Suburban Villas in Eighteenth-Century London: Forms, Functions and Networks
Manchester Metropolitan University
Principal MMU: Prof Jon Stobart
EH: Jonathan Spangler
EH: Andrew Hann
Suburban villas were integral to aristocratic lifestyles and the socio-spatial development of London in the eighteenth century and beyond. As Gerhold (2009) has demonstrated, there were scores arranged in a broad if uneven ring around the capital, owned by a wide range of aristocratic, genteel and mercantile families. A handful have received scholarly attention, mostly because of the fame of their owners (e.g. Strawberry Hill, Chiswick and Marble Hill, Bryant, 1986; Whittaker, 2018). Most remain under-researched, their histories and communities obscured by their more prominent siblings: country houses. The latter have been the subject of considerable interest from social historians who have built on Girouard’s (1978) pioneering study to explore their complex social and political functions, and how they were shaped by processes and practices of consumption and by links to empire and the world of goods (Arnold, 1998; Stobart and Rothery, 2016; Finn and Smith, 2017). As a result, we have an increasingly rich and nuanced understanding of the country house as a lived space linked to its locality and the wider world. In contrast, the villa is overlooked or viewed in traditional terms: as an architectural form or an essentially private space that offered a retreat from public life (see Gerhold, 1997, 2009). As heritage sites, they have experienced a similar level of relative neglect: only the most famous (and almost by definition atypical) of London’s eighteenth-century villas are accessible to the public, making it difficult to construct cohesive narratives of the villa as a type of dwelling and to engage the public’s interest in them as buildings or as the crystalisation of a particular lifestyle.
The route to a better understanding of the complexity of London’s eighteenth-century villas is clear, yet remarkably lightly trodden: that is, to follow the lead of histories of the country house and explore the villa as a lived space. The benefits of taking such an approach are apparent from a handful of studies where something of this has been attempted: Arnold (1996) has revealed their variety of form and function; Gerhold (2009) their geography and temporal patterns of use, and Stobart (2016) the everyday experiences and priorities of an owner. Stitching these together provides a framework for exploring the suburban villa as a lived space, shaped by its varied uses (for entertaining as well as escape) and intimately bound into wider socio-spatial, economic and supply networks.
It is a blog post for the V&A, titled – Fooling the eye: Trompe l’oeil ceramics https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/fooling-the-eye-trompe-loeil-ceramics