The Story of the Country House by Clive Aslet

Reviewed by Harriet

My definition of the country house is this: a work of domestic architecture in a rural location, surrounded by its own land (although not necessarily a landed estate) and intended to seem a self-contained unit.

Clive Aslet has impeccable credentials. He was the editor of Country Life magazine for thirteen years, and has written more than twenty books on architecture and history. Here he takes on what could have been the rather overwhelming task of giving an account of the history and development of the British country house from its Roman precursors right up to the 21st century. Could all this be encompassed in a book of 224 pages? And would it be a rather dry detailing of changing architectural styles? Yes to the first question and a resounding no to the second. Of course he discusses the way these houses have changed over the centuries, but the book is subtitled ‘A History of Places and People’, and his account is enlivened not only by his descriptions of the genesis and purpose of the historical buildings he features here, but also by  the stories of the owners and the architects and by an impressive evocation of the wider context and social history of the periods he covers. Add to this 60 illustrations, half of them in colour, and the result is a lively, informative and enjoyable book.

A sample of what is to come is the opening section of Aslet’s Introduction, which speeds through the 800-year history of Stansted Park, near Chichester in Sussex. First built as a hunting lodge for King Henry II in the late 12th century, it became a mansion in 1480, was destroyed in the Civil War, and rebuilt in the 1680s. Passing through the hands of numerous owners, from aristocrats to merchants, each of whom added various extensions and improvements, this great mansion, with its Grinling Gibbons carvings, painted ceilings and valuable historical portraits was burned to the ground in 1900. Rebuilt in ‘an unexciting Neo-Georgian style’, the house was acquired in 1924 by the Earl of Bessborough, who added a chapel with a blue, star-spangled ceiling and a theatre, which went up in flames in 1942. This account, as Aslet goes on to say, illustrates the difficulty of the subject:

Even country houses that strongly evoke a single period are often palimpsests where one era overwrites another, a process that may happen again and again until the deep past is no more than a ghostly, indecipherable smudge….They are a document on which is written their owners’ changing lives, tastes and sources of income.

After a brief prologue describing the Roman villas and Saxon halls of early British history, the book proceeds chronologically from the Medieval period to the present day. It’s interesting to see how fashions changed over the centuries. Obviously many owners wanted to show off their wealth and power, which frequently led to the building of such baroque extravaganzas as Blenheim Palace and Chatsworth, and later to the explosion of the gothic revival, during which William Beckford built the rather less attractive Fonthill Abbey, for which he commissioned a 35 foot high door (complete with a dwarf to open it, to demonstrate the scale). Perhaps the peak of this period’s extravagances was Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, designed, as Aslet says, ‘to give visitors the creeps’. But there were also eras in which buildings became much more restrained, with an emphasis on comfort and family life.

One issue that can’t help raising its head is the question of how the building of most of these great houses were actually financed. And of course in most cases the answer was that the source of the huge wealth needed to finance such projects was questionable in the extreme, though the owners, as Aslet points out, appeared to be oblivious to ‘the glaring moral iniquities of the ultimate sources of their fortunes’. Naturally the slave trade springs to mind, but back in the middle ages there was serfdom, in itself a kind of slavery. Then there was the ‘tainted wealth’ of those who gained it through the inhumane conditions of 19th-century gold and diamond mining, and even British coal-mining had its own environmental impact, as well as the harmful effect on the lungs of the miners. As for the landscape gardening surrounding the houses, created by such celebrated garden architects as Capability Brown, many of these entailed pulling down whole villages which got inconveniently in the way of the park or the owners’ view. Even the craze for mahogany furniture not only involved the slave trade again but also had a devastating effect on the ecology of the Caribbean – an ‘environmental disaster’, as Aslet puts it. 

And then of course there were the servants. In 1871, 68,369 men and 1,207,378 women were listed in the UK census as domestic servants, though by the twentieth century it became much more difficult to find the sort of domestic help these huge places required. This, and other economic factors, meant that between the wars many of these grand country houses ‘went to the scrap heap’. Amazingly enough, though, new ones have been built relatively recently, while the older ones which have managed to survive often do so now by renting themselves out to film and television companies. Others have, of course, been handed over to the National Trust. 

As for the future, Aslet admits in his final chapter that ‘the times are too uncertain’ to make any forecast of what’s in store for the country house. His opinion is that it will always remain an ideal for many people. The lockdowns have brought many people into the country property market, valuing the space and the silence, and the ability to be close to nature. Thus, Aslet concludes:

The self-created utopia  of the country house has acquired a new point. Who knows? Perhaps a refuge from a harsh outside world will be needed at other times as the twentieth century wears on. The country house has served that need before. Until then, let us celebrate its long continuity, admire the architecture and enjoy.

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books

Clive Aslet, The Country House (Yale University Press, 2021). 978-0300255058, 224pp., hardback.

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