On a journey from stately home to pauper's attic Amanda Vickery reveals how 'taste' became the buzzword of the age and gave women a new outlet for their creativity.
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'Open House day in London,
'an annual event where anyone who cares gets the chance to nosey around other people's houses.'
You can see how it changes the space when you open it.
'It's an irresistible chance to judge the taste of others.'
-Would you like to live here?
I like how the stairs are made.
You might think this fascination with other people's homes is new,
that it's a modern obsession that sits alongside our interest in DIY,
in home-make-over stores and in design magazines.
But in fact,
the idea that house and home expressed your taste and personality
first took hold 300 years ago in Georgian Britain.
In this era Britain discovered the joys of catalogue shopping,
his and hers furniture and the social call for a cup of tea and a gossip.
We've already seen that in the 18th century,
having your own front door was a great British obsession,
the keystone of success and happiness.
But once the happy home was established, the big question became,
"What should it look like? How did you fill it?"
And it was then that Georgian women of all ranks came into their own.
See, that's much better!
They grasped a new opportunity to express their characters in colours and patterns,
and so made homes their stage.
Through studying the diaries, letters and accounts of Georgian women,
I've realised that this expression of female creativity also carried the risk of ridicule and mockery.
Because the transformation of Georgian interiors coincided with the birth of a new way of judging homes -
an idea that trips up the best of us today!
And that idea is good taste.
To see the difference this 18th-century make over made,
I've come to the remarkable Parham House in Sussex.
Here two rooms, side by side, encapsulate a style revolution.
This is the old model of decoration.
It's an Elizabethan great hall.
You can see from the decoration -
the pewter, the paintings of the dynastic family.
What it is saying is, "We are an ancient family with deep roots in this English soil."
And up here we have the deer's head,
the trophies of the hunt.
It reeks of testosterone, of military power.
This is the male-dominated world preceding the Georgians.
But literally metres away and you step into a chic and cosmopolitan new order.
300 years ago there was a dramatic transformation to this.
That butch, feudal dining hall is history,
giving way to the prettiness and politeness of this Georgian saloon.
A thin partition divides two rooms light years apart in attitude.
This is what happened when Georgian women exerted their influence
and designed a room suited to their needs,
a room where they could perform and preside.
The whole thing has a much lighter, prettier feel.
If it wasn't such a cliche, I'd say this room had a woman's touch.
Spearheading this changing aesthetic were the ladies of the Georgian elite -
dazzling, educated, confident and, above all, rich.
And luckily for me, one of them, society leader Sophia Lady Shelburne,
detailed her exploration of the new world of style in her private diaries.
I think this is a very moving document because in it Lady Shelburne, Sophia,
tells the story of her private life and it's the story of her marriage.
These manuscripts reveal a sensitive woman
revelling in the golden opportunity to shape her surroundings.
Saturday the 23rd of March, 1765, to Lord Northumberland's at Syon.
Recently married, she'd come to inspect a brand-new London show home - Syon House.
For Lady Shelburne this wasn't a social call.
This was a reconnaissance mission
to find out what was happening in architecture in the 1760s.
The bride was looking for pointers for her own building plans
and she was impressed.
The fine apartment consists of a beautiful hall stuccoed and left white...
..a saloon in which we saw the most beautiful large pillars imaginable of verde antique...
..placed at proper distances around the room.
What she was doing was kind of keeping up with the Joneses
because she's checking out what are the great aristocrats building.
Could she have a house like it?
Maybe she thought, "Well, I'll have those columns, but I'll leave off a bit of that gold."
Next to this a dining room, stuccoed and gilt-decorated with Corinthian pillars that screen off the doors.
So that must be there.
Corinthian pillars screening off the doors.
By the drawing room, Lady Shelburne was transported to antiquity.
The drawing room has also the same prospect.
The ceiling is beautifully coloured and painted in a mosaic form
in which are the pictures from Herculaneum.
In the 18th century, aristocrats were rich and they wanted to show it.
So showing off your opulence and your magnificence
is absolutely fine as long as you've got the blue blood to go with it.
Syon exceeds anything I ever saw in magnificence and beauty.
Lady Shelburne was wowed by the flashy mix of ancient inspiration and modern money
and so she decided to get a Syon of her own
and she went about it the simplest way possible -
by hiring the same architect.
Robert Adam was THE fashionable piping-hot architect of that moment,
responsible for world-famous terraces like Edinburgh's exquisite Charlotte Square.
And beautiful interiors like here at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire.
The Shelburnes commissioned him to design a London townhouse in exclusive Berkeley Square.
