Creating Paradise by Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley

Yet another delightfully serendipitous find at my local library. And yet another reason to be grateful that libraries, with real books on their shelves, still exist in this increasingly digital world. Thought this is not the sort of book I would have thought to seek out, it is indeed a treasure which I am very happy to have encountered in my periodic perusal of the book shelves at the Boston Public Library. So many stories of romance in the Regency are set all, or in part, in a country house. It seems only natural that Regency authors might like to know more about how those uniquely English homes came to be. This book sheds a great deal of light on the subject.

Some of the things I like about Creating Paradise . . .

The full title of this book is Creating Paradise:   The Building of the English Country House 1660 – 1860. The authors, Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley, are both economic historians. In this book, they have brought their considerable knowledge to bear on the economic, rather than the architectural, aspects of the English country house for a two-hundred year period which includes our favorite decade. This is not a book about architectural styles, though the prevailing styles of architecture for the period covered by the book are frequently discussed. If you do not already have a passing familiarity with the architectural styles which were employed in the design of English country houses, you would be well-advised to brush up on the history of basic architectural styles first. Nor is this a massive coffee table book filled chock-a-block with oversized color photos of grand English country manor houses. The book is well-illustrated, but the illustrations are all black and white and are included to aid in the understanding of the richly informative text rather than to showcase large and famous English country houses. This book is also not a social history of how life was lived in the English country house through the centuries. Though there are a few quotes from former residents about various aspects of their lives, most of those quotes have some bearing on the building of a country house. One of those quotes provided the inspiration for the title of this book:

When one lives in Paradise, how hard it must be to ascend in heart and mind to Heaven.

Lady Frederick Cavendish,
writing of Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, in 1863.


Now that I have given you an idea of what this book is not, let me tell you more about what it is. Perhaps the most succinct description is that it is a book about how these country houses actually came to be, how they were designed and built, and who built them. During the two-hundred year period covered by this book, a number of the professions in the building trades emerged and evolved, and this book helps the reader to understand the process. Though today, builder is a term which is often synonymous with contractor, the term is not used with that meaning in this book. Rather, the builder noted for each house was the man who owned the property on which it stood, and who engaged the craftsmen and artisans who did the work. In most cases, the building of a country house was an important symbol of status and affluence for a family, but there were also other motivating factors which were specific to each builder. A most interesting distinction is made in this book between a country house and a house in the country. In Creating Paradise, the authors define a country house as one which stood on substantial acreage and whose building and upkeep was typically supported by the income from that same land. This definition covered most of the country houses from the mid-seventeenth into the mid-nineteenth century. Beginning in the decades just after the period under discussion, more and more houses were built in the English countryside by men who derived their income from other sources than the plot of land on which they built their house in the country. Those homes do not fall into the category of the true English country house.

The authors explain in the first chapter that it would have been impossible for them to cover all of the country houses in England which were built between 1660 and 1860. Therefore, they have focused primarily on the study of country houses in six counties, Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Suffolk and Yorkshire. They explained that this decision was driven by the significant availability of original records and other historical materials on the houses in these counties. In addition, these six counties provided them with a good cross-section of England, thereby helping to ensure that their detailed study of country house building would be pertinent across the country as a whole. However, country houses in other counties are included, often to illustrate a particular point, and generally, if there are substantial records about that property. Messrs. Wilson and Mackley spent more than five years researching and writing Creating Paradise and it is a thoroughly detailed and fact-based study of the topic.

Another aspect of this book which I found particularly important was that the authors made it a point to study not just the great and famous country houses, but many of the smaller houses which were built during this period as well. It was their intent to give the reader a more in-depth understanding of the wide economic and social range in which these country houses came to be designed and constructed. A few of the builders had enormous incomes which enabled them to construct palatial homes with barely a thought to the cost. However there were many more men, from aristocrats to country squires, who wanted a gracious country home, but had to build and furnish that home within the bounds of their income. There were a few who built to please themselves, with no thought to the cost, despite a limited income, and some of them are also discussed as part of the spectrum of country house builders. Along with their organization of country houses and their builders by their ecomonic levels, Wilson and Mackley devote an entire chapter to the contemporary costs of building these country houses over the two centuries covered. This information comes from surviving accounts and records for the houses discussed. Those who are interested in the actual costs and financing of a country house during the period from 1660 to 1860 will find this book a rich treasure trove of information.

