BOOK REVIEW / The dead wife in a box and a cat in the corner: 'Town and Country' - Mark Girouard: Yale, 25 pounds

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The Independent Online
MR HUSTON, of Castle Huston - so Mark Girouard was told when visiting Irish cousins in the Forties - told his cook that if she sent the soup up cold again, he would shoot her. 'She did send it up cold, and he did shoot her.' The Earl of Antrim wanted to be buried upright, so that he could look down on his glen; but the coffin-bearers were so drunk that they buried him upside down. Mr FitzGerald, whose seat, so to speak, was at The Island in County Waterford, kept his first wife, dead, in a box in the hall.

Not all writers on architecture include information as far from the strict canon of their subjects as this; come to that, few supply information intrinsically as interesting. But not all architectural historians got to know Chatsworth by catching frogs in the canal pond there as a child. It has always been Girouard's way to offer a course, not merely in architecture, but in architecture, civilisation, human nature and related topics. His secret is that architecture, for him, was not an elevated affair that one studied in libraries and travelled to admire; it was the natural background to life in the Irish country houses (with names such as Ballyseedy) of his cousins on one side of the water, and at Chatsworth and Hardwick, the palaces of his Cavendish kinsfolk, on the other.

This collection of essays does justice to the extraordinary range of Girouard's knowledge and interests. One chapter points out that the rococo style was launched in England in the 1740s by a group - it included Hogarth and the sculptor Roubiliac as well as Henry Fielding and the painter Francis Hayman - who worked at the St Martin's Lane Academy and drank at Old Slaughter's coffee- house next door; in the late 1730s and 1740s, they decorated Vauxhall Gardens between them in the new French style. Another tells the story of the wicked earl of Belvedere. His wife was accused of committing adultery with his younger brother. He locked her up for 18 years, ruined his brother and sent him to prison. His beautiful house remains: 'It is not until the car sweeps round the corner to the front of the house,' Girouard reports, 'that one suddenly sees the gleaming expanse of Lough Ennell, stretching, scattered here and there with islands, to the far horizons.'

There are intriguing essays in architectural detection here - a touch of that investigation of the country-house life, above and below stairs, that introduced Girouard's work to a wider public. He looks at the gradual introduction of modern services and sanitation into Tullynally, formerly Pakenham Hall, the Westmeath home of his friend Thomas Pakenham. He also unearths the bitter feud between the great house of Burghley and the radicals of Stamford in the early 19th century, and supplies a charming account of how the rich East Anglian Quaker families brought a moment of relaxed elegance to Cromer, that unpromising village on the wind-blasted Norfolk shore.

In a brief autobiographical introduction, Girouard drops the mask and introduces himself, the shy boy who looked at buildings and wondered about the way that people designed them, built them and lived in them. The result is a rag-bag whose nostalgia is preserved from cloying by a sharp analytical intelligence and

occasional tart drops of humour, and by its sumptuously illustrated pages.

The last essay explores the enduring charm of the small, box-like Georgian house. It dwells on a delightful drawing of a London bedsitting room in about 1750, by a French artist. Three men sit over what seems to be both tea and wine on a card table. This is anything but high life. There are no curtains, many of the pictures on the wall are unframed, and in the corner a cat is investigating a chamber- pot in what might be called a Hogarthian manner. Girouard looks for the secret of these unpretentious interiors: 'In the design of their houses, just as much as in the polite manners of their assembly rooms, they avoided exaggeration, and aimed to please.' It is a characteristic suggestion; under the scholar and stalwart of the Victorian Society, there is in Mark Girouard, a polite Georgian gentleman who pleases because of the unostentatious skill and solid elegance of his workmanship.