Monuments to self-expression

Serenhedd James finds folly and ruin frequently go together in Rory Fraser’s new release: Follies


This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

By the end of 2020 one might have been forgiven for thinking that a whole generation had abandoned entirely the quest for truth and beauty, throwing its heritage wholesale onto a latter-day Bonfire of the Vanities, and then dancing round it with self-satisfied glee. Rory Fraser is not among them, and the appearance of this little tome is to be welcomed.

Follies: An Architectural Journey by Rory Fraser, Zuleika, £14.99

Not long down from Oxford, Fraser crisscrossed the land, painting as he went. He is a talented draughtsman, and identifies and presents in words and art what he calls “an enduring national characteristic . . . an irrepressible love of individualism” — the tendency of some of his idiosyncratic countrymen to express their fleeting eccentricities in enduring monuments of brick and stone.

Fraser draws inspiration from the established experts on the subject, Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp, who brought out their Guide to Rogue Architecture a full three decades ago. He also credits the influence of the late Michael Schützer-Weissmann, to whom the book is dedicated: one of that vanishing breed of schoolmasters who introduced his charges to seams of what Fraser calls “untapped knowledge to which we should aspire”, and of whom the world needs more.

The gazetteer ranges between counties and centuries, and Fraser casts his net wide. The solid Tudor tower at Freston, in Suffolk — looking “as though a giant has lopped off a corner of Hampton Court and plonked it down in the middle of nowhere” — sits alongside the elegant Temple of the Four Winds at Castle Howard; while the British Worthies in their temple at Stowe rub shoulders — fins, perhaps — with the controversial Headington Shark.

As Fraser notes, the appeal of follies — or lack of it — rests with the beholder

Two of Fraser’s subjects are distinguished interlopers. As evocative as they may be, the surviving east wall of the priory at Walsingham, in Norfolk, and the remains of Christ Church Greyfriars, in the City of London — buildings lost to Henry VIII and Hitler respectively — are ruins, not follies. But then, of course, folly and ruin frequently go together — as the Greeks knew all too well.

As Fraser notes, the appeal of follies — or lack of it — rests with the beholder. My own favourite folly, Racton Tower in West Sussex, does not appear here; on deeper reflection, its place in my affections comes not from its limited architectural merits, but from its association with blissful weekends of carefree youth spent and misspent with much-loved friends at Lordington, half-a-mile away.

The Mound at New College, Oxford, falls into a similar category. That said, it is hard not to admire the long-dead fellows who commissioned an enormous ziggurat of earth simply for the sake of having one. In happier, pre-Covid times, the Mound was known as a setting for discreet liaisons and illicit parties; leaving one of the latter a contemporary of mine missed his footing, and on reaching the bottom had to think quickly, as he crawled painfully to the lodge, of what exactly to tell the night porter about how he had broken his leg.

The Mound was known as a setting for discreet liaisons and illicit parties

It’s the human stories that stand out, you see. A man of weaker faith than Thomas Tresham could scarcely have built the spectacular Triangular Lodge at Rushton, in Northamptonshire, in the last decade of the sixteenth century. Many have sought to interpret his design, with its obsessive references to the Holy Trinity in numbers, inscriptions, and symbols. Was Tresham a mystic, or a saint, or simply an optimist who longed for his fervent and forbidden Catholicism to be somehow reconciled with the polity of his day?

At the other end of the spectrum was Francis Dashwood, as impious as they came, and described by Horace Walpole as having “the staying power of a stallion and the impetuosity of a bull”. His hedonistic, sex-driven Knights of St Francis counted among their members several of the great and outwardly good, and the Hellfire Club met in the notorious network of caves on his estate at West Wycombe. Fraser blushingly names the Temple of Venus at their entrance for what it is: “the architectural representation of a vagina”.

Saints and sinners, then, and many in between; antiquarian, modern, and contemporary. Reading this work, with its elegant turns of phrase and accomplished illustrations — yes, even of Dashwood’s Temple of Venus, at which Fraser claims only to have glanced — is like stepping into a florid and reassuring stream of consciousness. It serves a deeper purpose, however — either by design, or by the circumstances of the febrile situation in which it came to be published.

As Fraser observes, follies are “monuments to a remarkably liberal culture in which such architectural self-expression was not just permitted but celebrated … Rather than being symbols of ‘little England’, follies are symbols of ‘bigger England’, the direct result of a country formed of Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Normans, Huguenots, wave upon wave leading down to the Schützer-Weissmanns as they left Budapest for London in the 1930s.”

Fraser’s aim is to provide his readers “with an alternative view of this island, where the past jostles with the present at every bus stop and, if we listen carefully, asks to take us by the hand and celebrate its delights”. Not everything need be torn down, then; not everything need be regarded as an affront. It is an important corrective, as the iconoclasm continues, and Fraser is a charming guide.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover