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Is Britishness Always British? Country Houses, Travel and the Cosmopolitan Identity of the British Elite in the Eighteenth Century

  • Stephanie Barczewski
Chapter
Part of the Britain and the World book series (BAW)

Abstract

In 1922, Vita Sackville-West described Knole, the enormous house in Kent that had been in her family since 1580, as

above all an English house. It has the tone of England; it melts into the green of the garden turf, into the tawnier green of the park beyond, into the blue of the pale English sky; it settles down in its hollow amongst the cushioned tops of the trees; the brown-red of those roofs is the brown-red of the roofs of humble farms and pointed oast-houses, such as the stain over a wide landscape of England the quilt-like pattern of the fields.1

Much of what she wrote remains true today. Though only half an hour from central London by train, Knole still stands surrounded by 1,000 acres of park, where tame spotted deer beg for scraps of food from picnicking families. Virtually unaltered over the last 400 years, the house’s creaky rooms remain uncorrupted by the changing fashions that compelled many landowners to alter their houses to Palladian villas or neo-Gothic fantasy castles. Sackville-West was right: Knole radiates a rambling, informal style that is somehow the essence of Englishness.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Teenth Century East India Company Early Eighteenth Century Chinese Room 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    V. Sackville-West (1922) Knole and the Sackvilles (London: Heinemann), p. 2.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    L. Sackville-West (1906) Knole House: Its State Rooms, Pictures and Antiquities (Sevenoaks: J. Salmon), p. 71. In the guidebook she wrote for the National Trust in 1950, Vita Sackville-West referred to ‘the beautiful carpet Persian of the late sixteenth century’, as well as the portrait of ‘the third Duke of Dorset’s Chinese page’. V. Sackville-West (1950) Knole, Kent (London: Country Life), p. 31.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    The Tunbridge Wells Guide lists a portrait of ‘Mr. Warnoton, a Chinese’ among the paintings at Knole in 1780. D. Mannings (2000) Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), p. 461.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    J. Bridgman (1817) An Historical and Topographical Sketch of Knole, in Kent; with a Brief Genealogy of the Sackville Family (London: W. Lindsell), p. 53. In his catalogue of the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Mannings states that the portrait has been ‘at Knole since 1780’, though he does not specify its location. A second version of the painting in which only Wang-y-Tong’s head and shoulders are depicted was last sold at auction in 1962 and is now in a private collection. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, p. 461.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Blake (1745–1773) sailed to China in 1766 as a supercargo for the East India Company at age twenty-one. He served in Canton from 1769 and became very interested in the cultivation of Chinese plants that could be used for practical purposes, such as food and medicine. He introduced the wax tree (Rhus succedanea) and the dye plant (Polygomum tinctorium) to Kew Gardens, and helped to bring a type of rice from Cochin to the West Indies and South Carolina. Blake died of fever in 1773, so Wang-y-Tong must have been sent to Knole prior to that date. J. Kilpatrick (2007) Gifts from the Gardens of China (London: Frances Lincoln), pp. 79–80. It is unclear how long Wang-y-Tong remained at Knole. He is not listed in the accounts of the Duke of Dorset’s gifts to the estate’s servants for 1781 and 1783 that survive in the Sackville Manuscripts, U.269 E.20/3. Like many aristocratic families, the Sackvilles had a predilection for servants of exotic origin. In the early seventeenth century, the household included one John Morockoe, a ‘Blackamoor’, and in the early eighteenth century the house-steward was reported to have killed a black page in the servants’ passage. Sackville-West, Knole and the Sackvilles, pp. 60, 88, 153.Google Scholar
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    See C. Riding (2008) ‘Travellers and Sitters: The Orientalist Portrait’, in N. Tromans (ed.) The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting (London: Tate Publishing), pp. 48–61.Google Scholar
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    M. Kelsall (1993) The Great Good Place: The Country House and English Literature (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 5. Ian Baucom identifies the transformation of the country house into a trope of Englishness as the product of a ‘fetishism’ that looks to identify ‘English place ... as the one thing that could preserve the nation’s memory and, in preserving its memory, secure England’s continuous national identity’. I. Baucom (1999) Out of Place: Englishness, Empire and the Locations of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 16.Google Scholar
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    T. Mowl (2004) Historic Gardens of Wiltshire (New York: History Press), pp. 84, 91. The Turkish tent was described by Lybbe Powys in 1754 as being made of painted canvas; Wiltshire’s mild climate allowed it to remain on display year round, in contrast with most such structures, which were packed away in the winter months. There was also a Chinese bridge over the northern arm of the lake. In 1754, Richard Pococke wrote that three islands were to be created in the lake, with one containing ‘a mosque with minaret’, though it is unclear whether this structure was ever built. J. Sweetman (1987) The Islamic Obsession: Islamic Inspiration in British and American Art and Architecture, 1500–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 69; and R. Pococke (1889) Travels through England (London), p. 249.Google Scholar
