Tudoresque: In Pursuit of the Ideal Home

Why mock Tudor history is here to stay.

Tudoresque: In Pursuit of the Ideal Home
Andrew Ballantyne and Andrew Law
Reaktion Books, 288pp, £25

I grew up in a 1980s house with fake beams and leaded lights (which were also, handily, double-glazed). I remember being asked about a new paint colour for the metal up-and-over garage doors and voting firmly for a pale blue that I thought looked delightfully cottagey. Later, three new houses were built next to ours. They must have been superior in specification, because they had enormous thatched roofs as opposed to tiles and (a clincher) the beams were not painted black, but left in oaky silver-brown.

Mock-Tudor is so ubiquitous in contemporary Britain that we rarely pay much attention to it. We take it as a given that suburban houses look more or less like this. The phenomenon is quite extraordinary nonetheless; throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st, a large proportion of the house-buying public has opted to live in buildings that pretend to be 400 years old. Sensible people who loathe fancy-dress parties will happily live in Tudor-costumed homes. One important difference is that, because this form of make-believe is so widespread, we can pass it off as normal and no one will notice that we've been fanciful at all.

It's a good thing that there are cultural historians around to point out the hidden strangeness of our streets. Andrew Ballantyne and Andrew Law have given deep thought to the question of why Tudor appeals. This may sound obvious, but I suspect that it took courage to take on the project. Aren't architectural historians supposed to frown at sham quaintness and show just how many superior options the stubborn British public is turning down? Ballantyne and Law know that they are taking a risk in crossing the divide, but someone needs to do it. Someone needs to investigate a style that millions of people hold dear and that is recognised around the world as Britain's national architecture.

The authors trace the story of Tudor revivalism back to 18th-century antiquaries in love with British history. It was Stonehenge that captivated them, but Stonehenge did not offer much in the way of domestic comfort, and interests gradually converged on the newly designated "Tudor" period, understood as an age of liberty and individualism.

Tudoresque buildings began to appear in picturesque landscapes as patriotic alternatives to voguish classicism. Ballantyne and Law reproduce an illustration from James Malton's 1798 Essay on British Cottage Architecture that looks strikingly familiar. This sturdy gabled house could be a quality new-build on any estate today. By the 1830s, Tudor-type mansions were springing up fast. They looked sturdy and indigenous and were free from suspicious cosmopolitanism. You could be inventive with the ruggedly irregular decoration, however: P F Robinson's Domestic Architecture in the Tudor Style (1837) gave ideas for turrets and chimney designs.

For the wealthy industrialists who made up a large section of the Victorian mansion-building class, Tudoresque had great advantages. Ballantyne and Law point to a widespread desire “that the houses should not look as new as the money that built them", and architects became experts in the simulation of age. One of the stars of Tudoresque is George Devey, who had a great talent for designing houses that seemed to have crumbled and accrued gently over time. His work at Betteshanger in Kent is thoroughly convincing, and involves a beautiful play of textures. The industrialist James Nasmyth, inventor of the steam hammer, found his ideal rural haven in one of Devey's houses, a many-gabled "cottage" near Penshurst, also in Kent, with carved eaves, lattice brickwork and decorative black timber and white plaster designed in 1858.

Tudor need not be only for the wealthy - it was well suited to smaller workers' cottages, as some of the most advanced industrialists perceived. The soap magnate William Hesketh Lever built Port Sunlight on the model of a Tudor village to house his employees; the Mander family built Tudor cottages in Wolverhampton for workers at the nearby Manders paint factories. These estates offered a ruralised antidote to factory work, and used historical precedent at the same time to invoke a squirearchical relationship between employer and employed.

The politics of Tudoresque shifted with the great expansion of suburbia between the wars. The semi-detached houses of Metroland were not paternalistically endowed by the wealthy as the workers' estates had been; they were chosen and owned by a self-determining middle class setting out its own domestic ideals.

But suburbia did not look ideal to everyone. The authors quote George Orwell's horrified description of his fictional Lower Binfield in Coming Up for Air: "There was nothing left of the woods. It was all houses, houses - and what houses! Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don't buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists'?"

To Orwell, the spread of suburbia looked like a story of dispossession: the British were being cheated en masse out of their rural inheritance and fobbed off with token souvenirs.

Ballantyne and Law do not examine the cultural politics of interwar suburbia as carefully as they might have done, but they make interesting apologists for 1930s Tudor. They point to the 16th-century legislation that cottages should come with "four acres of land and a cow", and read the modern suburb as the delayed fulfilment of that English idea. In Uxbridge, you may get only a tenth of an acre and a car, but it is enough private space in which to cultivate self-reliance and individualism. Not many suburban gardeners could live off their vegetable patch, but the authors argue that the potential for growing your own meets a deep-rooted need for independence. And they honour the homeowner's desire for an "anchor" - something traditional, unpretentious and adaptable, "however imperfect its styling".

The last third of the book is devoted to Tudor's travels abroad. Ballantyne and Law argue that even if we turn a blind eye to the style at home, there is no mistaking that it is a "global brand" abroad. Like it or not, this is part of what defines "Britishness" in the world - so they explore the Tudor City complex in New York, and Thames Town, outside Shanghai, parts of which are "evocative of central Chester", boasting statues of Shakespeare and Harry Potter. It sounds like the terrifyingly reproducible commodity imagined by Julian Barnes in his novel England, England, where the nation is reduced to its heritage essentials and reconstructed as a single, conveniently compact tourist site on the Isle of Wight.

Yet, perhaps that is to overstate the case. The idea of mass fakery makes us nervous; it conjures dystopian visions of a world emptied of all that is authentic. Fakery coalesces in the mind with forgery and fraudulence, the humiliation of being tricked. But mock-Tudor is not really out to trick us. Even at 13, painting the garage door cottage blue, I understood the rules of the game. The false beams are signs we learn to read: they are gestures rather than disguises. And increasingly they gesture not so much to the distant 16th century as to the history and associations of Tudoresque itself. Mock-Tudor is now its own mistress and it is here to stay.

Alexandra Harris is the author of "Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper" (Thames & Hudson, £19.95)

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.