The 18th-Century Country House

The 18th-Century Country House

One sign of 18th-century prosperity was the number of country houses which were built, rebuilt, or very much enlarged and improved at that time. Kent has an exceptionally large number of country houses, usually with a park, and more than fifty of them were built or substantially reconstructed between the years 1680 and 1820. Most of them still exist, although some have been accidentally destroyed, or deliberately demolished, especially in the north-west corner of the county where 20th-century development has obliterated many of the buildings surviving from earlier periods.

The two most famous houses in Kent, Knole, at Sevenoaks, and Penshurst Place were begun in the Middle Ages. Knole was built towards the end of the 15th century and considerably enlarged at the beginning of the 17th. Penshurst Place is older, dating from the middle of the 14th century. A third great house is Cobham Hall, built about 1590 and altered a good deal 80 years later.

There were other medieval houses, of more modest size: (West) Wickham Court, Hever Castle, Sutton Place (at Sutton-at-Hone), Squerryes at Westerbam, and Leeds Castle, for example. There were also few large timber-framed houses, dating from the 15th or 16th entury, which could properly be called country houses, such as Gore Court (Otham), Rumwood (Langley) and Leaveland Court. Somerhill (Tonbridge), St Clere (Kemsing), Broome Park (Barham) and Chilham Castle are examples of quite large and elaborate houses, which were built in the 17th century and have not undergone extensive alteration.

The 15 houses mentioned in the two preceding paragraphs certainly do not form a complete list of pre-18th century country houses but there is no question that they are greatly outnumbered by the houses that date from that century. It was the great period of country-house building, houses which were designed to make possible a conspicuously elegant way of living and to proclaim the wealth and standing of the nobility and gentry who owned them.

Their distribution throughout the county is far from uniform. Some districts were favoured and some were shunned. Several large houses were built in the villages of north-west Kent—Beckenham, Hayes, Sundridge, Footscray, Bexley, Lesnes—conveniently near London. In the eastern part of the county, in the triangle between Canterbury, Sandwich and Dover, about ten can be counted, some of them, such as Goodnestone Park and Waldershare Park, of considerable size. But apart from this East Kent group and the group in the Beckenham area only two or three of the larger 18th-century houses lie to the north of the North Downs. The flatter land between the Downs and the Thames, including the Isle of Grain, the Isle of Sheppey, and the Isle of Thanet, was not a favoured district for gentlemen’s seats. Nor was Romney Marsh or the Low Weald.

It was quite different in the High Weald, especially around Cranbrook and Goudhurst, where numerous delightful 18th-century houses still exist. All the way along the northern edge of the Weald they are to be found, especially around Maidstone and on the edge of the greensand hills. Then there is the little group where the Stour breaks through the North Downs, including Eastwell, the largest park of all, reputed to be 13 miles in circumference. From one point ip Eastwell Park it is possible to see right across the county, to the Thames Estuary in the north and to the coastline of Romney Marsh in the south.

Such a view, extending over a pleasant and undulating countryside, was dear to the heart of the 18th-century country gentleman and the ‘prospect’ was, as much as anything, the consideration that governed the choice of a site for his house. Knole, Pensburst, Cobham Hall are to be looked at: they are not vantage points from which to admire the view. Different people will have different opinions about which are, scenically, the most attractive parts of Kent, but no one, however prejudiced in favour of his own corner of the county, can deny that nearly all the larger 18th-century houses are sited in districts of natural beauty.

At the end of the 18th century just about half of the Kentish country houses were in the possession of families who had owned the property (not necessarily, of course, the same building) for at least two hundred years and the other half were in the hands of families who had purchased the estate in the 17th, or more probably the 18th century. In two areas there was a marked continuity of old families with comparatively few newcomers: the Holmesdale, that is the valley between the North Downs and the Greensand hills, roughly from Westerham through Sevenoaks to Wrotham; and the valley of the upper Stour, from Chilham up to Hothfield and Little Chart. In mid-Kent, that is within a radius of about ten miles of Maidstone, the ‘newcomers’ (many of whom had been there for almost a century by 1800) outnumbered the old families, but as might be ex­pected it was in the north-west, in the area most closely linked with London, that there was an overwhelming proportion of owners who had themselves bought the estates whereon they resided, or whose fathers had acquired them. This was predominantly the area of the ‘new’ families and, significantly it was an area which, with its infertile and acid commons—Hayes, Keston, Bromley, Chislehurst and Lesnes Heath—had never had any reputation as an agricultural district.