And this is it. This is what remains of Shelburne House -
a townhouse built by Robert Adam for Lord and Lady Shelburne as a political headquarters,
a showcase for a rising star of the Whig party.
It was to be a public house -
not a place of cosy domesticity, but a great platform for power.
Lady Shelburne was abreast of the latest in design.
She knew Adam had caught the Zeitgeist.
Europe was undergoing a classical revival,
turning its back on the florid ornamentation and curves of the baroque and the rococo.
Instead, architects were fascinated by the geometry
and stripped-down purity of ancient Rome.
The ruling classes took for granted the superiority of Rome,
one mighty empire respectfully drawing on the style rules of another.
Ladies like Sophia may not have had a formal education in Latin and Greek,
but they read the classics in translation and could recognise at a glance
the mythological significance of sculptures and art.
And Sophia, Lady Shelburne, was a swot.
She even studied prints of classical ruins when she was in early labour with their second child.
Maybe those architectural prints did speed her along,
or maybe they put her in a calm state of mind and enabled her really to cope with the pain
and speed along the labour and have a successful birth.
Lady Shelburne was fascinated by this new vogue - neoclassicism -
triggered by the excavation of the ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
You can see details lifted direct from the archaeological digs
in Robert Adam's designs for Shelburne House.
These are the plans that Robert Adam made for Lord and Lady Shelburne for Berkeley Square.
This is Robert Adam's design for the Shelburne's dining room.
This is where all the Whigs would come to meet and discuss politics with Lord Shelburne.
Shelburne goes on to become the Prime Minister,
so it's a bit like the West Wing of the White House today.
It seems quite cold, chaste, powerful and manly.
But Robert Adam always offered an alternative for the ladies.
There was always a drawing room.
When the men settled down to their brandy, to their politics, to their toasts,
the ladies withdrew to a room which expressed more playfulness
and exquisite taste.
And here we are, this is the carpet
of the drawing room at Shelburne house.
So whereas the dining room was austere and monochrome,
this is bright, lively, playful.
It's a room which expresses femininity.
And here at their Wiltshire country seat, Bowood House,
the Shelburne's very modern marriage
meant that both Lord and Lady had the opportunity to express their style.
Thursday 30th May, 1765.
Arrived at Bowood.
I was much pleased with this place and found it in a state I think most agreeable,
it being habitable and beautiful.
But nesting aristocrats like the Shelburnes
did more than titivate a property with the odd textile.
They made the very earth move.
To please his new wife, Lord Shelburne had asked Capability Brown
to excavate a lake and plant a forest.
There remains to finish a considerable piece of water
on the head of which they are now at work.
The mausoleum remains only to be paved.
Mr Brown's plantations are very young but promising.
These glorious mature trees
are the grown-up versions of the little baby plantations
that Capability Brown established here in the 1760s
and Lady Shelburne writes about in her diary.
But what she doesn't mention is that that house there
is the last remnant of an entire village,
which had to be cleared away to make way for the lake.
If the exterior fell to his Lordship's sphere,
her Ladyship expected to express her connoisseurship indoors.
It was time to shop.
Saturday 28th. We went to Ince the cabinet-maker
to see our furniture for the drawing room and my dressing room at Bowood.
Our man has done a lovely job on the escutcheon here as well.
Gave Ince plans from Herculaneum and Palmyra for ornaments for a commode of yew
inlaid with holly and ebony.
The one I wanted to talk to you about...
This must be huge.
Because I want the detail to...
I find that charming, that they go out together arm in arm to have a good look at their furniture.
How it's doing, how it's coming on, to pass their opinions.
You get a strong sense that this is a couple working out what they think about life and marriage
through their shopping really.
This is also of utmost importance...
Britain was booming.
Trade brought a host of new materials to our shores,
and British workshop ingenuity was unleashed on domestic goods.
And perhaps the most brilliant new producer was Matthew Boulton,
a manufacturer and commercial impresario, who lived here - Soho House in Birmingham.
Boulton was the first brass baron, churning out shiny metals
to glitter on polite dining tables,
to pepper pots.
He did produce a vast array of things.
Half a million objects came out of the Soho factory in 1780 alone
and he had an amazingly fertile ingenuity.
I'm awed really by his entrepreneurial panache.
He is an entrepreneur of taste.
In a stroke of genius, Boulton realised that the new decision makers in interior design were female.
Boulton's respect for and understanding of women
first struck me when I read his personal letters in this Birmingham archive.
