Chapter VIII

The English Staircase.

T cannot be insisted upon too frequently, that only a fashion is responsible for a development of type, and production in quantity is necessary for the inauguration of a fashion. Furniture becomes stereotyped, in what we know as styles, in direct ratio to its quantitative production. Houses are single units, as a rule, and vary accordingly. It is only when they are built in the mass, as in rows or terraces, that the one is a direct copy of others. We have similarity, therefore, in many of the large houses of a certain period, especially in details, but rarely identity. Panellings of rooms multiply in the proportion of the number of principal rooms to the house itself, and when we come to furniture for these rooms, we get ever-recurring types of tabks, ■chairs and the like, and, with production in quantity, we reach a fashion, and with it what is known as a defined style.

Development in woodwork and furniture proceeds along two main lines ; of utility and of decorative value. Thus a writing-table fulfils one function, whereas an occasional table, as its name implies, has many uses. In tracing the evolution of the English staircase, which, apart from its decorative qualities, has one function only, space considerations forbid more than an illustrated description of its rise, in size and importance. Staircases are, from their special character, few in number, compared with other woodwork of the house, and, therefore, do not attain to a distinct type in the really important examples. Xo two being identical, as a general rule, it would be necessary, in order to show a progression of design,--if such really existed, which is doubtful, — to illustrate every staircase in the important houses of Great Britain.

It is possible, however, even in the limited space available here, to give a general idea of the rise in importance of the English staircase, and to describe, briefly, the factors which dictated its development in this direction.

The early domestic staircase is purely utilitarian, a method of access to a floor above from the one below. In many of the Norman dwellings, as in Boothby Pagnell and Little Wenham Hall, the stair is outside the house, totally unprotected from the weather other than by a crude pent-roof. In houses and castles built for defence, the stairway, <of stone, is never conspicuous, being generally concealed in a separate turret, in the

same way as the tower stairs are in many parish churches, which lead to the belfry, and above, to the roof of the tower.

Stairs of this kind are nearly always of the central newel or vise description, and before the method of supporting the staircase by means of risers, cantilevered from, and wedged into a wall-plate with carriages and outside strings, was devised, the spiral or central-newel stair was usual in dwelling-houses, even of the superior kind. A very characteristic example exists at Hales Place, Tenterden, Kent, where the treads and risers are fixed into a central newel, which is, actually, the trunk of a tree, fixed into the ground, and reaching from floor to roof. In Wales, even at the present day, houses exist which have been built round a growing tree, into which the stairs have been housed. These staircases have, from their central position, a prominence which was not intentional, but merely accidental.

The early Tudor house, with its Great Hall, of roof height, was effectually divided into two parts, and two, if not more staircases were required for access to the upper floors. At Parnham Park there are two, very inconspicuous in character, one of which rises to a mezzanine floor, which does not exist at the other end of the Hall. It is only when the Great Hall dwindles in size, and especially in height, that the one principal stair serves for the house, and begins to assume an importance which it had, hitherto, not possessed.

The entrance door at Little Wolford, Fig. 239, opens to the passage dividing the Great Hall from the buttery and servants' regions, the " skreens " as it is termed. The stone newel stair is shown in Fig. 240. At Breccles, Fig. 241, the staircase illustrated here (one of several in the house) is of oak, the risers being fixed into the wall at one end, and into the oak newel-post at the other.

The stability of staircases appears to have troubled the mediceval builder for many years. The main stairs at Breccles, as at Great Chalfield, have treads and risers supported on walls or framings at either end. Chequers Court has also a staircase of this kind. At Durham Castle the newels are very high, reachirg from floor to floor, acting as direct supports to the stair. In the early independent staircases, the outside strings are always needlessly massive, as at the Charterhouse, Chilham and Tissirgton. The problem was sometimes solved In a supporting spandrel, with posts, on the outside of the stair, as at Chequers. It is only towards the end of the seventeenth century that staircases begin to be constructed with open soffits underneath and with light strings. That the necessary strength in riser, string and carriage was provided, is shown by the fact that they have persisted with little or no sag away from the

Fig. 239.

LITTLE WOLFORD MANOR, WARWICKSHIRE

The Screen frBji the Main Entrance Door. Mid-sixteenth century.

