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The Country House Garden, Part I: Prospects

It’s spring! In the UK at least, March generally sees the reopening of many sites to the public after the closed winder season. April is apparently National Gardening Month and with the May Bank Holidays the outdoors suddenly become the backdrop to all kinds of refreshing interpretations for the country house and its garden.

I feel this subject often sits separately to that of the architectural history of the country house. There are differing approaches to the country house garden and the majority are glorious illustrations of the evolution of vast gardening and landscaping ideals. As I’ve likely mentioned before, even at a young age, it was the outside space which drew me to the country house initially but once inside I seemed to dismiss the parkland and formal parterres for a long time. For many historians of the country house, it is difficult to fully engage with both simultaneously and I know I still feel more confident discussing the social and architectural history rather than the aesthetics of the outdoors.

However, such approaches in the methodology shouldn’t be given too much weight here as the

Ingress Abbey by Thomas Badeslade, 1720s

country house garden is better admired through less dry academic dialogue. If anything, the country house garden invites all to observe an idealised nature – an Arcadian treat for the visitor. There is also the unforgettable freedom of the country house garden and its park which stimulates curiosity as well as the imagination. Therefore, for this first post of four I want to focus on Adrian Tinniswood’s Country Houses from the Air (1997 edition) since this allows for initial study of the patterns and scale of the exterior world of the country house. I also like the concept of looking at the country house garden from a distance and metaphorically moving in to consider aspects of it more closely by concluding with a case study.

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Colour print of Lulworth Castle after the original drawing by Mrs Humphrey Weld, 1721

In the introduction to the publication, Tinniswood makes a fine argument for the definition of the English country house which is crucial in pulling together the readers’ own preconceptions. I have been challenged on this on several occasions and it isn’t easy to define in simple terms. What Tinniswood does to assist is to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein when debating family resemblances in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953), ‘If you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that…And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail’.  With the inclusion of Blenheim Palace, Knole, Groombridge Place, and Lulworth Castle (above) in Country Houses from the Air, this definition is imperative to understanding these similarities which are both obvious and yet not so. Still, this is the country house; a cluster of similar characteristics which most visitors would nod their heads in agreement at, and at which many owners and managers know instinctively as a part of their world.

And so to it: this book is significant because it helps identify the older ideals of the owners, their occupation with grandeur and fashionable aesthetics, and ultimately the overall composition of their home and ancestral seat. Alongside the fantastic colour images of the aerial views by Jason Hawkes sit prospects by Knyff, Kip, Harris, and contemporary artists commissioned at the time of architectural remodelling or rebuilding.

Newby Hall, North Yorkshire. Engraving by Knyff, 1707

Tinniswood’s publication allows the reader to not only admire the obvious aesthetics of the country house garden and parkland but also tells of the techniques for capturing these images throughout the history of the houses themselves. Here Tinniswood comments, ‘The historical images that serve as a counterpoint to Jason Hawkes’ photographs range in time from the medieval cartulary roll depicting Boarstall [Buckinghamshire] to C. E. Kempe’s late-Victorian line-and-wash drawing of Groombridge Place [Kent] and the early-twentieth-century views of Ightham Mote [Kent] and Arundel [Sussex].’ Such images are also telling of the trends in portraying the country house and it’s gardens. The majority of the historical images date roughly between 1680 and 1720 with many of these representing aerial or bird’s-eye views. Of these, Tinniswood notes, ‘the acknowledged masters of the craft…are Leonard Knyff and Johannes Kip.’

A fine example is Penshurst Place.

Here the scope and development of the exterior setting is clear. the earliest part of the house was established by Sir John de Pulteney who became Lord Mayor of London four times between 1331 and 1337. The estate eventually came into the hands of Sir William Sidney and has remained in the family ever since. Crucially, this is the garden to help establish this run of posts but also its connection with country house poetry which has previously been discussed here. Though the engraving by Kip is a century later, it is easy to visualise the words of Ben Jonson in ‘To Penshurst’ (1616) in which he wrote,  ‘The early cherry, with the later plum, Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come; The blushing apricot and woolly peach Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.’

