The Simple Life: Cottages and Gainsborough’s Cottage Doors

  • Ann Bermingham
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)


In quest of the simple life we find ourselves at the cottage. Embowered by trees, covered in flowering vines, roofed in thatch, and walled with timbers, brick and roughcast, the cottage stands in eighteenth-century thought as the natural domain of domestic peace and happiness. In romantic Britain the cottage was an alternative to all that was cold, formal and forbidding. For as one cottage enthusiast, the architect and drawing master James Malton, declared in comparing the cottage to the manor house:

The matured eye, palled with gaudy magnificence, turns disgusted from the gorgeous structure, fair sloping lawn, well turned canal, regular fence, and formal rows of trees; and regards, with unspeakable delight, the simple cottage, the rugged common, rude pond, wild hedgerows, and irregular plantations. Happy he! Who early sees that true happiness is distinct from noise, from bustle, and from ceremony; who looks for it, chiefly, in his properly discharging his domestic duties, and by early planting with parental tenderness, the seeds of content in his rising offspring, reaps the glad harvest in autumnal age.1


Rural Habitation Simple Life Architectural View Farm House True Happiness 
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    Helpful architectural histories of the cottage include: Olive Cook, English Cottages and Farmhouses (London: Thames & Hudson, 1982); John E. Crowley’s Picturesque Comfort: The Cottage, in his The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), pp. 203–29; Tony Evans and Lycett Green, English Cottages (New York: The Viking Press, 1983); Sutherland Lyall, Dream Cottages: From Cottage Orneé to Stockbroker Tudor (London, Robert Hale Ltd, 1988). The cult of the cottage has been explored by John Dixon Hunt, ‘The Cult of the Cottage’, The Lake District: A Sort of National Property (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1988), pp. 71–84. On the ‘simple life’ see Maren-Sofie Rmstvig, The Happy Man: Studies in the Metamorphoses of a Classical Ideal, 2 vols (Oslo: Norwegian Universities Press, 1954).Google Scholar
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    The four large cottage doors are: The Woodcutters Return, Belvoir Castle, c. 1772–73 (58 x 48 inches); Cottage Door with Children Playing, Cincinnati Museum, RA 1778 (48 1/4 x 583/4 inches); The Cottage Door, Huntington Museum, RA 1780 (58 x 47 inches); Peasant Smoking at Cottage Door, University of California, Los Angeles, Spring 1788 (77 x 62 inches). The Scudemore painting, Cottage Door with Woman Sweeping and Girl with Pigs (38 3/4 x 48 3/4 inches), is now in the Ipswich Museum. A copy of The Woodcutters Return (Belvoir Castle), made by Gainsborough, is the Fuji collection in Japan.Google Scholar
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    In short, the tax burden in the United States has been shifting steadily downwards so that those classes least able to afford to pay taxes and those most in need of what taxes can secure are one and the same. Meanwhile corporations and the upper 10% of householders who currently hold more than 96% of the nation’s wealth pay less that 10% of the nation’s income tax. Thus the middle and lower classes, who bear an inordinate tax burden because of these gross inequalities, come to resent a tax system which has become increasingly oppressive. For this reason, the right-wing agenda to dismantle the federal and state tax systems continues to enjoy popular support. On this subject see, among other political analysts, Paul Krugeman, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Centuty (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003).Google Scholar

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© Ann Bermingham 2005

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  • Ann Bermingham

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