Convenient House

Convenient country houses: privacy, practicalities and plans

We are used to our homes being comfortable and convenient places to live – indeed, it is almost an expectation of western society in the modern age. That they will also reflect something of our character, taste and perhaps even our status is also pretty much a given. We might differ on which rooms we choose to lavish most money and attention, and the ways in which we blend convenience with taste is also varied, but we expect our houses to be liveable spaces in which we can relax, socialise with friends and prepare ourselves for our lives beyond the front door.

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John Crunden (1788): ‘Plan and elevation of a country house in the modern taste, & would be convenient & elegant …’

These priorities are nothing new; nor is the concern about getting it right in terms of taste and functionality. Indeed, notions of convenience were something that preoccupied the architects and owners of English country houses in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. William Halfpenny, an architect and prolific writer of builders’ patterns books in the first half of the eighteenth century, noted in the preface of his New and Complete System of Architecture (1747) that: ‘As necessity was the parent of building, convenience should the architect’s first view’. He asserted that convenience was therefore the ‘principal and foundation’ of the designs he presented; but he continued: ‘as to beauty and magnificence, they are schemes inexhaustible, simplicity is the basis of beauty; as decoration is of magnificence; harmony is the result of the first, and proportion elegantly compos’d is the certain effect of the latter’. In other words, his designs would be both convenient and tasteful.

The holy grail of successfully marrying convenience with elegance comes up over and again in architectural treatises. Henry Home, Lord Kames put his finger on one problem in his Elements of Criticism (1762), arguing that there was a fundamental tension between the ‘interior convenience’ and the ‘external regularity’ of an architectural structure. Part of the problem was matching up a symmetrical façade with a layout that provided rooms for various different functions.  In the second edition of his A Description of the Villa of Mr Horace Walpole (1784), Walpole emphatically claimed of his Gothic Revivalist house at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, that ‘In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinements in luxury.  The designs of the inside and outside are strictly ancient, but the decorations are modern’ (p. iii).   Despite this, there was a clear consensus that, where matters of convenience were concerned, neoclassical styles were preferable to the Gothic mode. All of Halfpenny’s ‘convenient and decorated’ designs fell into this category, as did the seventy ‘convenient and ornamental’ designs published by John Crunden in 1767. Even William Gilpin, a pioneer of the idea of the picturesque, could argue in his Observations on the Western Parts of England (1798, p.127) that:

Nor are the conveniencies, which the Grecian architecture bestows on private buildings, less considerable, than the beauty of its decorations. The Gothic palace is an incumbered pile. We are amused with looking into these mansions of antiquity, as objects of curiosity; but should never think of comparing them in point of convenience with the great houses of modern taste, in which the hall and the saloon fill the eye on our entrance; are noble reservoirs for air; and grand antichambers to the several rooms of state that divide on each hand from them.

Here we see several important clues to what these writers meant by convenience: a spacious and airy house with specialised rooms. But convenience went further than this: it also meant that a house was liveable, with private spaces as well as rooms of parade and with an arrangement that allowed for family life as well as formal entertaining.

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Roger North, an engraving of P. Lely’s portrait of 1680

In her book, The Age of Comfort (2009) Joan DeJean has argued that these ideals first came together in early eighteenth-century Paris, with the architectural blueprints produced by Blondel in the 1730s and 1740s, but these were a crystallisation of ideas that had been current in England at least a generation earlier. This is apparent from the architectural writings of Roger North – a one-time successful lawyer and MP who retired to rural Norfolk after the 1688 Revolution and the fall of the Tory interest. Of particular note are his lengthy treatise Cursory Notes of Building (1698) and his much shorter On planning a country house (c.1696). Both were based on his experiences in remodelling his own house, Rougham Hall, Norfolk, as well as his knowledge of a wide variety of houses owned by friends and family, and his reading of the architectural texts of the day.

For North, convenience was a complex idea that required careful planning and execution to achieve in a domestic setting. There is a recurrent concern with heat, light and air – central themes in John Crowley’s Invention of Comfort (2000), in which he argues that comfort became a defining interest of householders in eighteenth-century England and America. Like Crowley, North discusses chimneys at some length. He is interested in practical issues, including the need to ensure that they draw the smoke up because, ‘the carrying of smoak, or not, … makes a house delightfull, or intolerable’ (p.48). It is no surprise, then, that he suggests various causes and remedies, which indicates a good understanding of the ways in which an efficient chimney should be built. However, rather than ‘medle in the common rules about chimneys extant in books’ (p.48) he turns his attention to their location in the room, concluding that a corner chimney is to be favoured in a small room (because of the space it saves) whereas a ‘flatt chimney’ (i.e. one set along a wall) is best as it is ‘the best ornament the end of a room is capable of’ (p.48).

This mixing of practical and aesthetic concerns is typical of North’s attitude to the design of a convenient house. A short section in Of Building is dedicated to lights, by which he means windows rather than candles or lamps. He makes recommendations about the number and size of windows and, perhaps surprisingly, warns that ‘it is an error, to affect much light, and wee confess it, by darkening o’ lights againe with curtaines’ (p.53). The dangers of ‘over lighting an house’ were clear: it was ‘both cold, and bad for the eyes’. The problem of insufficient lighting, North argued, was occasioned by ‘walls, buildings, and tress, which taking away the sky’s light, darken a room’ (p.53). This links to his wider concern for the best orientation and layout for a country house.

