Monday, June 5, 2023

Painswick, Gloucestershire


Welcome to the Eagle House

The Eagle House is a building on the edge of Painswick Rococo Garden and is one of those that the garden’s restorers had to reconstruct in part. The building is in two storeys – a lower section with a large Gothic archway and an upper level which is a small hexagonal pavilion, generously supplied with pointed Gothic windows that give views over the gardens. The good views from this cliff-top, eyrie-like structure form one reason for the building’s name; the other reason is that an eagle did live in it for a while, during the 19th century.

A drawing by Thomas Robins from the 1750s gave the restorers the best clues as to how to rebuild the upper storey, which had perished some time after the eagle’s period in residence. The present design, with the hexagon peeping up from above the row of stone battlements that top the arch below, follows Robins’s drawing closely. Archaeology revealed not only the foundations of the upper storey but also some fragments of its structure, including pieces of plaster in the pink colour used for the finish. The Gothic windows, the unusual hexagonal shape, the lightness of the upper section, and the pink colour are all features associated with the Rococo manner that give the garden its current name.

Another interesting aspect of the building is that it is possible to see the upper storey as one enters the garden, without realising that there is also a lower portion, which is revealed only when the visitor descends via a looping path. This element of surprise in the layout of a garden was something else Rococo designers and garden-owners of the 18th and 19th centuries relished. The novelist Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) satirised this preoccupation with surprise in his novel Headlong Hall, when Squire Headlong and two of his guests discuss landscape gardening:

‘Allow me,’ said Mr Gall. ‘I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful and add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness.’
‘Pray, sir,’ said Mr Milestone, ‘by what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round the grounds for a second time?’
Mr Gall bit his lips, and inwardly vowed to revenge himself on Miletsone, by cutting up his next publication.

Poor Mr Gall, being taken to task for, admittedly, being rather pompous about something light-hearted. For that, to my mind, is the point of gardens like this. They are a world away from the philosophical gardens of the period, in which buildings are freighted with moral or political meanings – Stowe is a wonderful example of this kind of outlook. The Rococo Garden seems to be above all about pleasure and delight, and is no worse for that.

How lucky were the 18th-century owners of the garden to be able to sit in this hexagonal pavilion and look out over their creation. How fortunate are those who, like me, paid up at the entrance and looked out through these windows. Or browsed through the selection of second-hand books now stocked on shelves beneath the windows. Gardens, architecture, literature: how much better can it get?

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