IT cannot be insisted upon too frequently, that only a fashion is responsible for a development of type, and production in quantity is necessary for the inauguration of a fashion. Furniture becomes stereotyped, in what we know as styles, in direct ratio to its quantitative production. Houses are single units, as a rule, and vary accordingly. It is only when they are built in the mass, as in rows or terraces, that the one is a direct copy of others. We have similarity, therefore, in many of the large houses of a certain period, especially in details, but rarely identity. Panellings of rooms multiply in the proportion of the number of principal rooms to the house itself, and when we come to furniture for these rooms, we get ever-recurring types of tables, chairs and the like, and, with production in quantity, we reach a fashion, and with it what is known as a defined style.
Development in woodwork and furniture proceeds along two main lines; of utility and of decorative value. Thus a writing-table fulfils one function, whereas an occasional table, as its name implies, has many uses. In tracing the evolution of the English staircase, which, apart from its decorative qualities, has one function only, space considerations forbid more than an illustrated description of its rise, in size and importance. Staircases are, from their special character, few in number, compared with other woodwork of the house, and, therefore, do not attain to a distinct type in the really important examples. No two being identical, as a general rule, it would be necessary, in order to show a progression of design, - if such really existed, which is doubtful, - to illustrate every staircase in the important houses of Great Britain.
It is possible, however, even in the limited space available here, to give a general idea of the rise in importance of the English staircase, and to describe, briefly, the factors which dictated its development in this direction.
The early domestic staircase is purely utilitarian, a method of access to a floor above from the one below. In many of the Norman dwellings, as in Boothby Pagnell and Little Wenham Hall, the stair is outside the house, totally unprotected from the weather other than by a crude pent-roof. In houses and castles built for defence, the stairway, of stone, is never conspicuous, being generally concealed in a separate turret, in the same way as the tower stairs arc in many parish churches, which lead to the belfry, and above, to the roof of the tower.
Stairs of this kind are nearly always of the central newel or vise description, and before the method of supporting the staircase by means of risers, cantilevered from, and wedged into a wall-plate with carriages and outside strings, was devised, the spiral or central-newel stair was usual in dwelling-houses, even of the superior kind. A very characteristic example exists at Hales Place, Tenterden, Kent, where the treads and risers are fixed into a central newel, which is, actually, the trunk of a tree, fixed into the ground, and reaching from floor to roof. In Wales, even at the present day, houses exist which have been built round a growing tree, into which the stairs have been housed. These staircases have, from their central position, a prominence which was not intentional, but merely accidental.
The early Tudor house, with its Great Hall, of roof height, was effectually divided into two parts, and two, if not more staircases were required for access to the upper floors. At Parnham Park there are two, very inconspicuous in character, one of which rises to a mezzanine floor, which does not exist at the other end of the Hall. It is only when the Great Hall dwindles in size, and especially in height, that the one principal stair serves for the house, and begins to assume an importance which it had, hitherto, not possessed.
The entrance door at Little Wolford, Fig. 239, opens to the passage dividing the Great Hall from the buttery and servants' regions, the "skreens" as it is termed. The stone newel stair is shown in Fig. 240. At Breccles, Fig. 241, the staircase illustrated here (one of several in the house) is of oak, the risers being fixed into the wall at one end, and into the oak newel-post at the other.
The stability of staircases appears to have troubled the mediaeval builder for many years. The main stairs at Breccles, as at Great Chalfield, have treads and risers supported on walls or framings at either end. Chequers Court has also a staircase of this kind. At Durham Castle the newels are very high, reaching from floor to floor, acting as direct supports to the stair. In the early independent staircases, the outside strings are always needlessly massive, as at the Charterhouse, Chilham and Tissington. The problem was sometimes solved by a supporting spandrel, with posts, on the outside of the stair, as at Chequers. It is only towards the end of the seventeenth century that staircases begin to be constructed with open soffits underneath and with light strings. That the necessary strength in riser, string and carriage was provided, is shown by the fact that they have persisted with little or no sag away from the side walls, even although, at this date, the newel-post had become almost purely ornamental.
Fig. 239. Little Wolford Manor, Warwickshire. - The Screen from the Main Entrance Door. Mid-sixteenth century.
Fig. 240 Little Wolford Manor, Warwickshire. - The Stone Central-Newel Stairway.
Beachampton Farm, Fig. 242, has a typical, if somewhat ornate, example of an oak staircase of the first years of the seventeenth century. The newels are massive, with large handrail and string, all supported by heavy posts and beams, with the strings of the long flights resting on retaining walls. One of the heraldic newel finials is given in Fig. 243. That this staircase is original to the small and decayed manor house in which it is in at present, is very doubtful. The shield, which the lion holds, has the royal device of a crowned Tudor rose. The staircase is also not complete; it is patch-worked into another of simpler and slighter character. There are numerous instances of this transplanting of staircases from larger houses to dwellings of lesser importance. One exists, at Tittle Hawken-bury Farm, near Pembury, in Kent, which is, obviously, disproportionate to the house it is in. With the demolition of large houses, where stones, bricks, lead and the like would be treated merely as materials, elaborate staircases of this kind were preserved, as a rule, in their integrity, removed and refixed in as nearly a complete and original state as possible. Lewes Town Hall has a fine staircase which was removed from a house in the town. It has been adapted to its new habitat somewhat clumsily, with many additions and reconstructions, but sufficient remains of the original to show that it must have been a fine example of woodwork when in the house for which it was made.
Fig 241. Breccles Hall, Norfolk. - Oak Newel Staircase. Mid-sixteenth century.