Thursday, July 18, 2013
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.