Friday, 30 July 2010

Burghley House - Elizabethan or medieval?

Burghley House is a paradox. Here is one of the great Elizabethan houses of England - from the outside. There are windows, towers, strange shapes, galore.

But inside you could be forgiven for the most part in thinking you are in an eighteenth-century stately home. Even the attendants in each room behave in a stately home way. They will tell you the family still lives here, which is why you can't enter one of the most exquisite courtyards of any Elizabethan house. You have to peek at it through a window, and most people will not even notice it is there.

One of the house's great features, a classically decorated staircase, is almost unnoticed because it looks relatively undecorated compared to the profusion of decoration everywhere else - frescoes, woodcarving, objects, you name it. It's enough to give you a headache just walking round; you feel refreshed to be out of it.

All this becomes more difficult to explain because there is a rule of no photography in the house. So visitors have to use their imagination (to guess what it must have been like originally) and their memory (to try and remember what they have seen).

Yet what is astonishing is when you reach the Great Hall. It's surprising that a brand new Elizabethan house would have a Great Hall, but Burghley does, and it looks just like a medieval hall, complete with hammerbeam roof. Classical it is not.

Somehow William Cecil could have built not only a house in the forefront of modern architecture (the outside view and the courtyard), but in a wilfully archaic style (the Great Hall) at the same time. Inside the Great Hall, the two styles are right on top of each other. There is a fine classical fireplace, singled out by Pevsner as the state of the art in Elizabethan Renaissance architecture, but the fireplace has been wedged in on top of existing windows, and looks very uncomfortably in its non-classical home.

To be honest, the result is a hotch-potch, so perhaps the many additions throughout of the 17th and 18th centuries are perhaps not so foreign to the original patron's idea. He didn't mind a bit of eclecticism.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Why did Cambridge grow?

This may seem an obvious question, but it relates to a specific street, in fact two or three streets in Cambridge, which were built in the first decades of the nineteenth century. These houses look too small to be connected with the university, and they predate the railway. Why were they built?

The houses I am referring to are in Park Street and Lower Park Street, at the southern end of Jesus Green. Here is Lower Park Street:

 They were built in the first decades of the nineteenth century, as far as I can see. They are not singled out for mention by Pevsner (in his volume on Cambridgeshire), although Pevsner perversely admires the multi-storey concrete car park around the corner, dating from 1972. But leaving aside the elderly Pevsner's questionable taste, there remains the question: why so many early nineteenth-century artisan cottages in Cambridge?

A possible answer was suggested in Peter Bryan's Cambridge: The Shaping of the City (revised edition 2008). In this interesting book, seemingly published by the author himself, Bryan devotes a chapter to the expansion of Cambridge in the nineteenth century. The reasons he gives are:

  • parliamentary enclosures 1802-1811, enabling land to be bought and sold;
  • an increase in population due to general improvements in health;
  • the process of industrialisation
  • the coming of the railway - although since this only arrived in Cambridge in 1845, it is unlikely to be the reason why Lower Park Street was built.

Whatever the case, the houses in Lower Park Street have a lovely simplicity, yes, helped by the uniform plot of grass outside each house, that makes them memorable - far more memorable than the multi-storey car park.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Thomas Tresham

I'm all in favour of self-expression, but you can go too far. Thomas Tresham was a wealthy sixteenth-century noble, who chose to stick to Catholicism when the world around him was becoming Protestant. In fact he seems to have been born Protestant but converted to Catholicism as a result of being worked on by the Jesuits. I don't have an issue with his faith, but with his buildings. He is remembered today because of a couple of astonishing buildings he is thought to have designed. They are the Rushton Triangular Lodge, and Lyveden New Bield. Here is the triangular lodge. Tresham's building reveals plenty about it, because it is full of symbols about the Trinity - three sides, three gables each side, and so on.

Each of these two buildings, we are told in the guidebooks, is an expression of his intensely Catholic faith. Even Pevsner interprets the Triangular Lodge this way:

What does all this amount to? A folly? A bauble? A pretty conceit? It cannot be treated so lightly. It is no more nor less than a profession of faith in stone - a faith for which Tresham spent more than fifteen years in prison and confinement.

