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Jon Stobart, ed., Travel and the British Country House. Cultures, Critiques and Consumption in the Long Eighteenth Century

Manchester: Manchester UP, 2017. 248 pp. ISBN 978-1-526-11032-9
Laurent Châtel
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STOBART, JON, ed. – Travel and the British Country House. Cultures, Critiques and Consumption in the Long Eighteenth Century. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2017. 248 pp. ISBN 978-1-526-11032-9

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1Jon Stobart has written and co-edited several books on country house culture in eighteenth-century Britain. His previous forays into the country house were through commerce, slavery and consumption and his most recent contribution focuses on “travel,” with a clear leaning towards the previously covered ground of “cultures, critiques and consumption in the long eighteenth-century,” as the subtitle makes clear. The book argues that the country house can be perceived anew if studied in relation to travel: the making of the country house was often impacted by its owner’s trips abroad or, when the owner did not go on the Grand Tour, by his vicarious journeys through books, prints and other geographical proxies; the country house was also an object for visitors to see as part of a local, “home” or “foreign” tour. The book, composed of ten chapters, provides equally entertaining and stimulating studies on three distinct issues: the incidence of travels abroad, the importance of country house visiting and the practical aspects of travel, including the expenses and organization involved in transporting people and items around the country and Europe at large. Rebecca Campion traces the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry’s six Grand Tours and his parallel house-building mania at Ballyscullion and Downhill, highlighting the neo-classical architectural influences from Italy (Chapter 1); she is very attentive to the hybrid mixing of influences, coming at once from Rome’s Pantheon but also France and even Britain, with John Plaw’s “Belle Isle” on Lake Windermere serving as important points of reference for Hervey’s “unique” Irish Rotunda.

2Chapter 2 by John Harrison on landscape gardens is a very useful digest of the cultural transfers at work: he revisits Stourhead, Wörlitz, Hagaparken to study the way they “influenced” each other. One may question his rather dated tendency to read creativity in terms of “influences,” be it the impact of paintings on garden layouts or that of one garden onto another, and would have enjoyed better an understanding of “travel” that moves away from the “anxiety of influence” and goes beyond issues of unilateral impact. Similarly, it is not absolutely certain that “the transmission of ideas about the English garden has travel at is heart” since poems, engravings and a few key texts, such as Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening, clearly initiated and educated people into new garden ways, whether they travelled or not in situ.

3Emile de Bruijn’s exploration of the impact of China in and around the house (Chapter 3) is a very well-written, well-informed and insightful chapter. Her knowledge of English country house collections (wallpapers, porcelain, lacquer) luminously brings to life the main thesis of the book: country house owners could travel via their residence through decorative arts, landscape gardening, or interior design in a playful blend of references and echoes alternating between China and England.

4Turning now to the second avenue explored in the book, the reception of country houses, Jon Stobart’s collection of essays constitutes a genuinely important step towards the writing of a new social history of art ; early on in the book, though, Campion recalls Adrian Tinniswood’s findings that “only about fifteen or twenty of the greatest properties in England had individual guidebooks by 1800” (The Polite Tourist, London: National Trust 95) – a stark reminder of the difficult task to recover reception. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 display all that one may collect from a close reading of gentlemen tourists’ travel diaries and private journals. Rosie Mac Arthur unearths the shadowy figure of Hanbury’s English tour (Chapter 4), which by comparison with that of Stukeley or Young, strikes as a more materialistic traveller concerned with his plans for a newly built family seat. Although she sees it as an item of the larger eighteenth-century material culture, she also claims it casts light on knowledge exchange and networking through travel. Ronnes and Koster (Chapter 5) highlight the proto-museological value for Dutch travellers of country house visiting. Taking their cue from Dutch and Belgian research which established that London prevailed over Paris after Louis xiv’s death (Anna Frank-van Westrienen and Gerrit Verhoeven), the authors chart the “English destinations” best liked by the Dutch between 1683 and 1855 (top venues were in the capital – the Tower of London, Windsor, Hampton Court, Richmond and Kensington – followed in 13th position by country seats, Wilton House, Carisbrooke Castle, Kenilworth, Warwick, Dover Castle, Castle Howard, among others). Jocelyn Anderson (Chapter 6) uncovers a side of Arthur Young’s travelling that has rarely been explored – she shows how, embedded in his agricultural discourses, there lies an alternative, parallel discourse pertaining to art criticism which built up a general picture of a wealthy and strong country. Young may not be a connoisseur per se but ought clearly to be reassessed in the light of his curious, multifocal mind, and his powerful descriptive talents. Kristóf Fatsar’s expertise on Hungarian aristocrats who visited or/and settled in England makes for a fascinating exploration of the nineteenth-century legacy of English aesthetics and taste in Austria and Hungary (Chapter 7). Two further studies respectively by Jon Stobart and Peter Edwards (Chapters 8 and 9) set out to establish the “cost” of travel on the basis of account books and other sources from three Midlands families as well as the 1st Earl of Devonshire. Finally, the book ends with Mary Mackenzie’s life, which testifies to a weaving between India and Scotland with haggis dinners mixing with tiger huntings in Madras, to quote just one lively anecdote. Stobart’s edited volume embraces a most stimulating array of data, with a rich documentation and generous bibliography. The chapters are well connected together as there are many cross-references – a sign that the volume was carefully thought-out at editing stage. One main reservation lies with the conclusions – each study is geared to the main thrust of the book (the paramount importance of travel) and somehow ends with sweeping, self-justificatory remarks. While focusing mainly on travel, the book pays lip service to material culture, gender, aesthetics, art collecting, postcolonialism, nationality and identity issues, which may strike as a useful wealth of information in educational terms, but also as hasty intellectual shortcuts; one feels on occasion that the data has been processed into proving this or that point a bit too neatly. However, Travel and the British Country House remains a very rewarding and resourceful book for future scholars.

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Laurent Châtel, « Jon Stobart, ed., Travel and the British Country House. Cultures, Critiques and Consumption in the Long Eighteenth Century », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 75 | 2018, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2018, consulté le 15 octobre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/1718/1453

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Auteur

Laurent Châtel

Université de Lille - CECILLE EA 4074

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