All houses have some rooms that are more important than others – a living room is more important than a third bedroom, for example. In Georgian houses the ranking of rooms into orders of importance was particularly marked and it is vital that this concept is understood when restoring or repairing a Georgian house. It will not do to select something and apply it everywhere, that was not the Georgian way. Most obviously the hierarchy is seen in the height of the rooms and the windows facing the street, the most important floor being the first floor, the next the ground floor, and so on.
The discovery of an unusually complete set of decorative details in a London townhouse highlights how a hierarchical ordering ran through every part of a house – every chimneypiece was different; different floors had different cornices, doors and architraves, dado rails and skirtings. But then within each floor further distinctions were made by the degree of elaboration of the decorative elements and the arrangement of the rooms themselves.
The house was built in 1773. Its plan is the ubiquitous “London plan” – a large room at the front (facing the street) and a smaller room with the stairs beside it at the back. The arrangement of such houses is so common and so well-known that one can with confidence assign the original function) to every room on each floor.
The first floor front room, the Drawing Room , is the largest room in the house with the tallest ceiling height. It is the grandest room, the pinnacle of the hierarchy. In the 18th or 19th century, guests invited to 13 Ely Place would arrive at the front door and be admitted into the Hall and Stairs; from there they would ascend to the first floor (the piano nobile) and the Drawing Room.
For dinner, the guests would go back downstairs to the Dining Room on the ground floor. After dinner every one would withdraw to the Drawing Room – the ladies first followed sometime later by the gentlemen – where the remainder of the evening would be spent. The guests would spend longer in the Drawing Room than they would in the Dining Room.
Front Drawing Room (1st Fl)
Dining Room (Gnd Fl)
Hall and Stairs (Gnd & 1st Fl)
Back Drawing Room (1st Fl)
Ante Room (Gnd Fl)
Chamber 1, front (2nd Fl)
Chamber 2, back (2nd Fl)
Upper Stairs (2nd & 3rd Fl)
Chamber 3, front (3rd Fl)
Chamber 4, back (3rd Fl)
Chamber 5, front side (3rd Fl)
Other basement rooms
The Back Drawing Room may be next to and associated with the Front Drawing Room but that does not give it second place in the hierarchy – that slot is for the Dining Room.
The Dining Room still retains its buffet recess – an elaborate architectural composition, designed to accommodate the sideboard (or buffet) from which diners would be served (here a later door has been inserted at the back of the recess).
Both the Front Drawing Room and the Dining Room have chimneypieces with a central carved cartouche. But that in the Back Drawing Room, although its chimneypiece is quite fine it lacks a carved cartouche.
In the Front Drawing Room every wall is arranged symmetrically. In the Dining Room three of the four walls are arranged symmetrically, the odd one out being that with the door into the room. The Back Drawing Room on the other hand has only one symmetrical wall – that with the window.
Of course not every element in each room is different, that would produce a somewhat, unconnected interior. Typically the doors, architraves and skirtings on each floor are alike (and sometimes also the ceiling cornices) but within this discipline subtleties are introduced according to status. For example, on the ground and first floors the doors (which are otherwise identical) have additional, margin panel mouldings on the sides facing the most high status rooms – the Front Drawing Room, the Dining Room and the Hall and Stairs – but not on the sides facing those of slightly lesser status – the Back Drawing Room and the Ante Room.
As a general rule the more detail a feature contains the higher its status, because, of course, more detail means more work and more work means higher cost. An eloquent example is provided by the dado rails. On the second floor the dado-rails are just a plain moulded section produced by running a moulding plane over the timber. In more important spaces the work is taken a step further, having run the basic mouldings the sections are given additional detail by hand carving. On the ground floor the Dining Room dado-rail has a simple Greek key pattern, whereas the lower status Ante Room has an abbreviated dentil pattern – a related design but one requiring slightly less hand work. On the first floor, The Back Drawing Room has a guilloche pattern and the Front, flutes and paterae. On the face of it, the higher status Front Drawing Room has a dado-rail no richer then that in the Back, but it requires more hand work! The paterae are evenly spaced, positioned set distances around corners and arranged symmetrically – in addition to the hand work of carving it requires setting-out and positioning – the carving is not run out and mitred at the corners, it is made to specific dimensions.
Curiously, hierarchy appears to have extended beyond size, symmetry and detail to the structure. The floor construction, in common with most Georgian buildings, comprises a system of primary beams and secondary joists. The beams are installed diagonally (which is sometimes found) however the ground and first floors have huge beams running the length of the house, each over 11.5m long and weighing more than 650kg. Why were such unwieldly beams used when, as demonstrated by the upper floors, shorter lighter beams spanning the width of the house are just as good? The ground and first floor structures allow the floorboards to run parallel to the faces of the fireplaces. Somehow this feels more satisfactory than the floorboards running into the fireplaces – the arrangement on the other, lower-status floors. Surely this is the explanation.
The hierarchy within a Georgian house is more complex than a differentiation between the rooms seen by guests and those used by the family, it runs through everything. Clearly cost played a part but it was not as simple as spending the most on the most important parts and saving elsewhere: hierarchy mattered and it mattered because of the instinctive Georgian adherence to the principles of Classicism. In a tradition extending back to Vitruvius in the first century BC the principle of “decorum” – style and decoration appropriate for a particular function and status – was followed. The result is the variety and harmony within a certain uniformity that is the prized quality of Georgian architecture.