Jane Austen dedicated “Emma” to; His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, by His Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant ‘the author’ *
The Regency style came to fruition during the first decade of the nineteenth century when George Prince of Wales was guiding England as its Regent while his father was indisposed. It was based upon an academic study of classical art and architecture. The flat, two dimensional quality of painted decoration on Greek vases was easily adapted and used with great effect for painted ornament and on stylized furniture. The colours of red, black, brown and cream producing a truly striking effect. Artists such as Irish neo-classical portraitist and renowned miniature painter Adam Buck were a major influence on ‘Regency’ culture through their imagery. Buck was influenced heavily by the Greek Revival and he recorded a particularly splendid self portait of himself with his family as integral to the classical scene of 1813.
Connoisseur, architect, furniture designer, author and son of a banker and merchant of Amsterdam, Thomas Hope (1769–1831) traveled widely studying architectural style. He settled in England in 1794, when the French were occupying Holland, installing himself at London and putting himself forward as a patron of the arts.He also considered that beauty was not only observed through ornament, but also through classic outline.
Determined to reform contemporary style and taste he bought Clerk House in Duchess Street in 1799. He said ‘Should I succeed in kindling for the arts a more intense and universal love, when comes the hour of death, I shall think I have not lived in vain.’ People were admitted by subscription to view his scholarly adaptation of antique classical elements in both interior decor and furnishing design. They became central to the full development of what we now call the Regency style.
Hope himself was extremely exotic, and loved dressing in Turkish costume, acquired during his travels abroad. Hope’s originality was based on an ancient theme was seen as brilliant and quite revolutionary by his contemporaries. His pattern book ‘Household Furniture & Interior Decoration’ published in 1807 inspired many other cabinetmakers of his day.
One of the sofas for his house at Duchess Street, and a pair of the chairs that used to flank it, now reside in Australia. The pair of chairs were found perchance in a garage in a Sydney suburban house during the 80′s. After one of the owners died they were put up for sale with a princely sum of $500 expected. The auctioneer had no idea at first what they truly were. However many of the antique dealers and afficianados around the town at the time recognized them from detailed drawings in Hope’s pattern book.
The owner was flabbergasted when the pair of chairs, which were in appalling condition, sold for $56,000 to a representative of the Powerhouse Museum. The couch was later discovered and also purchased so that they would end up together once more. The conservation and restoration of these amazing items gives us an inkling of how rich and impressive the whole interior of Duchess Street, when Thomas Hope lived there, must have been.
The Prince Regent, whatever his failings as a man and a Prince, was a notable patron of the arts who collected widely and spent lavishly. His early penchant for the French taste meant he purchased furniture from the collections of the French royal family, which was dispersed following the French Revolution.
Three quarters of the population of England and Wales still lived in the countryside. However aristocrats, nobles and the landed gentry found they now had to spend some portion of the year in London to attend to their business or political interests. This meant that every titled landowner needed to now establish a residence in town and this created another building boom.
The Prince’s mother had what was considered at the time the most fashionable of all Regency Villa’s – Frogmore House. It was much admired, a neo classical villa of the type that every Regency man of taste longed to own. She made it her place to escape from court life at Windsor and decorated it as she wished.
She had a preference for exotic decoration, much favoured by the entire royal family she and two of her daughters decorated one of the rooms at Frogmore with superb lacquered panels.
In England, the yearly calendar was divided by six months at home, four months in London and a month or six weeks in Bath or some other watering place, with a month set aside for travelling. Travel on the roads improved after 1793 with the installation of turnpikes, which meant the road users paid for the upkeep of the roads.
In Pride and Prejudice the reluctant hero Mr. Darcy could travel fifty miles of good road in a little more than half a day’s journey, a feat only possible with the use of the latest equipage and a very fast phaeton, the sports car of its day.
This was a golden age for attending the theatre, concerts and exhibitions and with the new wealth consumerism flourished and those with the necessary were spoiled with the selection of all goods, in shops beautifully fitted out with a selection of imported goods from the market places of the world.
Glass chandeliers were the most popular of all Regency lighting fixtures, their lovely crystal baubles reflecting and refracting the light perfectly in shops, which were arranged with a brilliant array to choose from.
