Nash Villa - For an example of the stucco finish so beloved of the Regency period, look at any of the Nash Villas in Regent Park, early 1820's. As stand-alone houses, they were very rare, new, and upscale, but a similar exterior finish would have been used on all sorts of townhouses throughout the West End.
In general, the fancier, more formal, public-oriented rooms were at the front of the townhouse, with the more personal, private, cozy rooms at the back, avoiding the noise from the street. Two rooms per floor does not sound very big to use perhaps, but remember, the townhouse only had windows in front and back; limiting the layout to only two rooms allowed both spaces to have windows and natural light in an era well before electric lighting. Four rooms would have allowed the same generous natural lighting, with two rooms in front and two in back. For the Regency period, the largest townhouse I've heard about had six rooms on each floor, and this has been referred to as a grand town "mansion."
Wooden construction had been outlawed by the London building code ever since the Great Fire of 1666, when the crowded city full of ancient half-timbered houses and thatched roofs had gone up like a matchbox, so townhouses were constructed of brick. Brick, however, was not considered very attractive during the Regency. The grandest houses could be faced with Portland stone, but a similar effect could be achieved with cheaper materials. The most popular exterior was a smooth-finished, cream-colored stucco laid on over the brick, and artfully lined to imitate the look of large marble blocks.
In a culture obsessed with neoclassicism in everything from art to opera to clothing and hair styles, it is not surprising that an attractive, orderly uniformity of appearance was desired. Not every unit in the terrace had to be exactly the same, but there might be four of five designs that would be repeated on down the row. Ornamental features of the front exterior could include pilasters (flat pillars) on either side of the entrance; a triangular pediment or fan light over the door; one or more friezes; a bow window; flower boxes or miniature wrought-iron balconies at the middle row of windows. The front doors could be painted in a striking contrast color, such as blue or red. Depending on local topography, there might be a few shallow front steps to climb to reach the front door. Possible decorations could include a pineapple or sphinx motif, both traditional symbols of welcome and hospitality; potted flowers and topiaries were also popular.
Tying the whole terrace together visually was the omnipresent wrought-iron fence. The fence did not block the way to the front door; instead, it began on either side of it and formed a safe barrier around the so-called "area" in front of the building so that people walking by did not fall down the delivery/servant steps into the cellars. (Further discussion of "the area" below.) I imagine the wrought-iron fence must have also provided a certain degree of security in a city filled with "house breakers" (burglars) like our friend Billy Blade in Lady of Desire.
In London today, most of the wrought-iron fences you'll see are black, but here and there, you'll see a muted teal shade that was a popular color for wrought-iron during the Regency. Any shade of blue, green or gray would have worked for them.
Sometimes the wrought-iron fence would be worked upward into a lovely, frothy arch that one had to pass under in order to approach the front door; often, a matching wrought-iron lantern was built into the top of the arch and provided exterior lighting.
Otherwise, exterior lighting could be provided by a pair of brass or iron lanterns mounted on either side of the front door. In any case, in the nice neighborhoods where Regency terraces were newly built, most of the streets had street-lamps These were lit by oil-natural gas had only been installed on a few streets as a novelty at this point, and was generally feared by the public as being unsafe, liable to explode. You'll note from the various photos that the neighborhoods also had sidewalks; they called them "pavements."
One more aside about the exterior of the buildings. Street signs did not usually stand on poles on the corner like we have today. Instead, the street name could be painted right on the side of the corner building, well above eye-level, but I suppose they were put in an easily visible spot if you were sitting up on the driver's box of a coach trying to drive His Lordship wherever he needed to go. If the street sign was not painted, it would likely be engraved on a metal placard of brass, copper or iron, set right into the side of the building.
But back to the townhouses.
The next feature to note is the windows. Plate glass was not available until the 1830's so Regency townhouses had sash windows made up of small individual panes separated by thin glazing bars. If you're standing on the street looking at a townhouse before you, you'll notice that the window sizes don't all match.
Different stories have different shaped and sized windows. Usually, the story above the front door has the tallest windows. This is the same story that is likeliest to sport the little wrought-iron balconies discussed above. Why?
The reason (and we'll go into more detail on this when we talk about the Interior) is that the story with the tall windows also had the tallest ceilings; this was where the fanciest rooms in the house were located, such as the drawing room and music room. They were the richest, most opulent rooms in the house because these were the all-important spaces used for entertaining and impressing Society guests.
Anyway, enough on that for now. Let's go around to have a look at the back.