Little Wolford Manor

Fig. 240v

LITTLE WOLFORD MANOR, WARWICKSHIRE.

The Stone Central-Xewel Stairway.

Fig. 240v

LITTLE WOLFORD MANOR, WARWICKSHIRE.

The Stone Central-Xewel Stairway.

side walls, even although, at this date, the newel-post had become almost purely ornamental.

Beachampton Farm, Fig. 242, has a typical, if somewhat ornate, example of an oak staircase of the first years of the seventeenth century. The newels are massive, with large handrail and string, all supported by heavy posts and beams, with the strings of the long flights resting on retaining walls. One of the heraldic newel finials is given in Fig. 243. That this staircase is original to the small and decayed manor house in which it is in at present, is very doubtful. The shield, which the lion holds, has the roval device of a crowned Tudor rose. The staircase is also not complete ; it is patch-worked into another of simpler and slighter character. There are numerous instances of this transplanting of staircases from larger houses to dwellings of lesser importance. One exists, at Little Hawken-bury Farm, near Pembury, in Kent, which is, obviously, disproportionate to the house

Wolford Manor
Fig 241. BRECCLES HALL, NORFOLK.

Oak Newel Staircase, ilid-sixteer.th century.

it is in. \\ ith the demolition of large houses, where stones, bricks, lead and the like would be treated merely as materials, elaborate staircases of this kind were preserved, as a rule, in their integrity, removed and reflxed in as nearly a complete and original state as possible. Lewes Town Hall has a fine staircase which was removed from a house in the town. It has been adapted to its new-habitat somewhat clumsily, with many additions and reconstructions, but sufficient remains of the original to show that it must have been a fine example of woodwork when in the house for which it was made.

Tall newel finials were the usual finish to these early-seventeenth-century staircases. At Charlton, Fig. 244, they have been replaced, with a considerable loss of dignity, by small carved pinnacles. The newels are nearly always square, with flat ornament of strapwork, sometimes interlaced and cut by the carver, and decorated with applied bosses or split balusters, as at Aston, or left in imitation of applied fretwork, as at Charlton. A feature of these early-seventeenth-century staircases is that they are nearly always contrived in a series of short flights, which implies a small staircase hall, as the flights reach from landing to wall. Even at Wolseley Hall, Fig. 253, the post-Restoration staircase has this feature of not more than about twelve treads divided by square landings. The long flight does not appear, in authentic work, until the eighteenth century. At Hemsted, Fig. 245, where the staircase dates from about 1850, and the balustrades only from the last few years, the long flights look wrong, compared with the detail of the newel, handrail and pierced panel. In a staircase hall of this size, no other arrangement is possible, but in a house of the seventeenth century, this hall would have been smaller and the long flights avoided. The stair at Hemsted from first to second floors, Fig. 246, illustrates this method of breaking up by frequent landings much better than the great staircase. With the seventeenth-century stairs, landings do not always imply turnings ; it is not unusual to find a long flight broken up by landings and newels in the one line, but, as a rule, the newel-posts are continued to the floor, and the spaces between, below the string, filled with a panelled spandrel.

Were it possible to illustrate staircases in great numbers, it might be discovered that particular localities possessed their peculiar types. Unfortunately, although we can say, that in nearly eveiy house of importance, the staircase is contemporary with and original to the structure, or if the contrary be the case, such fact is known, we are not always certain that these staircases are local, either in design or make. It was customary, in the erection of many of the important houses during the seventeenth century, for wealthy owners to instruct London architects, who employed labour from

Fig. 242. BEACHAMPTON FARM.

Fig. 242. BEACHAMPTON FARM.

The Staircase. Date about 1603. 217

Fig. 243. BEACHAMPTON FARM.

Enlarged View nf the Staircase Newel

Fig. 243. BEACHAMPTON FARM.

Enlarged View nf the Staircase Newel parts of England often far removed from the] house itself. We know this to be the fact equally with Inigo Jones in the lirst half, and with Thorpe, Kent, Ware, Gibbs, Wren and others, at the other end of the seventeenth, and the early years of the eighteenth centuries. Panelling was much more frequently of local make than was the case with staircases and interior woodwork of similar character.

It is unsafe, therefore, to state, positively, that a staircase in a Lancashire house, for example, is either of the design or workmanship of the neighbourhood. Styles, in this instance, vary far more at different periods than in distinct localities, although there are, in a general way-, great differences between Midland and East Anglian staircases, and many of the later styles, when stairs become lighter in construction and more delicate in proportion, originate in the Home Counties at a date much earlier than the influence of this new manner is manifested in other districts of England.

The following examples may be taken as representative of the great house manner of their period, but, as before pointed out, it is unwise to postulate a locality of origin.

Fig. 247 is a fragment of one of the staircases formerly in the early-seventeenth-

century house of Lyme, before it was rebuilt bjT Leoni some hundred years later. It shows the richly carved and pierced panels of this date, framed between vertical moulded mullions. The newels are coarse, but vigorous, bearing signs, however, of fmial replace-21S

mcnt. The balustrade is now fitted to a short stair from the central hall to the mezzanine floor above, containing the present drawing-room. Its date is about 1603, and it may be given as an example of Cheshire woodwork.

At Thorpe Hall, Northamptonshire, the staircasc, which dates from the middle of the seventeenth century, is interesting as showing how soon constructional problems were solved. From the second to the third floors, Fig. 248, the stairs are massive, with hea\y strings and handrails strongly tenoned into large newels, in short flights to minimise any tendency to sag away from the side walls. Above, to the top landing,

Charlton House Staircase

Fig. 244. CHARLTON HOUSE, KENT.

Detail of Staircase on First Landing. Date 1612-15.

Fig. 244. CHARLTON HOUSE, KENT.

Detail of Staircase on First Landing. Date 1612-15.

HEMSTED, KENT.

The Great Staircase. The Secondary Staircase.

HEMSTED, KENT.

The Great Staircase. The Secondary Staircase.

Viscount Kothermere.

LYME PARK, CHESHIRE.

Portion of Staircase from the Early-Seventeenth-Century House.

LYME PARK, CHESHIRE.

Portion of Staircase from the Early-Seventeenth-Century House.

Capt. the Hon. Richard Legh.

Fig. 24Q, the construction is much more daring in conception, although based on the old form of a central newel-post with risers tenoned into it. The outer verge of the stair, however, is in the air, contrived with shaped strings, in a spiral form, instead of risers housed, at their other ends, into a wall. This spiral staircase is, of course, thoroughly constructional and rigid, but such departures from established precedent show that great strides had been made in the science of staircase construction at this date. Such examples as this are rare, but they show, nevertheless, the degree of skill which had been acquired at this period.

Forde Abbey, Fig. 250, has the heavy staircase of its period, with broad handrail intersecting with the cappings of large newels, heavy strings, and massive carved and

Forde Abbey Great Hall

Fig. 248. THORPE HALL, NORTHANTS.

Staircase from second to third floors. Date about 1650.

Fig. 248. THORPE HALL, NORTHANTS.

Staircase from second to third floors. Date about 1650.

pierced balustrade panels. Numbers of these line staircases can be found in many of the large houses of England of this period. At Tredegar, Figs. 251 and 252, which is a few years later in date, but hardly in style,- -the piercing of the panels is more open in character and the flights are unbroken, whereas at Forde they are divided by landings. This may have been due to exigencies of planning, however, where a greater forward distance had to be traversed to reach the same height, or, in the familiar parlance, where the stair had to be " less steep in its going." Fig. 252 shows the landing detail of this fine Tredegar staircase with its vigorous carving of the free scrolling in the panels.

At Wolselev Hall, in Staffordshire, Fig. 253, these pierced panels are replaced by

Little Wolford Manor
Fig. 249. THORPE HALL, NORTHANTS.

Central-Newel Staircase at Top Landing. Date about 1650.

Architectural Newels With Lions

Fig. 250. FORDE ABBEY, DORSETSHIRE

Beachampton Farm Staircase

Fig. 251

TREDEGAR PARK, MONMOUTH.

The Staircase.

Date about 1665. The Viscount Tredegar.

Fig. 251

TREDEGAR PARK, MONMOUTH.

The Staircase.

Date about 1665. The Viscount Tredegar.

2 g 225

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