400 Years of the British Country House

by | Spotlight

In this film from Victoria and Albert Museum we’ll be looking at the development of British country house over 400 years since the time of Henry VIII. Our journey will show how such houses changed dramatically over the years in response to the social, economic and even political needs of the families that lived in them.

For most of this period, owning land in the country meant far more than it does today. It secured your position in society. It meant money from rents and the political support of your neighbours and tenants.

At the centre of a great estate stood the country house. It was used to impress and entertain influential visitors. In today’s terms, it was at least as expensive and exclusive as owning a private jet.

The journey starts here at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk, built in the reign of Henry VIII. Hengrave Hall was built by one of the richest men in London – Thomas Kytson. Hengrave was Kytson’s main country residence. It is laid out around the courtyard, typical of the Tudor period. Unlike most Tudor houses where rooms opened off one another, Hengrave has corridors around the courtyard providing access to the rooms on each floor. Hengrave Hall was not a single family home, but was built for an extended household that included relatives as well as servants.

This kind of Tudor house had only one large room, the Great Hall. This was the heart of the house. The household met and ate here, but the Hall was chiefly designed as an impressive space in which to receive and entertain visitors. Kytson, his family and honoured guests sat at the top table, basking in the light of this spectacular bay window, in itself a major status symbol.

But if Kytson could display his wealth through glass, so could others. Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire is one of the finest surviving Elizabethan houses. Its masses of glass and huge height were extraordinary for the period. It was built about 70 years after Hengrave by the celebrated Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury. This house is her vision and is signed with her initials, Elizabeth Shrewsbury, all along the top.

By the 1590s the inside of a great house was as grand as its outside. At Hardwick there is still a great hall, but it functioned mainly as an imposing entrance. Upstairs there are impressive and specialised public rooms, what we now call state rooms. Bess lived on the first floor, but the state rooms were on the second. Guests were brought up this beautiful stone staircase to the magnificent High Great Chamber. This was the ceremonial centre of the house where Bess received them. The chamber, at least three times the size of the Great Hall at Hengrave, is lavishly furnished with a set of Brussels tapestries. Bess had a passion for textiles and built up a vast collection – it cost even more than the house itself.

Next to the High Great Chamber is this immense Long Gallery, running the whole width of the house. This was a new kind of room. Bess and her guests came here for exercise, but it was also another opportunity to impress. Bess used it to show portraits which displayed her ancestry and political connections.

Surprisingly, there are even rooms on the roof. It’s hard to believe that this was once a banqueting room in which a desert of delicacies would have been served. From here Bess and her guests could enjoy the view of the deer park and all that she owned.

100 years later we have arrived in another world. The unstructured, natural surroundings of Hardwick are very different from the gardens here at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. This was the Baroque period when gardens were changing on a grand scale. Their design was now being considered alongside the house. The formal, straight canals and avenues of French garden design were being introduced all over Britain. Here at Chatsworth there had been many changes, but the spectacular Baroque water features still remain. Water was everywhere – water gods, trick fountains like the Willow Tree and a monumental cascade which was one of the grandest in the country. However, the house itself was always the main focus of the garden and from all points of view your eye was led back to it.

To explore the inside of a Baroque house we’ve travelled 100 miles to Beningbrough Hall near York. Like the gardens at Chatsworth, the layout of this Baroque house was dominated by straight lines and symmetry. During the Baroque period specialised rooms were grouped together into sets called apartments. These were formal rooms occupied by important guests or the owners of the house and they worked like a home within a home. On the ground floor at Beninbrough there are two apartments. When an important guest stayed in the apartment, people could come to pay their respects. How far they were allowed into the apartment depended on their social status and their relationship with the guest, so most people never got beyond this large reception room. If you were important you were allowed an audience here in the bed chamber. Only a select few got as far as the dressing room, but you were privileged indeed if you got as far as the closet. This was the smallest room of the apartment where the most confidential matters could be discussed.

All the doors are arranged in a straight line. This kind of linear arrangement was called an ‘enfilade’. It echoes the straight garden vistas of the kind we’ve seen at Chatsworth. Here the enfilade runs the whole width of the house, joining the rooms of both apartments.

In 250 years we’ve come from Hengrave, with only one major room through the development of specialised rooms at Hardwick, to the formation of the apartment at Beningbrough. But here at Kedleston Hall near Derby the whole centre of the house was built purely for the entertainment of visitors. The house was designed by the famous architect, Robert Adam and his elegant, decorative style can be seen throughout.

The family’s private rooms and service areas are separated into two symmetrical wings at the ends of curved corridors, but the main floor of the central block was conceived as a circuit of linked public rooms designed for grand social occasions. Robert Adam took the most impressive elements of ancient Roman and Greek design and translated them into a modern English setting. All these beautiful rooms, filled with art collections, were made simply for display. But this display of wealth wasn’t limited to the house. The whole of Kedleston village was moved and replaced with this artificial lake simply to improve the view. Some 50 years later everything changed as the Regency style brought with it a complete disregard for anything uniform.

Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire is a Regency palace masquerading as a castle. It was built by the 5th Duke and Duchess of Rutland on the site of an ancient fortress. Like Kedleston, Belvoir had many rooms for entertainment, but here they are in contrasting styles. From this Gothic hallway we can pass into a Roman-style dining room or on the opposite side to a Rococo saloon. Each room is decorated in a style suited to its purpose.

At Kedleston paintings had been part of the decoration. Here at Belvoir there’s a picture gallery, looking very much like an art gallery today. Pictures were hung to be seen and appreciated, but this was also an important social space. However, the biggest public room is this splendid Regent’s Gallery. It is opulently furnished in a mixture of styles that sums up the Regency period.

70 years after Belvoir a new type of country house had emerged. The coming of the railways made it possible for the wealthy city-dwelling middle classes to build houses in the country. But what did they build?

Inspired by an ancient farmhouse, our last house is Standen in West Sussex. It was built by James Beale, a successful London solicitor. Standen was simply a weekend and summer retreat, not an expression of vast landed wealth and power. It is built in an informal mix of styles and materials, almost making it seem as if it had grown gradually over the centuries. The inside feels like this too. The different styles in each room blend into an overall effect of comfort and domesticity. The furniture includes everything from genuine antiques to reproductions. The interiors relied for decoration on Morris wallpapers and textiles. Some of the furniture was also designed and supplied by Morris & Company. But the appearance of age was deceptive. For Standen, like the other houses we have seen, was built with all the latest conveniences. There was an extensive and well equipped service wing, garaging for cars and even electric light. At Standen there are no more state rooms, all the rooms were used both by the family and their guests when they came to stay. Beale’s wife, Margaret, planted the informally designed garden. It compliments the house and harmonises perfectly with the surrounding countryside. Unlike the houses we have seen before, land was not the driving force behind Standen. It was a house in the country rather than a traditional British country house.

from Victoria and Albert Museum

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