The history of the country house drawing room

The drawing room has played a central role in the history of the English country house, says Jeremy Musson.

Every Tuesday, we take a look through the Country Life architecture archive. Today, it’s a piece written by our former architecture editor Jeremy Musson, originally published in 2014.

Touring a grand English country house today, it is immediately obvious that the drawing room was historically a crucial space for social interaction and display. This is reflected in the world of fiction. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for instance, the heroine, Lizzie Bennet, descends late in the evening to find her hosts playing cards in the drawing room at Netherfield Park. Her decision to read rather than join them earns the astonishment of one in the company, Mr Hurst, and the admiration of another, Mr Darcy.

It also prompts her hostess, Miss Bingley, to begin a commentary on the necessary accomplishments of a lady: ‘A thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages.’ These were just the kind of accomplishments for which the drawing room had become the well-finished and well-furnished stage.

By the time Austen was writing, the drawing room of a country house was often symmetrically paired with the dining room to either side of a hall. This arrangement, besides establishing the familiar symmetry of neo-Classical domestic planning, physically expressed the two poles around which the social life of a house revolved: the dining room was dedicated to formal meals and the drawing room was for receiving visitors, entertainment and the service of tea and coffee following a meal.

Both were functional spaces, centred on a substantial fireplace to provide warmth, with tall windows for daylight and fine prospects. But drawing rooms received the best of the fine art, furniture, textiles and upholstery. This display of magnificence is exemplified by surviving late-18th-century examples such as Robert Adam’s drawing room at Newby Hall, fitted with Boucher-designed Gobelins tapestries and the 19th-century drawing room at Alnwick Castle.

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Alnwick Castle. ©Paul Barker/Country Life

Importantly, by this date, the dining room was perceived as an especially male province and the drawing room as a female one this was the guiding rule for social usage and for fine decoration in the English country house well into the 20th century. Adam offered an explanation for this division in the 1770s: ‘To understand thoroughly the art of living, it is necessary to have passed some time amongst the French… Their eating rooms seldom or never constitute a piece in their great apartments, but lie out of the suite, and in fitting them up, little attention is paid to beauty or decoration. The reason for this is obvious: the French meet there only at meals, when they trust to the display of the table for show and magnificence.’

Adam argued: ‘It is not so with us. Accustomed by habit, or induced by the nature of our climate, we indulge more largely in the enjoyment of the bottle. Every person of rank here is either a member of legislation, or entitled by his condition to take part in the political arrangements of his country… these circumstances lead men to live more with one another, and more detached from the society of the ladies.’

A crucial social expression of this separation of the sexes was the ritual retirement of women from the table after dinner. By convention, they withdrew to the drawing room. It is thought this custom arose from a mutual convenience: it gave the ladies time to brew tea and the men an interval to drink freely and discuss politics.

The practice of ladies withdrawing can occasionally be shown to have shaped a house’s design. During the construction of Hagley Hall, Worcestershire, for example, Lord Lyttelton advised his architect that ‘Lady Lyttelton wishes for a room of separation between the eating room and the drawing room, to hinder the ladies from the noise and talk of the men when left to their bottle, which must sometimes happen, even at Hagley.’

Such use persisted right through the 19th century, as is revealed by the letters of a young American, Anna Maria Fey, on visiting Oakly Park, Shropshire, in 1852. Her detailed and occasionally gushing account is alive with the well-established social distinctions and heirarchies of decoration and use
in a country house.

On arrival, she was greeted by ‘two footmen in red plush breeches and blue coats and silver buttons and the groom of the chambers, in black’. The guests were led through the staircase hall and into a ‘large and beautiful library… [where] an elegant circle of ladies and gentlemen rose to meet us’. The party then made a procession into the dining room in order of social precedence.

After the meal, at a discreet signal from their hostess, Lady Harriet Clive, the ladies withdrew, ‘coffee was brought in and some of the ladies sat down to their beautiful worsted work, while others disposed themselves around the room’. Watercolours of Italy and lithographs of Middle Eastern subjects were discussed by the ladies.

