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English country house

The English country house is generally accepted as a large house or mansion, once in the ownership of an individual who also usually owned another great house in town allowing one to spend time in the country and in the city. Country houses and stately homes are sometimes confused—while a country house is always in the country, a stately home can also be in a town. Apsley House, built for the Duke of Wellington at the corner of Hyde Park ('No. 1, London' it was called), is one example. Other country houses such as Ascott in Buckinghamshire were deliberately designed not to be stately, and to harmonise with the landscape, while some of the great houses such as Kedleston Hall and Holkham Hall were built as "power houses" to impress and dominate the landscape, and were certainly intended to be "stately homes". Today many former "stately homes", while still country houses, are far from stately and most certainly not homes.

The country house was not only a weekend retreat for aristocrats, but also often a full time residence for the minor gentry who were a central node in the "squirearchy" that ruled Britain until the Reform Act of 1832 (as documented in The Purefoy Letters, 1735-53 by L G Mitchell). Even some of the formal business of the shire was transacted in the Hall.

Evolution

The country houses of England have evolved over the last 500 years. Before this time larger houses were more often than not fortified, reflecting the position of their owners as feudal lords, de facto overlords of their manor. The Tudor period of stability in the country saw the first of the large unfortified mansions. Henry VIII's policy of the Dissolution of the Monasteries saw many former ecclesiastical properties turned over to the King's favourites, who then converted them into private country houses. Woburn Abbey, Forde Abbey and many other mansions with Abbey or Priory in their name often date from this period as private houses. Other terms used in the name of houses to describe their origin or importance include Palace, Castle, Court, Hall, Mansion, Park, House, Manor, Place and Tower.

It was during the later half of the reign of Elizabeth I and her successor James I that the first architect designed mansions, thought of today as epitomising the English country house, and began to make their appearance. Burghley House, Longleat House, and Hatfield House are perhaps amongst the most well known. Hatfield House was one of the first houses in England to show the Italianate influences of the renaissance, which was eventually to see the end of the hinting-at-castle-architecture "turrets and towers" Gothic style. By the reign of Charles I, Inigo Jones and his form of Palladianism had changed the face of British domestic architecture completely. While there were later various Gothic Revival styles, the Palladian style in various forms, interrupted briefly by baroque, was to predominate until the late 18th century. When influenced by ancient Greek styles, it gradually evolved into the neoclassicism championed by such architects as Robert Adam.

Some of the best known of England's country house(s) tend to have been built by one architect at one particular time: Montacute House, Chatsworth House, and Blenheim Palace are examples. It is interesting that while the latter two are ducal palaces, Montacute, although built by a Master of the Rolls to Queen Elizabeth I, spent the next 400 years in the occupation of his descendants who were Gentry without a London townhouse, rather than aristocracy. They finally ran out of funds in the early 20th century.

However, the vast majority of the lesser-known English country houses, often owned by both gentry and aristocracy, are an evolution of one or more styles with facades and wings in various styles in a mixture of high architecture, often as interpreted by a local architect or surveyor and determined by practicality as much as the whims of architectural taste. An example might be Brympton d'Evercy in Somerset, a house of many periods that is unified architecturally by the continuing use of the same mellow local Ham Hill stone.

The fashionable William Kent redesigned Rousham House only to have it quickly and drastically altered to accommodate space for the owner's twelve children. Canons Ashby, home to poet John Dryden's family, exemplifies this: a medieval farmhouse enlarged in the Tudor era around a courtyard, given grandiose plaster ceilings in the Stewart period and then given Georgian facades in the 18th century. The whole is a glorious mismatch of styles and fashions which seamlessly blend together—this could be called the true English country house. Wilton House, one of England's grandest houses, is in a remarkably similar vein; although, while the Drydens, mere squires, at Canons Ashby employed a local architect, at Wilton the mighty Earls of Pembroke employed the finest architects of the day: first Holbein, 150 years later Inigo Jones, and then Wyatt followed by Chambers. Each employed a different style of architecture, seemingly unaware of the design of the wing around the next corner. These varying "improvements", often criticised at the time, today are the qualities which make English country houses unique. Scarcely anywhere else in the world would an elite class have allowed, or indeed pursued, such an indifference to style.