But those triangles! Here is a building that doesn't work. If you want a lesson in why people don't build triangular buildings, then here it is. A few moments after you enter the building, you realise it has little or no purpose that corresponds to its shape. It is a triumph of external conception (the triangle, the Trinity) at the expense of functionality. The best view of the inside is looking outside, at all the gorgeous landscape and parkland surrounding the lodge. That landscape, those trees, aren't Tresham's at all; it is the work of eighteenth-century landscape designers.

Lyvedon New Bield suffers from similar problems. Here if anything is an even more exquisite setting. Placed completely by itself, with no buildings to be seen from the windows, apart from a small cottage added much later in the corner of the site, it is utterly tranquil and silent, surrounded only by fields of ox eye daisies and bird's foot trefoil:

The building is a magnificent ruin - a ruin because it was never completed. Why not? Perhaps because it is placed in the middle of nowhere, over  half a mile from Lyvedon Old Bield with which it was supposed to be connected. As a result, it looks great in photos, but is unusable as a building. It is surrounded on all sides by a deep ditch; there seems to have been no practical way of reaching it in a vehicle. The glorious bay windows you can see are for the most part partitioned off from the rooms behind them: they are simply for external show; their light (for three of the four wings) would never have been seen in the centre of the house. And, finally, for all Tresham's expensive and significant religious conscience, displayed here in lots of symbols to the Virgin and celebrating the Mass, the building was only designed for one man's conscience. As a visitor you enter the building through the tiny door below ground (you can see it in the photo above) where the servants would enter and not be seen by the people in the house. The kitchens were all in the cellar. In other words, the servants were not expected to participate in this celebration of Catholic harmony. The building is a monument to an aristocratic and exclusive religious feeling; a very self-centred Catholicism.

One of the guidebooks suggests optimistically that there might have been plans for  third floor, with an Elizabethan gallery, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence for this. I'm afraid this was another building by Tresham that demonstrated a principle, in this case a Greek cross, at the expense of the practical.

Both houses are within a few miles of Tresham's first house - he already had a fine house at Rushton. The Triangular Lodge is in the park of Rushton Hall. Tresham didn't build it, but he adapted it, and it shows plenty of signs of his influenced. So why wasn't he satisfied with being there? After all, if you had spent fifteen years not being allowed to enter your own home, would you promptly start building, not one, but two houses that you never lived in?

I was relieved to go outside again, and to enjoy the (very untriangular) daisies. I left the house to the crows - they were making an amazing din with their nests in the top of the walls. Clearly, they were very happy with the house.

Thursday, 3 June 2010


It was a gorgeously sunny day, a day with the light so intense that it was at times difficult to get the balance of light and shade right. What do I remember about Leamington? It was a place where buildings were reused. The swimming pool from the Pump Room has become a library. The aviary in the local park is now a coffee shop. The old police station is now the Polish Centre. But even stranger things are happening. What was the choicest hotel in Leamington is now a Travelodge.

Parade, the major street in the new town, is an interesting battleground. On either side of it are the endless four-storey classical facades that you see in many resorts. Underneath the increasingly out of alignment windows and the exquisite ironwork on the balconies you see a standard English high street struggling to emerge: Boots, W H Smith, and so on. It would emerge even stronger still if the planners didn't insist that all shop signs had to be inconspicuous and should be placed against the cream background of the original facade, but it's clear nonetheless that commerce is winning.

Then there is the other Leamington effect, the people themselves. It's either beer cans or 4x4s.

Or in this case, a car park.

