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From the genteel to the exotic

by
07 May 2021

Auction catalogues provide a glimpse into the home lives of rural Georgian clergy, says Jon Stobart

Alamy

Dining room in the Old Rectory in Woolaston, Forest of Dean

Dining room in the Old Rectory in Woolaston, Forest of Dean

IN AUGUST 1790, the Northamptonshire auctioneer Rowland Rouse published A catalogue of the entire elegant, genteel and useful household furniture, plate, linen, china, books, and other valuable effect of the Revd Zacharias Rose, A.M., late Rector of Broughton and Draughton.

As this announcement makes clear, the rural parsons of late Georgian England could enjoy very pleasant domestic lives: they occupied one of the largest houses in the village and often enjoyed close links with the gentry.

Their tithe incomes had risen steadily if unevenly through the 18th century, in line with general agricultural incomes; but incumbents were not notably wealthier than their successors, despite Victorian moralising about the venality of the Georgian clergy.

Indeed, agreeably placed clergymen were stock figures in English novels from Fielding through Austen to Elliot, Trollope, and beyond. They are placed in well-furnished homes, and sometimes parodied for their too-comfortable lives (something true of Fielding as much as Trollope). But how well do these fictional portrayals reflect reality? What were the homes of rural parsons really like?

One way of finding out more is to study auction catalogues such as that for the belongings of the late Mr Rose.

These allow us to open the door of the parsonage and walk through its rooms, noting the goods contained in each and assessing what they tell us about the social status and cultural world of these men and their families.

Comparing auction catalogues for Northamptonshire clergymen with those of neighbouring gentlemen, it is apparent that their domestic worlds were, in many ways, very similar.

Both sets of houses contained a range of good-quality furniture, porcelain, kitchenware, and household linen; most included books and prints or paintings, and some had musical or scientific instruments.

Parsonages and country houses alike embodied contemporary ideals of comfortable living, but there were some telling differences. Sales from clergy houses were more likely to include books, although libraries varied hugely in their size and scope.

While the books of the Revd Mr Haggit of Rushton were auctioned off in just 29 lots at his 1798 sale, those of the Revd Mr Speidell at Crick (auction in 1836) occupied 511 lots, and took three days to clear. Although many of these were linked to Speidell’s calling — Bibles, published sermons, lexicons, and similar — he also owned books of poems, plays, and music, histories, guides, dictionaries, medical books, and novels.

Some were impressive volumes: his copy of Lodge’s Portraits of Illustrious Personages of Great Britain (1821), for instance, was listed as “a choice copy, fine impressions, calf elegant, gilt leaves”. Such books were intended for display rather than reading, suggesting that Speidell was something of a bibliophile.

 

MORE generally, however, the clergy were less likely to own goods that formed overt statements of social status than were their gentry neighbours. Large sets of silverware, collections of paintings by famous artists, carriages, and statement pieces of furniture were seldom found in parsonages.

This is not to say that clergymen’s houses were devoid of impressive objects. There were marble slab tables at Broughton and Crick, and the Revd Mr Goode at Weldon (1761) had “Seven pieces of curious Tapestry, containing the History of Moses”.

Most catalogues contained pieces that were picked out by the auctioneer as particularly handsome or elegant — words that linked to ideals of provincial gentility — and there were always objects that prompted detailed and florid descriptions.

At the 1809 sale of the Revd Henry Hoare’s possessions, the auctioneer waxed lyrical about a “handsome mahogany fluted pillar’d lath bottom bedstead (5 feet 9 wide) white striped dimity [a cotton fabric] furniture, elegant drapery, rich chints border, japan cornice, festoon window-curtain to correspond (by Siddons)” located in the best bedroom.

Of course, the auctioneer was puffing the goods, but there was more than a hint of luxury here. Moreover, noting the maker could add to the attraction of objects, as it underlined the quality of the workmanship; it also pointed to the discernment and sometimes the deep pocket of its original owner.

While Wedgwood china was found almost everywhere, pieces from the chinaworks in Worcester and Dresden added gloss to the display of tableware at Crick.

Similarly, pianos were increasingly common in the parlours of the urban middle-class as they slowly developed into the crowded comfort of the Victorian drawing-room; yet owning one made by Borrowman of Soho or Goulding, D’Alamain & Co., who boasted royal patronage, added lustre to the rectories in Cranford St Andrew (1822) and Corby (1842) respectively.

