The Story of the Country House by Clive Aslet – 50 Years in 50 Books

The Story of the Country House was first published in 2021, with the paperback released in Spring 2023. It is an authoritative and vivid account of the British country house, exploring how they have evolved with the changing political and economic landscape.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Clive Aslet reflects on his years spent working as editor for Country Life Magazine, encountering changes in public attitude towards the complex history of the country house and the fresh perspective he wanted his book to provide.

Article by Clive Aslet

My book, The Story of the Country House, distils 40 years of engagement with the subject. I began my career as an architectural writer for Country Life soon after leaving Cambridge in 1977 and stayed with the magazine for decades. Some of that time was spent as Deputy Editor, Editor and finally Editor-at-Large, during which I was responsible for more than just the architectural articles. But for me, they were always the heart of the magazine, the longest weekly feature around which everything else coalesced. This view may not have been shared by everyone: one of the joys of editing Country Life was that the staff comprised many specialist contributors, each of whom believed that his or her passion should take precedence over all else. But it was what Country Life’s first proprietor, Edward Hudson, said he had in mind when he founded it in 1897.

Country Life’s architectural articles are unusual, in that they require original research. Archives are consulted and unpublished or little-known letters, diary entries, drawings and memoirs are brought to light. When I joined the magazine, I wanted to compile a portfolio of articles on late 19th and early 20th century country houses which be translated into a book, roughly following the example of Mark Girouard’s The Victorian Country House. That, in turn, followed several volumes by Country Life writers on the Caroline and Georgian country house. Since I imagined my book would conclude the series, I rashly called it The Last Country Houses; it was published by Yale in 1982. There was a second reason for the title: country houses seemed to be a defunct building type, enormous numbers of them having been demolished over the previous century and few new ones of any substance being built to replace the losses. How wrong I was. The Thatcher decade saw a revival, both in terms of the restoration of old country houses and the design of new ones. Restoration is perhaps a misleading word here: those old houses were reimagined for a new age and came increasingly to reclaim those fallen into institutional use. The desire of rich people to own country houses hasn’t slackened in the 21st century. Traditional owners are finding novel ways to make an income from their estates and new owners seem to be richer than ever before, as though the social levelling of the 20th century had never happened. Whatever one thinks of the enormous disparities of wealth that exist between multi-billionaires and the rest of the population, future historians will be able to study the phenomenon through the country house.

Stansted Park, engraving by Kip and Knyff 

Having been close to the subject for so long, the suggestion that I might write a short narrative history of the country house could not be refused. I felt the warhorse in the Book of Job who saith among the trumpets Ha-ha, when smelling the battle afar off. Climbing back into harness, I realised I would have to work up some areas with which I was less familiar. In my early Country Life days, the Georgian period was firmly the preserve of other writers, so I did not have the chance to become acquainted with it in detail. Wouldn’t I have to revisit the country houses themselves? I drew up an itinerary that would have taken me around the whole of the British Isles. Then Covid-19 intervened and all travelling was off. This seemed, at first, a disaster. On reflection, I soon realised it was an unexpected blessing: not travelling would give me the time actually to write the book, and – as another Yale author told me – my unique selling point is, now, my long experience. A short history needs broad narrative arcs, interspersed with the insights that the writer can bring to the subject, not previously unpublished material that is the stuff of monographs. Given the pandemic, I had no option but to agree.

But the book would still, in other ways, be a challenge. Since I began writing a generation ago, public attitudes to the country house have changed. It has become a battleground. In the decades around the Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A Museum of the mid-1970s, architectural and cultural historians could hymn the country house as a Gesumptkunstwerk, in which domestic architecture, landscape, gardens, works of art, rich collections of many kinds, libraries, stables, kennels, model villages, mausolea and estate buildings came together in a particularly British whole. It was then evidently on the decline, except as a visitor attraction, and therefore politically harmless. The unexpected resilience of the building type – which has not merely refused to die but undergone the renaissance described – has increased its vulnerability to criticism, some of it quite just. Aesthetes of the past never paid much attention to the role of slavery in the Georgian economy. Scrutiny was overdue.

Blenheim Palace © Blenheim 2021

It was obvious that I had to address that and other difficult subjects in the book. And I also wanted to provide a perspective that was relevant to the present age in other ways. Why do people want country houses in the first place? Not long ago, status and field sports would have been a big part of the answer. These motives do not have the resonance for young software entrepreneurs that they had for City types in the 1980s. Instead, the environment – ‘rewilding’ – looms large, as does the desire for privacy. Privacy is a big issue for all of us, particularly online. The phone hacking scandal has revealed the vulnerability of celebrities to intrusive journalists. Billionaires are anxious about their security. If they’re famous, they risk their every move in public being snapped on someone’s mobile phone and put on social media. The country house is a self-contained Arcadia, beyond the range of prying lenses. You can be alone there with your friends and family. And yet, it struck me, how unfathomable that idea would have seemed to country house owners of every generation before the late 20th century. They had to live in close, sweaty proximity with the servants on whom they relied for every necessity of their existence. All that they did took place in front of – or not very far from – them. My research (necessarily, because of Covid-19, on the internet) took me to society trials for adultery. The legal evidence revealed a cast of housemaids, laundry-maids, porters and men of business, who had all made it their business to spy through keyholes, snoop around bedrooms and notice when the lady of the house was not at home to callers other than her lover. A wronged husband might not spring the trap himself but, in the case of Lord Abergavenny in the 1720s, he asked the steward and two male servants to hide in a closet for three hours one morning until they could catch the pair in bed.

These days, organisations like the National Trust tend to present country houses as places where the visiting public should feel at home. To make them accessible, they want to make them appear cosily familiar. That’s understandable enough but not historic. To me, the otherness of past lives is more thrilling than their superficial similarity to our own. 

About the Author:

Clive Aslet is a writer, commentator, historian, editor, and academic. He has written around twenty books on architecture and history and was editor of Country Life magazine from 1993 to 2006

About the book:

The Story of the Country House

This book is a fascinating study of Britain’s rich historical relationships with country houses. Clive Aslet reveals the captivating stories behind individual houses, their architects, and occupants, and paints a vivid picture of the wider context in which the country house in Britain flourished and subsequently fell into decline before enjoying a renaissance in the twenty-first century. The genesis, style, and purpose of architectural masterpieces such as Hardwick Hall, Hatfield House, and Chatsworth are explored, alongside the numerous country houses lost to war and economic decline. We also meet a cavalcade of characters, owners with all their dynastic obsessions and diverse sources of wealth, and architects such as Inigo Jones, Sir John Vanbrugh, Robert Adam, Sir John Soane and A.W.N. Pugin, who dazzled or in some cases outraged their contemporaries. The Story of the Country House takes a fresh look at this enduringly popular building type, exploring why it continues to hold such fascination for us today.

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Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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