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.