Country house

From Academic Kids

In Britain and Ireland, the term country house generally refers to a large house which was built on an agricultural estate as the private residence of the landowner. The vast majority of country houses in Britain and Ireland were built before 1914.

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Defining the country house

Subject to qualifications which are discussed below, a country house will once have been the centrepiece of an agricultural estate large enough to provide the landowner with sufficient income to be accepted as a member of either the aristocracy or the gentry. In the 19th century and earlier this generally required an estate of at least a thousand acres (4 km²) of land. A few landowners owned more than a hundred times this minimum, and this inequality within the ruling class is reflected in the range of country houses which were built.

A country house may be built in any architectural style. It will probably have at least 25 rooms and at least 8,000 square feet (740 m²) of floor space, including service rooms. There are many designations which are used by a large number of houses, such as "house", "hall", "castle", "park", "palace", "court", "abbey", "priory", or "grange", and this often reveals something about its history, especially if it originated before 1800. On the other hand, the name may have been chosen on the whim of the owner, especially if the house was built after 1800. For example, many country houses which are designated "castle" never had any military purpose.

Most country houses have large grounds comprised of a garden in the immediate vicinity of the house, and a larger park beyond the garden which is grazed by animals, but also has aesthetic and recreational purposes. Many of the finest gardens in Britain are country house gardens.

A country house is typically several hundred metres from any other houses, but it may be close to the centre of a village or even close to the centre of a small town. (The larger the settlement the larger the house will need to be to retain its status as a "country house"—Alnwick Castle is an example of a very large house which is in a town, but is generally perceived to be a country house.)

On the other hand, some large houses in Britain that were built in rural locations are now surrounded by suburban sprawl. However, these may still be referred to as country houses in some contexts, especially by architectural historians. Syon Park in the suburbs of London is an example of this.

In Britain a "country house" is not simply a house in a rural location. The term is generally only applied to houses which are large enough to be regarded as mansions. There are several types of smaller houses which are common in the British countryside, but are not "country houses" in the sense in which the term is generally used, these include farmhouses, cottages, rectories, oast houses and barn conversions; anyone who owns one of these and refers to it as their "country house" is likely to be considered extremely pretentious by most people in Britain. (Current usage errs towards the opposite tendency of referring to medium-sized homes in the country as "cottages", especially if they are "second homes".)

The term stately home is closely related to "country house", but it does not have quite the same meaning. "Country house" is the term usually preferred by architectural historians and by the owners of the houses. On the other hand, the term "stately home" is frequently used in the media, by tourist operators and members of the public. When someone refers to a "stately home", they are probably thinking of one of the largest and grandest ten per cent of country houses, especially those which are open to the public. The usage of the term "stately home" is discussed in more detail in a separate article. This article will use the term "country house".

Who built the houses, and why

The architectural historian Mark Girouard argues in Life in the English Country House, that country houses were essentially "power houses" built to enhance the ability of the owners to influence local and national politics. Some of the great houses, such as Kedleston Hall and Holkham Hall, were certainly built to impress and to dominate the landscape. It should also be noted that not all country house builders had an interest in politics, even in an informal sense. Nevertheless, country houses often served as meeting places for the ruling class to discuss, for example, election campaigns. Also, many country house owners and members of their families served as Lord Lieutenants and Justices of the Peace, and local courts were still sometimes held in country houses well into the 19th century; this practice was a holdover from the Medieval manor courts. Country-house-owning members of the aristocracy and gentry continued, in diminishing degrees, to hold high office into the twentieth century. Lord Carrington was perhaps the last of this breed.

In the 19th Century, the political power of the landowning class began its slow decline with the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the new class of industrialists slowly began, in many cases, to eclipse the wealth of the aristocracy and gentry. Many of these men bought or built new country houses, and the previously vital link to land ownership was slowly eroded. Some late 19th- and early 20th-century houses, such as Cragside, were never supported by an agricultural estate.

The architectural history of the country house

The headings in this section are merely intended to provide a rough indication of the main periods in the architectural history of the country house: styles did not suddenly come and go in specific years, and many individual houses evolved slowly over several centuries.

The first country houses: before 1500

Baddesley Clinton

The Tudor and Jacobean periods:1500–1630

The dissolution of the monasteries

Many country houses in Britain were converted from ecclesiastical properties of the great abbeys and priories following the dissolution of the monasteries by the Henry VIII.

Further information:

Prodigy houses

The formal house:1630–1720

First Palladian period

Further information:-

Inigo Jones Wilton House

The Baroque country house

The baroque style arrived in England circa 1680. While Sir Christopher Wren and his contemporaries were influenced by baroque architecture from Europe, the first baroque house in England was Chatsworth House, designed by Richard Talman for the Duke of Devonshire, built during the 1690s. The style was quickly developed by such architects as Sir John Vanbrugh into what became known as English or Queen Anne baroque. The best known baroque house in England is probably Blenheim Palace, completed in the early 1720s. However, the truest example of baroque in England is Vanbrugh's first notable house, Castle Howard, begun in 1699. Baroque never became truly popular in England and by the mid 1720s had been almost completely superseded by the Palladian revival movement.

Other English baroque houses include:-

It should be noted that throughout this period, many smaller country houses continued to be built in semi-vernacular styles with only minimal baroque influence.

