Our book today is a gorgeous 1974 Thames & Hudson volume called The English Country House: an art and a way of life, written by Olive Cook with loads of great photos by A. F. Kersting. The book has one of the most interesting and charming subjects of them all to examine, and it opens with a quote from Henry James that couldn’t be more quintessentially true:
Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character, the most perfect, the most 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.
James of course knew what he was talking about; he himself made a habit of shuttling (ever so unwillingly, of course) from country house to country house during his time in England, and if you’ve ever visited such a country house, you’ll understand immediately why – under the right circumstances, they can be little pieces of Heaven on Earth.
If you have visited such a house, it’s overwhelmingly likely you’ve visited it as a paying customer, handing over your entrance fee to the smiling National Trust employee standing in front of the velvet rope in the front hall. I confess I’ve done that too, many times – I’ve visited almost every country house Cook and Kersting document here, and I know the history of these magnificent old buildings to the last detail. But books like this one have an added allure for me because one of my oldest friends comes from English “old money” (the main branch of her family’s own country house, just outside of Leeds, is, to put it mildly, an eye-opener) and through her kindness – and in her company – I’ve spent many weeks and weekends not just visiting but actually living in English country houses all over the country, in all seasons. I met and came to know some of their current owners, spent many deliciously peaceful afternoons tucked into upstairs nooks while autumn rain pattered on inner courtyards, or walking on the grounds during England’s preternaturally elongated twilights.
Cook and Kersting’s book brought back all those memories and more. They tour their readers vicariously through some of the grandest old buildings in England, and Cook is throughout the book a lively and highly informed guide, shifting easily between historical overview and architectural developments, as when she’s telling us about Great Chalfield Manor in scenic Wiltshire:
Brick gave wing to unprecedented flights of fancy in various directions: it encouraged romanticized elaborations of the traditional house of the immediate past, it gave rise to new, extravagant forms of customary features and it also stimulated the feeling for ordered design already apparent in the composition of Great Chalfield Manor. It even led to a structural absurdity – the replacing of the wattle and daub filling in the important timber-framed houses with brick. For of course the timber frame becomes redundant in the brick-built house.
Some English country houses are of course known for their oddities as much as for their quiet grandeur, and some manage to combine the two – like Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, with its gorgeous rooms and its overlooking view of the quiet river Gadder and its gaudy moat meant to evoke an entire martial past the place never came close to actually warranting. Cook is particularly good about this place, which passed into the hands of the National Trust half a century ago:
A less overweening expression of individual pride and power, a more romantic allusion to the past than Faulkbourne Hall, Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk translates the theme of the moated, quadrangular castle into weathered red-brick domesticity with conspicuous success. It is unforgettable because of the contrast in scale between the symmetrical south ranges and the immense, dominating and co-ordinating gatehouse, seven storeys high, and also because towers, battlements, stepped gables, oriels and crenellated chimneys, starting up like carefully positioned castles in a game of chess, rise so directly from the moat upon which the house seems to lie like a galleon becalmed.
“Like a galleon becalmed” is, come to think of it, a pretty good shorthand description of the effect most English country houses have on even the most familiar visitor; like castles, manors, and country houses everywhere, they’re intended to be worlds unto themselves, bastions and refuges, and they retain something of that feeling even though their beds have been soaked with blood and their walls have echoed with the screams of the unmedicated dying for centuries. I once spent a torrentially rainy week in a rather large old country house in the beautiful country of Kent and I came to know a reed-frail boy who was the youngest son of the family. He never spoke above a low murmur, and he was painfully shy, but once he opened up to me, he confessed how much he loved the house and grounds. After a couple of conversations, I had an astounding realization and had to ask him outright to confirm it: I realized he’d never actually left the house and grounds – that he’d never, in 16 years, set foot outside.
He admitted it, and I thought there would follow some expressions of regret or longing – but there were none. I asked him if he were ever curious about the world outside the Park, and he sighed and said, “I’d be so afraid of being disappointed.”
That wasn’t the only week during which I knew exactly how he felt, and this wonderful book – a Brattle find, naturally – brought it all back to me.