Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The English Country House ~ The Library

Those of us who love books very often have our own collections, carefully arranged on bookcases and shelves, or, in this modern age, stored in electronic devices. We correlate them by type (paperback or hardback), by author, by fiction or non-fiction, by subject. We caress them lovingly, re-read favourites over and over and admire glossy pictures in educational tomes.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books were also a sign of status and wealth. A leather-bound volume was an expensive item – a far cry from the digital e-book of today. Many landowners gathered together large collections of books, sometimes from all over the world, just for the distinction of possession and with little interest in their contents. That said, there were many scholars who collected rare manuscripts, and a classical education – including, of course, the Grand Tour – were a pre requisite of the English gentleman. It was considered of enormous importance that a Regency gentleman had a sound knowledge of the Antiquities, of politics, philosophy, literature and science, so a wide a range of subjects as possible was collected by most. The owner could thus converse with authority at his Club, at House Parties and other social occasions. Even the bruising rider to hounds could turn his mind to more elevated concerns when in the company of such notables of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as Sir Robert Walpole, John Locke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles James Fox and Thomas Charles Bunbury, to say nothing of the esteem conferred by ‘hob-nobbing’ with the Duke of Wellington, William Wilberforce, Lord George Byron and Beau Brummell.

The library was often a place of sanctuary for the master of the house, where he could smoke his pipe, indulge in a glass or two of brandy and contemplate upon his next speech in the Lords or how to persuade his lady not to bankrupt him during the course of his daughters’ comings out. It was usually furnished in a masculine style, with comfortable armchairs, robust cabinets and tables and a solid library table, the correct term for a flat-topped desk with drawers and knee space. As all aficionados of Georgette Heyer will know, a young lady desirous to ‘cut a dash’ in Society did not wish to be thought ‘bookish’. Too much book learning was not considered pleasing unless one was immensely wealthy, in which case one was likely to be indulgently deemed eccentric.

Sometimes, books were housed in specially constructed oak or walnut stepped units, such as at Boughton, where they were installed for the 1st Duke of Montagu. In earlier centuries, however, it was frequently the case that books were stored randomly and not placed with spines facing the observer as they are nowadays. At Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, early seventeenth century volumes are titled across the leaves between the opening edges of the covers. Furthermore, in Charlecote church, the marble tomb of Sir Thomas Lacy shows them carved in this way. By the Regency era, and the resurgence of classicism, many libraries became designed specifically to display the owner’s book collection. Pedimented bookcases to reflect the architecture can be seen at Holkham Hall in Norfolk, where they were a revolutionary introduction by William Kent. At Holkham, the fifty-four foot long library is part of Lord Leicester’s private apartments and is still used as a family room. I find it hard to imagine children and dogs rampaging around this elegance, though, as in the 1732 painting by William Hogarth of The Cholmondeley Family in a similar book room.

The painting belongs to a private collection and is currently on display in the Tate (Gallery).

The long library at Holkham Hall by John Chapman
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The original design for above the fireplace was an oval painting of Apollo with his lyre, but the lion depicted is an antique mosaic, brought back from his Grand Tour by Lord Leicester.

The pedimented feature on the bookcases was recreated at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire. Berrington was built by Thomas Harley, who inherited his library from his great-grandfather, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, who died in 1724. He was succeeded by his son Edward, who left this world in 1741. Sadly, much of the collection was sold in 1744. Edward Harley was ‘a close friend of Pope, Swift and Matthew Prior’ and was one of the first to instigate the practice of keeping large collections of books in the country, where there was greater opportunity to peruse and appreciate them. Unfortunately, those books enjoyed by Thomas Harley were sold by the 7th Lord Rodney, who turned the library into a billiard room.

Library, Berrington Hall

The library at Berrington has several interesting features for the historical author. The picture above (apologies for the quality) does not show the pediment on the fitted bookcases designed by Henry Holland, but it is reflected on the pier-table and over the fireplace, as are the narrow Ionic pilasters. A ‘Greek key’ decoration, embellished with mistletoe berries, links the various features. The frieze above has some lovely classical plasterwork to reflect the origins of the architecture, and on the ceiling there are ‘portrait medallions’, attributed to Biagio Rebecca, according to the guidebook, commemorating various famous authors. These are, clockwise from the fireplace, Matthew Prior (poet, political ally of Robert Harley), John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon and Joseph Addison.

