The changing architecture of the English country house demonstrates the evolution of arrangement in how people used and circulated within them. Fashion and educated taste combined with developments in technology provides a fascinating history of country house design. I have mused upon and selected 3 major innovations of country house architecture from the medieval period until the 19th C. There are so many to choose from! The ones I have selected are (a) windows, (b) staircases and (c) wallpaper.
The history of windows in the country house is linked to the history of glass and framing materials. Large glass windows had been built in churches and cathedrals. Mostly this glass, including that for high-status houses, had been imported up until the reign of Elizabeth I.[i] The innovation of windows in churches enabled that of the country house.
Stokesay Castle was built circa late 1280s by a wool merchant, Laurence of Ludlow. The hall has particularly spectacular windows with decorative tracery. Secular windows, as opposed to church windows, often had shutters. Similar windows are to be found at the Bishop’s Palace at Wells (late 13th century). Bishop Burnell who built the hall at Wells, had ideas of entertaining the king. He had also built Acton Burnell in Shropshire circa 1283 with similar grand windows.[ii] Masons possibly worked on both secular and ecclesiastical buildings and were able to transfer designs.
In the Tudor period, lights could be increased with mullions. This coincided with glass becoming cheaper. Diamond quarrels were popular during the Elizabethan period.[iii] Individual expression could be demonstrated with mullion design and lead framing. At Cothelstone Manor in Somerset the fenestration is unusual. Both the gatehouse and manor house have tripartite baluster mullions. The leaded quarrels on each of the fixed lights are diamond shape. Each light also has an iron stanchion and saddle bar with a central form of a four-petal design.
In the 17th century the sliding sash window originated in London. In narrow streets opening windows were problematic and the Yorkshire sash with a sliding, horizontal window came about (normally one of the sashes is fixed). The vertical sash window was taken up by country house owners. Glass at this time was handmade crown glass, which the wealthy could afford in terms of larger panes than the regular, smaller multi-panes found in the ordinary houses of cities and town.[iv]
In 1834, cylinder plate glass was developed which enabled the manufacture of larger panes of glass. Larger sash windows could be created. To accommodate the heavier single panes of glass, horns were added to the upper sash. Plate glass also led to the large canted or square-angled bays found in the Victorian country house.[v]
Another innovation that began to alter significantly the arrangement of the country house is the staircase. At Penshurst Place a late-medieval spacious stair constructed of stone leads from the high end of the hall to an upper floor. The later-medieval period saw the elite separating themselves from the rest of their household into private accommodation. Upper chambers provided more intimate and private spaces. They could also be heated with fireplaces and select guests could be invited in. The first floor sited the ‘great chamber’, which became the focus of the Lord’s activity in receiving and entertaining visitors.[vi] This was further developed with the addition of the withdrawing and bed chambers which were positioned beyond the great chamber.[vii] This resulted in the architectural change of the hall getting smaller as it lost its ceremonial importance and first-floor chambers increased in grandeur with elaborate open timber roofs, chimney pieces and window tracery.[viii] The staircase leading from the hall was the significant feature of the ceremonial pathway that channelled the elite visitor to the great chamber.
By the Tudor and early-Stuart period, the staircase could lead up to the third storey which was the long gallery. At Montacute House in Somerset (circa 1603) there are two Ham Hill stone staircases. One built in the south side for servant access and a grander one on the north side, with ornamental shell-headed niches in the walls, for Sir Edward Phelips and his family or visitors to enjoy. Upper floors also provided views over the gardens and deer parks. Again, something the elite could afford to enjoy.
Arrangement of staircases meant that servants could be separated from the elite members of the household. The arrangement of rooms and circulation became ritualised to keep elite occupants and visitors in specific accommodation away from the service aspect but having certain servants within calling distance. Third storeys were no longer designed for long galleries from the mid-17th century. This meant that servants and children could be housed above and away from the important state rooms.
The influence of the French saloon or apartment came into England in the mid-17th century. The formal arrangement of the private lodgings of the elite began to change within the country house. The reception rooms were where visitors could be received, and private rooms expanded beyond such as closets, cabinets and antechambers. Ornate staircases were needed to lead the elite visitor in the right direction for their arrival.
The Palladian country house required the grandeur of statement with a piano nobile. External stairs could lead the visitor upwards to the first-floor grand entrance such as at Stourhead in Wiltshire (circa 1725). At Holkham Hall (1734-64) in Norfolk the piano nobile is fenestrated at the front with a central balcony encompassed by a grand portico. However, at the rear is the principal entrance which leads into an imposing hallway with a grand staircase leading up to the saloon on the piano nobile.
Staircases received the attention for ornamentation to express taste and display wealth. At the Queen’s House in Greenwich (built 1616-1635), Inigo Jones designed a spectacular helical staircase (The Tulip staircase) with wrought iron handrails. At Holkham Hall, wrought ironwork is also employed in the Marble Hall. Such elaboration advertised the owner’s status and artistic virtuosity. A grand staircase in a country house served as part of the ritual of receiving and circulating visitors. It immediately signalled where the visitor needed to go.
