Cottage Orné:   Philosophy

Last week, I wrote about the origins of the architectural style known as cottage orné and its full flowering during the Regency. This week, I will explain something of the various philosophies which went into the placement and use of cottages orné on a great number of country properties and elsewhere throughout Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Though cottages orné were often situated purely for decorative purposes, there were just as many which were designed and placed for the use of the lower classes in order to promote industrious behavior and increase productivity, as well as to develop good character and strengthen the morality of those of lesser rank. Cottages orné were also seen as a healthful escape for many of the beau monde.

Few, if any, home-builders today design, locate or build homes with the intent of developing upright, healthy citizens, but such was often the case during the Regency.

In the preface of his Views of Picturesque Cottages, with Plans, published in London, in 1805, William Atkinson wrote:

The building of Cottages for the labouring classes of society and the keeping of them in good repair, are objects of the first national importance; as it is from the active exertions of the industrious labourers, that the other classes derive the greater part of those benefits which they enjoy. Justice requires that everything should be done to encourage cleanliness among them, and to add to their comfort and convenience, which will not fail to have a salutory [sic] effect on their conduct and character, and tend in an essential manner to render them much more useful in their respective stations.

Mr. Atkinson, like many of the landed gentlemen who read his book, was of the opinion that laborers must be housed appropriately in order to encourage the most work from them. As is clear from Atkinson’s comments, the effort to provide attractive housing for estate laborers was not so much for their comfort, but rather because it was believed such housing would promote both morality and industriousness among them, thereby engendering greater yields from their labors with fewer incidents of misbehavior. The picturesque cottage, also known as the cottage orné, was considered the most appropriate form of housing due to its perceived strong relationship with nature. Nature, in accordance with the philosophy made popular by Rousseau, was a pure, uncorrupt environment, and therefore, so would be those humans who dwelled within it. For that reason, when many Regency landlords needed new cottages for their workers, they built them in the cottage orné style, and some went so far as to remodel existing cottages in that same style.

However, simply building cottages orné was not the complete solution. It was also necessary to set them within a picturesque landscape, to enhance the morality which nature would confer on their residents. Natural views which included varied textures and outlines were believed to be both calming and morally uplifting. It was also believed that the provision of a garden plot would divert the inhabitants of the cottage " … from intemperance which might lead to industrially relaxed habits and corrupt morals … " in the opinion of one author. Landlords thought that tenants who had a small garden would spend any spare time they might squeeze out of their busy days cultivating their gardens to provide fresh vegetables and fruit to supplement their family’s diet, rather than stopping at the local alehouse after a hard day. Many cottagers did appreciate having a garden plot available to them and took full advantage of it. But, as you might imagine, there were still some cottagers, mostly men, who were not so heavily influenced by their "natural" surroundings that they were willing to forgo the pleasure of a pint or two with their mates after a long day’s work. Of course, there are no statistics available to quantify whether or not the provision of cottages orné and/or garden plots created more upright and moral laborers. But enough landowners believed that cottages orné, placed in picturesque landscapes, with the addition of a garden plot, did improve their laborers lives, that the practice remained widespread throughout the Regency. However, it is clear there were some landlords who provided these amenities simply because they wished to improve their tenants’ lives, not because they expected to get more work from better-behaved laborers.

There was another type of cottage orné which was built on many estates across England. These were cottages orné which were built with a dual purpose. They were built, first and foremost, as garden ornaments for a picturesque landscape on a country estate. But these landlords, wishing to get more value for their guineas, intended these cottages orné as homes either for the more senior staff in their employ, or as retirement homes for those who had grown old in their service. It was common for those with large, gated estates to construct a gate lodge at their main gates in the cottage orné style which doubled as the home for the gatekeeper and his family. Cottages orné were placed in picturesque landscapes on many great estates, where they served as the homes of bailiffs or stewards, senior game-keepers or huntsmen, head gardeners or grounds-keepers. Though most staff considered it an honor to be allocated accommodations in such buildings, they did sometimes find their locations rather inconvenient, as they were typically placed to enhance a view, not for the convenience of their inhabitants. Occasionally some restrictions were imposed on those who lived in these cottages, prohibiting them from changing the plantings, painting exterior walls or woodwork or otherwise altering or rearranging anything on the exterior of the cottage without the express permission of the landlord. Some landlords would not even allow changes to the interior of the cottages on their properties without their permission. There were also a handful of imperious and exacting landlords who even specified by what route the residents of a cottage orné might approach or leave their dwelling, so as not to interfere with the landlord’s vista.