One of the fantastic things about Matthew Boulton's
private letters to his wife is they give you an insight into the kind of man he was,
but also how cleverly he seduced female consumers.
I am tired of the fatigue of this day and out of humour
and therefore I will endeavour to repose myself
and get myself into a good humour again
by turning my thoughts towards my dear wife.
He comes over in these letters as bubbly, charismatic,
fascinated by women, wanting to understand what they wanted
and very, very fond of his wife.
Of all the men that I've studied
who think about the home and write about the home,
I have to say Matthew Boulton is the only one I can imagine marrying,
because a lot of men know how to court a woman,
but not many men know how to keep a woman happy.
Matthew Boulton even charmed his way into Lady Shelburne's bedroom.
I paid a visit to Lord Shelburne.
Lady Shelburne sent a message desiring that she might come down,
but as she was ill of a putrid sore throat my Lord desired she would not,
and therefore wished she could have a few of my pretty things in her room to amuse her.
I therefore took coach and fetched a load for her
'and sat with her Ladyship for two hours explaining and hearing her criticisms.'
Never was no man so much complimented as I have been.
I think that's quite an extraordinary little episode.
Really, Matthew Boulton's a bit like an Avon lady who's gone off, got a cache of his treasures,
come back and sat in, after all, an aristocratic lady's bedroom
and discussed his products with her and listened to her criticisms for a couple of hours.
You really don't know there who's leading who,
but it shows how cleverly he can manage the carriage trade, the quality trade.
But Boulton was far from monogamous to toffs like Lady Shelburne.
He saved plenty of his flair for the rank and file.
The nobility may have led fashion, but they were a tiny group,
just 300 families.
There were tens of thousands of professionals, shopkeepers,
small manufacturers, who constituted the mighty middle market.
So Boulton cunningly offered them
a cut-price version of the aristocratic family silver
made of Sheffield plate - copper coated with a thin veneer of silver.
Here's the contrast.
This is solid...piece of silver...
Would have cost a bomb.
It's a tea urn for dispensing hot water
and here's the Sheffield plate version.
A bit lighter,
but still very, very elegant,
stamped with fashion at a fraction of the cost.
So here you have it -
taste and elegance on your dining table on a budget.
It was an irresistible combination, so seductive to the upwardly mobile.
More mustard pots.
These great big urns for hot water.
You could just go on and on.
A fabulous array.
The appeal of this in the 18th century might have been something like
the appeal of Habitat in the 1960s.
This idea you could have well-designed things
that still had a kind of feel of modernity about them.
Other astute producers also noticed that the female market was a new commercial opportunity.
Rising star of British furniture design Thomas Chippendale
realised that the social differences between the sexes
might be celebrated in furniture.
Why settle for one unisex desk when every couple needs two?
It's a big, strong, important desk this.
I wonder if it made a man feel very manly sitting behind it.
"Look at me. Look at my big desk."
With the gents taken care of, Chippendale broke the mould
by adding a ladies' range -
dainty desks designed to show off the petite charms of the fairer sex.
You'd have to be pretty careful
to get all your skirt underneath here to manage your writing.
You'd be doing it in public.
You'd be making quite a performance of it, I think,
so in that performance, you're expressing
your femininity, your grace, your deportment and your politeness.
It has an ingenious device attached to it. This is a face-saver.
You'd pull up this screen when you're writing your letters in front of the fire,
designed to protect ladies' complexions
because you want to hang onto your white skin as long as possible.
Once the bloom's gone off, it's all over for you
and the bloom goes off very early, about 25.
Chippendale also introduced another lady's favourite,
an innovation that has transformed the way we shop today.
He was the first person in British manufacturing to produce a catalogue of his own designs.
It's a work of genius.
He sets out all his designs
and you'd think this would ruin him - everybody would copy them,
his designs would lose all their exclusivity - but in fact,
nothing could be further from the truth.
It really launched his business,
not to mention the avalanche of catalogues driving sales today.
And many of these new, ingenious products
were aimed squarely at the Georgian middle market.
Here at Temple Newsam in Leeds,
they've a furniture collection for consumers without the luxury of space
that you'd get in a grand house like this.
This is an example of metamorphic furniture,
furniture that can turn into something else.
The Georgians absolutely loved it.
Let's see if I can operate the mechanism.
It looks like any old chest,
might be storing your linens in or something,
but with a bit of heft you can turn it into something else.
Then...you go like this.
Finally, out with the...
There we go. Your chest has become a roll-down bed.
This is just the sort of thing that you would find in a poorer person's lodging.
Packed away for the day and revealed for the night
so that you could make the most use of a tiny space.
