W.S. Gilbert’s parody of Oscar Wilde, Reginald Bunthorne, wanted to make a minor scandal with his belief that ‘art stopped short in the cultivated court of the Empress Josephine’. In 1881 he was prophetic, although taste took at least 50 years to catch up. The English equivalent of Empire, the Regency period, has exerted a fascination that peaked in the period 1935–55, and has never completely faded. The Bunthornes of Bloomsbury in the 1980s, as noted by John Martin Robinson and Alexandra Artley in The New Georgian Handbook 20 years ago, were busy swagging their curtains, Egyptianising their cat flaps and faking ormolu in their reclaimed rooming houses.
Dr Robinson has now provided the book that would have been a compulsory accessory in those far-off days. The Regency Country House: From the Archives of Country Life (Aurum Press, £40) is a scholarly reappraisal of the period in which cheerfulness keeps breaking through. An exhibition of selected photographs from the book is showing at Sir John Soane’s Museum (until 25 February 2006), providing further fuel for what could become a new phase of Regency revival.
As the book reminds us, the Regency was a period when manners and lifestyle in Britain moved quickly towards many of the things we recognise in our own lives. The food was better. The rooms in country houses were comfortable and mostly less formal than before. Men and women enjoyed each other’s company more freely (very freely indeed in certain royal circles). Few periods were more socially mobile, and Dr Robinson draws on his expertise as Maltravers Herald Extraordinary to reveal what humble names and trades lay behind some noble titles of the time.
Both book and exhibition divide the houses by broad descending categories of grandeur.