Suppose the coachman who we mentioned earlier was driving His Lordship home after a rough day of whist at the club. After letting his master out at the front door, the coachman would have to drive the carriage up to the "passage," a sort of narrow, little, cobblestoned driveway-tunnel between the buildings. This was often gated for privacy and security. Going through the passage, he would come out into a cobbled yard where the stable and coach-house were located, an area frequently referred to as the "mews."
A long time ago, the mews was the place where hunting falcons were housed. For some reason, the term just stuck, even though by the Regency period nobody but the royal family still kept falcons in the city. These days, many of these former stables and carriage houses have been turned into trendy private apartments.
This cobblestone courtyard came full circle with the outdoor areas associated with the kitchens, at the back of the house. Animal pens or chicken coops might be seen near the stables, as well as an ice house or even a servant privy. But all of this work-related business would be discreetly hidden away behind a tall wall so that the homeowners could enjoy their garden, also in back, without having to hear or see their grubby staff hard at work or smell the stable.
Townhouse gardens were a bit of green space for the nature-loving English to exercise their native green thumbs. Flower beds, potted plants, shrubs or flowers in neoclassical urns, benches, a little winding graveled path, statues, rose trellises, topiaries, sun-dials, and wall climbers were all popular features of town gardens.
For extra green space, the residents of a garden square also had access to the communal park in the center of the square. It was girded by the same wrought-iron fencing that surrounded the terraces and it was kept locked; residents entitled to enter the park were assigned keys. For those who have never seen one, these garden squares look like typical city parks today: lawns, trees, paths, benches, squirrels! Greenery and privacy right in the middle of the bustling city. On my last trip to London, I noticed, sadly, that in modern times many of them are also a frequent refuge for the homeless.
This is one of the hardest concepts to explain to those who have not yet visited London and seen a Regency townhouse for themselves, so please bear with me. I want all those interested to be able to get a clear mental picture of what the area is and how it functioned, because we don't have them here.
As any good construction worker can tell you, before a new neighborhood can be built, first you need adequate streets. The Regency builders also followed this caveat, since they were usually dealing with pre-existing crooked London lanes that may well have served the burgeoning populace since medieval or even Roman times. By the Regency, the Industrial Revolution had already begun to bring on a population boom.
Because the roadway was built up in front of the terrace to support busy 19th century traffic, the basement of each townhouse was sunken partly below street-level. If you can imagine what a "basement apartment" of today looks like, you've got it-there might be a high, narrow window that generally gives you a view of people's knees walking by. Thus you can see how the wrought-iron fence prevented people from falling down into the area!
The area was the entrance used by servants coming and going, and by delivery people dropping off their wares. This class of souls did not dare use the front door. That was for the Quality. If you were a worker, you had to go through the wrought-iron gate in front of the townhouse and down a steep flight of cellar-type stairs into the "area." Conversely, "the family" would probably have no occasion ever to go down there. Coming down these stairs, to your left you would see the large, stall-like, padlocked doors of the coal vaults; to your right, you would come to an ordinary looking door, the service entrance, giving access to the basement level of the townhouse. Coal vaults.
When the road was being built up, the builders frequently hollowed out coal vaults below the surface of the road in front of each unit, which the homeowner could then use as storage space. The collier could come by and drop off a delivery of coal, simply lifting a brass cover in the sidewalk, called an "eye" (like a small manhole cover) and dump the coal down the chute into the vault. This was considered a great convenience. The coal would just stay there, taken inside little by little to cook with in the kitchens or to warm the house's many fireplaces.
We are venturing into the Interior of the house here, but the realm of the servants was something separate from that of "the family" so let's continue in this vein, though it will take us indoors.
If you were, say, a fish-seller going door-to-door with the fresh catch of the day, you would go down the area steps, knock on the service door, and see if you could interest the Cook in your fish. Of course, Cook is back in the kitchen at the very back of the townhouse, basement level, so perhaps the little scullery maid who answered the door might lead you back through the basement. You would find this a small but tightly organized, efficient work space as you passed various servant offices, and gender- segregated sleeping quarters for servants that double as their dining hall when the cots/hammocks are put away.
You would also pass a large wine-cellar-firmly locked!-the scullery (dish-washing and other tedious-chore room with a couple of huge sinks), possibly a laundry room, a china pantry, and the entrance to the cramped, twisting, wooden servant stairs that run in a narrow shaft up through the core of the house. All the maids know you mustn't let these stairs creak when carrying tea up to Milady! Servants are to be as silent and invisible as possible at all times.
You would notice that the basement has a cool, rather dank flagstone floor and plain white plaster walls with rounded corners so the crowd of servants can bustle around speedily at their jobs without injuring themselves.
