Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Faringdon, Berkshire*

Moving on

So solid, buildings do not generally move. Permanence is one of the conditions of architecture, and when we hear of a building moving, we are apt to get excited, because it’s being dismantled and re-erected stone by stone (like London’s Temple Bar), or because it’s being transported on an overgrown truck, or because it’s suffering from “structural movement”, the bugbear of surveyors and the owners of houses, meaning it’s subsiding, and may fall down. “The crack is moving down the wall, We must remain until the roof falls in” are the relentlessly repeating lines in an eerie poem by Weldon Kees, the American poet who disappeared one day in 1955, not about to let his own house fall down around his ears.

Statuary, especially anything made of stone and larger than life-size, also tends to stay put. But sometimes, under the influences of circumstances, accidents, and strong wills, buildings and statues move, or even move together. London’s Crystal Palace, of course, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was taken apart and its miles of iron framework and acres of glass were re-assembled in a slightly different form in South London. Later, it burned down, leaving only vast and trunkless legs of stone, or foundations of stone at any rate.

Other survivors of these vicissitudes were a pair of statues personifying the continents of Africa and Asia. These figures were bought in 1966 and placed in the park of Faringdon House by Robert Heber-Percy, heir and former partner of Lord Berners. Berners, the “versatile peer”, who had written music, painted, dyed his doves in bright colours, and generally been entertaining, made your standard English eccentric look staid and unproductive. Eccentricity can be fragile, crumbling with the passing of the eccentric, But Berners lives on in his music, his folly tower overlooking Faringdon, and his writings.

I like to think there’s something of his spirit in the importation of these statues, one of which, Africa with her sphinx, is generously made visible to the passer-by over the park wall. Made, no doubt, to symbolize Britain’s dominion over the world’s continents, its original meaning is irrelevant in today’s world. Rather than smash it up, though, why not preserve it to remind us how we once saw ourselves and others, in the days before these bulky traces of the Crystal Palace moved from London to a corner of a garden on the edge of an English country town?

* * *

*I use the old-style English county boundaries.


Anonymous said...

Bricks and mortar are difficult to move intact, but there is long tradition of architectural salvage. Many ancient Roman buildings were stripped so their materials could be reused (not just in Italy - for example, the cathedral in St Albans). More recently, Nonsuch Palace was broken up and sold by a mistress of Charles II.

I understand that it is not uncommon in New Zealand, for example, for second-hand buildings (domestic ones, at least) to be relocated. They tend to be mostly wood construction, so can be cut into manageable chunks (halved, say) and loaded on the the back of a lorry to be transported to the purchaser's land and put back together again.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, relocating wooden-framed buildings in not uncommon in the USA too.

The long history of architectural salvage is interesting. I have seen what look like Roman bricks built into the structure of medieval castles - and also into the walls of churches. One of these days I'll do a post about it.

Peter Ashley said...

How very spooky. I wouldn't want to see that caught in my headlights.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: There is a point, as you pass on the road, where you catch a fleeting glimpse of her through some trees. Then as you go a little further you see more of her, as in my picture. The first glimpse is surprising and, yes, slightly spooky.