Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 13, 2001
J. Mordaunt Crook Rise of the Nouveaux Riches: Style and Status in Victorian and Edwardian Architecture London: John Murray Publishers, 1999. 354 pp.; 118 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (0719560500)

In writing about the newly rich in Britain during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, J. Mordaunt Crook has produced a study that is fascinating for its vast and colorful cast of characters, but also frustrating for its piecemeal and anecdotal approach to such a complex social phenomenon. Crook tells us his method is “impressionistic rather than statistical” (4), as he has not intended to produce the kind of meticulous, socioeconomic study of David Cannadine’s Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Yale University Press, 1990), with which this book will inevitably be compared. Despite its title, this book does not offer a great deal in the way of coherent analysis of architecture or design, and the knotty subject of stylistic revivals that typifies this sort of “grand manner” domestic architecture in the nineteenth century is not pursued in any depth.

In his Introduction, Crook quotes the British politician and former Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who in 1845 remarked on the assimilation into British society of those who had made their fortunes in the far-flung British Empire. Crook himself speaks of an “evolving aristocracy of riches” and the “democratization of wealth”, themes that still have great resonance today, before suggesting it was during the 1880s when new money made serious inroads into the power base of those with inherited wealth and land. What is not made clear in this book, however, is the extent and nature of this social shift during the period under consideration. At every point in British history, the newly rich have joined the elite classes. The Beckford family, for example, built their fortune with plantations in Jamaica toward the end of the seventeenth century, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, had intermarried with Scottish and German aristocracy. This process is not unique to the later nineteenth century, although it may be a question of timing and scale. This assimilation process certainly accelerated at the end of the Victorian period, and, as the author points out, Edward VII was well known for his creation of baronetcies for the newly rich.

Chapter 2, devoted to a discussion of country houses, is in some ways the most problematic in the book, for it suggests patterns in the use of architectural styles, saying that the “millionaire style” was “Classical” (42) because, “the new industrial order turned its back on both the ethics and the aesthetics of Romanticism” (44). While acknowledging the problematic concept of a millionaire’s style—I think this book demonstrates that there wasn’t one—the author has defined “classical” in an extremely broad manner, encompassing everything from the French Renaissance style, to Robert Adam, to Louis XVI, to the Italianate style of the nineteenth century, with the greatest emphasis on Adam. The author slides over the question of nationality, which may have played a role in the newly rich’s choice of architectural style. Perhaps the perceived attraction of this new group to neoclassicism arose from the fact that the great period of aristocratic country-house building in England fell during the second half of the eighteenth century, when Robert Adam’s career was at its height. If a real Robert Adam country house was unavailable for purchase, then one could be commissioned. Likewise, one wonders whether some of the many German-born millionaires Crook mentions might not have felt more comfortable commissioning a house in one of the French styles discussed here, which were current in Germany during the eighteenth century. The author observes (in a sentence that demonstrates the way co-opted French phrases are sprinkled throughout the text): “The haute bourgeoisie of mid nineteenth-century Europe draped itself in the trappings of the ancien regime” (44).

The very interesting question as to why few country houses of these new millionaires “were designed by architects of the first rank, and even fewer have proved to be, art-historically speaking, of the first importance” (69), is raised in this chapter. Crook suggests siting and gardens were major concerns, and that the super-rich preferred to “play safe” (77). Still, as with many of the fascinating issues raised in this book, there are many tantalizing observations, but little in the way of deeper analysis.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are, in many ways, the core of the book. Chapter 3 offers a fascinating discussion of the building of summer houses and rustic retreats in England’s Lake District, although many of the house owners Crook considers, such as the art critic John Ruskin, represented the prosperous middle classes, rather than the plutocracy, and the discussion begins in the later eighteenth century (which is basically outside the scope of the book). Indeed, Ruskin’s ideas on the rural villa and his own house seem to dominate this chapter, with the wealthy merchants of Manchester and Liverpool receiving slighter mention. In Chapter 4, London townhouses and their owners are considered. Of the Edwardian period, Crook remarks, “there was a change of tone, a coarsening of attitudes” (161), observing that between 1890 and 1914, more than 200 new peerages, or hereditary titles, were created (162). Again, attempts at stylistic analysis of these often palatial townhouses are unsatisfactory, but the reader is given a kaleidoscopic view of the tremendously varied social mix in London during the Edwardian era.

In part of Chapter 5, the reader will find the most rewarding section of this book the discussion of the country houses built in Scotland in the later nineteenth century. The majority of them are “baronial” castles, which are amply represented in the black-and-white illustrations. Crook gives us the astonishing statistic that, by the final quarter of the nineteenth century, 70 percent of some areas in Scotland were owned by new money (224), as, “the shooting box and the fishing lodge were now potential items in every plutocrat’s portfolio” (220). Of all the passages of stylistic analysis in the book, Crook’s study of the “Scottish baronial” is the most successful, linking architecture to those sons of Scotland who enriched themselves and sought a native Scottish style in which to express their material success. Within these twenty-odd pages of Chapter 5, the author places this architectural style within its socioeconomic context, a task he identifies as his aim on page 4 of the Introduction.

Because the study of Scotland is smaller in scope, and therefore more contained and focused, the first section of Chapter 5 is rewarding to read, whereas the majority of the chapters are fragmented in nature, with images and names rushing past the reader in quick succession. Part 2 of this chapter discusses “High Society,” followed by a section on London Clubs and Yacht Clubs. There is plenty of amusing anecdote and information, but again, no deeper themes emerge. The chapter includes a brief section on the parliamentary vote of 1911, in which the power of the House of Lords was definitively curbed, before ending with “Sporting Rituals” and a “Postscript” that centers on the glamorous country-house lifestyle of Sir Philip Sassoon in the 1930s.

The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches leaves the reader with myriad glimpses of a lost, gilded era, but with scant understanding of the architecture or design of that era. The book is undeniably enjoyable to read, although it suffers from historical name-dropping. Characters come and go, flashing their vivid colors before us like exotic fish in one of the ponds in Sir Philip Sassoon’s own gardens—but the depths always remain murky and hidden.

Megan Aldrich
Sotheby’s Institute, London