The way in which servants had access, when required, to the principal upper rooms was by the use of convenient backstairs. These were far simpler in form than the principal staircase. Roger North, writing in the 1690s, declared that a house should have a back entrance and that this should be near to the kitchens, private parlour and backstairs. The ascent to an wall panelling and oak panelling apartment of state above needed to be easy and unobtrusive, and for this there should be a passage to lead from rooms to the stair 'for the servants in their common offices to pass by'." The examination of the plan of any great house wall panelling and oak panelling will show these minor backstairs tucked into towers and remote corners of the house, made of oak, elm or sycamore, painted white, or grained and scrubbed and sanded over many years to a silky sheen.
I have made several references to Celia Fiennes in her journeyings to country houses in the 1690s. She was intrigued to see the various state rooms as well as the bathing rooms, water-closets, fountains and 'buffets' (sideboards incorporating cisterns) at houses such as Chatsworth. Room arrangements and facilities were under constant improvement but the low cost of servants hampered the universal application of time- and laboursaving developments. The backstairs gave access for the bringing of hot water (although cold was considered to be of great benefit) and the removal of the contents of close-stools.
The great country house at the end of the seventeenth century was ready for much more refinement in its services. Use made of its series of grand rooms increased with apartments specifically for eating, resting, dressing, taking audience of visitors, making music and reading books."' The Baroque rooms at Petworth, Sussex, were visited by the King of Spain in 1703. His progress through them tells us much of the early-eighteenth-century courtly etiquette that influenced such a visit. Charles Seymour, the 6th 'Proud Duke' of Somerset, had married Elizabeth, the young heiress to the vast Percy estates, in 1682. Her fortune enabled him to build at Petworth in a way fitting to one obsessed with lineage and consumed by pride. Nevertheless in his own house, on such an occasion, he took second place to a higher rank. The Spanish king was welcomed to Petworth by Queen Anne's husband, Prince George of Denmark, who escorted him to the entrance of his private apartment. After a time, a bewildering series of calls were paid: by the prince to the king, the king to the prince, and the king, prince and duke to the duchess. After being shown round the house by the prince, all joined wall panelling and oak panelling together in the saloon for supper. The plan of the rooms, with some apartments more exclusive than others, allowed an elaborate ritual to take place as an ordered and necessary part of power and influence.
Spatial problems encountered at St Paul's Cathedral, ensured his position at the head of an emerging trio of younger architects: Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and Talman. Nicholas Hawksmoor (c. 1661-1736) and John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) were the most original of English Baroque wall panelling and oak panelling architects; Hawksmoor was Wren's personal assistant, and from 1702 Vanbrugh held the second post to Wren in the Office of Works, as Comptroller, a position wrested from William Talman (1650-1719).
Much of what Talman knew of foreign architecture was gleaned from what his son later called 'the most valuable collection of wall panelling and oak panelling Books, Prints, Drawings ... as is in any one person's hands in Europe as all the artists in Towne well know'. He had a reputation for being difficult, which accounts for the irregularity of his commissions, but he put together the most talented team of decorative painters, sculptors, carvers and plasterers. Talman was probably involved in remodelling Thoresby House, Nottinghamshire, for the 4th Earl of Kingston (his 'team' definitely worked there) and he was then summoned in about 1686 by the 4th Earl (and later 1st Duke) of Devonshire to remodel part of Elizabethan Chatsworth. Indecision and lack of money dogged his proposals but the south front, which was built, is often described as the first Baroque front in England and was heavily influenced by Talman's study of wall panelling and oak panelling elevations of buildings in France and elsewhere. It allowed space behind its urn-topped length for a series of grand painted apartments which rivalled those Talman had designed at Burghley House, Lincolnshire, for the duke's brother-in-law, the 5th Earl of Exeter.
Talman was the man of ideas during a period when society was rather uneasily coming to terms with a style which focused attention on the use of irregular forms, and 'movement' in mass, space and line. Its curved extravagances had quickly found their way into many of the engravings Talman possessed. Therefore, it must have been highly exciting for Talman to have a chance in 1698 to design the Baroque elevations for Castle Howard, Yorkshire, for Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, and Talman's disappointment must have been keen when the commission was secured instead by John Vanbrugh. The younger man was then only attracting attention as a popular dramatist and man of the theatre. Suddenly, 'without thought or lecture', as Jonathan Swift put it, Vanbrugh became an architect and Talman's fellow-member of the Kit-Cat Club. Lord Carlisle added further insult when he secured for Vanbrugh the post of Comptroller of the Works in lieu of Talman.' Castle Howard was begun in 1701 near the site of the old Howard castle of Henderskelfe.
