English country houses still charm viewers; The Last Country Houses, by Clive Aslet. New Haven: Yale University Press. 344 pp. $29.95.
English Cottages, by Tony Evans and Candida Lycett Green, with an introduction by John Betjeman. New York: The Viking Press. 160 pp. $25.
Set amid the emerald rises of the Cottswolds, or the azure charm of the lake country, or the undulating hedgerows of Devon, the houses of England give the countryside its unique flavor.
At one end of the spectrum are the stately country houses, the last of which were built between 1890 and 1939 as magnificent monuments to a dying way of life - a heritage whose roots extended back to feudal times, when vast estates and armies of serfs made possible the courtly lives of lords and ladies and the graciousness of their manor houses.
At the other end of the spectrum is the English cottage, crafted from the cheapest and most accessible materials, but seldom lacking in ingenuity or simple grace. Both types of homes contribute mightily to the charm of England, and both are the subjects of fascinating new books.
Author Clive Aslet examines the grand country houses built since 1890 as mirrors of a changing way of life. By the late 1800s agriculture could no longer support these grand homes, and established country families had to put them on the market. In the upheaval, one-quarter of England's land changed hands.
The buyers had ''unprecedented sources of disposable income,'' Aslet notes. And they assumed that labor and fuel would always be plentiful and cheap. Indeed the data - if they knew of it - supported their belief: In 1901, despite a half-century of escalating industrialization, more people were in domestic service than in any other occupation.
''The Last Country Houses'' is Aslet's informed contribution to Yale's line of books on England's domestic architecture. To Aslet, architecture is not only a form of art but also social history in three dimensions.
The Edwardian era, he observes, for all its gloss, was marked by strikes, the suffrage movement, the threat of war, and the imposition of the income tax and death duties, all of which served to undermine the way of life represented by the country houses.
There was a resultant ''lowering of social barriers'' which ''came from the top,'' he writes, as Edward VII, ''whose tastes ran forever ahead of his income, '' turned to new friends who were amusing and rich.
Aslet classifies the country houses according to the motive for their construction. The ''smart'' house was built for social advantage, the ''romantic'' house to assuage nostalgia, to reclaim the idyll of country life.
Polesden Lacey in Surrey, with its eight main rooms (one small drawing room was reserved for playing bridge) and its counterparts in service spaces (including an ''ice room,'' ''drying room,'' and ''brushing room'') is the epitome of the smart house. Polesden's standard of comfort and elegance was high - fit, in fact, for a king.
A typical romantic home is Melsetter House on the island of Hoy in the Orkneys. Clustered with its outbuildings in wild countryside, it looks more like an enchanted village than a house. Architect W. R. Lethaby worked ''with veneration for local traditions'' to give Melsetter a ''magic quality.'' Built of stone the color of the enfolding moor, it seems wedded to its site, achieving William Morris's dictum of goodness: It was ''a work of art and a piece of nature.''
If architectural magic derives from organic growth, then poverty and isolation could be considered advantages, as Candida Lycett Green amply demonstrates in her book on ''English Cottages'' She notes that the cottage-builders had few options; they used the ''nearest and cheapest'' materials.
England's complex geology yielded stone that varied from village to village. Rich stands of hardwood were plentiful. Filler was apt to be made of brick moulded from local clays. As a result cottages ''seemed to be growing out of the landscape.'' And isolation ensured that ''peculiarities became inherent, fashions were almost unknown, innovations untried and outside influences prevented.''
The Industrial Revolution brought better roads, canals, and, finally, railroads. Thus came new materials and ideas, and the advent of the pattern book and blueprint brought the era of ''unconscious'' construction to an end. With the influence of foreign travel, romantic paintings, and pastoral poetry, the cottage became ''theatrical,'' the village a stage set. The picturesque cottages of the Gothic revival satisfied the same nostalgia for other-ness as the romantic country house.
Edwardian Arts & Crafts architecture the best traditional features, and made them work as they had never worked before,'' in cottages where ''the touch and feel of things was as important as the look of them.'' The irony of these late and beautiful cottages is that no true cottager could afford them.
''English Cottages'' is illustrated with superb photographs by Tony Evans. Candida Lycett Green's text is brisk, knowing, well-formed, and generous. The captions brim with information.