When the gentlemen joined the ladies, Lady Harriet entertained them with pieces on the piano and other ladies with songs, sometimes with accompaniment from the men. The awkward moment when, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr Bennet observes to his daughter Mary, ‘That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit’ suggests all too painfully the acute sensitivities involved in these displays.

The hall leading to the drawing room at Voewood. ©June Buck/Country Life

The hall leading to the drawing room at Voewood. ©June Buck/Country Life

The persistence of the habit of ladies withdrawing through the 19th century was much discussed by authors on architecture as well as etiquette. In House Architecture (1880), the architect J. J. Stevenson commented on the drawing room’s historic use as a retiring room for ladies. He pointedly added: ‘With us this is still its use, in accordance with our custom, which Continental nations consider barbarous.’

But it was more than this. As well as being the ladies’ sitting room and a reception room for callers, Stevenson thought it ‘takes the position of the hall of old houses as the place for evening entertainments, for dancing, music and receptions’. The proliferation of books used for singing, piano or reading and recital in the late 19th century and early 20th century illustrates this vividly, usually under titles such as Drama for the Drawing Room (1885).

It was also the growing popularity of the drawing room in houses of the middle classes in the age of Victorian affluence that encouraged a flood of books of advice on decoration and furnishing interiors, including those devoted to the decoration of the drawing room alone. In Charles Eastlake’s Hints on Household Taste (1868), the author reserves some of his most damning remarks on the degeneracy of taste for contemporary drawing-room furniture, claiming that most of the sofas of his period would only be fit, in the 21st century, for a ‘Chamber of Horrors’ exhibition on bad taste.

Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire

Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire. The bow of the Regent’s Gallery makes a drawing room of the 17th-century gallery. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture

From about 1840, another ritual became associated with the draw-ing room. Afternoon tea evolved as a feature of English country-house life at about the same time as the main meal moved from the middle of the day to the evening, thanks in part to improved lighting. Tea, that essentially English happening, also continued the aristocratic tradition of coffee and tea being served by the mistress of the household herself, making it an occasion that could be enjoyed without the hovering presence of servants. In the early 20th century, afternoon tea at Goodwood House in Sussex was described as the ‘hour of flirtation’ by Lady Muriel Beckwith.

One particularily rose-tinted account is furnished by Lady Jeune, who wrote: ‘Who does not know the aspect of a magnificently furnished drawing room at 5.30, with its well-shrouded lamps and candles throwing a subdued light over a scheme as brilliant as any evening entertainment, where the brocade silks and lace and flashing jewels make all observers rub their eyes, and wonder whether this fairy scene is not a dream.’

The Edwardian drawing room retained its distinction as the realm of the lady of the house, continuing to fascinate or horrify Continental observers. In the early 1900s, German cultural attaché Hermann Muthesius was intrigued by the Englishman’s habit of referring to the drawing room as his wife’s room, seeming almost to be his wife’s guest in his own house.

In the mid 20th century, the tradition of the drawing room as the place of assembly before a dinner, and to which the ladies withdrew, continued without a tremor. Beverley Nichols recalled the 1930s dinners at Polesden Lacey, when Churchill would hold forth: ‘The ladies… knew with bitter experience that when Winston was at the dinner table with a good cigar in one hand and a better Armagnac in the other, the chances were that they would be left without cavaliers until nearly bedtime, and would have to spend the rest of the evening hissing at each other across acres of Aubusson.’

These social rituals remain in some country houses, but are not observed everywhere. The formality of the grand English drawing room has often been softened by use and many from that at Stanway, in Gloucestershire, a room dominated by Chippendale day beds, or the regency drawing room at Knepp Castle, with bold papers, full sofas and a roaring log fire express an English ideal of elegant comfort that is admired around the world.

A word of caution, however: according to one well-known biographer, the phrase a ‘drawing-room sort of chap’ is said to have denoted a man with an unhealthy distate for fieldsports.

Jeremy Musson talks more about the drawing room in his book, ‘The Drawing Room’ , published by Rizzoli. This article was originally published in Country Life October 1, 2014.

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