Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Rousham, Oxfordshire

The foolish and the wise

The use of the word ‘folly’ in my previous post set some readers scratching their heads. What is a folly, exactly? That’s a good question, and one that has had many people stumped. A folly is a building without a practical purpose, some say. But what do we call a practical purpose? A house has a practical purpose, so does a mill, so does a garden shelter that protects people from a sudden shower of rain. But can an ornamental arch have a practical purpose – if it can also be a shelter, for example? And is a purely ornamental role enough for us to pigeonhole it as a folly? If the word ‘folly’ implies foolishness of some sort, we’re on difficult ground straight away: ‘where is the line drawn between foolishness and good sense?’ asks Stuart Barton.* Where indeed?

In what is perhaps the best book on follies, Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp look at it another way. ‘A folly is a misunderstood building,’ they say.† Why would anyone build a tower on a hill, or construct a concrete zoo in their garden, or spend a lifetime tunnelling under Liverpool? The people who did these things had their reasons, but we may very well not know what those reasons were. We have lost touch with the purpose of the building, which may have been practical, or may have seemed so to its creator. So we simplify matters by calling the results ‘follies’.

The writer and illustrator Barbara Jones, in another very good book on the subject, admits that defining a folly is tricky, and offers instead a list of qualities that such buildings often share.§ Follies are produced by people who have money, security and peace; they are most often Gothic (or Gothick) in style; they have much to do with their creator’s mood and emotions; they are fragile; they are very personal; they rely a lot on their setting; the relate to the Romantic movement in literature and painting; their great age was the 18th and 19th centuries. In bringing together these various qualities, Barbara Jones doesn’t get us any closer to a definition, but she at least evokes the mood of many of these structures – and that is a step towards understanding them, at least.

Some 18th-century gardens, like the one at Rousham in Oxfordshire, are full of what people have called follies. A number of these are actually very useful buildings that have a bit of extra adornment added on to them. In my photograph above, the building in the middle distance falls into this category.¶ It is known as the Temple of the Mill, and it is a mill with a fancy ornamental Gothic bit (quatrefoil window, pinnacles, flying buttresses) built on one end. Nowadays it seems to be used as a house. But it also serves as a picturesque feature in the landscape. It’s both useful and amusing.

In the far distance, on the hillside in front of the trees, is the Rousham Eye-catcher. It simply consists of a wall with three arches in it. It is designed to look like part of a ruined building of some kind, and acts as a focus for the viewer’s gaze when admiring the scenery from Rousham’s enchanting garden. It might also offer a little shelter from a stiff breeze, but its principal function is to enhance the view, to give people something to look at, just like Scheemakers’ striking, indeed somewhat disturbing, sculpture in the foreground, which shows a lion attacking a horse.

That’s purpose enough for me, and enough to make me doubt that the term ‘folly’ is really very helpful at all.**

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* Stuart Barton, Monumental Follies, Lyle Publications, 1972

† Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp, Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings, Aurum Press, 1986, reprinted1999

§ Barbara Jones, Follies and Grottoes, Constable & Co, 1953, reprinted with revisions 1973

¶ It may be clearer if you click on the photograph to enlarge it.

** Thanks however, to those who raised the question and sent me off to do some interesting reading and rereading.


Peter Ashley said...

We may have talked about this before, but there is evidence of 'folly' meaning a group of trees on a hill. Before Lord Berners built his tower the hill on which he placed it was, and is, called Folly Hill. A friend once lived in a Folly Cottage, up amongst trees on a Dorset hillside. Very confusing, but may this be the origin of the word?

Eileen Wright said...

I've always felt that a folly is something that's a whim or indulgence on the part of the owner and at the same time something to surprise and amuse in the landscape. I'm sure I remember reading somewhere that some follies were built to give work for local men during lean times; many of the gentry having a sense of responsibility towards their villagers.