The English House

It takes an accomplished speaker to navigate successfully through a history of the English House from mud dwellings to Blenheim Palace, but that's just what Keith Catell managed to do in what was a most entertaining talk on a hot June evening. In fairness, Keith quickly dispensed with Roman and Anglo Saxon history to effectively make a start with the Normans, the great castle builders. We looked at traditional Norman castles with their 'Mottes and Baileys' and how dwellers in their castle keeps slowly migrated into more comfortable halls, yet still within the castle confines. This was indeed the beginnings of the English country house, initially with its Great Hall, screens passage and solar for the lord of the manor. We looked at several examples of this more domesticated form of dwelling, including Stokesay Castle in Shropshire.

The Dissolution of the monasteries we learned, was a major influence in the development of the English house. Although Henry VIII disposed of the monasteries and their lands to his favourites, there were requirements on the new owners to demolish the church buildings, but permission was granted to reuse remaining buildings, so house design became more flexible to benefit from this concession; hence the unique building plans at a Stoneleigh Abbey, Buckland Abbey and Brinkburn Abbey. Keith entertained us with the history of Hardwick Hall and its famous and much married builder, Bess of Hardwick. We then moved on into the seventeenth century to visit the great Palladian mansion of Queens House at Greenwich, Inigo Jones's totally radical departure in house design, before launching into the diversionary styles of Chinoiserie, Egyptian and 'Indian Gothic' as well as pausing over John Corbett's Chateau Impney at Drotwich and of course the unmissable Royal Pavilion at Brighton.

We looked at domestic design too. The much loved semi detached came along in the nineteenth century, together with much industrial terrace housing, some of which should not be criticised since it was well in advance of its time. Finally, we touched on the work of the famous designers Mackintosh and Voisey and the Pre-raphaelites as well as looking at some of the modern concepts in house design (not forgetting the wartime 'prefab'). How Keith managed to accommodate so much information in one talk, whilst also including some highly entertaining cartoons, in such a relaxed style is a secret that many of us would like to learn!

Roger Hockney
June 2009