Thursday, 30 July 2020

Caring For The Sick Or Elderly Horse

Since I am currently nursing an elderly pony, it occurred to me that this would be a useful article to write. After all, nowadays we have the skills and knowledge of talented veterinary surgeons to turn to, and a variety of especially formulated feeds with which to tempt a fussy feeder or one with poor dentition. Two hundred years ago, this was not the case.

In the Regency, although the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons had come into being in 1791 as The Veterinary College, London, for many horses medical care and treatment came from either a groom or the local farrier. There are many books of ‘Horse Management’ written by farriers and horsemen of the era, and some of the treatments recommended are nothing short of barbaric, at least to a twenty-first century horsewoman’s eye. For all their strength, horses are, in many ways, fragile creatures and subject to various conditions.

The following comes from a Veterinary Pathology volume of 1804 and is less severe than many:
Stomachic Balls.
Take Peruvian bark in fine powder, eight ounces; grains of paradise in fine powder, two ounces; gentian in powder, Columba root in powder, of each three ounces; honey sufficient to form the whole sixteen of a proper consistency, and divide into sixteen balls.
One of these balls may be given every morning, and will be found excellent for indigestion and loss of appetite.
Of the above, honey is the only ingredient I would use for a horse with loss of appetite and debility. However, if the Peruvian bark mentioned is Cat’s Claw, that has anti-cancer properties and is of great use where ‘wastage’ or digestion issues occur from such a cause. Grains of paradise, also known as alligator pepper and Guinea grains, among others, was mentioned by Pliny as African pepper. In the Bake of Nurture, John Russell described grains of paradise as ‘hot and moist’. Whilst warming and soothing in small doses, I’m not sure I would want pepper shoved down my throat if my stomach was ‘off’! Purported to be useful in cardiovascular health, nowadays it is more often used as a condiment. Columba root has a bitter taste and is used to combat anaemia. Forget the bright purple colour, Gentian is a herb renowned for its medicinal properties. Digestive problems such as bloating, heartburn, diarrhoea and loss of appetite are all indicated in the use of Gentian. A word of caution though – herbs can be as strong in their effects as modern drugs and I would not advise their usage without the requisite knowledge or supervision.

Honey, on the other hand, is soothing, antiseptic and provides much-needed nutrition in an easily absorbed form, especially if the horse is debilitated through diarrhoea. Mixed with water and a small quantity of salt, it makes a simple electrolyte solution which most horses will readily drink. It is important to remember that while a horse can survive thirty days without food, he can manage only forty-eight hours without water. Thus it is essential that a sick or debilitated horse has access to fresh water at all times. If exhausted, a drink of chilled water may be offered, which, despite the name, is cold water with a little warm water added to take off the chill. Very cold water can be a shock to the system and even cause colic.

The Regency groom would have regularly offered water to his charges from a wooden or steel pail, since they were too easily kicked over where horses were housed in stalls – and automatic watering systems were a long way in the future! A horse will often wash his mouth without taking a drink, so the water must be changed frequently. Were a bucket of water to be placed beneath the manger, feed or hay would soon foul it. Horses are finicky about their feed and water and will starve themselves sooner than ingest anything contaminated.

There are times when, like a sick person, a horse may be so debilitated he may have lost the will to drink as well as eat. What, therefore, can we do? If holding a bucket up to his mouth will not do the trick, we have to be sneaky. Fair means or foul. If something tempting added does not work (and I am always wary of adding anything to water), then water must be introduced by other means – hosepipe, bottle or cup. I used a well-rinsed squeezy bottle to wash out my pony’s mouth. He would not have appreciated the hosepipe! Lacking either of these, the Regency groom would have made use of anything at his disposal – probably a bottle or cup.

If the horse will eat, hydration can be assisted by giving feeds made into a sloppy mash or even a gruel which the horse can slurp or drink. Nowadays, there are many proprietary conditioning feeds on the market, designed for veteran horses and those with poor dentition. Deciding which to choose can be a problem in itself, and then, when you get a 20 kg sack home and your horse turns up his nose, also an expensive one. I do wish manufacturers would offer small bags too, so a new feed may be ‘run by’ the horse before a big sack bought.

Lacking these scientifically formulated feeds, what did the Regency groom do? Firstly, this might be a good place to remind the historical author to beware of giving their characters twenty-first century sentiment with regards their horses. The horse was a tool, a beast of burden, transport and conveyance of sport, not, on the whole, one of man’s best friends. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. While he was respected and considered with affection in the case of a favourite, for the majority of animals, if they could no longer work or were severely afflicted, they were disposed of. Once a horse could no longer chew effectively, in most cases it signalled the end. That said, there are traditional methods of preparing feeds to tempt the finicky feeder or horse debilitated after illness.

Above, I mentioned gruel. A true gruel is made from oatmeal, something readily available on any country estate. Oats are still considered the main feed for hard-working horses, especially in the worlds of racing and hunting, despite the myriad compound competition mixes now available to the horse owner. Gruel made from oatmeal is refreshing, palatable and easily digestible. Put a double handful of oatmeal in a bucket, add a little cold water (to prevent lumps forming) and stir thoroughly. Add one and a half gallons of hot water and stir once more. Allow to cool before giving to the horse. Do not use boiling water as this produces a compound which is too starchy for an exhausted or weakened digestion. Of course, there will always be the stubborn individual who will turn up his nose, so what then?

The first food of all mammals, milk is useful to stimulate appetite in the horse, but again, beware! Horses cannot assimilate cow’s milk and therefore skimmed milk, watered down further, should be used, and not too much. I gave my pony small quantities of plain yoghurt, as it is a probiotic and easy to digest, to help stimulate his desire to eat. Since he needed energy, and quickly, I also gave him (half a mugful at a time) porridge made with watered skimmed milk and mixed with molasses. Fair means or foul! I had to spoon-feed him like a baby, but by the afternoon he was nibbling at some chaff and sugar beet pulp my other pony had left. The first rule of feeding is Little and Often, so I fed him at hourly intervals and then 1½ – 2 hours apart. Sugar is another good way to give a horse energy, just as it is with humans. A whole packet of extra strong mints, one after the other, went quite a long way towards lessening his apathy too, I suspect! It was the first sign of enthusiasm and it gave me hope. The latter the Regency groom did not have, nor yet polos, but porridge he could well have made use off.

Once the horse’s desire to eat has been triggered, it is important not to overload the system. Feeds should be soft and easy to eat, just as with a baby. This is where the rules can be set aside – No Sudden Changes of Diet, for instance. The important thing is to get food into the starved or debilitated horse, and while he has evolved to process large quantities of fibre in the form of grass, in this instance he needs nutritious feed high in calories. Back to the expensive search of the feed merchant’s shelves for the modern owner, to find one their beloved charger will deign to fancy. For the Georgian, Regency or Victorian horse, this would have meant bran mashes, with an added handful of oats or barley, molasses, boiled barley or linseed, or cooked, mashed peas and beans. These are not the peas and beans you buy from Aldi (other supermarkets are available); they are legumes with hard shells and must be split, crushed or cooked before feeding. They are very rich in protein, heating like oats and fattening. In a healthy horse, either wintered out at grass or in work where fast paces are not required, one part peas/beans can be mixed with two parts oats, by weight, where grain is fed.

