Tag Archives: material culture

East India Company at Home Mid-Project Conference, 31st May – 1st June 2013.

Since the East India Company at Home Project started in September 2011, there has been a buzz surrounding its methodological framework, its research findings and range of subject matter. I last covered this project here after they released their first case study.

The project (EICaH for short) began at the University of Warwick but has since been transferred to University College London (UCL) for a variety of reasons, but mainly due to funding opportunities and departmental interests.* The premise of the project is to examine the British country house in an imperial and global context through material culture and the families linked with these houses on the one hand and the connections they may have had with the East India Company on the other.

EICaH wallpapers[2]

Helen Clifford and Emile de Bruijn presenting their paper on Chinese wallpapers in National Trust properties ‘every good country house has its Chinese wallpaper’!

What makes the EICaH project so unique and perhaps even dynamic, is its attempt to pull together knowledge from a spectrum of sources and people. By putting this bluntly, the project’s diverse pool of thought comes from academics, museum professionals, archivists and librarians, students, local and family historians and independent scholars. The core team consists of Professor Margot Finn, Helen Clifford, and Kate Smith. Then there is an Advisory Board consisting of those affiliated with institutions like the V&A, the British Library or local authorities to mention a few. Project associates make up the next segment of those involved and are a healthy mix of those with interests in the British country house, the East India Company, trade and consumption and all the bits in the middle. I’m a project associate simply because I clearly adore country houses and the mixture of histories which can be applied to them.

I don’t want to talk at length about the details of the project as this is fully accessible through the links already given. What I do want to do is address the topics discussed at the mid-project conference which took place at the end of last week.

The conference was split over two days and roughly by content and methodology. The link to the programme is here. On Friday some fascinating papers concerning particular people and places associated with the East India Company were presented to the cosy audience of about 70 avid listeners.

EICaH John McAleer

John McAleer and the architecture of the East India Company’s Offices (image courtesy of Rachael Barnwell)

My favourites were Georgina Green’s research into supercargoes and the roles of East India Company captains; John McAleer’s look at the architecture of the Company’s offices; Stephen McDowall’s extensive and thoughtful examination of material culture and the meanings placed upon specific objects; and Janice Sibthorpe’s Sezincote’s case study. In the evening a keynote lecture by Giorgio Riello about the trade and consumption of cotton textiles finished the day on a high.

Saturday was the day of debate with the focus on how collaboration between academic institutions and those outside the ‘academy’ work effectively or otherwise. Here it was necessary to understand the structure of the project – its framework, but also the questions it was hoping to ask as well as answer. There was  lot to cover.

The most anticipated part of the Saturday sessions was undoubtedly the trip to Osterley Park (which I was unable to attend) but for me in particular it was the discussion concerning the methodology of the project since I was taking part. Upon the very kind invitation of Margot Finn, Helen Clifford and Kate Smith, also participating were Margaret Makepeace (Lead Curator of East India Company Collections at the British Library), Cliff Pereira (Public Engagement Consultant), and Keith Sweetmore (Development Manager at the North Yorkshire Country Record Office) That’s the four of us pictured below.

EICaH me

In the words of Margot Finn, the project is fairly ‘experimental’ in terms of previous attempts by historians to collaborate. I’ve found other projects to be rather formulaic and incredibly constrained by academic protocol (for want of a better word) and so I was eager to see some part of the discussion aimed at how the EICaH project had been able to challenge this. My belief is that for something of this scale to thrive, individual academics must be willing to show motivation and share their professional development both within their respective departments but also elsewhere.

I, for one, despise the Research Excellence Framework (replacing the Research Assessment Exercise) since it encourages exclusivity through peer review whilst exposing a neat way to keep academic research knotted tightly to the academy. In more simple terms, any research undertaken by an academic institution, regardless of wider collaboration eventually becomes the possession of that institution and the doors close to those without academic affiliation.

