Show­ing the love at home

A new book takes a look at some of the most lav­ish and ro­man­tic of English homes, writes Carol O’cal­laghan

Irish Examiner - Property & Interiors - - Interiors -

Pe­riod dra­mas have us drool­ing over English his­toric houses of a grand and, of­ten, os­ten­ta­tious type, some lived in by gen­er­a­tions of the same fam­ily, oth­ers con­served by ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tions like English Her­itage and the Na­tional Trust.

All bring cer­tain ro­man­tic tones with them by virtue of his­tory, with layer upon layer of ar­chi­tec­tural and styling laid down by dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions, of­ten ini­ti­ated by the ti­tled and en­ti­tled young scions of aris­to­cratic fam­i­lies who were sent abroad for a cou­ple of years to do the pre­cur­sor of the gap year, the Grand Tour, be­fore mar­ry­ing a suit­able young lady.

These cool kids of their day of­ten re­turned with grand no­tions of build­ing houses to im­press, tak­ing their ideas from the neo-clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture they dis­cov­ered in Italy, and fit­ting in the col­lec­tions of art and ob­jects they picked up as they caroused their way across Europe.

But while lay­ers of his­tory can sug­gest ro­mance, some builds have erred on the cold side of awe­some­ness, lack­ing the in­ti­macy and com­fort syn­ony­mous with ro­mance. So when pub­lish­ers CICO Books re­cruited ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian Robert O’byrne to write a book called Ro­man­tic English Homes, it ne­ces­si­tated a broader sweep for ma­te­rial to fill it be­yond the grand, of­ten pala­tial, coun­try house.

“They wanted a mix, and not all big houses, some­times called stately homes,” says O’byrne. “The word ‘ro­man­tic’ which was cho­sen by the pub­lisher, in­formed the se­lec­tion of houses, so no mod­ern builds.”

The fin­ished se­lec­tion runs to 14 homes, di­vided into three sec­tions: Fam­ily houses, manor houses, and coun­try houses. It begs the ques­tion: How were they found and who per­suaded them to al­low some­one in for a bit of in­te­ri­ors voyeurism with a pho­tog­ra­pher?

“I know all the own­ers,” ex­plains O’byrne, “and I knew the pho­tog­ra­pher. In fact it was he who first ap­proached me as he was think­ing of do­ing a book.”

That ini­tial ap­proach re­sulted in a col­lab­o­ra­tion on the first of two books along the ro­man­tic theme com­mis­sioned by CICO. It was named Ro­man­tic Ir­ish Homes, so Ro­man­tic English Homes was a nat­u­ral fol­low-on.

With some of the house own­ers friends of O’byrne, it re­quired some di­plo­macy if they weren’t a fit. “I told them I was do­ing this book and some put me in touch with other own­ers.

“It wasn’t dif­fi­cult to per­suade peo­ple to do it, but some wanted the names and lo­ca­tions to be anony­mous. There were a cou­ple of fan­tas­tic houses not in­cluded in the fi­nal se­lec­tion.

“Some­times a house might have a few great rooms but not enough over­all to carry the house.”

The fin­ished prod­uct is pres- ented with a glimpse into the his­tory of each, pep­pered with en­gag­ing anec­dotes about it or the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment that one might ex­change be­fore one of their fire­places in the com­pany of friends.

It’s an easy and con­vivial read, but also chrono­log­i­cally ac­cu­rate and in­for­ma­tive, and tes­ta­ment to the knowl­edge of the au­thor, whose stud­ies in his­tory and his­tory of art and a ca­reer in writ­ing about his­toric ar­chi­tec­ture in­forms the con­fi­dent ease and charm of the prose, sup­ported by the pho­tog­ra­phy of Si­mon Brown which cap­tures the homes ma­te­rial charm.

Over­all, he’s had a pos­i­tive re­sponse from the own­ers of the houses. “I took care to al­ways check facts and de­tails with them. They’re all still speak­ing to me, the din­ner in­vi­ta­tions didn’t dry up,” he quips.

It’s this knowl­edge, fa­mil­iar­ity with his topic, and his per­sonal con­nec­tions with the house own­ers which meant he was also ap­proached by the pro­duc­ers of the pop­u­lar RTÉ1 se­ries, Lords and La­dles.

This back­ground in­volve­ment led to a cameo role as a guest around the din­ing ta­ble in sev­eral of the episodes, where along with the coun­try house owner and sev­eral of their friends, O’byrne tucks into grand meals that would have been served in the house’s hey­day of lav­ish en­ter­tain­ing.

Some­times de­li­cious, al­ways in­volv­ing mul­ti­ple courses, there have, how­ever, been a few dishes which taxed the chefs to pre­pare and the din­ers to con­sume. Turkey tes­ti­cles and cox­combs, in par­tic­u­lar, spring to mind.

Also in de­mand abroad for speak­ing en­gage­ments on Ir­ish his­tor­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture, and as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Ir­ish Ge­or­gian So­ci­ety, O’byrne’s rep­u­ta­tion pre­ceded him re­cently on a visit to South Carolina, one of the old­est cities in the US.

“I was giv­ing a talk in Charleston for the Ir­ish Ge­or­gian So­ci­ety,” he ex­plains, “and there was a group of ar­chi­tects there who wanted to meet me. They were fol­low­ing my In­sta­gram ac­count about Ir­ish his­toric ar­chi­tec­ture.”

It turns out they are among 18,000 fol­low­ers he has un­der the name ‘The Ir­ish Aes­thete’ (not an oxy­moron, he adds be­neath the ti­tle), which also heads up his blog.

Nearer to home, Ro­man­tic English Homes took him a year to com­plete, in­volv­ing a con­sid­er­able amount of driv­ing from Corn­wall to Northum­ber­land. And all have the nec­es­sary de­gree of com­fort to make a house a home, so while some may be grand, they’re also smart and well or­dered.

But there are re­minders through­out that Eng­land is a coun­try of pageantry, of pomp and cir­cum­stance, and no one does it bet­ter.

It’s also a coun­try that hasn’t been in­vaded since 1066 when Wil­liam the Con­querer made his pres­ence felt, O’byrne re­minds us, but for­eign in­flu­ences have fil­tered into English homes with stealth through clas­si­cal in­spired ar­chi­tec­ture, French ro­coco, and ori­en­tal Chi­nois­erie styles. It’s those Grand Tours again.

There are gen­tle re­minders, too, of es­sen­tially English con­cerns, as in a his­toric ci­ta­tion of the price of a chim­ney piece, bring­ing to mind Jane Austin’s char­ac­ter Mr Collins who waxed about Lady Cather­ine de Bourgh’s pricey fire­place in Pride and Prej­u­dice.

In­deed, there are a num­ber of spe­cific ref­er­ences to lit­er­ary con­nec­tions with some of these homes, or at least the lo­cal­i­ties, along­side mod­ern ref­er­ences, which, sur­pris­ingly, have their roots in the past.

The stairs of a house built dur­ing the arts and crafts move­ment of the early 20th cen­tury was with re­cy­cled tim­bers in keep­ing with the move­ment’s phi­los­o­phy. So re­cy­cling isn’t as mod­ern as we thought.

Ro­man­tic English Homes, by Robert O’byrne, pho­tog­ra­phy by Si­mon Brown, pub­lished by CICO. €37.

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