Large houses were designed for pleasure as much as power and the changes to their design over the centuries reflect the new fashion for having fun and a gradual change from formality and stateliness to informality and more relaxed living.

estate pleasure
The library at Grove Place.

The houses of the 17th and 18th centuries were designed as suites of rooms organised in linear form, with visitors proceeding gradually from public rooms (the saloon) to the more private rooms (the bedchamber and cabinet). How far visitors were allowed depended on their rank and status. But in the late 18th century, polite society was enjoying larger, more frequent and more informal entertainments and needed circuits of informal and flexible rooms to accommodate different entertainments such as cards, dancing or dining. This was the era of assemblies and balls.

The 19th century was the great age of the country house party, made fashionable by a new appreciation of country pursuits and practical improvements to transport which made country houses more accessible. The country house party was an informal gathering dedicated to pleasure though there was sometimes a secret agenda of matchmaking or politics.

estate pleasure
Sir John Aird (right) and his house guests at Highcliffe Castle, 1900s. Courtesy of Ian Stevenson

Between breakfast and dinner guests could do what they wanted. The gentlemen would often hunt, shoot or fish while the ladies might go for a walk, ride, read, look at prints or play music. In the evening there was a return to formality as everyone dressed for dinner and assembled in the drawing room to proceed to the dining room for a formal meal served by liveried footmen. After dinner the men would remain in the dining room for cigars and port while the women moved to the drawing room for tea, before the gentlemen rejoined them. There were very clear divides between the masculine and feminine parts of the house at this time but this broke down in the Edwardian age which allowed a more relaxed relationship between the sexes.

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