And their ingenuity was prodigious.
Why have one table when you can have three?
And this ingenious device
looks like a set of stairs you use to climb into bed.
But in fact...
A little bit of manipulation...
Voila! It's a loo.
And this is my favourite.
It's a tea table,
but with a little bit of engineering
you can drop
your tea things out of sight,
flip the leaves across...
..and there -
your dirty things all hidden
and you could use this as a card table or a desk.
It's the lazy girl's friend.
I think metamorphic furniture tells us a lot about Georgian homes.
It's not just bought by the rich.
In fact, I think it's middling families in towns who most wanted this sort of stuff.
With producers pandering to the middle ranks,
Mrs Average relished the new world of goods.
The embodiment of the new Georgian consumer
was a dressy and indefatigable old lady called Mrs Martha Dodson.
She was the widow of a tin manufacturer
and she shopped until she dropped, literally,
here in these streets in the city of London.
How do I know? Not from her diary, but from her account book.
She was 62 when she started keeping this account book
and keeps it all the way through until she dies.
She was affluent and dignified,
but she was nevertheless pleasing herself with china and chintz.
The account book reveals that for the last 19 years of her life,
until the age of 81, Mrs Dodson was regularly making over her house.
So here May, 1753,
"One white china teapot and stand
"and one china nun and one friar."
So she's got these little ornaments of a nun and a friar
to sit on the mantelpiece back at home.
Chintz wallpaper, chintz curtains,
bedside carpet, shelves for ornaments,
mahogany tea chest and endless teapots.
In May, 1754,
she bought one pair of blue and white Bow china sauceboats.
So Bow is a...
china company, which produced very serviceable, solid wares,
strongly, squarely aimed at the middle market.
So Mrs Dodson is their perfect customer.
She is a well-off, but very sensible and dignified widow.
I'm rather fond of Mrs Dodson. I have a bit of a soft spot for her.
I think she is like the sort of ideal grandmother
who you'd love to go and have tea with
and admire her new decorations.
The very last things she bought were a kettle, a set of dessert knives
and another teapot when she was 81.
I rather admire her really for carrying on with the decorating until her very last breath.
House-proud consumers like Martha Dodson
were also targeted in a surprisingly sophisticated way
by the pioneers of British advertising.
This is a fantastic and rare piece of advertising.
It is a hand bill
advertising The Queen's Royal Furniture Gloss.
"For cleaning and beautifying of furniture of all sorts. Sold here."
It depicts two women sat in a well-appointed and well-polished parlour
discussing the merits of The Queen's Royal Furniture Gloss.
And one is saying to the other, "Your furniture's exceeding nice. Pray, Madam, tell to me,
"what makes it so and what's the price, that mine the same may be."
"The Royal Gloss that makes it so, one shilling is the price.
"Do you buy one the trouble's none and yours will be as nice."
It is just like today when two ladies in a kitchen debate
the qualities of their latest washing powder.
That's a device that has lasted for hundreds of years.
This clever marketing helped to quicken the desire for new goods.
Georgian women of all ranks were taking pride in their homes
and were casting around for inspiration.
While we might look to design magazines or TV,
back then they had to seek out the real thing.
The owners of grand houses
threw open their doors and hordes of curious visitors took tours.
We've got two triumphal panels here.
They weren't just coming to while away the afternoon,
but to study the cutting edge of design
and to copy on a more modest scale.
Interior decoration had become a thrilling new venture.
Now we'll go to the dining room, shall we?
And critically for women, they were thought to have
an innate understanding of a fashionable new concept
governing what you should and shouldn't buy.
And that new concept was taste.
Taste is an idea invented by the French,
but the British snapped it up very quickly and made it their own.
Taste was the ability to appreciate beauty,
but it was about so much more than just the cut of your curtains or the colour of your tea set.
It demonstrated your sound judgment, your cultural knowledge and your exquisite manners.
At first, taste was celebrated as an accomplishment of the high-born and well-bred
with money to spend and the education to discriminate, like Lady Shelburne.
But the idea of taste caught on, spreading like wildfire across society.
And that raised a thorny question.
Do you have good taste? Do I?
This is one of my favourite 18th-century prints.
It's basically a joke about middle-class taste.
It's called a Common Council Man Of Candlestick Ward And His Wife
On A Visit To Mr Deputy At His Modern-Built Villa Near Clapham.
And this fantastically horrendous villa here
is a mish-mash of all the styles,
so it has this rotunda out here. There we go.
A little bit of the neoclassical.
Here it has ionic pillars round the door.
