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Matthew Dimmock, Andrew Hadfield and Margaret Healy, eds., The Intellectual Culture of the English Country House, 1500-1700
by James Daybell

The Intellectual Culture of the English Country House, 1500-1700. Edited by Matthew Dimmock, Andrew Hadfield, and Margaret Healy. Manchester UP, 2015. 240 pp. ISBN: 978-0719090202. $70.00 cloth. 

This volume of essays explores the role of the country house as “an emblem of, and a centre for, new developments in intellectual culture” in England throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (2). The volume is comprised of four sections, which follow a formal introduction and a second more conceptual and interpretive introductory essay. The first section looks at “reconstructing the English country house,” architecturally, archivally, socially and conceptually (esp. chapter 1). The second focuses on “the culture of the English country house” as observed through decoration, books, study, poetry and pageantry. The third section examines the intellectual significance of the country house library, and its development is one of the key threads throughout the volume in looking at intellectual culture. The final section provides a case study of Wilton House, Wiltshire, viewed from several different perspectives, while the afterword offers reflective pieces by a National Trust collections and exhibitions curator, a libraries curator, and a book conservator. The volume is a truly interdisciplinary work, and alongside curators, librarians and archivists reside literary critics, book historians, art and architectural historians, as well as historians of material culture and heritage professionals. The volume is throughout richly illustrated, which is all to the credit of Manchester University Press, since visualizations are so key to this kind of material history. The essays themselves are on the whole fairly detailed case studies, though there are several important more wide-ranging conceptual pieces, especially by Maurice Howard, James Raven and Susie West. The essays are at their strongest where they actively engage with the central themes of the volume.

The collection begins with a serviceable introduction by the three editors (none of whom, surprisingly, submitted an essay to the volume), sketching the developing importance of the country house as an intellectual center against the backdrop of broader socio-economic, cultural and political developments. It highlights architectural changes, the rise of “privacy,” land management, and classical architectural ideas before introducing the “country house poem” genre, a topic to which the volume returns in several of the essays. Prior to the synopses of individual chapters, the introduction speculates that “the intellectual culture that generated and was generated by the early modern country house is central to our understanding of the period as a whole” (6). An impressive element of the volume as a whole is the degree of cross-referencing between individual essays, which evidences a careful editorial hand.

The excellent second introductory chapter by Maurice Howard is one of the standout essays in the volume, notable for the way in which it carefully schools the uninitiated in how to read a country house. The essay emphasizes the importance of the visual in four key respects. First, external architecture accommodated new styles “in dialogue with features from the past” (12); secondly, post-Reformation, religious devotion changed and was connected to specific places of worship as well as visual prompts that were constant spiritual reminders to inhabitants of country houses. Thirdly, collecting objects evidenced pretensions to scholarship and a connectedness between the past and the present. Finally, the representation of houses and estates in paintings, maps and illustrations was an intellectual activity connected with visual recall, and houses were often represented in ways different from how they were physically experienced. Above all he argues that the country house “had become a topos in the imagination,” which he connects to the country house poem (20).

The first proper section of the book, on reconstructing the English country house, consists of three essays. The first by Alden Gregory is a detailed case study of the rebuilding of Archbishop William Warham’s (c.1450-1532) palace at Otford, and tends towards the biographical in its analysis, as it reads the architectural developments of Henry VIII’s churchman as a form of self-identity. Matthew Neely’s essay in this section is based on the Rycote Project at the Bodleian Library and looks at the ways in which we can reconstruct a lost Tudor mansion from the scattered archival documents still extant. It stands as an excellent example of how to approach the documentary evidence of Early Modern country houses. Lastly, Edward Town’s essay examines the networks of patronage between Penshurst and Knowle. It offers a re-reading of Ben Jonson’s poem “To Penshurst,” which by extension highlights the importance of verse as a source for the intellectual history of a country house.

