JF: What led you to write The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World?
SH: Before becoming an academic historian, but after graduate training in British history, I worked for a number of years in museums and historic sites. One site in particular, a house called Stenton in Philadelphia, was especially influential in my thinking. When I went to work there it struck me how similar Stenton was to small classically-inspired houses dotted not only over the American landscape, but in Britain as well. Much has of course been written about such houses in America, but it seemed to me that historians, architectural historians and others too often linked these (relatively) small houses in America with very large country houses in Britain. This approach struck me as comparing apples and oranges. Instead, there seemed more than ample room to investigate similar houses, and, importantly, the people who lived in them, on both sides of the Atlantic.
On a related note, one book that always troubled me is quite an old book now, Lawrence and Jean Stone’s An Open Elite?, which argued that by analyzing big country houses in Britain it was evident that social mobility had been limited. The problem I had with their approach is that I had a sense that they had been looking in the wrong place: big houses rather than the more modest ones that most interested me, and seemed the more likely venue for social change. Scholars in the 1980s had pointed this out about the Stones’ work, but after twenty-five years no one had done the legwork to investigate further.
A problem arose when I undertook research in Britain, where it became immediately apparent that this form of house had been almost completely ignored. The quite extraordinary documentation of American classical houses (Historic structure reports, paint analyses, interpretive plans, archaeological surveys, research reports, extant collections, and so on) was entirely absent on the British side. As a result, there was an enormous amount of research to be done on the British version of the small classical house, which led to the core of my book, a detailed exploration of one county in England, Gloucestershire. After that, I circled back to the American side to knit my research together into an Atlantic world study that I hope will be revealing for British and early American historians alike.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World?
SH: By looking at buildings, landscapes, spatial arrangement, furnishings and people together – a ‘material culture’ approach – we can learn a great deal about how eighteenth-century Britons staked out and defined their social position across the Atlantic world. Such a social and cultural reading of small classical houses and their owners offers an account of moderate change and well-paced social mobility that reflects Britain’s stable but dynamic growth in the eighteenth century, with a particularly important transition point in the second quarter of the eighteenth century.
JF: Why do we need to read The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World?
SH: From my perspective, perhaps the most important reason to read The Gentleman’s House is because it seeks to break down barriers and build bridges between several bodies of literature. First, it is an effort to position a material object – a type of house – at the center of analysis and use that as a way of constructing a social group that we can analyze. Secondly, in so doing I attempt to draw together not only architecture, but spatial arrangements, interiors, furnishings, and the social action that all these things enabled. In other words, in the first instance the emphasis is on things (i.e. buildings), but the real attention is on people, what they did with and in those things, and what those things represented about them. Thirdly, the book tells us a lot more about small classical houses in Britain and the genteel people who inhabited them than we have known before, including their many transatlantic links. Fourthly, it takes exception to American exceptionalism, and seeks to craft a British world narrative that views provincial Britain and British North America similarly. Viewing the eighteenth century in this holistic way offers, I think, very interesting insights, and helps to make more sense of British society up to (and even after) the American war for independence. Finally, The Gentleman’s House provides a different perspective on the important issue of social mobility and how eighteenth-century Britons constructed their identities. The book suggests that houses like these were more about confirming status in British society in a particular position, rather than necessarily aspiring to a more elevated position. This incremental version of social change is more realistic, and with better explanatory power.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SH: To be honest, I never did. I have always thought of myself as a British historian, and teach primarily British and European history. But having spent years on both sides of the Atlantic, eighteenth-century America has always struck me as quite a British place. Moreover, having worked in historic sites and museums in America, having looked at American collections, studied material objects in America, and having benefitted particularly from the wisdom of early American colleagues in Philadelphia, it seemed readily apparent that there should be much more communication between early American historians and historians of Britain. If the book achieves this in even small measure then I will be happy to be co-opted as an American historian!
JF: What is your next project?
SH: As I studied small classical houses for this book, I became increasingly interested in the subsequent use to which they were put, as residences, museums, hospitals, schools, and so on. This got me thinking more about the way history has been used in various historical revivals and the issue of historical memory and how the past constructs the present. Although I am still thinking about the exact direction I want to take with my next project, it will be an outgrowth of a forthcoming essay I wrote entitled, “‘Phony Coloney’: The Reception of the Georgian and the Construction of Twentieth-century America,” due out next year in a volume on the Neo-Georgian movement. Weaving my interest in the eighteenth century together with transatlantic relations, material culture, and the cultural history of the British empire, I am currently (and very tentatively) calling my new project, ‘Interpretations of the Georgian, the Anglo-American Aesthetic and the idea of Greater Britain, 1870-1950’. I am spending this summer in Britain, reading, researching, and bouncing these ideas around at several conferences and workshops, which is naturally good fun.
JF: Thanks, Stephen!