Book Review: The Jacobean Country House

The Jacobean Country House, by Nicholas Cooper, (arium Press, £40).

Hurrah for Nicholas Cooper. Jacobean houses are not always to the modern taste. Every time one’s heart melts to the mellowness of a Chastleton or the mystery of a Godolphin, it comes up hard against the ostentation and over-complexity of a Blickling or an Aston Hall. In this sumptuous book, the latest in a series from the Country Life Picture Library, Dr Cooper rides to the rescue of these ugly sisters, and, lo, they turn out to be Cinderellas after all.

The England of James I was a place of new men, desperate to show off, frantic to build houses. It was a competitive age. Courtiers, lawyers and merchants wanted to flaunt the great fortunes that they had amassed. Their love of profusion led them towards elaborate ornament and fantastic skylines. They were so obsessed by their lineage that James I was moved to remark, after a genealogical lecture from Lord Lumley, that Lumley must have been Adam’s ‘ither name’.

But they were equally anxious to parade their erudition and cleverness. At Blickling, the plasterwork allegories in the ceiling seem to have been made almost deliberately obscure, with layers of meaning that, presumably, would have kept guests talking for hours. Tiers of allegorical sculpture at Burton Agnes make the hall a three-dimensional sermon. One glimpses the society that relished the verbal richness of Shakespeare’s late plays. Not that Dr Cooper paints the grandees who built these houses in more attractive colours than they deserve. They were a harsh lot, violent, vindictive and obsessed with status. But their ambition is jaw-dropping.

Periods of architecture do not change neatly with coronations. Robert Cecil’s Hatfield is a late flowering of the Elizabethan power house, the only innovation being the rather more mode-rate ration of windows. But the first quarter of the 17th century also saw a change of direction. As Inigo Jones blazed his meteoric course across the royal sky, a little of his stardust scattered onto the countryside. It seems almost certain that the pavil-ions at Stoke Bruern were by the master himself.

Other architects copied effects they had observed in London. Curly Flemish gables were replaced with ones topped by a pediment. Façades became calmer, more regular. Rows of columns came to be favoured over exuberant Classical confections.

At smaller houses, such as Charlton House, near Greenwich, built for Charles I’s tutor, the great hall no longer required to house an army of retainers shrinks to the proportions of an ordinary room. Houses come to be planned more compactly, two or three rooms deep. We are moving in the direction of Thorpe Hall and Coleshill, built in the middle years of the century. ‘The Lord is my House of Defence and my Castle’ is the biblical inscription that Sir Dudley Digges erected on Chilham Castle, a house which updates the castle form. It was not very long before houses would literally become castles. A cannon ball flying through a window at Aston Hall shattered the newel post.

The Stuart dream splendour at Wilton, romance at Bolsover was rudely broken by the Civil War, but what a lot of cloud-capp’d towers and gorgeous palaces it left behind.

Other books reviewed this week: Riding the Storm, by Timmy Murphy, and The Old Bird Remembers by Mavis Coulson and Sussex by Peter Brandon.