In the early nineteenth century some parts of Penshurst were rebuilt in a Tudor-Gothic style and the formal gardens were laid out in the 1850s by George Devey who used Kip’s 1720 engraving as the inspiration for the updated scheme. The image to the left captures the site from roughly the same prospect as that by Kip and the stretch of land shows how much has unchanged since or been inspired by the engraving. Yet, the scars of past aspects are often obvious – note the circular trough where there once stood a low level plantation clearly visible in the older engraving.

These map perspectives are clever studies in the Siennese style which incorporated careful observation, ground level surveys and detailed plans before executing the final draft. Generally, it seems that the engravings were the result of individual commissions and represented a celebration of completion in building works and large scale remodelling. Tinniswood is cautious to point out that a handful of these were likely projections of aspiration, but that otherwise most were true of the scene as it would have appeared at the time. Take Newby Hall (above) as an example. At the very end of the 17th century Celia Fiennes travelled through Yorkshire, stopping at York, Harrogate and Ripon before moving on to Burton Agnes and Hull. Of Newby, she wrote,

…it looks finely in the approach in the midst of a good parke and a River runns just by it, it stands in the middle and has two large Gardens on each side; you enter one through a large Iron Barr-gate painted green and gold tops and carv’d in severall places…and the Squares are full of dwarfe trees both fruites and green, set cross wayes which lookes very finely; there is  Flower Garden behind the house, in it and beyond it a Landry [sic] Close with frames for drying of cloths…

The bird’s eye view would eventually fall out of favour and instead the fashion for landscape painting would take its place; such depictions being better suited to the sweeping romanticised parklands adopted from the second half of the 18th century. Nonetheless, the changes in garden design, architectural planning and the prospect of the country house as taken in by the contemporary visitor are documented well by Tinniswood throughout the publication.

What the next three posts will do is to detail the chronology of country house garden design as well as introduce the influences and those who have become synonymous (and some lesser known) with some of the major changes in landscaping from the 16th century onwards. Some sites have invested a great deal of physical energy and funding towards large garden projects so it is only fair to dedicate time to these too. What is certain, is that there will be some fantastic images yet to come; spring is definitely here!

Links

http://www.gardenvisit.com/gardens/penshurst_place_garden

Blog posts on Kip and Knyff (A study of Knyff) https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2017/04/01/kip-knyff-part-1-knyff/ (and of Kip) https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/kip-and-knyff-part-2-kip/

Wikipedia on Knyff : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Knijff and Kip: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Kip

Further Reading:

Isaac Hawkin Browne, An Essay on Design and Beauty (1739)

R. Havell & Son, A Series of Picturesque Views of Noblemen’s and Gentlemen’s Seats (1823)

Gervase Jackson-Stops, An English Arcadia 1600-1900. (1992)

Leonard Knyff and Jan Kip, Britannia Illustrata or Views of Several of the Queens Palaces also the Principal Seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain (1707)

Christopher Morris (Ed.), The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes: c.1682-c.1712. (1982)

Joseph Nash, The Mansions of England in Olden Time (4 vols, 1839-49)

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Book reviews, Parks and Gardens, Recommended Literature

A Country House Christmas, Phyllis Elinor Sandeman (1952)

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Front cover to the current 2016 edition by National Trust Books

Phyllis Elinor Sandeman (1895-1986, and to give her full title The Hon. Phyllis Legh, Mrs Sandeman) was the youngest daughter of Thomas Wodehouse Legh, 2nd Baron Newton and Evelyn Caroline Bromley Davenport. The Leghs are one of a few larger families linked to estates in Lancashire and Cheshire, with Lyme Park being the family’s principal residence and one of the largest houses in Cheshire and also where the publication is set and now owned by The National Trust.

Oil painting on canvas, The Hon. Phyllis Elinor Legh, Mrs Henry Gerard Walter Sandeman (1895-1986), signed (?), 1912.A bust-length portrait of a young woman, body facing right, head turned to face spectator, with short brown curled hair and headband, mouth slightly open. Wearing a black shawl with grey lining over her shoulders, a cream dress with white sash and white lace around neck-line, adorned with jewelled pin.

