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The Way They Lived Then

The Last Country Houses

by Clive Aslet
Yale University Press, 344 pp., $29.95

Among the many notions now withering in the mood of skepticism of the Eighties is the contention that the English are demonstrably English. They founded parliamentary democracy, yet they tolerate a prime minister whose powers far exceed those of George III or Peel or Gladstone. They pride themselves on being molded by religion and tradition, but England is the most heathen country in the West and one whose contempt for the past is expressed yearly in vandalism and the destruction of ancient buildings and the countryside. Peaceful and tolerant? Violent crimes multiply, English football fans are notorious as the hooligans of Europe, and the militant left is now faced by an intransigent right which despises the poor and the social services that soften their hardships. Yet there is one important physical characteristic that distinguishes England and Wales from the rest of the Continent, and indeed from North America. The system of housing the inhabitants of their cities differs from that of any other Western country—including Scotland. In the cities the English and Welsh still live mainly in terraced houses.

There they stand in every town, rows and rows of attached houses crazily following the line of long-forgotten footpaths or hedgerows, like caterpillars crawling over the landscape. Flying into Heathrow from the Continent, or gazing out of the window of a railway carriage as the train moves through the towns, who can fail to be struck by the sight? Nowadays the pattern is broken by an occasional new development, its houses set at angles to each other, or by the now notorious tower blocks of apartments beset by swirling winds, their smashed amenities covered with litter and graffiti. But just before the beginning of the First World War only 3 percent of dwelling in England and Wales were apartments, and Stefan Muthesius argues that the terraced house gave England a standard of housing superior to that of any other country.

By that time the classic family town house had evolved. It was two stories high, the upper floor consisting of three bedrooms with a bath and lavatory connected to a sewer. The house could also be connected to the gas, electricity, and telephone mains, and the water was heated in the kitchen. At the back was a private garden. Only central heating was missing. But what was even more significant was that such houses were built in rows in a fashion that had descended from eighteenth-century London. The great terraces of town houses built by Adam and Nash were first copied, then modified, then transformed into different styles of architecture by the speculative builders who created English cities and towns. The pattern of housing was the same for the lower middle and even the working class as for the upper classes except that their terraced houses were more expensive and larger.

Why was the pattern so different from that in cities elsewhere? Why were there no vast blocks of apartments in the center and detached and widely spaced houses in the outskirts? Muthesius asks us first to remember that English towns, secure since the Tudors against siege, sack, and war, were far less defined than European towns. They shed their walls and fortifications; town shaded into countryside. He next tells us to study what always governs landed property—the deeds. Into the deeds of all these houses were inserted clauses which embodied the regulations of Acts of Parliament relating to building, and restrictive covenants of all sorts. For instance, the house was to be a “dwelling house” and not to be used for certain trades; the Bedford Estate listed as many as sixty prohibited trades—from keeping a coffee shop to raising pigs.

Restrictions on the height of the fence and state of the front garden, the size of the house, the requirement that all houses had to keep to one line at the front, the standard of construction, the requirement to repaint the stucco every three years—all these were laid down to ensure that no occupier could alter the nature of the district. In areas where houses for the lower middle class were to be built the restrictive convenants were fewer, but there were still enough to prevent the place from falling into the lowest class of housing and becoming a slum. In the 1870s in Norwich cheap houses that had no entrance hall were still governed by covenants running into hundreds of words.

So far from tenants groaning under these impositions, they welcomed them. They expected the landlord to keep an eye on his property in order to see that the covenants were enforced. The reason was simple. The convenants safeguarded the essence of the property, and that essence was the social class of those who inhabited it. In cities such as Berlin the vast apartment house mixed the social classes. The well-to-do lived in the Hochparterre facing the street but by the time you reached the dritte Hof you encountered lower-middle- and working-class families. In England the main object of each class was to keep its distance from inferiors and, as the steps between classes multiplied, the types of terraced house reflected these gradations.

