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  • Creating Paradise: The Building of the English Country House, 1660–1880
  • Albert J. Schmidt
Creating Paradise: The Building of the English Country House, 1660–1880. By Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley (London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2000. xix plus 428pp. £25).

One lure to visit Britain is the country house. While massive Chatsworth and Blenheim are among the most publicized Wilson and Mackley are fairly dismissive of both. The authors play a larger field without showing any particular preference for large or small, palatial or plain houses. While grand Castle Howard in Yorkshire and Holkham Hall in Norfolk are clearly among their favorites, they are no less absorbed with the likes of Haveringland Hall and Heacham Hall in Norfolk and Henham Hall in Suffolk.

Why this kind of selectivity? It should be said right off: this is not your typical “house” book. Various other negatives apply: it is neither a general history of classical architecture in Britain, 1 a social history of the house, 2 a study of house layout, 3 nor one about family and servants. 4 Creating Paradise is not particularly landscape history nor does the issue of estate house survival and preservation pertain. 5 It touches only minimally on politics 6 and does not treat at all the house as a dimension of English property law. 7 Above all, Creating Paradise is not the usual coffee table variety long on pictures and short on substance. Because the work is less about architecture and architects and more about builders and building, building accounts and the like allow Wilson and Mackley to undertake this particular kind of study.

When Lady Frederick Cavendish remarked that “When one lives in Paradise, how hard it must be to ascend in heart and mind to heaven” (no doubt [End Page 272] enscounced in her Cliveden when she uttered these words), she captured a sentiment shared by many of her country aristocrats. House building, an arduous and often frustrating task, was also regarded a duty to be performed for one’s progeny and a responsibility to one’s self: it constituted both a social and political statement to contemporaries. The building enterprise became, consequently, a preoccupation of country gentlemen, whether dukes or squires, during England’s wondrous eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In nine chapters Wilson and Mackley sketch aspects essential to building. First of all, there was the house itself and what it said about power and culture. The coupling of these matters with taste and landscape is the nearest the authors come to themes commonplace in house books. Builders of the country house are also featured: they proved a diverse lot, whether the astonishingly wealthy first Duke of Westminster or an obscure Norfolk squire. The reader is introduced to both. Travel and its impact on building are major themes in this work. Visiting country homes became a famous (sometimes infamous) pastime. Great houses and the relative ease of turnpike travel attracted the inquisitive, whether self-styled connoisseurs who freely pontificated on acceptable architectural taste, or general sightseers. Not to be outdone by these domestic adventurers were those who went on the Grand Tour, especially to Italy but to other European locales as well. Theirs was an opportunity to harvest architectural ideas, often Palladian ones, which they tested on building projects at home. In fact, so consumed were these gentlemen by the notions of designing their houses that their relationships with architects were less the professional ones which we know today than those of patron and servant—a matter which Wilson and Mackley treat expertly.

The four chapters on building are the most important: “A Pleasure Not to be Envied” examines the many trials of building such as preparation for the undertaking, attending the workers, and worrying about materials. “The Pattern of Building” is a chronology of building in England from peaks in the 1720s and 1770s to its nadir in the 1880s. “The Cost of the Country House” is a mine of information gleaned from estimates, bill books, ledgers, agreements, and the like. From such sources the authors have compiled estimates for alteration as well as building. Finally, a chapter on “Building and Finance” treats matters such as debts...

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pp. 272-274
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