Oil painting on canvas, The Hon. Phyllis Elinor Legh, Mrs Henry Gerard Walter Sandeman (1895-1986), signed (?), 1912. National Trust Collection

A Country House Christmas: Treasure on Earth has been published three times – 1952 (then titled Treasure on Earth), 1995 and 2016 and has a usual ‘tell it like it is’ feel but has something a little different about it compared to other recounts. I have always been choosy about the first hand accounts of country house living as they do seem rose tinted at best. Over the last few years I have collected a few publications written (or ghostwritten) by individuals who were once employed at a country house. Yet, these are not very coherent and there can be a feeling that they have been encouraged to put their thoughts to paper with too much haste before their experiences become long forgotten. Moreover, there’s always something missing of the mechanics and routine which as ordinary as they are, help bring the story to life.

In fairness, if I were to write an account of my life now or as a student 20 years ago I’d be deterred from including the mundane and keep the more interesting parts for a readership. Most of us would embellish it here and there! However, A Country House Christmas is considered and detailed and Sandeman is neither aloof nor detached in her telling of her youth at Lyme. There is a warmth to the narrative and true fondness as well as dislike for particular parts of the Christmas experience there which will connect to any reader.

Other references in the book are made to sisters Lettice (1885-1968) and Hilda (1892-1970), making them 11, 21 and 14 respectively at the time of the story. Many real names have been altered in the text and Lyme is referred to as Vyne or Vayne and her mother is known as Lady Vyne rather than Newton for example but as a rule it is easy to understand the settings and the players. Additionally, the descriptions of both the landscape and interiors are fantastic and for a regular country house visitor will be recognisable as typical of certain periods, styles and presentation.

General reference to the country house will continue to be Downton Abbey for some time, but here there are intriguing descriptions of the relationships between the family and servants, but also of the community and established hierarchies on both sides and recognition of long standing families who have served and supported the family and the estate. Thankfully too, there is little poignancy for a lost world or ‘other worldliness’. This is a firm recommendation at this time of year or at any other and because it’s Christmas Eve, here’s a small sample to enjoy!

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When everybody had assembled in the library and Truelove had announced dinner they would process into the dining-room, Sir Thomas taking Mrs. Waldegrave, and Lady Vyne bringing up the rear with the Canon. Probably Cousin Amy would be allotted to Mr. Hunt. The boys and girls would bunch in together at the last. Through the little tapestried anteroom they would pass into the big Georgian dining-room. The long table extending almost the entire length of the room would glitter and sparkle with the lights reflected in the silver and white of the cloth and from the walls the family portraits would smile benignly on the company. On one of the four gilt side-tables would stand the wonderful rosewater dish and ewer, silver and parcel-gilt with the Vayne arms embossed in coloured enamels – made in the reign of Bloody Mary….

They would begin with grace said by the Canon and then the meal would proceed eaten off silver plates, not so pleasant as the china service because scratchy under the knife and fork, but welcome because they were part of the Christmas ritual. The candle shades in the tall candelabras had little garlands of silver spangles and there would be crackers laid amongst the flower decorations.

First there would be soup of the clearest consistency imaginable, and then some kind of fish which melted in the mouth. Then an entrée, perhaps a vol-au-vont or small mutton cutlets, and then roast turkey or pheasant. Then a wonderful sweet into which Perez had put all his artistry: perhaps baskets of nougat with ribbons of spun sugar containing a creamy ice, and muscat grapes coated in sugar and crystallised quarters of orange and tiny pastry cakes.

The last course, the savoury, was never handed to the little girls. Without any instruction in the matter Truelove had made this decision, and nobody questioned it. On the other hand, he always allowed them a little champagne. Dessert was almost the nicest part of the meal, and the scent of tangerine oranges would all her life be associated in Phyillis’s mind with Christmas dinner at Vyne.

With dessert came the crackers, always a trial to Sir Thomas, for whom the sight of grown men and women in paper caps was anathema…

Tomorrow Phyllis would be moving in a maze of enchantment through the drama dance of Christmas, that drama in which the setting played so great a part. Waking in the twilight of the winter’s morning, waiting for the singing in the courtyard, the herald of the day’s delights. Breakfast and the exchange of small gifts. The visit to her parents’ rooms together with her brothers and sisters to give them their joint offerings. Then the drive down through the white park to the old church – the familiar Christmas service. Then out-of-doors for a little exercise, snow balling perhaps if there was enough snow, then in again to change for tea in the dining-room with lovely iced cakes and crackers. And then the joyous chattering throng climbing the stairs to the Long Gallery.