 

THE provenance of items mattered to householders. It is telling, therefore, that these rural parsonages contained a small but significant number of objects drawn from Britain’s growing Empire.

The Revd Mr Pye at Titchmarsh (1788) owned a diverse range of porcelain, including a “breakfast set of blue and white Nankeen”, a “fine large India punch-bowl”, and a “complete set of burnt-in fine India tea-china”. Contemporaries often described all Eastern goods as Indian: this porcelain was Chinese, probably imported by the East India Company, which still held an effective monopoly on the Eastern trade.

It linked this rural rectory to a wider world of empire and commerce, and of cultural cosmopolitanism and exoticism. Chinoiserie of this sort represented a perennial aesthetic, offering a taste of the Orient which was at once familiar and constantly new.

A more aspirational and striking piece of exotica was the “handsome tiger skin” found in the Revd Mr Whalley’s drawing room in Ecton (1840). There is no way of knowing how this travelled from India to rural Northamptonshire; perhaps Whalley bought it from a London dealer or at another house sale.

Whatever route it took, this tiger skin speaks of an imaginative and material connection to the wider world which was seen throughout Whalley’s house: the kingwood and rosewood furniture in his drawing room, the Turk’s head on the stairs, or the inlaid Indian chest and two “beautifully carved ivory candlesticks” in a bedroom.

Jon StobartCatalogue for the sale of goods of the Revd Zacharias Rose (deceased) at Broughton Rectory, Northamptonshire, on 23 August 1790

During Whalley’s life, Britain was building its second empire centred on India, and expanding its influence in South America — the source of many tropical hardwoods — and in parts of Africa.

There is considerable debate over the attitude of ordinary people to empire at this time, and about the links between Evangelicalism and empire — a connection that ties to the late 19th-century civilising mission of European imperialism.

Given this, it is hard to know what to make of Whalley’s exotic goods: maybe he was marking his association with the imperial project; more likely, he was engaging in fashion- and status-driven consumption that tied his house with all corners of the globe.

Such objects and associations are eye-catching, but the key cultural and social milieu that characterised these parsonages was one of refined sociability: dining, tea-drinking, and socialising with the local elite.

This is best illustrated by returning to the rectory at Broughton, where Rose had a dinner service comprising 42 plates, 18 dessert plates, 12 soup plates, and an assortment of serving plates and dishes.

He also had a set comprising a tea pot, 12 tea cups and saucers, 12 coffee cups and saucers, a sugar bowl, and a water bowl, plus two smaller tea sets, several sets of cups and saucers, and numerous individual pieces. He was thus well-equipped for entertaining at some scale.

Of particular note is that five of his teapots were black; these were especially prized in showing off the delicate white hands and elegant movements of the hostess as she poured the tea — whiteness here being a marker of status and freedom from hard manual labour.

Their presence in the rectory at Broughton suggests that Pye and his wife were engaged in such genteel performances and were aware of the prevailing fashion in chinaware and polite entertaining.

Moreover, his Best Parlour contained a pair of dining tables, eight chairs, a cellaret (for wine), a tea chest and tea caddy, and a backgammon table, all made from mahogany. On the walls hung a series of prints, including David Garrick in the character of Macbeth, two landscapes, and a copy of a Van Dyke painting.

Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale UniversityA Master Parson with a Good Living: hand-coloured mezzotint, published on 2 June 1782, probably based on an original published c.1760

Next door, in the Little Parlour, there were four chairs, a window seat, and a pair of easy chairs, plus a Pembroke table and two card tables. Together, these rooms formed almost copybook examples of the kind of domestic environment created for comfortable and polite entertaining.

It is difficult to know how typical Broughton was of rectories across the country. On the one hand, there were many impoverished curates struggling to eke out a respectable living from their meagre stipends. On the other, the auction catalogues for rectories in late Georgian Northamptonshire make clear that such domestic belongings were by no means unusual; and they accord with the image created in contemporary novels.

Whether material comfort was a cause for criticism undoubtedly depends on perspective. Victorian commentators were quick to pass judgement, but these houses reflect the understandable desire of these clergymen and their wives and families to live comfortable and genteel lives.

 

Jon Stobart is Professor of History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is a contributor to The Social Life of the Early Modern Protestant Clergy, edited by Jacqueline Eales and Beverly Tjerngren, published by the University of Wales Press at £24.99; 978-1-78683-7-141.

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