At the showroom of Wedgwood and Byerley in London Jane sought the new style of tableware
“We then went to Wedgwood where my brother and Fanny chose a dinner set. I believe the pattern is a small lozenge in purple, between lines of narrow Gold and it is to have the crest”
Henry had married his cousin Eliza, lived in Sloane Street in Knightsbridge, so Jane could stay there and visit all of the exciting shops and it was he who encouraged and helped her have her books published.
The Wedgwood company was founded by ceramic producer Josiah Wedgwood on May 1, 1759 at Burslem in the West Midlands. For over two hundred and fifty years its continued success has been due in the most part to the many successful business partnerships Josiah and his successors established. London by the turn of the 19th century had become a busy bustling city, filled with traders and soldiers, its skyline dominated by St. Paul’s cathedral built by Sir Christopher Wren after the great fire in 1666.
The distribution of wealth was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy. People from all backgrounds were elevated to sudden riches and in order to distinguish themselves, from the ‘new rich’ men and women of society concentrated on acquiring a polished ease and politeness of manner, and a capacity for poised and well informed discourse on a variety of subjects. They needed a discerned appreciation of ‘aesthetics’ as well as appreciation for the arts in all its forms.
Gentlemen needed to be distinguished as such, and very definitely in the mode described by Baldassare Castiglione in his 16th century publication the Courtier. He stated; a Gentleman always valued: the feelings of others, by never making them feel inferior, he always behaved perfectly with ease and grace, and experienced joy in the wonders of true love and service of one to the other. Mr Bingley from Pride and Prejudice seems to have fitted this profile.
Ladies were encouraged to exert themselves in acquiring cultured sensibilities. They needed to become learned and conversant companions to their male companions, as well as decorative accessories, which had more or less been the fate of their 18th century counterparts. In a society of grace and manners, books of etiquette dictated social graces.
Ladies were encouraged to ‘assiduously cultivate a soft tone of voice, and a courteous mode of expression; “Goodness’ self we better see…when dress’d by gentle courtesy….in entertaining your friends, you should endeavour to shew equal attention to all; if any difference is made, let it be in favour of the greatest stranger”.
There was a heightened awareness among the gentry for their children’s needs and Jane herself set great store by her “Auntship”. This was not a sentimental indulgence on her part, but more a loving concern for her nephews and nieces that was reciprocated and she encouraged them in all of their endeavours.
Her favourite niece was Fanny Knight daughter of her brother Edward, and Fanny was blessed to have such an aunt to confide in. Jane’s genuine sensitivity to the real needs of children aptly documented in her letters, revealing that the need to nurture children was now widely acknowledged and being put into practice in caring homes. It did contrast strongly with those who pressured their children to have accomplishments, rather than encourage them to develop their own potential.
A wide range of country houses, from comfortable village manors to grandiose estate houses were known to Jane and her family as they went on their rounds visiting neighbours or family, attended balls and musical evenings the exterior architecture of which was extremely simple, although grand, varied in its contour, imposing on the mind by the superior magnitude and movement of its parts.
The countryside in which Jane lived in Hampshire, had the natural beauty of gently sloping hills, wide-open meadows and timbered fields seamed with hedgerows or sometimes low stone walls, which marked their enclosure.
At varying intervals small hamlets, villages or market towns were visible by a distant church spire, with some dating from Elizabeth or mediaeval times, with undulating, well ordered landscaped parks behind massive stone walls leading to the country seat of a Baronet.
Because Jane mixed with the highest ranking families in the kingdom, her observations of real settings provided the raw material for her writing, through which were chronicled some of the finest examples of England’s architectural past, with various examples of houses from different periods as Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice had evolved from an earlier Jacobean House
The return to the idealism of Gothic and Medieval architecture and its traditions was explored by many Regency writers, and transposed into architecture and the artful chaos of interior arrangements during the Regency period. Subscription libraries became the rage, opening up all over the country, with poems by Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and novels by Jane and Sir Walter Scott who admired Jane as a colleague.
He built his beautiful house Abbotsford on the banks of the River Tweed in Scotland. (Named for nearby abbey and ford) and at Abbotsford he expressed his enthusiasms and tastes fulfilling his lifetime ambition.
Sir Walter Scott was quite remarkable because his is the only instance in the British Isles of a writer, indeed a novelist, making his way into the ranks of the landed gentry, building a great house, buying an estate of over a thousand acres and acquiring a title, all from the winnings of his pen.
