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Evolution of the English Country House

At Focus ’17 in London, Country Life Magazine held an interactive forum to discuss how the English Country House of the 21st century has evolved. Architect Niall McLaughlin, landscape architect Kim Wilkie and Interior Designer Audrey Carden, are all leaders in their specific fields and were major contributors at the event: This is my interpretation of some discussions.

The 17th Century roots of the English Country House was quintessentially that of a home. It was far from a manor-like status symbol, but rather inherently linked to the land with an interconnection to the animals who lived on it; all with an aim to creating good food in a self-sufficient way. With the obvious exception of farmers, English country house owners have, over a period of centuries, largely distanced themselves from that position and lost any close association with the land and its animals.

In the 18th century many affluent city Bankers moved out to the countryside and retained both country and city homes. They frequently purchased rotten boroughs then contracted architects and landscape gardeners like Capability Brown to provide elegant, large staffed estates where they could enjoy country life without getting their hands dirty. With their regimented vegetable patches contained in pretty walled gardens far from the main houses’ exquisite living and managed by servants, this differed significantly from the old countryside homes which had once been prevalent. Such large managed estates in due course diminished with the abolition of slavery and the ultimate decline in economically retained household staff.

In the 1950s John Entenza wrote in the American journal ‘Arts and Architecture’ that anybody could build their own house in an affordable way with steel structures, which steered a far larger proportion of US and UK society into constructing their own residences. Sustainability or sustainable sources, and the need to behave responsibly with regard to embodied energy, is an ethic which has waxed and waned over the decades, but property owners are now being financially incentivised into becoming increasingly mindful of their carbon footprint. It is widely recognised that new builds can install far more sustainable and passive measures than trying to factor them into an older building and homes, but even with the latter there is a shift in approach.

In recent years, larger numbers of wealthy people who were living in commuting distance of London had been developing a second house in the country to run in parallel with their London home. Nowadays, affluent London-based society may want their children to feel linked to land, but rather via weekend homes with organic gardening, herb patches and orchards. Carden drolly observes that “They all want a boot-room, but without the mud”. It seems that a new genre of people are currently moving out to the country, albeit not on a full time basis: When developing an English country home some people are now taking a more holistic view of designers and architects who are on the same page: Architects can often be involved up to certain point then stop - handing over the reins to a designer, but some people expect to buy into a lifestyle, with the developer providing the building, cabinetry, décor, and artwork, all finely decorated and furnished, (whereas others only have an architect simply because they have to).

McLaughlin claims that due to the unsustainable upkeep costs of large country piles we are increasingly seeing properties in the countryside commercially available to rent (i.e. Heveningham Hall developed by Jon Hunt). This resonates better with many people since the advent of Mansion Tax and paying for the upkeep of both an English Country house as well as a town house when the former is largely unfrequented in the summer months. Busy periods are usually from the start of autumn through until Xmas and in part up until Easter. This will be often for weekends only though, so the question keeps arising why people should keep on or build an expensive second property as opposed to renting.

While we are getting increasingly remote from the traditional styled country house of yester-year, we are also moving further away from interiors being British: The remit of interior designers involved in country residences is mostly to create something beautiful, but all too often, these properties could be anywhere. Clearly, owners want their country residences to feel substantially different from their city homes, but rarely are all the contents authentically and honestly sourced from England, as people are frequently more driven by elegance and cost than the provenance of materials.

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