Thursday 12 March 2015

A Salon Guest: The English Country House

It is my pleasure to welcome Heather King, with a look behind the scenes of the English country house!

Many thanks to Catherine for inviting me to be a guest on her blog. I am both delighted and honoured.

My latest novel, An Improper Marriage, is mainly set during a House Party, so I thought I would write a little about the English Country House.

The medieval castles and sprawling manor houses had already evolved into a more formal residence during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Gardens were laid out in geometric patterns with strictly linear paths and clipped hedges. Knot gardens and parterres often fronted the large residence, such as at Wilton House in Wiltshire, which was planned to entertain royalty.

By the extended Regency period, however, the visitor was likely to approach a country house via a long drive, past a lodge (complete with lodge-keeper) and proceed at a brisk trot through a sweeping vista of rolling parkland dotted with ancient oak, horse chestnut and beech trees. Between the gnarled branches covered in lichen, a view of a sparkling lake was almost de rigueur, while various follies and perhaps an ice-house would also be glimpsed in secluded positions around the estate. Closer to the house, the winding road forks, one arm leading to the sumptuous, pedimented stable block where my lord’s hunters and carriage horses are cared for in palatial stalls by a dozen or more dedicated grooms. The other arm continues to a gravelled forecourt in front of the house.

Built frequently in a quadrangle, for protection from prevailing winds as well as to contain unpleasant odours – so as not to upset the delicate sensibilities of the lady of the house – and keep hidden the plebeian tasks undertaken therein, these vast constructions were usually entered beneath an archway surmounted by a clock tower. Long buildings faced in stone or brick contained lines of stalls, the occasional stallion and/or foaling box, harness rooms, feed rooms and hay barns. When members of the ton descended on an aristocratic country estate, there were a large number of horses and servants to be accommodated and fed. It did not suit a gentleman’s sense of worth if he could not provide stabling for his guests’ cattle.

Berrington Hall - Archway from stables courtyard
Palladian mansions of the eighteenth century were often arranged in a square or rectangle around a central hall. Sometimes, as in Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, towers were constructed at each corner, thus allowing for a porticoed entrance on the front and rear aspects. Rooms led one into another, enabling two overlapping circuits, one of the public apartments and one of the private. The principal floor at Hagley included a gallery stretching the length of the house; hall, saloon, drawing and dining rooms, and two bedrooms with dressing rooms alongside. Staircases led upstairs from both sides of the central hall and saloon (and yes, it was termed saloon rather than salon!), with a servants’ access hidden behind the doorway to a dressing room. There was also a library on this floor, in the private part of the house. Thus Hagley Hall was designed (in about 1752) in the same manner as the earlier, formal house, yet with different purposes in mind. An alternative arrangement was provided by a wide entrance front, with mirroring wings extending out to the rear of the house.

At Berrington Hall in Worcestershire, the Staircase Hall is two storeys, topped by an awe-inspiring domed window, admitting light into what would otherwise be a dark, gloomy space. The balconies around the hallway are fronted by decorative cast-iron balustrades and columns of golden brown scagliola.

Berrington Hall - Staircase Hall

Berrington Hall - Skylight above Staircase Hall

At Hanbury Hall, also in Worcestershire, James Thornhill painted a glorious series of murals to decorate the staircase. Various scenes from the life of Achilles are depicted in rich colours and flowing lines. The detail, and the fact that they are still there to be enjoyed by the grateful visitor after more than 300 years, is a testament both to the artist and the care of the National Trust. The paintings were completed in 1710.

The Drawing Room was for show rather than relaxing, unlike our lounges and sitting rooms today. They were furnished with delicate, spindle-legged chairs and sofas, often with pie-crust or marquetry-topped occasional tables nearby for the convenience of guests. Side tables (not to be confused with those employed for personal use) were rectangular pieces of mahogany or, in an earlier age, walnut, set against a wall for the displaying of ornaments, silverware or a drinks tray. Often incorporating a pier-glass (large mirror) above, in many cases they are not free standing, having only two legs. Small groups of chairs encouraged diverse conversations among house guests. For more informal use, the lady of the house might well have a smaller parlour for her personal or family use, which, in all likelihood, would contain a desk, armchairs and a cabinet. She might keep her sewing box here, too.

The Dining Room was also intended for ostentatious display. Georgians were not shy about showing off their wealth. Costly furniture, moulded door cases, ornately-mounted pier-glasses and rich paintings were all part of that desire to be seen to be affluent. A large, extendable table of highly-polished wood was centre stage, while a sideboard, wine cooler, cellarette with zinc-lined drawer for the washing of plates, various serving tables and a commode were all considered essential for the diners’ comfort.

Originally a place for exercise when the weather was inclement and often appropriated by the children of the family or young bloods for such games as cricket or hide-and-seek, over time the Gallery became more widely used as a ballroom and area to display pictures, surely the forerunners of modern art galleries and museums.

Many larger establishments, such as Chatsworth and Blenheim, have State apartments, decorated on a grand scale, for visits of nobility and royalty. These rooms occupy the most prestigious position in the house, whereas in the more modest mansion, this is reserved for the master and mistress’ bedchambers. Usually at the front of the house, with extensive views over the parkland, my lord and lady’s chambers were situated next to each other, with a connecting door and often a dressing room in between. The dressing room also had access to the corridor servicing the suite, to enable the servants to enter without disturbing their employers.

In addition to the library and/or a study for his lordship, a country house was likely to have a chapel (sometimes within the house), a smoking room, a billiards room and even an estate office. There would be, of course, a nursery wing with bedrooms for the children, their nursemaids and governess. The main stairs would lead no further than this floor, but the back stairs would continue to the servants’ quarters and the attics above. The butler and housekeeper had private sitting rooms as befitted their elevated status in the servants’ hall.

The kitchens of a country house were situated either at the rear of the house – sometimes within the mansion itself and sometimes in a separate building connected by a passage – or in the basement. In the former arrangement, the dairy, laundry and bake-house would also be housed in the kitchen range or nearby.

In order to be near their charges, the grooms and the coachman were billeted in rooms above the stables, although on occasion, the head groom was provided with a cottage.

This is just a brief look at the English Country House. If it has whetted your appetite, then I have achieved my aim and I hope that those readers domiciled in the United Kingdom will feel enthused to visit one of the many properties open to the public! We must support them or risk losing them forever.

Please feel free to visit me at my blog, A Regency Reticule, at:

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An Improper Marriage

Paperback coming soon!

A Sense of the Ridiculous

Available only in e-book at the moment. It is unlikely this edition will be available after 28th February, since Musa Publishing have closed their doors. However, I will be re-issuing it in the near future under a different cover and also in paperback.

Writing as Vandalia Black, I have available an anthology of vampire romance stories, including a novella:

Vampires Don’t Drink Coffee And Other Stories

 Written content of this post and images copyright © Heather King, 2015.


Angelina Jameson said...

Heather, I actually have a National Trust book on Berrington Hall and have used it to describe a house in one of my stories. You wrote a lovely post and I found it very informative,

Catherine Curzon said...

An inspiring place!

Alina K. Field said...

Lovely post, and very helpful to us "colonials"!

Catherine Curzon said...

I hope you can visit in person one day!