Other writers may have made as much money, but none chose to invest it in such a way. He was socially romantic, and all of his life was in love with the Scottish borders, its traditions, tales and ballads, and visitors still flock from all over the world to visit the house.
At Abbotsford in the entrance hall he reflected this love of the mediaeval and a reverence for ancestry through its decoration that included whole suits of armour and weaponry. His wonderful stories of the knights of the crusades such as Ivanhoe fuelled the Gothic/mediaeval revival as they were romantic, gallant and inspiring, influencing all aspects of the decorative arts.
In his library, Scott reflected his passion for reading, which was now so much a part of every educated person’s way of life. Libraries became large rooms of great activity, and were arranged for comfortable study of the antique or for reading by the fire.
They offered a peaceful place for study and hours of quiet contemplation especially desirable in a woman of Jane’s status. A new desire for comfort meant the sofa was arranged by the fire, the sofa table piled with books placed in front of it and portraits were used decoratively so that your ancestors imbued a sense of continuity in their eternal gaze.
Busts in the classical style of important philosophers and men of learning looked down from the tops of the bookshelves attesting to the fact that you were content in your investigation of the antique world.
The English provincial life as led by Jane Austen and some of her heroines, was often one of simple modesty where the interiors reflected simple and tranquil tastefulness.
They also contained the unavoidable hallmarks of interiors where the opportunities for acquisitions were severely restricted; a well furnished bookcase, a folding writing desk with sloping top with storage space for paper, pens and ink, the garden modest, but well planned and planted
Seating was comfortably arranged, the sofa drawn up to a table for convenience, and the newly fitted wall to wall carpet gave a room added coziness, as does a haphazard arrangement of the pictures.
During Jane’s lifetime Humphrey Repton transformed the style of landscaping of the earlier Georgian period. The Napoleonic wars brought with them threat of invasion and had curtailed the landscape gardening business with opportunities to arrange scenic parklands disappearing with the expansion into the countryside. and Repton sought to transform his client’s properties
He could offer to his clients a series of Red Books, which contained all of his designs for them to choose from. He had taken over from Capability Brown and was now the leading light in the early nineteenth century. Repton’s ideal was that the house should ‘partake of the quiet and sequestered scenery’ rather than dominate it.
Endsleigh House designed by Sir Jeffry Wyattville was built in 1810 for the Duke and Duchess of Bedford as a summer shooting and fishing lodge.
The Bedford family owned a third of rural Devon and chose a spot in the Dartmoor national Park, which they decided was the prettiest in the county. Georgina, Duchess of Bedford was a passionate gardener and she commissioned designer Humphry Repton to create the setting which overlooks the lazy river Tamar below.
In laying out grounds of estates, he took into account the country gentry ate well from their own produce; beef and lamb from extensive pastures, fish straight from streams and ponds, venison, game fowl or rabbit shot in a day’s sport, pork and chicken from farms and an array of vegetables and fruits nurtured in kitchen gardens and hothouses with cheeses and rich cream from the Dairy and he also planned vines to cultivate grapes for wine.
Stoneleigh Abbey the ancestral home of her mother is a house with mediaeval foundations and an Elizabethan wing that had further alterations in 1714 in the classical style. It is linked with descriptions in Mansfield Park of a chapel within it, and its decor and proportions and Jane’s mother wrote in 1806 that she did not fail to spend some part of every day in the kitchen garden. But it seems it was quite a task.
“A large family, with the assistance of a great many blackbirds and thrushes, cannot prevent it rotting on the trees“. She said “The gardens contain four acres and a half. The ponds supply excellent fish, the park excellent venison; there is a great quantity of rabbits, pigeons and all sorts of poultry. The dairy was a popular addition to the estate and, butter, good Warwickshire cheese and cream were made. One manservant was called the baker, and he does nothing but brew and bake; the number of casks in the strong beer cellar is beyond imagination; those in the small beer cellar bear no proportion though, by the by, the small beer might be called ale without misnomer”.
Humphrey Repton published his Fragments on the Theory of Landscape Gardening in 1816. He illustrated an old fashioned “Cedar Parlour and the modern Living Room” and wrote a poem to go with the pictures.