So where does the EICaH project fit in? I understand there to be two distinct parts to its methodology and its collaborative efforts represent the major part; the role of the country houuse as means of posing and answering questions, the lesser part. Margot Finn and Helen Clifford are the highly motivated academics who initiated the project and discussed its possibilities long before it began. They also have a desire to promote greater dissemination of their own findings to wider audiences. Inevitably, they are bound by academic protocol because funding for projects like this comes with certain criteria to which any published material or outcome must adhere.

However, it should be noted that the EICaH project is perhaps transitional. Finn declared it to be experimental, indeed there is still more to be said about exactly how the country house community and household may be placed within an imperial and global context, but the project can provide a working model for future historians.

At the end of the conference though, I came away satisfied that history can be made more accessible both to bigger audiences and to those wishing to undertake historical research. The academic can put something into context, and the museum professional can provide layers of interpretation, but a historian is not limited to fancy apparatus like the scientist, or material compounds like the chemist in order to test a theory; history is about thinking. Many of Britain’s archives, libraries and collections are freely accessible to everyone, working collaboratively can enrich the pools of thought and maintain a flow of intellect whether someone has an academic tenure or not.


* Warwick University links are still accessible and currently functional. I have left the original post on countryhousereader (dated March 2012) with these links in tact. The same case studies are also available on the UCL blog which has transferred everything over to this new site. The links in this post are for the UCL blog.


Filed under Building the Country House, Men and the Country House, Women and the Country House

Making Connections through Collections

I like writing (given the time), and sticking pictures in the text makes it all seem aesthetically pleasing. Yet, I wondered very briefly what it would be like to have some other media to ‘decorate’ the page. So I made some attempt at poking around the old internet to see what I might come across.

This piece from The Art Institute Chicago, was intriguing. This is a secretary cabinet by Giles Grendey (1693-1780) a cabinetmaker originally from Gloucestershire, England who on moving to London became a sought after craftsman through exceptional networking and involvement with the export trade. The secretary cabinet is in a style which sees a sort of marriage of Rococo and Chinoiserie in its scroll motifs and scarlet and gold lacquered decoration. The video offers a stunning view of how the piece functioned as well as allowing that all important view of the inside!

This piece is significant because it formed part of a now celebrated commission made during the 1730s by Grendey for the Duke of Infantado’s castle at Lazcano. The commission consisted of around 77 pieces of furniture, the majority of which remained in situ until the 1930s before being purchased directly by Adolph Loewi an art and antiques collector and dealer based in Venice. Loewi acquired 72 pieces – 50 single chairs and 12 armchairs; 2 day-beds; 2 pairs of mirrors; a pair of candlestands; a card table and a tripod tea table.


A late 19th century photograph of the salon at Lazcano (reproduced in Gilbert, Furniture at Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall)

Eventually these pieces were widely dispersed, however it is possible to track a great deal of them to public collections such as The Art Institute Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, Rosen’s Collection at Caramoor, and Temple Newsam House in Leeds.


Scarlet japanned armchair, part of the Infantado commission by Grendey. Temple Newsam House, Leeds (reproduced in Gilbert, Furniture at Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall)

Parts of the original commission and other pieces by Grendey appear in auction catalogues all over the world. Some of which have sprung from private collections. In April and December 1971, Antiques magazine listed the whereabouts of pieces from the Infantado commission. On failing miserably at finding affordable copies of these, my only consolation is that much of the provenance has changed anyway since then.

Giles Grendey

Giles Grendey practiced as an apprentice in London between 1709 and 1716, and by the 1730s was working independently from St John’s Square, Clerkenwell. While he did not publish a furniture pattern book, he is better known than many of his contemporaries because he frequently labelled his furniture. Craftsmen working for Grendey also left their initials on pieces.  Grendey’s tendency to label furniture is certainly a reflection of his active participation in the export market and the suite of furniture made for the Duke of Infantado is specially styled to appeal to someone with opulent taste. Pieces like the secretary cabinet for example have flat surfaces to allow for decorative treatment, but they also carry an awkward and perhaps archaic mixture of styles which were typical of native Spanish furniture of the time as seen in the heavy curved pediment and ‘bun’ feet.

They are stunning pieces of furniture and are worth looking at ‘in the flesh’ even if the now faded exterior colour still clashes with our understanding of fashionable modern (and often muted) interiors and appears rather brash to our modern eyes.


