Period dramas have us drooling over English historic houses of a grand and, often, ostentatious type, some lived in by generations of the same family, others conserved by venerable institutions like English Heritage and the National Trust.
All bring certain romantic tones with them by virtue of history, with layer upon layer of architectural and styling laid down by different generations, often initiated by the titled and entitled young scions of aristocratic families who were sent abroad for a couple of years to do the precursor of the gap year, the Grand Tour, before marrying a suitable young lady.
These cool kids of their day often returned with grand notions of building houses to impress, taking their ideas from the neo-classical architecture they discovered in Italy, and fitting in the collections of art and objects they picked up as they caroused their way across Europe.
But while layers of history can suggest romance, some builds have erred on the cold side of awesomeness, lacking the intimacy and comfort synonymous with romance.
So when publishers CICO Books recruited architectural historian Robert O’Byrne to write a book called Romantic English Homes, it necessitated a broader sweep for material to fill it beyond the grand, often palatial, country house.
“They wanted a mix, and not all big houses, sometimes called stately homes,” says O’Byrne.
“The word ‘romantic’ which was chosen by the publisher, informed the selection of houses, so no modern builds.”
The finished selection runs to 14 homes, divided into three sections: Family houses, manor houses, and country houses. It begs the question: How were they found and who persuaded them to allow someone in for a bit of interiors voyeurism with a photographer?
“I know all the owners,” explains O’Byrne, “and I knew the photographer. In fact it was he who first approached me as he was thinking of doing a book.”
That initial approach resulted in a collaboration on the first of two books along the romantic theme commissioned by CICO. It was named Romantic Irish Homes, so Romantic English Homes was a natural follow-on.
With some of the house owners friends of O’Byrne, it required some diplomacy if they weren’t a fit.
“I told them I was doing this book and some put me in touch with other owners.
“It wasn’t difficult to persuade people to do it, but some wanted the names and locations to be anonymous. There were a couple of fantastic houses not included in the final selection.
“Sometimes a house might have a few great rooms but not enough overall to carry the house.”
The finished product is presented with a glimpse into the history of each, peppered with engaging anecdotes about it or the surrounding environment that one might exchange before one of their fireplaces in the company of friends.
It’s an easy and convivial read, but also chronologically accurate and informative, and testament to the knowledge of the author, whose studies in history and history of art and a career in writing about historic architecture informs the confident ease and charm of the prose, supported by the photography of Simon Brown which captures the homes material charm.
Overall, he’s had a positive response from the owners of the houses.
“I took care to always check facts and details with them. They’re all still speaking to me, the dinner invitations didn’t dry up,” he quips.
It’s this knowledge, familiarity with his topic, and his personal connections with the house owners which meant he was also approached by the producers of the popular RTÉ1 series, Lords and Ladles.
This background involvement led to a cameo role as a guest around the dining table in several of the episodes, where along with the country house owner and several of their friends, O’Byrne tucks into grand meals that would have been served in the house’s heyday of lavish entertaining.
Sometimes delicious, always involving multiple courses, there have, however, been a few dishes which taxed the chefs to prepare and the diners to consume. Turkey testicles and coxcombs, in particular, spring to mind.
Also in demand abroad for speaking engagements on Irish historical architecture, and as a representative of the Irish Georgian Society, O’Byrne’s reputation preceded him recently on a visit to South Carolina, one of the oldest cities in the US.
“I was giving a talk in Charleston for the Irish Georgian Society,” he explains, “and there was a group of architects there who wanted to meet me. They were following my Instagram account about Irish historic architecture.”
It turns out they are among 18,000 followers he has under the name ‘The Irish Aesthete’ (not an oxymoron, he adds beneath the title), which also heads up his blog.
Nearer to home, Romantic English Homes took him a year to complete, involving a considerable amount of driving from Cornwall to Northumberland. And all have the necessary degree of comfort to make a house a home, so while some may be grand, they’re also smart and well ordered.
But there are reminders throughout that England is a country of pageantry, of pomp and circumstance, and no one does it better.
It’s also a country that hasn’t been invaded since 1066 when William the Conquerer made his presence felt, O’Byrne reminds us, but foreign influences have filtered into English homes with stealth through classical inspired architecture, French rococo, and oriental Chinoiserie styles. It’s those Grand Tours again.
There are gentle reminders, too, of essentially English concerns, as in a historic citation of the price of a chimney piece, bringing to mind Jane Austin’s character Mr Collins who waxed about Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s pricey fireplace in Pride and Prejudice.
Indeed, there are a number of specific references to literary connections with some of these homes, or at least the localities, alongside modern references, which, surprisingly, have their roots in the past.
The stairs of a house built during the arts and crafts movement of the early 20th century was with recycled timbers in keeping with the movement’s philosophy. So recycling isn’t as modern as we thought.
Romantic English Homes, by Robert O’Byrne, photography by Simon Brown, published by CICO. €37.
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