The cottages which made up the small village of Blaise Hamlet were built as retirement cottages, in 1810, for those who had been in the employ of the philanthropist and Quaker banker, John Scandrett Harford. Many other conscientious estate owners built similar cottages for their elderly retainers, though they did not often clump them together to form a village as Harford chose to do. However, it was quite the challenge for architects when designing cottages orné for the purpose of housing estate workers, either employed or retired. They had to be very careful not to make these cottages too ornate, particularly on the exterior, if they were to be inhabited by those of the laboring classes. The diarist and author, Fanny Burney explains the difficulty with her impression of Blaise Hamlet, which she thought too grand in design for its purpose:   " …every house was square and meant to resemble a gentleman’s abode; a very miserable mistake in his good Lordship, of an intended fine effect; for the sight of the common people and the poor, labouring or strolling in and about these dwellings, made them appear rather to be reduced from better days than flourishing in a positive or natural state." Architects and designers of cottages orné had to take care to keep cottages intended for staff more rustic and natural than ornate, or the inhabitants of such cottages would spoil the effect the architect was trying to achieve, because those residents, going about their daily business, in their regular clothes, were, in fact, part of the setting, and both must be in harmony.

There were other structures on country estates which might be built in the cottage orné style. These included hunting boxes and fishing lodges, stables or dog kennels, as well as private chapels or even the vicarage, if the vicar lived on the estate. Smaller utilitarian buildings, such as dairies, ice houses, root houses, private bath houses and even conservatories were designed and erected as cottages orné. Lake- or river-side boat-houses or storage sheds for outdoor sporting equipment, such as that for archery or cricket, might be constructed in the cottage orné style. So, too, might garden pavilions or, in some cases, simple garden seats, which were designed in a rustic, natural style to enhance a picturesque landscape as well as to provide a convenient place from which to enjoy the view of that same landscape. In nearly all cases, these smaller utilitarian structures were primarily intended to add furnishings to a picturesque landscape, while their more practical purpose was usually of secondary importance to the property owners and their architects who designed and built them.

There was another location in which cottages orné were considered most appropriate, and that was at the seaside. In fact, what scholars believe to be the first cottage orné was built as a seaside cottage. Steephill Cottage was built as a private retreat, about 1764, on the Isle of Wight, for the governor of the island, Hans Stanley, in a remote coastal area. From the first years of the nineteenth century, cottages orné were increasingly found scattered around many seaside resorts across Britain. By this time, the seashore, with ready access to sea air and sea-bathing, was considered very healthful. In fact, it was generally believed that time spent near the seaside could counteract the evils of protracted periods of hedonism and urban living. The idea of living in a rustic, natural cottage while at the seashore enhanced the perception of the health-giving properties of the resort, which appealed to the often jaded and sophisticated members of the ton. A seaside cottage orné was the ideal, healthy and restorative escape for world-weary socialites and such cottages remained very popular throughout the decade of the Regency. At about the same time, natural inland resorts such as the Lake District, the Peak District and the Cotwolds all began to offer accommodations in cottages orné for their more discerning and health-conscious visitors.

Though the aristocracy and the gentry of the Regency enjoyed their holidays in cottages orné at the seaside or inland resorts, they would never have deemed these smaller buildings suitable for their main residence. They might have had one constructed in a secluded location on their estate, as a private retreat, but would never have considered it acceptable for anything more. However, as the Regency progressed, there were those who did choose a fashionable cottage orné as their primary, or even sole residence. Though taxes had been high during the war, there were also considerable profits for many who had been involved in the manufacture and transport of wartime supplies. However, any ostentatious spending during a time of war would have been considered unpatriotic. Therefore, by the time Napoleon had finally been defeated at Waterloo, there was a pent-up demand for new construction of all kinds, including housing for the newly rich. Wealthy bankers, industrialists and merchants were drawn to the country, in part because that is where the majority of the aristocracy maintained their principal homes, and that is the class they wished to emulate. However, the Industrial Revolution was taking its toll on those closely involved with it and they also found the idea of a simpler life, living in an enchanted cottage in a rural setting very attractive. It must be noted however, that quite a few of these cottages orné were so large that they could hardly be called a cottage, but they did have most of the rustic features which were de rigueur for a classic cottage orné. Many scholars believe that the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who himself lived in a simple cottage, was referring to the residents of such large and pretentious cottages orné when he wrote the following disparaging lines in his poem, The Devil’s Thoughts:

He saw a cottage with a double coach-house,
   A cottage of gentility!
And the Devil did grin, for his darling sin
   Is pride that apes humility.