Frieze, Berrington Hall

Fireplace, showing pediment and Ionic pilasters
Berrington Hall

Portrait Medallions, Library, Berrington Hall

On Wednesday 27 September 1826, diarist William Cobbett visited Stanford Court, the Worcestershire seat of Sir Thomas Winnington, while on one of his Rural Rides. He arrived on the previous day, and had time ‘…to see the place, to look at trees, and the like, and I wished to get away early this morning; but being prevailed on to stay to breakfast, here I am, at six o’clock in the morning, in one of the best and best-stocked private libraries that I ever saw; and, what is more, the owner, from what passed yesterday, when he brought me hither, convinced me that he was acquainted with the insides of the books. I asked, and shall ask, no questions about who got these books together; but the collection is such as, I am sure, I never saw before in a private house.’

In his Guide to Worcestershire of 1868, John Noakes wrote: ‘The Court is delightfully situated, and contains some good paintings and an extensive modern library, with also an ancient one, with panel paintings of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the attics, where Sir Thomas frequently brings to light MSS. of great value and interest.’

The house was almost destroyed on 5 December 1882, with only the ashlar-faced North Front surviving. The collection of manuscripts and books was sadly lost.

Indeed, by the close of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the library reached its height as a book room. It seems that Robert Adam was ahead of the game when he designed a library-sitting room combined at Kenwood House for Lord Mansfield. This was in a side wing, but was nevertheless designed to be a gathering place for guests as well as close members of the family. There are various allusions, in literature of the time, to rooms of this type containing such amusements as billiard tables, piano fortes, paintings, card tables and even French windows leading to gardens and/or conservatories. Paintings show groups of people conversing or engaged in other occupations. Lovers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will recall the scene where Lizzie and Miss Bingley patrol the room when Mr. Darcy is writing a letter.

In his Fragments, Humphrey Repton is said to have considered this switch of use of the library to a ‘general living-room’ and ‘the best-parlour… of late years the drawing-room, is now generally found a melancholy apartment, when entirely shut up and opened to give the visitors a formal cold reception’ an occurrence of fairly recent usage. However, this might not be the case. At Houghton Hall, Sir Robert Walpole installed his library next to his bedchamber and dressing room, while at Petworth in 1774, the King of Spain’s Bedchamber on the ground floor was converted by the 3rd Earl of Egremont into the present White Library.

The Drawing Room, Calke Abbey
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Comfortable clutter was, at times, overshadowed by architectural importance in the form of statuary, literary busts and portraits of men of letters and learning. This was often a conscious reflection of the philosophers, poets, playwrights and scientists whose works adorned the shelves. The Georgians had ever an eye for placement and design. Already mentioned in this article are the plaques on the ceiling at Berrington Hall. At Chesterfield House, a set of literary portraits, beginning with Chaucer and finishing with Dr. Johnson, were displayed in the library, while at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, there are busts by Peter Scheemakers of Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser, as well as a portrait of Pope by Jonathan Richardson.

Henry Holland’s library at Woburn Abbey is a warm, inviting room, in direct contrast to the austere and grand proportions of the same room at Sledmere Hall in Yorkshire, which looks more like a ballroom, especially since the carpet (lost in a fire that gutted the room in the first years of the twentieth century) was replaced with parquet. The bookshelves here are recessed into the wall, almost forgotten, whereas at Woburn they are proudly a part of the room’s architecture. Alongside the dry reports of parliamentary proceedings and matters of law, one-time necessaries in an Englishman’s library, march the 6th Duke of Bedford’s own volumes about the wildlife and plants to be found on the estates. Such tomes were surely far more inviting reads!

As remarked at the beginning of this piece, the library was considered a male preserve, as was also the case with the dining room. Lady Bessborough, a visitor to Woburn in 1797, is quoted as being very taken with the furnishings, describing the ‘…finest Editions magnificently bound…’, ‘…some very fine pictures…’, ‘…three great looking glasses, all the ornaments white and golden, and the furniture blue leather.’ Leather was often chosen as the upholstery for the library, since it would, in the way of a saddle or a fine pair of Hoby’s boots, mature and be the better for use, unlike the fragile velvet and silk fabrics employed in the saloons and drawing room. Not only would they speedily show signs of wear, they would need to be replaced according to the dictates of fashion.

Very little changes, it seems. Beautiful Georgian furniture can be picked up for a few pounds nowadays, while modern ‘designer’ suites will cost the purchaser a small fortune and last a quarter of the time – perhaps. I know which I would prefer.


Unless otherwise stated, photographs are the property of the author and may not be copied without the owner’s expressed permission.


