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