‘Bling’ in Georgian Interior Decoration

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The Cabinet, Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk
William Windham’s Grand Tour display

The grand tour was responsible for a huge growth in the expenditure georgian grandees lavished on the interior decoration of their houses. Many of those who went abroad sent home vast numbers of pictures, statues and other objects, all chosen to display their refined taste and fastidious appreciation of Classical art. Some, unfortunately, lacked both qualities and so wasted their money on purchases of items produced by locals eager to cash-in on their naivety. Others had the taste, but not the deep pockets necessary to support it. Nevertheless, many Georgian houses open to the public today benefit greatly from the period of frantic collecting that characterised much of the century — until Napoleon put a stop to continental travel.

What was going on?

Increasing prosperity drove demand for houses and lifestyles that were more comfortable and elegant. The notion of ‘good taste’ being the hallmark of the gentry stimulated the urge to acquire sophistication through foreign travel, then display concrete signs of it in the decoration of your home. Patrons grew more demanding. Those who served them — the architects, designers and craftsmen — were held in higher esteem and encouraged to become more capable of producing complex designs.

It was tempting to satirise the whole business, as Alexander Pope did. Many of those sent out on these extended ‘educational’ holidays had little real interest in anything save eating, drinking and sowing their wild oats out of sight of parents and family.

Inevitably, what they brought back to justify their trip they had picked up quickly and without discrimination. A whole industry grew up around fleecing the ‘English milords’.

For what has Virro[1] [] painted, built and planted?
Only to show how many tastes he wanted.
What brought Sir Visto’s ill-got wealth to waste?
Some demon whispered, “Visto, have a taste.”
Heav’n visits with a taste the wealthy fool,
And needs no rod but Ripley[2] with a Rule.

Moral Essays, Alexander Pope (1688–1744)

Art

Paintings, etchings, sculptures and prints were the purchases most travellers thought of first. A good many of the country’s finest collections of art began with someone making the Grand Tour and bringing back enough art to decorate a whole house. In some cases, Holkham Hall in Norfolk for example, a vast house was built as a ‘display cabinet’ for a Grand Tour collection.

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The Cabinet, Felbrigg Hall
More of Windham’s Grand Tour art collection

Only the wealthiest could afford Old Masters. Others made do with minor painters, especially when it came to landscapes. William Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk bought a few fine works with marine subjects, but added many modest landscapes in gouache depicting places in Italy he had visited. It’s easy to imagine him boring his friends by displaying these exactly as people used to do with holiday snaps and videos!

As more and more people had been abroad, an interest grew up in paintings and other objects intended as ‘conversation pieces’ to stimulate suitably erudite discussions amongst them.

Interior Design

While architects designed the houses and the major interior elements like plasterwork, fireplaces and staircases, other interior fittings were left to the taste of the owners. Throughout the eighteenth century, English interiors tended to reveal the eclectic tastes of a house’s inhabitants, rather than conform to any set style. There might be Palladian, Rococco, Neoclassical and even Gothic elements combined in the same room. Fashion also played a major role too.

Perhaps what was most constant was a taste for a generally muted, pale colour-scheme for the walls and large windows fitted with crown glass or Bristol glass to maximise the intake of light. Pier mirrors between the windows or on the walls opposite also helped to make rooms better illuminated to show off all the expensive paintings and fittings. The small, mullioned windows of earlier periods were swept away, and the heavy draperies and dark colours of Victorian taste had yet to appear.

Wall-Coverings

From the middle of the century onwards, Chinese wallpaper was so expensive and complex to handle that its possession became extremely desirable. In 1752, William Windham managed to acquire enough ‘India Paper’[3] to cover the walls of a small dressing room in the latest fashion. What the paper costs him is not recorded, but he had to hire an expert from Norwich to hang it. It took many days at a rate of 3s 6d per day (perhaps £45.00 today), plus 6d (around £6.25) per mile to travel the 20 miles each way. It’s no wonder Windham noted it as “a curs’d deal”. Windham’s Chinese paper was pasted on the wall. Earlier papers tended to be pasted onto canvas, which was then stretched into place — hence the term still used: ‘paper hanging’.