Also got a Venetian window here,
but then these both rather gothic features.
And then, hilariously, there's a dragon flying on the top.
And really this is an awful warning
about getting it wrong.
There are great risks attached
to trying to improve your status through architecture.
Get it wrong and you risk dreadful mockery.
One product above all illustrates the vivid way in which middling homes
were being improved and the anxieties attached to refurbishment.
To you it might seem like a mundane and rather quaint commodity,
but to me it is THE transformational material of Georgian interior decorating.
Try the next.
Yes, that will do nicely.
Here at Kenwood House,
curator Treve Rosoman, has squirreled away
an extraordinary collection of original Georgian wallpapers
salvaged from houses across London.
It shows the sheer variety of patterns and colours that became available to Georgian consumers.
Papers are really very good at picking up
the prevailing fashionable taste.
There is a very interesting paper that we found in Mayfair
with a Herculaneum-type pattern.
This is glorious!
What a lovely big piece as well.
There's even a bit of cut-price chinoiserie for the masses.
The joy of wallpaper is to actually see what people really lived with.
You can see the archaeology that surrounded people.
Who would have thought that wallpaper could reveal so much of domestic history?
Absolutely, it does.
People lived with much brighter colours that we think.
And wallpaper engaged a whole new strata of society in interior design.
And why wallpaper does that
is because it is so much cheaper than the alternative wall-coverings.
So you could get
something like 11 yards of paper for the cost of
one yard of the textile that the rich would have,
and wallpaper really is the story of the democratisation of taste.
Georgian women even slapped it up themselves, as captured in this watercolour by a female amateur.
It's a wonderful testament to female DIY.
But for women who were trying their hand at interior design for the very first time,
this was a highly anxious business.
What were these new rules of taste?
How did you know if you were being tasteful?
What was a tasteful paper?
The last thing they want to be seen to be
is too showy,
too flash, too vulgar, too gaudy.
So they were very concerned really to decorate with a tasteful elegance
which, in the 18th century, was called neatness.
So if you are neat and not too showy, you've got it right.
Even the choice of colour was a minefield.
It's got amazing depth of colour, hasn't it? The crimson...
The intensity of it.
It's like you are wallowing in crimson.
Red...seems very posh, regal.
Blue... I quite like blue.
Yellow only becomes fashionable in the 18th century.
But neat and not too showy.
And a nice green.
Nobody could criticise you for that.
Wallpaper had become the height of fashion and advertising from the time
shows just how much wallpaper was targeted at the female audience.
This is a fantastic trade card for a wallpaper manufacturer.
"James Wheeley's Paperhanging Warehouse."
It is interesting, in trade cards, which ones have couples in them.
And wallpaper, and any goods which are associated with interiors, often have women in them.
So here we have a rather dressy couple and child.
The ladies taste is clearly to the fore.
Everybody seems to be deferring to her.
"What do you think, darling?"
And here the proprietor
is indicating a glorious roll of flowered paper
and she is making her choice.
So you can see how much wallpapering is associated with
setting up home, colour and family life.
So if you denied your wife the right to interior decoration,
you were choking the marriage,
as I found in the letters of a vicar's daughter, Mary Hewitt.
In 1749, newly married Mary Hewitt was laid up ill
at her family home in Essex.
Meanwhile, in Coventry,
her new husband was readying the martial home.
But the short-sighted James Hewitt had committed a cardinal sin.
As for the great parlour,
I don't propose meddling with it at present.
And if that is painting my money is throwing away.
He'd presumed to go ahead and redecorate their new marital home alone.
Paper for the staircase to be of a stucco pattern.
But frugal James Hewitt had elected to paper only halfway up the stairs,
just the bit that visitors would see.
I do not mean that any more of the staircase should be papered
than what appears as you come up to the front rooms.
Hewitt intended the house as a launch pad for a political career,
a base camp to which he would occasionally return.
At the very least, James should have drawn Mary into his plans.
He should have involved his wife in the decision-making process,
implicating her in their shared future.
She has no part of this fantasy of the married life that they're going to lead.
And when it occurs to her that she is going to be mewed up alone
in the showy terrace that she has done nothing to create, she rebels.
I must live eight months in a year without you or any father
in a place where I shall not have a single friend of my own to speak to.
I had much rather make room for your second wife
who may make you happier than I ever did.
For Mary, death or divorce were preferable to living alone
in a half-done house of someone else's taste.
She dug her heels in and refused to move.
The crisis nearly killed the marriage.
It would be years before Hewitt got her into his town house.
