Follies: An 18th Century Fascination

My interest with follies began in the early summer of 2001.  I had hiked up a long, sloping hill in Barcelona to visit Gaudi’s Guell park, seeking to bask in the artist’s vision beneath a sweltering midday sun.

I knew what to expect.  I had seen the apartment he’d designed along the busy street far from El Carmel Hill, strolled through the perpetually-in-progress La Sagrada Familia.  In the light of his creations, I understood one thing: magic pervades his work.  The symmetry feels utterly foreign, as though you’ve stepped in Dali painting and are unsure whether you wish to find your way out.  His world is at times sinister, at other times stricken with childish delights, but despite its fantastical elements, Gaudi’s buildings would not be considered follies.

 

The demarcation between fantasy and folly lies in the buildings intended use.  Upon approaching the nineteenth century, however, follies were increasingly allocated to activities beyond titillating one’s family and friends.

A confusing and ambiguous definition, when you get down to it.

Essentially, the strict definition of a folly distills down to two components.  One: does the buildings express purpose lie in ornamentation?  Two: is the nature of the structure symbolically relevant in terms of ideals and/or values?  Answer yes to both and you have genuine folly on your hands.

Sir Thomas Tresham’s Rushton Triangular Lodge, built 1593-1597.  This is what gets built when you imprison a Roman Catholic for not converting to Protestantism.   Throughout the design, you’ll see symbols of the Holy Trinity with its enthusiam for threes.

In addition to being expensive and impractical, follies were imitative in desgin.  Art wanted to reproduce a life already lived.  Like most trends, the initial concept of follies started with the privileged and trickled down to all who could afford historical aspirations, including the actor David Garrick

Garrick’s Temple by Johan Zoffany, 1762.  As a Shakespearean actor, Garrick desired to commemorate the playwright with a temple in his honor. Located on the north bank of the Thames in Hampton, London on what was once land adjoining Garrick’s villa, it’s the only known tribute devoted entirely to Shakespeare.   

Aristocrats whose estates boasted authentic ruins were envied by peers who viewed their lands as aesthetically barren.  To honor the upper class dictate of do thy neighbor one better, the 18th century—the last great hurrah of the landed aristocracy—saw a renewal in folly construction, although the trend was born some two centuries before.

Conceit was the lifeblood of these fantasy constructions.  Roman and Doric temples illustrated a desire to emulate classical virtues.  Nods to faraway cultures gave way to Egyptian pyramids, Chinese temples, and Tatar tents.  Travelling abroad, one might say, without ever leaving home.

Désert de Retz near Chambourcy, France

Simple peasant virtues, like those expressed in Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet at Versailles, were somewhat rarer but appeared in the form of mills, cottages, and rustic villages.  As the eighteenth century progressed, exoticism surfaced much the same way Chinoiserie did in textiles and home décor in the early 1700s.  Chinese pagodas and Japanese bridges were favored in lieu of castles and ruins, furthering euphoria over displaying one’s wealth through useless landscape ornaments.

 Brizlee Tower, from A Description and Historical View of Alnwick, 1822

Many notable follies were built to commemorate a loved one, particularly a woman.  Brizlee Tower, located on Hulne park near Alnwick Castle, was commissioned by Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, after Lady Elizabeth Seymour’s death in 1776.  In high gothic style, the tower sits atop a hill and rises 26 meters for a clear birdseye view from the north, east, and west.  As with a number of the tower follies, a beacon is surmounted at its heights.  When lit the fire can be seen for miles around.

Broadway Tower via Wiki Commons 

This is likewise the case with Broadway Tower.  Built in 1799 for Lady Coventry, the tower functioned as a sort of test to ascertain whether or not she could see its beacon from her house in Worcestershire, 22 miles away.  She could.

Stancombe Lake and Temple from The Temple

Among the most romantic examples of a folly is the temple at Stancombe Park in Gloucestershire.  Although its creator, the reverend David Purnell-Edwards, was newly married and more pointedly a reverend at the time, the temple was supposedly an ode to his secret lover. The legend surrounding its construction is something of an amusing tale.  Apparently, when Purnell-Edwards married, the dowry he received was as equally generous as the physical proportions of his bride.  We are left to imagine they didn’t take well together.  Mismatched personality, sizist attitude, no love lost–well, irrespective of the facts, Purnell-Edwards had a beautiful gyspy on the side and no suitable place to engage in trysts with her.

His solution?  Construct a romantic walk around a two acre lake, conceive a series of tunnels too narrow for the wifey to fit through (they measured just over three feet in width), and at the walk’s end, erect a temple outfitted with snuggling quarters and a boudoir.  The good news is that for £300  a night, the lover’s tryst is all yours to re-enact.  The bad news, however, is that considering it was once voted the most romantic place in Britain, that re-enactment has been set on repeat for quite some time now.

Happy 2012, readers, and thanks for being among the first visitors of the new year!  Your comments and faithful readership are very much appreciated!

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5 thoughts on “Follies: An 18th Century Fascination

  1. I adore a good folly, it is one of the things that really enlivened the eighteenth century for me.

    Strawberry Hill is a wonderful building, which in it’s romantic and aesthetic aspect is fully a folly but is also a practical(esque) house.

    1. Ah, yes, Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill. I’d never actually got around to looking at it and now that I have, I’m sorry I waited so long. It’s sort of magnificent . . . and very white. Thanks for sharing, Adam!

  2. Broadway Tower looks like something from a Monty Python movie. What a contrast to the Temple on Stancombe Lake. I give the nod to Purnell-Edwards for “stepping up his game” in the area of devotion.

  3. The story about David Purnell Edwards is just that- a story and factually incorrect. The gardens were not built by him at all, but by Bransbury Purnell in 1813. David Purnell Edwards was not born until1829 and was in fact 26 years older than his wife! A fun story re the naughty vicar, but incorrect on all points- sorry!

    1. How I hate it when naughty stories are debunked! I suppose the legend could never actually live up to the reality anyway. Those who book lodgings in the lovers’ folly would be quite disappointed. I smell a marketing ploy. Thanks for the comment, Susanna.

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