The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a remarkable transformation of daily life and domestic decoration in England. International trade made available products and materials imported from continental Europe, the Far East, and North America. Increasing prosperity fueled demand for houses that were more comfortable and more elegant, while patrons grew more sophisticated, architects better esteemed, and craftsmen capable of realizing ever more ambitious designs.
In the first years of the seventeenth century, the principles of the Italian Renaissance gave shape to interior design everywhere but England, which had estranged itself from Italy and the rest of Catholic Europe in 1536, when Henry VIII renounced the pope’s authority. Italian features came to England at second hand, however, through objects, books, and artists from the Netherlands. Fine examples of English design in this period are the furnishings from the house of William Crowe (65.182.1), who, as a member of the Company of Spanish Merchants, grew rich through trade with the Low Countries. The oak paneling of the room incorporates classical elements such as arches, pilasters, and caryatids within a geometric framework. The details are of Italian inspiration, but they are combined and executed in a Dutch manner. The room is dark, but originally it was brightened with a plaster ceiling and probably also with fabrics, the usual means of adding color to Elizabethan rooms.
The architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652) was instrumental in instilling a more direct Italian classicism into English design. While traveling in Italy, he studied the sixteenth-century villas of Andrea Palladio, and after his return to England, he found aristocratic patrons. Palladio had applied the principles of Italian Renaissance architecture to country houses, and Jones’s Palladian buildings did likewise. Both outside and in, such examples as the Queen’s House at Greenwich (1616–35) display harmonious proportions, an august formality, and a principled use of columns and classical moldings.
Unlike the continental aristocracy, the English gentry enjoyed country life, and some preferred it to the obligatory seasons they spent in London. The civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century sent many English noblemen, as well as King Charles II, to safety on the continent, and when they returned in 1660 and after, they renewed their enthusiasm for domestic decoration, bringing with them tastes and artists from the Netherlands and France. The interiors of this period are remarkable for their richness, grandeur, and weight. The Versailles of Louis XIV was everywhere regarded as the pinnacle of fashion, and French designers, particularly upholsterers, helped supply English customers with matched sets of curtains, seat covers, and wall hangings. Rooms were arranged in long enfilades, series of adjoining spaces with doors aligned to permit a grand vista to the terminal point, usually a state bed clad in sumptuous fabrics. Ceilings were often outfitted with ornate plasterwork and illusionistic paintings, and daring wood carvings embellished windows, doors, and balustrades; a fine example is the staircase from Cassiobury Park (32.152), whose railing is supported by an acanthus scroll brilliantly carved in the round.
After the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the accession of the first Hanoverian king George I, the Baroque style with its autocratic associations fell out of favor, and English aristocrats embraced a variety of styles in the decoration of their houses. Richard Boyle, third earl of Burlington and fourth earl of Cork (1694–1753), promoted a Palladian revival, both as a practicing architect and as an influential tastemaker. Numerous other Englishmen learned to appreciate good architecture while making the Grand Tour of France and Italy, bringing home ideas as well as treasures that they wished to incorporate into their houses. English interiors of the mid-eighteenth century show the eclectic tastes of their inhabitants. For example, the dining room at Kirtlington Park (32.53.1) integrates a Neo-Palladian wall scheme with delicate stucco ornament more in the spirit of the French Rococo. The colors of the decor are white and yellow, whose freshness contrasts nicely with the warmth of the oak floor and original mahogany furniture.
The dining room from Lansdowne House displays a different combination of styles, most notably the Neoclassicism of Robert Adam (1728–1792). Although located in London, Lansdowne House had the character of a country residence because the large plot on which it was built allowed for a sizeable house and extensive garden. The dining room was large and lavish, with screens of columns of a “Composed Doric Order” that Adam derived from the late Roman palace of Diocletian at Split. The stucco articulation of the walls and ceiling gives the room the delicacy of Wedgwood pottery, and the nine niches in the walls were meant to hold ancient statues. The original furniture of the room has been lost, but bills of sale confirm that some of it was made by another major figure, the cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale (1718–1779). The range of English furniture types had steadily expanded throughout the eighteenth century, and Chippendale’s thriving firm not only supplied furnishings of every sort but also disseminated pattern books full of designs to suit every taste, from pseudo-Greek to pseudo-Chinese.
Wars between England and France in the late eighteenth century periodically interrupted the flow of influence between the two countries. The tapestry room from Croome Court (58.75.1-22) demonstrates the decorative possibilities that followed the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Robert Adam designed the ceiling and moldings, and the notable London cabinetmakers William Ince (active ca. 1758–94) and John Mayhew (died 1811) supplied the furniture. The fabrics for the upholstery and the tapestries that hung on the walls, however, were manufactured at the Gobelins in France and incorporate medallions designed by François Boucher, one of the leading painters of the French Rococo.
Sorabella, Jean. “Interior Design in England, 1600–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ench/hd_ench.htm (October 2003)