And there would stand the great shimmering blazing tree, the only light in the room except the fire, and beside it the bran tub, so full that some of the packages were not quite submerged, and beyond the radius of the tree’s light the great long room stretching away into the shadows.

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Merry Christmas!

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Further reading:

The identity of the governess uncovered, http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/local-news/mystery-governess-lyme-park-unmasked-8777863

National Trust dedication to Phyllis Legh, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lyme-park-house-and-garden/features/it-wouldnt-be-christmas-at-lyme-without

Short biography of Phyllis Sandeman as painter, http://www.suffolkpainters.co.uk/index.cgi?choice=painter&pid=1673

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Filed under Book reviews, Collections, Food and Dining, Recommended Literature, Servants, Women and the Country House

Giles Waterfield, 1949-2016

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The independent art historian and curator Giles Waterfield died on 5th November of an unexpected heart attack. He was Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery between 1979 and 1996, an associate lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, acted as advisor to numerous museum and heritage organisations, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, and was co-director for the Attingham Trust from 1995-2003, as well as the founding director of Royal Collection Studies there in 1996.

One of the more honest obituaries in a wealth of very matter of fact ones comes from The Art Newspaper in which Waterfield is described as both erudite and amusing. I never shook hands with the man, but did meet him in October 2012 at the Attingham Trust conference. He spoke passionately about the country house and its many histories and I remember thinking he had a great smiling presence in the room which merrily balanced the flamboyant manner of Julian Fellowes who also attended.

2012 was the peak of popular interest in the social history of the country house where Downton Abbey was running to nearly 12 million viewers for its 3rd and 4th series. This was also the 60th anniversary of the Attingham Trust and there appeared to be a flicker of interest in every aspect of the country house, not just its architecture and fine art collections.

In many respects this was due to those like Waterfield who sought to highlight the eras in which these houses were built and the contemporary moral codes of behaviour imposed on their inhabitants. Attempts to define the servant hierarchy and the spaces which acted as identifiers of work rather than entertainment were also gaining greater impetus for research.

Giles Waterfield aided the promotion of such research through publication and curation. Most relevant here is the exhibition and its accompanying publication written and edited by Waterfield and Anne French Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servant Portraits which ran from October 2003 to January 2004 at The National Portrait Gallery in London. With a series of lectures connected to the exhibition, Waterfield would demonstrate his specialist interest in the representation of servants in English literature from the early 19th century onwards.

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Dare I admit and quite cowardly in hindsight, but I wrote a review of his Markham Thorpe (2006) a couple of years ago for this blog. I was a harsh critic and I deleted it several months later when I was knew I would meet Waterfield and hoped to promote my own research at that time. In the blog post I recall suggesting how detailed and perhaps a little contrived his backdrops were – an easy task given who he rubbed shoulders with – adding that his characters were stereotypes and his female protagonist was too sweet! However, the accompanying publication for the Below Stairs exhibition is obviously not fiction but a scholarly approach to a collection of images which need consideration without prejudice.

Much of my own research since the date of the exhibition has looked into the status of servants from the late 17th century and so my own knowledge is fairly extensive. Nonetheless, that the publication is an accompaniment to an exhibition does not hold it back or allow for patchy source material. It is instead a well written piece and on the one hand appears to bring the subject matter up-to-date whilst on the other it offers a stimulating and unique take on a subject often severely lacking in images.

Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants c.1750-5 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1892 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01374

Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants c.1750-5 William Hogarth (1697-1764), Oil on canvas. Tate Collection.

As often seems the case, I was unable to get to the exhibition at the time as I had just started a new job, but I did have the book delivered instead. It covers most ground and includes the essential study of servant portraits from Bramham Park, Yorkshire and Erdigg, Wales as well as those stand alone images like that of Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants (above) by William Hogarth (c.1750-55) or Robert Shaw, Keeper of the Forest of Bowland by James Northcote (c.1806) which have evolved from mere contemporary representation of real people to objects that for the viewer should raise questions about the character and lifestyle of the sitters. French and Waterfield discuss this in light of the servant and master relationship and the production of servant portraiture as a symbol of loyalty and extended family.

