Clive Aslet’s The Story of the Country House is rammed with scholarly and academic wisdom but simple enough to be a guide for complete novices.
If I had a university-bound goddaughter about to study art history, I would hand her a copy at once. Downton Abbey fans will lap it up, too.
It is equally a treat for English-country-house-porn addicts like me, with a perpetually roving eye for a pretty portico or nicely turned Ionic column.
Aslet is one of a handful of Cambridge-educated British-architectural historians who have cornered the house-porn market. Many of them work at Country Life magazine (Aslet is a former editor in chief), and their books and articles have consolidated and reset the English love of heritage houses and all that comes with them—rolling parkland, estate fencing, classical follies, flocks of ornamental Jacob sheep, flagons of Bloody Marys, and the rest.
In a publishing sector increasingly dominated by lavish picture books, this one is unusual in that it is primarily a “words” book—a 220-page canter through the evolution of stately homes, from medieval to Tudor and Elizabethan and onward to the Stuarts, Queen Anne, Georgian, and Regency, all the way to high Victorian and postwar.
Aslet has a gift for setting the scene, rooting each era in geopolitical context, reminding us that the England of King John in 1215 had barely three million inhabitants, and that medieval barons seldom remained in one place for longer than a few weeks, perpetually on the move between their different estates and lands, with their possessions trundling behind them in carts. There was little idea of a fixed family home.
Aslet then introduces us to six or so key houses from each period, explaining how their physical configuration and architectural details developed.
The houses he alights upon, and illustrates with small but alluring photographs, are invariably luscious: Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire; Burghley, in Lincolnshire; the Lodge Park banqueting house at Sherborne, in Gloucestershire; Newby Hall, in Yorkshire; Grange Park, in Hampshire; Balmoral Castle, on the banks of the River Dee; and so on.
I can never look at pictures of great houses like these without feelings of great injustice that they don’t belong to me, and never will. One of the inherent miseries for those of us who love country-house architecture is that our passion is almost always one-sided, never consummated.
Aslet does not dodge the current leftist preoccupation with the provenance of country houses. He writes, “Only the very rich could afford the luxury of a country house … and behind them and their architect stood dozens if not hundreds of others, labouring on the land, in counting houses, down mines, on men o’ war, in cotton mills, sweating in the cantonments in India or enslaved on the sugar plantations of the West Indies.”
Later, he cautions us against becoming too wokely censorious, by asking, “How many people in our own age can be sure of the conditions in which rare minerals needed for electric car batteries are mined, cheap garments made or the parts of their mobile phones produced? Slavery ‘exists in the supply chain of nearly every business’ according to the investment managers of the CCLA.”
Aslet reminds us how the numbers of household servants grew and grew as the scale of entertaining in country houses expanded. Before 1600, hundreds of people might make up a noble retinue. At one party in 1732, “the future Marquess of Rockingham entertained about a thousand guests, serving them two hundred and twenty five dishes.” By modern-day Indian-billionaire standards, say, this is a profoundly meager party. An Indian wedding often has 10,000 guests, and 225 dishes comprise a regular five-star-hotel buffet.
On the subject of staff, Aslet points out that, before the 18th century, servants routinely slept on the floor outside bedroom doors, in case room service was required during the night. He writes well on the 21st-century decline and death of the dining room as a key reception area, superseded by the luxe kitchen as the main focus of socializing, other than at Christmas or exceptional celebrations. He notes the challenge of finding modern staff prepared to polish silver cutlery, and the plummeting value of brown furniture such as mahogany dining tables.
I was three pages from the end of this informative book when, with total surprise, I found a photograph of our own house in Worcestershire, and the Georgian-Gothic folly recently designed for us by the legendary architect Quinlan Terry. Aslet praises our foresight in commissioning a country-house Zoom tower in the classical manner, completed three months before lockdown struck. We country-house enthusiasts have always liked leading the way.
The Story of the Country House: A History of Places & People, by Clive Aslet, is out now
Nicholas Coleridge is chairman of the Victoria and Albert Museum