Life in the English Country House

A Social and Architectural History

Mark Girouard

Introduced by Simon Jenkins

Preface by Mark Girouard

Before Downton Abbey graced our televisions, Mark Girouard went behind the scenes of England’s country houses. His fascinating bestseller is newly imagined in a stunning Folio edition with architect-designed binding.


From Blenheim Palace and Windsor Castle to Hardwick Hall and Audley End, the doors of England’s country houses are thrown open in this revealing history. First published almost 40 years ago, social historian Mark Girouard’s ground-breaking work shifts the focus of upper-class residences from pure architectural merit to function and purpose. Travelling from the Middle Ages to the time of Wodehouse and Waugh, Girouard presents the evolution of these houses through the people who lived and worked there: the clandestine encounters following the installation of backstairs; the time-saving move from candlelight to light switch; and the welcome arrival of flushing toilets. You’ll discover how buildings were repurposed over the centuries, and be introduced to the politicians and aristocrats who lived there, as well as the cooks, maids and butlers who worked tirelessly behind the scenes.

This new large-format edition includes over 120 exceptional colour and black-and-white photographs. Largely sourced from the archives of Country Life, they include a wide selection by Edwin Smith, one of the greatest architectural photographers of the 20th century. As well as detailed house plans and room interiors, there are paintings by Hogarth, Turner and Constable that show off country-house settings and their lavish decor, and oil portraits of owners, including Bess of Hardwick and Lord Armstrong of Cragside. Simon Jenkins adds his wealth of English Heritage and National Trust experience to an introduction that reinstates the importance of Girouard’s work. And the final flourish to this desirable edition: an exquisite wraparound binding by renowned architectural artist John Pumfrey.

Production details

Bound in printed and blocked cloth with a design by John Pumfrey

Set in Arno Pro

376 pages

75 integrated black & white illustrations, 24 house plans and 24 pages of colour plates

Printed endpapers with a design by John Pumfrey

Printed and blocked slipcase

11½˝ x 8˝

Going behind the scenes to change perceptions

Girouard’s history marked a major shift from appreciating the static architecture and landscaping of English country houses, to going behind the scenes to see what made them tick. He explores the relationship between the physical buildings and the people who occupied them: England’s class system, politics and power struggles are all explained through the occupation and running of its lavish estates. The way rooms are used evolves over the centuries and is dictated by events in history, social mobility and technological advances.

Life in the English Country House has … become a bestseller – extraordinary in the field of architectural history’

  1. London Review of Books

Modernity and the evolution of the country house

The introduction of the backstairs in the 17th century meant servants essentially became invisible and the surreptitious access also allowed for clandestine meetings and furtive encounters. ‘… Priests, whores, opposition politicians and anyone else whom the king wished to see in secret came discreetly up the backstairs.’

Later on, towards the end of the 18th century, state apartments moved upstairs, parlours became female domains and candles were replaced with oil, and later, gas lighting. But perhaps the greatest ongoing problem over the centuries was how to dispose of human waste. Hand pumps, donkey wheels and privy shafts all vied for prominence but manual removal remained widespread in many houses until fully flushing toilets arrived in the late 19th century. The close-stools with their removable containers were often lavish affairs: Bess of Hardwick’s was ‘covered with blue cloth stitched with white, with red and black silk fringe’.

A book with a place in history

As former architectural editor of Country Life magazine and Slade Professor of Fine Art, Girouard has the architectural, artistic and historical expertise to bring together the houses and their inhabitants in one remarkable story. As a building, a country house is no more and no less than the sum of its parts; Girouard was the first to add people to the equation and transform these houses into sets for centuries-old dramas.

‘A deeply important book, one of the most interesting contributions to architectural history’ 

  1. New York Review of Books


Mark Girouard is a leading architectural historian, architectural writer and biographer, as well as an authority on the country house. He was previously architectural editor of Country Life magazine, and was Slade Professor of Fine Art from 1975 to 1976. His books, ‘each one a masterpiece’ (New Statesman), include The Victorian Country House (1979), The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (1981), Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History (1985), Elizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall 1540-1640 (2009) and, more recently, Enthusiasms (2011) and Friendships (2017). Life in the English Country House (1978) won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize and the W. H. Smith Literary Award.


Simon Jenkins is the author of England’s Thousand Best Houses (2003). He has served as deputy chairman of English Heritage and chairman of the National Trust.


John Pumfrey qualified as an RIBA architect at Kingston School of Art in 1961, thereafter practising in the Oxfordshire area. He later specialised in architectural illustration, working on diverse commissions worldwide, including Africa and the Middle East. He is a Fellow and past President of the Society of Architectural Illustration.


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