The total amount that was spent on house-building in the 18th century was enormous. Hasted, in his History and Topographical Survey of Kent, written about 1785-95, constantly refers to owners who have ‘greatly improved the house and grounds at very considerable expense’, ‘rebuilt at great expense in a most stately manner’, or ‘erected a most costly and magnificent edifice’. At Fairlawn, near Shipbourne, one wing of the mansion was burnt down in 1739, and promptly rebuilt. Just as it was finished it was burnt down again, but this did not discourage Lord Vane from rebuilding it a second time, in 1742. Of course not all the nobility and gentry could afford to build on this scale and sometimes the opposite story had to be told; William Henden, for example, ran through the wealth that he inherited and pulled down Biddenden Place because he could not afford to live there.

This house-building activity was, in the main, a reflection of the prosperous Kentish agriculture. From the land which they themselves farmed the owners were deriving larger profits, and from the land which they let to tenant-farmers they drew increased rents. Banister, as noted in the last chapter, recorded that the rents of some lands had increased threefold between about 1760 amd 1790, and although this must have been abnormal, landlords were undoubtedly draw­ing a larger revenue from their tenants.

It was not agriculture, but commerce, which supplied the money for build­ing most of the great houses of north-west Kent—Beckenham Place, Langley Park, Hayes Place, Footscray Place, Blendon Hall and Belvedere, for example. Footscray Place (now destroyed) was built by Bourchier Cleve, of London, pewterer; the Blendon Hall property went through several hands, including those of a Director of the South Sea Company; Belvedere was built by Sir Sampson Gideon whose father, also Sampson Gideon, had bought the property; the elder Gideon was a Jewish financier of Portuguese extraction who was regularly consulted by Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, and who gave the government invaluable help in managing their financial affairs Sir Robert Walpole’s son, Sir Edward, was the owner of Hayes Place which be sold to William Pitt the elder, first earl of Chatham, and Pitt lived there whilst he was Prime Minister and in later years. This is a very different sort of society from the Darells, Derings, Tokes, Tuftons, Finches and Knatchbulls, for example, 1, families that had been settled on their estates in the Ashford area for centuries.

Houses were not built to a standard design in the 18th century, yet they have distinctive characteristics, notably symmetry and proportion. Belvedere, The Mote at Maidstone, Finchcocks at Goudhurst and Waldershare Park are typical in their balance and symmetry; the main entrance is in the centre of the front of the house and the façade to the left of the front door is matched exactly by the façade to the right. The chimney stacks are symmetrically arranged. If, as at Mersham-le-Hatch, there is a separate building, technically a pavilion, to one side of the main house and linked to it by a covered passage, it is balanced by an exactly similar pavilion On the other side. Eighteenth-century houses usually consist of a basement which cannot be seen from the park, and three storeys. The ground floor rooms are high-pitched and have tall windows; the first floor, containing the principal bedrooms, is lower-pitched and has windows of the same width as those on the ground floor but not so tall; the second floor, with the servants’ bedrooms, is low-pitched and has smaller windows. This may not have been very agreeable for the servants but it gives the 18th-century house a more pleasing elevation than the modern building with windows of the same size on every floor. The elegance of proportion, the symmetry, and the orderliness of a house like Linton Place, Bourne Park, Olantigh, Chilston Park or Calehill set them appart from such picturesque and romantic houses as Knole, Ightham Mote, Sissinghurst or Gore Court.

The usual building material in the early part of the century was brick, and the mellow red brick of Bradboume, at East Mailing, or Waldershare Park is nowa­days much admired. But brick became unfashionable during the course of the century, and those who could afford to do so built in stone, as the Earl of Thanet rebuilt Hothfield Place in Portland stone about 1760-70. Other buildings, con­structed of brick, were given the appearance of stone by being covered with stucco.

A few houses did not conform to the usual style at all. At Mereworth Lord Westmorland, in the 1730s, built a house (misleadingly referred to as a ‘castle’) which has large porticos on all four sides and is surmounted by a dome. It was copied from a villa at Vicenza designed by the Italian Palladio in the 16th century. Young English noblemen and gentlemen who made the grand tour naturally visited Italy and came back with new ideas about architecture. When Bourchier Cleve built Footscray Place a generation later he, in turn, copied Lord Westmorland’s Palladian villa at Mereworth.

