Best of Britain: The country house

Best of British? No issue on this theme-in Country Life of all magazines- would be complete without celebrating that enduring glory of this nation’s cultural heritage: the country house. It is an intensely British genre, shaped by distinctive features of our history, civilization and topography. It emerged in the Middle Ages and flourished through centuries of elegance and high-mindedness, before achieving what contemporaries of Henry James believed was the ultimate expression of the arts of life in about 1900. Two World Wars, taxation, oil crises and adverse political winds might have done for it in the 20th century, but the roots went too deep. Instead, the country house has burst into the 21st century in a state of self-renewing vigour, as much an ideal of civilised existence as ever.

The Arcadia of the park, beneath whose noble trees it may be possible to glimpse a herd of deer; the incidental structures – lodge buildings, follies – that serve as architectural hors d’oeuvres before the banquet of the house itself can be approached; the collections of all kinds that line the walls and fill the cabinets of the rooms; the pleasure grounds and gardens that have brought the art of horticulture to perfection; the stables, kennels and model farms that speak of the enjoyment that our mild climate allows out of doors… The combination is, if not unique to Britain, brought to its highest state of elaboration here.

We have kept faith with the values that it represents more tenaciously than Continental neighbours, apt to favour the buzz of city streets over the drone of bumblebees through herbaceous borders.

Country houses speak of a sense of belonging. Like William Morris’s Kelmscott, they grew ‘up out of the soil and the lives of them who lived on it’. Britain’s intimate, intricate landscape, whose complex geology rarely stays the same for many miles, is reflected in its architecture, not least that of the country house. There is an extraordinary diversity of form, from the wobbly timber-framing of the Welsh Marches to the seemingly indestructible granite of Cornwall and Aberdeenshire. The ducal splendours of Chatsworth and Blenheim do not eclipse the romance and antiquity of Canons Ashby or Ightham Mote.

All evoke, however, as a common theme, the attachment of families to places. Owners become almost as hefted to the parcels of land in their ownership as the buildings that stand on them. Historically, the land helped shape their family destiny, a seam of coal bringing prosperity to the table or poor soil encouraging sons to find their fortune in other fields.

The country house is also a symbol of the continuity that characterizes this nation. We are, famously, lovers of tradition, happy that a monarch should reign over us as the personification of our respect for established forms. Since the 17th century, Britain has avoided the violent revolutions that have shaken the political fabric of other countries in Europe. Nor has our soil been the battleground for foreign armies, burning and looting as they went.

It’s conventional to present the country house as a creation of the increasingly settled and centralized Tudor state in the 16th century, but its origins are to be found even earlier.

Not only did castles develop into splendidly appointed residences, but subsidiary manor houses and hunting lodges were also created for pleasure and the chase. The privacy and domestic comfort of lodges are suggested by their playful names: John of Gaunt’s Bird’s Nest outside Leicester or the Earl of Warwick’s Goodrest near Warwick.

Indeed, the setting of castles and manors was landscaped with pools, ponds and vistas much in the manner of later parks. Under Henry VIII, what was bad for the Church was good for the country house. The Reformation released enormous resources of land and money. These were greedily snapped up by royal servants and favourites.

There followed a building boom of great country residences in the late 16th century, many of them cannibalizing the former property and buildings of monasteries. The English Civil War, completed by the Glorious Revolution, launched an ascendancy of the Whig landowners, who expressed their power and riches by rebuilding their country houses on a palatial scale. These great dwellings, centres of political as well as economic power, did not stand alone. The countryside around them was domesticated.

One only has to open a novel by Jane Austen to see the social web that existed between the occupants of palace, parsonage and cottage ornée. Not all neighbours were fascinating, but at least the denizens of the British countryside were spared the dreadful longueurs suffered by the gentry in Russia. Rural Britain was not as daunting to the newcomer as the wildernesses of the USA. Its population did not feel the need to haunt the Court in the hope of favours, as they might have done in France.

The sons of the country house traveled on the Grand Tour, a sometimes debauched extended gap year on which they, nevertheless, picked up some knowledge of Antiquity and notions of taste. On coming home, they filled their drawing rooms and sculpture galleries with the Old Masters and Classical marbles that they had acquiredin Italy.

