Saturday, May 7, 2016

Country house consumption
My next review in this spring's selection is a collection of essays about the country house, with a particular emphasis on owners as consumers. It makes for fascinating reading.

Jon Stobart and Andrew Hann (eds) The Country House: Material Culture and Consumption
Published by Historical England

This is an impressive collection of essays about country houses and the ways their inhabitants furnished them and bought the other things they needed and wanted. When I saw the book in Historic England’s catalogue it immediately caught my eye – as someone who has written about both architecture and the history of retailing it seemed ideal for me.* And I was gripped. It’s a large book, full of new research, and a short review like this can only skim its surface. I mention here just a selection of the essays, the ones that especially engaged me – but there is something in every essay (including the handful on overseas houses) to fascinate people who want to find out more about the lives of the owners of these great buildings.

One key question posed by the book is: Where did the owners of country houses buy their furnishings and consumer goods? Jane Whittle looks at one family – the Le Stranges of Hunstanton – and shows how their household accounts reveal sources in Norwich and Kings Lynn in addition to London, as well as revealing when the family began to acquire such fashionable goods as clocks, window curtains, and upholstered furniture. A piece by Jon Stobart and Mark Rothery studies two notable houses – Stoneleigh Abbey and Arbury Hall – and finds that one shouldn’t assume that luxuries come from London and everyday supplies from local sources. Some luxuries were bought locally, and the purchasers also exploited family links with other areas or bought things from towns, such as Bath, which they visited for pleasure.

Some of the most interesting essays cover the relationship between the country house and the cultures of Asia. Emile de Bruijn’s piece on the development of chinoiserie (associated variously with high-mindedness or whimsy, wise government or foolish princes, the feminine identity or effeminacy; Kate Smith’s piece on objects from India, showing the varied and accumulating meanings that these items acquired; Patricia F Ferguson’s study of the use of ‘Japan China’ among elite consumers are all absorbing examples.

Another group of essays explores the lives lived in country houses and in specific rooms. Susan Jenkins reveals the library at Kenwood as a room for entertainment as well as a space for books. Rosie MacArthur describes the changing uses of rooms at Kelmarsh Hall as the family moved in before the building was completed.

A final section includes studies of the ways country houses have been presented, including the evolving visitor experience at Stowe (Anna McEvoy) and the distinctive mix of magnificence and luxury, conspicuous consumption and art, wealth and power at Mentmore (Nicola Pickering). The last essay of all, by Karen Fielder, is particularly haunting. It concerns the traces of the lost country house of Coleshill, a place I’ve written about more than once on this blog. It shows how the presence of the house is still powerful in its absence, a moving reminder of the enduring fascination and power of country houses and the families that lived and entertained in them.

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* Potential readers should note that this is a scholarly book with a price-tag in line with the limited market that this sort of work commands.

† My two most recent posts on Coleshill are about: surviving gate piers (noting my indebtedness to Karen Fielder’s essay) and cottages built on the estate.

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