The Edwardian Country House
A Social and Architectural History
London: Frances Lincoln, 2012
Hardback, 286 pp. ISBN 978-0711233393. £35/$50
Reviewed by Laurent Bury
Université Lumière–Lyon 2
In her Autobiography published in 1922, Margot Asquith wrote: “Rich men’s houses are seldom beautiful, rarely comfortable, and never original. It is a constant source of surprise to people of moderate means to observe how little a big fortune contributes to Beauty … Money has never yet bought imagination”. The present book seems to have been written to give the lie to that severe judgement, quoted at the end of the chapter devoted to “Country Houses, 1810-1914” in J. Mordaunt Crook’s volume The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches : Style and Status in Victorian and Edwardian Architecture (Murray, 1999). Even though Mordaunt Crook’s work was an academic study rather than a coffee-table book, it did include a wealth of black-and-white pictures, many of which can also be found in Clive Aslet’s lavishly illustrated volume, even though its ambitions are totally different. The present book is a revision of The Last Country Houses, initially published thirty years ago: “The text […] is largely the same as that which appeared in 1982. Occasionally I have inserted passages of new research, and I have corrected errors where I have seen them” . In that same preface, the author judiciously explains the choice of his new title, which might prove misleading: the scope is much wider than the Edwardian period strictly speaking (1901-1910), but the title “denotes the book’s centre of gravity, which is the richly creative era of British domestic architecture which occurred around the turn of the twentieth century” . In other words, the book covers the period 1890-1939, with a special focus on the 1900s and 1910s, the First World War coming as a first, but not final, blow to the movement. The oldest building discussed here is West Dean Park (Sussex), remodelled en 1891-1893 by Ernest George and Harold Peto for “William Dodge James, the heir to two American fortunes (railways and metal broking)” , and the most recent is Charters (Surrey), erected in 1938 by George Adie and Frederick Button for Frank Parkinson, an electrical manufacturer.
Clive Aslet devotes his first three chapters to a historical survey of the period, defining the “Edwardian” country house as opposed to the huge mansions built during the Victorian age. The new plutocracy of industrialists who commissioned country houses were buying a whole way of life at the same time as a building, even though the country house was no longer really conceived as the centre of a landed estate, since agriculture had lost most of its importance in British economy. After 1918, many landowners sold their properties and “a quarter of England changed hands” . The early twentieth century was a time when princes could now spend their nights in private houses instead of royal palaces, and the Prince of Wales enjoyed the hospitality of many welcoming friends, in a much more informal atmosphere than his own mother would have felt comfortable in. The motor car, which soon appeared as a necessity more than a pleasure, changed the very notion of country house, as it became possible to cover longer distances without necessarily having to stay overnight as a guest (for a “Sunday-to-Monday”, as week-ends were still preferably called). This, and the consequences of the First World War, meant that it was no longer necessary to have so many “bachelor bedrooms” in a country house. In spite of the shortage of domestic labour, regularly lamented from the 1880s onwards, servants’ quarters were still often as large as the master’s house, each activity having its specific room (one for cleaning riding breeches, another for brushing boots, etc.) New labour-saving devices were introduced, like the centralised vacuum cleaner, which was actually a huge pump in the basement of the house. Architects had to deploy their creativity in order to find elegant ways of hiding radiators or using lamp bulbs.
The following chapters are devoted to various trends in the design of Edwardian country houses. Eclectic pastiche building was all the rage in the 1890s, and several styles could be used simultaneously in the same house, one for each room, or by mixing various features. Historicism was an important influence, and a whole range of styles could be adapted for modern purposes: Baroque, Classical, Old English, neo Georgian, pseudo Louis XV or Louis XVI. Nationalist considerations were sometimes taken into account: “To use a French style in a county house implied an attitude to life in the country; it was only done by the smartest of the smart, and largely by those who were already, or aspired to be, members of the Prince of Wales’s set” . On the other hand, Sir Christopher Wren was a dominant model, because he was “not only the greatest but the most English of all English architects”, according to Sir Reginald Blomfield . “Wrenaissance” country houses thus flourished all over the country. Old houses could be remodelled, but new ones could also be built using old materials so as to create half-timbered, wilfully irregular (neo-)Tudor houses. Whole buildings were also moved from one place to another, or fragments of long existing structures could be incorporated to brand new ones, blending fantasy and scholarship.
