the great estates: country life

The noble houses of eighteenth-century England…

…The great age of building came to France in the sixteenth century, the time when many of the fabulous chateaux of the Loire were built, creating a tradition of palatial architecture which, modified and refined, lasted until the Revolution. England’s turn followed a century later. What Inigo Jones started, Christopher Wren and the eighteenth century completed. Yet the great age of English domestic architecture is brief, stretching from 1660 to 1830. During that time, as in France, a mania for building seized all who could afford it.

Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford, was the glorified embodiment of the country squire, with his bluff good humor, his John Bull appearance, his love of dogs,horses, hunting, and landed estates. The master of English public life for more than twenty years and the chief architect of the office of prime minister, he preferred to be painted by John Wootton as master of King’s Staghounds in Windsor Forest. Walpole’s family seat, Houghton hall, was his greatest pride. There, each fall his political supporters gathered in the “Norfolk Congresses,” to eat, drink, hunt the fox, and make their plans for the government of England. Image:

“Every man now,” wrote an Englishman early in the eighteenth century, “be his fortune what it will, is to be doing something at his place, as the fashionable phrase is, and you hardly meet anybody who, after the first compliments, does not inform you that he is in mortar and heaving of earth, the modest terms for building and gardening. One large room, a serpentine river, and a wood are become the absolute necessities of life, without which a gentleman of the smallest fortune thinks he makes no figure in his country.”

—The Cholmondeley Family painted by William Hogarth in 1732, portrays Mary, Robert Walpole’s daughter, seated with her husband,George, later 3rd Earl of Cholmondeley, three of their children, and George’s brother, in a scene of aristocratic domesticity. The picture gallery behind the children reflects the taste that made fine private museums of many houses. When the Orford title died out with Horace Walpole in 1797, Houghton Hall passed to the Cholmondeley branch. Image:

Millions of pounds sterling were poured into bricks and mortar and plaster to give Britain the splendid architectural heritage that is forever associated with the Four Georges- the Hanoverian kings who ruled from 1714 to 1830. In every town or village, the Georgian houses- so easily recognizable with their mellow red brick, sash windows, elegant white porticoes and fanlights- demonstrate how aristocratic taste spread quickly down into middle-class society. And not only down. This taste for light, airy, well-proportioned, elegant rooms speedily leapt across the Atlantic to New England and to the southern states, to give the same gracious setting to their growing wealth.

These houses are still eagerly sought, still lived in and loved, but the great Palladian mansions that inspired them have fallen on harder times. As wealth ebbs from Europe, roofs are stripped of lead, marble chimney pieces are wrenched from their sockets, gilded paneling is torn out, and finally the hammer blows of demolition echo across the deserted parks. Other buildings, more fortunate were turned into schools, nunneries, homes for the sick and aged.

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