Thursday, May 26, 2011

Compton Verney, Warwickshire

The ice man returneth

In 1626 the great writer and polymath Francis Bacon discovered that he could preserve a fowl by packing it with ice and snow. Tragically, the philosopher caught flu and died after his experiment with the fowl, but soon after this sad episode the use of ice caught on in the kitchens of the rich. Ice was used not just for food preservation, but also to make chilled desserts and to cool wine. If you had a country house with a lake (or special ice ponds), you had a ready source of ice in the winter. To keep the ice for use in the warmer months, you needed dedicated storage: enter the ice house.

Ice houses were small structures built to keep in the cold. A typical design consisted of a brick-lined chamber sunk partly into a hillside (or into an earth mound) and roofed with thick thatch. Some architects specified a double wall, for extra insulation; there was generally a drain to carry away surplus water; and there might also be a brick-vaulted entrance corridor with a door at either end, to cut off the ice chamber from the warm outdoors. Ice was packed carefully into the ice chamber, a job supervised by the head gardener, who would ensure that there were only the tiniest of gaps between the blocks of ice, to minimize air pockets and discourage thawing.

The ice house at Compton Verney, built in 1771–2, recently restored, and resplendent under its round thatched roof, is a beautiful example. It has a well constructed brick-lined interior and even though visitor access is to the entrance corridor not the ice chamber itself, it’s pleasantly cool in there. And one can see that, if Osbert Sitwell, comparing his family’s ice house at Renishaw to one of the vast stone-vaulted tombs at Mycenae, was laying it on a bit thick, he had a point – they really are very imposing interiors.

It was a bonus, when visiting Compton Verney to see their current exhibition of pictures by Ben Nicolson and Alfred Wallis, to find this ice house restored, a reminder of the time when Compton Verney was not an art gallery but a flourishing country house and an indication of the ingenuity of those who supplied its inhabitants with food and wine.

Above Entrance corridor, Compton Verney ice house

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There is more about the restoration of the Compton Verney ice house here, and more about Compton Verney itself here.


Anonymous said...

I really like the utilitarian architecture of our forebears; often superbly designed with no extraneous decoration and completely un-showy, with lovely patinated simple materials (brick, thatch...). There is/was an entrance to an ice house close to Mapledurham House, between Pangbourne and Reading. The XXth C. was not the first one to put function above appearance.
Going back to an older post, I shall order the Biddle book and keep my eyes open for a copy of Betjeman’s.
François-Marc Chaballier

Philip Wilkinson said...

François-Marc: Yes, such buildings are unshowy, but have great integrity.

worm said...

fascinating stuff , and compton verney is just down the road from me, which is handy!

Is that really a fact that cold storage is attributed to Francis Bacon? Don't you think that even early man like neanderthals must have noticed that certain foods like meat if left in the cold seemed to last longer???

Incidentally I note that the aforementioned snow-stuffed fowl is supposed to be a rather unusual ghost!:

Philip Wilkinson said...

Worm: Great story about the ghost – I didn't know about that.
I'm sure people in previous eras had had the idea of using the cold to preserve food – especially in northern climes. But the Bacon episode is generally said to be a first in the 'modern' period, before which salting and smoking were more common methods of preserving meat. None of this helped the philosopher though: Bacon's goose was cooked.

Peter Ashley said...

A classic English Buildings post, thankyou. And a superb photograph.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Thank you so much. I knew this ice house was being restored, but it was still a surprise to see how good it is.

Val said...

What an interesting story! But it feels unfinished. Bacon died, the spirit of the chicken took up haunting, but whatever happened to the frozen carcass, I wonder. How long was it kept frozen? Where was it kept? Who ate it? Was it served with new potatoes and asparagus?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Val: True. No one remembers the chicken. I should perhaps have said that this story of Bacon's death is traditional. It's repeated in many sources - both online and printed, including Aubrey's Brief Life of Bacon. But the surviving evidence for it is scant. Bacon certainly wrote a letter saying that he'd been doing experiments 'touching the conservation and induration of bodies' but doesn't say exactly what they were.

Vinogirl said...

That is brilliant, never seen anything like it before.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Vinogirl: You see the lengths that these people went to in order to chill their wine!

Vinogirl said...

Nice one Philip :)