Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Hall

                                                                    Barley Hall

In most homes today the hallway is little more than a passage way leading from the front door to selected rooms on the ground floor, and usually contains the staircase to the floor above too. There are many homes that have no hall at all, and the front door leads straight into the main reception rooms (if that doesn’t make me sound too much like an estate agent!). It wasn’t always that way, in fact, in the past the hall was the biggest and most important room in the house. In the Middle Ages it was where the household spent most of their daily lives; they ate there, and slept there, were entertained there and kept warm there. The master of the house, his family and servants ate and slept in the same room, there was little or no privacy, although status was clearly defined by the position you sat in the room when eating, the master and family at the head table, often raised on a dais, and the servants seated at benches along the side of the room. A fire was kept in the centre of the room, smoke rising to a louvered panel in the roof, the chimney and fireplace where things of the future! The fire was covered overnight to prevent fires, and you would have bedded down on little more than straw overnight. Another fire precaution was to keep the kitchens separate from the hall, often in a completely different building. Other features you might have seen in a medieval hall were the screens passage and gallery above.

                                                                     Haddon Hall

Over time the Master and his family desired more privacy, and began to withdraw from the hall and the lives of the servants. These ‘withdrawing’ rooms were where the master of the house and his family would eat and sleep, but the hall would still have been used for feasting and entertaining guests. New furniture was designed for these private rooms; beds became more common, with heavy drapes to keep out the chill of the night, supported by bedposts. Tapestries would also help keep out the draughts, as well as showing of a family's status and wealth; none of these furnishings came cheaply!

But, even as more and more private rooms were added to houses, the hall didn’t disappear. That isn’t to say that it didn’t become smaller in some cases; to make room for the new private rooms a floor was often inserted reducing the height of the hall, and creating a new first floor for the family. Another development was the fireplace and chimney, however early chimneys weren’t terribly effective and lots of smoke would still have drifted into the hall. Chimneys were expensive and were a clear status of wealth, one that could be seen from outside the house too, and large elaborate chimney stacks were added to the roof line of many grand houses, often made of brick, another expensive product!

By the end of the Tudor period the servants were being kept largely out of site in the main house, and the hall was little more than an entrance to a house, where visitors would wait. But it was still an important room when it came to status. In humble dwellings people still lived as they had for centuries before with only one or two rooms to perform daily rituals and sleep. By having a hall, as well as showing the family's ancestral heritage, a person was showing that they could afford the space for a room that had no real function anymore, and that they were certainly not forced to live in one room. Keeping visitors waiting in the hall meant it was a good place to show off your wealth and power too, fine woods and marble replaced stone and plaster in the decoration, fireplaces got grander and other treasures could be housed there too. And all the while the visitor was being kept from the family’s private rooms until invited to enter, and the further into the private rooms one was allowed the more intimate or powerful a guest one was.

                                                                      Audley End

Part 2

                                                   top: Syon House bottom: Holkham Hall

By the 18th century there was no longer any notion that the hall was a room for living in, but the entrance hall was still being incorporated in the plans for the grand classical houses of the period. Inspired by the work of Palladio and the classical architecture of ancient Rome (as well as a symbolic rejection of European Baroque) the classical style and English Palladianism became increasingly popular over the 18th and early 19th century. The entrance hall was usually on the piano nobile directly behind the temple front, with stairs on the outside of the building leading up to it. It would have been the first room your guests would have seen and was often very richly and elaborately decorated. The entrance hall’s primary function was to wow your guests. Some entrance halls were large enough to hold parties and balls. A special type of chair was designed to sit in the entrance hall, called, unsurprisingly, a hall chair! They were usually plain wood, not upholstered, and look rather uncomfortable! (see the example below). The staircase was rarely in the entrance hall, but kept separately in another part of the house, often a room beyond the entrance hall. A less grand general entrance may have been added in the ground floor of the house for the owner and his family to enter the house for day to day use, such as that at Chiswick House near London and Nostell Priory in Yorkshire.

