by Maggi Andersen
In 1776 Mrs. Lybee Powys made a tour of the country houses in Wiltshire, during her rambling in the style of an early flâneur, she documented the changes in society reflected in country house architecture.
She visited the Earl of Radnor’s Longford Castle, near Salisbury, and the Fonthill House near Tisbury, the predecessor to Fonthill Abbey, (not yet built), which was an opulent classical mansion built in the 1760s by William’s father, Alderman Beckford on the proceeds of his West Indian plantation.
Mrs. Powys preferred Longford because ‘it stands in the middle of the garden only one step from the ground, so that you may be instantly out of doors.’ In Elizabethan and Jacobean houses, their great chambers were normally up above high-ceilinged parlors or halls, and too inaccessible for later tastes.
Example of a rustic.
At Fonthill, the main rooms were up above the rustic and Mrs. Powys did not like it at all. ‘As a contrast to Lord Radnor’s,’ she wrote, ‘which we had that morning admired for being so near the garden, the ground apartments at Fonthill by a most tremendous flight of steps are, I believe, more distant from the terrace on which the house stands than the attic story of Longford Castle.’
Towards the end of the eighteenth century people began to feel that the main rooms of a house should be in touch with the outside world with low-silled windows or French windows opening straight into the garden or onto the lawn. The rooms thus flowed out into the garden and correspondingly brought the garden indoors in the form of vases and pots of flowers, or occupied an entire room in the form of a conservatory attached to the house.
The gradual change began in England and spread to Europe. The upper and upper-middle classes headed for the country, wishing to return to nature, preferably in the supposedly unconstrained, passionate and pure state as presented in the myth or model of the Noble Savage.
The changes to society were dramatic. Increasing value was placed on spontaneous expression of emotion, sensibility rather than sense, love matches rather than arranged marriages, and a decided preference for living in the country rather than in town.
Young girls fantasized about Lord Byron who had become a symbol of revolt against convention.
Country pursuits became popular. During the six months or so which they spent in the country they had always hunted and shot, and occasionally farmed, but now these activities were more than just indulging oneself to pass the time, they were viewed as virtuous.
A country gentleman on his horse could feel in direct contact with animals and nature and enjoy the primitive emotions of man the hunter. As a result, an increasing number of sporting pictures and portraits of country-house owners in sporting dress were painted.
Pictures of country estates no longer showed them thronged with people, as they were in the eighteen century. Instead, they appeared in idyllic solitude, with just a single figure – a horseman, or a ploughman with his team – or herds of grazing deer or cattle, to add a touch of Arcadian life to the scene.
Author of THE RELUCTANT MARQUESS, a Georgian Romance
Research: Life in the English Country House, Mark Girouard.
England’s Lost Houses. From the Archives of Country Life. Giles Worsley.