Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Pope's seat

Allen, 1st Earl Bathurst (1684–1775) was part of the circle at the heart of English high culture in the 18th century. He was a friend of the poet Alexander Pope, and the fact that one of Pope's celebrated poems is the Epistle to Bathurst has ensured him a place in the history of poetry. One thing that helped cement the friendship of Pope and Bathurst was an interest in gardening and the layout of country parks.

Next to his house in Cirencester, Bathurst laid out a remarkable park – the first park in which long straight rides extend through trees, crossing at rond points like the directional lines engraved on old maps and charts. The whole thing goes on for miles, with the ranks of mature trees stretching into the distance and the rides leading to distant vistas – the central ride aligns perfectly with the tall medieval tower of Cirencester parish church.

The current Earl Bathurst keeps this extraordinary place open to the public, so that walkers and horse riders can enjoy the landscape. Dotted here and there are interesting structures – a lodge with a round tower, a monument to Queen Anne with the monarch's statue atop a tall column, a hexagonal pavilion, and this tiny classical building, Pope's seat.

Pope's seat is at first glance a fairly standard bit of Georgian classicism with pediment, niches, and urns. But just as Pope's poetry, apparently so demure in its couplets, can leave seemliness and predictability far behind, so this little building bucks the trend somewhat. Those rusticated stones breaking into the bottom of the pediment; the irregular urns; the rather jazzy banded masonry all make this building stand out. It was just the thing to give shelter to a poet who wanted to rest and admire the view. Just the thing for us too.

4 comments: said...

My son and I sat in this very seat when we walked from Cirencester to see the Anglo-Saxon churches in the Duntisbourne valley. I even did a quick sketch of it. With it being juxtaposed in my experience with the chancel arch at Daglingworth, and being in the same stone, I was struck by the resemblances in "feel" (if that isn't too imprecise a word) between Pope's Seat and Anglo-Saxon architecture: the round arches going straight through the wall with no chamfer or stepping, the acceptance of perfectly plain tooled wall sections, and so on. I'm afraid the word "Georgian" is for once totally inadequate for what Pope's Seat is saying to us: if it were in Italy, we would have to say an awful lot more. The rustication, so heavy and obvious, refers to the Classical grotto, the hermit's cave, the home perhaps of some hairy Satyr or Wild Man of the Woods. This is crossed and combined with smooth bands suggesting Horace with his few acres of country estate and leisured scholarship. The alternation of the two textures is a bit surprising, and is perhaps designed to give us a feeling of unease - exactly the kind of double-take we might get from an Augustan pastoral, where you and I know, and the poet knew, that his Colin and Corydon were not real shepherds in the real wilderness, but shepherds refined with the magic wand of Art. I suppose if you wanted to express Pope's nature poetry in stone, this is exactly the kind of slightly facetious design that you might go for. It sticks absolutely to the rules, but it has a sly dig (not without a hint of self-criticism) that you might expect in something like the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot. Quite a lot of fun for such an insignificant piece of garden furniture!

Pigtown*Design said...

my cousins live in cirencester. is this the house with the massive hedge?

Philip Wilkinson said...

James: Thank you. Spot on.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Pigtown: Yes, that's the house. Your cousins live in a fine town.