Researching a London House of 1604
by Deborah Swift
In A Divided Inheritance, Elspet Leviston stands to lose her family’s house and lace business to a cousin she never knew existed. It was crucial to me to have a real sense of what Elspet might lose if she failed to keep her family’s house, so the reader can empathise with that. Re-creating the dark, structured interior of the house was also vital as a contrast to what Elspet later finds in Spain when she has to pursue her cousin to hot and dusty Seville.
To recreate the house I researched the late Elizabethan and Early Jacobean style – a period much overlooked, but with its own distinct characteristics.
Elspet lives in London and her house has been in the family for generations, so it is likely that the actual fabric of the building would have been Tudor or even earlier, but with more modern furnishings. She also tells us in the novel that her father is quite reluctant to update the house – to buy new drapes or replace worn items. Westview House in the novel would be quite shabby, but with good quality furniture.
I used a real house as a model for Elspet’s home. I find it much easier to write if I have a good sense of the geography of a house and a real picture of where doors, windows and stairs would have been. I couldn’t find a suitable house in London of the right middling size, though I used the street map of the time to locate where the house would have stood. Much of this area of London was lost in the subsequent Great Fire of 1666, so it took a bit of digging and map-juggling to get the right location.
The house I chose to use as my model is Bampfylde House which is actually in Exeter, in the county Devon. However it was the period and style of a late Elizabethan house of the time, similar to a London merchant’s house. Sadly this building no longer stands, as it was destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1942. Such a catastrophe! But there is a fascinating article about its history here, along with interesting tales of when it was visited by the Duke of Bedford.
The paintings of the house, which are so evocative, were done by Robert Dymond, an antiquarian who visited it when it was still standing, in 1864. The house has a small courtyard at the front, and a larger one behind, which I make good use of in the novel for her cousin Zachary Deane’s sword practice.
Within the house, Jacobean furniture was massive, heavy and built to last. Often from oak, and built on simple lines, it is characterised by ornate carvings, and friezes of decorative designs. The picture above comes from a lovely article from Project Gutenberg which describes ‘a small Jacobean room of elegance and intimacy’. Chairs were made more comfortable with duck-down or feather cushions. Bear in mind, each cushion would have taken several plucked birds, and when cooking, the feathers of the day’s roast would have been saved for this purpose! Wall hangings of leather, damask, and tapestry covered the carved panels that kept the damp from the walls.
Shutters hung over the mullioned windows to keep in the warmth, along with drapes possibly hand-embroidered with crewel work. Here are some beautiful examples of crewel work designs from the Victoria and Albert museum. Elspet’s mother may have spent long hours embroidering items such as these, and rubbing them with lavender or sandalwood to keep off moths.
Ceilings were elaborately plastered, as in the country house Rashleigh Barton shown here – we tend to think of these as being white as they are today, since they have been restored, but in reality these would have been stained with smoke from open fires and from tobacco.
By the way, those interested in Jacobean houses might also find this article of interest – how Apethorpe Hall, a Jacobean treasure, was saved by one man.
|A Divided Inheritance.|
As a former set designer for the stage, I always love to provide a functional realistic setting for my characters. In A Divided Inheritance, I could contrast dark, rainy England with the heat and dust of Seville. At the time Seville is the busiest port in Europe during Spain’s Golden Age, full of new and exciting sights, scents and sounds. There Elspet finds a completely different lifestyle, architecture and customs. Not only that, but she finds a new physical freedom she could never have found in London.
Thank you for reading, and thank you to Mary Anne for hosting me.
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More about the Jacobean era here on the V & A website.