Many of them – the Warwick Vase, Canova’s The Three Graces – are still in this country, if not the country houses for which they were purchased. With them came pietra dura tables and ingenious cabinets, supplemented by the Italianate furniture of designers such as William Kent. These formed the basis of collections that grew increasingly sumptuous and exotic during the Regency, fed by the disgorging of rich furniture from aristocratic residences in France during the French Revolution.

The fortunes of sugar planters and nabobs were matched, in the Victorian period, by those of industrialists. Knowing quality when they saw it, they followed the example of the aristocracy by setting themselves up in the country-a habit that continued long after the value of land as a profitable investment had declined. The collecting continued: Bibles at Elton, stuffed animals at Quex Park, Samurai armour at Snowshill, Egyptian artifacts at Highclere Castle, geological specimens (as well as Duchess May’s parasols) at Floors Castle.

Thirty years ago, America was dazzled by ‘The Treasure Houses of Britain’, an exhibition that brought together a sample of the wonders to be found in British country houses, still in private hands. Riches were piled on riches-princely armours, sumptuous gold plate, ingenious miniatures, intricate embroideries, glamorous furniture, delicate porcelain, Antiquities,

Old Masters, Greek vases, a Napoleonic tricolour and, from the Victorian period, a silver-and-enamel cruet, in the form of a medieval villein lifting a heavy burden. No other nation in the world could have furnished the material for such a show from comparable resources.

Not only do many country houses survive in Britain, but they can often boast contents enriched over many generations. War, wealth taxes and the Code Napoléon have stripped the houses of other countries in Europe -where such houses exist. This is not only a matter of economics or even luck. The British have shown themselves to be dedicated to the country house as a way of life, to which families have clung in the face, sometimes, of tumult and adversity.

French owners may, in extremis, have chosen to sacrifice their château in order to keep the hôtel particulier in Paris, but their British counterparts made the opposite decision. One after another, the great aristocratic palaces of London were demolished, as families focused their domestic resources on their country houses.

Not all houses continued in private ownership and many were demolished in the crisis for the landed interest that followed the two World Wars. But the sense of belonging proved tenacious. Houses that were let for institutional use have been recolonised by their families.

New houses on more convenient plans have been built to replace the monsters that ceased to serve the uses of modern life. Anyone who lived through the dismal and despairing 1970s must look at the country house, mouth agape with wonder: along with the internet, the Dyson vacuum cleaner and other British inventions, it is one of the success stories of the age.

Our greatest country houses

Castle Howard, North Yorkshire

Conceived as a means of boosting the political career of the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, Castle Howard was an extraordinary architectural gamble. At the time of its completion in the 1710s, the scale of Vanbrugh’s crowning dome was unprecedented in domestic British architecture

Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire

Established in the immediate aftermath of the Norman conquest in 1066, this castle has enjoyed unbroken ownership by one family -the Berkeleys-since the late 12th century. It has collections and architecture that answer this rich history and enjoys the doubtful privilege of being the place of Edward II’s murder

Aston Hall, Birmingham

In June 1858, Queen Victoria presided over the opening of Aston Hall, purchased the previous year by a specially formed company.

This was the first time that a British country house was acquired by a local authority and consciously preserved as a public amenity, the house as a museum and the gardens as a place of recreation

Invercauld Castle, Aberdeenshire

In the 1870s, the medieval house of Invercauld was remodelled by the 13th Laird of Invercauld and his architect, John Thomas Wimperis. To the popular imagination, buildings of this kind remain emblematic of Scotland and its nationhood. The intended use of the building as a summer shooting lodge and its medievalising style was partly inspired by the example at nearby Balmoral

Downley, Hampshire

A modern country house in a magical setting. Such buildings demonstrate that the tradition of new country houses in Britain remains as strong as ever in the 21st century

Boughton House, Northamptonshire

A Tudor house remodelled in the 1690s for a former ambassador to the Court of Louis XIV, Boughton House is a French-inspired country house in an unmistakably English idiom. The historic formal landscape around the house has recently been delightfully augmented with the Orpheus landform

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