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House and home: physical and emotional comfort in the country house, England and Sweden c.1680-1820

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

Physical comfort and emotional well-being are common expectations across 21st-century Europe, but we have limited understanding of when, how and why these norms emerged. Focusing on English and Swedish country houses c.1680-1820 this project explored comfort as a means of linking activities, social relations and material culture in the domestic domain. In early-modern times, comfort was firmly associated with emotional well being: of feeling comfortable with friends and family, and offering consolation to others. It has been argued that the meaning of comfort changed in the 18th century, emphasis increasingly being placed on physical ease and the body, most obviously in an array of technological developments, including lamps and stoves. However, it is clear that the emotional aspects of comfort were not lost. Earlier studies have demonstrated the importance of feeling 'at home' and how this was linked to particular material objects that had emotional significance for their owners, and to ideas of privacy.

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.
The project involved identifying, reading and analysing a wide range of printed sources (e.g. architectural treatises and novels), ego documents (letters and journals) and more quantitative material (account books, bills, inventories). These were sampled across England and Sweden, covered over 20 houses (e.g. Canons Ashby and Stola – Figs 1 & 2), and incorporated thousands of separate documents. Some printed sources (e.g. dictionaries and novels) were analysed via key-word searches, but both these and ego documents were also subjected to close reading.

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: [1] 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); [2] highlighted that attitudes to comfort were remarkably similar in England and Sweden, despite differences in climate, culture, etc.; [3] 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; [4] 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; [5] 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.
The research is innovative in its contribution to our understanding of important aspects of European society and culture. In focusing on comfort, it builds on and significantly extends previous research, offering new perspectives on the country house, domestic material culture and relationships, and individual/social identity. By bridging the conceptual and analytical separation of physical and emotional comfort, we can challenge the emphasis often placed on physical ease and the materiality of comfort. People wanted to live in houses that were warm and well lit, but were more concerned with their emotional well-being. This leads us to reconceive social and spatial practices within the country house and to rethink our understanding of these key icons in the cultural heritage of European regions, away from being statements of power and towards being lived environments. Linked to this, we go beyond current thinking about the primacy of technological innovation in generating a sense of comfort and emphasise instead the importance of assemblages of objects and their functional and spatial inter-linkages.

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.
Figure 2. Stola Herrgard
Figure 3. Claes Ekeblad and his wife Brita at home at Stola Herrgard
Figure 1. Canons Ashby House