Stobart, J. (2011) Elite consumption in eighteenth-century England: fashion, status and personal preference. Invited Keynote presented to: Consumption and Standards of Living Since the Eighteenth Century: Economic History, Social History, Cultural History, University of Huddersfield, 13 September 2011.
Consumption lies at the heart of modern economies and societies: it drives the production of goods and services, offers a measure of economic well-being and does much to define us socially and as individuals. In the recent surge of interest in consumption amongst historians, the elite have been painted as the fashion leaders of their day. They were conspicuous consumers whose tastes were copied and emulated by others – for Kate Middleton, read the Duchess of Devonshire. My research on eighteenth-century provincial elites confirms the importance of taste and fashion as key drivers in elite consumption, but shows that it was also constrained by income and mediated by the friction of existing material culture – it is worth remembering that new goods did not always replace older ones. Moreover, consumption was then, as it is now, a reflection of personal preferences. These findings have important implications for how we understand consumption as a process (of disposal, retention and acquisition) and how we ourselves consume eighteenth-century elite culture in our visits to country houses. The motivations underpinning consumption are complex. Ideas of emulation (keeping up with the Joneses) are attractive in their simplicity, especially when material goods are increasingly available in a range of types of qualities – as they were in eighteenth-century England. However, whilst elites may have formed an ideal for the aspirational consumption practices of lower social groups (and it is debatable how true this really was) they had their own distinct consumer culture. This drew on fashion as a mechanism for social distinction, but was defined by its emphasis on the symbols of status and inheritance: antiquities and art, engraved silverware, coaches and liveried servants, and above all the country house itself. This much is fairly familiar and fits with our often bi-polar image of eighteenth-century landowners as feckless spendthrifts or men of taste and vision. What my research shows is that, far from being reckless in their spending, the provincial elite generally lived within their (often substantial) means. Some, like Sir Roger Newdigate of Arbury Hall in Warwickshire, spread spending on building projects over several decades. On other occasions, the heavy spending of one generation was countered by the prudent investment of the next, as was the case with the Ishams of Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. Everywhere that money was spent on bringing in new goods, they needed to be accommodated within the existing material culture of the house. Complete refurbishments were rare and generally affected only some rooms. For instance, at Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire the fifth Lord Leigh transformed his dining room and breakfast room with an array of mahogany furniture and fashionable landscapes of Rome and Venice, yet kept his drawing room and best parlour much as his grandfather had left them thirty years earlier. This retention of older pieces occurred long before there was a taste for antique furniture and reflects the importance of heritance and pedigree to the elite. However, not all of the elite shared the same priorities when deciding how to spend their money. The Leigh family demonstrate just how different elite consumers could be: the third Lord Leigh was inspired by his Grand Tour to build a massive extension to Stoneleigh Abbey; the fourth Lord was more interested in hunting, racing and his own equipage; and the fifth spent thousands of pounds on books and scientific equipment. The importance of this research is twofold. Firstly, it reveals the complexity of consumer behaviour and motivations: shaped by wealth and social status, but also self-image, education and personal preference. Secondly, it reminds us that country houses comprise a layering of goods acquired over the generations: they reflect choices about what to dispose of as well as what to acquire