A couple months ago, I spotted a thick book in my local library when searching for something interesting in the nonfiction section, Mark Girouard's 1971 The Victorian Country House. Girouard, an architectural historian, describes the history of the call the country house had on the wealthy of Victorian Britain and the succeeding intellectual movements of the architects of the era, before giving thirty or so case studies of various homes, castles, cottages, and other buildings. He writes with opinionated enthusiasm. It's delightful to see an expert tear into the foibles of another expert for sins that a layperson like me might have only an inkling of, such as vulgar window placement or gauche statuary which seem indistinguishable from other examples to me.
When reading, I tried to take notes, especially with an eye to RPGs. Probably I will finish a large, humble module for a horrific magical country house sometime soon. I've made a lot of progress adapting Bear Wood, one of the homes treated in Girouard's book, into such a space, if for no other reason than the full floorplan was included.
|A section from the hellish and inexact photo editor I used to get a sense of the proportions of Bear Wood on a grid. The finished dungeon will be drawn out on grid paper.|
Most of what follows are direct quotations, but it is not always clear when they are Girouard's words or those of someone he is quoting. At the end, you can find some simple rules for commissioning a country house in your favorite retroclone. I think they would work okay, but don't feel they yet convey the feeling of working with an architect, struggling over differing aesthetic visions, or otherwise playing out the ordeal of building such a house.
"The mixture of piety, snobbery, romanticism, idealism, and pretentiousness that contributed to their making, form a fascinating collection,"
A nobleman is credited as the president of "the United Committee for the Preventing of Demoralizing of Native Races by the Liquor Traffic"
"...the specific Victorian atmosphere of earnestness, unencumbered wealth, and almost unbelievable deference"
Charles Kingsley in 1862 wrote "There is no aristocracy in the world and there never has been, as far as I know, which has so honourably repented, and brought forth fruits meet for repentance; which has so so cheerfully asked what its duty was, that it might do it… The whole creed of our young gentlemen is becoming more liberal, their demeanour more courteous, their language more temperate," Imagine!
Members of a political faction tended to favor the same architect. In a game world, this may mean that understanding one member of a party's house will give clues as to the construction of other members of that party, and that architects may develop some loyalty to their clientele.
The principle is "truthfulness," everything seeming to be what it is, nothing concealed or covered up by stucco. This leads to trouble in fireproofing. "Fireproof construction" involves iron girders, but exposed iron ceases to be fireproof. It took a few disasters to figure this out.
The end of the glass excise and window tax leads to a fashion of installing massive sheetglass windows everywhere.
Heating and ventilation were "complementary problems", aggravated by better-fitted windows and doors, warmer houses, and gas lightning. Never solved, and slowed the adoption of central heating and gas lighting.
Gas lighting was often hot, smelly, and dim. Hence the ventilation grills concealed in ornaments and cornices of the ceilings.
The notion that comfort is "nouveau-riche, unhealthy, or, even worse, American,"
Country homes had 8-40 staff. A great country house at its busiest might contain 150 people.
"Families of twelve or more children were by no means uncommon, and children had their own retinue of governesses, tutors, nannies, and nursery maids,"
"It was considered undesirable for children, servants, and parents to see, smell, or hear each other except at certain recognized times and places… The activity of eating became complicated. The main meals were often served in at least five different places."
"The mistress of the house had her boudoir to work in: the master, his study or business room. The drawing room (or rooms) was considered the ladies' territory, but the gentlemen were allowed in; the opposite was the case with the library. The billiard room tended to become exclusively male territory… Above all, the menservants slept separately from the maids, and often did not even have the pleasure of passing them on the stairs, separate men's and women's staircases being provided.
Servants' Wing— kitchen offices, upper servants' offices, lower servant's offices, laundry offices, bakery and brewery offices, cellars storage and outhouses, servants' private rooms, supplementaries, and thoroughfares.
"The usual arrangement was to have a main block with a (usually lower) service block to one side; and the two most common dispositions for the main block were round a central top-lit hall or staircase, or to either side of wide corridors or galleries running through the house, one above the other on each floor,"
[expanding male domains in the house] "were sustained by the great tribes of Victorian bachelors, younger sons of large Victorian families, unable to marry outside their class for snobbish reasons, and inside it for financial ones,"
"Pugin wrote in direct reaction to the picturesque movement, and pronounced two iconoclastic doctrines: that plan came before appearance, and that buildings should be what they seemed. Because he contended that Gothic architecture fulfilled these provisos, and that it was English and Christian, as opposed to classical architecture, which was foreign and pagan, he argued that all buildings should be Gothic. In short he was against eclecticism, and replaced a visual approach with a moral one. Plaster imitating stone was a sham and therefore bad; so were houses pretending to be castles."
