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Rich confusion

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Creating Paradise: The Building of the English Country House 1660-1880 By Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley. Hambledon, 2001. 448pp. £25 'Creating Problems'might have been a more accurate title for this disturbingly informative and widely researched book. For their provocative conclusions the authors concentrate on six counties - Norfolk, Suffolk, Yorkshire, Northants, Gloucestershire and Cheshire. During which of the 22 decades between 1660 and 1880 were the most country houses under construction? The answer is, in descending order, the 1770s, the 1790s and the 1720s. And the fewest? - the 1810s.

Like so many of the facts presented in the tables that enliven this intriguing text, that raises problems.We lost a major war and our American empire in the 1770s, so were all those houses built as some kind of therapy or simply to keep up with Robert Adam?

How can the 1790s have been so prolific when there were bank crashes in all the big cities and spas? Were wartime profiteers investing in country seats? If so, why had they suddenly stopped before Waterloo?

This book works on chaos theory: no final answers but a rich confusion that rules out easy generalisations. Eighteenth-century builders were usually deep in debt, but rarely went bankrupt because interest rates were low and banks were respectful. The Earls of Carlisle and Leicester built enormous palaces not because they were unusually rich, but because they took their time over them. Leicester was 40 years building the yellow-brick Palladian sprawl of Holkham and still left £2,000 a year in his will for its completion.

One reliable source of income that kept him going was the tolls on every ship passing Dungeness lighthouse. Charles II had granted them to one of the ancestors of Leicester's wife. Another five East Anglian lighthouses collected so much money - £3,000 a year - for Sir John Griffin that he was able to add a whole suite of Robert Adam rooms to Audley End.

Each chapter brims with that mad serendipity. A rich Swiss banker dies, leaving his great-grandson, Charles Thellusson, £600,000 - most of it in land. The result was a dim, worthless Italianate house in Yorkshire, Brodsworth Hall, rushed up in two years after 1861 for £31,000. But that is another problem: why did they raise so few houses of any stylistic significance or beauty? One of the authors' sources castigates Northants gentry as 'for the most part a hidebound, dull, inward-turned and stuffy society, obsessed with horses, dogs and hunting'. Why they so often exceeded their income to load the family with debt is never explained.

It was ironically appropriate that when a despairing lament, The Destruction of the Country House, was published more than 25 years ago its cover illustration featured Halnaby Hall, Yorkshire, a resoundingly ugly barracks of a house in the process of its well deserved demolition. Perhaps that cull of the 1950s was justified and the worthwhile houses largely survived, though Dudmaston in Shropshire suggests that it could well have been rather more ruthless.

If this devastating, sometimes depressing, but always courageous book has a flaw it is its understandable failure to compensate for inflation over a two-century period. Could Alderman Beckford's Splendens at Fonthill, Wiltshire, have cost £240,000 when 35 years earlier Castle Howard cost Lord Carlisle only £78,000? And how then could Kedleston, a contemporary of Splendens and at least equally sumptuous, have been built for a mere £70,000? The figures do not make any kind of sense.

Students and lecturers alike will plunder this book for hard facts and then argue over them. Country house fanciers will, I suspect, confine it to their shelves but use it as a valuable work of reference.

Timothy Mowl is an architectural historian

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