Ever since Mark Girouard published Life in the English Country House in 1978, it has been axiomatic that the best art and architecture books came from Yale University Press (including, I blush to say it, mine). The genius to come up with the relative novelty of cheap color printing with scholarly texts, and to publish sumptuous academic books on a shoestring, was John Nicoll, in the London office, whose example was followed by his successor Gillian Malpas. So the news that Malpas and her senior editor Sally Salvesen have been made redundant could mark the end of an era. Now that all forms of print on paper are in existential crisis, readers of Yale’s distinguished list can only hope that Patricia McCarthy’s Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland doesn’t represent a swan song. If such it proves, however, it is worthy of the role. This handsome and erudite book is a reminder of how much pleasure Yale has given over the past four decades—and what a contribution it has made, in particular, to the understanding of the country house.
How agreeable life could be for those lucky enough to be among the elect.
The book appears at a good moment for its subject. Several country-house restorations, some princely, have been accomplished in Ireland recently, detailed on the website www.theirishaesthete.com. Ballyfin, for example, has been returned to a state of splendor that would have amazed students of the Irish scene at almost any time since the First World War; home to the Anglo-Irish elite and often burnt during the Troubles, their best hope was to keep a low profile. Families such as the Bessboroughs moved away, taking their contents with them; those who hung on were often more passionate about hunting than mending roofs. The animosity between ruler and ruled dates at least to the Elizabethan period and was reflected in the seats of the aristocracy. In England, the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1485 meant that potentates no longer had to live in castles (although they sometimes preserved chivalric features for reasons of romance). In Ireland, landowners were not sufficiently confident of the local population to abandon defensible tower houses, the most common building type for large country dwellings until 1700. What a relief it must have been when, in the Georgian period, they could tear down their bawns, or defensive walls, along with the axial Baroque avenues that were replaced by landscape parks. The new country houses—remodeled, if not built from scratch—were only for the ruling class to enjoy, but how agreeable life could be, according to this book, for those lucky enough to be among the elect.
Irish tastes were not quite those of England. One obvious difference would have struck an English visitor as soon as the house came in view: no portico. Porticos were an illiteracy (early proponents assumed that they had been attached to dwellings, as well as temples, in the Ancient world; this was not the case) that became de rigueur to the Palladian followers of Lord Burlington. The Irish, however, did not like them. This could have been because, invented beneath the baking sun of Greece, they were unsuited to a rainy climate, the stones beneath them growing slippery mold through lack of light. Front doors also seem to have been eschewed; for ordinary purposes, the family used a door convenient for the stables, where carriages might shelter from the wet. This was the equivalent of entering a modern house from the garage. Even beneath umbrellas—and a man carrying one was thought effeminate—it would have been a daunting task to climb a long flight of external steps in the rain, particularly, as the female author observes sympathetically, for ladies in long dresses. John Nash’s Killymoon Castle of 1801–03, which introduced the first porte-cochère into Ireland, providing a covered space where carriages could stop next to the front door, was a revelation. If it took light away from the house, well, that only added to the haunting neo-Gothic mood (“gloomth,” as Horace Walpole would have called it).
Understandably, damp and cold remained preoccupations inside the house. As well as laying in epic quantities of soap and candles, the owner might have his room prepared for his arrival by ordering the housekeeper to sleep in it for the previous week. In the absence of electric blankets, this was one way to air the bed. In the 1760s, Lady Emily Kildare found the stairs at Carton “running with wet” and seems to have withdrawn into special winter quarters: “You’ll say, was the Print Room cold? No, but the way to it from the apartments we are in at present perishingly so.” Their unshakable chill must have been one reason that entrance halls, with their stone floors and massive decoration, were little used.
Inner warmth could be generated around the dining table, particularly by the men. The Irish followed the English custom—so distasteful to the French—of sending the ladies to the drawing room after dinner. As a poem of 1805 describes it:
So madam conceives it high time to retire
And the ladies encircle the Drawingroom fire
The dress of her neighbour each handles and praises
Examines her trinkets, gown, ribbons and laces.