Thomas Hughes: "From the cradle to the grave, fighting, rightly understood, is the business, the real highest, honestest business of every son of man,"
Victorians preferred variance of texture and polychromy, in defiance of the monotony resulting from the Renaissance
It was popular to intentionally break up roofs into bits and gables of different sizes, heights, and widths. The asymmetry is part of the point.
People just went crazy for steep roofs. They enjoyed a equilateral triangle. A 60 degree incline was even more popular, despite the risk to those who might repair it and despite general impracticality.
"Gothic architecture was truthful, Christian, and English; and if transplanted into nineteenth-century soil it would become once more a living and developing style,"
"They had been part of a middle-class revolt against upper-class values, against what they considered a frivolous, corrupt, heartless, and godless society, Now a part of the middle class were revolting against middle-class values, against an earnest, smug, hypocritical, joyless and above all ugly society,"
"The separation into elements which is so prominent a feature of Shaw houses externally is also very noticeable internally; one gets the impression of going through a sequence of different units rather than subdivisions of one large whole. His plans are additive, made up of pieces put together like a game of dominoes.
Harlaxton Manor, built by a gentleman of modest means compared to the "ducal and even royal" pretentious of the structure. This was achieved because its construction seemed to be his one mission in life. He traveled Europe learning about various styles and collecting various curios, and was unmarried, even raising the entire sum needed to construct it before starting. It was doubtful he would live long enough to take up residence, and he didn't even like his heir. "It is the means and not the needs to which he looks for gratification," The manor has a "mongrel character', including features from many cultures and styles, and is dug into a hillside.
Bayons Manor- "The enchanted palace of the Sleeping Beauty, hidden and asleep behind its impenetrable hedge, is one of the more haunting of the fairy-tale inventions... something not so very far removed from it survived until a few years ago, lost in the beautiful landscape of the Lincolnshire wolds. Here was a huge castle of honey-colored stone, a cluster of gables and towers surrounded by battlements and a moat; empty and deserted except for the pigeons… and fluttered endlessly through its ruined halls; and with the undergrowth closing in, the weeds and reeds thick and high in the moat, the long grass rippling on what were once smooth lawns, the garden wall smothered by saplings, so that form outside little could be seen except a wall of greenery, with towers rising here and there mysteriously behind it,"
Bayons was created by the grandfather of Alfred Tennyson on the site of an ancestor's medieval castle, but Alfred's father was forsaken for the second son, so the firstborn's brood lived in the vicarage and wandered around in dirty clothes, singing poetry. Alfred's uncle, possessed of "a restless and almost feverish subtlety", began to build up a "romantic castellated pile" on the site.
"With all those disbursed spectres rampant in thy chambers, all the armor rusting in thy galleries, all those mutilated statues of early English kings niched into the grey ivied walls— say, in thy conscience, O Host, shall I ever return to the nineteenth century again?"
"The sale included a valuable library, bronzes, ivories, silver, gems, cameos, missals, a large collection of armour and arms, 'beautiful ancient carved ebony furniture' and 171 lots of wood carvings including doors, panels, screens, friezes, stalls canopies, frames, cabinets, bookcases, tables, overmantels, and altarpieces"
"In the spandrels of the hall roof are dragons which look more like trophies from the Brighton Pavilion than from the Middle Ages,"
"It was in fact an antiquary's hideout, a glorified junk box put together with jackdaw rather than connoisseur enthusiasm"
"In 1860 the corpse of Chalres Scarisbrick was carried, as he had directed in his will, in a straight line from the house to the church, across three ditches, a meadow, a wheat-field, and a field of cabbages, and through a gap in the presbytery wall which he had ordered to be left open, to the mystification of the workmen, when the wall was built twelve years earlier,"
"Well do I remember Lord Beaconsfield walking with some of us in front of the house, suddenly coming to a halt, and in impressive tones ejaculating: 'How scenical! How scenical!'."
"Like many serious-minded Victorians when they were about to spend a great deal of money on themselves, John Walters eased his conscience by building a church first,"
“ Their mausoleum still survives, marooned among later villas.”
