Swallowfield Park, Berkshire is an archetypal English country house. Yet the evolving biography of this family seat, like the history of so many quintessentially ‘English’ country houses, was also fundamentally shaped by its entanglement with a wider British colonial world.
This particular case study is intended to answer one of the main questions of the project – what processes shaped the formation of the country house over time? Or put simply, how did individuals and families learn to furnish a country house in an imperial context? What were the forces that drove them to purchase landed estates, and how did they deploy these new homes to capitalise upon their new, imperial sources of wealth?
In what follows, we situate Swallowfield within a broad imperial context by tracing the estate’s acquisition and transformation in the late Georgian and early Victorian periods. Purchased by Sir Henry Russell, first baronet (1751-1836) in the 1820s, Swallowfield was recreated in the following decades by its new proprietor’s eldest son, Henry (later the second baronet; 1783-1852). Both father and son derived their great wealth from fortunes made in India. The Russells’ purchase and refurbishment of Swallowfield attest to the crucial role of Britain’s empire in shaping country house history.
CASE STUDY SECTIONS
Swallowfield Park began life as a Tudor mansion, but in 1689-91 Henry Hyde, second Earl of Clarendon rebuilt and transformed it. Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt then purchased the house in the eighteenth century and Swallowfield began its relationship with the East India Company. Over a century later the Russell family bought the estate, renovating and reimagining it yet again.
The Russell family purchased Swallowfield Park, Berkshire in the 1820s. By 1824-6 they had begun to renovate the house. This section gives an overview of who the Russells were.
Contemporary culture presented nabobs, that is East India Company employees who returned from India with conspicuous fortunes, as self-serving individuals. In contrast the Russell family’s purchase of Swallowfield demonstrates how East India Company men (and women) returning from India worked collaboratively with their families to (re)construct their place in British society.
By the time the Russells came to renovate Swallowfield Park in 1824-6 they were already experienced in how to furnish an extensive residence. Sir Henry Russell’s house at Calcutta, Henry and Charles’s renovation of the Hyderabad Residency and Henry and Clotilde’s residence in a rented English estate, Sutton Park, first taught them about the intricacies of furnishing elite Georgian interiors.
With so much experience to guide them, what did the Russells include in their new country house Swallowfield Park? Decisions about mantlepieces, wall paper and counter-panes involved lengthy discussions between different members of the family. They also relied on a strategy they had developed a decade earlier in India – the strategic commissioning, gifting and placement of portraits. Portraits and pictures allowed the Russell family to make claims about their family’s connections, its taste and its history.
Swallowfield Bibliography – for more information on the works cited and referenced in this case study.
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The text and research for this case study was primarily authored by Professor Margot Finn.