All these houses can be said to be in the ‘classical’ style. The romantic movement set in towards the end of the century. Lee House at Ickham, afterwards known as Lee Priory (it was a more romantic name but it was no more a priory than Lord Westmorland’s Palladian villa was a castle) was described by Hasted as ‘the most perfect style of gothic taste’. Hadlow Castle (another misnomer), built in the first half of the 19th century, was even more picturesque with its Gothic windows, battlements, pinnacles, minarets, and 150-ft-high tower. At Kingsgate, Lord Holland, who made a fortune out of politics by becoming Paymaster-general, built a house overlooking the bay in the hope that the sea-air would restore his health. The tonic virtues of the seaside were just coming to be recognised at this time. He developed his estate as a remarkable mixture of ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’. The house itself (now much altered) was sup­posed to represent Cicero’s villa on the coast of Italy and was quite ‘classical’ in design but Lord Holland introduced a grotesque ‘romantic’ element by building in the grounds of his house a collection of follies—ruined castles, towers, refuges for hermits and the like.

The 18th-century country gentleman concerned himself as much about his grounds as he did about his house. Parks were laid out, trees were planted in strategic points to give a vista, streams were dammed up to form lakes, earth was moved to form hillocks and valleys. Two hundred years later it gives the appearance of being the work of nature, but in reality it was the work of landscape architects who had the imagination to foresee how their parks and grounds would look, not next year or the year after, but in a hundred years’ time. The greatest of the landscape architects was ‘Capability’ Brown, so called from his habit when called upon for advice on landscaping a park of remarking ‘I see capability of great improvement here’. He is credited with designing the grounds of several houses in Kent, including the park of Leeds Castle.

The stables often received the same careful attention as the mansion and the park. His horses were the pride and joy of the 18th-century gentleman. The stable-block was usually designed with considerable elegance, and the horses lived at least as comfortably as the grooms who looked after them.

Comfort, however, at least if measured by 20th-century standards, was not a feature of 18th-century country house life. Elegance and beauty do not necessarily go with ease and convenience. A meagre water supply and inadequate sanitation, rooms that in the winter it was impossible to keep warm, long draughty passages, the domestic quarters underground or in the attic, the kitchen perhaps 50 yards from the dining room, vast quantities of wood and coal consumed smokily and inefficiently—all these were the disagreeable accompaniments of the graceful­ness and felicity of style of the great country house.

As for the kind of life that went on in this setting, Fielding has left us the picture of Squire Western in Tom Jones, hard-riding, hard-drinking, with no cultivated tastes, and Jane Austen (who spent a good deal of time with her brother, the owner of Godmersham Park) has left us quite another picture in her novels of a life which was genteelly conventional. No doubt both pictures are true; there were Mr. Westons as well as Squire Westerns.

One pastime which became increasingly popular amongst the country gentry, especially in Kent, was cricket. It began as a village game, probably in the 16th century, but by the 18th it had been taken up by the nobility and gentry. Like hunting it provided opportunity for active exercise (it was played in shoes, without pads) and like prize-fighting or horse-racing it provided opportinity for gambling. Many of the country gentlemen had their own teams, partly amateur partly professional, and would challenge each other. Sir Horace Mann, when he lived at Bourne Park, would lead his team on to the field in a match on which the stakes were as high as 500 or 1,000 guineas. He brought Aylward, one of the outstanding batsmen of the day, from Hambledon to be his bailiff, an office which unfortunately required different qualities from those of a batsman. By the early 19th century Mann was bankrupt. The Duke of Dorset at Knole was another who persuaded promising bowlers to come and work on his estate as game-keepers or gardeners. Cricket brought together the aristocracy and their tenants and servants in ‘a common interest, and even with a touch of egalitari­anism. When Kent beat an All-England eleven in 1743 by one wicket, a son of the Duke of Dorset was playing for the winning team, but he was not the captain; the captain was Vat Romney, a gardener at Knole. If there had been a similar relationship between the French noblesse and their peasants, it has been suggested, the French Revolution would not have taken the form that it did. That is one of the might-have-beens of history, but the fact that the fanner and agricultural labourer of the 18th century shared the interests of their betters in sports and pastimes, most of them much more brutal than cricket, certainly helped to create links between social classes and to reduce the risk of violent revolution; and when finally there were outbreaks of violence, as in 1830, both sides showed a great deal of forbearance and good sense.