Tag Archives: management

Guest Post: Professor Terence Dooley and the Irish Historic House.

After attending the Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference in October, I thought it only appropriate that I share some of the thoughts that were featured. In my last post I hinted at my own desire to obtain a greater understanding of the interpretation and presentation of the country house outside Britain. Several papers at the Conference opened my eyes to the architectural heritage of historic houses around the world. These also offered up a fascinating insight into how vastly different socio-economic and political backgrounds have provided contrasting approaches to modern-day heritage management.

One such paper was given by Professor Terence Dooley from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM). Dooley’s own specialisms are in Irish social and political history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with particular focus upon the Irish country house and the landed class. A quick read of his staff profile will tell you he is well-versed in ‘policy matters relating to heritage and restoration’. Moreover, he has placed a great deal of energy into creating fantastic links with fellow academics, researchers and those working directly in country house management at an international level. This has been a significant accomplishment, and one which stems from the establishment of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE), of which Dooley is currently the Director.

The main aims of the CSHIHE are to secure and enhance public appreciation of historic properties by supporting education, research and scholarly publication. Its foundation was in large part due to Dooley’s report, A future for Irish historic houses? A study of fifty houses (2003) which was jointly commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Irish Georgian Society. This was crucial in informing government policy as well as leading to the establishment of the Irish Heritage Trust. Dooley’s conclusion to the report stated that,

An appreciation of historical and cultural heritage values should be promoted through exhibitions of historic house art, contents and archive collections and conferences to raise public awareness. Houses should be regarded as an educational asset, offering a unique insight into the country’s social, economic, cultural and political history as well as the architectural heritage which they represent.

It is with many thanks to Prof. Terence Dooley that I can now include the following overview of the activities and developments of the CSHIHE since the delivery of the report.



Prof. Terence Dooley

National University of Ireland

In 2004, the proposal for the establishment of a Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth was enthusiastically supported by the Office of Public Works (OPW). Its main strength was perceived to be that the central thrust of the Centre would be educational in the broadest sense: to support teaching and research on Ireland’s country house heritage at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels at NUI Maynooth; to initiate an outreach programme with local schools; and to collaborate with those involved in the heritage industry in Ireland. The CSHIHE is now a unique public-private venture with no equivalent elsewhere in Ireland or Britain.

As part of its educational brief and to provide a forum for debate and the dissemination of new heritage-related research findings, the CSHIHE embarked on a series of annual conferences at Maynooth. These conferences have attracted audiences from a broad cross section of Irish society and overseas including owners and managers of historic properties; heritage professionals; academics and students; specialists in architecture, landscape and conservation; secondary school teachers; and those with a general interest in the built heritage. The success of these occasions has been determined by the range of topics, the quality of speakers, and the mix of audiences. Moreover, overseas speakers have generously facilitated tours for groups from the Centre to Paris, Moscow and Sicily.

At university level, educational initiatives have included the development of modules at undergraduate level on the social, political, economic and cultural history of Irish country houses, their architectural evolution, their material culture and the creation (and destruction) of their surrounding landscapes. Teaching modules have also included visits to the UK which have enabled a comparative study of country houses in Ireland and Yorkshire in collaboration with the Yorkshire Country House Partnership.

An important recent development has been the introduction in September 2010 of an MA in Historic Houses Studies, offering modules on historical context, architectural design, material culture, heritage and tourism, restoration and conservation.

stairwell at fota

Stairwell at Fota House, County Cork (Irish Heritage Trust)

The work of the Centre is also focused upon linking the fruits of academic study with contemporary heritage issues at historic properties, and collaboration has been at the heart of these activities. The Historic Houses Association of Ireland (founded in 2009) has been a welcome partner, keen to show how many of their properties have educational assets that could be deployed in a number of ways. There is the acknowledgement that countless projects could be fashioned in relation to specific houses that would allow students and owners to work closely to the mutual benefit of both parties; the ‘Music in the Irish Country House Project’ and ‘Famine and the Country House and Estate’ being cases in point.

