Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Stairs: a Brief History

This post has largely been inspired by Simon (Miniature Enthusiast) who suggested looking into the history of stair cases through the years. I've had to do a little bit of research on this one, and it's difficult to know where to start in the history of stairs, as steps in themselves have been around for thousands of years. I have decided to focus on stairs in British homes (and some public buildings) following a similar chronology to my history of the hall.

In the early medieval period, if a house had an upper floor, it was likely to be used more for storage than living, and access was by ladder in many cases. some may have had rough wooden, or stone stairs depending on what was available locally, and what a person could afford.

Purton Green

spiral stone steps from a church tower

As the separation between the house owner's family and his servants grew, and more private rooms were created, particularly the solar, on the first floor, stairs became more important and improvements were made in construction and materials used. A separate tower or projection from the original building may have been constructed to house these new staircases.

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle

Hardwick Hall

From the Elizabethan period onwards the newel post staircase, with its framed banisters, was becoming increasingly popular in the grand houses of the wealthy, and many of these newel posts had fine carved details on them too. they became yet another symbol of status and wealth.

Blickling Hall (made symmetrical in the 18th century!)



One particularly beautiful and outstanding staircase built in the early part of the 17th century was the circular Tulip Staircase designed by Inigo Jones in the Queen's House at Greenwich. This building was one of the first  classical houses built in Britain and would have looked truly remarkable to people at the time.

Tulip Staircase, Queen's House Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones

As I mentioned in my previous blog, the staircase was often kept separate from the entrance hall in larger houses, as depicted here in a photo of Ham House in London, where you can just see the staircase through an archway beyond the hall.

The hall at Ham House

By the end of the 17th century staircases had become a very important feature in the wealthy households, and had become highly decorated, not only with carvings but often with walls and ceilings painted in the theatrical Baroque style of the period.


The hall and staircase at Hanbury Hall

another view of the stairs at Hanbury Hall

Detail of the painting on the stairs at Hanbury Hall

Rich carving and decoration at Ham House

 The staircase progressed through out the 18th century, with the heavy newel posts and banisters disappearing to be replaced by delicate banisters, this was possible due both to improvements in construction techniques and new materials like iron.

Sudbury Hall

Sudbury Hall

Sudbury Hall. Keen eyed bloggers may notice that this hall and staircase is the inspiration for the Sudbury Yellow colour that is available from Farrow and Ball, which I used in the hall and landing of my Georgian house!

Sudbury Hall in use for TV adaptation of Austin's Pride and Prejudice
Not sure where this one comes from!

Uppark House, the red door was used by servants to access 'below stairs'

The cantilevered staircase developed during the 18th century. Delicate staircases with little or no visible support, matched by decorative wrought iron balusters were perfect for the Age of Elegance!

The beautiful marquetry staircase at Claydon House

Another view of the staircase at Claydon House, showing the skylight above.
Osterley Park

Basildon Park

By the Regency the cantilevered staircase was being bent and twisted into beautiful sweeping curves, and fine materials like marble were also much in evidence too.

Carlton House

Carlton House

But not everyone followed the fashions of the 18th century, some tried to set their own trends, with some success too! Horace Walpole and William Beckford both used Gothick influences in their homes. Walpole at his home Strawberry Hill and Beckford at Fonthill Abbey. When Beckford was forced to sell his huge Gothick creation (part of which fell down shortly after due to bad construction techniques, and is now almost completely gone!) he moved to Bath, and at Lansdowne built a new, far smaller tower, in the Italianate style, a style, along the Gothic Revival, that would prove popular in the Victorian age.

The circular staircase at Beckford's Tower in Bath.

Walpole's Strawberry Hill

Detail of the staircase at Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill again

The Victorians plundered almost all the historical styles of history in their buildings. Gothic revival linked Britain's heritage with Pugin's notions of 'true' religious building styles (in a nut shell; Gothic good, classical bad and to blame for all the evils and vice in society!! a slightly polemical viewpoint I think!!)