Nearing the back, you'd reach food storage compartments such as the meat larder and pantry, and lastly, the kitchen itself. Today the kitchen is considered the heart of the home, but for most of history, it's been a major fire hazard. To minimize the risk, the kitchen was set back as far as was feasible from the main block of the house; no surprise, then, that foreign guests complained about the food in England usually arriving at the table cold. It had a long way to travel! Some houses did have a warming compartment where the food could wait, however.
In any case, if Cook was interested in serving fish for one of dinner's numerous courses that day, you'd sell her a few choice specimens from your catch of the day, and be on your way to try your luck at the next-door neighbor's.
Meanwhile, fashionable life carried on elegantly as usual above-stairs.
Red and gold carpet over intricate parquetry border made up of a variety of fine woods. This is in the grand banqueting gallery inside Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington's home. In this room, the Iron Duke hosted an annual dinner for his fellow veterans of the Battle of Waterloo each year on the anniversary of their great victory over Napoleon.
If you came to pay an afternoon social call on the lady of the house, you would have been greeted at the front door by the butler and upon stepping inside the townhouse, would find yourself in the lobby or entrance hall of the home-what we would call a foyer.
This space was intended to make a strong first impression on the viewer, and it has been noted that the ground or main floor of the townhouse tended to have a somewhat masculine tone. Marble flooring was not uncommon in the entrance hall-practical as well as beautiful in a potentially muddy, high-traffic area. The classic pattern of black and white marble squares was popular, as were pillars that might appear to be of exotic marble, but Regency designers were not above using faux finishes to simulate expensive materials.
What rooms would you have found on the ground floor?
Certainly, one of the first rooms you'd see if you were nosy enough to peek around while the butler took your wrap was the dining room. In almost every townhouse whose floor plan I've studied, the dining room sits at the front of the house on the ground floor. The kitchen is farther back, and so the servants can get the food to the table before it gets cold, and they won't have to risk doing stairs with great platters of food.
The dining room often seems to be to the right of the entrance hall. It is one of the family's two main, public rooms where they could put real effort into impressing their guests, so the furniture and detailing will reflect the best the family can afford.
Common desirable features for dining rooms included: a finely carved, marble fireplace, pilasters with elaborate cornices, a gilded frieze, possibly more pillars, crystal wall sconces, a ceiling medallion from which hung an elaborate chandelier, mahogany furniture, silver and china on display around the room, preferably hand-painted with the family crest. Rich colors were chosen for the decor. Paint was preferred for dining room walls because fabric wall-hangings could absorb food smells. The floor was usually hardwood with a fancy parquetry border.
The back room on the ground level (remember, less formal in back) was likely to be a library, which would often double as the study or office of the man of the house.
If the family did not care to display its intellectual pursuits, there could be a morning room instead of a library. A morning room was an informal parlor similar in feel to a modern "family room," much in contrast to the fancy, formal drawing room upstairs. Morning was private time for Regency families. It was said that the fashionable world did not wake up until ten o'clock; indeed, one o'clock in the afternoon was considered the earliest possible hour for a social call and that, only for visits from one's most intimate friends. Other friends could come at two, while more formal acquaintances were welcome at three or after. By five, of course, one had to appear splendidly arrayed in Hyde Park to see and be seen, either driving one's equipage or taking an elegant promenade. Tough life!
The staircase was a focal point of the townhouse and key architectural feature that provided yet another place to make a statement about the family's status. Stairs in olden times were shallower than those built today. This allowed ease of movement for ladies in long gowns, and though I'm not convinced this is true, they say people in previous centuries were a good deal shorter than we are today, so they required shorter steps because they had shorter legs. It sounds like malarkey to me, but you can be the judge of that!
The bottom of the staircase was a popular place to mount a large, impressive piece of statuary. Perhaps the most amusing example of this is the ten-foot nude Napoleon at the foot of the spectacular staircase in Apsley House, the London home of the Duke of Wellington.
Many Regency staircases strike even the modern viewer as something of an engineering miracle. White marble slabs are anchored into the wall and rest one upon the other just so, with no visible supports, so that the whole staircase seems to unfurl magically in a flowing spiral or weightless zigzag up to the next floor.
Lacy wrought-iron balusters were most popular to accent these magnificent staircases, and could have either a wrought-iron or mahogany bannister. On staircases that had a landing where the stairs switched back or turned, a huge, grand lamp or torchiere is often seen.
The Regency Town House in Brunswick Square, Hove, that you just visited has a waiting room that opens up off the staircase landing. Rather than having the guest wait in the lobby, this room functioned as a sort of holding tank where the visitor could check herself in the mirror before being shown up the rest of the stairs to her hostess in the drawing room.