Christopher Gilbert, Furniture at Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall (1978) Also, Gilbert lists the following as relevant literature:

Connoisseur, June 1964, p.120

Collector’s Guide, January 1971, p.68

‘Furniture by Giles Grendey for the Spanish Trade’, Antiques April 1971, pp.544-550

G. Wills, English Furniture 1550-1760, 1971, p. 130

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Collections

The News for the New Year: an Exhibition for Nostell Priory.

Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet and his wife Sabine Louise Winn in the library at Nostell Priory, 1770.

Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet and his wife Sabine Louise Winn in the library at Nostell Priory, 1770 (copyright National Trust Collection).

Over three years ago the archive of the Winn family of Nostell Priory, Yorkshire were put into the ownership of the West Yorkshire Archives Service* under the jurisdiction of Wakefield Metropolitan Council as part of an Acceptance in Lieu grant.

I was still floating about in a post doctoral haze and was in need of something new to get my claws into.

I had written about Nostell Priory, especially Sabine Winn, the wife of the 5th Baronet (both pictured above) and her role as household manager including her relationship with the Nostell servants. So, wherever I went, whoever I spoke with, whatever I wanted to research, Nostell Priory was always there – looming.

Not surprisingly, the thought of being able to make a complete fuss about the importance of keeping the Winn family papers in Yorkshire was going to be very high on my agenda.

Together with the expertise of a senior academic from the University of Leeds, in May 2010 research began for an exhibition (and book) to be held at the house commencing in 2015. The working title for this is ‘From House to Home’, and will focus on two generations of the family – Sir Rowland Winn, 4th Baronet and his son the 5th Baronet and his wife.

Our ambitions are grand, to be sure, and we are hoping to show how rich these papers are. Nostell Priory is associated with famous names in architecture and design including Thomas Chippendale, the Adam Brothers, James Paine, as well as fine art by Kauffman, Zucchi and Brueghel. Yet, the Winn family papers also reveal several interesting layers in social and cultural history. The exhibition will therefore highlight many themes associated with country house living in the eighteenth century and attempt to show the relationships the Winns had with their architects, suppliers, extended family, and staff, as well as demonstrate the eccentricities of particular family members and how they came to be perceived by society.

Ultimately, the exhibition will encourage visitors to think about how an elite family like the Winns made their mark in the cultural landscape of the period at regional and national levels through their consumer tastes, shopping habits, sociability, and of course, their house.


My intention is to provide updates here as the project progresses, and any comments and questions are welcome, so long as they’re constructive!

*The papers are of great importance to the nation, their location at the West Yorkshire Archives Service (WYAS) however is something the region is understandably proud of given the associations with well-known names. The papers were recently voted as one of the Archives’ treasures by the public and archive staff, and in May 2012 the WYAS received a £37,000 grant to complete and improve the Winn family papers.


Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, Collections, The Nostell Project

Review. Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, (BBC2) Episode 1/3

In the midst of moving house clutter, boxes, odds and ends etc., I found a spare bit of sofa and made time to watch the first episode of Servants: the True Story of Life below Stairs. Presented by Dr. Pamela Cox from the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, this first programme of three explored the employment hierarchies, working conditions and contemporary attitudes towards servants during the 19th century to the turn of the 20th with emphasis on domestic structures between country and town.

Basement passage at Erddig, Wales, 1973 (National Trust)

We were immediately introduced to Erddig in Wales – the most obvious example of servant culture readily accessible through the UK National Trust. This was country house levels of servitude where servant numbers could be overwhelming, and the mistress of the house had to be adept at managing several departments every day. We caught glimpses of portraiture, photography and verse depicting and describing members of the household staff from housekeeper and butler to carpenter and lady’s maid. Of course Erddig is renowned for its servant portraiture, and the relationships maintained by the Yorke family with their staff from the 1780s have been well documented; a fact of which Cox seemed to have been made aware. Consequently, this visual material became the pivot with which we moved off into the less well documented world of servant lives.

