Saturday, November 25, 2017

Use and ornament

Roger White, Cottages Ornés: The charms of the simple life
Published by Yale University Press

As the Christmas period approaches, I’m reviewing a small clutch of recent books that I’ve enjoyed and that might give pleasure to readers interested in architecture. First, a book on a kind of house that stands out in landscape and villagescape: the cottage orné

The ornamental cottage – a small rural dwelling made more visually pleasing than the standard worker’s dwelling by means of various decorative embellishments – is one of the most charming phenomena of the 18th and 19th centuries. It has found an enthusiastic and well informed chronicler in Roger White, who begins his survey investigating the roots of the genre in mid-18th century rustic estate buildings before exploring the fashion at the beginning of the 19th century for housing rural workers in picturesque cottages with thatched roofs partly held up with rustic poles, verandahs, bits of timber-framing, fancy bargeboards, and other ornamental features.

From here he moves on to the larger, still more ornate and more varied middle-class cottages that were built in the Regency and Victorian periods, and the cottages enjoyed by the aristocracy and even the royal family. The range covered here is immense, from buildings based on designs in pattern books to glorious one-offs. Among the latter, the expected examples are here – the wonderful A La Ronde in Devon, Plas Newydd at Llangollen, the Queen’s Cottage at Kew, the Royal Lodge at Windsor. But it’s the sheer scope and variety of the lesser known examples that impresses, and the account takes in a broad geographical sweep too, with chapters on cottages ornés on Britain’s ‘Celtic fringes’, in mainland Europe, and further further afield.

We get glimpses of the owners of these places – a smattering of vicars and retired sea captains, unconventional bankers, pairs of spinster ladies like the creators of A La Ronde and several other cottages ornés. We discover the specific areas of Britain especially rich in this widespread architectural type – the Isle of Wight, Sidmouth, the Lake District. We take in a specific, Picturesque, view of the pattern book tradition, in which bargeboards and Tudoresque chimneys are more important than the Classical orders. And we luxuriate in a variety of images (both photographs and prints) of such things as shell rooms, stump houses, rustic masonry, and walls lined with quatrefoil windows.

People are apt to think that there’s something rather frivolous about cottages ornés.  But Regency landowners were quite serious about housing their workers in attractive houses so that they would be happy and more inclined to work hard, and theorists of the Picturesque were serious about the life-enhancing importance of a good view. In any case, one little regarded purpose of architecture is to entertain: Cottages Ornés shows that this is not an ignoble aim, and both the aim and book are worth celebrating.


bazza said...

It's hard to think of the lovely Queen Charlotte's Cottage in Kew Garden as being in any way frivolous! I'm going check my local library for this book.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s unimaginable Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Anonymous said...

Another book for the list of ones to buy.