Musings On Mansions
By Jessie Lewis, author of Unfounded
One blog piece is not enough to write about even one tiny speck of all there is to say about England’s stately homes. Many people have written many books about them, covering topics from who designed them to what materials were used to construct them, who lived in them to how they were decorated. I am no expert on any of these things, but I did find out some interesting titbits while I was researching for my latest book, Unfounded, so I thought I’d share some with you here.
Styles of Architecture
There are multitudinous different disciplines of architecture to be seen in the country pads of the rich and historically infamous. Here is an extremely brief look at three.
There’s the Palladian style, a prime example of which is Lyme Park (seen above), used for the external shots of Pemberley in the 1995 BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice. The style is derived from the work of sixteenth century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who took a fancy to the classical forms of architecture used in Ancient Greece and Rome. He used ratio and proportion to emulate the same grandeur in his designs. Easily recognisable features of this style are pediments—usually triangular—over porticos or loggias, supported by columns.
A portico is essentially a really grand porch, and a loggia is a room that’s open to the elements on at least one side—basically a windowless conservatory. Unlike other architectural styles, which applied ratios to only the façade of the building, Palladio applied it throughout his designs, meaning that the dimensions of the interior rooms, the height of each of the floors in relation to each other, even the windows were in proportion to each other, ensuring that a sense of elegance and harmony flowed through the building.
I looked next at the ‘other’ Pemberley (as used in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice)—Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire. This house is built in the Baroque tradition, an ornate style that was begun by the Catholic Church in a somewhat Lady Catherinesque attempt to awe naysayers into submission with finery and opulence. It accentuates the basic features of Renaissance architecture—domes, pediments, colonnades, and arches—making them grander, more imposing, and much taller. Throw into that a few painted ceilings, plenty of angelic sculptures, a ton of gilding, and some well-placed copulas directing beams of sunlight from above, and hey presto, you’ve got a subliminal eyeline to the heavens in every room. Sneaky, huh? Grand staircases, also lending themselves to the notion of celestial ascendence (as well as being infinitely useful for getting to one’s bedroom) were de rigueur. The overarching idea was to impress—and it’s an undeniably effective technique.
Further back, there’s Elizabethan architecture. The example shown here is Montacute House in Somerset. While the houses of the lower classes retained much of their medieval influence, with the iconic black timber frames and whitewashed wattle walls becoming a common sight in villages and towns, the upper classes were splashing the cash on brick and stone mansions. Symmetry was appreciated but classical design far less revered than at other times—columns being notably absent. Recognisable features include parapets, curved gables, and ornate chimney stacks, all designed to exhibit the owner’s wealth and power in England’s ‘Golden Age.’ Fortified residences were no longer required; instead, crenelations were added for show and there was a focus on indulgence and comfort. Advancements in glass manufacturing made windows cheaper, and boy did architects make the most of that!
One of the commonest footprints of Elizabethan manors is an E shape. It is sometimes asserted that this was done to honour the Queen, though that theory is much debated and the design was more likely intended to increase light and air circulation within the building whilst conforming to the ideals of symmetry. The horizontal sides—top and bottom arms of the E—were usually comprised of the kitchens and service rooms on one side and the living area on the other. The longest edge of the E was the main hall downstairs and upstairs a new innovation: the long gallery. The central arm was the entrance.
That’s the external architecture, but what about the inside? Here are some fun facts:
Three Things Stately Homes Did Not Have
Corridors. Well, they did have corridors, but not as we know them, and not for ages. Originally evolving from single large dwelling spaces to smaller, partitioned rooms, English houses were traditionally traversed by walking from room to room. Go to Hampton Court Palace and count how many rooms one has to pass through to reach the King’s audience chamber for an example of how impractical this is to our modern minds. It was many centuries before this arrangement of living spaces was challenged. Check out this brilliant article for a more in- depth read, including details about how Sir John Vanbrugh’s 1716 design for Blenheim Palace displeased the Duchess of Marlborough for its inclusion of corridors. (You may need a Financial Times subscription to read it.)
Ovens. Various forms of contained heat have been around for millennia, but the temperature-controlled implements we know nowadays as ovens, ranges, aga cookers, stoves, etc., were not invented until the late eighteenth century, and not widely introduced to kitchens until later in the nineteenth century. Before that, cooking was mostly done over an open fire. For this reason, the kitchens of early stately homes were often situated away from the house, or at least in one wing off to the side at ground level. Rarely (though it was not unheard of) were they in the basement. If you visit a stately home with kitchens—and specifically ovens—‘below stairs’, it’s likely to have been a later alteration, probably Victorian or possibly even Edwardian. It was not uncommon for the kitchens to be so far from the dining room that food consistently arrived at the table cold. At Uppark House in Sussex, the kitchen was situated near the stables and accessed via an underground tunnel. Here’s a great article on stoves.
Ballrooms. Hardly any stately homes had purpose-built ballrooms. What they had instead were enormous chambers, all arranged next to each other thanks to the aforementioned want of corridors. So when they fancied a shindig, they simply opened all the doors and voila! A huge party space!
Three Things They Did Have
Chapels. Not all, by any means, but lots of big country pads had their own chapels, either built into the house or somewhere in the grounds. This one is inside Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, owned by the 7th Marquis of Salisbury.
Priest Hides. Quite literally hiding places for Catholic priests to hide in to avoid persecution during the Reformation. Surprisingly, many of the great homes of England have hidden doors, secret passages, and clandestine rooms built into their walls for this purpose.
Flushing toilets. They weren’t common, it’s true, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century, a few stately homes had installed flushing lavatories. The rather aptly named Sewerby Hall in Yorkshire is one. A Georgian house completed in 1720, it had a ‘water closet’ fitted during the Regency period. A flushing toilet implies running water, and although we think of this as a more modern commodity, many houses in London’s West End had a supply of running water by the 1700s, fed by a man-made canal that ran from Hertfordshire to Islington. At country houses, water was often pumped from surrounding streams, rivers, or wells. The gravity-fed fountain at Chatsworth House is famous, but did you know, it also powers a turbine, fitted in 1893, that supplies electricity to the house? They really had the whole ‘running water’ thing down pat!
Since being a writer enables one to apply some degree of poetic licence, I cherry picked bits of all this information to fit with the house I needed Pemberley to be for my story. Also being quite a nerd, I didn’t stop there. I worked out which rooms needed to be where in relation to each other, in order for them to be walked through in the correct order, as per canon. So, for your viewing pleasure, here is Pemberley as it is in Unfounded (at least, the ground floor), complete with the route Elizabeth and the Gardiners took when they first visited.