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Even the dog's pillow: the publication of a series of inventories provides a vivid insight into life in nine great English houses in the 18th century.

Noble Households: Eighteenth-Century Inventories of Great English Houses. A Tribute to John Cornforth EDITED BY TESSA MURDOCH John Adamson, Cambridge, supported by the Marc Fitch Fund, 45 [pounds sterling]/$90 ISBN 10 09524322 5 0

This well-laid out, thoughtfully-edited and carefully illustrated volume draws together nine inventories from great country houses and four from London town houses spanning the years 1709-92. They were selected by John Cornforth, who died in May 2004, Their publication is a fitting tribute to this scholar of the history of the interior, who played a unique role in his generation in encouraging the study of the great house in the 18th century.

The inventories are presented in six parts. The first, and longest, relates to Ralph Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu (1638-1709) and his son John, 2nd Duke, (1690-1749), with seven inventories relating to four different houses. Ralph Montagu's death was the reason for three of them--those for Montagu House, Bloomsbury; Boughton House, Northamptonshire and Ditton, Buckinghamshire. At Ralph's death his houses were flail of tapestry hangings (he owned the Mortlake Tapestry Manufactory) and French decorative paintings (he had been ambassador to the court of Louis XIV). By 1733, tapestry had fallen from fashion and John, 2nd Duke--who was much less francophile than his father--had consigned much of it to storage chests. As Master of the Ordnance, the 2nd Duke stored an unusually large private collection of arms in presses and chests in the bedchamber. In 1733, when preparing to move to his new house in Whitehall, he commissioned an inventory marked up with the condition of the furniture and furnishings ('One marble Table with a black Frame' is annotated 'frame rotten') and their destination (two presses from the bedchamber containing powder horns, flasks and sword belts were to be sent to the 'Newhouse'). The inventories for the family's country houses, Boughton and Ditton, demonstrate their relative paucity of furniture compared to the London residences.

Inventories were drawn up for many different reasons. For example, the 1710 inventory for Drayton House, Northamptonshire marked the resolution of a suit in Chancery brought against the estate of Sir John Germaine's first wife, Mary. Sir John and his second wife, Betty, filled Drayton with porcelain: 'in the Great Parlour at the foot of the brown stairs' there were 'Twenty two pieces of china ware over the chimney'. The second inventory, of 1724, reveals Lady Betty's taste for French furnishings and such personal touches as 'one pillow with a fine chince cover for the Dog' in her bedroom.

The inventories for Houghton (1745 and 1792) and Holkham (1760), both in Norfolk, reflect Cornforth's involvement with these houses, particularly Houghton, where he was a regular guest and adviser. The 1792 inventory, made after the death of George, 3rd Earl of Orford (1717-91), grandson of Sir Robert Walpole, for whom Houghton had been built, was annotated by Horace Walpole (1717-98), who had inherited the house. His comments reveal his interest in sculpture--'Baccio Bandinelli by himself' is labelled 'valuable', as are the 'Pair of Vases from the Antique in Villas Medici & Borgesse at Rome'.

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough also characteristically put her own stamp on the 1740 inventories for Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire and Marlborough House, London. These were compiled in connection with a Chancery suit and the Duchess sought to distinguish between what she had bought personally and what was held in a trust for her grandson, Charles, 3rd Duke of Marlborough. She dictated the inventory and her voice can be heard in it: 'In the Dutchess of Marlborough's Bed Chamber ... the Duke of Marlborough's Picture at length done by Sir Godfrey Kneller. I am in some doubt whether I did not pay for that myself'. At times her memory was more precise--in the State Bedchamber, for instance, the gold lace ('galloon') that trimmed the bed, chairs and stools 'was bought & paid for by the Dutchess of Marlborough all except the Gold Fringe round the Valence'.

The publication of a selection of inventories has many uses for the historian of the interior. For example, the 1727 inventories for Kiveton and Thorp Salvin in Yorkshire help to reconstruct the architecture and interior decoration of these long-demolished houses. The only other contemporary description of the interiors of Kiveton was written by Cassandra Willoughby, later Duchess of Chandos, who herself occupied a great lost house, Cannons in Middlesex. Inventories also help to establish a provenance by identifying objects that survive, such as items moved from Montagu House to Boughton that are still there. Obversely, for houses where the contents have been dispersed and the collections sold- for example, the pictures from Houghton--an inventory is often the only document that records what the collection contained and how it was displayed.

Inventories also provide invaluable insight into the standard of living and possessions of the servant class as well as the aristocracy. The variety and hierarchy of soft furnishings indicate the relative levels of luxury, with brocatelle, sarcenet, velvet and damask decorating the family apartments, and materials such as serge appearing in the servants' quarters. Careful consultation of an inventory can also reveal unexpected information about the quirks of a household, the composition of the staff, their level of comfort, even the comparative prosperity of one household and another. Changes of taste and fashion are also recorded in inventories and they offer a comparison between the furnishings deemed suitable for life in London and those for residence in the country.

As documents, inventories therefore provide an invaluable source of primary information that can assist the researcher in setting households in their historical context; they also supply a key to understanding daily life in the 18th century. With this selection of inventories, carefully edited by Tessa Murdoch, Cornforth hoped to inspire another generation of scholars to take his work forward into the 21st century.

Susan Jenkins is Senior Curator, Special Projects for English Heritage, based at Apsley House, London.
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Title Annotation:book; Noble Households: Eighteenth-Century Inventories of Great English Houses. A Tribute to John Cornforth
Author:Jenkins, Susan
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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