The classical ideal: 1730–1790

The 18th century was the period when academic interest in architecture was at its peak among the British ruling class. The baroque style dominated the first twenty years of the century, but other major movements soon followed.

The Palladian country house (2nd)

Further information:-

The Neoclassical country house

Further information:-

The Gothic Revival and 19th-century eclecticism

Twentieth century postscript

Life in the country house

Social structures

The country house was the centre of its own world, providing employment to literally hundreds of people in the vicinity of its estate. In previous eras, when state benefits were unheard of, those working on an estate were among the most fortunate, receiving secured employment and rent free accommodation. At the summit of these fortunate people were the indoor staff of the country house. Until the 20th century, unlike many of their contemporaries, they slept in proper beds, wore well-made, adequate clothes, received three proper meals a day and a small wage. In an era when many still died for lack of medicine or from malnutrition, the long working hours were a small price to pay. The movie Gosford Park accurately recreated the stratified and repressed but secure atmosphere of the English country house just surviving into the age of the automobile.

Many aristocrats owned more than one country house and would visit each according to the season (grouse shooting in Scotland, and pheasant shooting and fox hunting in England). The Earl of Rosebery, for instance, had Dalmeny in Scotland, Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire and another near Epsom just for the racing season.

Old and new money

Changes in the country house lifestyle since 1830

In 1830 the first passenger railway in England was opened, and within twenty years, most Britons had access to passenger train service. This was an important event in the history of the country house because travelling times within Britain began to fall sharply. The introduction of the motor car in the 20th century would accelerate this trend.

The country house served as a wonderful place for relaxing, hunting, and running the country with one's equals at the end of the week. So necessary was the country house deemed to be, that following the election of the first Labour Government in 1921, Lord Lee of Farham donated his country house Chequers to the nation for the use of a Prime Minister who might not possess one of his own. Chequers still fulfils that need today as do both Chevening House and Dorneywood country houses, donated for sole use of high ranking ministers of the crown.

The decline of the country house

The decline of the English country house began during the Agricultural Depression of the 1870s and was dramatically accelerated by World War I. The huge staff required to maintain them had either left to fight and never return, departed to work in the munitions factories, or to fulfil the void left by the fighting men in other work places. On the cessation of war, of those who returned, many left the countryside for better paid jobs in towns. The final blow for many country houses came following World War II, when many houses which had been requisitioned by the government for use as barracks, hospitals and the like were returned to the owners in poor repair. Many of whom having lost their heirs, if not in the immediately preceding war, then in World War I, were now paying far higher rates of tax, and agricultural incomes from the accompanying estates had dropped; thus, the solution appeared to be to demolish the house and sell its stone, fireplaces, and panelling. And this is exactly what happened to many of Britain's finest houses.

The majority have fallen to the deprivations of modern life and become schools, hospitals, and prisons. Reduced from being 'Stately Homes', they are neither stately nor homes. Many, for example Cliveden and Hartwell House, have become luxury hotels, and many more, less luxurious hotels. These are among the fortunate few. In Britain during the 1950s and early 1960s thousands of country houses were demolished.

The country house in recent years

At some point in recent decades—perhaps after the exhibition, The Destruction of the Country House, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974, or after the election of the Thatcher government in 1979 which led to reductions in taxes on the rich—the precipitous decline of the British country house, which many people, both sympathetic and hostile, had assumed would continue until there were very few survivors, none of them occupied as private residences, levelled off, and arguably it has now been reversed. The role of the country house has continued to evolve, however, and the link between country houses and agriculture, the activity that gave birth to them, grows less significant each year.

Today in Britain, country houses are in a variety of ownerships and serve a variety of functions. Many, such as Montacute House, West Wycombe Park, and Lyme Park, are owned by public bodies including the National Trust and are open to the public as museums as part of the "Stately home industry". Some, including Wilton House and Chatsworth House and many smaller houses such as Pencarrow in Cornwall and Rousham House in Oxfordshire, are still owned by the families who built them, retain their treasures and are open during summer months to the public. A large number are still owned by an individual and are not open to the public, but some of these have been separated from their agricultural estates, and few houses of the highest architectural or historic importance fall into this category. Compton Wynyates and Badminton House are exceptions. Easton Neston in Northamptonshire, one of the last of the architecturally important country houses never to have been opened to public viewing, has just (2004) been offered for sale by Lord Hesketh.

Today owning a 'Country House' can be a mixed blessing. Usually listed as a building of historic interest, they can only be maintained under Government supervision, often interpreted by the owners as interference as it is usually the most costly method that the Government inspectors insist upon. This system does, however, ensure that all work is correctly and authentically done; the negative side is that many owners cannot afford the work, so a roof remains leaking for the sake of a cheap roof tile.

For all the hardships of owning a country house, many people still aspire to own one. Those that do often labour night and day to retain the houses they feel privileged to have inherited.

Outside England

Welsh country houses were perhaps only different from their English counterparts in minor ways, but Scottish, Irish, and Continental European country houses differed more substantially.

The Scottish country house

The Irish country house

Beyond the British Isles

While almost all European countries possessed wealthy and powerful, landowning elites in past centuries, and probably all of them contain large houses located in the country, the social and architectural history of landowners' houses in these countries was generally very different from what happened in Britain and Ireland.

Houses with many similarities to the British country house can also be found outside Europe.

See also

External links


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