The Charms of the Simple Life
Yale University Press, 2017
Hardcover. 272 p. ISBN 978-0300226775. $50/£40
Reviewed by Karen Sayer
Leeds Trinity University
This is a lavishly-illustrated large-format book that appreciates and seeks to map the adoption of vernacular aesthetics into elite British design, conducted via an extensive survey of photographs, sketches, plans, watercolours and prints. It begins in the period in which the cottage orné originated: the c. mid-eighteenth century, when Gothic moments and the picturesque dominated gentlemen’s gardens and landed estates. Here, in rusticity, there was a sought-after antiquity, even if there was none to be found in the actual history of the structures. At this point, though each architect had their own idiosyncratic approach to cottage design, their own language and idiom, and sometimes the features of decorated pavilions, summer houses and hermitages, the key features that came to mean ‘cottage’ emerged: nobly wooden posts, pebbles, thatch, tree trunk frames, glazed lattice windows, and ivy, honeysuckle and moss: materials low-key, organic, local and to hand (even horses’ teeth and bones). Undertaken as an architectural history of cottage orné, ranging across the late Georgian and Victorian periods, the book establishes that the country ‘cottage’ was not inhabited solely by agricultural labourers, a functional home for and of the rural poor. Its details copied, it was also built as an ornamental item into elite landscapes, and became almost ubiquitous among (small, uncomfortable) gate houses, while much later it became the darling of Arts and Crafts. Scaled up, White observes, the cottage’s supposedly essential elements were absorbed into much larger structures designed for wealthy ease, health and informality. These ornamental versions of the country cottage, the author contends, have been largely neglected by architectural historians, bar passing reference.
Many cottages were individual, functional buildings that operated as lodges at the entrances to the estate, others built together in pairs, rows or around greens to house the poor charitably or for social improvement. We are reminded rightly that in this cultural practice, as others, the Georgians had an interest in the simple/primitive, and that this informed architects’ approach to the adoption of the vernacular elements suggested by local building habits. Be it for the supposed improvement of the view from the great house, or what was deemed at the time a social good, this interest was something that also drew on wider conversations and shared design knowledge from the Continent and across the Atlantic, and was part of a Colonial cultural dynamic in building practice, and the fact that this point is clear throughout is the book’s great strength.
The book charts the middle-class cottage, cottages built from pattern books – including examples built for leisure, by the sea, by rivers, for retirement, in the provinces, in London. Moving into the nineteenth century, as classicism led the way, so pattern book cottage plans incorporated symmetry, and ornament was debated. By the time we have moved through the chapters on the Regency heyday, the seaside, the Lakes and the Celtic fringes, the cottages built from scratch, using individual designs or patterns, others built by extension, tiny cots through to huge multi-roomed Royal ‘cottages’, we can see that these buildings filled almost every nook and cranny of the land. Where the book, which is a catalogue of cottages, offers something new is in bringing that catalogue of British cottage orné into conversation with those on the Continent and in the Colonies, as discussed in Chapters 8 and 9 in particular. It is well worth remembering that while it incorporated elements and layouts adopted from overseas (the verandah, the bungalow) the cottage also represented innovation in agricultural and landscape practices that were admired. It also epitomised a nostalgic Britishness that was frequently sought after by the British wherever they moved. The cottage, White argues in his Introduction, with reference to the barbed comments of Jane Austen and Robert Southey, was not treated seriously at the time and it has not been seen as worthy of serious treatment since. But, he would have us rightly pause and reflect on this out-of-hand dismissal on the basis of its reach, and that the cottage orné – designed by an architect and therefore distinct to vernacular cottages or those thrown up by builders – spanned social class, along with geographic (and temporal) bounds, and merits attention.
This point somewhat passes over the work of those in other fields, such as art history and cultural geography, that have paid attention to the cottage, and seems grounded on the necessity of looking at the cottage just because it has been fettled by architects, but this does raise some interesting points. For example, one might enquire usefully into the habit of turning to picturesque pastoral twists, deliberately setting aside the rigorous formality of Georgian design, by elites who sought options on ease and informal comfort. Rusticity was still an expensive design choice, but it created a different experience, one that could be more private and family-oriented, appropriate to the increasingly elevated informality and naturalness of child-parent relations celebrated in Romantic art, philosophy and advisory literature. As a point for further research, the two forms of design, ‘sticks versus bricks’, have been contrasted politically in the past (neo-classical design more associated with Liberal politics, the supposed Northern-European aspects of rusticity and the Gothic being linked to Tory conservatism), and it would be interesting to map whether those families who bought into the cottage orné were necessarily Conservative in outlook. But, though the book has neat nuggets of additional detail in its endnotes, it is not meant to be analytical and while we are given food for thought here, it would be unfair to offer criticism on that basis. The cottages, bar some contextual framing and design detail, are left to speak for themselves via the plates within a narrative rich in the names of architects, patrons, locations, and are as White says, most certainly worthy of more than a second glance.
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