In 2008 the establishment of the Archive and Research Centre at Castletown, under the joint auspices of the OPW and NUIM, has presented further opportunities for those working in architecture, the decorative and fine arts, landscape, and conservation. Launched by President Mary McAleese, the Centreaims to facilitate the care and study of archives that deal with the history of Irish estates, their houses and inhabitants. The transfer of the Strokestown Park archive signalled a pioneering collaboration between a house in public ownership, a privately owned house that incorporates the National Famine Museum, and a third level institute. Dr Ciaran Reilly was appointed Post-doctoral Research Fellow to investigate the archive and organise a series of public outcomes relating to his research.

The CSHIHE, in association with the OPW, has also organised a very successful series of seminars at Castletown, addressing key issues relating to the management and understanding of the historic house in Ireland. These gatherings are aimed at those working across the historic house sector – managers, curators, academics, administrators, guides, education officers, marketing personnel, house staff and other heritage professionals.


The 1841 Irish Testimonial to Lord Morpeth (collaborative research between YCHP and CSHIHE and others)

Since 2004 the Yorkshire Country House Partnership (YCHP) based at the University of York, England, and the CSHIHE have held a highly successful series of seminars, conferences and exhibitions in Yorkshire and in Ireland. Like the CSHIHE, the YCHP is committed to re-evaluating the role and meaning of the historic house in its broadest understanding, encompassing architecture, families, collections, landscapes and archives. It has been widely acknowledged within the heritage sector that these events have been instrumental in refashioning the interpretation of the historic house in the UK, Ireland, and Europe.

In 2007, the YCHP and CSHIHE launched a joint scoping exercise aimed at exploring and recording the connections which existed between landed estates in Yorkshire and Ireland, and the respective families connected to these estates. This exercise was carried through by Desmond Konopka, a PhD student of Dr Dooley’s, and David Ghent, a PhD student of the History Department at the University of York. Their findings have yielded a great deal of material that is already supporting new post-graduate research at the University of York, and post-doctoral research at Maynooth on the Lord Morpeth Testimonial of 1841 under Dr Patrick Cosgrove. These projects have opened up an additional dimension to the collaboration between Maynooth and Yorkshire.

Borris House County Carlow (Irish Historic Houses Association)

Borris House County Carlow (Irish Historic Houses Association)

Such is the extent of its activities in the eight years since its inception that the Centre can fairly be said to be leading and determining the debate with regard to historic houses in Ireland, and, indeed, much further afield, both in academic terms (through research, teaching and publication), and in a more general political sense. In September 2005 the internationally renowned Arts journal, Apollo, described the CSHIHE as ‘an academic endeavour that has no parallel in England’ and generously praised its educational efforts particularly the outstanding success of its annual Historic Houses of Ireland Conferences.

The range of organisations, departments and individuals linked with the Centre through these diverse activities is testimony to the central tenet that those working across the entire spectrum of the built heritage sector cannot do things in isolation. Academic research needs to demonstrate a public outcome in addition to its own intrinsic requirements; equally for those who work in the heritage sector their knowledge and understanding is best enhanced by taking advantage of such research. Moreover as the historic house grows in significance so too does its appeal as a visitor attraction. Consequently the collaborative efforts of scholars, owners, managers and other professionals can also translate into economic activity with a defined public value.


Staff profile for Dr. Terence Dooley http://historicirishhouses.ie/people/professor-terence-dooley and the homepage for the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates http://historicirishhouses.ie/

Full links for Irish Historic Houses Association http://www.ihh.ie/index.cfm and the Irish Heritage Trust http://www.irishheritagetrust.ie/

Archive and Research Centre Castletown http://www.nuim.ie/opwnuim/

Yorkshire Country House Partnership http://www.ychp.org.uk/main/home.php

The 1841 Irish Testimonial  to Lord Morpeth (George Howard, later 7th Earl of Carlisle) http://historicirishhouses.ie/research/postdoctoral-research-projects/1841-irish-testimonial-lord-morpeth

Strokestown Park: Irish National Famine Museum http://www.strokestownpark.ie/


Filed under Architecture and Design, Collections, Non-British country houses, The Destruction of the Country House

The Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference, 12th and 13th October 2012

Attingham Park House

After a particularly tough house move in the second week of October, the weekend brightened with attendance at The Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference – ‘Looking Ahead: The Future of the Country House’. Always slightly anxious that I might not have my ‘clever head’ engaged at these sorts of things, I was relieved to discover many familiar faces amongst the delegates.