And a new craze also raised the stakes at home.
The Georgians were a sociable people
and threw open their doors with a flourish.
The phenomenon of visiting was born.
Now what your house looked like was crucial.
Private spaces became public stages,
making people worry that their tastes would be judged by guests and found wanting.
I've come to visit my good friend Charles Saumarez Smith.
'Along with his wife, Charles has restored a Georgian semi built for a vicar.'
All the china's been cleaned in your honour.
Has it really? Oh, this looks lovely.
You can have a choice of cups.
-So you've washed all of this especially.
This is very joyous, your corner cupboard.
I like those on the table.
-Do you want a cup of tea?
-I'd love a cup of tea.
The tea table became the venue for strong opinion and vicious gossip about people's taste.
Early depictions show worried men eavesdropping on ladies' conversations.
Visiting diaries I found for one socialite
recorded a feverish 18 visits a day in London society.
You'd barely have time to park your bottom on a sofa!
The whole kind of visiting cult seems to kick off
at the end of the 17th century and people start commenting on it.
And it seems to be linked to hot drinks
because you only need, at the end of the day,
a few tea leaves, a teapot and a teacup and you can be...
-To do the ritual.
-Yeah, to do the ritual.
And you find spinster ladies doing it in a single room.
But this was as much about having your parlour, paraphernalia
and fashionability examined as it was about conversation and company.
I have come across women saying they couldn't go visiting because their clothes weren't good enough.
You would only visit if you felt your front room could stand up to visitors.
That's why you were so disappointed that I wasn't wearing my frock coat.
I was pleased you put your mustard cords on in my honour!
But this would really stand up to it
because people would really be talking about what it looked like, what your china was like.
Yeah, I think people...
It is the same now.
Come and have a look at the other room on the ground floor.
Well, showing off the gaffe...
That's what it's all about.
This, again, we kept some of the original panelling.
The visit was the moment to digest and decide,
did you approve of the taste of your host?
And it meant your taste was exposed, vulnerable and open to judgement as never before.
As today, the smallest decorating decisions could be held up to scrutiny.
We've kept bits of
the sort of semi-derelict state it was in when we bought it.
You see bits of probably early-19th-century wallpaper.
Here you've got a fabric, so it wasn't straightforwardly panelled.
'So established had visiting become in the 18th century
'that if you weren't part of the constant traffic,
'you were cut adrift.
'Isolation and social death followed.
'One woman's story, confessed in her private letters to her mother,
'shows exactly how much socialising mattered.'
Sir John hated society especially at home,
and in particular
he disliked females.
Margaret Lady Stanley was married to a Cheshire Baronet
who refused to furnish the house and barred the door to guests.
You well know the very inhospitable nature of our house,
no friend, no social guest frequented it.
We lived for ourselves and for ourselves alone.
And though our fortune was considerable,
we lived obscurely, cheerlessly,
unbefriended and unbefriending.
Eventually Lady Stanley chose exile abroad rather than suffer any longer
the social exclusion she'd been forced to bear at home.
The example of Margaret Lady Stanley is more than
the story of one woman's misery in marriage.
What it shows is how established the convention of visiting and socialising at home had become.
So much so that if a husband denies all that to a wife,
it's a source of misery, it's the crushing of her autonomy in marriage,
and in her case, it's grounds for separation and ultimately divorce.
Latterly my health declined,
my spirits broken.
You see a proud woman crushed, brought low.
Her marriage was a kind of long social eclipse.
It's one of the saddest things I've ever read.
The way a house was organised and decorated told you all you needed to know about the status of the wife.
So pity the wife steamrollered by a husband's megalomania, but on a colossal scale.
Claydon House in Buckinghamshire is the folly of a nobleman
who speculated wildly on the stock market
and raised a pleasure dome.
Claydon proves that nobility is no guarantee
of tasteful restraint. Female subtlety went for naught.
# I want it all
# I want it all
# I want it all
# And want it now... #
This is a lavish,
even florid exhibition of wealth and sheer power.
Lord Verney, Rafe to his friends, wanted to compete with his nearest political rivals,
the mighty Grenvilles Of Stow.
And Verney took competition very seriously.
What you see today is just a quarter of the house he built.
This is a scale model of the house and I think you can really see
that it is palatial in scope.
This is the wing that we're in now
and, in fact, these two little windows...
That's the space here.
This seems to me an extraordinary, pompous architectural statement
of, well, hubris really.
And the level of ostentation only gets more flamboyant.
When I first came to this house I was stunned by the variety of different sorts of decoration.