Something of which I had been only vaguely aware was clearly codified in Creating Paradise. The great castles and baronial halls which had been a standard of aristocratic life from the Middle Ages were no longer crucial to the power of the English sovereign. After the Restoration of Charles II, and to an even greater extent after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, England was governed by a constitutional monarchy. The aristocrats and gentry were no longer obliged to maintain some number of trained troops and a home which functioned as a fortress, either of which might be needed to protect their king. Even before the close of the seventeenth century, the social changes in the lives of the landed classes had begun to be expressed in the design and construction of their country houses. In addition, England was much less isolated from the Continent since so many courtiers who had supported Charles II went into exile with him in France. There was also expanded contact with the Continent after the Dutch Prince William of Orange became King William III, alongside his English wife, Queen Mary Stuart. Increased travel by wealthy Englishmen, first to the Continent, and later, around Britain, was a powerful impetus for the building of many of these uniquely British country houses. The Grand Tour had an even greater influence upon the furnishing of these homes as the eighteenth century progressed.

The professional architect was just beginning to emerge in the late seventeenth century in England, but it had become a true profession by the end of the period covered in Creating Paradise. There were similar developments in the professions of builders, Clerks of Works, and even in some of the master craftsmen’s trades. Wilson and Mackley provide an entire chapter on the emergence of the architectural professional. Throughout the book, there are a host of details on the working relationship between the other professions in the building trades and how the responsibilities held by those workers changed over the period. The authors also include information on how construction materials were acquired and transported to the work site. In particular, there is a chapter devoted to the landowners who built these country houses. If you are interested in the actual effort required for the building of country houses, Creating Paradise is filled with factual information on the men who commissioned them, as well as many of the men who did the work to build and furnish them.

Creating Paradise is illustrated with many black and white images. These include paintings, and photographs, of many of the exteriors and interiors of the country houses under discussion. Sadly, a number of these houses have since been pulled down, so the paintings or photographs are the only record which remains. There are also quite a few illustrations of the plans, elevations and other drawings which were part of the construction documents. Another group of illustrations comprises portraits, either paintings or photographs, of the builders of these country houses, and in some cases, of the workers who built them. Perhaps my favorite class of illustrations are those of hand-written building proposals or pages of accounts for some of the houses, as well as ephemera, such as trade cards for some of the architects, builders and other craftsmen who worked on these houses.

There is no bibliography in Creating Paradise, but it is not really necessary. Much of the information was gleaned from original documents and other records which have survived in family archives and public record offices. There is, however, an extensive Notes section, which includes bibliographic citations for any books or periodicals which were consulted, as well as the many original source materials which are the bedrock of this fascinating study of the building of the English country house during the most important two centuries of its evolution and development. Quite a number of these notes include additional information which was not included in the main text. Any one who reads this book would be well advised not to ignore the footnotes, to be sure they get all the facts.

Creating Paradise was published at the beginning of this century. Fortunately, it is still in print, but the most recent list price was I have seen is $54.00US. However, since the book was published almost twenty years ago, there should be a number of used copies available, at prices which should fit the budget of most people who would like to add a copy to their library. Despite the fact that it was published nearly two decades ago, it is still an important and unique resource on the economic factors surrounding the building of the English country house. Therefore, it should also be available in most public and university library collections. Any Regency author with a particular interest in the building, and/or the maintenance, of the English country house will find this book a valuable reference. Even if a Regency story is set in an older country house, understanding the details of how such houses were built and financed will allow the author to more fully embellish their tale. Even those who may not be planning a Regency romance set in an English country house may find this book of interest, since it is filled with information about the many different people who built country houses for themselves and their reasons for doing so. This is not an architectural history so much as it is an economic history of the English country house, which makes this book unique on the subject.

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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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3 Responses to Creating Paradise by Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley

  1. it sounds interesting, and an obvious addition to my collection of books on medieval and tudor/stuart architecture, thank you

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