Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History

by Mark Girouard

Hardcover, 1978




New Haven : Yale University Press, 1978.


From literature, social chronicles, and family documents comes a study of the evolution and social role of the English country house since the Middle Ages.

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LibraryThing member Africansky1
Review of Life in the English Country House by Mark Girouard.

This book was published initially in 1978 and came out in the Penguin paper back edition in 1980 aiming at the popular market. The sub title “ a social and architectural history” indicates the stand point of the author who is one of
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the leading architectural historians of his generations with many books to his credit and who filled the position of Slade Professor of Art at Oxford in the mid 1970s. I first encountered and admired the work of Girouard in the Country Life magazine and later in the Architectural History journal. He is knowledgeable, and hence his work is informative and yet the erudition scholarship and research are worn lightly.

Since the 1950s as the viability of the country house in private hands was under threat due of a changing economic underpinning, death duties and the change in the locus of power in Britain, country houses have passed in increasing numbers to the National Trust to be preserved , marketed as heritage and enjoyed by an every increasing number of ordinary people who seek to experience what it must have been like to have lived in a country house in its hey day.

Today , so many country estates and the grand houses have become magnets for tourists who seek the vicarious pleasure of period architecture, and homes filled with the treasures collected by generations of families . Interest in seemingly extinct lifestyles could not be greater, giving a new lease of life to keeping and preserving these national treasures. This is a book to read ahead of visits to country homes to understand the context and the changes in political power, social hierarchy and economic realities. Most homes sell souvenir guide books but this is a work that puts the detailed studies into a wider historical context.

This book traces the history of the country house from the medieval period through to 1940 and the dramatic changes of the second world War and after. Girouard starts with the essential question – what were country houses for? The answer that they were power houses where a country house was the physical expression of that combination of land ownership, successful agricultural change and political influence through judicious marriage and family longevity. If you were anyone of note in English society (royalty, nobility, aristocracy the seriously wealthy or newly rich either built or owned a country house or aspired to acquire such an asset) and anyone of importance owned both a country house and a London mansion. Wealth was derived from land, agriculture and later mining , trade and factories. A class hierarchy, a tax and a legal regime allowed successive generations to amass and consolidate their riches and their status in society.

Houses were never complete without their planned gardens, their libraries, their art collections and the number of servants to maintain an establishment could run to dozens and large ducal households could number hundreds in days when rural labour was plentiful, educational opportunities limited and the job of a minion in a country house offered security, respectability and status. The household comprised the landowning family but also their dependents and their servants . The lifestyle was one of (large) family living, social hierarchy, and seasonal peregrinations from country to the capital London. It is surprising that it was a lifestyle that survived for generations- legal devices such as entail and primogeniture meant that properties could not be sold by heirs, were passed to the eldest son ( sometimes a daughter) in tact but houses and estates could be encumbered with debt to support younger sons, dowagers, widows and daughters. The country house was in its prime in the era 1750 to 1850, each generation enhanced, improved and remodeled their prime asset.

The book is well illustrated with over 30 coloured plates and some 200 black and white illustrations plus figures or plans of a number of houses showing the purpose and arrangement of rooms at different dates. You are introduced to the architects and given an overview of the fashionable styles of architecture. The great names in architectural history –such as Inigo Jones, William Chambers, John Nash, James Wyatt, Humphrey Repton- are dropped into the text. Country house were great repositories for fine art collections and objects often collected on the Grand Tour of Europe. Interestingly the English upper class were open to new blood, new fortunes made in trade or colonial plantation ownership or in industry and so the importance of owning a country house remained and was renewed until well into the 20th century. The long agricultural depression of the mid 19th century threatened the economic underpinnings; the decimation of the young generation of the officer cohort in the first world war was yet another loss; changing power politics as the Labour Party emerged and the Conservative and Whig authority waned . In the second world war, many country houses were demolished or became hospitals or rehabilitation units- later businesses bought country houses. Houses were sold to newcomers or foreigners; estate land was split from the old central house.
The romanticism of the country house and its assured if not always comfortable lifestyle is presented as a way of life that became less and less practical in the second half of the 20th century. Piped hot water, heating and air conditioning , modern appliances in kitchens, gas, electricity, telephones , the motor car meant adaptations and changes that sometimes could not be incorporated into older dwellings. The original families adapted to a new life- and often retreated to more modest and manageable lifestyles in parts of grand old homes while turning gracious rooms into living museums.

Nonetheless , I find it a pleasure and a delight that one is able to visit so many of these old grand homes- places such as Hampton court, Chatsworth, Harewood House, Castle Howard, Blenheim, Waddesdon ,Woburn – still show treasures and a glimpse into older lifestyles to delight the voyeur and the serious scholar. Girouard’s book is still a standard and valuable guide to upper class English history from an architectural and social perspective. This is a highly readable book and yet one for the reference shelf . In writing this review I realized that this is a book I would like to replace with a hard copy version.
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LibraryThing member ritaer
While rather dry, and illustrated largely in black and white, this book would be useful to anyone planning to write historical or fantasy fiction in a medieval thru early modern period. Consider, for instance, the question of chambermaids and serving women. Many readers may be surprised to learn
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that few women were to be found in a medieval manorhouse. The lord's wife, her gentlewomen and any daughters, chamberers, nurses for the children and launderers were usually the only women in the household. Not surprising considering that a medieval manor was a military establishment. Furthermore, until well into Renaissance times, the men serving the lord, both as personal servants such as wardrobe master and executive postitions such as steward, were themselves gentlemen, not commoners.
The author traces the changes in floor plans and the use of space within the homes he describes, such as the change from dinners served to all the household in a great hall to seperate eating spaces for the immediate family and guests, sometimes in a room that combined the role of sitting room, dining room and bedchamber. This book is not merely about the construction and style of country homes but about the entire manner of life of the noble and wealthy owners.
One could wish that the colored plates were more plentiful and that the placement and designations of the black and white photgraphs, drawings and floorplans were easier to follow.
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LibraryThing member Overgaard
amazing research - well done history of a form unique to England



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