Country house hunt

February 27, 1998

THE HUGE success of period dramas on film and television has renewed popular interest in the English country house. The interest has not been mirrored in academia where, aside from a narrow focus on their architectural and technical merits, country houses have been little researched.

Now Dana Arnold, director of a new centre for the study of architecture and decorative arts at Leeds University, is pioneering an approach that looks at the country house's place in social and economic history.

"The study of architectural history has been anomalous," Ms Arnold said. "Architecture has tended to be studied either as a composition or purely in technical design terms. For me, architecture is a cultural document full of potential for interpretation."

The country house has been revered as a symbol of British culture and society. "Whether it is 16th-century or 18th-century, the country house is a distinctive cultural icon that still has significance today," said Ms Arnold.

According to Ms Arnold's theory, architecture can culturally map a period. Through an understanding of the objects and possessions of a period, the significance of the decorative arts can also be unlocked, she believes.

As with buildings, the decorative arts have a function other than artistic contemplation. For example, the making and use of a chair can tell a social and economic history. "Why did individuals possess them, what do they mean, and what do they say about people then and now?" asks Ms Arnold.

"We can also explore gender and social and economic factors. Above all we can see more clearly what we are doing as historians when we interpret the past. We can see what impact that has on the subject."

The Leeds University centre is running a new MA in country house studies that will involve houses in the locality, such as Castle Howard, Chatsworth and Harewood. Students will have access to their collections. Harewood House trust has offered four bursaries to students whose dissertations are on its collections.

Ms Arnold's next piece of research, due to be published next year, will map key developments in London's architecture and planning from 1800-1840.

Her aim is to develop a method of studying metropolitan history with London as the centre of key architectural, social and cultural themes. Her study will challenge the traditional depiction of urban environments in terms of their architects and patrons.

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