Domestic Space in Britain, 1750–1840: Materiality, Sociability and Emotion. Freya Gowrley. Review by Penelope Cave

Domestic Space in Britain, 1750–1840: Materiality, Sociability and Emotion. Freya Gowrley. London; New York; Dublin: Bloomsbury Publishing. 2022. Pp 266. 8 colour plates, and further illustrations. £80 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-5013-4336-0.

One should not assume that the pretty cottage ornée, on the cover of this book, is an eighteenth-century version of ‘Your Home made Perfect’. Freya Gowrley explores the notion of homely spaces with a depth of scholarship that is exceptional; it is a masterclass in close reading, as she provides ‘thick’ descriptions, going beyond the undoubted charm of her four visual case studies, to find and interpret, within each house, the rarefied history, context, and the particular emotions of its owner/s. In her excellent introduction, she outlines her intention to use a micro-historical methodology, one that interrogates large issues within the confined limits of her chosen material objects, in the wake of Clifford Geertz’s 1973 essay in The Interpretation of Cultures. Her opening image of a small, ceramic pastille burner, in the shape of a cottage, is a nice conceit to introduce the houses of the unconventional, heteronormative subjects that she will go on to study.

Her first section is entitled ‘Representation’, as she is particularly interested in how owners flaunted their homes and contents, and how others viewed and described what they encountered— letters and print are quoted as a crucial element in the dissemination of style and influence. The display of taste in conspicuous materiality, both in ownership and in its critical appreciation of contemporary culture, was thus made more widely available. Gowrley also uncovers interesting aspects of hospitality, sociability, gifting, tourism, letter-writing and identity formation, that are closely related to ownership of the country house, which are as significant in a study of the cottages and small houses presented here.

The four individual dwellings she has chosen, unique as each is in itself, connect to each other through their owners, whose exceptionally creative lives all side-stepped marital convention in their rural retirement, to lend a satisfying homogeneity to the collection. The first to be considered is Sandham Cottage, the ‘villakin’ at Sandown on the Isle of Wight that was owned by the former rake, radical journalist, and politician, John Wilkes, during the last decade of his life, from 1788–97, when his most valued relationship was with his daughter. Gowrley makes a very convincing case for the cause of a change in Wilkes’ previously wild reputation, owing much to the many written words about his expanded island property and its hospitality. Both private letters and contemporary publications inspired tourists to continue visiting, long after he died.

A la Ronde, near Exmouth in Devon, and Plas Newydd, Llangollen, in Wales are the case studies that form the second section of this book. Gowrley exemplifies the movement of both people and objects; tourism that commemorated personal travel in the first example, and the movement of objects in the form of gifts both incoming and outgoing in the second. A la Ronde was built from the specifications of two first cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter, after their extensive tour of the Continent from about 1784—91. Unlike Sandham Cottage, the unusual, sixteen-sided building has been conserved by the National Trust, but the alterations it underwent, after the deaths of the cousins (whose intention had been that it should pass only down the female line), by the Reverend Oswald Reichel, mean that the original thatched roof and limewashed exterior, so typical of the Devon vernacular, is no longer evident. Gowrley has chosen a building which I would describe as, itself, a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, that houses a highly distinctive collection of personal and, indeed, curious, meticulously displayed souvenirs of their European experience, memorials of loved family members, and feats of female craftwork that, as she says, “evoke memory, experience, and narrative, and therefore … function biographically” (106).

Plas Newydd is taken into consideration as the setting for its occupiers, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, whose intimate friendship, domestic crafts and hospitality led to a generous gift exchange with their friends and visitors. As elsewhere, Gowrley airs diverse opinions on the nature of their relationship building a cultured friendship circle that included the Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Southey. All chapters are well-supplied with illustrations, such as images of the original cottage, gothicised, but boasting the original stone outer walls, and the gift from Anna Seward of Romney’s Serena. Missing, I felt, was the addition of one of the many later items, merchandised as ‘The Two Ladies of Llangollen’ in their matching top hats, which would have emphasised the lasting celebrity of their ‘shrine to friendship’.

In the third section of the book, subtitled ‘Ownership’, Gowrley uses Horace Walpole’s highly creative, gothic masterpiece, Strawberry Hill, to explore legacy, and what she has earlier described as “a gesture of queer heirlooming” (13). The reasons for his decision to leave this property to Anne Damer, the daughter of his cousin (and close friend at Eton), Henry Seymour Conway, substantiate Walpole’s manner of assembling and personalising the idiosyncratic collection, and continuing the private theatricals. We are persuaded that it could only have been similarly perpetuated by the related sculptress whose work was already represented at “his darling Strawberry”, as Mary Berry, another major legatee, described it (205). Walpole described Mary and Agnes Berry as his “sister wives” (211), who were not only left Little Strawberry (once owned by another Walpole friend, the actress, Kitty Clive), but also his literary estate for them to produce a new edition. Walpole thus extended his coterie of cultural and emotional ties, to ensure longevity; the lamentable sale of Strawberry Hill’s contents in 1842 was probably what he most dreaded.

The Conclusion completes the book with descriptions of a valedictory dinner party given by Anne Damer’s mother before leaving her family home of Park Place, and following her departure, noting the emotional and material loss to her friends, of emptying the house, and a later description of a ball held there by the new inhabitants. Gowrley emphasises the strength of identity formed by the change of ownership. She quotes the text from the Parminters’ pottery jug, which perfectly aligns the life of an earthy object to that of the human span and reiterates the value of evocative objects in bereavement. Gowrley’s intention to view the four houses and their owners, through an historical and contextual lens, is meticulously achieved in this richly fascinating study; the multi-layered, emotional sub-texts invested in material objects are sensitively extracted and interpreted, to display meaningful domestic spaces, three of which outlived their owners.  

Penelope Cave

Penelope Cave gained her PhD from the University of Southampton in 2014, with a thesis on music in the English country house, and she was accepted as an Attingham Scholar, before working as a music advisor for the National Trust. She was also a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford from 2018–20, and in addition to numerous conference papers, her essays appear in a number of recent and forthcoming academic publications.