I attended on the Saturday of the conference. Whilst I know those involved with The Attingham Trust will be reading, this was not without purpose. Certainly, I work through the week, but I was intrigued far more by the papers on offer that day. Split into four sessions, the first theme encompassed the ownership of mainly British country houses by national institutions and local authorities. The second looked at the Irish country house particularly in light of funding and a nation’s tumultuous history. The third was, for me, a proper introduction to the ‘historic house’ in the United States, with the final session examining the position of the country house in Australia.

The previous day would have given me the opportunity to hear Tim Knox – Director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, interview John Harris – author and architectural historian about country house snooping, or Giles Waterfield from The Attingham Trust interview Julian Fellowes. Attending as I did on the Saturday only, I felt I had missed a great deal. And not surprisingly, Downton Abbey was thus quite high on the agenda!

Julian Fellowes (centre) with Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville, copyright The Sun

So conspicuous was the latter that I fully understood the intense fever of the ITV period drama outside of the comfort of my own living room. Whenever I tell people what I ‘do’, their eyes light up. Inevitably, Downton Abbey enters the conversation and I am required to smile sweetly whilst all the time supporting their idea that country houses at the turn of the 20th century were ALL like this. Yet, I am not attempting to bite my nose off to spite my face. Downton Abbey has certainly earned its place in the discourse of the country house. It is glossy, television-land escapism – the perfect ingredient for a Sunday evening, and although I do watch it occasionally (given the chance at all), I feel I already know these stories.

Downton Abbey has brought the country house to the masses and has provided a generalised interpretation which encourages people to understand a little more about life in the country house. For several years this has been one of the main objectives of institutions in charge of historic houses. However, there is still a divide of interest amongst those involved in making decisions on how houses should be presented, marketed and cared for. The social history of the country house is still a relatively new ingredient to the visitor experience, but there are those who wish to cling to the old trends surrounding architecture and collections.

At the Attingham conference these ideals were definitely tangled up together within thoughts on the future of the country house. This is typically a British symptom of class and the need to categorise our heritage and the people who should and could visit sites. Anna Keay (now at The Landmark Trust) provided her personal take on visiting a site with her children who were immediately pounced upon by overbearing room attendants. I know this feeling well, and appreciate the need for a velvet rope to provide physical boundaries for my own child in such circumstances! That Keay made a swift apology for the inclusion of an image of herself with her children was frankly strange. But then, so too did Lisa White (Chairman of the National Trust Arts Panel) when she included a picture of National Trust marketing which incorporated children playing in the grounds of a country house. The educational aspect of the future of the country house was therefore made obvious by its absence.

The Attingham Trust is the finest of academies from which to study the country house. And whilst its Summer School remains exclusive to those already working in museums, art galleries or with a conservation body, it provides a fantastic platform from which debates of this nature can arise. This was why I decided to attend the conference on the Saturday.

As the papers moved away from matters of British ownership, but still within the boundaries of historic house management and collections, there was an air of optimism which hadn’t been so prevalent in the first session. Both Terence Dooley and Kevin Baird, as representatives of the Irish country house, spoke with charm and enthusiasm about the sites under their guardianship. Plus there was no apology for the inclusion of images portraying children examining objects or peering over reconstructed period dress. Moving onto the later sessions, this mood remained. Admittedly, this could have been the chance for many of the speakers to promote their work, their heritage sites and indeed their part of the world to a largely British audience, but there were many themes I would be interested in covering here. I was particularly intrigued by Craig Hanson’s paper (Associate Professor, Calvin College, Michigan) which noted the activities of women as private citizens during the 1850s onwards for establishing preservation societies and associations in the United States. This was an entirely new concept for me, but one which had clearly resonated with American women like Nancy Lancaster in the 20th century.