Power houses and family homes

The inhabitants of the English country house have become collectively referred to as the Ruling class, because this is exactly what they did in varying degrees, whether by holding high political influence and power in national government or in the day-to-day running of their own localities in such offices as magistrates, or occasionally even clergy. These aristocrats continued, in diminishing degrees, to frequently hold the highest offices until well into the second half of the 20th century. Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Alec Douglas-Home were the last Prime Ministers to spring from this class. So necessary was the country house deemed to be that following the election of the first Labour Government in 1921, Viscount Lee of Fareham donated his country house Chequers to the nation for the use of a Prime Minister who might not possess one of his own. Chequers still fulfils that need today as do both Chevening House and Dorneywood country houses, donated for sole use of high-ranking ministers of the crown.

Zenith

During the 18th and 19th centuries to the highest echelons of British society the country house served as a place for relaxing, hunting and running the country with one's equals at the end of the week, with some houses having their own theatre where performances were held. However, there were many Squires who lived permanently on their country estates, seldom visiting London at all. The country house was the centre of its own world, providing employment to literally hundreds of people in the vicinity of its estate. In previous eras when state benefits were unheard of, those working on an estate were among the most fortunate, receiving secured employment and rent-free accommodation. At the summit of these fortunate people was the indoor staff of the country house. Until the 20th century, unlike many of their contemporaries, they slept in proper beds, wore well-made adequate clothes and received three proper meals a day, plus a small wage. In an era when many still died for lack of medicine or malnutrition, the long working hours were a small price to pay. The film Gosford Park, the reality series The Edwardian Country House and some episodes of the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs accurately recreated the stratified and repressed but secure atmosphere of the English country house just surviving into the age of the automobile.

Many aristocrats owned more than one country house and would visit each according to the season: Grouse shooting in Scotland, pheasant shooting and fox hunting in England. The Earl of Rosebery, for instance, had Dalmeny House in Scotland, Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire and another near Epsom just for the racing season.

Decline

The slow decline of the English country house coincided with the rise of modern industry, which provided alternate means of employment for large numbers of people and contributed to upwardly mobile middle classes, but its ultimate demise began immediately following World War I. The huge staff required to maintain them had either left to fight and never returned, departed to work in the munitions factories, or to fulfill the void left by the fighting men in other workplaces. Of those who returned with the cessation of war, many left the countryside for better-paid jobs in towns. The final blow for many country houses came following World War II; having been requisitioned during the war, they were returned to the owners in poor repair. Many of whom having lost their heirs, if not in the immediately preceding war then in World War I, were now paying far higher rates of tax, and agricultural incomes from the accompanying estates had dropped. Thus, the solution appeared to be to hold contents auctions and then demolish the house and sell its stone, fireplaces, and panelling. And this is exactly what happened to many of Britain's finest houses.

Today in Britain, country houses provide for a variety of needs. Many such as Montacute House, West Wycombe Park and Lyme Park are owned by public bodies, including the National Trust, and are open to the public as museums as part of the so-called "Stately home industry". Some, including Wilton House and Chatsworth House, and many smaller houses such as Pencarrow in Cornwall and Rousham House in Oxfordshire are still owned by the families who built them, retain their treasures and are open during summer months to the public. Fewer still are owned by the original families and are not open to the public: Compton Wynyates is one. Easton Neston in Northamptonshire, one of the last of the architecturally important country houses never to have been opened to public viewing, was sold in 2005 for £15 million by Lord Hesketh.

Today's English country house

The majority have become schools, hospitals, and prisons. Some, for example, Cliveden and Hartwell House, have become luxury hotels. These are among the fortunate few. In Britain during the 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of country houses were demolished.

Today owning a "Country House" can be a mixed blessing. Usually listed as a building of historic interest, they can only be maintained under Government supervision, often interpreted by the owners as interference as it is usually the most costly method that the Government inspectors insist upon. This system does, however, ensure that all work is correctly and authentically done. The negative side is that many owners cannot afford the work, so a roof remains leaking for the sake of a cheap roof tile.

References

  • Girouard, Mark. Life in the English Country House : a social and architectural history details the impact of social change on design

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