it’s royal bedchambers.

    • My impression of what producers of programmes like this are trying to achieve is something as near as possible to the house tour itself. I can well imagine that Worsley has simply taken herself out of the workplace and been put in front of the camera doing what she knows best. I like the approach, but there’s always room to advance from this further as far as presenting the country house in a documentary format is concerned.

  4. Claire

    Great post. I agree with you about the books. The best one I’ve come across is Mark Girourard’s “Life in the English Country House: A Social & Architectural History,” originally published in the 1970s. “The Polite Tourist: Four Centuries of Country House Visiting” by Adrian Tinniswood is also excellent. Both by Yale, but by no means dry, academic tomes.

    • Hi Claire, Girouard’s book is just fantastic and I would never part with my copy. I think I found it in a secondhand bookshop many years ago and still return to it. I don’t own a copy of Tinniswood’s book, but have certainly read it – again extremely valuable and give ample insight into the greatest aspects of ho the country house operated.

    • I have the Girouard book which I bought at a charity shop and its one of the definite tomes on the topic. Many thanks for mentioning the Tinniswood book, will check it out.

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