When was the term 'gentry' last used in a serious and contemporary context? For that matter, when did someone last dare to describe himself as a gentleman, or ask his architect to design a house suitable for a gentleman? While costume drama has become a peculiarly English art form, and country house visiting has become one of the most successful branches of tourism, the coming English establishment have retreated into denial about their social and artistic aspirations - with the exception of the government's Peter Mandelson, and look what happened to him.
Houses of the Gentry 1480-1680 is the record of more confident times. Starting with that supreme adventurer and most under-rated king, Henry VII, the gentry came into their own. The four or five hundred knights and some 800 designated 'esquires', backed up by innumerable 'gents', not only ran the country day-to-day but built themselves houses to match, and signify, their importance. By the time of James I there were 1500 esquires and about 1000 knights and baronets; in 1680, some 3000 and 1400 respectively. They were still building, and most of what they built is still with us.
Nicholas Cooper has not only written a scholarly book about the houses themselves but has set them in the political, religious and social conditions of the times. Thus, the hierarchical but inclusive nature of the medieval household gave way to a desire for privacy, the servant/companion relationship inherent in feudalism was replaced by a master/servant relationship, and the combined effect of humanism and the Reformation put a premium on manners and morality. The Great Hall became of less importance than the parlour, the offices of the house were segregated, the staircase leading to the family rooms developed in importance, and bedrooms became exclusively bedrooms.
The gentry were never a closed group, but they were cohesive. They met at the Assizes in the county towns, they met in London at Parliamentary sessions, and increasingly their sons met at Oxford, Cambridge and the Inns of Court. As Cooper writes: 'The evolution of the inward-looking, self-defining household into the outward-looking yet exclusive family, defined by its social and kindred connections, parallels the development of the house itself.'
Of all the times and topics covered, the most fascinating are the villa and the suburban house, built in those days in Kensington, Chelsea, Greenwich and Wimbledon, where the 'way of life involved the social duties of the town rather than the territorial obligations of the country estate'. Here is the genesis of a lifestyle that continues to flourish much to the discomfort of the Department of the Environment.
For anyone interested in the architectural history of England this book is a treasure, and like so many good things English it is the result of generous, low-profile private patronage. It is published by Yale University Press, one of the most discriminating of publishers, for The Paul Mellon Institute for Studies in British Art. Both, along with Cooper, are to be congratulated. The true heroes, however, are the gentlemen of England, their architects and their builders who knew, in the words of Andrew Boorde in 1554, that 'the commodyous buyldyng of a place doth not only satysfye the mynde of the inhabitour, but also it doth comforte and reioyseth a mannes herte to see it, specyally the pulchrose prospect.'
Colin Baillieu is a historian