In the Cabinet — a kind of inner sanctum — where he displayed many of the paintings he brought back from his own, four-year Grand Tour, Windham was equally lavish. He covered the walls with silk damask — all but one spot behind an especially massive painting, where 20th-century workman found he had economised and left the wall bare.

Panelling and tapestry were generally thought unfashionable and old-fashioned. Most walls and ceilings were plastered and painted. In the grandest houses, they were embellished with magnificent frescoes. Houghton and Holkham Halls in Norfolk also have many of the mouldings gilded.

At Painted ceilings we devoutly stare
Where sprawl the saints of Verrio and Laguerre.

(Pope)

Fireplaces were generally of marble (or made to look as if they were) as were pillars in the new, Classically-inspired entrance halls. Lord Verney bought a marble fireplace in Italy for £1000.00 (perhaps a quarter of a million today) and paid to have it shipped to England. Even grates and fire-irons were procured in elaborate patterns. One set at Burghley House is made entirely of solid silver!

Furniture and fittings

It didn’t stop there. Vast sums were paid for statues (typically copies of Classical originals), bronzes, ceramics and similar objets d’art.

The range and elegance of furniture expanded throughout the century, becoming steadily more elaborate. Chippendale’s products adorned the finest houses, while his firm supplied pattern books that could be used by local cabinet makers. These offered designs to suit every taste, from pseudo-Greek to pseudo-Chinese. Much was made using rare and exotic woods, such a rosewood, tulip wood, ebony, figured walnut and satinwood. Chinese lacquered items were all the rage, as were other kinds of oriental furniture, much of it painted or Japanned.

Dining tables were adorned with expensive silverware and costly dinner services in fine porcelain. Beds were hung with curtains of silk damask, velvet or complex needlework or tapestry. People wanted matched sets of curtains, upholstered seat covers and fine table-linens. Even the floors must now be covered with Persian or Turkey carpets.

Mechanical novelties and displays of technology also appealed in an age of rapid progress in the sciences. Clocks, barometers, celestial and terrestrial globes joined the statuary and paintings. Music boxes and musical clocks were purchased. Even tea caddies and work boxes might be made of rare woods or inlaid with tortoiseshell or ivory. Felbrigg Hall has commodes and desks of Boule ware, their surfaces inlaid with complex patterns in brass and tortoiseshell.

Even feathers were pressed into use to add additional decorative lustre:

The birds put forth their every hue
To dress a room for Montagu[4]
The peacock sends his heavenly dies
His rainbow and his starry eyes,
The pheasant plumes which round unfold
His mantling neck with downy gold,
The cock his arched tails azure show,
And river blanched the swan his snow—
All tribes besides of Indian name
That glossy shine or vivid flame.

(Cowper)

Counting the Cost

The whole cost could be immense, and not just for the peerage and the ultra-rich. Mr Freeman, owner of a fairly modest house at Fawley Court in Oxfordshire, was said to have spent £8,000.00 just on interior adornment (around two million in today’s money).

If today we worry about the vast gulf between the lifestyles of the rich and poor, we should perhaps remember that it has probably always been so. What today is offered to everyone to enjoy by public museums and charitable bodies like The National Trust, was once the ‘bling’ used by the privileged and wealthy ‘haves’ to show off to one another, and proclaim their distance from the wretched ‘have nots’, who laboured to support their extravagance.

Nothing much has changed.


  1. A character lampooned in Juvenal’s Satires of the 1st century AD.  ↩
  2. The architect Thomas Ripley.  ↩
  3. It was called this, not from confusion about its country of origin, but because it was supplied by The East India Company.  ↩
  4. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.  ↩

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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