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The English Folly

The Edifice Complex


Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp


 Swindon: Historic England, 2020

Paperback. ix + 250p. ISBN 978-1789622126. £30


Reviewed by Jacques Carré

Paris: Sorbonne-Université




Since the publication of Barbara Jones’s pioneering Follies and Grottoes in 1953 (revised 1974), there has been an increasing interest in the hundreds of bizarre edifices dotted about English country estates by their more or less eccentric owners, especially in the eighteenth century. This has culminated more recently in dedicated magazines, websites, newsletters, study-groups and blogs, as well as several books and repertories by Headley and Meulenkamp themselves.

The present book is supposed, according to its authors, to concentrate on the men (and a few women) who commissioned such buildings, rather than on the architecture itself. Some, like Ralph Allen, Sir Francis Dashwood or William Beckford, are well-known, and there is nothing new to be learnt about them. Once the reader has become resigned to the alternately flippant and snobbish tone of the authors and their irrepressible bouts of council-bashing, he or she can find detailed portraits of some of the rich individuals who left their mark (sometimes the only one) on their estates. What emerges is of course the sheer frivolousness of most follies. One example is “Wainhouse’s chimney”, near Halifax, a 275 ft tower equipped with two belvederes built in 1871 to spite a neighbouring industrialist, Sir Henry Edwards, MP, who hated having his own estate at Pye Nest pried into. In some cases, however, the men who had follies erected were seriously interested in architecture. Such was the case of Jack Fuller (1757-1834), an MP and Sussex squire, who consistently patronised the Greek revivalist architect Robert Smirke, the designer of both the Rotunda temple and the Observatory at Brightling in the 1810s. Smirke may also have designed other follies commissioned by Fuller in the area, such as the Needle commemorating the battle of Trafalgar, the Pyramid, Fuller’s own funeral monument, the Sugar Loaf (the result of a bet) and the Hermit’s tower, all erected before 1830.

On the other hand, apart from the excuse of eccentricity (“follies are above all fun” [4]), we find here no attempt whatsoever at explaining why so many English landowners and industrialists were prepared to spend considerable sums of money on such useless structures. Surely a minimal amount of economic, social and cultural analysis is needed on the subject of what is ominously designated as “the edifice complex” (the subtitle of the book). On the rare occasions when they venture into historical generalisations, the authors tend to be self-contradictory: “In the past if you weren’t working you were starving” [2] – but surely the aristocrats who built follies were not reputed for their dedication to “work”! Immense unearned wealth was clearly the main precondition of folly-building. Also the urge to give a visual expression of patriarchal hegemony over the land should be appreciated. As to the choice of architectural forms, now classical, now pseudo-medieval, it surely has something to do with current fashionable tastes at given periods by the upper classes, eccentric or not.

In spite of its supposed concern for quirky owners rather than edifices, the book fortunately devotes its thirteen chapters to the different types of follies. The authors’ definition of such buildings is extremely extensive, as it includes industrial structures such as the Egyptian-looking Temple Mills in Leeds, royal residences such as the Brighton pavilion designed for the Prince Regent, and even private tunnels such as the immense underground passages at Welbeck Abbey, mostly to be used by the staff the 5th Duke of Portland did not wish to see.  On the other hand, the book ignores some of the most delightful follies of the 18th century such as Vanbrugh’s Temple of the Four Winds at Castle Howard, or Chambers’ Pagoda at Kew Gardens. But it does reveal some of the lesser-known buildings of interest, especially those recently restored, and that is the main asset of the book. It is good to see fine photographs of the 16th-century Hunting Tower at Chatsworth, so often overlooked, of the refurbished grotto at Pains Hill, or of the stupendous “Deer Palace” at Bishop Auckland. And it is interesting to hear that the last great folly tower in England was erected as late as 1935 at Faringdon by Lord Berners.

Erratic and enthusiastic as it is, this book perhaps reflects the mood in which many follies were erected, and will appeal to those who like to explore the byways of architectural history. The illustrations are of excellent quality. Each chapter is followed by a reliable gazetteer of surviving follies of the type described, and there is a good bibliography at the end.



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