Thursday, January 7, 2016
Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire
The Ancient House, Tudor Cottage, The Old House. England is full of houses named for their antiquity. Such names beg the questions: ‘How old? When was it actually built?’ The answers, as we know, are rarely simple. Almost any English house older than a few decades has had alterations, extensions, modifications: we tinker, upgrade, downsize, adapt to current needs, endlessly. Any building that’s really (really?) old is likely to have had this done to it several times. How old? It depends on which bit you mean.
This Old House had me scratching my head even before I saw the name. There are wooden uprights and struts, but these look very much like later additions to make the place look old; the front wall seems not to be timber framed, after all. There are interesting bay windows, but their shape has something of the late-19th century about them – not notably old by English standards – and yet the leaded lights, especially those in the downstairs windows, have an older look to them. Ornate patterns of glazing bars like those were much used in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
Back home, I try to absorb the collective wisdom of Pevsner, the house’s listing text, and sundry online sources. The house, they confirm, is originally old – 16th or 17th century, but as Pevsner puts it with a little of that disapproval that he reserves for buildings that are not lit fully by the lamp of truth, ‘but much faked up inside and out at various times’.* A timber-framed core, then, encased in brick at some point, then painted white and adorned with faux timber-framing and rather delightful bay windows, some of which preserve earlier leaded panes. That could be about the size of it, though someone who knows the house well might be able to correct the story or fill in more details.
Does it matter if not everything is quite as it seems, that it’s ‘faked up’, as Pevsner puts it. When I was growing up and first reading about buildings, many writers and architects were very much influenced by the notion that a building should be true to its materials, that it should not dishonestly try to hide its origins or its structure. That’s a view influenced by generations of truth-seekers in architecture and design, from Ruskin and William Morris (both harking back in their different ways to their view of the Middle Ages) to the designers of the Bauhaus in its various incarnations. Attitudes are different, and more varied, now. I for one try to adopt a more open-minded approach to buildings like this. I like it that a building presents a puzzle, that it asks more questions than we can answer, that things like this can be fun to look at and think about. And as I myself get older, I like it too that buildings offer different ways of thinking about what it means to be old.
* As I’m quoting here from the revised edition of Pevsner’s Buckinghamshire (the 1994 printing), I’m not sure whether these are the actual words of the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, or of revisers Elizabeth Williamson and Geoffrey K Brandwood. But they certainly sound like Pevsner himself.