Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Conisborough, Yorkshire

Britton's Britain

John Britton’s The Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain, a work of the early-19th century, was, according to the RIBA ‘from its inception…received as marking a new era in architectural topography’. The book consists of a series of essays on notable historic buildings, from castles and great houses to abbeys and churches, each accompanied by engravings – plans, the occasional measured drawing, and more atmospheric portraits of the buildings in their landscape settings.

John Britton was born in Wiltshire in 1771. As a young man he worked as a wine merchant’s apprentice and cellarman, studying on his own in his spare time and meeting his friend Edward Wedlake Brayley in a bookshop in Camberwell. Soon Britton got a job as a lawyer’s clerk and began to write for publication too. A book on his native Wiltshire led to a long collaboration with Brayley and others on a series on the English counties.

During his work on the counties Britton gathered together a team of artists and engravers, and many of these also worked on The Architectural Antiquities. They rose to the challenge posed by Britton’s aim, to show the distinctive styles of medieval architecture, by ‘correct delineations and accurate accounts…drawn and engraved with scrupulous accuracy’. Nothing like this had been attempted before and if Britton’s historical texts were not always accurate, the illustrations were both informative, evocative, and worthy of their subjects. They were influential too, helping to put the Gothic revival on a new, more historically informed, footing.

This example, ‘etched by Wm. Wise from a Sketch by B. Howlet’, shows the massive great tower of Conisborough Castle in South Yorkshire. The tower was built in around 1180, when the castle was held by Hamelin Plantagenet, half-brother of Henry II. With its circular plan and enormous buttressing protrusions, the tower displays a strong and unusual design. The nearest thing to it is a castle at Mortemer, near Dieppe, which was also held by Hamelin’s family, and it may be that it was designed by Hamelin himself.

The view of the castle in Britton’s book is very much of its period. It evokes the time when you came upon such ruins to find them rather unkempt. There were plants growing on the stones here and there, walls might be ivy-covered, and the surrounding grass was kept short by sheep or goats. Visitors sat down to rest on unexcavated lumps and bumps probably marking the sites of demolished walls, and birds wheeled around overhead. A Romantic poet would have his notebook out in a trice and the engraving has perhaps drawn out the Romanticism of the scene by slightly exaggerating the height of the tower in proportion to its diameter.

The image evokes some of the wonder people in the early-19th century must have experienced in coming across ruins like this. Most of our castles are so conserved and curated now that this kind of encounter can happen only rarely. But now and then, when a ruin has been left in its overgrown state (Wigmore Castle is a favourite example), we can recapture something of this surprise and appreciate anew the original thrill of Britton’s publication.

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