Stobart, J. (2010) Luxury and country house sales in England c.1750-1830. Paper presented to: Recycling Luxury and Waste in the Long 18th Century: the Afterlife of Used Things in Britain and France, Paris, France, 22-23 June 2010.
The country house is often seen as a key site for the consumption of luxury goods: a place where no expense was spared to make a very public statement of the wealth, taste and connoisseurship of the owner. Today the resulting material culture of the country house often seems permanent – a priceless collection uniquely associated with a particular place – yet the reality was very different, with the nature and arrangement of furniture, etc. being in constant flux. New goods came into the house as fashion or fortune dictated, whilst others were removed, sometimes to less public rooms; sometimes altogether. One key mechanism by which luxury goods, amongst others, left the country house was via public auction, which normally took place at the house itself. Indeed, whilst the tradition of strict settlement limited the ability to sell landed estates, the contents of the house were an important asset which could be realised to meet debts or finance redevelopment or refurbishment of the property. In this paper, I draw on a sample of house sales held in the English Midlands during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to explore this means of recycling luxury goods. I begin by examining the identity of those selling off the contents of their houses and the circumstances under which they came to be disposing of assets in this way. Building on this, I focus on the nature of luxury goods being sold and the ways in which they are promoted. Here, the language used to describe the goods is particularly revealing of contemporary attitudes to and constructions of luxury, and tells us much about the character and communication of luxury as an idea. I then turn to the question of absence: what luxury goods are missing from the sales, and what does this tell us about the changing relationship between luxury and elite identity.