                                             The entrance hall at  Nostell Priory, by Robert Adam

The homes of the ‘middling sort’ may not have been as grand as the large country homes of the land owners, but would still usually have had a small entrance hall, more like a passageway in most homes. In the terraced houses being built in the towns and cities of Britain with their narrow facades, the passage hall was the most practical design to give access to the rooms behind. Georgian terraced housing was classified in size and features by a rate system, first rate to forth rate. First rate were the largest with the finest features, and usually for the nobility, but it would be a mistake to assume that a third of forth rate house was bad or for the poor, they would still have been way beyond the means of many people, and probably housed merchants and people who could best be described as comfortable rather than wealthy. Third and forth rate house would both have been likely to have a staircase in the hall. You can see examples of how first, second and third rate houses compared (on the façade at least) on the main title picture of my blog! A hall was also a useful way of keeping dirt and grime of the town and city out of the living rooms of a house, confining it to the entrance, and boot scrapers started to appear outside the front door to help with this.

                                           top: Fairfax House  Bottom: Carlton House (Regancy)

By the Victorian age the staircase was in the hallway of most new terraced homes. A hall stand was a popular feature in the Victorian hall, a piece of furniture designed to hold coats, hats and umbrellas etc, with a mirror inset within it. Queen Victoria’s love of the Scottish Highlands led to a fashion for the Baronial Scottish style hall, rich with tartans and hunting trophies. A fashion for Gothic Revival brought the medieval hall back in to fashion too, a good example can be seen at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire.(though strictly speaking this is earlier than the Victorian period!). The eclectic tastes of the Victorians led to Tudor revivals too and Whitwick Manor, in Wolverhampton is a perfect example of this, complete with fancy chimney stacks on the roof and a medieval hall inside! 

                                                            Linley Sambourne House

Despite this brief revival of the hall during the 19th century, its days of importance were coming to an end. During the 20th century the hall just got smaller, and as architects became more adventurous with designs and materials the hallway was squeezed out of many houses altogether. One good example of the entrance hall in its grandest in the early 20th century would be that at Eltham Palace, full of art Deco splendour! 

                                                                Eltham Palace


  1. Andy,

    I always love your Historical posts,they are so interesting, you have so much at your door step, I wish we had more to be inspired by, at best I've had a few fleeting trips to a few parts of Europe to look at some Historical buildings.

    It had never occurred to me that the reason for the drapes around the bed was for warmth, it makes perfect sense now.

    Love it, can't wait for part 2

    Hugs, Fi

  2. Hello Andy,
    I love posts like these. They are the best way to get ideas going and inspire new mini projects. I always look forward to your entries!
    Have a great week,

  3. Love part 2!

    It's great to see how the Hall has evolved over time. I am definitely more a Georgian/Regency type of girl, the Fairfax entrance is lovely.

    I am amazed by the 1st to 4th ratings of the Georgian Terraces, I haven't heard that that where the term second rate comes from?

    Your title picture is a great example.

    Once again Andy all very fascinating....well done.



  4. This a very timely post Andy. I'm on a bit of a "hall hunt" at the moment but I'll be drawing the line at tartan flooring!

  5. What a great post, Andy! I think some of the halls you showed have 'starred' in movies and tv productions?

  6. Ah yes, I used to take a magazine called Hammer's Halls of Horror. Halls are definitely the most important room in the house, in my opinion: a suitable place for a grand piano (or a small organ) and an umbrella stand made from antlers. I once began bidding for the stuffed head of a moose at an auction with such an atmosphere in mind, but perhaps sensibly, decided against it. Do you know the very beautiful drawing (blue chalk and ink and wash on paper) by the Belgian symbolist, Xavier Mellery (1845-1921), called "My Hallway, Light Effect", c. 1889? It is extremely atmospheric, though, in fact. little more than a moodily lit corridor - but a corridor adorned with curious and compelling art, sculpture and bas-reliefs. Perhaps I'll post it on my blog one day...