No more the cedar parlour’s formal gloom
With dulness chills, tis now the living room
Where guests to whim, to task or fancy true
Scatter’d in groups, their different plans pursue
Here politicians eagerly relate
The last day’s news or the last night’s debate
Here books of poetry and books of prints
Furnish aspiring artists with new hints
Here midst exotic plants, the curious maid
Of Greek and Latin seems no more afraid.
Scattered in groups is the phrase that indicates the change that had taken place, where everyday social life was no one in which everyone joined in together. Different people could do different things at the same time and in the same room. The perfect living room also opened into the newest contrivance, the richly planted conservatory. The earliest form of conservatory was used to keep the frost from plants kept for germination and to be planted out in spring. When they left to live in Bath in 1801; Jane reacted in a way that she would have despised in her heroines; she fainted.
The ever increasing improvement in road transport during the last 50 years of the eighteenth century created a desire for more compact villas in the country for successful men of business.
Bath ‘s villas provided occasional or temporary retreats for the nobility or persons of fortune, who would let them out to friends and relatives or their connections when they were not in use Jane’s brother Edward as an heir to a wealthy estate, had no difficulty in securing suitable lodgings.
Bath is a perfect example of town planning, a classic city set in a site, as Rome had been, amongst the hills. It had been exceedingly popular during Rome’s occupation of England, where the Romans also used its waters for bathing.
In Jane’s time, and during her visits and residency in the city of Bath, it was a centre of comfort and leisure, the old Roman baths’ waters considered to have healing as well as medicinal powers.
Jane’s brother Edward had made several excursions there for his health. The nobility and gentry would assemble every morning between the hours of seven and ten to drink the waters, in the pump room and bands provided music for entertainment during the season.
After a morning spent shopping in the enormous array of fashionable shops, second only to London, or in the pump room, part of the day would be spent making and receiving calls, followed by dinner. Now that more people could go there and women were more easily able to undertake the journey, varieties of parties such as balls developed, the assembly, the masquerade, the musical party all new forms of entertainment with special buildings, such as the delightful Assembly Rooms designed to accommodate them.
Bath had been a centre for gourmets in England for 150 years, with regional specialties such as cheddar cheese, sole, sturgeon from the Severn estuary, and mutton from the Welsh mountains, sought by cooks, ladies maids and gentlemen, who bargained in the city’s food markets. A local physician Doctor Oliver had invented a plain biscuit to counteract the residents’ obsession with rich food, and in Northanger Abbey parties of ladies had crossed “Cheap Street” in quest of millinery or pastry.
Jane and her family moved to the village of Chawton in 1809 where she spent the last seven and a half years of her life. Here she could observe village life and spent the most productive years of her writing career. Chawton cottage was part of Edward’s inherited estate, and she was clearly pleased with her new surroundings expressing her delight in an amusing verse written for her brother Francis
Our Chawton Home how much we find
Already in it, to our mind;
And how convinced, that when complete,
It will all other houses beat,
That ever have been made or mended
With rooms concise, or rooms distended.
It did not really ‘beat’ all the other houses but in Horace Walpole’s words it was “Snug”.
George, Prince of Wales became King George IV, in 1810. He generally scandalised the nation with his reckless and lavish living habits, By now he was providing caricaturists with numerous anecdotes. In one instance he became so drunk at a party for a Whig politician Charles James Fox, fell flat on his face in the middle of the ballroom and was violently sick and he was seen by many to be the central figure of gluttony and excess.
The interior decoration at Carlton House became famous after 1811 when George, who was extremely proud of his achievement in interior decor opened it one day to the public and 30,000 people came to visit. It was all quite overwhelming.
‘There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense’.*
Throughout her novels, Jane Austen never exceeded the conventional boundaries of the society in which she moved and lived and therefore remained a lady. Her voice was sweet, and she excelled in conversation. Jane Austen died in 1817, at the height of the Regency period, which gradually faded away after the death of George IV in 1830 to be replaced by the homeliness of the Victorian era.
Through her novels we can share the memory of the society in which she lived, its privileges of rank and social position, a colourful, turbulent and seemingly romantic world in the process of rapid evolution, where cultivation of the mind had eventually become as important as the cultivation of wealth.
And, Mr Darcy? Well he is constantly recycled and each generation of young women continue to fall for his fatal lack of charm. Vanity Fair has also had a transformation since it started in 1913, but it still remains the cultural catalyst it always was, driving popular dialogue globally.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011 – 2012
* Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice