The Domestic End of the English Country House

At Artichoke, we spend a great deal of time resolving and detailing the domestic layouts of our client’s homes. We never even consider what a country house kitchen will look like aesthetically until we understand completely how a space works practically.

 

 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the domestic back-end of an English country house was largely managed by a team of servants who had set zones of work to operate from.  For example, the scullery maid worked in the scullery, the cook reigned supreme in the kitchen and the butler had his pantry.  The upper servants were butler, housekeeper, cook, valet, ladies maid and governess, and below them socially were footmen, housemaids, kitchen, scullery, laundry and dairy maids. Anyone who has watched Downton Abbey will have a understanding of the structure. All the domestic tasks and staff to run the house were hidden behind the green baize door, the single item of joinery that marked the divide between master and servant.

Such extravagance on staff is rare these days; we tend to cook for ourselves, use machines to wash our dishes and we generally tend to run our own lives.  This can present issues when designing new bespoke kitchens for large country houses that were once run by numerous servants.  For a start, typically the kitchen would have originally been at the back end of the house, away from the reception rooms of the house. This would minimise the risk of fire spreading to the front-end of the house, and also reduce cooking smells.  These days our clients often want their kitchens to be at the heart of their homes. This results in us often having to design the kitchen into what would once have been a ballroom or a drawing room, presenting issues such as how to get services into the room, and how to get extraction out.

 

 

When Artichoke designs it’s bespoke kitchens, we will often refer back to the ways the domestic back ends of English country houses worked, and we often separate our kitchens into the same zones originally used in great country houses; Storage, Food Preparation, Cooking, Butler’s Pantry and Scullery.  We are not advocates of the kitchen triangle which presents far too much rigidity for bespoke kitchen design and does not represent how most of our clients live.

 

Storage

On large estates, the acquisition of food had to be a well planned affair, and having a level of self sufficiency was also an advantage (although it required an army of outdoor staff to grow fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs). The meats were often the produce of sport, and caught or shot by the hands of the gentry and their friends.

It was the housekeepers job to manage the storage of these goods.  Advantage was taken of the abundance of food in the Summer, with any overage being preserved in the Still Room, a mini kitchen with two ranges on which jams, preserves, pickles, cakes and confectionery were made for afternoon teas.

 

Bespoke Somerset willow baskets with a catering standard tap in the scullery area.

 

The game larder was usually positioned on a North-East facing position to minimise heat from the sun; in many houses the walls were often hexagonal in shape to maximise wall surface to the cold air outside.  The roof often had special ventilation to minimise smells from the hanging meat, and screens on the windows keep the vermin away.  Lead lined tanks around the room would be used for meat to be wet or dry salted, allowing the game to be stored for several months.

Of course, storage of food is significantly less laborious these days, with sophisticated appliances such as Sub Zero fridges with dual compressors taking the place of air cooled storage.  At Artichoke, we will often dedicate a separate zone in the kitchen to dry larder storage, often referred to as the Pantry.

 

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The pantry above was designed into a Queen Anne house in Gloucestershire by Artichoke. We will often employ simple “estate joinery” techniques for secondary spaces like this. Click here to see more information on this project.
Food Preparation

The early domestic kitchen would have been an animated and noisy hub of the domestic back end of the house. The modern kitchen is often similar, albeit with less staff and more gadgets (and often more children!).  In large English country houses, the large kitchen table would have been the focal point and main preparation zone.  Many of the functions carried out then were the same as today; grinding chopping, mixing, beating, mincing and rolling were all undertaken by staff. These days we use islands to prepare food on and often buy in ingredients ready minced and prepared.  We also have gadgets to do the chopping and grinding for us and we also tend to entertain far less formally than we used to.

Despite the differences in equipment, the cooking process starts when raw materials are deposited at the scullery door (the Sub Zero fridge being today’s equivalent).   Regardless whether there are servants or not, food is still cleaned, stored, prepared and presented to guests.

Depending on layout, the island is now the main preparation zone in most kitchens. The key difference is that preparation tables used to be standard table height (around 760mm), while modern islands are usually around 910mm

 

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A large central preparation island sits at the help if this Artichoke kitchen. The furniture was detailed with classical Doric Greek mouldings, designed as a scaled copy of the facade of the new addition to this John Soane country house.
Cooking

Large country houses had a plethora of cooking options available to them.  In the 19th Century, roasting meats on an open fire was the preferred method of cooking.  Meat was secured on skewers that rotated slowly in-front of the fire with the juices being collected in the tray below (in which they later made Yorkshire pudding).

There was also usually a large boiler where puddings were boiled, a warming oven to keep meals hot, a stove for stockpots and a smaller hotter oven for pastry cooking.  There was also often a charcoal stove, used as a type of indoor barbeque, a task adequately replaced by the Grill (such as the one found on the Wolf Dual Fuel range below).

As a nod to the kitchens of the past, Artichoke has recently designed a large open fireplace with a spit into the kitchen of a large country estate house in Tuscany. Cooking meats on an open fire is a fantastic method of cooking if you have the available equipment.

 

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Villa Guglielmesca - room 1311 - Fireplace

 

Butler’s Pantry

The Butler’s Pantry came into fashion in the English country house in the mid to late 1800’s.  They because a staple of great English houses and were typically situated between the dining room and the kitchen.  They were used for storing china and crockery and for serving and plating up food.

The example below, designed by Artichoke for a country house, shows both sides of the room, a short passageway between the kitchen and the main dining room.

 

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Scullery

The scullery that supported large country estates was usually at the back of the house, often nearest the well or water source.  They would usually have stone floors and heavy drainage, and often the scullery floor was 150mm lower than the rooms adjacent to it to minimise risk of flooding to other rooms in the house.

The scullery maid would usually stand on slatted mats to stop their feet getting too wet, and there were usually two sinks, one for hot water and one for cold.

Sculleries were not simply for washing.  They were also used as early preparation zones, such as for cleaning mud off vegetables bought in off the estate or preparing game and fish.   They were also used for laundry.

When designing the domestic ends of English country houses, the scullery and utility rooms will often be separate.  Artichoke’s sculleries will usually be for washing up plates and kitchen pots and pans, while utility rooms will be for linen washing and storage.

 

Scullery 1(1)

 

Scullery 2
This scullery, designed by Artichoke for an Edwin Lutyens house, is used for butchery of game, washing up and crockery storage. As the house is often used to entertain many guests, stainless steel was introduced to the washing up part of the scullery zone.

 

 

 

 

Designing a Grand Kitchen Island for a Country House

This case-study shows how one such grand kitchen island has evolved from a series of simple sketches to the finished article in Artichoke’s workshop.

The kitchen island has humble origins. In the days when large houses were supported by busy kitchens teeming with staff, the oak table was the workhorse of the room.

 

The kitchen at Middleton Park. The house was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and his son Robert Lutyens in 1938 for the 9th Earl of Jersey. Not Used CL 12/07/1946
The central island in the main kitchen at Middleton Park was simply a domestic table raised off the ground on blocks

Today, most domestic kitchens are used by the home-owner and not by staff. We prepare our own food, and as a result, kitchen islands tend to look less utilitarian.

Many of Artichoke’s kitchen design commissions are for large country houses where history has played its part in shaping how the house looks and runs. Often these design commissions are from the new owners who are responsible for replacing years of lost period character. As bespoke kitchen designers, it is often our responsibility to balance their wishes for period authenticity with the practical needs of a modern home.

This case-study shows how one such kitchen island has evolved from a series of simple sketches to the finished article in Artichoke’s workshop.

The brief was to design a kitchen with a period feel that met the needs of a modern family. The house is a captivating Grade II listed house set in National Trust parkland near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, with owners keen to re-introduce some high quality period detail back into the house, as well as practical modern features like a grand kitchen island.
 

Initial Hand Sketch

Each kitchen design project evolves in different ways, but in this case, initial ideas were roughed out on paper to gauge the feasibility and to help give the client an understanding of what can be achieved.
 

Island 1

 

Island 4

 

2D Drawings

Once the concept is proven, the general intent drawings of the grand kitchen island are prepared, showing turning detail, period moulding detail and interior layouts of the drawers. At this stage we are drawing to scale.

 

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3D Renders

Artichoke’s design team often deploys CGI (Computer Generated Images) to explore how kitchen furniture works with the rest of the room and the architecture. The studies below show the grand kitchen island carved in oak at the centre alongside other decorative items. CGI can be extremely useful in helping clients understand how design impacts their space.

 

Blackhurst - View 4

 

Blackhurst - View 7

 

Production Engineering

Once the kitchen island design is approved by the client, our cabinet makers will make the piece in digital form first using a software package that will also calculate bills of materials, quantities of components weight of parts etc. We make every piece virtually in this way. It ensures all potential problems are ironed out before we purchase materials, and it improves efficiency for the client.

 

Island b

 

Island d
There are 141 individual hand made component parts in this grand kitchen island.
Each is bespoke, made from the original raw materials (European Oak)
Production

Artichoke makes the finest quality kitchens that are robust enough to last for many years. To make kitchens of this quality requires the component parts to be jointed traditionally using craft base skills that have stood the test of time.

In the case of this grand kitchen island, the rail is jointed to the turned legs using dovetail joints and mortice and tenons. These traditional joints take time to make and will be unseen by the client, so some would argue that they are unnecessary. However, we know that these methods are a mark of quality and will far outlast mechanical fixings, so it’s important to include such details in the design of such a substantial piece of furniture as a grand kitchen island. We know they will never fail.

 

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Dovetail joint
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Mortice and tenon joints
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A specially designed jig with leather protective padding clamps the rail to the leg
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Dovetailed drawers
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Artichoke cabinet maker Craig putting final adjustments to one of the island drawers
Finishing

The final phase is the finishing, and in this case the finish required is mid to late 19th century. Our Head of Finishing, Rob, used to be a well known antique restorer and has incredible skill for turning new oak into old. Like most professionals, Rob keeps his recipes a closely guarded secret.
 
To view the finished project and see how the grand kitchen island turned out, follow this link

 

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24 February 2016: Project being installed.

 

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