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A bed in the parlour: Tim Mowl welcomes a major account of the history of house design in Britain and Ireland--but do its authors know too much?

Design and Plan in the Country House: from Castle Donjons to Palladian Boxes

Andor Gomme and Alison Maguire

Yale University Press, $85/55 [pounds sterling] ISBN 9780300126457


With 320 ground plans and 288 black and white illustrations, all sited helpfully close to the analysis of their houses in the text, this book represents a remarkable scholarly resource. The joint authors have had the courage and industry to range across the design of major houses, not just in the usual Saxon heartlands of England, but also over the entire Celtic fringes of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, even the Isle of Man. This has resulted in a host of unfamiliar but important buildings being described, unblinkered by narrow English provincialism.

However, the book has become the victim of its own ambitious range. Because it covers virtually every significant historic house in the British Isles the authors find it difficult to make easy generalisations. They know too much to simplify. Long Galleries can be sited in a top floor, or one below, to the garden, to the entrance, on flanking ranges, splitting a floor axially into two or laterally, even, as at Plas Teg, Flintshire, cruciformly. The Parlour is equally evasive. It can be 'Great' or 'Common', 'Little' of 'Winter', on the warm side of the house. Sometimes it can serve the steward. In 1482 Margaret Paston's parlour at Mauteby, Norfolk, had a featherbed. Was that a 'sleeping' parlour? Real architectural truths ate complex and the authors admit as much in their introduction. The book, they write, does not chart a river of steady development; there can be 'no set plan'.

To compensate for apparent contradictions and give the reader a pause for breath, an ingenious structure has been imposed. Between each of the five, basically chronological, sections of the book comes ah 'Intromission' summary of the progress, but this is no sequel to Mark Girouard's ground-breaking Life in the English Country House. The authors have a dry, Pevsnerian style. Facts, not warm human anecdotes, ate the staple. In Bristol's Red Lodge it is noted that the internal porch is 'the most spectacular' in England. It is illustrated and discussed, with its odd failure to match the panelling, and the room in which is it sited is described 'as a super guest suite'. The authors give it a date of c. 1590, but it was built much earlier, most likely in time for Queen Elizabeth to sleep there for several nights on her 1574 state progress to the second city. That could explain everything.

One structural generalisation does seem safe: that the move in planning and building was, over the years, from a single storey spread to a piling upwards of storeys, to compactness. Yet is even that sound? Horton Court in the south Cotswolds has traces of spiral stairs to an upper floor over its Norman hall. However, after this book all overviews of English architecture ate going to seem jejune. By 1540 Scotland was well ahead of England in the classical design for Falkland Palace. At the same period, houses in north-east Wales were experimenting with the Flemish renaissance, and the Irish in Co. Cork had compacted the English quincunx plan into such wildly romantic houses as Mallow Castle. When the Duke of Lauderdale built in England, his Ham House was a conventional doublepile superimposed on an older H-plan. But when, as the virtual viceroy of Charles n, he rebuilt Thirlestane Castle in Scotland, he ventured a superb railway-carriage sequence of linear state apartments prefaced by a dramatic entrance symmetry in which gothic castle towers act like a giant classical order. Architectural historians are going to have much to digest and reappraise.

Tim Mowl is Professor of History of Architecture and Designed Landscapes at the University of Bristol.
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Title Annotation:Design and Plan in the Country House: From Castle Donjons to Palladian Boxes
Author:Mowl, Tim
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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