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Habitations of the Labourer: Improvement, Reform and the Neoclassical Cottage in Eighteenth-Century Britain

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Habitations of the Labourer by the English architect John Wood the Younger was the fi rst architectural treatise and pattern book to address the dwelling of the rural labourer: the cottage. Wood combined the order and regularity of neoclassical
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   © The Author [2010]. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society. All rights reserved. 7 Journal of Design History Vol. 23 No. 1 doi:10.1093/jdh/epp052  Habitations of the Labourer: Improvement, Reform and the Neoclassical Cottage in Eighteenth-Century Britain Daniel Maudlin Habitations of the Labourer  by the English architect John Wood the Younger was the first architectural treatise and pattern book to address the dwelling of the rural labourer: the cottage. Wood combined the order and regularity of neoclassical design with a programme of humanitarian reform, centred upon material and structural standards, within the context of agricultural improvement and Britain’s nascent rural capital economy: a regular improved cottage for a regulated improved landscape. Wood’s rational approach to social reform and cottage design distinguishes the cottages described in Habitations of the Labourer  from the irregular vernacular dwellings, material decay and rural poverty presented in the pictur- esque-cottage pattern books that dominated the late-Georgian architectural press . Keywords:  architecture — building design — cottages — neoclassical — social reform — vernacular Introduction John Wood the Younger (1728 – 81) was the son of the English neoclassical architect John Wood, architect of Queen’s Square and the Circus, Bath, and was himself the architect of the New Assembly Rooms, 1769 – 71, and the Royal Crescent, 1767 – 75, Bath. At the end of a career dominated by works in Bath and a handful of country house and church commissions in the English West Country, John Wood the Younger devoted his last architectural project to the West Country’s rural poor. Wood describes how in the genesis of Habitations of the Labourer   he had been ‘ prompted by humanity to make my talent useful to the poorest of my fellow citizens ’ : Some time back when in conversation with several gentlemen of landed property; the conversation turned on the ruinous state of the cottages of this kingdom; it was observed that these habitations of that useful and necessary rank of men, the LABOURERS, were become for the most part offensive both to decency and humanity; that the state of them and how far they might be rendered more comfortable to the poor inhabitants, was a matter worthy of the attention of every man. 1  Unlike the socially aspirational architectural pattern books for modest houses and small villas typical of the mid-to-late eighteenth century, Habitations of the Labourer   was not intended to encourage the newly affluent to build for themselves but to encourage landowners to build for others, urging them to improve the terrible state of the rural dwellings Wood had observed in the English West Country: shattered, dirty, inconvenient, miserable hovels scarcely affording shelter for beasts of the forest much less for the human species; nay it is impos-sible to describe the miserable condition of the poor cottager, of which I was too often the melancholy spectator ’ . 2     Habitations of the Labourer 8  The rural dwellings Wood observed would have been numberless, small imperma-nent structures vastly more numerous than the few extant ‘ vernacular ’ buildings that we admire and preserve in the English countryside today. Today’s extant vernacular cottages are relatively substantial buildings of higher social status than the multitude of single-room, mud and straw dwellings that much of the West Country’s rural poor occupied in the eighteenth century. Wood set out to design a new ‘ modern ’ cottage type that would redefine the term: ‘ although I should not produce a perfect work, yet, at the least, I should lead the way to some greater improvement ’ . 3  John Wood was an archetypal figure of progressive European Enlightenment think-ing and mid eighteenth-century neoclassical culture in Britain. A Series of Plans for Cottages or Habitations of the Labourer   applied these cultural dialogues to the prac-ticalities of economic agricultural reform or ‘ improvement ’ and its social conse-quences. Wood’s cottages codified a building type that was a standard component of agricultural improvement in Britain by the later eighteenth century: an exemplar of ‘ vernacular neoclassicism ’ . First published in 1781, the cottages presented in Habitations of the Labourer   are in both design and programme the antithesis of the vernacular-style cottages that dominated the architectural press following the Picturesque’s challenge to Neoclassicism in the late eighteenth century. More fun-damentally, the neoclassical concept of beauty was immutably connected to notions of virtue and morality. Therefore, cottage design was also a moral act, which Wood linked to humanitarian reform. This understanding of the relationship between art and society stood in contrast to the exclusively aesthetic picturesque observation and representation of rural poverty, including vernacular cottages. The seven principles of cottage design Wood intended that through improved design cottage life would be ‘ rendered more comfortable to the poor inhabitants ’ . 