When you touch the shining silver-plated balusters and gleaming solid brass railing of a staircase, you wonder what motivated our ancestors to splurge vast amounts of their wealth on such showcases. Why did staircases change from utilitarian, practical architecture into statements of drama and high grandeur?
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Staircases have a history, and a reason for that history. They first began as simple wooden ladders, placed in a gap between floor joists. Then narrow, spiral, medieval castle stairs were built for defense—one man could easily hold back an army. But, in the mid-16th century, life settled down in Britain, and stairs were no longer needed for defense. Kings granted favours of land and money to friends. Lands that once held serfs became a source of rental income. Sheep were grazed to add to the coffers of the wealthy.
With these changes and the end of feudal society, ground floor medieval halls, once important gathering places, became obsolete. But what motivated stately home builders to spend vast amounts of money on such showcases? First floors, rather than ground floors, took on the role of grand state rooms, advertising an owner’s wealth and prestige. Comfort rather than defense was the byword in building. Staircases became wider and decorated architectural entrances for the great chambers above. They were built to impress visitors.
At Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire, Robert Smythson was one of the first builders to use the dramatic possibilities of stairs as a processional route. The stone staircase, built between 1590-97, begins in low dark space on the ground floor, then makes a 180-degree turn before reaching the great chamber on the second floor.
As the 1600s progressed, builders learned how to construct straight flights of wooden stairs rising from one half landing to another—a great advancement in the history of the staircase. They mastered the technique of the cantilevered stair, eliminating the newel post’s primary function. Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire is an example of the change from traditional construction of the newel stair to the lighter style, soon to become common. Built in 1570, Kirby Hall’s two staircases have straight, wide, solid oak flights surrounding a rectangular central newel.
Staircases not only attracted attention but also provided craftsmen with opportunities to show off their skills. The one at Knole House, Kent, with its original painted decoration preserved, is a stage setting and a feast for the eye. Built in the middle of the 15th century, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, remodeled it in 1603-1608. Richard Dungan, the King’s plasterer, and Paul Isaacson, the King’s master painter, crafted this wooden staircase situated in an open well. So many shapes greet the eye it is difficult to take them all in—from the curving ribs of the stair’s ceiling, windows set with heraldic glass, allegorical and mythological figures with grotesque faces, and Sackville leopards, coloured in green, white and yellow—a representation of the family. Set against the walls, tromp l’oeil balusters fool the eye.
Woodcarving and plasterwork reached new heights around 1630 as craftsmen—Grinling Gibbons for one— arrived in England from Europe to share their skills. The cantilevered staircase at Sudbury Hall, in Derbyshire, built for George Vernon during the reign of Charles II, portrays one of the finest and most interesting examples of this craftsmanship. Edward Pierce carved intricate acanthus patterns on the balustrade and baskets of flowers on the newel posts—removable and replaced by lamps at night. The carvings compete with plasterwork of delicate scrolls, swags, garlands, flower wreaths, and fruit. In 1691 decorative paintings by Louis Laguerre were added.
Toward the end of the 1600s and the beginning of the 1700s, staircases were often made of walnut instead of oak. Exquisite turned balusters and half landings showed up in Baroque houses. Wrought iron balustrades, often painted with gilt added, became fashionable in mansions.
By 1714, when George I came to the throne there was a shift in house design—all the main rooms for visitors were placed on the ground floor. Impressive decorated staircases were no longer necessary for the family to display their importance and wealth. Georgian builders liked straight flights of steps. A framed-up staircase with no well was designed. Constructed in two straight flights, the lower flight reached to a half landing midway between the floors, and another flight turned to continue upwards. This type of staircase was called “a pair of stairs” or “dog-leg” stairs. Most small Georgian houses illustrate this type of stair construction.
From 1720 to 1820, harmonic proportions, symmetry, tastefulness, and Roman grandeur—known as Palladian and made famous by Inigo Jones—was revived by Colen Campbell. The design of the central block of the Palladian great house impressed guests by combining the entrance hall and staircase.
A fine example of this Palladian revival is Hatch Court, in Somerset, where the cantilevered staircase goes through the centre of the house and is separated from the entrance hall by columns. Capability Brown designed Broadlands fine Palladian oak staircase. Lord Palmerston wrote “This place all together pleases me abouve any place I know.” Surely the most beautiful of cantilevered staircases is the oval one designed for Culzean Castle by Robert Adam, 1777-92.
As skills became further refined, staircases began to reflect personal tastes, mixing styles and periods. Chicheley Hall, in Buckinghamshire, mixed Baroque and early Georgian in an intricate oak and walnut staircase. In Lincolnshire, Harlaxton’s staircase, built in 1853, copied the Baroque style to excess. From the first to the second story are three flights of stairs each punctuated by a short landing. Fanciful designs of rich stucco embellish the staircase. Bronze figures carrying candelabra stand on the newels. On the second story, dummy mirrored sash windows alternate with caryatids—pillars in the form of the female figure—carrying scrolled brackets. Over the second story landing, stucco drapery, tasseled cords and festoons pile on more decoration. High above is a painted ceiling resembling the sky. Lionel Esher described this staircase as “a truly surrealist experience.”
In late Georgian times families built fake castles to advertise their newly acquired wealth. Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor Wales, built in Neo-Norman style in 1819-35 by Thomas Hopper for slate magnate George Dawkins-Pennant, is an example. The grand towering staircase is elaborately carved with fantastic shapes, masks and knights, geometrical patterns, and Celtic interlacing. Another pseudo-castle, Castle Drogo, close to Exeter, was built in 1910-31 by Edward Lutyens. The ceiling above the main staircase, 27 feet from the floor, changes with each turn—from vaulted to domed to arched to oak beamed. This staircase has a secret—a concealed servant’s staircase within it.
Manderston, an Edwardian house in the Scottish Borders, built in the early 1900s is the possessor of a cantilevered marble staircase with swirling silver-plated balusters and a solid brass top rail, reputed to be the only one of its kind in the world. This elegant staircase needs no embellishment to impress the viewer.
In these stately homes and many more scattered throughout Britain staircases have, through the centuries, reflected not only the culture and wealth of the times but the skills of the builder, the wood joiner, the stone mason and the plasterer. Built as a simple necessity or to make a dramatic statement, Britain’s staircases share a part of our rich architectural heritage. They are a testament to the people who built them and the times in which they lived.