However, Erddig is an unusual case study. It is a small country house with its own set of values and traditions. That the Yorke family preserved so much of their unique relationship with their staff for so long only highlights the eccentricities of that particular household. The dominant generalisation concerning the 19th century country house and its household suggests that servants were seldom seen and never heard. The family spouted orders to nameless shapes and merrily continued with their daily routine above stairs whilst the mechanics of the house ticked away below. And yet, Cox did stress the existence of this ideal both at Erddig and beyond.

Employers were the literate class in most cases. The Erddig poems and ‘jingling rhyming couplets’ about the staff are very one-sided.[1] But this is precisely where Servants and Dr Pamela Cox’s presentation filled a gap in national television schedules. This was an academic take on a subject which has become dramatised and treated with soap opera style editing complete with cliff-hangers and female actors with porcelain skin. The reams of material culture at Erddig are examples of what can be found at archives and libraries across the country. It may not be quite so revealing in its content, but search and you shall find threads of forgotten events and stories which easily bring many of these houses to life. And while it probably didn’t shed any new light on the subject for academics, Servants is very likely to get viewers thinking about working conditions over a hundred years ago.

The Diary of William Tayler, Footman, 1837. (London, 1998 Edition)

The activities of scrubbing, polishing, mending, fetching and carrying were the norm for the majority of people who did not have others to do this for them. Being paid to do this kind of work did not lessen the burden of a 15 hour or more day, but having your own bed, or a place to keep your own things were the small perquisites of working away from home. Despite some heavy sentimentality in places, Cox cleverly added that being a servant offered instances of cultural freedoms which might have been denied to those who sought work elsewhere. As we moved from the country house and it complex hierarchies, Cox explored the rising trends for middle-class households to keep servants. Many came from the country to seek work in the large townhouses, and so this urban landscape provided the backdrop to different routines, fashions, foods, and entertainments. Servants watched from the sidelines, but they still formed their own ideals and opinions about the things that unfolded around them.

Perhaps it is symptomatic of current trends in British television and how history is portrayed through documentaries. In advertising the programme, great emphasis was placed upon statistics, and indeed throughout the programme we were treated to the private papers preserved by the descendants of those who had worked in service. Even Cox herself declared her maid-of-all-work heritage. As an exploration of ‘real’ lives, I would have expected more demonstrations of actual work, but Servants seems more subtle and of course, academic. The BBC probably suggested that they leave the dressing up and bed-making to Lucy Worsley and the wall-stroking to Dan Cruickshank with this series. For Cox, this programme is about recognising our own heritage; it’s about the ordinary, not the unusual. And with that, we were

Harriet Rogers, lady’s maid and then housekeeper at Erddig.

brought back to Erddig in order to see how servant working lives were often pitted against familial relationships and emotional dependencies. This is life, in any period. Laborious menial work might not be considered noble, and undertaking it for others has always been seen as submissive and miserable. As the programme develops over the next two episodes, these attitudes will become much clearer, I am sure of that, and as we move past our family histories towards the present day, what makes a ‘servant’ will no doubt have a few people shaking their heads.


Review by Michael Pilgrim in The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9574278/Servants-the-True-Story-of-Life-Below-Stairs-BBC-Two-review.html#

Review by Mark Sanderson at The Art Desk http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/servants-true-story-life-below-stairs-bbc-two

There is no world outside Downton Abbey for The Sun http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/tv/4553354/Dr-Pamela-Cox-explores-truth-of-servants-in-early-20th-Century.html

University of Essex review, with further links http://www.essex.ac.uk/news/event.aspx?e_id=4504

Brighton and Hove heritage the Regency servant http://rth.org.uk/histories/regency/daily-life/servants

References (Select bibliography as there is a vast number of books on this subject):

Samuel and Sarah Adams, The Complete Servant (1825)

Leonore Davidoff, Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (Cambridge, 1995).

Erddig. Guidebook, National Trust (London, 1978)

Jessica Gerard, Country House Life: Family and Servants, 1815-1914 (Oxford, 1994).

