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Through antiquarian eyes

Review

The Country Houses of Gloucestershire, Volume III: 1830-2000 By Nicholas Kingsley and Michael Hill. Phillimore, 2001. 336pp. £30

There can hardly be a county in England with a succession of antiquaries to equal that of Gloucestershire - Atkyns, Rudder, Rudge, Fosbroke - and now the county archivist, Nicholas Kingsley, has added his name resoundingly to the list with the last of three volumes that represent half a lifetime's work.

For this, the Victorian and 20th-century volume, he has brought in as joint author the county's former conservation architect, Michael Hill, who adds his knowledge of the heavyweights such as Woodchester Park, and guides us through the rich maze of the Cotswold Arts and Crafts.

Fifty-three major houses are studied in scholarly detail, several of them being palatial enough in size, if not in styling, to have comfortably housed a Russian Czar or an Austrian Emperor.A further 89 lesser houses are also covered, still in considerable detail.

With 200 monochrome and 16 colour plates, and 15 plans, it is a work of reference whose shelf life should rival Sir Robert Atkyns' The Ancient and Present State of Glostershire of 1712.

At heart, those earlier antiquaries were genealogists and, therefore, the sociologists of their time. This third volume, like the two before it (volume one has just been revised and republished), is in the same people-centred tradition.

Ownership is the hub of a county's rural life, and lies behind every architectural detail of these houses. That is why Kingsley should be described as an antiquary rather than a mere architectural historian. A succession of owners, as at Blaisdon, represents in miniature the social and economic pattern of county and country, as 126 years have passed. From antiquaries, the histories are written; without them, the histories have to be invented.

Those first two volumes were a pleasure to own because so many of the houses, whether lost or surviving, were revelations ofhandsome exteriors or rich interiors - Estcourt Park, Cote House and Upton House come to mind. With this third volume the charisma is less strong.

It has become desperately unfashionable to talk down Victorian architecture, but here, faced with at least 100 country houses in indifferent mock-Tudor with Jacobethan highlights, it is not easy to enthuse. The contrast of high-Victorian wilfulness in Pearson's Quarwood (1856) comes as a relief from fumbled asymmetries seeking a picturesque profile by way of mullions, castellations and big bay windows. Bucknall's Viollet-le-Duc-inspired Woodchester Park, its buttressed south front fiercely symmetrical, is another refreshing exception from the Victorian country-house practice of design by nooks and dysfunctional turrets.

But what happened to these two houses?

Woodchester was never finished and still lies in its wooded valley, a forbidding skeleton rather than a ruin, while Quarwood was reworked from top to bottom in 1954 into neo-Cotswold blandness.

The unexpectedly cheering conclusions to this sequence, after due consideration of the Arts and Crafts work of Guy Dawber, Detmar Blow, Ernest Gimson and the Barnsleys, are Quinlan Terry's subtle, intensely considered, Classical houses - Waverton (1977-80) and Court Farm, Bibury (1985-89).

While the authors tend to explain the circumstances of their Victorian houses rather than comment aesthetically, their prose of appraisal positively flows over this Terry pair. This is simply because a Classical house can be analysed objectively. Reaction to the Tudorbethan can only be subjective.

Timothy Mowl is an architectural and garden historian

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