Barley is also a very hard grain and must have the outer shell broken in some way to allow the digestive juices to act on the starch inside. Nowadays, the horse owner can buy micronized barley, which looks like cream-coloured cornflakes. It is steam-cooked and then rolled into flakes, so can be fed straight from the sack or soaked to a mash. In the early eighteen hundreds, it would have been rolled or boiled. Huge pans were set on the stove or over a fire and the barley boiled for two to three hours or until it became soft and pulpy. It makes a horrid, sticky mess of the pan! Alternatively, in this modern age, sufficient for one horse can be made in a crock pot. Cover the quantity of barley with about two inches of water and cook on a low setting for six to eight hours. This can then be added to a bran mash or fed as it is. Oats may also be boiled but absorb a lot of water. The digestive juices are then diluted and the horse becomes fat but also soft in condition. While this is not a problem for our elderly or sick horse, it would be detrimental for the animal in hard work. In the latter case, steaming is better.

Barley, Public Domain

A cautionary note regarding barley and the elderly horse: If fed long-term, the starch levels can become hard to digest where the horse cannot ingest sufficient fibre , either through poor dentition or other issues, and may cause diarrhoea. Boiled grain, or one of the many extruded feeds now available, have the advantage of grinding the cereal and steam heating in a technologically advanced version of pressure cooking, which makes the food more digestible. A well-known British manufacturer makes barley rings, which can be hand-fed if necessary. I said we had to be sneaky! Nevertheless, it is important to ensure the fibre content of the horse’s diet. This can be provided by grazing, hay, haylage or, if necessary, soaked fibre pellets, alfalfa, grass pellets etc. Sugar beet is also a good source of fibre.

Linseed, Public Domain

Another useful feed to tempt the appetite and improve condition is linseed. Linseed is highly nutritious, being rich in oils and protein, and gives a gloss to the coat; it is also poisonous to horses as it contains prussic acid, but this is destroyed in cooking. The raw seed must be soaked overnight, more water added and then boiled rapidly for a few minutes before being left to simmer until a jelly forms. When cool it must be fed immediately. Most establishments keep an old pan for the purpose because it makes a dreadful mess of the vessel – and the stove if it boils over, so beware! It also burns easily, so an insulated boiler is best. Linseed tea is prepared the same way but with more water. Very nutritious, the ‘tea’ is added to bran to make a linseed mash (see below).

A bran mash is the traditional feed given to a horse the evening after a day’s hunting or other period of intense activity, and has been so since man first ground wheat to make flour. Easily assimilated, it soothes the digestive tract of a tired horse on high levels of grain. While today we consider this a sudden change of diet and that it is better to halve the ‘hard food’ ration, replacing with hay, if it is a case of persuading a horse to eat, the rule may be disregarded. To make a bran mash more appetizing, a handful of oats, some linseed, treacle or molasses may be added after ‘cooking’.

To make a bran mash:
(Note: A wooden bucket is unsuitable.)
To a metal pail add one third of bran and as much boiling water as it will absorb and half an ounce of salt. Stir well and cover to retain steam and allow bran to cook until cool. It should be crumbly, not wet and sloppy or stiff. Add molasses, oats or a few succulents and feed when cool enough.

When fed dampened or as a mash, bran has a gentle laxative effect; fed dry, it has the opposite effect, so can be used in cases of mild diarrhoea or following a dose of physic.

Here is another recipe from the Veterinary Pathology:

Mild Drink for Pains of the Bowels, Looseness, or Difficulty in Staling.
Take gum-arabic in powder two ounces; dissolve it in three quarts of boiling water; when cold, add tincture of opium, half an ounce, and mix them well together.
This mixture may be given every six hours, in violent looseness, pains of the intestines, or where there is great difficulty in staling.

With opium in there, I should think the horse wouldn’t have a care in the world! As with the modern food industry, where it is used as an emulsifier and stabilizer, gum arabic is a thickening and binding agent, so it is the opium which is the medicament here!

One of the best tonics for a sick or debilitated horse is ‘Doctor Green’. This is a horseman’s term, probably dating from the late nineteenth century, for time at grass. Horses have evolved to eat grass and lots of it. Just an hour a day in the field can be enough to sweeten a jaded appetite and refresh the horse’s enthusiasm for work. For centuries we have kept them in stables for our own convenience (particularly so those belonging to the gentry and aristocracy of a bygone age), yet this can be detrimental to the animal’s well-being. If the horse is too ill to go out to pasture, then walking out in hand, allowing him to nibble on herbs and grasses as he wishes, hand feeding freshly picked grass or chopped roots such as carrots, beetroots, turnips, swedes and mangolds will all assist in recovery. Roots are succulent and add interest, variety and bulk.. Beets were also traditionally fed. Although now required for sugar manufacture, sugar beet pulp, cubes and quick-soak flakes are all available in convenient sacks. All must be soaked before feeding, the time and quantity of water varying with the level of concentrate.

Warmth is essential, for if the horse is cold he will use his energy reserves for heat instead of healing or maintaining weight. This cannot be provided at the expense of fresh air, though. Blankets can be too heavy for a frail horse, so a deep, thick bed must be provided and a thin wool blanket for the Regency horse, held in place by a surcingle not too tightly secured, or a light rug for the invalid equine of the twenty-first century. As remarked above, change the water frequently, because it becomes flat in the stable, in addition to being contaminated by dust, feed or saliva/nasal discharge. Keep mangers or feed buckets scrupulously clean and remove rejected feed promptly. Stale food will not encourage him to eat! If the condition is contagious or infectious, the horse will need to be isolated and appropriate actions taken to prevent spread to other inhabitants of the stable.

A stable with two running horses, James Seymour
Public Domain

Much of the above refers to a horse weakened through fasting or illness. Many of these considerations also apply to the elderly horse. As with people, an old horse can lose appetite for a variety of reasons, including ‘going off’ a particular diet. The old adage, The eye of the master maketh the horse fat is never more pertinent than with the aged equine. A horse’s teeth do not wear evenly. Sharp edges are worn on the molars as the horse grinds his food and must be rasped regularly. Since the old horse dealer’s trick of ‘bishoping’, i.e. filing the teeth to make a horse appear younger, was known in the early eighteenth century, it it likely teeth were rasped for non-nefarious purposes too.