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Ignatius Sancho, 1768 Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada

Other themes covered by Waterfield particularly include servants working in institutions, life in service, and black and Indian servants. The latter illustrating some of the finer portraits of the 18th and 19th centuries including Ignatius Sancho (above) by Thomas Gainsborough (1768) and The Munshi Abdul Karim by Rudolph Swoboda (1888).

The images are obviously central to the book and this is not a cheap general publication about servants illustrated with unrelated pictures of maids or gardeners. It is analytical and puts the images in context and wherever possible provides contemporary commentary of the sitter and/or painter/photographer. Servants are the backbone of country house social history and kept these sites running daily. Their status and their numbers were disadvantages which limited their representation so this publication is essential in allowing us to visualise the servant workspace, their daily tasks and study their features in order to try and see something more of the person rather than a job role. Equally so, Hogarth’s representation of six of his servants allows the viewer to hear them speak as it is almost possible to match their faces to the tone of voice or how they may have expressed themselves with the smallest of gestures.

In order to push this to a more general reader, it takes someone like Waterfield to suggest this notion and there was incredible devotion in the work he undertook. My lasting impression of Waterfield from the Attingham Trust conference four years ago was of someone rather unassuming. There were many big voices wanting to talk about their research or pat themselves on the back for their project leadership skills at such-and-such institution. Waterfield was able to navigate through this by simultaneously showing direct interest delivered with a wry smile. People gravitated to him and wanted to know his thoughts on developments in country house interpretation and preservation, and he knew exactly who was connected to which trust, funding body or academic department.

I’m sure there will be a gap left behind as Giles Waterfield was a character essential to the modern day study of heritage. As funding narrows and dismantles the enthusiasm many have for history and heritage sites we desperately need individuals like him who can operate underneath this and motivate and collaborate in order to challenge any normalisation of weak interpretation and cultural obscurity for many places.

Links to obituaries and articles in his memory markham-thorpe

From The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/11/17/giles-waterfield-art-gallery-director-and-novelist–obituary/

From Apollo Magazine http://www.apollo-magazine.com/tribute-giles-waterfield/

From The Times http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/giles-waterfield-68wg3tzq6

Art Forum https://www.artforum.com/news/id=64555

Other pieces:

Home page with full list of exhibitions and publications http://www.gileswaterfield.com/

And to end, something a little more lighthearted: When Lucy Worsley and Giles Waterfield met http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/giles-waterfield-lucy-worsley-i-gave-a-talk-about-a-woman-who-went-mad-in-the-tower-he-told-me-it-10316533.html

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Filed under Book reviews, Collections, Exhibitions, Servants

Thinking about the Country House in 2016

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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!

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Isabella’s Maxims for Young Ladies

The following forms a large part of an article I contributed for Herstoria Magazine a couple of years ago whilst promoting aspects of my doctoral research. It concerns a publication written by Isabella Carlisle of Castle Howard toward the end of the eighteenth century and serves to highlight something of her personality and beliefs as a surprisingly pragmatic woman for her time. Since I visited Castle Howard recently, I thought it would be a different take on the site than just a regular day trip report.

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Portrait of Isabella, 4th Countess of Carlisle, by Thomas Gainsborough. Image from the Castle Howard Collection.

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As the second wife of Henry fourth Earl of Carlisle, Isabella had represented a new hope for the household at Castle Howard. His first wife Frances (née Spencer) had died in July 1742 shortly after all but one of his five children by this marriage had predeceased him. At the age of twenty-two, Isabella was half Henry’s age and her youth was to prove dynastically beneficial – she was to bear him four daughters and one son, Frederick, the future fifth Earl of Carlisle.

Yet, before the end of the century and in her late 60s, Isabella had experienced more than most in a life which included early widowhood, a broken marriage to the antiquarian William Musgrave, scandal and self-imposed exile to Europe. Thus she made the decision to publish her experiences s under the title of Thoughts in the Form of Maxims addressed to Young Ladies on their First Establishment in the World. In contrast to more conventional manuals which typically contained strict guidelines as to general behaviour expected of young women, Isabella’s Maxims guided her readers through unexpected and complex moments of life similar to the ones she had experienced herself.

Frontispiece for Maxims. Castle Howard Collection.

Frontispiece for Maxims. Castle Howard Collection.

Conduct books like Isabella’s had been round for centuries, but by  the late eighteenth century they had evolved into genteel instruction aimed at correcting ‘insufficient’ moral accomplishment in young people – especially women.