The Scottish architect Robert Adam explained this on the grounds that, in Britain, country-house owners ran the country and, as well as “the bottle,” needed time for serious conversation. Because of this practice, the dining room was always decorated in masculine taste—with stucco walls, not damask, for fear of retaining the smell of food. Special mahogany drinking tables could be commissioned, as well as dumb-waiters and wine coolers. Direct access could be had to the cellar, while the sideboard that was splendidly heaped with silver might contain a hidden supply of chamber-pots. Lord Blayney of Castle Blayney would take his friends off “to a little adjoining room, which was called his own glory hole, and there we had such fun, such jolly stories, that it was difficult to leave our seats.” If that sounds truly Irish, so does the appetite for amateur theatricals.
Architecturally, the ladies got their own back, by requiring rooms of their own. I didn’t know that “boudoir” derives from the French bouder—to sulk. The Irish didn’t use the term much, but possessed rooms of this type; it was claimed that Lady Newburgh had one lined with mirrors so that “her pleasures might be doubled” by seeing herself reflected when making love. Married at sixteen, Louisa Connolly soon got into the swing of shopping (whether in person or by proxy, sending requests to family in England and France) and decoration, creating a “delightful pretty room . . . with blue paper and white knotted furniture in it,” and another hung with white satin, in the attics of Castletown. “In ye French taste,” as Lady Shelburne noticed.
Even in the eighteenth century, Irish owners employed more servants than their English counterparts. Did this reflect an economy little touched by the Industrial Revolution, where the poor, Catholic farming communities provided a surplus of labor? Or simply that the Irish, famously gregarious, didn’t object to having so many people around? Lord Blayney found it a bit much at times, retreating to a cottage on the banks of a lake which he called Belfast. Dinner would be delivered by boat. (Servants were instructed to tell unwanted callers that his lordship had “gone to Belfast.”) There may have been, the book suggests, an element of self-imposed burden to running a great Irish country house—although, this being Ireland, a lot of merriment too.
Adrian Tinniswood has taken a shorter period for his The Long Weekend, a study of the English country house in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a time of flux, when a younger generation of hedonists, appalled by the cataclysm of the First World War, were trying to find new ways to live, while many Edwardian owners were still doggedly determined to carry on as they always had. The dichotomy was illustrated by the royal family. George V did not want to alter one detail of the court protocol amid which he had grown up; his son Edward VIII flew a plane, drank cocktails, danced to jazz, landed, in Betjeman’s phrase, “hatless from the air,” and married an American divorcée, as a result of which he had to abdicate the throne. Wallis Simpson was the last in a run of American girlfriends for the then Prince of Wales. Americans were prominent in society, too. A point that Tinniswood might have explored was the influence of the United States on British attitudes. Edward VIII’s Fort Belvedere was very like the houses he had seen on Long Island—easy to get to for what his father called “those damn weekends,” not too big, and equipped for sport.
The Atlantic could be crossed in ever greater style on the new liners: one wonders what effect they may have had on decoration, or how many owners of old piles found themselves introduced to sophisticated bathing arrangements in their state rooms?
The Long Weekend is a highly readable account, not deeply original in research, perhaps, but written with just the cosmopolitan flair that the subject requires. We are introduced to numerous characters—some eccentric in a self-conscious way, others just themselves. Quite a number will be unfamiliar to the general reader. “What are the roots that clutch?” asked T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, as he struggled to find meaning after civilization seemed to have been blown apart. Country-house owners were asking themselves the same question, their answers being often nostalgic, occasionally experimental. I would have liked more on gardens (Hidcote gets barely a mention in dispatches), and it’s a pity to have no reference to H. B. Creswell’s The Honeywood File and The Honeywood Settlement, fictionalized accounts written by an architect in the 1920s of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of building a country house.