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Making the English country house

In February 1764, Samuel Butler, the steward at Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, wrote to the London upholsterer, Thomas Burnett, that he should wait in sending furniture because “our house is now in greater confusion than ever … as we are making great alterations in the middle part of the house.” These changes were being made as a result of the recent coming of age of Edward, fifth Lord Leigh.

Such refurbishment of the ancestral home was common enough, refreshing it as a symbol of wealth, power and taste; but the process also tells us much about a broader array of goods and processes which often slip under the radar of historians of the country house.

To begin with the familiar, Lord Leigh’s wealth and taste would have been immediately apparent to visitors as they walked up the steps and into the Great Hall which was decorated with marble pillars and elaborate stuccowork. In common with many country houses, this had a classical motif, although Lord Leigh preferred figurative rather than abstract designs. His choice of Hercules spoke of his familiarity with classical mythology, but combined this with protestant Christian morality and the athleticism and bravery of Hercules himself; but its execution in high relief was old-fashioned if high quality – a reminder that elite taste was more complex and nuanced than a simple pursuit of the latest fashion.

The Great Hall, Stoneleigh Abbey, 1760s. Photo by Jon Stobart. Used with permission.
The Great Hall, Stoneleigh Abbey, 1760s. Photo by Jon Stobart. Used with permission.

Also familiar to historians and readily apparent to Lord Leigh’s visitors was the richness and opulence of the drapery and soft furnishings. These were supplied by Burnett who, like many upholsterers and furniture makers, had some influence over the decorative schemes thus created. The fine green damask in the breakfast room and the rich crimson Genoan velvet used in the chapel are no surprise. More noteworthy are the coordinated colour schemes created in bed chambers, with wallpapers matching the curtain and bed hangings, and rooms labelled accordingly: Yellow Damask, Blue Morine, Crimson Damask…

One of the crimson velvet cushions made for the chapel by Thomas Burnett, c.1764. Photo by Jon Stobart. Used with permission.
One of the crimson velvet cushions made for the chapel by Thomas Burnett, c.1764. Photo by Jon Stobart. Used with permission.

Less obvious to the eye – and often escaping our attention, despite the growing interest in beds and sleep – is the trouble taken to make beds comfortable, whilst marking out subtle distinctions. The best bedchambers were on the first floor. The bed frames were richly carved and generously proportioned and the bed itself was stuffed with the ‘best sweet goose feathers’. Further comfort and luxury was added by superfine white calico quilts, down-filled pillows, and large Wilton carpets. On the floor above were a set of bed chambers that were still comfortable, but a notch or two less luxurious: the beds were smaller and un-carved and the bed stuffed with fine goose feathers; there were cotton counterpanes in place of the quilts, and the carpets were half the size. The distinctions are small, but telling; they remind us of the need to be attentive to the detail as well as the grand scheme.

The last feature of Lord Leigh’s refurbishment to highlight is an updating of the kitchen. These are spaces that attract much interest from modern visitors to country houses and increasingly from food historians, but are easily overlooked when thinking about the country house as a whole. The kitchen, and the servants who worked there, were central to the ability of the owner to entertain their guests, so it was important that it was properly equipped. Amongst the array of pots, pans and earthenware, what stands out is the purchase of a new range. Samuel Butler, the steward, noted that the old one ‘is so far worn out, as not to be worth putting into its usual place, yet I did not choose to bespeak a new one, as the Cook perhaps may not like what I should order’. This is a remarkable acknowledgement of the limits of his knowledge and a clear indication of important gender divisions of power not only within the body of servants, but also in shaping the material culture of different parts of the house.

The country house was thus made by many people: the owner was ultimately in charge, but tradesmen and senior servants also played an important role that is all too easily overlooked. The house thus becomes a place of negotiated power and mediated taste; contingencies that are revealed through exploring it as a site of consumption.

Headline image: Stoneleigh Abbey, photo by Ozzy Delaney. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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