Neglecting the worming of the horse can cause damage which can have long-term effects on the internal organs, causing problems for the veteran. Feeding soft, nutritious feeds when the ability to chew is impaired can prolong the useful life (or happy retirement in modern times) of the individual. Health comes from within, yet keeping the coat well groomed stimulates the production of oils, removes dirt and dandruff from the skin, massages, deters parasites and gives the opportunity to detect wounds, rashes and other skin problems. Lice, in particular, can cause loss of condition and irritability through intense itching. Conditions such as Alopecia can cause loss of appetite, as can an impairment of the immune system, which is common in elderly horses. Afflictions of the pituitary gland like Cushings Disease, Lymphoma and other cancers, and systemic illnesses such as liver failure are just a few more hidden horrors. Be prepared therefore – as would have been the groom of yore, if worth his salt – to adjust, re-evaluate and think laterally in order to restore your sick horse to health or keep condition on your veteran. Above all, whether the horse is ill, debilitated, convalescing or elderly, he must be allowed to rest and enjoy peace and quiet. The groom of yesteryear would have mended and/or cleaned saddlery, or some other quiet occupation, so as to be on hand if his charge had need of him.

The Duke of Wellington’s famous charger, Copenhagen, lived a long and happy (as far as a cantankerous old war horse can be) retirement at the Duke’s estate, Stratfield Saye in Hampshire, where he was well cared for, with a palatial stable and his own field near the ice-house. Despite becoming both blind and deaf, he reached the ripe old age of twenty-eight. He was celebrated, and treated with affection by his illustrious owner. I doubt many of his contemporaries were similarly fortunate.

© Heather King

Thursday, 16 July 2020

General Care of the (Regency) Horse

'Daily Routine'

Basic horse management has changed little over the centuries. Writing in the early seventeenth century, Gervase Markham recommended that following a half-day’s hunting, the horse should be rubbed until dry, then unsaddled and his back rubbed. Having been rugged up with a rug secured by ‘a surcingle well padded with straw’, he should be given ‘a feed of oats and hemp-seed, the gentlest and easiest scouring for a horse’. Then, before retiring, the horse should again be strapped, watered, fed and mucked out. He also advocated, after a longer day’s hunting, a more powerful purging of rosemary and sweet butter, followed by a warm gruel made up of oats, bran and malt. Approaching two hundred years before the Regency, therefore, the importance of resting – after strenuous work and before a day off – the digestive system of a fit horse, eating large quantities of grain, was recognized if perhaps not fully understood. Nowadays we would consider this a ‘sudden change of diet’ and something to be avoided, but for many years a bran mash has successfully been the traditional feed for horses following a hard day’s hunting, because it is easy to digest. Interestingly, Markham’s hunters were also fed garlic – albeit wrapped in butter rather than in the powder or granule form to be found in many modern equine stores – which only goes to prove the validity of the saying ‘what goes around comes around’.
A horse’s basic needs are simple. He requires food, water, a comfortable bed, time to rest, and to be kept clean in order to avoid injury and infection. He is a flight animal and so thrives best with quiet handling, a calm atmosphere and well-fitting harness. Ideally, he also needs some time at grass each day. If we remove the natural ability to roll, graze and exercise, we must provide those requirements in other ways. Exercise is provided under saddle or in hand, grass is provided in the form of hand-pulled or cut herbage or succulents such as apples, carrots, swedes and turnips, and the skin must be kept healthy through grooming. (See section on Daily Routine.)
In common with many other animals, the horse is prone to internal parasites. These should be treated every few weeks. Nowadays we use drugs such as anthelmintics, yet the practice of worming is nothing new.
The following excerpt illustrates that even in the seventeenth century, Markham was aware of the need to remove intestinal parasites:
Take the leaves of bore, and dry them at the fire till you may crush them to pieces, then mingle them with brimstone beaten to powder, and give it to your horse in his provender, yet very discreetly, as by little and little at once, lest your horse take a loathe to it and so refuse it. This purgeth the head, stomach, and entrails of all manner of filthiness, leaving nothing that is unsound or unclean: it cureth the cold, it killeth the worms, grubs or bots in a horse, and it never abaseth, but increaseth courage and flesh. Therefore it is to be given either to a foul horse or clean horse, but chiefly to the clean horse, because it shall preserve him from any foulness.”
From this can be seen that by the nineteenth century, and indeed, the twenty-first, while many advances have been made, much to do with the care of horses has remained the same for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. Veterinary surgeon George Skeavington gives a full description of a typical day in the stables of the early nineteenth century which demonstrates the labour involved for the men caring for a gentleman’s cattle. Here is a taster:

Stable hours should be kept with strict regularity; all animals appear to have a knowledge of time; and it may be observed, in many instances, they observe the periods as correctly as we, who have recourse to time-pieces; witness the dog, who, if he is accustomed to receive anything from your plate at meals, never fails to attend at the dinner-hour, though in the intervening time he will be roving a great distance; no wonder that the Horse, which, I may aver is not less sensible… …should know his stated hours; and if he is not attended to, particularly to feed and water at the accustomed time, will be watching and fretting with much anxiety, and oftentimes will call and ask for his food, in such manner, as those accustomed to Horses cannot fail to understand. Regular and stated hours should be punctually attended to, with as little variation, as the season or circumstances may require; five o’clock in summer; but as the days shorten a later hour is admissible, unless Horses are to be ready at an early hour for hunting, or otherwise; in such cases, two hours at least before they are wanted, the stable should be visited: if you do not allow yourself sufficient time, things cannot be done as they should.
The first thing to be done on going to stable, after casting your eye round to see if any Horses are loose, cast, or the like, is to rack and feed. The judgement in racking is to give the Horse but little at a time, that he may eat it with an appetite, first clearing out his rack, &c. &c. If a Horse leaves hay that is good and sweet, some cause must be assigned for it, and it must be examined into; sometimes cats will foul the hay, and Horses are very nice in their food, when not kept scanty. If the Horse appears to be in health, and the hay has not been blown on by other horses, but is fresh and sweet, I should judge he is too plentifully fed, and leaving hay for the sake of oats...
After having racked with hay, you next feed, as it is termed, that is serving the oats. I proceed in the routine that is to be daily observed; for, were I to treat of things out of this regular order, young hands might be studying what they should do, and what ought to be done first, and it is no uncommon thing to see some, that have been in the stable employment for a length of time, not know what thing to do first, and occasion themselves trouble and loss of time, by going wrong about things. Now, in serving the Oats, whatever is deemed a sufficient allowance for the Horse, for the day, whether it may be three quarterns or a peck, one-fourth of the quantity should now be given: as sweet and clean food is most agreeable to the Horse, as well as beneficial...
While the Horses are eating this first feed of corn, which you will recollect is to be given immediately on your entering the stable in the morning, prepare your saddles and exercising bridles ready to take them out; which being all ready and placed on for exercise, give your Horses a few go downs of water; then, if it be an establishment of some considerable extent, give orders to the stable boy to make fair the stable during your absence…
The stable being made clean, next commence cleaning your Horses; this is a work that requires more knowledge and judgement than at first appears.
The morning’s business of the stable being thus completed, the Horse will require nothing until noon.

This, then, is a reduced description of the instructions for just the morning! It is little wonder that grooms of the Georgian era were men, since they had to work incredibly hard and for very long hours. Those of us who revere the horse, however - even to this day - consider it a labour of love and much to be preferred to stacking supermarket shelves or similar!

