As Jane Austen knew well, a house in town (London) was the “pineapple of perfection”, “Everything that is charming!” to quote Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, a distinctive social marker of the most financially secure of her male characters and the highest social aspiration for many of her female characters( though I always feel that Austen herself preferred the safety and security of country society to that of town, that Scene of Dissipation of Vice). As Professor Edward Copeland writes in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, in the chapter on Money:
In terms of consumer show any income over £4000 a year is characterised by its ability to provide a house in London for the social season, the beguiling consumer temptation that brings romantic disaster to both Mary Crawford and Maria Bertram.
After the devastation of old London in the fire of 1666, the development of the fashionable west end of London- Mayfair and its surrounding districts-far away from the fire devastated City- saw a major period of building of grand town house, squares and crescents, with which we visitors to, or inhabitants of London are now totally familiar. This building gradually spread northwards from the streets around St James’s Palace in the first decades of the eighteenth century, and by the mid 17690s there were extensive developments built to the west and north of Cavendish Square in Marylebone, in the streets bounded by Oxford Street, the New Road (which is now known as the Euston Road)to the north and Portland Place to the east. At the same time, the Bedford Estate was being developed with the establishment of the squares and streets of Bloomsbury, and there were other isolated developments, such as the Adelphi, south of the Strand near the river Thames, that were attracting fashionable tenants.
(Adam House Adam Street Adelphi,London a survivor of the ill-fated development designed by Robert and James Adam, circa 1770,and which the eaged -eyed amongst you will recognise as the location used for Mr and Mrs john Dashwood’s town house in the film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility 1995)
Much of the land was owned outright by aristocratic families –The Russell’s of the Bedford estates, the Grosvenors of Mayfair etc.,etc.,- and was therefore entailed and could not be sold, or it was in the hands of corporate landowners who developed it to provide a long-term steady income: a result of this prime ownership was that most houses were held on leases and building was large-scale and uniform, despite the occasional individual house built for a very rich patron.
Rachel Stewart’s book, The Town House in Georgian London addresses the development of this phenomenon from the view of the architect and his patrons, male and female. She explains with wonderful clarity the role of these houses, and why the location, planning, furnishing and finish of a house was of vital importance, something with contributed seriously to the image of the owners/lesees.
The finances involved in buying and affording a house in the West End is one of the most revealing and informative chapters in the book, and the financial crises of George III’s reign make for uncomfortable reading bearing in mind our current troubled times. She also includes fascinating chapters on 18th century architectural design and practices , explaining the use of pattern books and the development of the design of the town house as an architectural entity in its own right, complete with is own characteristics and formulae:
The typical town house in practice was never the country house built small, but many pattern book designs for town houses seem more or less interchangeable with those for country houses of equivalent size, both in external appearance and planning….A five bay house calculated for a large family town situation could easily be taken for a modest country house with its pedimented central section and balanced disposition of rooms either side of a corridor running backwards a form the central entrance…Where authors suggest that the same design can be used for a house in town or country, this interchangeability is often questionable.
The book is wonderfully produced by Yale Publishing and illustrated beautifully, generously and very appropriately. There are enough reproductions of plans of houses to satisfy even me.
This is a readable and enjoyable book, full of interesting detail, and for those of us who have ever wondered what Darcy’s house in town looked like, reading this book will enable our speculation to have some sound basis in fact. I highly recommend it.