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  • Interiors and Interiority in the Ornamental Dairy Tradition
  • Meredith Martin (bio)

The sudden death of England’s Queen Mary ii (1662–94) in December 1694 elicited an outpouring of national grief that manifested itself in massive funeral processions and a splendid mausoleum designed by Christopher Wren. In his eulogy at her funeral, Thomas Tenison, Archbishop of Canterbury, praised Mary for being an “incomparable wife” to William iii, and extolled her charity, economy, and humility: “How good, how happy a life was this! ... not of vain pleasure, and soft and unprofitable ease, but of true usefulness and comfort.”1 Later writers similarly celebrated Mary’s domestic virtues—recalling, for instance, how she spent her days practising needlework with her ladies. She was also praised for her self-restraint. In the third edition of King William’s Royal Diary (1705), which contained a section on “The character of his royal consort, Queen Mary ii,” the anonymous author points out that, if the queen had indulged at times in projects of “Architecture and Gardenage,” “she had no other inclinations besides this, to any Diversions that were expensive; and since this employed many Hands, she was pleased to say, That she hoped it would be forgiven her.” “As to the Sobriety which relates to the Palate,” the author continues, she “was so [End Page 357] far from being fond of great Dainties, that I heard her once say, That she could live in a Dairy.”2

Why is the building type of the dairy so revealing of Mary’s character? As a site of exemplary hygiene, temperance, and feminine productivity, the dairy was an architectural surrogate for the queen herself, just as it was for other elite women of her time. I will examine the intimate association between dairies and elite women in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century England, as that relationship was envisioned in a range of texts, including novels, household manuals, and architectural treatises. I focus on ornamental dairies that were built for such women patrons as Queen Mary ii, Queen Caroline, Elizabeth Yorke, and Elizabeth Craven and that distinguish themselves from working dairies by the care given to their architectural design, by their luxurious interior decoration, and by their representational, as opposed to practical, function. In this period, ornamental dairies were important sites of self-expression for royal and aristocratic women, who commissioned these buildings to engage with and, in some cases, subvert contemporary ideas of class, femininity, and domesticity. Ornamental dairies also offered women patrons the opportunity to work closely with such architects and entrepreneurs as John Soane and Josiah Wedgwood, who used this building type to experiment with new design ideas and explore new techniques of production and consumption.

In England, the association between dairies and women extends at least as far back as the medieval era, and is etymological as well as historical.3 A number of early modern treatises on household management discuss the practical and symbolic aspects of dairying, and associate well-run dairies with well-domesticated women. Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife, a popular tract first published in 1615, analogizes a spotlessly clean dairy to a housewife of spotless character, and idealizes certain attributes that relate to a woman’s work in the dairy: purity, patience, gentleness, delicacy, and charity. Many of these attributes later appear in conduct books as being naturally linked to “good” [End Page 358] women, but to Markham they are not so much essential female qualities as they are behaviours learned through activities that women perform in the dairy—among them caring for cows and other animals, handling dairy ware, and giving away milk products to impoverished neighbours.4

Dairies also satisfied an emotional need for women, according to Bartholomew Dowe’s A Dairie Booke for Good Huswives (1588). Dowe asserted that dairying helped women “withdraw ... from dumpes and sullen fantasies (being a common disease amongst women) to bee the quicker spirited, the better and the livelier occupied, and the lustier stomaked in all their business.”5 The implicit assumption in Dowe’s account—that women have a tendency towards indolence, poor appetite, and moodiness— presages the eighteenth-century invention of the boudoir (from the French verb bouder, to “sulk” or...


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