The façade and the decoration of the exterior proclaimed the social class of the tenants. The very names of the streets were clues to the class you would find living there: “Crescent” and “Place” were superior to “Road,” “Road” to “Street,” and both to “Row.” Houses with short square yellow chimney tops were superior to those with red chimneys. The color and quality of the brickwork, the depth of the front garden, the mahogany (or the plain deal) lavatory seat, the stone architrave of a fine terrace were all clues to class. The copy of that architrave in brick in a less prestigious street was no less an homage to class. Three grades of material were used to make the front, side, and back walls. “Queen Anne front and Mary Ann back” was a way to cut costs and accommodate the less well-to-do. What made a street salable was its class homogeneity.

As early as the seventeenth century the upper classes were putting distance between themselves and the cities. The great town palaces of Tudor noblemen began to be demolished, the aristocracy spent their money on their country, not on their town, houses, and by the nineteenth century merchants were no longer living over the shop and rich bankers had moved to suburban villas. The aristocratic estates on the outskirts of the City of London—Bedford, Grosvenor, Portland—were still called estates; but the word now came to mean building plots let at a comparatively modest rent to speculative builders under convenants. The Church of England followed suit with its own land. Long before the modern city blight, the centers of cities in England were neglected. That is why, apart from a few civic buildings, the center of most big towns is so mean and squalid when compared with those in the rest of Europe; as the towns fell into decay their centers were good only for the cheapest housing and the very poor. English towns suffered from urban blight long before those in other countries.

There were few owner occupiers even among the well-to-do, because so little land was sold outright or “freehold.” If you owned land you sold a leasehold interest in it for ninety-nine years or some longer term to the person who bought a house in the terrace that a speculative builder erected. The builder had the drudgery of building and the risk of letting the houses. You in turn received a substantial capital sum for the leasehold and a modest annual ground rent. The term “real estate” was unknown in England, because comparatively few houses were sold freehold. Houses were continually changing hands and, although “home sweet home” meant much, the house itself attracted little sentiment.

Many builders went bankrupt. Some even of the most spectacular terraces, for instance those by Nash, were jerrybuilt. Grandiose schemes begun at one end of a terrace petered out for lack of capital before they could be completed. But some builders, like Thomas Cubitt, became millionaires, and Cubitt had the satisfaction of refusing a knighthood. After Nash few architects concerned themselves with terraced housing. A builder could put up a house at half the cost of one designed by an architect, and most were built without drawings. Builders picked up the new fashions and the new jargon. Elegance and good proportions were elbowed into the wings, and sublimity and the picturesque took their place. In the last great terrace built in Regent’s Park, Nash’s stucco gave way to Bath stone. With the Gothic revival, ornament became more bizarre or, as was then said, more “truthful” and “rational.” External ornament (or its absence) was often the key to the type of purchaser whom the builder had in mind; and much of the delight in walking through poor and otherwise undistinguished neighborhoods today is to observe how inventive and profuse was the ornamentation of the terraces.

Such a system of providing homes often resulted in a glut of upper-middle-class housing and a fearful deficiency in working-class accommodation. The terraced house was designed as a one-family house but in 1911 in London 40 percent of families shared a house. Land and building costs were too high to produce small enough houses. But the working classes loathed the apartment block and such as existed were synonymous with slums or with the charitable trusts that built them.

In fact, except in some parts of London, building costs in England were low. Land was cheap. It accounted for only about 15 percent of the cost of constructing a house, whereas in Berlin it amounted to between 30 and 60 percent, so that high densities were inevitable. Moreover, though English houses were not gimcrack, they were lightly built and not intended to last longer than the leasehold interest. So more people were able to live in separate houses than in other countries even if many had to share or take lodgers. Nor were builders hemmed in by restrictions imposed by government. No doubt some district surveyors could be bribed and the foundations of houses skimped, but the laws were lenient except on the one topic where they needed to be strict—sanitation. Builders in those days could get on with the job.

To this day the English, class for class, expect a standard of housing far beyond that on the Continent. “Our street” is a genuine working-class emotion. For the terraced house accommodates both those who like to lean over the fence in the back garden and talk with their neighbors and those who want the privacy of living behind lace curtains. The provision of these terraces by speculative builders was one of the most astonishing success stories of the nineteenth century. Down to the upper working class the stock of houses was roughly commensurate with the population explosion.