4  The term ‘ comfort ’ is of particular sig-nificance in the context of the eighteenth century because, as opposed to its spe-cifically medical meaning in the seventeenth century and earlier, ‘ the word comfort was beginning to have the modern connotation of self-conscious satisfaction be-tween one’s body and its immediate physical environment . . . humanitarian re-formers were giving new attention to concerns about lighting, heating, ventilation, privacy, ease, and hygiene in the design of the domestic environment ’ . 5  Accordingly, Wood’s idea of ‘ comfort ’ relates to the improvement of building performance, ma-terials, construction and spatial organization, for the benefit of human health. Wood formulated a set of principles for cottage design based upon the observation of the shortcomings of West Country cottages:  wet and damp   from the floors of them being sunk . . . That they were cold and cheerless   from the awkwardness of the situation of the door, win-dows, and chimney . . . That they were inconvenient   from their want of room . . . That they were unhealthy   . . . from the lowness and closeness of the rooms. 6  From these observations, Wood identified ‘ SEVEN principles upon which all cot-tages should be built ’ :  First   , The cottage should be DRY and HEALTHY . . . this is effected by keep-ing the floor sixteen or eighteen inches above the natural ground . . . [and] by having the rooms not less than eight feet high, an height that will keep them airy and healthy. Secondly   , WARM, CHEERFUL and COMFORTABLE . . . the walls should be of a sufficient thickness to keep out the cold of winter . . . the rooms  Daniel Maudlin 9 should receive the light from the east or the south . . . [whereby] they will always be warm and cheerful; so like the feelings of men in a higher sphere are those of the poor cottager, that if his habitation be warm, cheerful and comfortable, he will return to it with gladness, and abide in it with pleasure. Thirdly   , CONVENIENT, by having a porch or shed to screen the entrance . . . by having a privy for cleanliness and decency’s sake; by having a proper disposition of the windows, doors, and chimneys . . . and lastly by propor-tioning the size of the cottage to the family that is to inhabit it. Fourthly   , Cottages should not be more than TWELVE feet wide in the clear being the greatest width that it would be prudent to venture the rafters . . . without the danger of spreading the walls. Fifthly   , Cottages should always be built in PAIRS, either at a little distance the one from the other, or close adjoining so as to appear as one building that the inhabitants may be of assistance to each other in case of sickness or any other accident. Sixthly   , As a piece of ECONOMY, cottages should be built strong, and with the best materials, and these materials well put together . . . although I would by no means have these cottages fine, yet I recommend regularity, which is beauty; regularity will render them ornaments to the country, in-stead of their being as at present disagreeable objects. Seventhly   , A PIECE OF GROUND for a garden should be allotted to every cottage proportionable to its size; the cottage should be built in the vicinity of a spring of water . . . and if there be no spring let there be a well. 7  Wood’s seven principles set out the criteria for the construction of a cottage that is ‘ DRY, HEALTHY, WARM, CHEERFUL, COMFORTABLE, CONVENIENT and ECONOMICAL ’ . The seven principles respond to structural and site problems evi-dent in the West Country such as sunk floors, spreading walls and poor ventilation from small openings and poor flues. Wood does not stipulate roofing or walling materials nor whether the roof should be open to the rafters or enclosed with a ceiling. He does not recommend interior finishes such as plaster, lime wash or rough exposed walls, although the phrase ‘ by no means have these cottages fine ’ would suggest a simple lime-wash finish. Wood’s cottages are presented as a series of graduated plans: Cottages with One Room; Cottages with Two Rooms   ; Cottages with Three Rooms   ; Cottages with Four Rooms.  The number of rooms equate to family size, from ‘ a man and wife with one or two children ’ up to families of eight or more. Cottages with Two Rooms   estab-lish Wood’s cottage model: plain but well-proportioned three-bay symmetrical buildings of rectangular plan [1] . The front elevation of each cottage is composed of a central doorway flanked by two large windows. The interior space is divided into three parts: two well-lit living spaces flanking a central space, which includes a child’s sleeping recess behind a front entrance area. Gable-end fireplaces with flues and large windows would have provided good ven-tilation and light within a cottage. On the other hand, the circulation of air would certainly have reduced the warmth and cheer of the cottage in comparison with the dark and dirty but centrally heated and airtight traditional cottage. John Crowley stresses the importance Wood placed upon comfort in the overall specifications, while Michael McKeon emphasizes Wood’s careful ordering and subdivision of internal spaces. The individual rooms are not multi-functional spaces as would be found in a vernacular dwelling of similar size; each room is assigned a specific   Habitations of the Labourer 10 function (principally sleeping and cooking), separating public and private spaces and removing less hygienic functions such as sheltering livestock and disposing of human waste. 