There's high Palladian,
and, most exuberant, chinoiserie.
This exotic style was all the rage,
inspired by a fantasy of Chinese design and the mysterious East.
All mythical dragons, pagodas and imperial yellow.
But Rafe didn't just nod to China with a bit of silk, painted wallpaper and porcelain.
He made an eye-popping theme park.
It's as if Verney wanted to prove that he could have it all.
He didn't have to make a choice. He didn't have to show restraint.
Rafe lacked the good judgement to know what he could get away with -
the appropriate level of bling for his rank and bank balance.
Here, there isn't a recognition of the modern role of taste
and the modern role that a woman should play in a marriage.
This heiress who married Verney
was too weak to be a brake on his extravagance.
Eventually bankruptcy loomed.
We do know that his poor wife ended up selling off her jewels
to try and meet some of their debts and she died a broken woman.
The creditors descended on the house
and then poor Rafe, now absolutely destroyed, losing his wits,
hid in the hearse to escape the creditors.
How are the mighty fallen?
Claydon is a monument to male vanity.
It became Verney's mausoleum,
a chilly palace bereft of family feeling.
It was women who were turning houses into homes
because the architecture of the house was just a skeleton,
bare bones which women now expected to clothe with their own taste
and with their own hands, as a recent exhibition on quilts brought home to me.
I think that women have always used their craft skills
to demonstrate their virtue, to demonstrate their skill.
I think in the 18th century though there are an expanding range of exciting new crafts
that you can do just to show how varied your expertise is.
Quilts tend to made out of any old bits, remnants, rags that you've got lying about,
so probably this beautiful silk quilt was made out of old dresses, old furnishing fabric.
In a way, I think what these quilts offer is a female version of history.
A whole family's history might be remembered in the bits of clothes,
the bits of curtain that have gone into this beautiful, produced object.
This is quite a characteristic production, the map sampler.
You can get them actually printed up, all ready for you as a pattern
for you to copy over and stitch like mad,
get all the counties right.
So this is an expression of virtue
from a young girl but also her education,
her interest in geography and her patriotism of course.
But what is the most surprising thing for me about this beautiful production
if you come down to the bottom and discover it was made by
Ann Isabella Reader, aged 10 years.
Maybe a proud parent framed it and put it up on the wall.
I know I would have done.
I think these sorts of crafts that can be done by a group of women
or a group of sisters or a mother and daughter,
they're seen to unite women.
It's a kind of literacy of the needle, really.
It's expressing yourself through your embroidery
and through your sewing perhaps just as much as you might through writing.
If you want to appreciate the ultimate in arty-crafty femininity
come to this jewel of a cottage in Exmouth in Devon,
a house the likes of which you'll not see anywhere else in Britain.
Here we find not just a woman's touch, but an entire women's world.
The oestrogen is palpable.
This house is called A La Ronde and it was built
for two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter.
And I think it's incredibly unusual,
because in the 18th century, no woman could be a practising architect
but with just a little bit of help, it seems,
they designed this house
based on a church that they'd seen in Ravenna on their grand tour.
In the 18th century it was covered in thatch
and had honeysuckle tumbling all down it,
so it must have seemed like a magical cottage,
a bit like something from Hansel and Gretel.
But I see it rather more like a feminist haystack,
or a chapel really to amateur art.
It's amazing to me that this house was designed by two women.
What's great is they together seem to have broken the rules of formal architectural design.
They've thrown out the rule book and decided, "No, we won't have a formal parade of rooms,
"we're going to have our lovely house in the round,"
and instead of people going through one room after another,
more and more dignified, more and more stately,
here they can follow the sun around the house.
So I think it's an attempt to say,
"We're women, we're going to do things differently."
There's a glorious sense of movement in the house. You can keep flowing around,
following the sun as it goes round the house in the day.
It makes the house seem really playful actually
and as somewhere that would be a real pleasure to inhabit.
The Parminters seem to have used this house as
a kind of temple to the trophies that they bought back from their own ladies' grand tour.
But instead of huge marble statues,
they've got really lovely things like this,
which is a shellwork representation of architecture,
so it's kind of an 18th-century idea of a postcard,
but it's in three dimensions and made entirely from shells.
It's extraordinary to have such a wide diversity of crafts in one place.
These kind of things never usually survive in families.
But I think it must be because they were spinsters,
two ladies together, they decreed that the house had to pass down the female line,
so for years, for generations,
there were no men to say "let's get rid of all this awful stuff,"
and that's why it survives.
But any 18th-century lady with any claims to politeness
would have done something a little bit like this,
but perhaps not on this great scale.