If these houses were largely erected by builders, what were the architects doing? The architects were doing what architects always have done. They were occupied in designing prestige buildings, civic offices, town halls, railway stations, churches—and country houses. The Victorian country house, so admirably chronicled by Mark Girouard, was built for families who were still intimately connected with farming and country pursuits as well as with politics and entertaining. But in the twentieth century a very different kind of patron turned to architects to satisfy his daydreams, and Clive Aslet has written an amusing and compendious account of these new patrons and their houses. They were the new millionaires of the Eighties and Nineties.

Probably more country houses are being built and more money and thought expended upon them,” said the future president of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1908, “than perhaps at any time since the days of the Stuarts.” Next year a millionaire grocer asked Lutyens to build him a granite castle in Devon. Some of these houses were built by architects such as Philip Webb according to the principles of “rationality,” but many were designed as medieval Tudor or Georgian imitations to feed either the romantic yearnings or social ambitions of their owners. There were rooms dedicated to the pleasures of billiards, shooting, and other games (a separate room for bridge since the stakes were high). The hordes of servants had their own quarters, which acknowledged that even stricter rules of social precedence were observed downstairs than upstairs. There might be sun traps or swimming pools in pillared halls; there were, as well as stables, “motor houses” to accommodate the fleet of automobiles—and there were many bedrooms for the pursuit, in the small hours, of love.

These were the houses of the Edwardian hostesses, the horrible Mrs. Greville who had been befriended by the enchanting Mrs. Keppel, Edward VII’s maîtresse en titre; or of Mrs. James who amused the king and became the subject of Hilaire Belloc’s most polished set of verses satirizing the well-to-do. What changed the country house was the new technology of electricity and the first labor-saving devices which became ever more necessary, except for the multi-millionaires, as the supply of servants dwindled rapidly after the First World War: the electric iron, the vacuum cleaner, the shower in the modern bathroom, and central heating (which in England was merely a device to take the chill off the rooms and not all that successful in doing that). Between the two world wars electric grills, kettles, percolators, and hot plates, and a servery to the kitchen made their appearance.

The First World War brought an end to the country-house practice of such architects as Lutyens, John Kinross, Reginald Blomfield, and Detmar Blow. So-called cottages continued to be built—very different from the genuine cottages in the country with no modern conveniences into which intellectuals were beginning to move—and a few Modern Movement houses such as that designed by Professor Silenus for Margot Beste-Chetwynde in Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Already some of the enormous Edwardian houses began to be closed or turned into institutions, and a number of the houses referred to in Clive Aslet’s book were demolished after the Second World War—dinosaurs unable to adapt to a changed climate. The movement for simplicity ran parallel with the ostentatious buildings of the very rich. The clutter of late Victorian furniture was reduced. Pewter and oak began in some houses to replace bogus Louis Seize. Philip Webb, Norman Shaw, in Scotland Robert Lorimer, and even Lutyens himself were Arts and Crafts men. (Mr. Aslet makes an exceedingly rare slip by referring to John Reginald Yorke of Forthampton Court, which Webb “repaired,” as the father instead of the grandfather of the novelist whose pseudonym Henry Green was not spelled like the surname of Graham Greene.)

The Arts and Crafts movement was directly responsible for Lord Beauchamp’s chapel at Madresfield, the prototype of Brideshead. Of the movement Mr. Aslet has some sapient things to say—that for all its resource and vitality it belonged neither to the rural population of England which associated its aims with the harsh, penurious, uncomfortable past style of living nor to its patrons who were made often to feel guilty at not being content with its austere simplicities. In fact, a house such as Stanford Hall was more typical of the period. It consisted of a medieval hall, a Charles II library, a Georgian dining room, and an Art Deco theater. It is comprehensible if some regard the period between the two wars as the nadir of British architecture.

