The Good Life

The architect, practicing the most intellectual of all the arts, prides himself on his ability to relate a bewildering number of variables and assemble them into a design which when you read it convinces you by its logicality. And yet there comes a point when the more brilliant the organization of these variables the less adaptable the building becomes. It fulfills its purpose for a season; but as time passes, social conditions change, and it finally resembles a whale washed up on the shores of history, unusable, a victim of the new environment. Between 1835 and 1889 five hundred country houses of unparalleled size were built in Great Britain, and these are the subject of Mark Girouard’s impressive book. Few of the houses remain untouched or are still inhabited by families. Most have been destroyed or largely pulled down or converted with varying success into schools, museums, asylums, or have suffered other indignities.

The Victorian country house was itself the product of cataclysmic social changes. The rich had become very rich and there were a lot of them: noblemen with bulging rent rolls, merchants, bankers, industrialists, all eager to set the seal of landowner on their wealth. They built houses from the profits of cotton, salt or coal mines, biscuits or ostrich feathers. It was just as well they were rich. Infant mortality among the upper classes had declined rapidly and families of eight to twelve children were common.

There was a limitless supply of cheap labor for domestic service. So every person or pastime or service could be supplied: an infant had its nurse, the nurse her nursemaid, the girls their governess, the boys their tutor, the wife her housekeeper and lady’s maid, the master his valet, gamekeeper, and butler; and the butler and housekeeper had a vast staff under them to serve the rest. The railway brought their friends to their house and they in turn arrived with lady’s maids, valets, and loaders. A great country house therefore was designed to accommodate some forty to fifty people regularly and over a weekend or for a shoot could take 150.

The art of the architect was to organize this mass of human beings into cubic capacities that reflected the social conventions of the times. This meant a series of precise divisions and subdivisions. The family had to be divided from the guests, the men who wanted cigars and to tell stories had to be given rooms for billiards and smoking, the ladies a conservatory and a drawing room. They had to be separated from the elder children who needed a schoolroom and the younger a nursery. The servants needed more rooms than their employers. The housekeeper a still room, store room, and china closet; the butler a pantry, silver room, and a bedroom for the footman to protect the silver; the lower servants a brushing room, knife room, lamp room, scullery, pantry, dairy, and three larders. As for the laundry, six rooms was a minimum for all the…

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