Hello, Nicola here. One of the questions I’m often asked when I am showing visitors around Ashdown House is what did visitors to country houses do all day? Life in London or Bath was exciting, with plays, concerts, opera, shopping and many more entertainments. In contrast the country lifestyle was sometimes mocked as slow and boring, especially on a rainy day. “Morning walks, prayers three times a day and bohea tea” was how the poet Alexander Pope described it.
It was a leisured lifestyle, of course, because the owners and visitors didn’t have to work for a living, unlike the servants who attended to their every need. So they were free to pursue whatever activity and interests they wished and, mostly, had the money to indulge those interests. Below are just a few of the ways in which they passed their time.
Ashdown, being a hunting lodge, was all about sport. Guests would go fox hunting and hare coursing over the Downs, ride through the woodland or go pheasant shooting. There was a private racecourse and in the 19th century a nine hole golf course as well. Cricket was also played. If visitors wished to be slightly less active they could watch the progress of the hunt from the viewing platform on the roof of the house or visit the horses in their stables. Rainy days did not mean that exercise could not be taken. Many country houses had long galleries designed for a stroll in bad weather. At Ashdown there was the grand staircase where visitors could climb up and down, admiring the portraits as they passed. And by the mid-nineteenth century one of the favourite occupations of visitors to Ashdown was to watch the Earl taking photographs and posing for them as well. Who said country house life was boring?
From the Regency period onward Ashdown also had the appropriate accommodation for other country house pastimes. Billiards had been known as a game since the 17th century when it was played with curved cues called maces. However it did not become widely popular until the late 18th century and by the 19th century it was common for there to be a separate billiards room, as there was at Ashdown, with a smoking room alongside. This suggests that billiards was primarily a male entertainment but in fact women played as well and mixed games occurred frequently. In 1813 Lord Byron declared his love for Lady Frances Webster over a game of billiards at Aston Hall in Yorkshire! The billiards balls in the picture are made of marble.
Card games were another popular way in which to while away and evening. Most country houses had at least one card table and when there was a ball there were usually at least three tables where guests could play if they were not dancing. In Emma, Jane Austen describes: “a very superior party in which her card tables should be set out with their separate candles and unbroken packs in the true style.” Games such as Commerce, Speculation and Loo were considered respectable. However, card games brought with them the dangers of gambling and sometimes accusations of cheating. Nothing was more likely to destroy the happy atmosphere of a country house party than guests falling out because they had lost money at cards or someone had the temerity to accuse a fellow guest of swindling them.
Concerts, Theatricals and Dances
Some aristocratic families such as the Cavendishes were rich enough to employ a private orchestra and to build a private theatre but even those who could not afford to do so could put on private performances in which they all took part. Jane Austen grew up in such a world where families wrote and performed their own theatricals. The Pic Nic Club formed in 1802 to stage their own plays, which were followed by sumptuous suppers. The picture is one of James Gillray's cartoons making fun of the Pic Nic Orchestra.
Ladies were expected to be proficient on at least one musical instrument and both ladies and gentlemen sang. Performing duets together or having a gentleman turn the pages of the music for you as you played the pianoforte could be a very romantic experience for a young lady!
Then there were the country house balls. By the 19th century there was a dedicated ballroom at Ashdown House but in many smaller properties the drawing room could substitute for a ballroom. All you had to do was move the furniture and roll back the carpets and you could hold an impromptu dance! The dancefloor was a great place to hold conversations without being overheard by your chaperon, although the steps of the dance might move a lady and gentleman apart at a crucial moment.
I have no talent for drawing so it’s fortunate these days that it is not a general requirement for the female sex to be able to paint and draw since I would be found sadly lacking. For ladies in the 18th and 19th century there were itinerant drawing masters who would instruct them in the arts of pencil sketches and of painting in water colour. Tradition dictated that these should be painted outdoors but when it rained ladies would sometimes sketch or draw interiors. These drawings have now become an invaluable historical record of what the interiors of country houses looked like and the style in which they were decorated.
Reading, Shell Work and Model Making
Other occupations for a rainy day might be reading, sewing or model-making. We might not now agree with Thomas Hobbes, who claimed that: “Reading is a pernicious habit, it destroys all originality of sentiment” but before the mid 17th century reading was intended more for reflection than relaxation and country houses had very few books. By the 18th century a separate room was set aside to house collections of books and although women were always noted to be more avid readers than men, the library was generally a male preserve up until the end of the 18th century. Interestingly by abut 1820 it had become a multi-purpose sort of a room where tea was taken, music was played and books were read aloud to the assembled company. This is the Library at Blenheim Palace and as you can see it features a piano as well as endless wonderful bookshelves!
The most complicated and intricate of ladies’ entertainments was probably the shell work that became extremely fashionable in the 18th century. Many ladies decorated boxes with shells but some practised shell work on a grander scale. Sarah, Duchess of Richmond, and her daughters Caroline and Emily, decorated a grotto with seashells at Goodwood Park in Sussex. In 1798 cousins Jane and Mary Parminter decorated a house called A La Ronde in Sussex (pictured) with seashells, feathered panels, glass, broken pottery shards, mica and cork. Shells were also used in model making. One of the most famous models made during the Georgian period was Betty Ratcliffe’s model of the China pagoda at Kew, complete with tinkling bells.
If you had been a Regency lady or gentleman which of the country house pursuits do you think you might have enjoyed? Something sporting or something creative? Which would you have liked to try?