This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Glance at the contents page of Roger White’s magisterial survey of Georgian landscape buildings and you will see that Chapter 15 is titled “Ruins, Eyecatchers and Follies”. Go much further into the book, and it becomes apparent that this would do as a title for any one of the other 19 chapters.
Wherever you turn in Georgian Arcadia, you’re confronted with ruins, follies and eyecatchers — the richest, most varied collection of beautiful and bizarre structures that you’re ever likely to meet. It is all proof that — whilst “a man might make a pretty landskip out of his own possessions” — when it came to populating that landscape with buildings, excess and eccentricity were the order of the day.
You want somewhere to keep the ducks? Let’s put a three-storey cast-iron pagoda on an island in the lake, hang it with bells and paint it red. Your doves can live on the top floor. Not folly enough? Well, I can do you a fountain spurting out of the roof, if that would help. Perhaps you’ve built a hermitage, and the resident hermit keeps wandering off to the pub? I know — we’ll find you a spring-loaded, life-size automaton to take his place. That will give the tourists something to think about.
The Duck Pagoda at Alton Towers (designed by Robert Abraham and put up between 1814 and 1827) and the undated Georgian robot hermit (in Sir Samuel Hiller’s garden at Woodhouse in Staffordshire) are just two of the hundreds of items lovingly described in this beautifully illustrated book.
In what will surely prove to be a definitive study, White divides his quarry into more categories than were dreamt of in my philosophy. We have buildings of approach, subdivided into lodges, arches, bridges and cascades; buildings of sensibility, which include grottoes and shell houses, hermitages and rustic buildings; and buildings for relaxation and entertainment, which is not surprisingly the largest section of all, comprising everything from seats and alcoves to towers, temples and classically inspired love-nests.
There are even buildings of utility — churches, greenhouses and “practical buildings”. As White demonstrates in this last section, the most mundane pieces of estate architecture could be turned into something eye-catching. The gardens at Tong in Shropshire contain a pyramidal pigsty erected, according to the inscription put up by its owner, “To Please the Pigs”. As White says, it is not at all clear how it functioned, since the only doorway was much too small for a pig to get through.
Then there is the aptly-named “Wonderful Barn” on the edge of the Castletown estate in County Kildare, a giant helter-skelter of a building put up in 1743 as a granary. Even outdoor lavatories get a look in. Chipchase Castle in Northumberland, White tells us, “has a three-seater privy in Gothick style, with a sinuously curvaceous entrance arch flanked by pierced quatrefoils”.
Mixed in with the whimsical, the eccentric and the downright weird, there are masterpieces. The long 18th century was the golden age of landscape architecture: the pavilions and banqueting houses of the Tudors and Stuarts were a mere prelude; the summerhouses and gazebos of the Victorians and Edwardians were just also-rans in comparison.
There is nothing in any other age to compare, for example, with Hawksmoor’s mausoleum of 1731-42 at Castle Howard, a circular Doric temple on a hill so beautiful that Walpole said it was enough to tempt one to be buried alive.
Carr of York’s Rockingham Monument at Wentworth Woodhouse, a tiered cenotaph closely based on the Roman Monument of the Julii in Provence, is “unquestionably one of the outstanding pieces of Georgian landscape architecture”, says White. He won’t find any argument from me on that, or on the exquisite Casino at Marino on the northern outskirts of Dublin. Designed by William Chambers for the 1st Earl of Charlemont, it is “one of the most perfect classical pavilions anywhere”.
Interestingly, the designer whose work prompts the most interest in White’s book isn’t Hawksmoor or Carr or Chambers, or any of the usual suspects. It is the Durham-born architect and astronomer Thomas Wright. He pops up all over the place, designing a grotto here, a cascade or a temple there, a thatched hermit’s cell for Badminton, a sham fortress for Wallington. He was a busy chap. One longs to know more about Thomas Wright.
Georgian Arcadia is an important book, but it is also an entertaining one. The earnest accounts of classical models and disputed authorships are peppered with anecdotes and asides. The Hon. Richard Arundell, for instance, earns his place in history not for having built a modest domed Temple of Victory on his estate at Allerton Mauleverer in Yorkshire, but for being caught with his friend Horace Walpole using charcoal to draw pubic hair on the antique sculptures at Wilton House.
White ends with a thoughtful essay on the influence of British garden buildings on European practice. “Being guillotined,” he says ruefully, “became an occupational hazard for the sort of people who created English gardens in France.”
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