Isabella begins her Maxims with some practical advice a woman should,

Make choice of such amusements as will attach him to your company; study such occupations as will render you of consequence to him, such as the management of his fortune, and the conduct of his house, yet, without assuming a superiority unbecoming your sex.

Isabella also commented on female networks which required alliances and sometimes provoked discord,

Female friendships are but too frequently bars to domestic peace; they are more formed by the communication of mutual errors, than the desire of amending them…Endeavour to obtain a clear insight into the character of those persons of your sex, before you engage in unlimited confidence.

She concludes Maxims with poignant thoughts on old age and mortality. ‘Let each year which shall steal a charm or grace, the companions of youth, add a virtue in return.’ In conduct books aimed at the female sex, home and domesticity were presented invariably as a vital backdrop to female existence. For an elite woman such as Isabella Carlisle, this was expressed through the roles of household manager and supportive wife and companion to a husband. Although Maxims has many other themes – including manners, conversation, religion, philanthropy and letter writing – it is household management that Isabella uses as the focus and very personal heart of her book.

Here we are able to visualise the domestic set-up of Castle Howard with greater imagination. Isabella compared the mechanisms of running a household to that of a watch or timepiece, ‘Conceal from the indifferent spectator, the secret springs, which move, regulate and perfect the arrangement of your household.’ Such an analogy was also a reflection of the architectural surroundings and the ways in which the household interacted with the fabric of the building. The ideal household manager was well educated and able to discriminate between frivolity and responsibility, indiscretion and prudence; she was also humble and restrained and never tempted to ‘boast’ of her accomplishments. A guest should remain ignorant of the hustle and bustle of the home as the ideal household mistress always ensured tranquility and good order.

The management of the household was a skill as well as an accomplishment made up of academic exercise and diplomacy to be performed within compartments of the home. Isabella defined these activities through household accounting, servant organisation, medicinal and culinary practice and some degree of hosting and entertainment. The secret springs were the order, memoranda, documents, lists and even people who represented the working pieces. Of servants she noted, ‘Be extremely cautious in the choice of those who are to be your attendants…’ and emphasised the propensity of servants for false flattery and manipulative talk. Servants could, if left unrestrained by their mistress, become ‘licentious’ and have little regard for their own responsibilities in the household. Isabella also warned against prejudice, ‘Do not suffer your partiality to one domestic…Rule as much as you are able with an even hand, and steer between pride and familiarity’. Servants in particular were to be offered ‘tender care’ in sickness and it would have been extremely remiss of any mistress if she did not allow them to perform their religious duties even if their ‘persuasion’ was different from her own.

Isabella made herself supervisor of the household accounts at Castle Howard. It was one thing to direct the morals and daily responsibilities of her servants, but having knowledge of housekeeping totals and incomings and outgoings enabled her to plan, coordinate and direct the household as a whole. ‘Observe the utmost regularity in the keeping of your household accounts; it is tranquillity to you, justice to your dependents’ noted Isabella. The family fortune depended upon minute observation and, since women were rarely taught accounting, the chatelaine had to be prepared to inspect the work of others in charge of such matters. Isabella’s own abstract and summary of accounts was therefore intended as a measure of security against the main household account books – ‘inspections, diligently and judiciously made, will maintain probity among your agents’ – so that any discrepancies could be acted upon straight away.

From matters of accounting Isabella moved swiftly onto the subject of hospitality. As a society hostess, and elite woman could delegate responsibility to an upper liveried servant, offer guests fine wines with meats provided by the estate – and draw attention proudly to her offspring as they mingled with distant relatives, family acquaintances or close political allies. Despite her own elite social status, in Maxims Isabella was careful to consider cost and warned against irresponsible display which evoked extravagance and frivolity rather than cleanliness and order, ‘Neatness and elegance should be joined to each other; ostentation and profusion are in general equally united, and equally to be avoided.’

