How To Be A Gentleman

The Gentleman's House Or, How to Plan English Residences, from the Parsonage to the Palace by Robert KerrWe have just reissued a book called The Gentleman’s House,  by the Scots architect Robert Kerr (1823–1904), and it got me thinking about what Kerr (or any of his contemporaries) meant by ‘gentleman’. His subtitle gives a fairly hefty clue to his opinion:  How to Plan English Residences, from the Parsonage to the Palace. So the rector, parson or vicar was a gentleman (would the inhabitant of a manse also qualify?), and so were nobility and royalty (ex officio, presumably), but what about the rest?

Did profession or wealth do it for you? Mrs Gaskell has a great deal of perceptive, quiet fun with the concepts of ‘genteel’ and ‘gentlemanly’, especially in North and South (can a Manchester manufacturer be a gentleman, in the way that a clergyman from the New Forest – albeit a lapsed Anglican – is?), and in Wives and Daughters. ‘I’ve known land-agents who were gentlemen, and I’ve known some who were not. You belong to this last set, young man’, as Squire Hamley rightly says to the odious Mr Preston.

Even more complicated, or subtle, is the question of ‘gentleman-like’. Consider the great Italian bass Luigi Lablache (whose parents were in fact French and Irish) who was Queen Victoria’s singing teacher: ‘a remarkably clever, gentleman-like man, full of anecdote and knowledge, and most kind and warm-heated’, according to his pupil. Was she saying that he behaved just like gentleman in spite of defects of birth and upbringing which would prevent his actually being one?

And then there are cases where the word is used as a weapon: W.H. Russell describes an (unnamed) brigadier of the Guards Regiment, ‘a high-shouldered, neatly-dressed, narrow-minded little man, a perfect gentleman in manner’ who was ‘a very imperfect soldier, without a ray of military light or power of leading’ – an archetype of the ‘professional’ soldier of the 1850s British army, whose incompetence Russell excoriated in his ensuing role as the London Times’ first war correspondent, in the Crimea.

But back to Kerr and his houses. His book (published in 1864) is massively subdivided – instead of a table of contents at the front there is an ‘index’, which breaks the work down into Parts, Divisions, Sections and Chapters – and at the beginning of Part 1, the book title is repeated with a telling difference: it is now given as ‘The English Gentleman’s House’. This is probably an accidental result of the failure of most nineteenth-century publishers to understand the importance of copy-editing; but speculation that this was to have been the original title (before, presumably, John Murray’s marketeers got at it and decided not to offend (and so lose sales in) North Britain) is justified by the frequent references throughout the text to ‘the English gentleman’.

‘The points which an English gentleman of the present day values in his house are comprehensively these:– quiet comfort for his family and guests; thorough convenience for his domestics;  elegance and importance without ostentation.’

‘… the attributes of an agreeable English home must never be sacrificed’.

‘Primarily the House of an English gentleman is divisible into two departments, namely that of THE FAMILY and that of THE SERVANTS. In dwellings of inferior class, such as Farmhouses and the Houses of tradesmen, this separation is not so distinct; but in the smallest establishment of the kind with which we have here to deal this element of character must be considered essential; and as the importance of the family increases, the distinction is widened…’ (A third category, STATE ROOMS, may also been needed in certain circumstances.)

The ‘Family’ part of the house is straightforward enough: the day-rooms, the sleeping-rooms, the children’s rooms; the supplementaries; the thoroughfares. The ‘Servants’ part is more elaborate: the kitchen offices, the upper servants’ offices, the lower servants’ offices’ the laundry offices, the bakery and brewery offices, the cellars, storage and outhouses, the servants’ private rooms, together with more supplementaries and thoroughfares. (Supplemetaries, as you may have guessed, are ‘water closets, baths &c.’)

The invaluable index breaks this list down further: the ‘cellars, storage and outhouses’ include the coal cellar, wood-house, ash-bin, wine cellars, beer cellar, miscellaneous cellars, ice-house, lumber-room, luggage-room, and fruit-store, and that’s before you get to the ‘stabling and farm offices &c.’. What is most notable is that at every level, from the ‘basic’ 13-room house upwards, almost the same numbers of rooms are needed for servants as for ‘the family’.

The book’s aim is to provide a template from which the English gentleman can select the elements which he needs and which are appropriate to his circumstances, but which will result in a house based ‘upon what is in a certain sense unvarying throughout the British Islands, namely, the domestic habits of refined persons. To put the case familiarly, there are houses in which the accommodation is of the smallest, and the expenditure the most restricted, whose plan nevertheless is such that persons who have been accustomed to the best society find themselves at ease; and there are others upon which ample dimensions, liberal outlay, and elaborate decoration have entirely failed to confer the character of a Gentleman’s House.’

In other words, take my advice and you can pass as a gentleman; don’t follow me and be cast into outer darkness as an obvious nouveau-riche vulgarian. But once past the generalisations (and the whole of the first part is ‘A sketch of the history and development of domestic plan in England’ from ‘the Anglo-Saxon time’ to the nineteenth century), the book is extremely practical, taking you from room to room, discussing aspect, layout, function and furnishing for everything from the closets in the dining-room to the family chapel, with advice on style, and useful breakdowns of costs – for example, there is a ready-reckoner giving you the outlay for building any size of house, from 13 to 150 rooms in the ‘family department’ (and servants’ department in proportion) and more detailed workings for specific projects.

At the end are various plans of historic ‘gentleman’s houses’ from medieval Castleton to Osborne and Balmoral, with detailed notes on each. (The bigger plans, which were on pull-out folded plates in the original book, are printed in sections, but can be seen (and enlarged) on the website, by clicking ‘Resources available’.)

Kerr’s comments are interesting. On Blenheim Palace, for example: ‘as an English gentleman’s house, it is altogether a mistake’; on Osborne (designed by Prince Albert with the aid of Thomas Cubitt), ‘it is to be regretted that the aid of a proper architect was not had in this plan’ (that puts the mere master builder Cubitt in his place); on Balmoral: ‘The superiority of this plan over Osborne is apparent at a glance; there is a familiar character about the disposition which is in fact the character of home comfort.’

So the book has almost come full circle: from urging his anxious middle-class readership to be guided by his precepts to gentlemanly living, Kerr is now extolling the middle-class virtue of home comfort, as displayed by the highest family in the land.


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2 Responses to How To Be A Gentleman

  1. Pingback: The Swedish Nightingale | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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