Will it ever end? The romantic interest in the architecture, history and life lived in the country house is as alive today as it was in 1978, when Mark Girouard wrote his seminal Life in the English Country House. There are now some three million members of the National Trust — guardians of the flame of country-house life that still just flickers in its teashops. The path to an instant peerage is along the passages of the imaginary Downton Abbey, and feudal splendour is still the dream destination of hedge-fund millionaires. How much is the dream driven by aesthetics, how much by nostalgia and how much by a fascination with social history?
These two very different books explore the phenomenon by focusing on a few specific houses — 16 of them; many of them have never been covered in any detail before.
The Knight of Glin and James Peill have collected together ten Irish establishments that, despite the troubled history of the country, have remained in the hands of the original families. The latter tell a tale of the struggle to survive in houses that were described by a member of the Irish Dail in the 1940s as the, ‘tombstones of a departed ascendancy’. These are largely houses with only a few hundred acres of demesne land, but they represent a distinctive Irish architectural development, from defensive castles to relaxed classical mansions, sometimes partly concealed by a Gothick cloak of baronial detailing.
The authors write beguilingly and their easy words are well served by the very special quality of James Fennell’s photographs. His family home, Burtown House in County Kildare, features in the book. It is one of those small, perfect Georgian country houses built early in the 18th century, bow-windowed and enhanced by naïve classical plasterwork.