Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lewes, Sussex


Fossils and flutes

Every architectural history and glossary will tell you about the classical orders, the sets of rules defining how columns, capitals, and the structures they support should be designed. They will tell you that there are five orders – three (the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian) invented by the Greeks, and the other two (Composite and Tuscan) added by the Romans. They were imitated and adapted by the architects of the Renaissance, and became fashionable in England thanks to classical architects such as Inigo Jones and the legion of classicists who came after him, from the 17th to the early-20th centuries.

But this is not quite the whole story. Regular readers of this blog may remember a post about the curious ‘Gothic order’, invented in the Georgian period and used on a building in Ludlow. There’s another variation on the orders in Castle Place, a house in the High Street in Lewes. The porch is in the Ionic order – the capitals, with their pairs of spiral volutes, are straight from the builders’ pattern books of c 1810 when this house was built. But what is this on top of the fluted pilasters that bookend the façade? Not spirals in the Ionic mode, but pairs of fossils, ammonites in fact!


The ‘ammonite order’ was the brainchild of George Dance, who used it in London in 1789. It was taken up enthusiastically by Amon Wilds and his son, also called Amon, builder-architects who did a lot of work in Sussex, especially Brighton. Perhaps they liked ammonites because the name afforded the opportunity for a visual pun. Fossil-collecting was already a popular pastime by 1810, and ammonites, or ‘snake stones’ as they were often called, were prized by collectors. Their likeness fits wonderfully, if eccentrically, on top of the pilasters on this Lewes house, and no doubt acted as a kind of advertisement for the builders. In 1816 Castle Place was bought by a Dr Gideon Mantell, who was a geologist. No doubt he liked the ammonites too.

18 comments:

Monkeycounter said...

Gideon Mantell was more than just a geologist - one of the very earliest fossil collectors. It's difficult to imagine that the ammonites weren't added by him.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Monkeycounter: Yes, Mantell was indeed an important early fossil collector and pioneer palaeontologist. It's just possible that the ammonites were added for him, but equally possible that Wilds incorporated them into his original 1810 remodelling of the house, six years before Mantell moved in. The English Heritage listing description for the house seems to indicate that the front, including the ammonites, is from 1810. There's plenty of further evidence from the houses that the Wilds built in Brighton that the Wilds family were keen on ammonites.

shui-long said...

It's rather more successful than the "English Order" invented by Henry Emlyn of Windsor - e.g. Beaumont Lodge at Old Windsor, 1790

Philip Wilkinson said...

Shui-Long: Yes! Emlyn's British Order is bizarre in the extreme.

bazza said...

Sometimes when one see's a mish-mash of classical orders in various buildings it's temtping to sneer.
However it could be seen as real inventiveness or daring experimenation. We should have open minds and you have been very generous!
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Vinogirl said...

Great little tidbit of archaeologic history.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: I try to keep an open mind. It's not always easy, mind you!

Vinogirl: Thank you. I must look out for some architectural grapes for you!

Vinogirl said...

I would love that!

Jon Dudley said...

Philip, you're spoiling us now! Mantell and his home...what a treat. I think you're right about the fossils atop the columns predating his moving there - pure serendipity. A local writer claims otherwise but she's wrong I'm sure. Mantell's life story occupied many pages in a run of pre-war Sussex County magazines, and what a life. A total obsessive of course, he lost his marriage to his 'hobby' and after failing to gain any interest from Brighton, sold his remarkable collection to (I think) the British Museum for £5,000. Got a woman off a murder charge too...and wrote poetry, was a midwife and member of The Royal College of Surgeons and credited with the discovery of the Iguanadon. Quite a chap, finally ruined by a carriage accident which damaged his spine and left him addicted to opium as a painkiller on which he finally od'd. Sorry, this is supposed to be about buildings isn't it.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jon: A fascinating character, thank you for fleshing him out.

CarolineLD said...

Lovely - there are some ammonite order columns on cottages in New Cross Road, London which might just possibly be by the Wilds too.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Caroline: I vaguely remember these, but I wasn't as aware of such things when I lived in this part of southeast London, many moons ago.

Auriel Ragmon said...

I am so enjoying these English posts!
I wish I were with you, rather than in the Pacific Northwest of the USAA whre so much of architecture is so prosaic and wooden.

Please keep what's left of your heritage for those in other climes who can appreciate it!

hope to visit someday and see many things!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Auriel: Thank you for your comment. I hope you get to see some of our buildings one day.

Ron Combo said...

Just such interesting stuff. Bravo Wilko!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Ron. It's good when such a tiny detail on a building yields such stories.

Joseph Biddulph said...

Because we have abandoned Classical architecture and don't always understand its rationale, the ammonites seem to cause a lot of trouble for us: J.S.Curl in his book on Classical Architecture (1991?) tried to share the combination of aesthetics and maths that makes up the Classical orders and what they are trying to achieve. Very unEnglish, some would say, but a slow walk around Lewes even in the depths of winter is highly recommended: I have my own photos on my wall at home, and they continue to give great pleasure - and nobody would pretend that the nodding half-timber of the Fifteenth Century Bookshop is not as unClassical and vernacular as they come, once you get tired of the entablatures and the shiny black "mathematical tiles"!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you. A slow walk around Lewes is definitely to be recommended.