Painting: Neptune entrusting the command of the sea to Britannia
The pavilion tower contained a water tank, the other tower o’clock. Albert stood at the top of the towers and directed the planting of the garden by semaphore flags.
The satire had its effect and it became increasingly hard to build a sham castle with an easy conscience. There remained alternatives; either not to build a castle at all, or to build one with such overpowering scholarship has to flatten criticism.
...flashy sham castles like Belvoir and Penrhyn...
"Indeed his reputation has been partly gained by his drastic remodeling of Georgian churches, and one can imagine him advancing on them with a kind of terrible glee, sharpening his knives… Although nominally a Gothicist, he was capable like many of his contemporaries of ruthlessly altering, selecting or transfiguring Gothic detail to produce the effects he wanted. Anything striped, spiky, knobbly, notched, fungoid, or wiry fascinated him,"
Cragside, a manor built on the side of a forested hill by an inventor of hydraulics, firearms, and armor. Visited by foreign heads of state and serious dignitaries to secure his machines, leaving their notes in the margins of his library's books.
"A snuff box engraved with the inscription: 'When clients talk irritating nonsense I take a pinch of snuff.'"
Bear Wood, a very large and modern Victorian manor, cost 120,000 pounds.
Brodsworth hall, a smaller and more retrograde yet stylish manor, cost 60,000 pounds
Good architects cost as much as poor architects, but produce finer works. There are only 1d4+1 fine architects at a time, and each has certain political and aesthetic commitments. All architects quote at about half the cost of the finished project, something that all members of the "old money" class know.
To build a country house, you must have coin, hire an architect, and own the land to build it on.
Traditionally, a gentleman needs hundreds of acres of land surrounding it to fill with tenants, vicarages, cottages, and the like, but we'll abstract that and say that as long as you have a domain of at least one hex, you qualify for being respectable.
There are only 1d4+1 creditable architects in the land at any given time, and each has certain political and aesthetic commitments. The DM should generate all of them before the PCs decide which to approach. Give them a name, political affiliation, preferred style, and quirk from the following table
1. Aesthete. If working in preferred style, halves fee. Otherwise, +100 coins per month.
2. Irritable. Make a new reaction roll halfway through.
3. Idealist. Halfway through, demands the integration of some new feature.
4. Straightforward. Halves style cost, refuses to make anything lavish.
5. Innovator. Susceptible to novel requests. +2 reaction to such proposals.
6. Truthful. Must be convinced before including secret doors, traps, ersatz materials, or stucco.
7. Magician. Halves amenities cost, demands double pay, perilous to be indebted to. Roll a d6 for an additional quirk.
8. Humanoid. Determine random non-human lineage, suggesting stylistic advantages and cultural baggage. Roll a d6 for an additional quirk.
Attempting to hire an architect involves contacting them, either by letter or in person. Use normal procedures for reaction rolls and hiring retainers and so on, modified by political and aesthetic commitments as well as conditions the PCs offer. Most architects expect 400 gold coins each month. They quote a price based on the following formula:
Family/party and 8-10 servants: 6,000
Family/party and 11-20 servants: 8,000
Family/party and 21-30 servants: 10,000
Family/party and 31-40 servants: 12,000
Family/party and 40+ servants: 14,000
(These costs are reduced in areas where the materials needed are produced, by 60% for stone and 80% for wood.)
Spartan: 5,000 (cold and uninviting)
Respectable: 8,000 (you are treated as respectable by the upper class)
Comfortable: 10,000 (and +1 reaction roll with all sorts in your house)
Lavish: 15,000 (and may integrate any number of secret doors with no extra cost)
Outdated: 2,500 (-1 to attracting specialists and mercenaries, ghosts more likely)
Respectable: 5,000 (respectable people are compelled by your invitation to host them)
State of the art: 10,000 (and can actually maintain a desired temperature, resist fires, etc.)
Characters from old money will understand that the ultimate price of the house will be about double the quoted price, but this may or may not be clear to the PCs. In the world of fantasy convenience, the country house is built at a rate of 8,000 gold coins of work per month, going room by room so you can move into the great hall after one month, even though they haven't started on the kitchen, and so on.
(These numbers were mostly made up to be satisfying from a game perspective, but were ballparked based on real Victorian country homes with the dubious assumption that 1 gold coin is equal to 1 Great British pound.)