Georgian Manor Houses and their role in the luxury furniture trade

Prehen House, 18th Century Irish Georgian Manor House

Post by Daisy Watson

A brief and sweeping history of the Georgian and Regency style

The Georgian era of design, the dominant style of the 18th Century, has become one of the most admired of all historical periods, defined by its consistency of character, order, logic, and elegance. It is a style that can be divided into two main groups. The earliest phase belongs to the reigns of George I and II, defining the period as the transition from the school of Sir Christopher Wren to the succeeding Palladian movement. The second phase concerns the reign of George III, the period of the Regency. The arts and architecture of this period were satisfactory in their bringing of multiple elements together to form a cohesive whole. This time, the magnitude of the Regency style captured the imagination of the public, allowing it to bleed into the mindsets of the Irish and Scottish, away from its London epicentre.

The Georgian manner encompasses an amalgam of motifs and theories, often under the influence of Italian Palladian practice and thus continuously makes reference to ancient Roman and Pompeian ornamental detail. However, the style was much more nuanced than a period that solely sought for a classic revival. Strong undercurrents of interest in the “exotic” enabled houses to explore other themes; from the French Rococo to Chinoiserie models. 

Chiswick House in the Neo-Palladian style

Whilst the Georgian era is often admired for its consistency, the transition from the early to late Georgian style shows both an embrace of extravagance and a simultaneous interest in purity. Some early Georgian mansions such as Sutton Scarsdale Hall adopted the use of the monumental Baroque style and there is a considerable amount of freedom seen in the choice of ornamentation. However, later Georgian houses adopted Egyptian, Grecian, and Chinoiserie models, allowing for the accumulation of new and exciting ideas, all that would later shape what it meant to work in the Georgian style.

Sutton Scarsdale Hall
Grand neo-classicism interior of Syon House by Robert Adam

Despite this, it could be argued the Georgian era had no single style. From Kent to Adam, the sumptuous interiors of Georgian houses were not all pastel shades of chaste simplicity. This desire for rational elegance, that is so characterisitc of the Georgian period notably contrasts to the artwork of Hogarth and his vivid scenes of debauchery and gambling excess. In many respects, the style of this period was full of contradictions in its efforts to restrain change in a period of sweeping cultural and scientific progressions across Britain. With new scientific development, the coming of industrialisation and vastly improved transportation and communication, the design of this period expresses a state of transition between the end of the Georgian era and a new awareness and fascination with the “exotic”. This refinement was underpinned by an economy founded on slavery, and thus while the style has its origins in the Neoclassicism of previous eras, the impact of colonialism generated a new mixture of influences.

Vintage engraving of showing a scene from William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress. The series shows the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift son and heir of a rich merchant, who comes to London, wastes all his money on luxurious living, prostitution and gambling

Furniture of this period was strongly influenced by Empire design in its borrowing of motifs from the ancient Greek and Roman styles. Mahogany and rosewood were favourite materials, and black finishes and gilded details were also popular. Fanciful motifs were often used and as such, the interiors of these grand houses, and their owners, fully embraced and catered to the desire for luxury goods. The trade for luxury goods flourished, from furniture to wall decorations.


Prehen House and its significance in the support of the luxury trade in Northern Ireland 

An Irish Regency giltwood and ebonised four-light girandole here at Nicholas Well’s Antiques has provenance to Prehen House in Derry and displays some of the finest craftsmanship that would have aided in the aggrandising of manor houses in the Regency period.

The A-Listed 18th Century Georgian manor house; Prehen House is situated in North Western Ireland and is considered by The Northern Ireland Tourist Board to be one of the region’s most historic houses. Its intimate and crucial link to the history of Derry maintains its status as a prominent house, not only for its historical residence, but also for its role as home to one of Ireland’s greatest love stories, or depending on interpretation, ghost story; the legend of Half Hung MacNaghten.

Thought to have been designed by Michael Priestley, a local architect, the house was built for Andrew Knox the MP for Donegal who married Honoria Tomkins, the Prehen heiress. The Knox family and other owners of manors in the region of Northern Ireland contributed to the irrefutable desire for William’s looking-glasses and other luxury furniture and interior decoration. Prehen house sees both the influence of two periods of interior and furniture design; the early Georgian and later Regency eras.

Front and side exterior of Prehen House

The manor house, comprised of two storeys over a basement is classic in its inspiration. A triangular pediment structure and acroteria rests above the front entrance portal surrounded by rusticated keystones, maintaining the architectural theories of the Georgian period. What the house’s exterior lacks in explicit displays of lavishness is expressed extravagantly in its interior. As seen in these images from Prehen House’s website page each room had been carefully designed to illuminate the owner’s erudition and prestige. From the red walls and fresco-style details of the dining room to the extravagant sitting room. The mid-Georgian style saw architects looking to Greece and Italy beyond bookish Palladianism and from studying original source examples of classical architecture. The incorporation of the classically inspired hallway, as well as an expressive use of paint colour, shows a keen interest in creating a light and playful interior. The neutral tones of the skirting board in the living room compliment the brighter expressive turquoise of the wall, and in sense enables it to become an exotic highlight of the room.

Wall decorations in Prehen House (probably dining room)
Classically inspired hallway in Prehen House

In terms of Georgian furniture, one can classify them as belonging to three sub-periods early, middle and late. The early phase began with the practice carry-over of Queen Anne where walnut continued to be used. It was the introduction of mahogany, imported from Spain and then central America that initiated a wide use of the material and its increasing popularity for its fine grain and reddish colour. Furthermore, the use of cabriole legs, ball, claw feet, and carved lion heads as well as other fanciful decorative elements became part of general furniture design practice. The influence of French Rococo can be traced to the freer and more florid use of decorations, as seen in the continuous use of floral and shell motifs throughout Prehen house. One can also note a fascination with Chinese furniture and design. Chinese urns are dotted throughout the rooms, thus showing an interest in the tastes of the 18th century and the growing demand for Chinese pieces.

Interior room in Prehen House (probably sitting room)

It is easy to see how the Irish Regency giltwood mirror would have perfectly fit into this manor house. Amongst pieces of worldly furniture, brightly decorated rooms, and classically refined ornamentation, the local looking-glass in both its intricacies and scale would have aided in beautifying any space. 

 

Interior of Prehen House, and inclusion of circular convex mirror

Illustrations:

Chiswick House, (Chiswick House and Gardens)

Sutton Scarsdale Hall, (English Heritage)

Interior of Syon House, (Walls with stories)

Hogarth Tavern, (British Library)

Prehen House website page, http://prehenhouse.com [accessed 6/02/22]

Further reading:

Curl, James Stevens. Georgian Architecture / James Stevens Curl. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1993. 

Richardson, A. E. An Introduction to Georgian Architecture. London: Art and Technics, 1949.