Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Linen Rooms, Luggage Rooms, Serveries and Other Curious Spaces

Downton Abbey mesmerised many of us with its glamorous wardrobes, dressing-for-dinner rituals, grand interiors and upper-class pastimes (hunting, exchanging witty retorts, sleeping with guests and changing outfits every few hours just to fill in the time). But it also opened our eyes to the behind-the-scenes workings of a stately house in Edwardian times: the rooms behind the rooms, if you like – and even the rooms behind those rooms.

These intriguing and quite often secret spaces were hidden away in the labyrinthine floor plans of these grand estates, and many of them seem more fascinating than the principal rooms of these homes. My favourite spaces when walking through these historic homes always include the silver rooms, the linen rooms, and – the most deliciously decorated spaces of all – the boudoirs, which were also known as pouting rooms because women entertained intimate acquaintances there.

Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is set, has hundreds of these curious utilitarian corners, including a scullery (for washing up), a flower room (for arranging bouquets), a bakery room (for making cakes), a butler's pantry, a silver safe, a housemaid's closet (for storing brushes), separate wine and beer cellars, and even a brushing room (for brushing mud off clothes – the earlier version of a mud room). Other grand estates included fainting rooms (where women retreated for their regular pelvic massages from their doctors), newspaper rooms (for ironing the papers each day), spice rooms, root cellars, butteries, sauceries, sculleries, chandleries (where candles were made), and still rooms (where medicines, cosmetics, cleaning products and sometimes even beer or wine were made). These spaces make the utilitarian rooms we have now, such as gift wrapping rooms and craft rooms, seem rather prosaic! (Note: Don't you love the servant bells behind Mr Carson's chair? Imagine being responsible for all those?)

And then there were the rooms that served as reception rooms for other rooms; places I call spaces-in-waiting, where guests paused before they proceeded to the grander parts of the house such as the ballroom. Just look at the floor plan of the grand, Beaux-Arts mansion 'Whitemarsh Hall' in Pennsylvania (above). This 100,000-square-foot (9,300 m2) mansion featured 147 rooms in total, but many of them were anterooms for the principal rooms. Ironically, it's the anterooms that are far more intriguing. Look at how the Men's Room leads to the Billiard Room, and – more interestingly – how the Ladies Room leads to Mr S's Library. (This should have been the real Cluedo floor plan!)

Many years ago, I spent a great deal of time inside Clarence House, the former home of the Queen Mother and now the London residence of Prince Charles and Princes Will and Harry. I was also fortunate to glimpse inside many of Australia's magnificent mansions while photographing them for a book on country estates. In each of these grand residences, it wasn't the exteriors or even the principal rooms that were enthralling but the more utilitarian corners: the busy beehives of the home. So here, for those who are fascinated by the rooms behind the rooms, is a post on some of the more curious spaces in these gracious old estates.

Chatsworth is an extraordinary piece of architecture with 300 rooms, including a leather room (one of 6 libraries in the house), a china pantry, a flower room, a linen room, a mineral room (for precious stones), a gun store, and a Belvedere Tower containing a plunge bath built by the Bachelor Duke.
At one stage, it required a small army of servants to maintain order, such was its size. According to Wikipedia, there was a butler, an under butler, groom of the chambers, valet, three footmen, a housekeeper, the Duchess's maid, eleven housemaids, two sewing women, a cook, two kitchen maids, a vegetable maid, three scullery maids, two stillroom maids, a dairy maid, six laundry maids and the Duchess's secretary, plus an upholsterer, scullery-maid, two scrubbing women, laundry porter, steam boiler man, coal man, two porter's lodge attendants, two night firemen, a night porter, two window cleaners, and a team of joiners, plumbers and electricians. There were also grooms, chauffeurs, gamekeepers and more than 8o gardeners. There was also a librarian. (I would have adored that job.) {Images via Chatsworth House. If you would like to see behind the scenes at Chatsworth, there are tours that specifically visit the back-of-house rooms.}

The only non-royal palace in Britain, Blenheim Palace features a service wing of monumental proportions – and hundreds of fabulous stories of the servant life that went on there. (For example, during the time of the 7th Duke servants were required to be invisible, so whenever His Grace strode by, they would have to flatten themselves against the wall and try to blend in with the wallpaper!) At the height of its grandueur, there were more than 100 servants here, including 40 inside and 50 outside. These included flower arrangers, carpenters, electricians to keep the newly installed wiring working,  game-keeping staff of 12, lodge keepers, and even a cricket professional to ensure the success and honour of the estate cricket team. {Tours are also available of Blenheim's servants quarters and behind-the-scenes rooms. See for details}

Beltrees has been home to the home of the White family since 1831. (Patrick White was a cousin). One of Australia's most famous country estates, Belltrees' land has been so coveted over the years that the late Kerry Packer bought some of the property to create his own rural idyll. I visited Belltrees to photograph it for a book and fell in love with both the house and its gracious matriarch, Judy White, who told fascinating stories of the family's history. (Apparently when her mother-in-law first went there, there was a servant behind every chair. And when Prince Charles stayed for a weekend, he would excuse himself every night to go and phone his mother.) Inside this grand mansion, there are dozens of fascinating rooms, including an enormous servery and silver room, a gun room, and a room that was just for polishing boots (there was once a servant whose sole job it was to do it). But by far my favourite spaces were the luggage room and the linen room; the former filled with beautiful vintage steamer trunks from the family's voyages around the world. {Images from Belltrees website. If you would like to see Belltrees or even stay there, consult the website for more details.}

1 comment:

  1. So fascinating the rooms behind the rooms. My first job I was a Nanny to four children - offspring of The Earl and Countess of Shelburne and I lived in Bowood House in Wiltshire. They had many of the rooms that you mention including the silver room where all the family silver for the table was kept - brought out for grand parties and dinners and then carefully cleaned and placed back in baized lined drawers.... How the other half lived! x


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