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    Erected by 1760 and consisting of a canvas skirt draped over a lead frame-work, Painshill’s Turkish tent is one of the best documented examples of these fragile eighteenth-century structures. In 1763, Irish visitor John Parnell, great-grandfather of Home Rule leader Charles Stuart Parnell, described it as being ‘elegantly finished, the back is built and plastered, the top leaded and painted blue, joining a sailcloth marquee that covers all and is painted white, with a blue fringe drawn up before in festoons, like Darius’s tent’. The tent disappeared in the late nineteenth century. A replica has been reconstructed and can now be seen in the restored garden at Painshill. See M. Collier and D. Wrightson (1993) ‘The Re-Creation of the Turkish Tent at Painshill’, Garden History, 21, pp. 46–59.Google Scholar
  19. 26.
    Alison Games has recently described how the roots of this process lay in the late Tudor era, when the early English participants in overseas commerce displayed a ‘cosmopolitanism and adaptability’ that would prove of great significance in later periods. Games adds that ‘England’s geographic expansion was shaped by a precise chronology: when the English went where, and where they went next, affected each subsequent experiment. The knowledge, expertise and expectations of people are thus inseparable from the places they visited and settled’. A. Games (2008) The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560–1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 9–11.Google Scholar
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    See A. Maczak (1995) Travel in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Polity Press); and J. Stoye (1989) English Travellers Abroad, 1604–1667: Their Influence in English Society and Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press).Google Scholar
  21. 28.
    W. Frith (2002) ‘Sexuality and Politics in the Gardens at West Wycombe and Medmenham Abbey’ in M. Conan (ed.) Bourgeois and Aristocratic Cultural Encounters in Garden Art, 1550–1850 (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library), p. 294.Google Scholar
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    Christopher Hussey (1986), English Country Houses: Late Georgian, 1800–1840 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club), p. 148.Google Scholar
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    Turton was not Brasted’s most prominent resident. Rebuilt in a French Renais-sance style by Alfred Waterhouse, the house was occupied by Napoleon III prior to his unsuccessful attempt to regain the French throne in August 1840. The French monarch attracted attention in the village by going for walks with his pet eagle. J. Cave-Browne (1874), The History of Brasted (Westerham: J. H. Jewell), p. 19.Google Scholar
  24. 35.
    K.D. Kriz (1997) ‘Introduction: The Grand Tour’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 31, p. 87.Google Scholar
  25. 36.
    O. Garnett (1995) Felbrigg Hall (Swindon: National Trust), p. 13.Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    G. Saunders (2005) ‘The China Trade: Oriental Painted Panels’, in L. Hoskins (ed.) The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns and Techniques of Wallpaper, 2nd edn. (London: Thames & Hudson), p. 42.Google Scholar
  27. 38.
    Ibid., p. 44.Google Scholar
  28. 39.
    See M. Jasanoff (2005) Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture and Conquest in the East 1750– 1850 (New York: Vintage), Chapter 1.Google Scholar
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    T. Mowl (2009) The Historic Gardens of England: Staffordshire (Bristol: Redcliffe), p. 108.Google Scholar
  30. 42.
    G.S. Rousseau and R. Porter (1990) ‘Introduction: Approaching Enlightenment’, in G.S. Rousseau and R. Porter (eds.) Exoticism in the Enlightenment (Manchester: Manchester University Press), p. 6Google Scholar
  31. 43.
    T. Knox (1999) Claydon House (Swindon: National Trust), p. 31.Google Scholar
  32. 44.
    D. Porter (2010) The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 4.Google Scholar
  33. For other examinations of the complexity of British views of Asia in the eighteenth century, see G.M. MacLean (2007) Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire before 1800 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan); R. Markley (2006) The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600–1730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); and C. Yang (2011) Performing China: Virtue, Commerce and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England, 1660–1760 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).Google Scholar
  34. 47.
    See in particular W. Dalrymple (2004) White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India (London: Harper Perennial), Chapter 1.Google Scholar
  35. 48.
    R. Guha (1997) ‘Not at Home in Empire’, Critical Inquiry, 23, p. 483. Geographers have been particularly interested in the way in which human beings constitute the difference between home and elsewhere. David Morley and Kevin Robins write that home ‘is about sustaining cultural boundaries and boundedness. To belong in this way is to protect exclusive, and therefore, excluding identities against those who are seen as aliens and foreigners. The “Other” is always and continuously a threat to the security and integrity of those who share a common home’. Similarly, Doreen Massey argues that the imagined construction of places ‘called home’ is based upon notions ‘of recourse to a past, of a seamless coherence of character, of an apparently comforting bounded enclosure’. She continues: ‘Such understandings of the identity of places require them to be enclosures, to have boundaries and — therefore or most importantly — to establish their identity through negative counterposition with the Other beyond the boundaries’. D. Morley and K. Robins (1995) Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Land-scapes and Cultural Boundaries (London: Routledge), p. 89; and D. Massey (1994) Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 168–9.Google Scholar
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    C. Halland Rose, S. (2006) ‘Introduction: Being at Home with the Empire’ in C. Hall and S. Rose, eds., At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 25.Google Scholar
  37. 50.
    Baucom writes that ‘English space’ can be interpreted as not only ‘withdrawing from’ but also ‘coinciding with imperial territory’. Baucom, Out of Place, pp. 25–6.Google Scholar

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© Stephanie Barczewski 2013

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  • Stephanie Barczewski

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