Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Big house, small details

Holkham: The social, architectural and landscape history of a great English country house by Christine Hiskey
Published by Unicorn Press

At the end of Holkham by Christine Hiskey are two photographs that for me sum up the turns and turns-about in the history of a great house. The pictures show the same room, the Statue Gallery, in the 1960s-70s and the 1980s. In the first picture, the room is dominated by a rather fussily patterned (but very beautiful) carpet and some chairs upholstered in bright red. In the second, the room has been restored to create the effect it originally made in the 18th century, with bare, polished floor boards and chairs covered in blue leather. The evidence for the blue leather on the chairs comes from the earliest inventories of the house and a fragment of leather caught under later upholstery.

This coming together of documentary and physical evidence, this fine detail, characterises Hiskey’s fascinating account of one of our greatest houses, Holkham Hall in Norfolk, from the time it was built in the 18th century under Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, to today, with the 8th Earl (another Thomas Coke) in residence. Holkham is vast, one of the biggest English houses, and very, very grand. It deserves a weighty history and this is what it has got – it’s impossible to do justice in a short review to the 500-odd pages of dense social, architectural, and landscape history in this book. There is so much here and all of it backed up with evidence from the estate’s extensive archives (the author is Holkham’s archivist) and with scores of fascinating illustrations. 

Holkham tells the long story of the construction of the vast house, a task that took the 1st Earl 25 years and was still not finished when he died (his widow saw the building to completion) and involved several different architects, whose contributions are difficult to disentangle. The building of the hall (including the sourcing of materials, the work of the small army of craftsmen, the changes in design) is given a substantial portion of the book. It describes how the family lived in the house, and how the various bits of this vast pile were used – not least in the early years when the Cokes were living in the completed portion of what was otherwise a half-finished building site. It explains the estate, and how the village, farms, and park related to the house. And it chronicles the changes made to the house over the years, often in detail as fine and evocative as that scrap of leather under the chair upholstery.

It covers of course, the Coke who’s best known to anyone with a smattering of English social history – Thomas William Coke or ‘Coke of Norfolk’, who is most famous as an agriculturalist, as well as being a prominent Whig Member of Parliament, staying in office until the 1832 Reform Act was passed. As well as all this he was well liked as a host, and the book quotes several accounts by his guests, who praise his generosity (he seems to have been one of those people who made everyone feel that they were the favourite guest); they also loved his library.

And so it goes on, through the Victorian period and 20th century, to our own. We learn a lot about the vast corps of servants, about relations with tenant farmers and villagers (mostly good – the Cokes were not ones for shifting people willy-nilly or knocking down cottages to create lakes). Then there are the dealings with local tradesmen. The Cokes bought a lot of their supplies locally, and Hiskey has lists of local businesses (apothecary, brush maker, saddler, basket maker, cooper, cabinet maker, druggist, draper, glover…) who sold goods to the house. Even that most important of symbols of country-house grandeur, the servants’ liveries, came not from London but from nearby Holt.

One could go on citing fascinating and animating details – from primitive electricity generators to provision for fire-fighting: before the house was finished, men had to put out a fire in the room of Matthew Brettingham, resident architect, and by 1750 the house had its own fire engine, with leather hoses. Hundreds of such details make up this absorbing account, a fitting tribute to one of the greatest English houses, its builders, households, and owners.


bazza said...

Isn't it strange that such a magnificent building has such a low profile (not literally of course!)? I was only vaguely aware of the name but it appears to be a superb example of great English country houses. I would suppose that Christine Hiskey's book can teach us a lot about country houses in general as well as Holkham in particular.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s ridiculous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Quite frankly, when I was in North Norfolk looking at round tower and other churches, I didn't have time even to look at Holkham Hall, but it still appears to be a focal point in that landscape. I would recommend a visit to the Burnhams, not just for the ecclesiastical specialities (which are first rate), but for some fine domestic buildings, though generally e.g. Letheringsett Hall, they weren't quite so good as at Holkham in interpreting the Classical manner. A very good area for seeing and interpreting buildings right through from Anglo-Saxon to the 20th century. Good budget accommodation too at The Melrose, Holway Road, Sheringham - if you'll forgive the advert!