By the time Professors Gini Lee and Mark Taylor came to give their respective papers on the Australian country house, the number of delegates had shrunk. Perhaps noticeably, but having watched people leave in dribs and drabs between papers, I was a little disheartened by the change. Understandably it had been a long day, nonetheless, there were some interesting points made, especially given Lee’s own academic background in landscape architecture and interior design, and so this was a refreshing stance on a subject about which many probably knew very little.

Attingham newsletter from 2011

Overall, it was matters of funding that were at the heart of the conference. Visitor experiences, educational outreach, research, acquisitions, and housekeeping all require funding. Heritage is currently suffering from a mixed bag of opportunities which has pushed country house management to extremes. Jeremy Musson (Architectural Historian and TV Presenter) highlighted the plight of one of my favourite houses, Temple Newsam in Leeds, which is struggling under the weight of years of unpredictable local authority ownership. Many houses, both here in Britain as well as abroad have had important cultural legacies established through decades of well-meaning curatorial departments, conservation teams and front-of-house staff. Things have not always been done properly and layers of bad interpretation have had to be stripped back (or re-applied) in order to meet contemporary trends in country house presentation and purpose. By trashing, or at least procrastinating about the past ideals and hard work of those is to forget what history is meant to do. It is therefore unforgivable to see a measly £10,000 set aside for one heritage department merrily scrapped from a budget because it is deemed unimportant or no longer financially viable. There is, or course, no quick fix and every house has its own requirements; like running a business, some demand heavy footfall, while others simply want their stories telling.

The Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference was indeed a great place to shake hands over drinks and to chat with old friends, but it put things into perspective. We need to imagine ourselves in the future already, and to be looking back on how we encouraged those funding bodies to accept the necessity for heritage in its many forms. Places need not become corporate and soulless, but they do need to recognise the expectations and aspirations of those with an inkling of interest in the country house – whether this has its foundations in Downton Abbey or otherwise. The country house audience is changing, and in competing for funding many institutions probably feel overwhelmed in choosing what to present to the public. These are businesses which are uniquely contained within the buildings that defines them and the work they do and so without them the businesses would dissolve. Accepting change is the first part, passing this notion on is pivotal to the future of the country house.


Full link to the conference programme http://www.attinghamtrust.org/60th-anniversary-conference/programme.pdf and transcriptions of all the papers given here http://www.attinghamtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Conference-Papers1.pdf

The Attingham Trust Newsletter page http://www.attinghamtrust.org/at_newsletter.html

There was a report produced by The Attingham Trust in 2004 entitled OPENING DOORS: LEARNING IN THE HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT which ‘examined the educational provision in a wide range of historic buildings and sites across the British Isles and the Irish Republic. It makes numerous recommendations to Government and to other bodies for improvements in an active but fragmented and heavily under-resourced field.’ Currently the link is not working, but it would make for good reading. It is available to purchase as a book from the Attingham Trust.

Further reading and links in connection with some of the papers given:

Pevsner Architectural Guides http://yalebooks.co.uk/pevsner.asp

Historic Houses Association http://www.hha.org.uk/

The Buccleuch Group and Estates http://www.buccleuch.com/

Burghley House http://www.burghley.co.uk/

Jeremy Musson http://www.jeremymusson.com/

Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates http://historicirishhouses.ie/

Newport Preservation Society http://www.newportmansions.org/

The Royal Oak Foundation http://www.royal-oak.org/index.php


Filed under Architecture and Design, Non-British country houses, Parks and Gardens, The Destruction of the Country House, The running of the country house

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 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 http://tiny.cc/0vrbhw

Victorian High-Tech – The Argory, County Armagh http://nttreasurehunt.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/victorian-high-tech/

The UK National Trust lighting; with electricity http://tiny.cc/m5irc and with gas http://tiny.cc/4ireu

Lighting the Georgian and Victorian property  http://www.periodproperty.co.uk/ppuk_discovering_article_017.shtml

Lighting the Victorian Home http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/lighting/lighting.htm

Full link for that fantastic essay on Country House Gasworks http://www.eugris.info/newsdownloads/CountryHouseGasworks.pdf

The Geffrye Museum, London. http://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/collections/thematics/

The National Trust changes to energy efficiency 2008 (with video) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7470269.stm