The pride of the nouveaux riches sometimes demanded real castles rather than “mere” country houses. One of this book’s heroes, and a great specialist of the country houses, was Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), whose work is illustrated in almost all of the chapters of the volume. Lutyens restored the splendidly situated Lindisfarne Castle, off the Northumberland coast, in 1902-12; in 1910-30, he built Castle Drogo (Devon) for Julius Drewe, the co-founder of the Home and Colonial Stores; he worked from 1904 to 1924 on a huge country house at Ashby St Ledgers (Northamptonshire) for the Honorable Ivor Guest, descendant of a dynasty of iron and steel founders. Of course, architects are not the only protagonists of Clive Aslet’s book, which is also very much about millionaires’ whims. A native of Dunfermline, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) decided to have a house built in Scotland. The result was Skibo Castle (Sutherland), drawn by Ross and Macbeth, where the Americanised industrialist could entertain his powerful Liberal friends. William Waldorf Astor, first Viscount Astor (1818-1919), owner of the Pall-Mall Magazine, bought Hever Castle, in Kent, and had it sumptuously modernised in 1903-1906 by Frank Pearson; the guest wing added to this castle where Ann Boleyn had spent her childhood was built on the other side of the moat and was intended to look like a medieval village. In 1925, William Randolph Hearst bought St Donat’s Castle, in Wales; the building had already been restored in 1901-1907, but the American newspaper tycoon employed Sir Charles Allom to adapt it to his taste: “nowhere else does the romance with old materials for their own sake reach such a pitch of naked obsession. Romance, in fact, gave way to rape” . Old buildings were plundered, used as quarries for Hearst’s “expensive Hollywood-style backdrop, with crateloads of medieval stage props waiting to be wheeled out from the wings” . Hearst never used it for his family, but only came with his mistress Marion Davies, for no more than four months altogether. Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India, proved much more respectful of architecture when he restored Bodiam Castle in 1917-1919. Another American millionaire, Gordon Selfridge, had plans to build the biggest castle in the world on the Isle of Wight, but nothing eventually came of it.
On a far more reasonable level, Arts and Crafts architects were sometimes given the opportunity to build much smaller country houses, more like cottages than castles. Clive Aslet focuses on four examples, by four of the most radical architects of the movement. Melsetter House, in the Orkneys, was remodelled in the late 1890s by W.R. Lethaby; Rodmarton Manor (Gloucestershire) was begun in 1909 to the designs of Ernest Barnsley; in Gloucestershire too, Detmar Blow, who had known Ruskin and William Morris, built his own house, called Hilles, from 1914 till his death in 1939; at Madresfield Court, the decoration of the chapel was commissioned by Lady Beauchamp as a wedding present for her husband: it is “perhaps the most complete realisation of Arts and Crafts theory in Britain” . It would inspire the chapel in Brideshead Revisited (Aslet often quotes from contemporary novels by Waugh, Wells, Woolf or less famous names). Unfortunately, Art Nouveau architects were never given the opportunity to build real country houses, in Britain at least: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and M.H. Baillie Scott won international recognition, but in their native country no one seems to have been daring enough. “The three largest Art Nouveau houses – Baillie Scott’s Blackwell, Mackintosh’s The Hill House and George Walton’s Wern-fawr – were none of them country houses in the sense used in this book” , but Blackwell is included here, with two photographs, and studied more at length in Aslet’s The Arts and Crafts Country House (Aurum Press, 2011).
The last two chapters are devoted to interior decoration and gardens. The twentieth century was characterised by a rejection of Victorian clutter and a new desire for simplicity. For gardens, two trends dominated: formal planning and informal planting, “wild gardening” being advocated by William Robinson. Sir Edwin Lutyens regularly collaborated with Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), one of the best examples of their work together being no other than Le Bois des Moutiers (1898) in Varengeville-sur-Mer (Seine-Maritime).
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