As the Regency advanced, smaller, more modest cottages orné were often built as homes for those of the middle classes. They were popular with retired professional and military men, widows with a comfortable jointure and younger sons of the aristocracy. They were also popular with those men of commerce whose incomes did not allow them to build the over-the-top trophy cottages orné of their wealthier counterparts. But those of the middle classes who wanted the salutory benefits of a cottage orné could seldom afford to hire an architect to design one for them. But all was not lost. The early nineteenth century saw an increase in the publication of various architectural treatises and what were known as pattern books. Even more books of this type were published during the Regency. Thus, someone with modest means who wanted to enjoy the many benefits of life in a rustic cottage orné in a quiet, health-giving rural setting, could choose the cottage of their dreams from one of these pattern books. Such pattern books typically included floor plans and elevations of a selection of cottages orné, along with basic construction details, which a local builder could use to build a perfectly serviceable, but economical cottage orné, with no architect required. One such pattern book cottage, called The Lodge, was built in 1810, near Gaunt’s House, in the small village of Hinton Martell, in the county of Dorset. The compact but comfortable cottage orné was described as having latticed windows, a porch (or verandah) and a thatched roof shaped like an umbrella.

Though the philosophies behind the design and use of cottages orné might seem strange to us today, those who lived during the Regency took these concepts quite seriously. They had no doubt that their health would improve by living in the country, and more so if they were able to dwell there in a rustic cottage orné. For many members of the beau monde, the only accommodation they would consider acceptable for a seaside excursion or a stay at an inland resort was a cottage orné. If they were going to rusticate, they wanted to do it thoroughly, in order to reap the most benefit from their time on holiday. There were many landowners who built cottages orné on their estates to decorate their picturesque landscapes, many of which they also intended would both house and morally uplift their laborers, thereby making them better behaved and more productive workers. The cottage orné was not just a fashionable Regency style of building, it was emblematic of a philosophy, a way of life. How many of us could say that of our homes today?

Next week, details on the materials and construction techniques for cottages orné.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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7 Responses to Cottage Orné:   Philosophy

  1. Fascinating! I’m now itching to quote the likes of William Atkinson in a novel with a hero full of reforming zeal, and to have action taking place in a retreat that’s more orné than cottage….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Sounds like fun! Just, please, don’t make your hero too much of a prig, do let a secondary character serve that purpose. Speaking for myself, prigs really grate on my nerves. Unless, of course, they get their comeuppance in the story and become more tolerant by the end.

      And don’t forget Coleridge. There are some very quotable quotes in his poem The Devil’s Thoughts which might work for such a tale.

      I have to admit, I had to re-read that quote from Atkinson at least twice when I first came upon it. I just could not believe what I was reading. But as I read through his book, those same sentiments were constantly repeated, in different ways, so eventually I had to accept it. I found similar sentiments in other architectural pattern books from the time, so it is clear they all thought pretty much the same way. If something like that was published today, the media would be all over them! How patronizing and politically incorrect!!

      I’ll be watching for your novel of reform!



      • Thanks, I’ll google the poem, I don’t have a copy [and it was worth checking because I’ve an eclectic selection of poetry as I buy poetry books from jumble sales, usually school selections]
        You’re quite right, a prig is no fun as a hero! I’ve got a possible plotline in sight, and the hero has a poor personal reputation [been abroad for trying to elope with an heiress in his teens returns and meets her daughter] who will get on with sorting out the estate with misunderstandings that he’s turning the poor tenants out because nobody believes anything but ill of him, etc. Could be fun.

  2. Pingback: Cottage Orné:   Style | The Regency Redingote

  3. Pingback: Cottage Orné:   Construction | The Regency Redingote

  4. Haha, just introduced Atkinson and the Cottages Orné having got back to this plot bunny finally. And he isn’t a prig. He used to be a rake but he got bored.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad to hear it, prigs are so dull and annoying. A bored rake has so many more deliciously promising possibilities! 😉 Good luck with your story!

      Please do post a link to your book here when it is published, so it is easy to find for those who would like to read it.


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