Book Review

Cottages Ornés: the Charms of the Simple Life

Roger White
Yale U. P. 2017; 272 pages

For those unfamiliar with the term, a cottage orné (pronounced as if the two words were French) is a small habitation which has been dressed up to make it as quaint and picturesque as possible; this involves thatched roofs, an irregular layout, leaded windows often of ‘gothic’ design, and fancy chimneys.  The subject is particularly relevant to those interested in garden design, as so many of these buildings are focal points in designed landscapes and gardens. A number are situated in Hampshire, such as Houghton Lodge near Stockbridge, and both Henry Holland’s original design for Cadland lodge (originally called Boarn Hill) and its 18th-century post-fire successor (which was also burned down).  Both are (or were) the focus for wonderful designed landscapes, the latter by Lancelot Brown himself who was Holland’s father-in-law.

As White says, it is surprising but true that no-one has written a book on the subject before; no doubt the frivolity of the style did not attract Victorian writers on architecture, and subsequent writers took their cue from them.  However, cottages ornés were inhabited by everyone from royalty and the aristocracy, through the middle classes, down to their staff and estate workers.  Cottages ornés were also lampooned by writers such as Jane Austen, Thomas Love Peacock and Robert Southey, which shows that the style was much in the public consciousness.

White, a distinguished architectural historian who specialises in the ‘long 18th century’, writes with a pleasantly dry wit but at the same time gives sources for his statements.  He has visited 90% of his chosen examples over more than twenty years.  As well as England, the book covers the Celtic fringes of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, examples further afield in north America, France and the Continent, Russia, South Africa, and even Australia and New Zealand, where cottage orné kits were imported from England.  He also looks at the architects who designed these buildings and in many cases published books of designs which local builders could copy. Humphry Repton, whose bicentenary occurs in 2018, himself produced a number of designs, together with layouts for the grounds and gardens which surrounded them.  In the last chapter (Postlude) White brings his study up to date, covering the Arts & Crafts movement and even examples from the present century.

My only cavils are first, a small mistake on p. 69 where ‘Blackwood’ should read ‘Blackbrook’ (the confusion is with the later name ‘Bishopswood’), and secondly, the index which lists place-names but not always the name of the cottage itself.

The book is profusely illustrated with enchanting photographs, predominantly taken by the author, together with historic photographs and prints where the building no longer exists or where the design was not realised.  It is an engaging subject; the reviewer accompanied the author on some of his visits in Hampshire, became completely hooked, and has become a cottage orné-spotter herself.