Thursday, July 18, 2013

Brewood, Staffordshire


Gothic on speed

In the middle of the small town of Brewood, strategically placed by a T-junction, is Speedwell Castle. This house is totally surprising, completely unlike the low-rise, rather modest houses and shops that surround it, and guaranteed to make the jaw drop and the eyebrows shoot up in astonishment. It's a house of the mid-18th century by an unknown designer – probably someone who had access to the architectural books produced by the memorably named garden designer and writer Batty Langley, a man who tried to make Gothic architecture better by elaborating it and applying classical rules to it, and who signalled his love of the classical past by giving his children names like Euclid and Archimedes.

Langley's book Ancient Architecture Restored of 1742, republished in 1747 under the title Gothic Architecture, Improved by Rules and Proportions, did much to encourage the fashion for the fancy, filigree version of Gothic that's often known as Gothick. This Batty Langley Gothick is all double-curved ogee arches, delicate pinnacles, and intricately patterned glazing bars. It was much used for small garden buildings and was developed by Horace Walpole in his famous Twickenham House, Strawberry Hill.

Walpole had in some ways a lighter touch than the builder of Speedwell Castle. Strawberry Hill is an asymmetrical building and sits beautifully in its garden. Speedwell by contrast is symmetrical and seems to burst out of its low-key urban setting. It makes you stop and stare – and ask how on earth it came to be built. No one knows the answer for sure, but there is an old story that provides a clue. The story goes that one William Rock, a local pharmacist who died in 1753, built the house with money he won betting on a horse called Speedwell. The story thus neatly explains the presence of the building and its name. An attractive tale, in lieu of any better explanation of the origin of this extraordinary bit of Gothic on speed.

9 comments:

Stephen Barker said...

I have pictures of this before and it is an enchanting building which breaks all the rules. I wonder if the interior is as eccentric as the exterior?

Do you think Batty Langley gets a poor press on account of his rather unfortunate first name. One feels that a lot of people used his books as a source of inspiration without neccessarily giving him the credit. Architectural history of the period does not seem to accord him the same respect as say James Gibbs receives for his Book of Architecture, even when he inserts a tower and spire into a classical temple as at St Martin's in the Fields.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stephen: Yes, I think people are apt to mock Batty Langley because of his name – but his whimsical versions of Gothic would have raised a smile even if they'd been published by someone called John Smith. Gibbs does get some criticism from architectural historians for the way he combined steeple and portico at St Martin's, but also gets a lot of respect – in part perhaps because of the high quality of much of his actual architectural work.

I don't know what the interior of Speedwell Castle is like except that the house apparently has a Chinese Chippendale staircase.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Isn't there an element of the Chinese style in the EXTERIOR? What about the "horns" on the porch, and the pattern of the glazing of some of the windows, and the bluish "frill" on the top of the window over the door?
Also, I am not satisfied that someone trying to do "gothic" would finish the tops of the windows with either a ball or a keystone. Wouldn't a stylised fleur-de-lis be more predictable? Even if the windows look rather heavy and fussy, from a practical point of view the canted bays must let in a great quantity of light, and would be very pleasant places to pull up an armchair and watch the world go by!

Philip Wilkinson said...

James: Maybe Gothic with a Chinese accent would be nearer the mark.

They must be very light rooms, with all that glass – my impression is that the building faces roughly north, so the bay windows must help what might otherwise have been a dark interior, at least on this side of the house.

Robert Slack said...

What an unusual looking building. This 'spiced-up' somewhat unrefined Gothic however doesn't quite do it for me. Isn't that too much window? And I'm quite sure it is sacrilege for me to say this, but I feel the strange looking door needs jacking up. Having said that, the adjacent buildings appear completely thwarted by it.

For me, it instantly conjures up India and the Taj Mahal. The way the arches curve 's' shaped first out and then in towards a peek capped with a sphere. It even has a flat roof similar to the flanks of the Taj Mahal, and seems to echo the shaping of those flanks. The 'horns' to the door can be seen in inlay artwork on the Taj Mahal, as can elements of the nicely executed symmetrical window tracery.

Am I being fanciful? possibly. Heretical it may be for me to say this, but I think this building would work well as The Taj Mahal curry house, although the Chinese Chippendale staircase could jar. Anyone for vindaloo?

A note for my diary: 'Must strive to be less straight-laced and more accepting of the whimsical'. Oh dear! will this make me less English?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Robert: This building seems to be all things to all people.

The acceptance of whimsy is perfectly compatible with Englishness, so long as the acceptance is kept within reasonable bounds!

Thud said...

I'm still working away on my gothic cottage and I'm now working on window treatments. If you could do a post on hood labels and stop ends it could be of some help.

stag said...

This is the book you referenced "on line".

http://archive.org/stream/architectureimpro00lang#page/n7/mode/2up

It will keep me enthralled for hours, I am certain of it.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stag: It's an interesting book, isn't it? Thanks for the link. The beautifully detailed plates made it easy for builders to copy Langley's 'improved' Gothic designs, and, of course, they did.