Tuesday, July 5, 2011
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.