You can read more about the daily tasks and routine of the Regency groom in The Horse: An Historical Author's and Reader's Guide. 

(C) Heather King Images Public Domain

Sunday, 28 June 2020


Generally a room for show and display, the eighteenth century saloon (which bears little relation to the drinking establishments of the ‘Wild West’) and nineteenth century picture gallery began life as the medieval solar before being transformed into the Great Chamber of the Elizabethan mansion. This large room was architecturally grand, being intended as a show-piece for large gatherings and semi-public assemblies of mostly masculine company. A good example of this is the High Great Chamber at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, where plasterwork friezes and Brussels tapestries telling the story of Ulysses serve to remind the visitor of the insignificance of the human form. Difficult though it might be for a modern mind to comprehend, given its size, Hardwick was originally built as a hunting lodge. There are ‘banqueting houses’ in each tower, from where the spectacle of the chase could be observed – the fine gentlemen on their equally fine horses, the vociferous hounds, the beaters, yeoman prickers, archers and hawkers. In celebration of what has long been a favourite pastime of the privileged, Diana and her attendants thus grace a frieze in the High Great Chamber, setting out on the hunt through a magical green and leafy forest.

Hardwick Hall PD

Great Chambers were also used for feasting. In addition to the friezes, Hardwick has representations of the seasons of bounty on either side of the bay window: Spring, her flowers and other plants burgeoning into life, and opposite, the abundance of Summer. Between them stands, as it has done since the days of Bess of Hardwick, the heavy, famed eglantine table, its marquetry surface inlaid with boards for various dice and card games. In many such Great Chambers justice was also dispensed, taxes and rents collected and service orders issued on behalf of the local militia. Interestingly, although the ‘centre’ of the house in terms of formal ceremony and stewardship, the High Great Chamber at Hardwick is not in the centre of the house but to one side. In the Middle Ages such anomalies were overlooked, but a lack of order became less acceptable as architects looked for their designs to follow social precepts.

During the early years of the seventeenth century, the influence of Italian architect Andrea Palladio began to be seen in plans for English country houses. Now known as ‘Palladian’, one of his designs featured two large chambers, one above the other, in the centre of the house and smaller rooms then arranged in symmetry on either side. English architects immediately translated this as a central hall with a Great Chamber above, since the master would then be dining above his vassals in central dominion. Unfortunately for the lovers of symmetry, the typical English requirement for grand apartments for important guests and lesser accommodations for family did not easily adjust into this arrangement. However, it did adapt quite well for royal households, and once the advantages of symmetrical apartments for His and Her Majesty were recognized, a balanced arrangement of the two households could not but be the result. The Palladian plan was better suited to this end and soon began to be adopted by those lower down the social scale, leading to the decline of the old English style.

To begin with, the wealthy, with their need for display, could not resist ‘showing off’ the Great Chamber as a state room by the external means of a pediment with carved coat of arms or, better still, a grand portico! However, such conceits came at considerable cost. Around the middle of the sixteen hundreds, gentleman amateur Sir Roger Pratt designed a less ostentatious frontage at Coleshill House in Berkshire for his cousin, Sir George Pratt. Having spent five years on the Continent, he knew how French and Italian architecture was evolving, yet also understood what was required by the English gentry. At Coleshill, he built the house with a basement level. The ground floor then laid symmetrically, with a bedchamber, withdrawing chamber and parlour, all accompanied by inner closets, in three corners and steward’s room in the fourth. This allowed a two-storey Hall with Great Parlour behind, and above that, on the first floor, a Great Dining Chamber. A similar arrangement occupied the four corners, being a withdrawing chamber and three bedchambers with attendant closets. This was an adaptable arrangement, allowing for extra guest accommodation, be it withdrawing room, bedroom or parlour, as required. A long corridor dissected both floors between the Hall and Great Chambers, with back staircases at either end, a simple arrangement which was as yet an innovation. In order to maintain the symmetry, the main staircase was placed in the hall, and thus evolved the change from an eating room to a stately entrance, since it was now unfit for dining. The new style of entrance hall was also a magnificent ingress for the state chambers behind. Therefore the servants were moved to a servants’ hall beside the kitchen, which, along with the pantry, cellar, stores and offices, was in the basement. Externally, this great central purpose of the house was shown only by a flight of steps to the front door, a modest pediment and wider spaces between the windows.

Coleshill House, Berkshire PD

Staircase, Coleshill House
Country Life

Sir Roger designed three other houses after the Restoration of Charles II. The grandest was in Piccadilly for His Majesty’s first minster, the Earl of Clarendon. Once proclaimed the most magnificent house in England, Clarendon House was built on an H-shaped plan, with projecting wings to each side of a central pedimented bay. Due to the Earl’s position of power and the mansion’s prominent site, the design was imitated a great deal through the remaining decades of the seventeenth century. However, it had more influence on the style of country houses rather than the mansions of London. Belton House in Lincolnshire is perhaps the most celebrated example.

Clarendon House PD

Mentioned by Sir Roger Pratt in his writings, the saloon evolved from the ‘grand saloneduring this time. Created by Inigo Jones, the huge Double Cube room at Wilton House in Wiltshire was too gargantuan at thirty feet by sixty feet and thirty feet high to be copied in more than a very few residences, but the carved fruit and flowers on the panelling, the coved ceiling and the framed chimney-piece painting have all become standard fare. Yet, while some Great Chambers – for example, Knowle House in Kent – have elaborate panelling, as the seventeenth century progressed it became the custom to display large family portraits on the walls in place of the tapestries much used in earlier centuries. (These latter had a practical as well as decorative purpose, for they helped to protect the occupants from draughts.) Apparently, it was not unknown for peers to have totally imaginary portraits painted of forebears in armour or courtly robes, in the hopes of passing them off as from the Middle Ages.

Saloons are not necessarily built on a grand scale. The large chambers of the end of the sixteen hundreds gradually dwindled in succeeding centuries. As we have seen,, they were often built in the centre of the house, in tandem with the entrance hall, the so-called ‘state centre’ as described by Mark Girouard, with apartments containing bedchamber, dressing room, drawing room and closet occupying the house’s four corners. Nevertheless, with the function of the saloon gradually changing from feasting to a picture gallery and reception room for important guests, so the panelling and horse-hair covers (chosen for their imperviousness to the odours of food) gave way to rich wall-hangings and upholstery of velvet and silk. Gilt-framed furniture, including pier-glasses, side-tables, chairs and settees, all placed with a nice eye for symmetry, were introduced by William Kent at Houghton Hall for Sir Robert Walpole and very soon were copied across England.

At Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire, there is no saloon, but the Great Hall meets the criteria of the Great Chamber. The house bears a nineteenth century stone, with the date 1701, in the centre of its grand Georgian façade, but this could be the date of completion of works most likely carried out for Thomas Vernon, who inherited the estate in 1679. His grandfather, Edward Vernon, acquired the estate in 1631, thus the core of the house is Baroque in style. However, the reconstructed house is built on the E-plan, double-pile or ‘state centre’ arrangement employed by Sir Roger Pratt at Clarendon House. The Great Hall at Hanbury is low and long; the walls are covered in stained pine panelling around a wide, black marble fireplace. Opening directly into the hall, on the western side, is a dark wooden staircase. Both walls and ceilings above the staircase are painted with scenes (very much in the Baroque style) depicting, respectively, the life of Achilles and an assembly of the gods, the work of Sir James Thornhill. The doorways leading off the hall have arched tops and the ceiling is painted with corner panels representing the Seasons, and trompe l’oeil domes. The eastern circuit of rooms originally formed the ‘State Apartment’ and included the Great Parlour (now the Drawing Room), the Lobby (now the Dining Room), the Withdrawing Room, Bedchamber and Dressing Room.

Staircase, Great Hall, Hanbury Hall

Created by Sir Robert Smirke (architect of the British Museum) for the 1st Earl Somers, c. 1812 (opinions vary), Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire is a Gothic revival mansion. Some, not least Charles Locke Eastlake in A History of the Gothic Revival, viewed the house with a jaundiced eye, deeming it ‘a picturesque mistake’ as a residence. Indeed, as it was built with ‘exceedingly small and narrow’ windows, the lack of light must have caused considerable inconvenience, especially in the winter months. The castle is large and symmetrical, with ‘round, or rather quatrefoil, angle towers and a boldly raised centre.’ (Nikolaus Pevsner) For the purposes of this article, however, the main point of interest lies at the centre of the building. The Great Hall, approached via the main entrance hall, measures up to the proportions of a Great Chamber. Sixty feet long and sixty-five feet high, it reaches up three storeys and has but a single row of windows, high up, decorated with Venetian tracery. On a sunny day, the sunshine blazes down upon carved walnut benches, tables and chairs, designed by Robert Smirke for the house, and the highly decorated walls and furnishings introduced by G. E. Fox in the 1860s. Above the doorway from the entrance hall is a gallery supported on polished columns. Two suits of armour guard the arched doorway into the Octagon Room and, interestingly, given the later function of the Great Chamber as a picture gallery, various portraits also adorn the walls. There is a State Apartment on the first floor, including a bedchamber with walnut canopy bed and wardrobe, and adjoining it, a luxuriously appointed bathroom. It would seem that this variant on the ‘state centre’ was not unusual.

Great Hall. Eastnor Castle

Great Hall, Eastnor Castle

Travelling across Herefordshire to the tiny village of Yarpole, we find a real castle that still has connections with the family it was named for. Croft Castle is a large, irregular quadrangle in shape, built in either the late fourteenth or early fifteenth centuries, with some sixteenth or seventeenth century windows, although most are now sashed. The entrance, thought to have originally been a carriage archway into the inner courtyard, is now into a hall, added in about the mid eighteenth century. (The porch is a much later addition of 1914.) While some of the panelling and woodwork is Jacobean and late seventeenth century (notably in the Oak Room) and the Drawing Room has early eighteenth century panelling, most of the furnishings date to the Georgian era, c. 1750-60, when the house was renovated to transform it into a country mansion. It was during this time that the sash windows were added, along with much of the interior decoration, such as the rococo ceiling in the Oak Room, the painted panels in the Blue Room, the painted bookcases in the library and the wonderful Gothic staircase with its stunning plasterwork. The chimney-piece in the Blue Room is also rococo, although the ceiling there is Gothic. There is no Great Hall or Great Chamber, despite the castle’s medieval origins, and although there is a saloon, it is not behind the entrance hall as we have seen before. It is a southern-facing room of fair proportions and adjoins the library, which is situated at the south-east corner of the house. It has a pretty, decorated fireplace, moulded ceiling and frieze, Georgian sofas and chairs as well as gorgeous carpets and furniture. Several paintings – mostly portraits – hang in the saloon, which has doors leading to the Blue Room and the corridor serving the wing. It is certainly a room for entertaining, and it is easy to imagine the carpets being taken up, the chairs pushed back and for dancing to take place on the polished floorboards, as was often the custom in houses of the Georgian era lacking a ballroom or large gallery.

Croft Castle, East Front

Saloon Fireplace, Croft Castle

Although State Apartments as described above are not in the floor plan of Croome Court in Worcestershire, the piano nobile (principal floor) constructed by Lancelot Brown does have a state centre. The saloon is a light and airy room, set directly behind and leading from the entrance hall via a ‘screen’ of four fluted Doric columns and a cross-corridor that reflects the layout of the seventeenth century. Facing on to the south garden front, where a wide flight of steps are guarded by a pair of Coade stone sphinxes, the saloon has plasterwork painted gold, white and green. The coved ceiling is composed of three plain panels (by Francesco Vassalli) and, symmetrically placed on either side of the central doorway, are two fireplaces with fluted Ionic chimney-pieces. Brown was responsible for the understated nature of the decoration, with deep moulded cornices, elaborate mantels generally of Rococo design and, for the most part, unpedimented door-cases also carved on fluted columns. The broken pediment over the saloon door is one exception.

Broken pedimented door-case, Saloon into Hall
Croome Court, Author
Saloon, Croome Court

Hagley Hall, still home to the Lyttelton family, was also built with a saloon set behind the entrance hall, a corridor crossing between them to east and west staircases (as with Coleshill House), there being two overlapping circuits of rooms, one public and one private. The saloon is now the Crimson Dining Room, but was the start of the public circuit. Owning a fine Rococo ceiling of clouds and cherubs, it also boasted garlands and trophies decorating the walls. Such topics as painting, gardening, drama, music, literature and archery were represented by the trophies. A white and Siena marble chimney-piece surmounted on Ionic columns graced the fireplace and between the windows hung mirrors with stucco frames.

Motifs of fruit, flowers, animals, mythological creatures and classical figures, as used by Robert Adam at Saltram House, where honeysuckle and gryphons were repeated on chimney-pieces, cornices, carpets, chair frames, ceilings and even door furniture, were much copied. His use of colour on ceilings, where once the Rococo plasterwork had been painted a single shade, was also revolutionary. Moulded ceilings in Neoclassical design could not provide the same contrasts of light without the depth provided by colour, and thus Adam found inspiration in Greek and Roman temples for the strong pinks, blues and greys, accented by hints of black and red. Equally, as the fashion for picture galleries took hold, strong colours such as bright red or dark green became popular as background hues to set off gilt and carved frames where little wall space can be seen. Indeed, Sir Joshua Reynolds, when President of the Royal Academy, is said to have specified bright red silk damask for the galleries in that august establishment. It was an age of the best in English craftsmanship, for the attention to detail so important to Robert Adam was reflected in the gilt and carved borders used to hide the nails securing the silk, and in the manner in which those borders were shaped around door-cases and chimney-pieces.

Adam’s work naturally inspired other architects and, in due course, his ideas were adopted across England. At Berrington Hall, Herefordshire (built c. 1775), there is no saloon but the library ceiling is decorated in circular panels containing representations of famous authors, there are painted medallions on the upper walls, the carpet is patterned in bright red, blue and white, and the bookcases are decorated with white and gilt moulding.