It seems that Leamington has been in decline ever since the middle of the nineteenth century. Leamington College, a big private school, closed in 1902 due to financial difficulties. A wonderful early nineteenth-century facade with original ironwork is now the Pig and Fiddle pub:

But despite all the changes, it's still a lived-in place. There were people sunbathing and children playing in the fountains in the park. All the pubs were busy. Only the librarian seemed to want to keep the people out. When I asked him if I could take a picture inside the library, to show the old swimming pool roof, he checked with his colleagues and then told me it was OK - as long as I didn't show any people. I tried as far as I could to comply with his request, but if you look very hard you can see people in the library. Next time I'll ask them all to leave before I take the photo.

Friday, 21 May 2010


Here is a pleasant scene. In the foreground a foal is feeding from its mother. Behind the white horses, other horses are feeding. Another foal is busy walking away from the horses in the foregroun. Behind the horses, a boat is moving to the right (towards the north). Behind the boat, a cyclist is busy cycling to the left (towards the south).

The man in the boat seems to be busy pointing something out to his right. The cyclist is concentrating on where he is going. Nobody sees anyone else, or at least none of the actors show any signs of responding to the others in the scene. The cyclist, the man in the boat, and the horses could be in separate worlds.

There is some interaction. The mother horse is aware of the foal. The man in the boat would not be pointing unless there were someone nearby who can interpret his gesture. But what is remarkable is how little interaction there is.

Does this constitute a modern pastoral? If each of the actors in the scene is independent of the other, does this affect the overall harmony? In any case, who says there is harmony? The man in the boat could be shouting - he is pointing rather energetically. The cyclist is not on an afternoon outing; he is far too dedicated to his cycling for that. Even the horses are all busy. No actor in this scene has any time for reflection. Is this then an intrusion into three or four discrete, self-contained worlds, that by sheer coincidence lined up in a single photograph without interacting in the least?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Well, it's a kind of buttercup - actually a marsh marigold. It was flowering in great profusion near some water, near the River Wey, to be precise, just to the south of Guildford. Now Guildford has well-kept public gardens, but it's hardly a city you would imagine with wild flowers growing. It is very built-up, there is a lot of traffic, and you wouldn't immediately imagine anywhere near the centre where large areas of wild flowers could grow freely. But here by the water, less than a mile from the centre of Guildford, the marsh marigolds were flowering in exquisite profusion. I took several pictures, but this one, a close-up of the flowers, seems to capture them best. There is something magical about the shiny leaves contrasted with the powerful yellow of the flowers. Even though the plants are not in water, they give the impression that there is a lot of water about. And they call attention to themselves from a long way away; you don't walk past them without noticing. Those lovely curved leaves  - why aren't they straight? It means the flowers emerge as if from hiding.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Sitting on the fence

Siegfried Kracauer wrote (in his interesting History - the Last Things before the First, 1969) "ambiguity is the sign of truth". Accordingly, Kracauer preferred Erasmus to Luther. Sounds a reasonable maxim for the contentious sixteenth century (if you were to keep your head), but there are benefits and drawbacks of this approach. One longs for certainties, at least, I do. I don't think I could have sat on the fence for as long as Erasmus did. Perhaps I don't long for certainties, I just feel happier when something is decided - rightly or wrongly.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Soane lives on

There was snow outside, and one block away a continual roar of traffic. But in Lincoln's Inn Fields, as you approached the John Soane Museum, there was a feeling that the traffic had been left behind. On entering the house, it was another world. For once, the old chestnut ("Does the family still live here?") was irrelevant because Soane himself lives here: there is a powerful, and rather eery, sense of his presence in every room. Perhaps it is the unexpected mixture of standard-sized rooms and tiny rooms, perhaps the sense of intimacy because in every room of the house there are traces - sometimes immediately obvious, at other times only noticeable after a few glances - of Soane himself. As you wander round the house (a misnomer, because the house is museum, junkyard, and small-scale demonstration of architectural tricks, at the same time as being his living quarters) you begin to see how the subject of the house is no less than Soane. It is Soane's portrait in the living room above the fire. That bust in the gallery is none other than Sir John Soane. It is a temple dedicated to one man.

But does it matter? If nothing else, it is remarkable how easy it is for a visitor, right in the middle of central London, to find themselves suddenly immersed in a different world.