In the 18th C the opening up of trade with the east heralded a new influence. At Boughton Housel in Northamptonshire is a chinoiserie staircase of circa 1740.
Wall decoration from the medieval period had been in the form of tapestries and wall hangings. Wooden panelling had also been applied such as linenfold and square panelling in 16th century country houses, enhanced with a greater elaboration of carved ornamentation (such as strapwork) on fielded panelling by the Jacobeans.[ix] The panelling had the advantage over cloth of durability and helping with drafts, damp and odours, but it was constrained in terms of ornate expression.
By the 17th century silk and damask hangings were stretched tightly across walls to become more permanent fixtures. Wallpaper began to be increasingly used from 1700 in England. Often wallpaper was flocked in the states rooms and printed in bedrooms.[x] Flocked wallpapers were made by using powdered wool (a waste product of the woollen cloth industry), to form a rich pile that appeared to be velvet. Initially the base material was canvas or linen. However, in 1634 a Huguenot refugee, Jerome Lanier, patented a method by which the coloured wools could adhere to paper.[xi] This technological and commercial ingenuity was able to exploit the taste of a wealthy elite. At Holkham Hall the saloon walls are decorated with a damask design of crimson flock.
In the late-17th century as trade expanded with China, Chinese wallpapers made their way into the luxury goods market in England. These were hand painted, featuring non-repeating pictorial scenes of Chinese life or exotic birds and plants within landscapes.[xii] The variety of luxury wallpaper could be applied in different spaces. Designs could be relative to the feminine, masculine or rooms of significance within the country house. Space could be gendered by design for the gentlemen or lady of the house. The saloon may have the richness of the flock wallpaper and a sitting room decorated with a delicate Chinese design. Bedrooms and staterooms could have overall designed themes with wallpaper and luxurious soft furnishings.
Wallpaper was still a luxury product in the 18th century as it was hand printed. The mid-18th century saw technical improvements in the process of block-printing that meant patterns could be printed in many different colours and designs. Elegant and fashionable styles were sold by interior furnishers like Thomas Chippendale.[xiii] Framed scenes, architectural and landscape features, as well as floral designs along with vivid colours brought out a new art form to be admired. Designs of repeating patterns of vases and husks or simplified Chinese birds and foliage became available. By the period of the Regency, bold stripes became fashionable.[xiv] The ambience or ‘feel’ of a room could be changed relatively easily and cheaply with wallpaper.
By the 19th century wallpaper production was mechanised on continuous rolls of paper flowing through printing machines with artificial dyes. Whilst this had appeal to the general population, there were specialist designers for the elite country house. Medieval themes were popular for Gothic revival houses. The Arts & Crafts designers like William Morris produced their own exclusive designs.[xv]
There are a number of key innovations that progressed the evolution of the English country house. Windows, staircases and wallpaper developed in line with the changing needs and tastes of successive generations. Windows enabled light but also the elaboration of shape and tracery. A classical education could be displayed through the application of Venetian or Diocletian windows. The Gothic revival created decorative tracery. With staircases, houses could be expanded upwards to provide a progression of splendour and privacy for the elite and separate off services and servant access. Wallpaper enabled luxurious decoration to express uniqueness in each room of the house, demonstrating the learning, taste and wealth of the owner.
[i] Simon Thurley, The Building of England (London: William Collins, 2013) p. 232.
[ii] Andrew Foyle and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: North and Bristol (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 679.
[iii] Linda Hall, Period House Fixtures & Fittings: 1300-1900 (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2005; repr. 2015) pp. 85-86.
[v] ‘History of the Sash Window’, Pembroke & Nash.
[vi] Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1978) p. 128.
[vii] Girouard, p. 40.
[viii] Girouard, p.52-3.
[ix] Trevor Yorke, Tracing the History of Houses (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2011) p. 80.
[x] Thurley, p. 319.
[xi] ‘A brief history of wall paper’, Victorian & Albert Museum < https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/a-brief-history-of-wallpaper> [accessed: 1 April 2020].
[xii] ‘A brief history of wall paper’, Victorian & Albert Museum.
[xiii] ‘A brief history of wall paper’, Victorian & Albert Museum.
[xiv] Trevor Yorke, Georgian and Regency Houses Explained (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2007; repr. 2013) p. 96.
[xv] Trevor Yorke, The Victorian House Explained (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2005; repr. 2014), pp. 85-6.
‘A brief history of wall paper’, Victorian & Albert Museum < https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/a-brief-history-of-wallpaper> [accessed: 1 April 2020]
Foyle, Andrew and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: North and Bristol (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011)
Girouard, Mark, Life in the English Country House (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1978)
Hall, Linda, Period House Fixtures & Fittings: 1300-1900 (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2005; repr. 2015)
‘History of the Sash Window’, Pembroke & Nash <https://pembrokenash.co.uk/history-sash-window/> [accessed: 1 April 2020]
Yorke, Trevor, Georgian and Regency Houses Explained (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2007; repr. 2013)
Yorke, Trevor, The Victorian House Explained (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2005; repr. 2014)
Yorke, Trevor Tracing the History of Houses (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2011)
Thurley, Simon, The Building of England (London: William Collins, 2013)