Thursday, January 7, 2016

Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

Growing old

The Ancient House, Tudor Cottage, The Old House. England is full of houses named for their antiquity. Such names beg the questions: ‘How old? When was it actually built?’ The answers, as we know, are rarely simple. Almost any English house older than a few decades has had alterations, extensions, modifications: we tinker, upgrade, downsize, adapt to current needs, endlessly. Any building that’s really (really?) old is likely to have had this done to it several times. How old? It depends on which bit you mean.

This Old House had me scratching my head even before I saw the name. There are wooden uprights and struts, but these look very much like later additions to make the place look old; the front wall seems not to be timber framed, after all. There are interesting bay windows, but their shape has something of the late-19th century about them – not notably old by English standards – and yet the leaded lights, especially those in the downstairs windows, have an older look to them. Ornate patterns of glazing bars like those were much used in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.

Back home, I try to absorb the collective wisdom of Pevsner, the house’s listing text, and sundry online sources. The house, they confirm, is originally old – 16th or 17th century, but as Pevsner puts it with a little of that disapproval that he reserves for buildings that are not lit fully by the lamp of truth, ‘but much faked up inside and out at various times’.* A timber-framed core, then, encased in brick at some point, then painted white and adorned with faux timber-framing and rather delightful bay windows, some of which preserve earlier leaded panes. That could be about the size of it, though someone who knows the house well might be able to correct the story or fill in more details.

Does it matter if not everything is quite as it seems, that it’s ‘faked up’, as Pevsner puts it. When I was growing up and first reading about buildings, many writers and architects were very much influenced by the notion that a building should be true to its materials, that it should not dishonestly try to hide its origins or its structure. That’s a view influenced by generations of truth-seekers in architecture and design, from Ruskin and William Morris (both harking back in their different ways to their view of the Middle Ages) to the designers of the Bauhaus in its various incarnations. Attitudes are different, and more varied, now. I for one try to adopt a more open-minded approach to buildings like this. I like it that a building presents a puzzle, that it asks more questions than we can answer, that things like this can be fun to look at and think about. And as I myself get older, I like it too that buildings offer different ways of thinking about what it means to be old.

* As I’m quoting here from the revised edition of Pevsner’s Buckinghamshire (the 1994 printing), I’m not sure whether these are the actual words of the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, or of revisers Elizabeth Williamson and Geoffrey K Brandwood. But they certainly sound like Pevsner himself.


Jenny Woolf said...

I don't mind buildings being faked up except insofar as the process of faking can often obliterate older, more interesting but less photogenic stuff. In its currrent magazine (I think) the SPAB has one building in its casework section which is unexpectedly full of interesting features, but not in the least photogenic

Hels said...

I have been thinking about this very topic in relation to historically interesting pubs in Britain that have served the local population for a century or (much) more and then became redundant since 1995. If the pub buildings were destroyed, then we have no debate. But if they were then modernised, expanded or used for totally different purposes (eg a fast food teenage site), are those ex-pubs still historically interesting and worth preserving?

thanks for the link

Stephen Barker said...

The timber work on the Gable end to the rear of the house certainly looks older and less regular than that on the front of the house.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes the rear gable timberwork does look older.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

David Watkins's 'Morality and Architecture' (University of Chicago Press 1975) makes gentle fun of Ruskin, Pevsner & Co. regarding "truth" and "morality" - given what ugly blots some so-called "truthful" architecture turns out to be, I tend to fairy tales and romance myself. I would even gothicise utilitarian fences if given the chance - and see absolutely no reason why you shouldn't imitate an older style if you like it. Since architecture is designed for human beings, and human beings have an aesthetic and romantic side, why shouldn't these things be indulged? The true morality for architecture, surely, is producing buildings for human beings to feel good in, respecting their dignity, and helping them to be happy in their home or place of work?