I'd love to be able to get up to the gallery proper,
but you can't get any higher than this
because it's so fragile,
the shells are literally hanging by threads.
There's lots of conservation work that has to go on
so you can just get a glimpse really of this kind of magical,
and I must say barking mad, shellwork extravaganza up here.
You can imagine the sisters up here with their candles doing it on the long winter evenings.
"What shall we do now? Shall we go up and finish a bit of our shellwork?" "Yes, let's!"
Only a few ladies could shape architecture,
but women of all ranks toiled to leave some personal mark.
Even the smallest relics can have breath-taking power.
This is London's Foundling Hospital, where desperate mothers gave up their babies.
Each infant was identified by a number and a scrap of fabric.
These small pieces of textiles show how even the poorest of women
craved colour and used fashion to give added meaning to their lives.
When the foundling hospital took in babies,
when desperate mothers came and gave their babies to the hospital
because they'd been unable to look after them,
they left an identifying mark with each child,
which was very often a piece snipped from the child's clothing.
And so here we have the most beautiful flowered lawn.
It's so rich and vivid, you get a sense of
that mother's interest in colour and how she wanted to prettify her baby.
Absolutely beautiful kind of crimson, maroon and a lovely, lovely turquoise flower.
The mother gave the piece of clothing
and she kept a counterpart so that she would be able to identify her child
if she was ever able to raise enough money to reclaim her.
Tragically, only 152 of the 16,000 babies taken in
in the 1740s and '50s were reclaimed.
Really these books represent the ghosts of little girls and little boys,
all lost to history.
This was the mark of a little boy christened Charles,
11th of February, 1767,
and the token his mother has left with him
is something I'm sure which was of her own making.
It's a little piece of patchwork,
and it's cut in half.
So she left this piece with him and took the other piece away with her.
And this is one of the very, very few happy endings
amongst the foundling children in that this mother did reclaim her child.
So I know from doing a bit of research,
this little boy, christened Charles, became Benjamin,
but he was reclaimed by his mother Sarah, on 10th June, 1775.
So that's eight years later.
So eight long years his mother must have toiled.
I'm sure she would have looked every night at her other half, her piece,
something that she had made.
I think it's absolutely miraculous that something a woman made
could be her way back to her child.
A scrap of textile may look like a mundane rag,
but it has the power to move us still.
It carries women's history down through time, a material memory.
Georgian women of all ranks left eloquent traces on the landscape...
if you know where to look.
This is the Lloyd's Building, one of the most remarkable creations of our time.
But in this futuristic palace of finance, a most unlikely place,
I was delighted to discover that a Georgian woman I have studied so long
has left an exquisite inheritance.
I'm leaving Blade Runner behind here
and moving in to the late 18th century...
..to a room which belonged to the idealistic heroine of my tale of taste. Young Sophia, Lady Shelburne.
This was her drawing room, all neoclassical prettiness,
designed for her by Robert Adam.
It's so coveted today as a design classic, that it was taken down,
literally brick by brick, and reassembled
here in the Lloyd's Building to be used for committee meetings.
It's an interesting question whether somebody's personality really is written on the wall of their houses,
but I do get a strong feeling of Lady Shelburne's rather virtuous, high-minded taste
in a room like this.
Lady Shelburne died tragically young, just 26.
She left behind a distraught husband, two infants
and glimpses like this of her appreciation of style.
It's a certain irony, I think, that what was this perfect epitome of femininity, polite femininity,
then became the place where the Lloyd's underwriters had their committee meetings.
Although I suppose it tells us how enduring ideas of Georgian good manners are.
Such that, even here in this modern, futuristic building,
the gentlemen of Lloyd's probably felt much more comfortable
with the Georgian architecture than with the post-modern outside.
Georgian women had laid claim to taste and the new role of interior decorator,
creating the aesthetic of their era.
And because the Georgian look still sells,
they shape our aesthetics even now.
Next, I'll show you how the Georgians protected their homes,
both from the threats that prowled outside their doors
and also from the enemies that lurked within.
Like us, one of their greatest fears was losing the roof over their head.
They knew that home went hand in hand,
not just with status and stability,
but with contentment.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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The British obsession with beautifying our homes is not a new phenomenon - it began with a vengeance in the Georgian era. In this second programme of the series historian Amanda Vickery - on a journey from stately home to pauper's attic - reveals how 'taste' became the buzzword of the age 300 years ago and gave women a new outlet for their creativity, raising their status in the home as a consequence. But with it came new anxieties about getting it right.