Forget Blenheim Palace, forget Castle Howard and Longleat.
True English country life centers around more modest, perfectly private houses.
Theirs is a beauty that inspires deep devotion. It is in these places that friends gather;
it was in these rooms the English country look was born.
“The Englishman sees the whole of life embodied in his house," wrote turn-of-the-century German historian Hermann Muthesius. His observations reflect what many people feel about English country life: respect tinged with envy for this talent of living well with no revenge. No need, you understand, for revenge most of these Englishmen were born to their pleasurable estates. Muthesius adds, "Here in the heart of the family, self-sufficient and feeling no great urge for sociability, pursuing his own interests in virtual isolation, he finds his happiness and his real spiritual comfort."
Country houses of England have been much touted, particularly in the United States, thanks partly to their owners' desire to promote a good tourist business and partly to exhibitions such as "The Treasure Houses of Britain," at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. But these are no more houses-in the domestic sense of the word-than is the White House, Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, Wilton House, Longleat-these are museums, amusement parks, obsolete political symbols, monuments to an imperial past. Most English country dwellers, in truth, live in much more modest dwellings-private, unpublicized, handed down through generations with no fanfare, houses that have seen much life and death and seem destined to continue to do so. "The house stamps its own character on all ways of living," wrote Elizabeth Bowen about her beloved Bowen's Court. "I am ruled by a continuity that I cannot see."
Smaller, perhaps, and more practical than the ornate mansions dedicated to personal glory, these houses are as exquisite in design, proportion, architectural detail, and geographical situation as any found in the guidebooks. Emblems of a way of life, they retain a beauty and a serenity, even in dilapidation, that inspire deep devotion. It is to these houses, rather than to the sprawling, stately homes, that friends migrate, as in the old days, for a weekend of walking, hunting, shooting, or simply drinking Pimm's on a summer afternoon. And it is in these houses that what has come to be called the English country house look has evolved.
The first thing to remember about the interiors of these manor houses, rectories, and farmhouses is that they are untouched by the hand of a professional decorator. Until recently, decorators had a hard time getting any respect in England. As Sir Terence Conran noted in his introduction to Suzanne Slesin and Stafford Cliffs English Style, "Indeed, the whole idea of employing a decorator to help 'do up' your house is considered nouveau."
This fact is indeed very hard to accept when one visits any of these houses scattered so discreetly throughout the countryside. How could such elegant furniture arrangements, such subtle color schemes, such finely wrought hangings and accessories have happened without the help of a decorator?
The answer is that time, confidence in one's own taste, and a sense of comfort have worked their magic, a magic that cannot be taught in design schools. If you grow up with old things, you take them for granted. That is why a Chippendale desk placed a certain way in one room may look as if it has always been there (it probably has), while placed the same way in another room it may look newly introduced. Colors fade, and when they fade they take on a beauty and fragility that cannot be reproduced by Clarence House. Sofas and chairs that are pushed around to please several generations of families and dogs are more at ease than those put together in the seating arrangements so beloved by our decorators.
Owing to increasingly burdensome inheritance taxes imposed by successive Labour governments, huge holdings like this have been greatly whittled down. Moreover, estate owners today must struggle to afford the enormous staff required to keep up such acreage. But few country houses today are not surrounded by some "country." While heirs to large estates have been forced by crippling inheritance taxes to sell off pieces of land, only as a last resort is an entire property sold.
Along with the traditional importance attached to ownership of land comes another notion, that of privacy. An Englishman's home may be his castle, but he prefers his battlements secluded from the curious stares of the general public. Large parks, a string of wheat fields, a winding driveway lined by oaks or poplars, fine wrought-iron garden gates not only indicate a certain position in the world, but also insure obscurity to the passing tourist. Add to this the aesthetic quality inherent in the subtle buildup of suspense, the elegant suspension of vista that a long driveway provides, and you are encountering one of the prime experiences of the country house visitor.
By the end of the eighteenth century, those who wanted an entirely private place to rendezvous were building even smaller houses, like hunting lodges and follies, on the grounds of the larger estate. They afforded pleasing views from the main house, and they provided sanctuaries where lovers might escape.
Sex, needless to say, has always played a pleasing if discreet role in the English country gentleman's world. It wasn't until this century that husband and wife in the typical upper-class house were expected to share the same bedroom. Before World War I such an idea would have been considered barbaric, quite apart from its obvious restraints on extramarital adventures. The image of prewar English country weekends, with everyone hopping in and out of everybody else's bed, could only have arisen if married couples had separate bedrooms. For instance, Lady Sackville, Vita's mother, loved entertaining guests at Knole, where, according to biographer Victoria Glendinning, "she fitted up the spare rooms lavishly, each with its little brass frame on the door into which a card with the occupying guest's name was slotted. This was useful not only for administrative but for amorous purposes: 'chacun a sa chacune [roughly, each man to each woman],' as Mrs. Keppel is said to have remarked."
Probably what was most responsible for the enormous change in country house life in England after World War I was the loss of the servant class. Without those vast armies of downstairs maids, upstairs maids, personal maids, and other skivvies, weekend guests could not have enjoyed their leisure so readily. Lady Mary Clive wrote that when her mother was a girl, "if anyone wished to have her to stay, they were forced to put up five people herself, father, mother,' maid, and valet."
Perhaps more important, neither could the guests have consumed those lavish eight-course dinners that were standard in the old days. ("I can't think how we all ate so much," confessed Viscountess Hambleden, reflecting on those posh dinner parties.) Without the cooks, butlers, and kitchen staff, the kitchens were evacuated barracks, useless, inoperable, obsolete. (The old kitchen at West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire was turned into a squash court in 1926, so its size can be imagined.)
Today's kitchen is probably more lived-in than any other room in the English country house. Once positioned as far away from the entertaining rooms as possible (to keep the cooking smells from permeating the refined atmosphere of proper society), the kitchen has become the heart of the house. More and more, it is the room in which family and friends gather to eat. In many houses it has taken the place of the dining room, which itself has been borrowed for TV viewing.
What a change! Long gone are the huge, chilly flagstone caverns (often with barnlike ceilings to aid primitive ventilation) filled with kettles, spits, hot plates, and iceboxes, where the servants produced meals for the gentry every weekend. Long gone are the processions of uniformed maids or footmen carrying food, carefully protected by gleaming silver covers, through the miles of corridors from kitchen to dining room. Instead, it is the hostess herself who takes the roast beef from the oven and sets it on the table before her guests' very eyes.
Cooking has become a prerogative of the householder. Cooks can still be drawn from outlying villages, if not on a day-to-day basis, at least for weekend house parties. But a working knowledge of the kitchen has become as much a necessity for the cultivated person today as reading was in the seventeenth century. This gentrification of cooking has led to imaginative ideas for eating-gardens, conservatories, small comers of living rooms are now appropriate places to dine-and has affected the kitchen's appearance. Before this century, it was unsuitable to display plates, cutlery, and the like on open shelves. The Welsh dresser, which first appeared in the eighteenth century in Shropshire and Staffordshire, became the perfect instrument of change. Simply made, it had shelf and cupboard space to accommodate kitchenware, and with innovations suggested by the Arts and Crafts Movement, it represented the ideal piece of furniture in the new, natural country kitchen .
Henry James, England's most famous literary admirer, loved country weekends in his adopted land as much as any native. "Of all great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of national character," he wrote, "the most perfect characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details so that it becomes a compendious illustration of their social genius and their manners, is the well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country house."