Medallions and Frieze, Library, Berrington Hall

Carpet, Library, Berrington Hall

Library Ceiling, Berrington Hall

At Carlton House, modernised extensively (and at vast expense) in 1788, with further improvements made in 1815, the Prince of Wales commissioned John Nash to take these earlier ideas several stages further. Modest furnishing was not to Prinny’s taste, of course, and every room was decked out in the grand style. The suite of State Apartments were particularly magnificent and included, ‘...on the upper floor... the circular cupola room, of the Ionic order; the throne-room, of the Corinthian order; the splendid ante-chamber; the rose-satin drawing-room, &c., all of which were furnished and embellished with the richest satins, carvings, cut glass, carpetings, &c..’ (Old and New London, Vol. IV by Edward Walford, 1873). On 5th February 1811, the day of the Prince’s inauguration as Regent, The Memoirs of George IV (Robert Huish, 1831) tells us, the Prince was escorted in grand procession by members of his household, his council and the Royal Dukes through the Circular Dining Room ‘into the grand saloon (a beautiful room in scarlet drapery, embellished with portraits of all the most distinguished admirals who have fought the battles that have given us the dominion of the seas); and here the Prince seated himself at the top of the table, his royal brothers and cousin seating themselves on each hand according to seniority, and all the officers of his household, not privy councillors, ranging themselves on each side of the entrance to the saloon.’ This grand saloon is more customarily ascribed the Crimson Drawing Room and is very grand indeed. The traditional function of the Great Chamber could hardly be better upheld, for not only was the above ceremony performed in these opulent surroundings, on 2nd May 1816, the Crimson Drawing Room also saw the Princess Charlotte marry Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. Pomp and ceremony could scarcely be of a higher degree!

Crimson Drawing Room, Carlton House PD

© Heather King

All pictures are the property of the author unless otherwise stated and may not be copied without the expressed permission of the owner.

Thursday, 30 April 2020


Drawing Room, Berrington Hall (Author)

It is some while since I last posted about The English Country House. Much water has passed beneath the bridge in the park since the last; many words have been written and much head bashing/ hair pulling has taken place. There has been difficulty in daily life, joys and tribulations, and now a global pandemic the like of which the world has never before seen.

However, the glorious stones of our English country houses remain as strong as ever and are sure to withstand the rigours of this crisis as they have the others in England’s illustrious past. Since these wonderful estates are closed at the moment due to the Coronavirus lock-down, I thought I would take time out to continue our virtual tour.

Also called The Withdrawing Room, the origins of this chamber lie within the medieval castle, when the lord and his lady would retire to an antechamber to seek privacy or their bed. Later, the bed was removed to a privy chamber beyond. Gradually, this great chamber was favoured over the great hall for meals and so a room into which to ‘withdraw’ after eating became desirable. On occasion, it was even used for dining privately. It would seem that the term ‘with draughts’ was used for any small room adjoining a larger one; in 1453, a gentleman called John Paston had, in his
drawte chamber’, a writing board and various coffers in addition to his bed.

The privy chamber seems to have evolved from royal households, as an antechamber between the great chamber wherein the king slept and his personal privy, its function being where His Majesty made ready to avail himself of his facilities. In the forerunner of the en suite, his bed then moved into the ante or privy chamber, and later, around the late sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, moved to another apartment altogether. Thus the privy chamber was reinvented as a private reception and dining room.

This system was adopted in the great houses and very often a select company was invited to join the host and hostess in the withdrawing or drawing chamber after dining in the great chamber. Not everyone was in receipt of this honour. While resident at Knowle in Kent, Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset, made an entry in her diary for 4 April 1617 that read: ‘This day we began to leave the little room and dine and sup in the great chamber.’ It seems likely that the ‘little room’ was the withdrawing chamber and the removal was due to the advent of warmer weather, yet she appears to have dined in the ‘little room’ when she required privacy. Lady Anne mentions, on 13 April, that her husband, ‘...dined abroad in the great chamber and supped privately with me in the drawing chamber and had much discourse of the humours of the folks at Court.’

This idea of retiring to the drawing chamber after dining began to take over from the original purpose of a room adjoining a private one. Such rooms, unconnected with sleeping arrangements, came into being in about the early seventeenth century. However, it was long into the eighteenth century before a visitor would not expect to find a bedchamber beyond a withdrawing chamber.

Those readers of Georgian historical fiction will be familiar with the custom of ladies retiring from the dining table to allow the gentlemen to smoke and converse in more convivial terms over a glass or two of port’. At Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, the Gallery lies between these two rooms. This is because, according to an article in Country Life magazine of 1915, Lady Lyttelton was unhappy with the interior architecture of the house, disliking ‘dark closets and back stairs’, as Sir George Lyttelton wrote to the architect, Sanderson Miller. He also requested the latter to ‘...try his skill in the Greek architecture...’ because Lady Lyttelton ‘...wishes too for a room of separation between the eating room and the drawing room, to hinder the ladies from the noise and talk of the men, when left to their bottle, which must sometimes happen, even at Hagley.’

The reason for this withdrawal may lie in the advent of tea-drinking. Having become all the vogue since the late seventeenth century, tea and coffee were both served following dinner and supper. These were brewed and served by the hostess herself. In her closet at Ham, the Duchess of Lauderdale had a South China teapot from the Fujian province, described in an inventory of 1679 as ‘One Indian furnace for tea garnish’d wt silver’. The cream ceramic teapot has silver chains from the lid to spout and handle, and silver trimming to the edges. In the seventeenth century, the practice was to boil the tea over a brazier or lamp. (Treasures of the National Trust, Edward Fitzmaurice) Perchance it all began as a practical way for the ladies to put the kettle on before the gentlemen joined them, yet gradually the practicality became an aristocratic custom. Over time, the separation stretched ever longer until such notables as Robert Adam paid tribute, in his book Works in Architecture, to the hours of debate thus accommodated.

To understand thoroughly the art of living, it is necessary, perhaps, to have passed some time amongst the French, and to have studied the customs of that social and conversible people. In one particular, however, our manners prevent us from imitating them. Their eating rooms seldom or never constitute a piece in their great apartments, but lie out of the suite, and in fitting them up, little attention is paid to beauty or decoration. The reason of this is obvious; the French
meet there only at meals, when they trust to the display of the table for show and magnificence, not to the decoration of the apartment; and as soon as the entertainment is over, they immediately retire
to the rooms of company. It is not so with us. Accustomed by habit, or induced by the nature of our climate, we indulge more largely in the enjoyment of the bottle. Every person of rank here is either a member of the legislation, or entitled by his condition to take part in the political arrangements of his country, and to enter with ardour into those discussions to which they give rise; these circumstances lead men to live more with one another, and more detached from the society of
the ladies. The eating rooms are considered as the apartments of conversation, in which we are to pass a great part of our time. This renders it desirable to have them fitted up with elegance and splendour, but in a style different from that of other apartments. Instead of being hung with damask, tapestry, &c. they are always finished with stucco, and adorned with statues and paintings, that they may not retain the smell of the victuals.”