A year or two later, when Queen Anne conferred the gift of Woodstock Park on the Duke of Marlborough for his military victories over the French, the duke chose Vanbrugh as the architect for his new building - the 'Castle of Blenheim'. Work started above the little river Glyme in 1705 and with the rude disturbance of the earth and stone-strewn site came Vanbrugh's long arguments with, and eventual dismissal by, the irascible and quickwitted Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. In the designs of both of these houses Vanbrugh owed a great deal to his partnership with the competent professional architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor.
The designs of the English wall panelling and oak panelling Baroque school had matured quickly with Wren's plans for rebuilding the palace of Whitehall after the disastrous fire of 1698. They show great units placed in dramatic contrast to each other and it is this theme that comes through in Vanbrugh's own work at his early 'great fine houses'. The symmetrical south garden front at Castle Howard falls away equally from the central drum, dome and lantern high above the pedimented centrepiece. On the north side a kitchen and stable court were intended to extend the wings to east and west: only the former close-massed kitchen wing was built. The wings are connected to the main north block of the house by curved wall panelling and oak panelling colonnades and that on the north-east side still houses the private apartments. The north-west wing - a Palladian form sitting unhappily at the termination of the great Baroque south front - was added thirty years after Vanbrugh's death by Sir Thomas Robinson.
At Blenheim the Baroque style is triumphant: massive pavilions are connected by colonnades at either side to the main block with its
Corinthian portico, all built high above a Grand Court. This is flanked by a spreading Kitchen Court and (to the west) a Stable Court. Blenheim was at once both a palace and a fortified castle, but was singular enough, like most of Vanbrugh's work, to have had little direct effect on other contemporary house plans. Provincial wall panelling and oak panelling by architects and masons relished the chance to emulate mere parts of it, to rusticate a modest arch, or experiment with the giant order over more restrained facades. None did this better than the Warwick builder-architects, Francis and William Smith, in a number of houses of the
1720s and 1730s in the Midland counties, such as Ditchley, Oxfordshire (1725), and the now ruined Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire (1724).
Some concern with new plan forms had appeared in 1715 when the Scottish-born architect, Colen Campbell (c. 1676-1729), published the first volume (of an intended three) of his Vitruvius Britannicus. It contained the plans and elevations of sixteen houses, including work by William Talman, John Vanbrugh, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Thomas Archer and John James. Significantly, it also included across its thick folio pages crisp engravings of Campbell's design of Wanstead House, Essex (1714-20), then being built for the Child banking family, and the largest Classical house of the early eighteenth century. Wanstead's plan evolved in three stages, with the second chosen for the building. A double-pile rectangle had a hall and saloon on the main axis with six interconnecting rooms on either side. This was modified by a great Corinthian-order hall rising almost to the full height of the great portico, which was flanked by two extended wings; the design included towers on the wings but these were never built. The house gave the powerful and spectacular impression of a Roman temple and, being near to London, was easy to visit and admire. It was, alas, demolished in 1824 but in the hundred years following its construction it spawned many derivatives with grand porticos, such as Wentworth Woodhouse, Nostell Priory and Harewood House, all in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and Prior Park, on the high chalk outskirts overlooking Bath.
More importantly, Colen Campbell used a compressed form of the Wanstead plan in building Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for Sir Robert Walpole from 1722. With its heavy rustication and Venetian windows, Houghton is derivative of plans by Palladio and by John Webb for Greenwich, but is given an extra twist by Campbell's own variations. The plan was similar to that used at Belton House, Lincolnshire (1685-8), and by Robert Hooke at Ragley Hall, Warwickshire (1679-83). Pedimented towers were designed to sit at the four wall panelling and oak panelling corners in place of wings, as at Wilton House, Wiltshire, a house Campbell much admired. These were built at Houghton, although domes instead of pediments were put on them in the early 1730s by James Gibbs, after Campbell's death.