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Treasure trove

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review - Early Georgian Interiors By John Cornforth. Yale University Press, 2004. 360pp. £60

There is a sad symmetry about this very important book. In the early 1970s John Cornforth fought time for the possession of John Fowler's unsurpassed knowledge about Georgian interior decoration. Fowler was dying and his memory going, but Cornforth won his battle and the result, published in 1974, was English Decoration in the Eighteenth Century - a miraculous work in many ways.

Fowler died a few years later and scholarship moved on, with new material coming to light, but this collaboration between Cornforth and Fowler continued to be essential reading. For me it has been a constant and valuable reference book. But in the mid1990s Cornforth resolved it was time to update the work. Rather than merely revising the original he wanted to start again, to 'include more about the relationship between planning, decoration and furnishing', and to put the subject into more of a social context.

But as this new book - the sum of decades of experience in the field - got under way, Cornforth, like Fowler before him, fell ill. He toiled on but had to fight time again, now for his own memories. In Mali there is a perceptive saying: the death of a learned man is like the burning of a great library - with death precious memories and knowledge die.

But as Cornforth knew when he fought to preserve Fowler's knowledge, death's sting is mitigated if knowledge can be preserved and made readily available in a book.

For a second time, Cornforth won his battle. He had completed the text of this book, read galley proofs and assembled illustrations when death overtook him. This book is, then, the legacy of a learned man - it represents a great library saved.

Art history has been transformed in the 30 years that separate the publication of Cornforth's two books. It has become a more popular and professional subject, with much new information discovered and with many key areas now covered by recent and authoritative publications. Cornforth shaped the structure of his new book to reflect the changing terrain. Carpets and interior colours are given little space because of recent seminal publications on these subjects and, more significantly, Cornforth decided to shorten the period covered, focusing on works undertaken between 1685 to 1760.

This is largely because he believed that Eileen Harris' monumental work on Robert Adam (AJ 20.12.01) made it unnecessary to cover the great Adam and Adam-inspired interiors of the latter decades of the 18th century. This decision says much about the current book. During the past few decades there has been a fashion for historians to investigate and document more humble architecture - to explain how ordinary buildings were made, funded and occupied. Cornforth's book has little to do with this.

The early Georgian interiors discussed here are the great works of the period, designed and made by the big-name architects and craftsmen for aristocratic clients; inevitably this means that it is largely about the British country house. So when Cornforth discusses 'The Arrival at the House' and 'Common Parlours, Great Parlours, Dining-rooms and Great Dining-rooms', it is almost invariably life in the country house that is described and explained.

That is no bad thing - this is the history that fascinated Cornforth and on which he was the authority. It simply means that there is probably still an opportunity for another scholar to give the town dwelling - mansion or terrace house - the sort of loving attention that is here lavished on the country house. Such a book - showing how the comparable cultural habits of patrons and collectors manifested themselves in cities - would make a fascinating companion to this volume.

As well as dealing with aspects of the use and decoration of the country house interior, Cornforth dedicates an entire chapter to 'William Kent and Architectural Decoration' (and this does touch on a couple of town houses), and concludes with a chapter on 'Planning and Sequences of Decoration' - an analysis of eight country houses, including Blenheim Palace, Ditchley Park and Holkham.

This is the definitive and monumental work of a man who made the study of the 17th- and 18th-century country house his life. One of the aims of the 1974 book was to make information about the decoration of 18th-century country houses available to individuals and institutions responsible for the protection and informed repair, and restoration, of this vastly important artistic legacy. The same is true of this book. It is a treasure trove of essential information for all interested in the historically correct preservation of the British country house.

Cornforth's abiding monument is not this book but what it, and his other publications, have achieved and will continue to promote: the authentic preservation of the British country house interior, in all its rich, complex and artistic splendour.

Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian

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