The second section studies the culture of the English country house, taken to encompass religion, books, scholarship, poetry, archives. In a superb opening essay, Tara Hamling draws on research for her landmark book Decorating the Godly Household (2010) to offer a rich study of the complex religious decorative plasterwork detailed in the long gallery at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall.[1] The essay echoes Howard’s opening piece reinforcing the importance of “visual as well as textual forms” in understanding the ways in which country houses communicated (98). We move from the long gallery to the still-house in Richard Simpson’s chapter, which examines the alchemical volumes and distilling equipment at Sir Thomas Smith’s Hill Hall in Essex, revealing it as “a centre for investigation, practical experiment and making, in which Smith himself took a direct, active, part” (110). In chapter 7, Alison McCann investigates the intellectual culture at Petworth House in Sussex, the seat of Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, which she views from the perspective of what survives in the house’s library and archive, highlighting the activities of the talented astronomer and mathematician, Thomas Harriot. In chapter 8, Nicolle Jordan delivers a series of close readings of Anne Finch’s country house poems, arguing that they offer an important corrective to Mark Girouard’s thesis of country houses as “monuments of power.” Instead these intricate verses reveal how during a period of political unrest country houses could act as the refuge of the “dispossessed” (129). The final essay in the section, chapter 9, by Elizabeth Zeman Kolovich, studies the 1591 entertainment put on for Elizabeth I at Elvetham House, Hampshire, shedding new light on this performance by reading it in connection with the news pamphlets of the printer John Wolfe.

Having examined books throughout the preceding chapters, section three narrows the focus to look in particular at the intellectual significance of the country house library, with a series of three chapters by James Raven, Susie West and Hannah DeGroff. The first is another standout essay in the volume and examines the development of bibliomania (defined here simply as “the enthusiasm to collect books”) in the context of the country house (163). This wide-ranging and thoughtful essay problematizes distinctions between the terms “private” and “library” as they connect to books within the spatial realms of the house, and looks at the motivations for book lust, the location as well as the movement of books within and between households. Analysis of the desire to collect books is viewed against the backdrop of wider trends, not least in terms of book production, and the essay argues for “a great increase in size of what counts as a significant collection or ‘library’ of books” from the late sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century (168), and shows the lineal relationship between private spaces for books—the study or closet—and the library. Chapter 11 by Susie West looks at the material condition of keeping books as demonstrated by country houses in Norfolk connected with book ownership up to 1700. The essay demarcates what it describes as three chronologies—pre-1600 library collections, post-1600 libraries, and the absence of pre-1700 library rooms—arguing that by 1700 “the culture of the book … was woven into the culture of the landed classes” (182). Meanwhile, in the final essay of this section Hannah DeGroff studies the use and storage of books belonging to Elizabeth second Countess of Carlisle in the late-seventeenth century. The chapter claims to add to our knowledge of Early Modern women’s reading, illustrates the countess of Carlisle’s eclectic tastes, and shows that her books were identifiably hers, kept separate from those of her husband, lent among a network of friends and acquaintances, and accessible to children within the household.

The final section of the book provides an in-depth analysis of Wilton House, Wiltshire, which was bestowed on Sir William Herbert, first earl of Pembroke (as Wilton Abbey) by Henry VIII. Chapter 13, by Marta Straznicky, looks at the development of the house’s gardens in the 1630s. The project involved the famous architect Inigo Jones, and saw a cypress grove planted to represent an amphitheatre, which linked architecture, landscape and theatre, and provided a dramatic spectacle representing the power of the family. In the second essay of this section, Louise Noble details the “Wilton Circle,” highlighting the group of Protestant writers, thinkers and scientists who gathered at Wilton. In the final essay, we return to the theme of how to read a country house with Anne Myers’ analysis of antiquarian and aesthetic modes of architectural literacy. Beginning with George Richardson’s eighteenth-century guidebook to Wilton, the essay examines the ways in which the historical and textual, and the visual and aesthetic have dominated in interpretations of Wilton. Overall, the book does not seek to be a comprehensive look at the intellectual culture of the English country house, yet in the end it delivers a wider-ranging, interesting and multi-disciplinary study that tends to privilege collecting, books, scholarship and material culture. 


James Daybell
University of Plymouth 

[1] Tara Hamling, Decorating the Godly Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain, Yale UP, 2010.  


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James Daybell, "Matthew Dimmock, Andrew Hadfield and Margaret Healy, eds., The Intellectual Culture of the English Country House, 1500-1700 ," Spenser Review 47.1.7 (Winter 2017). Accessed May 28th, 2018.
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