© Heather King

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Twelfth Night Cake

Last year, I wrote a post about the celebrations traditionally associated with Twelfth Night and the now almost forgotten Twelfth-Day, which you can find here:

Twelfth Night Revels

The fifth of January is ‘the eve of the Epiphany, or Twelfth-night eve, arid is a night of preparation in some parts of England for the merriments which, to the present hour, distinguish Twelfth-day,’ states William Hone in his Every-day Book of 1825. Twelfth-Day, the sixth of January, is the Epiphany and commemorates the arrival in Bethlehem of the Three Wise Men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is on this night (Twelfth Night) that decorations are taken down and the King and Queen of the Bean are elected through the auspices of the Twelfth Cake. On the eve of the Epiphany, it is still the custom in parts of the country to toast the apple orchards with pitchers of cider, usually by forming a circle around one of the most fruitful trees and drinking ‘the following toast three times.’

“Here's to thee, old apple-tree,
hence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! caps full!
Bushel—bushel—sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!”

In days of yore, itinerant minstrels were given to taking a bowl of spiced wine from house to house, especially those of the gentry, where they expected the best of hospitality and to be toasted for their musical endeavours from the wassail bowl. It is a night for games, singing joyous songs and much merriment.

On Twelfth-Day, the confectioners pulled out all the stops to create fabulous displays in their shop windows, of a wide range of cakes and delicacies to suit all purses. These ranged from the most exotically decorated and iced confections – the largest on an enormous salver – to simple buns.

Scarcely a shop in London that offers a halfpenny plain bun to the purchase of a
hungry boy, is without Twelfth-cakes and finery in the windows on Twelfth-day.
The gingerbread-bakers—there are not many, compared with their number when
the writer was a consumer of their manufactured goods,—even the reduced
gingerbread-bakers periwig a few plum-buns with sugar-frost to-day, and coaxingly
interpolate them among their new made sixes, bath-cakes, parliament, and ladies’
fingers. Their staple-ware has leaves of untarnished dutch-gilt stuck on; their
 upright cylinder-shaped show-glasses, containing peppermint-drops, elecampane,
sugar-sticks, hard-bake, brandy-balls, and bulls'-eyes, are carefully polished; their
lolly-pops are fresh encased, and look as white as the stems of tobacco-pipes;
and their candlesticks are ornamented with fillets and bosses of writing paper;
or, if the candles rise from the bottom of inverted glass cones, they shine more
sparkling for the thorough cleaning of their receivers in the morning.


Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp'ry curl), or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round—dare not go back—and yet dare not advance.

One of the most celebrated, and possibly oldest, confectioners was at 15, Cornhill, established during George I’s reign by Mr. Horton. It was taken over by Lucas Birch, who was succeeded by his son Samuel, who was born in 1757 and among other offices, was Lord Mayor in 1815.

15, Cornhill

Traditionally, the Twelfth Cake was a very large fruit cake, iced and decorated. By the nineteenth century it was often garlanded with gilded paper and dressed with figures made out of marzipan, sugar-paste or Plaster of Paris. These could be crowns, coronets, swans, horses or people etc. 

…all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate.
Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions,
milk maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary,
painted with variegated colours, glitter by ‘excess of light’ from mirrors against the walls
festooned with artificial ‘wonders of Flora.’

Over time, this cake has evolved into what we know today as Christmas Cake. Twelfth Cake was baked with a dried bean and a dried pea in the mixture, one in each half of the cake. On Twelfth Night it was cut into slices and everyone in the household had a slice, no matter how lowly their position. Ladies were served from the left and gentlemen from the right. The man who got the bean became King for the night and the woman or girl who claimed the pea became Queen. Their rule lasted until midnight and it was an excuse for all kinds of jests, foolish commands and silliness. At house parties, sometimes a coin was put in the cake instead of the bean or another alternative was the drawing of tickets or characters (often produced by the confectioners).

Traditional Twelfth Cake

There is no standard recipe for Twelfth Cake. It can be a fruit cake or even a sponge cake (all you need to do is put ‘Twelfth Cake recipes’ into your search engine and many possibilities come up!) I have therefore searched Cookery books of the Regency era for those listed below.

This is possibly the first printed recipe for Twelfth Cake and comes from The Art of Cookery by John Mollard, published in 1802. It is somewhat large!

Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yest and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron. When the sponge is risen mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery quotes three recipes for Twelfth Cake, one of which is Morrell’s, above. This is also a massive cake.