Although Dr. Muthesius’s distinguished great-uncle Hermann Muthesius had written in the first years of this century a classic work, Das englische Haus (which influenced among others Frank Lloyd Wright and which praised the light construction of English houses), the modernists in England had no use for a system of housing which to them was wasteful of space and led to ribbon development. The novelists talked of the squalid lives spent behind the lace curtains of the terraced houses; and the country house either disappeared into the mists of nostalgia or was dismissed as an irrelevance. The shape of a building henceforth was to be determined by its function and it would be “honest” only if the exterior and interior conformed to the materials that the architect chose. Concrete must stand unveiled as concrete, grim and uncompromising, regardless of weather stains. Ornament was regarded as a dishonorable excrescence.

But more had changed than architectural fashion. In the years after the Second World War in England the biggest patron of housing was local government. In other words, the committees composed of local politicians, the town councilors—advised by their officials, some of whom would be qualified architects—decided what housing should be built, what form it should take, who should be the architect of the housing development, and who should get the contract as builder. The other patron who emerged was the property developer. He was the man ready to finance the development of sites; and the more office space the planning authorities would permit on the site the larger his profit was likely to be. Similarly, on those sites where the planners insisted there should be a mixed development of housing and commercial property, the more economical the unit of housing the quicker the developer could dispose of the property to firms of real-estate agents.

The new style of architecture suited these patrons. Matchbox office blocks and “units” of housing were easily subjected to norms and hence to rigid cost control. Central government was slower to impose constraints upon hospitals, schools, university buildings; but local-government politicians and officials knew that they would be judged by the number of housing units they sanctioned just as the accountants working with the developers saw that office space could be increased if ceilings were lowered and layout kept “flexible.”

Meanwhile officials and developers came under another pressure. At the turn of the century Hermann Muthesius had praised the English for not entangling their builders in yards of regulations. But now all sorts of laudable intentions—to zone cities; to preserve landscape, the character of a neighborhood, and historic buildings; to give tenants security and protect them from the rapacity of landlords; and to compel landlords to keep their property habitable—were incorporated in legislation. The more aware people became of the society they lived in, the more protracted became the debates over development, so that large areas in cities became infested by planning blight, a disease whose symptoms were the withering of any scheme. Even the most promising and heavily manured plants wilted and died at some stage as they were uprooted, inspected, and pruned in the endless processes of obtaining planning permission. The most successful architect commercially in England today is Richard Seifert. He wins few prizes, and the architectural establishment scorns his buildings. But he has the knack of putting together a package that satisfies developers, planning authorities, lawyers, and accountants—and clients.

The person who is so often eliminated today is the client. That is what architects call their customers, thus suggesting that they are people who come begging to them. Stefan Muthesius shows how highly the speculative builder had to be tuned to his customers. He had to guess exactly at what level to pitch his terraced houses in order to sell them when they were built. If he couldn’t sell he went bankrupt. So indeed did the architects who catered to those requiring country houses. Not all the customers were willing to be led by the nose. “I have had to part company with Gimson,” A.C. Benson wrote to William Rothenstein. “He wouldn’t design me what I wanted, only what he thought it right of me to want.” Today the client is too often an impersonal department of public works in a local government office. The officials there inevitably look over their shoulders at what their political bosses will say, and an astute architect can play one off against the other if trouble threatens. The families who are going to live in the houses or the office workers who must work in the office blocks remain unheard.

Too often clients resemble rabbits faced by an architect stoat. “When the architect comes up with the equation we want,” a property developer said to me the other day, “we let him get on with the job—we wouldn’t dream of interfering with his design.” Good architects in fact want what they call “client input”; but their genuine desire to “enter into a dialogue” with their client seems to some to resemble an invitation to play golf rather than tennis. It is a long time since the days of the mid-eighteenth century when, in redesigning Stowe House, Earl Temple rejected designs for the south front first by Giambattista Borra and then by Jacques-François Blondel, accepted a design by Robert Adam, but, dissatisfied with the proportions, got his cousin Thomas Pitt to redesign it according to his own perceptions. There can be no question that Temple improved the design. What patron could do this today?

These are two vastly entertaining books. Stefan Muthesius has written a notable work of scholarship, and both he and Clive Aslet use social history skillfully to give depth to their work. Mr. Aslet’s sense of humor is happily highly developed, and I wish he had allowed himself even more space to delineate the monsters and gorgons who commissioned some of the houses he describes. Both books are sumptuously illustrated and excellently documented.

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