    Fonthill Abbey (alas no more) contained perhaps my ideal example - an octagon hall with a towering space above. William Beckford, whose Tower in Bath you may know, left this wonderful account of its construction:

    It's really stupendous, the spectacle here at night - the number of people at work, lit up by lads; the innumerable torches suspended everywhere, the immense and endless spaces, the gulph below; above, the gigantic spider's web of scaffolding - especially when, standing under the finished and numberless arches of the galleries, I listen to the reverberating voices in the stillness of the night, and see immense buckets of plaster and water ascending, as if they were drawn up from the bowels of a mine, amid shouts from subterranean depths, oaths from Hell itself, and chanting from Pandemonium or the synagogue...(William Beckford: "Life at Fonthill, 1807-1822" (Friday 16th September, 1808), p.71

  7. Hi Fi! yes, there are plenty of historical buildings in the UK, from many different ages, and thanks to organisations like the National Trust, we can look around some of them too.

    I think it is where the terms first rate, etc come from. Europeans didn't quite understand why we built our houses in terraces, their preference was for horizontal apartments (and still is really), but they make good sense in towns and cities here, where space is limited. The houses were usually spec. built, so builders would often just complete the front of the house, and the rest of the building followed once a person had purchased (or leased) the land, and purchasers could then chose how the house was laid out and decorated. If you're ever in Bath its worth taking a look behind the facades of the houses, because they are often quite different at the rear!

  8. Hi Giac, thank you, I am glad you enjoy these posts, the history behind architecture has interested me for a long time. Your house is looking fantastic! love the furniture!

  9. Hi Irene, Oh go on, be a devil!! tartan flooring would certainly give your hall character!! lol. pleased you've enjoyed reading this post!

  10. Hi John, think they have nearly all been used for location shoots at one time or another, some repeatedly! read in the Guardian G2 recently that US pop stars are queuing up to film their new videos in the 'riot-torn' urban areas of London too! well Britney Spears and Rhianna anyway!

    I should have added a photo of your hall to the post too!!


    Andy x

  11. dearest David,

    You wish!! you're not going to fit a grand piano in your hall, unless you cut it up first! I am also very pleased that the moose head stayed at the auction house, it would not have been given house room here!

    Fonthill's huge gothick entrance hall was certainly impressive, but a difficult space to heat I imagine, with it's 50 foot ceiling! I think Beckford would have made better use of his money by improving the lives of the exploited workers in his sugar plantations personally. But Beckford's Tower in Bath is worth taking a look at! and it is a shame Fonthill is gone!

    Did Hammer use any interesting halls as locations for their films? (and no I don't want to go and see them all!!)

  12. He,he,

    David......I trust this is partner David?

    I think you two together would make very interesting company.......

    And yes Andy, I have been to Bath but it never occurred to me to look behind the facade...we love a Terrace in melbourne too, but I guess thats not surprising given our heritage......or lack there of.

  13. Andy, dear
    Ah - I have stimulated an interest in accompanying me on locations for Hammer films. There is, indeed, a very interesting 'hall" of sorts in Oakley Court on the banks of the Thames, whither I shall whisk you on a broomstick one wild and windy day. They do a nice afternoon tea, as it's now a luxury hotel. The trouble is, it's rather gothic - and that might give you indigestion...and Moose have feelings too, you know...
    PS - I think Irene's tartan carpeting would fit well with my antler umbrella stand, don't you? Very Balmoral (or is that just Bad Morals - or even Bad Murals?)

  14. Hi Fi, I have heard that Melbourne has some lovely buildings!

    Don't mind David, he's harmless. To paraphrase a line from Absolutely Fabulous 'I hardly know him, I just felf sorry for him'!! lol.

    David, who on earth says the word 'whither'! I can think of far better places to take tea than some gloomy gothic lump you saw in one of your films! ... and moose only have feelings when they still have their heads attached to their bodies!

    I don't know why I'm even writing this, I think I will just come upstairs and slap you!!

    -love you!!

  15. You two are toooo funny!!! I'm thoroughly entertained!!!

    Andy - yes Melbourne does have some lovely buildings, the rows of Terraces I love in particular.

    When I start my blog I intend to have occasional images of Australia, perhaps I will include some images of our Terraces.

  16. So Fi, when will we start to see this blog!! ;)