There was truth in those praises of the cottage homes. The country folk lived in cottages that were still soundly built from local materials; the gracious simplicity of the eighteenth century survived in those small buildings. Sometimes pointed arches appeared in door and window openings, generally when new cottages were erected by a landlord whose taste had been influenced by the great and growing interest in the architecture of the middle Ages, which fostered the Gothic revival. Horace Walpole’s hobby of Gothic design in stair parts balusters, spindles, newel posts, finials architecture at Strawberry Hill had been raised to much higher levels of extravagance by James Wyatt, who designed Foothill Abbey in the closing years of the eighteenth century for that wealthy, accomplished and most eccentric man of taste, William Beck ford. This enormous, sham-Gothic building, which rose high above the woodlands of a fine estate in Wiltshire, did not survive. A few years after Beck ford had sold the house, the huge tower, which was 260 feet high, collapsed and wrecked part of the building. Altogether, Beck ford spent some C273,oo0 on Foothill.
The taste for Gothic architecture was certainly encouraged by the works of Sir Walter Scott. People thought with excitement and pleasure of the "romance" and "chivalry" of the middle Ages. They forgot or ignored what was happening under their eyes in England. With the help of Sir Walter, they shuddered about mediaeval dungeons, but knew little or nothing about the slums that were housing the new, neglected class of factory workers. They preferred "the good old times" to the troubles and problems of their own runes; and this taste for old ideas at last marked the appearance and contents of their houses. The nobility was particularly delighted with mediaeval ways, and on August 28th and 29th, 1839, a tournament was held by Lord Eglintoun at Eglintoun Castle in Scotland. There were lists and many gay pavilions; banners bearing heraldic devices floated above the heads of thousands of spectators; heralds, pursuivants, 'halberdiers, men-at-arms and splendidly equipped knights enlivened the scene. Lady Seymour was enthroned as the Queen of Beauty. It was like a chapter from Ivanhoe. But in Scott's romances the weather was usually fine: this occasion was sobered by steady rain.
Fashion was growing foolish. The Roman rules had been good guides to the architects of the golden age of English building, though to their originators they had been iron-handed tyrants. Gothic stair parts balusters, spindles, newel posts, finials ideas were neither guides nor tyrants; they were like drugs; they caused architects and their patrons to lose all sense of harmony and order: anarchy in design naturally followed. "The battle of the styles" began. During the nineteenth century the classic and Gothic styles were in conflict, some architects favouring one, some the other; a few building happily in eitherstyle, like Sir Charles Barry, who, assisted by Pugin, designed the Houses of Parliament. But for the first half of the century country life took no account of this fashion war: it was still pleasant and reasonably prosperous, serene and untroubled.
In the eighteen-twenties, William Cobbett, thundering forth advice, on design of stair parts balusters, spindles, newel posts, finials and criticism and praise, set down many fears about newfangled ideas that threatened the simple ways of cottagers. He was particularly severe on the habit of tea drinking, which had now spread to all classes. Writing in his Cottage Economy, which he issued in monthly parts during 18 21, he said:
"It is notorious, that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and, in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves. It is, in fact, a weaker kind of laudanum, which enlivens for the moment, and deadens afterwards. At any rate it communicates no strength to the body; it does not, in any degree, assist in affording what labour demands. It is then, of no use." Cobbett estimated that tea drinking in the course of a year amounted to "a good third part of a good and able labourer's wages."
Cobbett's belief that household goods should be warm, strong and durable made him condemn some of the convenient household things that were made in factories. He held that the equipment of the cottage should be handed on from generation to generation, and it often was, for before the craze for collecting antique furniture began early in the twentieth century, "the cottage homes of England" were well_ equipped with furniture of oak and beech and elm fine examples of the country cabinet-maker's work.in stair parts balusters, spindles, newel posts, finials "As to bedding, and other things of that sort," said Cobbett, "all ought to be good in their nature, of a durable quality, and plain in their colour and form. The plates, dishes, mugs, and things of that kind, should be of pewter, or even of wood. Bottles to carry a-field should be of wood. Formerly, nobody but the gipseys and mumpers, that went a hop-picking in the season, carried glass or earthern bottles. As to ,glass of any sort, I do not know, what business it has in any man's house, unless he be rich enough to live on his means. It pays a tax, in many cases, to'the amount of two-thirds of its cost. In short, when a house is once furnished with sufficient goods, there ought to be no renewal of hardly any part of them wanted for half an age, except in case of destruction by fire."
Many large country houses were built in the opening years of the century, and these were still designed in accordance with the taste for Roman and Greek architecture. Stucco, used first by the brothers Adam to simulate stonework and confined to the lower storey of a building, was now spread all over the brickwork so that houses with smooth walls painted white, cream or buff, rose amid their gardens-cool, comfortable and spacious.
In the towns; streets, crescents and circuses were built in this new style of classic architecture which developed early in the century, during the Regency. The chief leader in this form of architectural taste was John Nash, the Prince Regent's architect. He was the last English architect whose designs controlled and influenced the development of large sections of London and other cities and towns. The tall, pale coloured stucco houses of the Regency period altered the appearance of Brighton and Hove, Tenby, Leamington, Cheltenham and many other places. In London, one of the finest examples of Nash's work is Regent's Park, with its terraces and crescents.
Although those delicately proportioned stucco buildings have since been admired, they were compared unfavourably with brickwork at the time they were built. A verse appeared in the Quarterly Review in 1826 criticising the style that Nash had popularised:
"Augustus at Rome was for building renowned,
And of marble he left what of brick he had found;
But is not our Nash, too, a very great master?
He finds us all brick and he leaves us all plaster."