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

Edward Higgs, Domestic Servants and Households in Rochdale, 1851-1871 (1986)

Pamela Horn, Flunkeys and Scullions: Life Below Stairs in Georgian England (Stroud, 2004)

Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant (Stroud, 2000)

Frank Edward Huggett, Life Below Stairs: Domestic Servants in England from Victorian Times, Part 2 (1977)

Pamela A. Sambrook, The Country House Servant. National Trust (Stroud, 2004)

Pamela Sambrook, Keeping Their Place: Domestic Service in the Country House (Stroud, 2007)

E. S. Turner, What the Butler Saw: Two Hundred and Fifty Years of the Servant Problem. (London, 1962).

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

[1] Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erddig (Routledge, London, 1980), p. 7


Filed under Recommended Literature, Servants, Uncategorized, Women and the Country House

The East India at Home Project – University College London 2011-2014

          As I mentioned in my post on Thinking About the Country House, there has been a great deal of interest in this subject area over the last two years or so. Present excitement is reflected in television shows like Downton Abbey which portray upstairs/downstairs divides and socio-economic themes of Britain in the early twentieth century. Such is public interest in these elements of country house living, that many houses open to the public feel the need to show their ‘secret’ rooms and dark domestic quarters for a short time each year.

          There has also been a flourish of interest in the grander apartments, perhaps to counterbalance the austere or the uncharacteristic calm of the kitchens, pantries and nurseries. Restored pieces of furniture are celebrated and entire rooms have been in receipt of funding in order to return them to a key moment in their history. This sort of activity has eventually led a few British academic institutions to consider the thought processes of country house owners in creating their homes. This has in turn prompted debate on the wider position of the country house, in Britain particularly, through themes of trade, politics and even military presence.

          The University of Warwick’s three year project on The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857 is one of these resulting debates. The main purpose of the project is to explore the significance of the country house in an imperial and global context by uniting relevant houses, families, and material culture by means of one detailed study. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Professor Margot Finn, in the Department of History at Warwick, the project ‘seeks to work in collaboration with family and local historians, curators, academics and other researchers to illuminate Britain’s global material culture from the eighteenth century to the present.’

          It has become quite a large undertaking, and so far the project team have amassed a great deal of material to present on their website. Arguably, some of it is rather more general country house reference material, but nonetheless, for anyone interested in British country houses, this is a must-see.

The project has five main objectives:

i) to produce a series of interlinked case studies,

ii) to situate the Asian goods that furnished Georgian and Victorian homes,

iii) to illuminate the ways in which material culture helped to mediate wider historical processes

iv) to assess the ways in which Asian luxuries incorporated within British country houses expressed regional, national and global identities,

v) and to integrate academic and museum-based research on the global genealogies of British country house interiors.

         It does sound very long-winded for anyone outside academic study, or with a general interest. What the website for the project can do, however, is provide a platform for further reading. For example, over the term of the project there will be a series of published studies on individual houses. The first ‘went live’ this week – Swallowfield Park, Berkshire. With separate sections to leaf through, and a full PDF of the case study to download, there is plenty to get into. Crucially, the study is comprehensive enough to include histories of architecture, family, design, and fine art. There are several pages to navigate through, and the illustrations are wonderful! Especially as the house is now owned by Sunley Heritage, a company which converts country houses into luxury apartments.

Swallowfield Park, Berkshire. (From the East India Company at Home project website)

         Clearly there are a lot of minds working on this project, and a lot of thought has gone into making this fully accessible. It may be academic, but this has not made it exclusive or entirely high-brow. I would even suggest that many more academic institutions could take heed of this method of promoting similar research, as it would definitely benefit those hungry to discover more about specialist areas of heritage study. 


East India Company at Home (full link) http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/ghcc/research/eicah/about/

The East India Company today http://www.theeastindiacompany.com/

Swallowfield Park on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swallowfield_Park

Sunley Heritage – Swallowfield Park http://www.sunleyheritage.co.uk/SP_index.cfm

Geffrye Museum, London. The Histories of Home and the Warwick project http://historiesofhomessn.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/the-east-india-company-at-home-1757-1857/


Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, Men and the Country House, Recommended Literature, Women and 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