A house should be built facing south because the winter sun would warm the rooms and make them ‘comfortable’, whilst in summer the noon-day sun would be too high to shine into the house. An east or west orientation would mean ‘the summer sun every shining morning or evening makes the chambers furnace-hot’ (p.89). Building on a hill-top gave the house a fine prospect, but exposed it to the weather; building around a courtyard ‘dulls the light, and hinders the prospect’ – again linking practicalities with issues of taste and aesthetics. A house that was just one room deep was ‘very inconvenient; for heat and cold are troublesome in a single building, and there is no retiring from either’ (p.64). A double pile (i.e. two rooms deep) might resolve some of these issues, but brought its own problems: noise and smells pass too readily ‘because the proximity of the rooms gives a tinct of the same air throout, which I could scarce have believed if I had not proved it’ (p.69). Moreover, closets could only be included at the expense of other rooms, and the different ceiling heights needed for formal and family rooms were hard to accommodate. Yet there were also  ‘inconveniences of too much spreading’, including ‘the great charge of walls, and roof’ (p.69) and the necessity of long passageways or, still worse, having to go outside to access other parts of the building. Scarce surprising, then, that Rougham Hall formed something of a compromise between these various alternatives.

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The house also illustrates several of the other issues with which North was preoccupied: the provision of separate spaces for entertaining and family; relative location of different rooms; availability of backstairs and service corridors, and development of room specialisation. The first can be seen in the presence of the smaller and more intimate private parlour and withdrawing room in one of the wings of the house whilst the hall and great parlour occupy the grander space immediately accessible from the entrance portico. The second is best illustrated by the range of rooms opening from the kitchen, the arrangement of which is discussed over several pages in North’s On planning a country house, and which involved not just the pastry and pantry marked on the plan, but also a scullery, and dry and wet larders. Both of these are important, but I want to focus here on the convenience afforded by backstairs and corridors (what DeJean refers to as degagements) and by one particular specialist room: the little parlour.

Once it had been updated by North, Rougham Hall included three separate staircases. The great stairs linked the hall to a first floor corridor and afforded direct access to guest bedchambers and the gallery; a second set of stairs led from the suite of family rooms on the ground floor to a library and chamber on the first floor; the third linked the service wing of the house to the North’s own bedchamber. Much has been written about the utility of the separation of stairs, driven by the growing desire to remove servants from the public spaces of the house unless and until they were needed. As North himself wrote: ‘it is no unseemly object to an English gentleman … to see his servants and business passing at ordinary times’ (p.129). But a concern for privacy and for the kind of separate access that allowed families to separate themselves from both servants and guests was something on which North placed particular emphasis:

‘For if wee consult convenience, wee must have severall avenews, and bolting holes, for such as are in the family and undrest, or for any other reason, to decline passing by company posted about by accident. This doth not seem to be of any great moment, but in the course of living will be found wanting, and be much desired. For it is unpleasant to be forc’t to cross people, when one has not a mind to it, either for avoiding ceremony or any other reason’ (p.137)

Remarkably, North is not just suggesting that the country house owner might want to have routes through the house that allow them to avoid their guests, but that this is something that he has learned from experience. It is an architectural innovation born of living in a house, not one that results from the principles of taste or design: it belongs to the owner, not the architect.

Much the same is true of the little parlour, which North places next to the service rooms, but separated from them by a passageway that links to the back stairs and the outside. This was expressly a room for business: a place where someone who comes to the door might wait until the master of the house can see them because, as North notes: ‘it is troublesome passing to and againe by them’ (p.138). Yet this is more than simply a waiting room; it is also a place where business can be transacted. The inclusion of a closet for the master of the house provides a space to interview the visitor and store papers relating to the estate. Another closet for the bailiff or steward provides a space ‘where the books of entrys may be allwais open, and files of papers disposed, so as ready recourse is had to them’ (p.139).

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North describes this arrangement as ‘one convenience, which … will pay for the room it takes up’ (p.138). Its attraction is twofold. First ‘it must needs make a man’s domestick affairs both pleasing, and thriffty’, in part because there was no need for ‘kitchening very fellow that comes to an house’ (p.139) – that is, having him sit and no doubt take some refreshment in the kitchen. It was both a mechanism for and symbol of sound domestic oeconomy, allowing the master of the house to keep his business in order and to run the estate efficiently and effectively. Second, all of this business could be transacted without disturbing the spaces and routines of family life. Furthermore, North argues, because it was a space dedicated to business, it would focus the mind of the gentleman. If this work was transacted in one of the family rooms, it would be: ‘all blended with his other concernes’; the result would be ‘not only a confusion without a carefull method of economising his materials, but also an unsteddyness of thought, which the objects appertaining to different concerns brought into his mind’ (p.139).

For North, then, a convenient house was one that worked on a practical level: a place in which the family could live and from which the business of the estate could be transacted, a place that combined privacy and practicality. But it was also a place for entertaining guests, displaying status and demonstrating taste. Just as the later architects with whom we started this discussion made clear, a country house could be both convenient and ornamental. There was not necessarily a tension between the two, at least if the house were thoughtfully planned and carefully designed. The key was space: having enough to create well-proportioned and specialist rooms and to construct practical arrangements. As North put it: ‘Consider well your owne ambition, that is what sort of housing you desire, which I must allwais allow to be more than is strickly needful according to your circumstances, else a farme is equall to the best. But the distinction of well borne and bredd, is by elegant and neat living’ (p.31).

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