It is easy to see from this how the drawing room became fashioned with a feminine eye and the dining room a masculine one, the two becoming of comparative size during the eighteenth century whereas before the withdrawing chamber had been considerably smaller. No longer was the latter an adjunct to a bedroom, but an important room in the country house for entertaining and conversation. This is illustrated very well by the Reverend Stotherd Abdy, who, in 1770 travelled to Welford in Berkshire to officiate at the wedding of Miss Susanna Archer to Jacob Houblon. The good Reverend was, fortunately for twenty-first century authors, kind enough to record many details of his journey and the house party. Here he describes his first evening at Welford, giving us a clear picture of the use of the drawing room by that time.

We were at Welford between six and seven, and were received with great kindness by the family. Within half an hour after we had seated ourselves in the drawing room, Tea and Coffee and many eatables of the Cake and Bread 81 Butter kind were brought. We chatted over them for some time, then Cards were called for, & we all sat down to Brag with the most eager desires of winning each others money. At Ten o'clock after I had got rid of some loose shillings (which had travelled with me only seven miles & yet seemed very ready to change their master), there came a summons to supper. Seven very elegant dishes appeared upon the table, and proper compliments were paid to several of them. We then talked over our Essex Friends, rejoiced that the Bush Fair folks had so fine a day, introduced a Pun or two, laughed not a little, and about twelve, retired to our apartments.”

Other amusements indulged in were reading, of books and newspapers (including reading a line from each column which produced ‘some laughable nonsense’), the composition of doggerel and Bouts rimés verses, buffoonery, impromptu dancing and fortune-telling. Indeed, through the remaining eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the drawing room slowly lost its main purpose altogether and become ‘a room of all trades’.

Humphry Repton, landscape gardener and architect, had this to say in his notes about Stanage Park near Knighton, Powys, which he redesigned between 1803 and 1807:

The drawing-room which, in a house of this date, was called the parlour, may be fitted up with books, musical instruments, and card-tables, to render it the general living room for the family, according to the modern habits of life, which explode the old absurd fashion of shutting up a large comfortless room, to starve the occasional visitors by damp sofas, and bright steel grates.”

View from Saloon through Pedimented Doorway,
Croome Court (Author)

Furnishings and hangings were often the guide to the varying uses of saloons (yes, saloon not salon) and drawing rooms. Very often the former are positioned on an axis with the hall, as part of the ‘circuit’ of public reception rooms, and have lofty ceilings, large ornamented door-cases and enormous paintings on the walls. This can be seen at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, where the visitor advances straight ahead from the hall into the saloon and then follows a right-handed tour through the drawing room, a large gallery and thence to the dining room, where a second door returns to the hall (or vice versa). A similar arrangement can be seen at Croome Court, also in Worcestershire, although here the Long Gallery leads into the staircase hall and the dining room lies to the left of the entrance hall. Here, too, the saloon is larger and boasts two fireplaces. 

Saloon fireplace, Croome Court (Author)

The rear entrance to the south lawns is also here, where a grand portico of unfluted Ionic columns gives a wonderful view over the park from a broad flight of steps. In contrast, the drawing room, in common with other houses of the era, is a good deal smaller. These latter are arranged on a less grand scale, with ceilings not so vaulted and pictures perhaps hung one above another, for greater comfort and intimacy. Nevertheless, when occasion demanded, the furniture could still be rearranged for a more formal effect.

Friend and companion of the Duchess of Portland, Mary Granville (Mrs. Delany) describes in some detail the flurry of activity in the drawing room when the Princess Amelia, daughter of George III, visited Bulstrode in Buckinghamshire. Her coming in the autumn of 1772 ‘...made some little disturbance even in this palace. All the comfortable sofas and great chairs, all the pyramids of books, all the tables, and even the spinning-wheel, were banished for the day, and the blew [sic] damask chairs set in prim order round the room, only one arm'd chair placed in the middle of the room for Her Royal Highness.’

Crimson silk damask was a favourite with the Georgians for the rich colour and warmth it transmitted to a drawing room. Hangings such as those at Holkham Hall were reflected in chair covers and curtains – and repeated in many other houses across England.

Hans A. Rosbach Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

At Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, a ‘Flower’d Red paper’ was originally used and replaced at a later date with silk damask. Perhaps this was done on economic grounds, for silk furnishings were expensive, even though there was a ready source in London via the Huguenot weavers of Spitalfields. Other cost-cutting measures were using cheaper fabrics on the backs of chairs to be set against the wall and leaving the wall behind large pictures uncovered. Flocked wallpapers were very popular in the 1770s and 1780s, and were exported to American and France as well as the complicated designs imported from the Continent. Meanwhile, at Carlton House, London home of the Prince Regent, the Crimson Drawing Room outdid all comers in the stakes of opulence and grandeur. Little surprise there! Never one to do anything by halves, the Prince also had a Golden Drawing Room, fitted out with a golden dais with crimson chairs, tables and bookcases.

Golden Drawing Room, Carlton House (Public Domain)

Silk velvet was also exceedingly fashionable, with merchants importing plain and patterned Genoese fabrics along with the de rigueur scagliola tops for tables, statuary and Italian paintings. The plain velvets tended to be destined for drawing rooms, while the rich cut-velvets were hung in the saloons. Remember, the Georgians were all about the show! Scrolled Rococo papier-maché, carved wood or gilded rope were used to ‘frame’ expensive wall-hangings, door-cases and chimney-pieces to rich effect.

The arrangement of paintings and portraits in relation to the furniture – particularly chairs – was all-important. They often came in sets of half a dozen with a couple of settees. These would be smaller and less elaborate than those designed for the saloon, being fully upholstered and sometimes having on the backs nails to match fittings used in the wall-hangings. At Croome Court, the Earl of Coventry ordered a set of tapestry covers from the Royal Gobelins Manufactory in Paris in 1764. These were designed for the sumptuous Tapestry Room, which is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but could as easily have been for a drawing room. In addition to luxurious and adjustable wall-hangings, there was a set of six chairs and a pair of settees, all in the warm crimson of high fashion.

Top: The Tapestry Room, Croome Court
Centre: Chair, one of a set of six
Bottom: Settee, one of a pair
The above are now on display at the Met. Museum (Public Domain)

This symmetry and pleasing disposition of moveable features could also be said to apply to mirrors and pier-glasses. At Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, two pier-glasses with side-tables below are set in balanced harmony between the windows.

Pier-glass, Berrington Hall (Author)

In the library, when this author visited, there was a beautiful crimson patterned settee set before the fireplace. At the time the house was built (1778-81) it was not the usual custom to hang mirrors on the mantelpiece, although one exception, it seems, was at Petworth House, West Sussex, where the White and Gold Room was redecorated in the 1750s. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, this French practice was becoming popular in Regency Britain and the beau monde vied with each other for the most elaborate gilt and rococo framing. This was also the case with furniture. Fantastic, Venetian-inspired mermaids, dolphins and Tritons; Cupid, Psyche and other classical figures; Florentine pietra dura panels (coloured inlays), Chinese lacquer work and other Oriental influences can be seen at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire and Uppark in West Sussex, where two drawing rooms flank a larger saloon.

