Stobart, J. and Rothery, M. (2011) Rearranging the furniture: fashion, status and personal preference at Stoneleigh Abbey, c.1730-1800. Invited Presentation presented to: Design History Society (DHS) Seminar: Country Houses Then and Now: Formation Patronage and Interpretation, University of Wolverhampton, 06 June 2011.
The material culture of the country house has long been both an object of fascination for visitors to the country house and the subject analysis for academics seeking to understand elite culture and, more occasionally, consumption practices. The country house and its contents are often seen as being governed by widely accepted and normative systems of taste. These have been variously interpreted in terms of conspicuous consumption, the pursuit of luxury, fashion or novelty, or a response to broadening cultural horizons and an opening up of a world of goods. From such perspectives, we can see the country house as a vehicle for the display of status; one which was constantly updated to reflect changing tastes. In this paper, I want to draw on a large collection of bills and receipts, together with a number of inventories from Stoneleigh Abbey, in order to explore and challenge these interpretations. There is plenty of evidence that the Leighs were engaged in fashionable consumption and that Stoneleigh Abbey reflected shifts in taste. However, it is also clear that the impact of changing taste was felt more keenly in some parts of the house than others: goods were moved around as new items were introduced, but the transformation, even of the main public rooms, was rarely complete. At the same time, the dictates of fashion were moderated by a specific aristocratic culture of consumption. This is sometimes seen in terms of an emphasis on dynastic spending or the collection of art or antiquities; it is also manifest in a desire to imprint familial identity on and through material objects. Perhaps most important – and most often neglected – was the way in which personal preferences cut across these general trends. The importance of the individual can be traced over three generations of the Leigh family as they chose different goods and rearranged the furniture to reflect their own taste and character