Before beginning to mix the cake all the ingredients should be pre-pared, the flour dried and sifted, the currants washed, di-ied, and picked, the nutmegs grated, the spices pounded, the candied fruit cut into thin slices, the almonds bruised with orange-flower or rose water, but not to a paste, the sugar sifted, and the eggs thoroughly whisked, yolks and whites separately. Care should be taken to make the cake and to keep the fruit in a warm place, and, unless the weather is very warm, to whisk the eggs in a pan set in another containing hot water. To make the cake, put two pounds of fresh butter into a large bowl, and beat it with the hand to a smooth cream: then add two pounds of powdered sugar, a large nutmeg grated, and a quarter of an ounce each of powdered cinnamon, powdered mace, powdered ginger, and powdered allspice. Beat the mixture for ten minutes, add gradually twenty eggs, and beat the cake for twenty minutes. Work in two pounds of flour, four pounds of currants, half a pound of bruised almonds, half a pound each of candied orange, candied lemon, and candied citron, and, last of all, a claret-glassful of brandy, and beat the cake lightly between every addition. Line a baking-hoop with doubled paper well buttered, pour in the mixture, and be careful that it does no more than three-parts fill it, that there may be room for the cake to rise. Cover the top with paper, set the tin on an inverted plate in the oven to keep it from burning at the bottom, and bake in a slow but well-heated oven. When it is nearly cold, cover it as smoothly as possible with sugar-icing three-quarters of an inch thick (see Frost or Icing for Cakes). Ornament with fancy articles of any kind, with a high ornament in the centre : these may frequently be hired of the confectioner. In order to ascertain whether the cake is done enough, plunge a bright knife into the centre of it, and if it comes out bright and clear the cake is done. A cake of this description will, if properly made, and kept in a cool dry place, keep for twelve months. If cut too soon it will crumble and fall to pieces. It will be at its best when it has been kept four months. Time to bake, four hours and a half. Probable cost, 12s. for this quantity.

Then this recipe is of great interest to Regency aficionados. It is of rather more modest size. 

Twelfth Cake, Lady Caroline Lamb's. —

 Quarter of a peck of pure flour carefully dried, three pounds of cui-rants, a quarter of a pound of raisins, half a pound of refined sugar, quarter of a pound of sweet and half an ounce of bitter almonds blanched and sliced, two ounces of orange and two ounces of candied lemon-peel, and spices according to taste, mix all thoroughly; then take one pint of cream, and put to it three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter washed first in pure and afterwards in rose-water; place in a gentle heat. Beat up the white and yolks, separately, of six eggs, and the yolks only of six more. Add to them a little rose-water, two table- spoonfuls of cardamom brandy, half a glassful of old Rhenish, hock, or champagne, quarter of a pint of fresh yeast, and a little fine salt. Mix the liquids together, strain them, add the dry materials warm, and mix the whole into a light smooth batter. Place it before a fire for twenty minutes to rise, butter your hoop, and use what flour is necessary to make the cake sufficiently stiff. Set it in the oven with some sheets of brown paper well floured to prevent its burning. In about a couple of hours it will be done. Ice it in the usual manner, and stick any ornaments you choose upon the icing before it is dry. 

In his Book of Christmas of 1888, Thomas Hervey quotes an account from an earlier work, the Cook and Confectioner’s Dictionary, edited by one Nutt. According to Mr. Nutt, the nursery rhyme ‘Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pye,’ who ‘When the pye was opened all began to sing,’ was based on fact. It seems there were ‘two great pies, made of coarse paste and bran, into one of which, after it was baked, live frogs were introduced, and into the other, live birds; which, upon some curious persons lifting up the covers, would jump and fly about the room, causing ‘a surprising and diverting hurly-burly among the guests.’

Thomas Hervey continues to describe Victorian Twelfth Cakes:

What feeble imitations are the castles, ships, and animals that now adorn our Twelfth-night cakes, to the performances of Nutt! How much, every way, inferior are the specimens of art produced, even by the renowned author of the ‘Italian Confectioner,’ the illustrious Jarrin!

On the battlements of the castles of former days were planted ‘kexes,’ or pop-guns, charged with gunpowder, to be fired upon a pastry ship, with ‘masts,’ ropes, we doubt not of spun sugar, ‘sails, flags, and streamers.’ Nor was the naval power of England lost sight of; for the ‘kexes’ of this delicious ship were, also, charged with gunpowder, and, when she was fired upon from the castle, her guns were able to return the salute.

In order to get rid of the smell of the powder, eggshells were prepared, filled with rose water, which guests then threw at each other! Finally, there was ‘a stag of pastry filled with claret…’ ‘…which, when wounded, poured forth its blood, free and sparkling as a ruby, for those whose nerves were delicate and needed the refreshment of a glass of wine.’

How modest in comparison are our celebrations today, but then, the Georgians really knew how to feast and make merry!

 A very merry Twelfth Night to you all!

Images from non-copyright books quoted unless otherwise stated. 

© Heather King