Although she was thought an embarrassment in later life because of her rising debts and supposed dalliances with foreign noblemen, Isabella still retained something of her former disciplined and inventive self. In a letter to a friend she expressed her delight at having found a French cook who proved ‘so excellent an œconomist’ (thrifty) that it was more convenient to stay abroad than to return home.

castle-howard

Isabella is still very much a major presence at Castle Howard, and her impact as enthusiastic household manager lives on. In 2003 her portrait by Thomas Gainsborough was used as branding in the Castle Howard gift shop for a range of kitchen linens including tea towels and aprons. Samples of her recipes were also included in cookery books and manuals published especially for sale at the house. In the context of her own life experiences, Isabella’s publication may appear as some cautionary piece containing carefully constructed sayings and precepts dedicated to the avoidance of life’s obstacles. On the other hand, Isabella appeared to admire life and its complexities. That her household expertise is still remembered as a key aspect of her character is definitely something which Isabella would welcome.

Links

Copy of the publication available to download through The Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/thoughtsinformm00howagoog

Maids and Mistresses exhibition (2003) across several Yorkshire country houses including Castle Howard and Isabella Carlise http://www.ychp.org.uk/exhibitions-maids-and-mistresses

18th-century conduct books http://umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/emotions/conduct_books.html

 

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Filed under Book reviews, Food and Dining, Servants, Women and the Country House

Exhibition | Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House

Enfilade

As Courtney Barnes noted back in November at Style Court, America’s fascination with England’s country houses will continue into the new year (and 2015). While Houghton Revisited, which brought dozens of paintings back to the house from Russia for display this summer and fall, was awarded Apollo Magazine’s 2013 Exhibition of the Year, pictures and objects still in the Houghton Hall collection will travel to Houston, San Francisco, and Nashville. From the MFAH press release (22 November 2013). . .

Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 22 June — 22 September 2013
Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 18 October 2014 — 18 January 2015
Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, 13 February — 10 May 2015

Curated by Gary Tinterow and Christine Gervais with David Cholmondeley

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William Hogarth, The Cholmondeley Family, 1732
(Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall)

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A Christmas Ball.

40773The following is a short but charming excerpt from Backstairs Life in a Country House by Eileen Balderson with Douglas Goodlad (1982). Eileen Balderson was born in 1916, and as the youngest of a large family left school early to start employment in domestic service mainly in large country houses. Many of her reminiscences come from her time spent at particular houses like Burwarton House (Shropshire), Rise Park (East Yorkshire) and Middleton Hall (East Yorkshire).

Here, Eileen discusses the breathtaking seasonal entertainments, of which Christmas was one. She then recalls some of the seasonal Dinner menus – the Winter one is added at the end here!

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Never again would there be such entertaining as in the pre-war years. Never again such hosts – or guests!

The big houses were full of music and colour at party time…When there was a big shooting party, there were a number of visiting servants…If the local hunt met at the house all the mounted followers were offered a drink – port, sherry, cherry brandy, sloe gin, with whisky for the huntsmen and whips, and others who asked for it. I longed to try the sloe gin, which was made in the house. Alas, it was locked in the butler’s pantry.

In houses with upwards of twenty in staff, a servant’s ball was held around Christmas time. The ball with the gentlemen of the house having the first dance with the cook and his lady danced with the butler. My sister dropped an awful brick at a house where she was head kitchen-maid. The eldest son of the family asked her for the first dance. Not knowing who he was, she said she was engaged for that turn around the floor! The mistake is readily explained. Except for the butler’s pantry staff and the lady’s maid, the rest of the servants very rarely saw the family, the kitchen staff least of all.

Master and mistress stayed for about half an hour and after a toast to them they left. The ball then got going, but was fairly respectable and sober until the butler, cook and their guests had gone. After that, it was really enjoyable! As the ball did not usually start until about 10pm we were out of bed for most of the night. It was work again in the morning, and a case of wash and change and into uniform for a day’s duty without sleep, but not without sustenance. There would no doubt be some tasty leftovers.

Winter Dinner Menus

Chicken Soup

Fish Quenelles

Fillets of Beef

Japanese Artichokes

Stewed Normandy Pippins

Whipped Cream

Sardines a la Piedmontaise

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Rice and Tomato Soup

Fillets of Plaice with Green Peas

Salmi of Game

Potato Fritters

Pear and Chestnut Tart

Cheese Ramequins

***

Mutton Broth

Stuffed Fillets of Haddock

Curried Chicken     Boiled Rice

Cold Apricot Souffle

Savoury Brain Croutes

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (British History Online).

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (British History Online).

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Filed under Book reviews, Servants, Women and the Country House