At Berrington Hall, the drawing room ceiling is attributed to Italian Biagio Rebecca and was painted to commemorate the marriage of owner Thomas Harley’s daughter to George, eldest son of Admiral Rodney, celebrated naval commander of the time. The ceiling features plaster sea-horses and putti, surrounding gilt diamonds and semicircles about a decorative ‘frame’, within which is a circular depiction of Jupiter, Venus and Cupid. Other naval references can be found elsewhere in the house, including an inset marble panel of a figure with Britannia’s shield and trident on the dining room chimney-piece, and a frieze of entwined dolphins in the renowned Staircase Hall.

The drawing room at Croft Castle in Herefordshire is a light, airy apartment with pale cream walls and a white moulded ceiling. The chandelier is particularly pretty. Traditionally, the drawing room at Croft was used for musical events and has a grand piano. In the Regency era, this would have been a pianoforte, of course. The painted panelling in the room is early Georgian and portraits of the family date from the late Stuart period. Much of the furniture is from the Georgian and Regency eras.

By contrast, the drawing room (or Great Parlour) at Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire is often very dark, due to the blinds being pulled down most of the time. This is because the room is home to a beautiful eighteenth century Axminster carpet. The fireplace wall is a very Georgian colour of deep green and the wall facing the main windows has bookcases holding a collection of leather-bound tomes. The room is often cluttered with an oddment of tables and chairs in a homely, comfortable fashion and has big squashy sofas on which visitors are allowed to sit. There is also a heavy wooden cabinet, possibly walnut, which displays a delightful collection of porcelain. I am indebted to Mike Peel for sharing his photograph, since my camera was not equal to the task of taking a reasonable representation!

Great Parlour (Drawing Room), Hanbury Hall
Photograph by Mike Peel (

Axminster Carpet in Great Parlour, Hanbury Hall (Author)

In a rare display of relaxation, partly inspired by Italian Renaissance art rather than classical Greek and Roman influences, at Syon House Robert Adam created the Red Drawing Room in direct contrast to the elegance of the white and gold dining room (deliberate warm feminine tones versus cool masculine ones?) The walls are covered in a crimson brocade woven in Spitalfields. Gilt-framed chairs and stools are covered to match and gilt side-tables flank the classical fireplace, above which hangs an enormous pier-glass. The carpet of 1769, by Moore of Moorfields, was once vibrant reds and blues, and these are reflected in the painted ceiling (by either Cipriani – Syon House web site – or Angelica Kauffmann – The English Country House, A Grand Tour, Country Life magazine). There was obviously some professional rivalry between Robert Adam and fellow architect William Chambers, since the latter decried the medallions as having the appearance of ‘...a myriad skied dinner plates.’ Ouch. I can imagine Adam’s reaction to that one.

Even more informal is the Blue Drawing Room at Chatsworth, which is a homely jumble of big, comfy armchairs, writing tables, books, table lamps and pictures. Nevertheless, the apparent informality is, if you look closer, accentuated by that careful balance of furniture and pictures, of flower arrangements and old-fashioned grandeur. The curtains – so essential in a drawing room – are of a type now rarely seen outside the theatre. ‘Reefed’ curtains are divided and have cords fitted diagonally, thus each half may be pulled to the side as well as upwards. The curtain then parts at the centre to leave hanging ‘tails’ which decoratively frame the window. The room was redesigned for the 5th Duke of Devonshire by Carr of York in 1775, and has false pelmets of ‘carved and gilt swags’ behind which, one presumes, the real curtains are drawn, ensuring a tidy arrangement of the ‘folds’ is always displayed.

Other types of curtain to be seen in country house drawing rooms are the simple, single length of damask hung from an iron (with or without gilding) or brass pole. In Palladian mansions, however, due to the lofty ceilings, the most generally selected style was the ‘festoon’ curtain. Fabricated with four or more draw-strings, this type of curtain gathers up to form ‘festoons’ or folds above the window. This allowed the architecture of the window to be admired and also filled the space above the window between the frame and the cornice. Another advantage with this style was that it did not restrict the daylight as thick ‘normal’, that is, draw-curtains, could not but do. Funnily enough, draw-curtains were new during the Regency and, as with so many other fashionable trends, came from France. Shh, don’t tell them!

It was all part of the relaxing of formality and an increased preference for comfort to be seen during this short but influential era of British history. Just as the soft, flowing fabrics of gowns and robes were increasing in popularity, so were the full swathes of material in permanent pelmets above drawn curtains which overlapped and pooled on the floor. A new vogue, fostered by the Prince Regent at Carlton House, was for simplicity of form, where paintings were hung well apart and large mirrors reflected the light as well as giving the effect of greater space. Nevertheless, in direct contrast, Grecian-styled chaise longues appeared; chairs were littered about the room instead of sitting rigidly along the wall as in the mid-eighteenth century, when they were brought into a circle in the centre for formal conversation following dinner; pianofortes and music stands made their way from the music room; flower arrangements filled empty fireplaces and decorated side-tables; and occasional tables, cluttered with books, sewing-boxes and cases of watercolours, served springy, long-seated bergères (armchairs). In other words, the everyday clutter of people was now spreading from the individual rooms of former times into what was, in the words of Humphry Repton, ‘...more properly denominated the living-room, since the useless drawing-room is no longer retained, except by those who venerate the cedar parlour of former days.

In fact, we could choose no better gentleman to illustrate the transformation from grandeur to informality, since the following verse appears in Repton’s Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening of 1816.


No more the Cedar Parlour's formal gloom
With dulness chills, ’tis now the Living Room;
Where Guests, to whim, or taste, or fancy true,
Scatter’d in groups, their different plans pursue.
Here Politicians eagerly relate
The last day’s news, or the last night’s debate.
And there a Lover’s conquer’d by Check-mate.
Here books of poetry and books of prints
Furnish aspiring Artists with new hints;
Flow’rs, landscapes, figures, cram’d in one portfolio.
There blend discordant tints to form an olio.
While discords twanging from the half-tun’d harp,
Make dulness cheerful, changing flat to sharp.
Here, ’midst exotic plants, the curious maid
Of Greek and Latin seems no more afraid.
There lounging Beaux and Belles enjoy their folly.
Nor less enjoying learned melancholy.
Silent midst crowds the Doctor here looks big,
Wrap’d in his own importance and his wig.

This ideal of a living room we will all recognize today as a place for relaxing and lounging; for watching television, reading, listening to music and crafting; for gargantuan leather sofas, scatter cushions, throws and children’s (or dogs’) toys – a far cry, indeed, from those stately withdrawing rooms created by Adam, Chambers, Carr and their contemporaries for the formality of Georgian circular converse.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are the property of the author and must not be copied or shared without the owner's expressed permission.

© Heather King