Medieval Influence

Gothic Revival at Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras

Victorian Gothic at Tyntesfield

For the 20th century I am going to show you examples of two staircases. One designed by Charles Rennie MacKintosh, in an early example of art deco style (care should be taken when using the term art deco, it was coined not in the 1920's or 30's, but in the 1970's. The styles we associate with art deco were often referred to at the time as being 'in the modern style' or simply as modern(e)). The other staircase is from the De Le Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, in the truly streamlined modern style of the 1930's.

MacKintosh's design for the staircase at Derngate in Northampton

The staircase as it appears now.
Looking down. The staircase at the De La Warr Pavilion

A side view

The light fitting that runs down the length of the spiral staircase.

But what about the humble dwelling? what sort of staircase would they have had? Well, many cottages would have a staircase installed to the side of a fireplace, often hidden behind a door, giving it the appearance of a cupboard. Other houses would have simple wooden stairs built along a wall, much like what most houses have today.


  1. Fascinating! I LOVE this post!!!! I am interested in architecture and the history of the development of building techniques and styles.... My own experiences here in the States encompasses the New England vernacular.... old farmhouses, Colonial through Victorian to modern times... but we lack the Great Houses of Europe! The pictures you have shown are Wonderful!!!
    Thank you for this post!

  2. Andy, this is your most brilliant post, to date! Scholarly, learned, and oh so interesting! I always look forward to your posts, and even more so, now! Thank you!

  3. Andy , Andy,

    So thats what you have been up to! You have been busy researching it seems.

    Wonderful post....Such beautiful Architecture, they are works of Art all very breathtaking.....I did happen to recognise Sudbury Hall, I believe that is the moment when Elizabeth notices Darcey's portrait on a locket in the cabinet.

    The stair case has evolved beautifully, from it's very humble and practical beginnings to full scale elegance and drama.

    Thank you for taking the time to research Andy, you are a marvel.

    Hugs, Fi

    P.S I did send you that email but I fear maybe it hasn't got through. Let me know and i can post it here.

    Glad your was quiet without you...... ; )

  4. Hello Andy,
    Again, your posts are always wonderful. They are always so helpful and I think anyone who plans on amking a period dolls house, or even looking into restoring a full size house, would benefit immensle from reading your blog.
    I think staircases and libraries are my favorite "rooms" in a house. This post was great!
    Look forward to more,

  5. Hello daydreamer, I am pleased you've enjoyed looking through my new post, I studied architectural history for a while, it's something I take a keen interest in. I don't know a huge amount about American vernacular, but I do have a book on American house styles I picked up recently.

  6. Hi John, thanks again, that's very good of you to say!! pleased you have enjoyed this post!

  7. Hello Fi, not been ignoring you! see you managed to get yourself back onto your blog account! Sorry, yes i did get your email, rude of not to say so, thank you, I've been so busy what with one thing and another, am planning on doing some curtain making when the weather turns too horrid to do much else, but after Christmas, as I am usually busy cooking, baking decorating, shopping, wrapping etc in the run up to Christmas!! like everyone else! Pickling shallots at the moment!

    Anyway, pleased you've enjoyed this blog, my favourite set of stairs in the pics is tulip staircase I think, but hard to choose!

  8. Hi Giac, thanks again, I think if I was starting my house now I would certainly do something different with the staircase in my Georgian house! really admire your craftsmanship in your Victorian Manor, can't wait to see more soon!

  9. Thanks for these wonderful photos Andy! I was just working on modifying the stairs in the new house I'm working on, and have been going back and forth between many of the photos in trying to decide what look to go for.

  10. Thanks Josje, I'm pleased that you have found this post useful! I had a lot of fun looking for pictures to include, there are so many different styles of staircase to choose from.

  11. Oh don't worry Andy,

    I was just worried you would think I was rude not sending it on!

    I have been trying to decide my favourite and it has proved difficult.......

    The Tulip Staircase or De La Warr Pavillion Staircase???


  12. That was an excellent post Andy and very well researched. It's given me a lot to think about when I eventually get round to dealing with the staircase in my large house. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

  13. Hi Irene, thank you, I hope this post does help!