Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HAHPEC (House and home: physical and emotional comfort in the country house, England and Sweden c.1680-1820)
Reporting period: 2015-10-01 to 2017-09-30
Building on this literature, the aim of the project was to explore the shifting character and importance of comfort within the country house, drawing together ideas of physical ease and emotional well being. To this end, it sought to:
• Evaluate the link between emotional and physical comfort.
• Assess the impact of different cultures, climates and economies on perceptions and practices of comfort.
• Examine the role of gender in shaping perspectives and practices relating to comfort.
• Assess the importance of different senses in affording comfort.
• Explore the changing materiality of physical and emotional comfort.
• Gain a better understanding of the idea of discomfort.
In addition to these scientific objectives, the project also:
• Links cutting-edge research to the heritage industry and the public. It aimed to enhance appreciation of these key elements of European cultural heritage, offering new ways of understanding the social and material construction of country houses.
• Heightens awareness of the historical differences and connections between different European regions.
This archival work has produced a series of findings about changing attitudes to and manifestations of comfort in 18th-century England and Sweden. To summarise, our research has:  confirmed the growing importance placed on bodily comfort, with warmth being the key priority expressed in letters and diaries. But it has also revealed that emotional comfort remained the primary concern: objects were important, but people and relationships were even more so (Fig 3);  highlighted that attitudes to comfort were remarkably similar in England and Sweden, despite differences in climate, culture, etc.;  verified the key role played by new technology, but situated this in the assemblage of goods required to make these technologies effective – e.g. a fire needed to be accompanied by hearth rugs, fire screens, carpets and curtains to make a room truly comfortable;  underscored the importance of gender in shaping attitudes to comfort, but nuanced this with findings that challenge archetypes: e.g. men jut as much as women valued the comfort of family and friends;  demonstrated that all the senses were important in feeling comfortable, but that this did not necessarily mean an emphasis on bodily comfort: touch might come in the warmth of a fire, but also the embrace of a wife. These findings have been communicated through conference papers, publications and case studies available via the project website (https://comfortinthecountryhouse.org/).
Heritage professionals were engaged in the research process by drawing on curatorial assistance to analyse material objects and understand the ways in which they contributed to comfort in the home. Those at selected houses were also consulted over the design and production of the exhibitions they host. These exhibitions are central to our public engagement, but this is also achieved through a programme of public talks and via our website. Links with a broader set of UK heritage professionals were established through the project conference, which also brought together academics from across western Europe. The project thus created deep relationships with professionals at selected houses and a new network of academics and professionals with a shared interest in comfort and the home.
Our research moves forward debates on gender identities and roles within the construction of domestic environments, challenging the assumption that this was essentially a female concern and that it was primarily women who expressed emotional attachment to possessions. It also offers an exemplar of the benefits of comparative analysis, not only revealing shared European attitudes, values and practices, but also throwing the particularities of place and nation into sharper relief.
The research has the potential for substantial impact beyond the scientific community. Rethinking how we understand the country house should lead to a similar reappraisal of how they are interpreted for and presented to the public. Despite recent attempts to animate the country house through live interpreters and people-centred narratives, visitors would benefit hugely from a fuller picture of how people felt and behaved, and how they related to each other and to the spaces around them. As one visitor to our exhibition at Stola put it, they ‘enjoyed meeting real people’. Comfort has incredible potential in this regard, since we share the concerns of house owners for a place that is warm and chairs that are comfy, but also for privacy and convenience, and above all for the emotional support of family and friends.