8  Significantly, work is also excluded. Wood’s universal cottage de-signs were intended for the improved landscape of a new rural economy which was in part responsible for the decline of the cottager and the cottage industry. 9  The imagined occupant was, therefore, an unskilled labourer who had to travel to work. Nonetheless, Wood’s seventh principle stipulated that each cottage should have a garden plot. This followed recommendations in the Board of Agriculture’s Annals of Agriculture   that landless labourers should be provided with a small Fig 1. ‘ Cottages with Two Rooms ’ , John Wood the Younger , A Series of Plans for Cottages or Habitations of the Labourer   , 2nd edn. 1806. Courtesy, The Winterthur Library: Printed Book and Periodical Collection.  Daniel Maudlin 11 parcel of land sufficient to grow some crops but too small to allow self-sufficiency. The intention was to keep down the costs of labour and of poor relief, an unwanted tax burden, without threatening the supply of labour or necessitating the payment of a living wage. 10   Neoclassicism, improvement and reform John Wood was a highly accomplished neoclassical architect, but, more than that, he was a man of his time. Born in 1728, his life mapped the ‘ augustan age ’ in British culture, centred upon intellectual figures such as Alexander Pope and the circle of Lord Burlington, which venerated Classical Antiquity in general and the Rome of Augustus in particular. Neoclassicism, and the idea of Rome, infected all areas of British cultural life and consumer culture. Bringing to mind Wood’s ‘ gen-tlemen of landed property ’ , Philip Ayres describes the ‘ tendency of the triumphant Whig oligarchy to blazon themselves in the symbols and paraphernalia of the clas-sical world at its liberty-loving best. For almost half a century no cause was suffi-cient to inspire a similar iconographical extravagance ’ . 11  Neoclassical art and design provided the aesthetic counterpart to the Enlightenment tenets of rational enquiry and progress, which saw practical application in the ‘ improvement ’ of Britain’s agriculture, manufactories and civic infrastructure (roads, canals, har-bours). For Wood, writing shortly before his death in 1782, Neoclassicism was unquestioningly equated with beauty, as he outlined in his sixth principle: ‘ I would by no means have these cottages fine, yet I recommend regularity, which is beauty; regularity will render them ornaments to the country ’ . A small but significant neo-classical detail is Wood’s addition of a blind window to the centre of his design for paired cottages in order to avoid a void on the central axis. Neoclassical architectural design required the strict observation of established rules of proportion that dictated the relationship between height and width in all elements of a building, from walls to windows, and the interrelationships between those elements. The eighteenth-century Builder’s Dictionary   explains this as the principle of Eurithimia  : ‘ a term of architecture used by Vitruvius by which he intends only that agreeable harmony that ought to be between, the length, breadth, and height of each room in a fabric ’ . 12  Wood’s cottages are plain rectan-gular boxes, but the composition of each cottage, the arrangement and articula-tion of the plan and elevation — windows, door and chimneystacks — is carefully controlled by a system of proportion fixed according to established scales. In the preface to Habitations of the Labourer   , Wood uses the ‘ gradation ’ of these propor- tional scales to support his argument that classical architecture is founded upon formal principles that are applicable to any type of building irrespective of its size or social station. It is a theoretical justification to ‘ turn his thoughts towards . . . the plans for cottages ’ : Considering the regular gradation between the plan of the most simple hut and that of the most superb palace; that a palace is nothing more than a cot-tage IMPROVED; and that the plan of the latter is the basis as it were of plans for the former . . . I resolved on turning my thoughts towards an object of such importance to the publick as plans for cottages appear to me to be. 13  Wood’s use of the phrase ‘ simple hut ’ is also significant. The idea of the simple or primitive hut was central to neoclassical aesthetic theory in the eighteenth century. Building upon the Enlightenment philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, eighteenth-century architectural theorists in France, notably Marc-Antoine Laugier, argued that classical architecture srcinated in a notional first or primitive hut in which man dwelt when in a State of Nature; Nature was adapted and perfected to create Architecture. 14  The idea of the ‘ simple hut provided the a priori   argument
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