English Houses 1300–1800

Nat Alcock reviews a social history of English architecture

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Reviewed by: Nat Alcock
Author: Matthew Johnson
Publisher: Longman
Price (RRP): £19.99

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Matthew Johnson’s ‘simple message’ is that houses are about human beings, and indeed he gives more space to people and their activities than to the houses themselves. In travelling from medieval halls to Georgian facades, he brings in an immense variety of social history.

The medieval period is seen as one of stability and uniformity. Thousands of houses survive from the 15th century, suggesting improvements in construction methods compared to their vanished predecessors.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw the ‘Great Rebuilding’. Medieval houses were modernised with chimneys and upper floors, and new houses were built to the same patterns. Johnson links these developments to increasing possessions and, more speculatively, to changes in mindset resulting from the Reformation.

Everyday life is closely examined, from decoration and furnishing, to cooking and eating, and the contrast between women’s and men’s work and their domains in the house.

Following this confusing period of change came Georgian order, combining symmetry and style with more traditional lifestyles, but also seeing such social changes as moving sleeping rooms upstairs. However, continuity with earlier house plans is emphasised, only superficially overlaid by the new fashions.

The conclusion shows these same trends in vernacular architecture spanning across the Atlantic to north America.

This book is best described as a patchwork quilt. The individual swatches are fascinating, while the overall pattern gives a challenging picture of traditional buildings in a very broad context.

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Nat Alcock is a past president of the Vernacular Architecture Group