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Today’s post combines the splendor of summer, the loveliness of gardens, and the foreboding beauty of gothic architecture. How can we accomplish such a juxtaposition? By featuring a small gallery of Gothic summerhouses from estate gardens of the great and powerful (mostly in England).
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A summerhouse is a garden feature found in grander gardens than mine! It is a sort of folly building: a small open building in a garden or park where someone can sit during the summer time. Of course great aristocrats of yore had a different idea of what constitutes “small” or “open” than I do, so some of the summer houses in European gardens are practically houses in their own right. Looking at certain examples here makes me realize that for an Earl or Duke, summerhouse probably means “surplus house where you can party with a viscount and 20 retainers.” Still some of these houses are actually on the smaller side and could almost be gazeboes, playhouses, or “cots” (as simple huts were sometimes called).
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My old roommate Jennifer has decamped to the great Smokey Mountains to work remotely for a month and I am told she is doing all of her work from a splendid summerhouse. I wonder if she has something like these. Unfortunately the lords of Wall Street won’t let me out of the building during summer (which is most wise, since I would undoubtedly wander off or start drawing or gardening if not shackled to my workstation). Still one can dream about these beautiful structures and lazing away the golden months on high summer in such opulent magnificence!
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Today we have a special mystery:  a strange sacred underground passage of great beauty which was constructed by unknown entities for unknown reasons.  Shell Grotto in Margate Kent is an underground passage constructed entirely of seashells (or, I should say, the walls and ceilings are entirely lined with shells).  The passage is 2.4 meters (8 feet) high and 21 meters in length (69 feet) and terminates in a 5 x 6 meter (16 foot by 20 foot) chamber colloquially known as “The Altar Room.”  The entire complex is hewn out of the native chalk of Kent and extensively decorated with vaults and decorative mosaics made of local mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, and oysters (although winkles from as far away as Southampton.

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The complex was “discovered” in 1835 and has been the subject of much speculation ever since.   Some people assert that it was a prehistoric astronomical calendar (?), a special space for Templar or Freemasonry ceremonies, or an 18th century nobleman’s folly.  The first mention of it in the press is from 1838, announcing its forthcoming opening as a public attraction.  My own hypothesis is that the grotto is a Victorian attraction.

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Originally the shells had their vibrant natural colors, but after long exposure to flickering Victorian gaslights they had blackened and faded.  Fortunately, Shell Grotto is protected as a Grade I listed building of special historical and cultural interest (although no archaeologists seem particularly interested, which reinforces my “Victorian tourist trap: hypothesis).  Whatever its provenance, Shell Grotto is certainly impressive.  It is estimated that the builders, whoever they were, employed about 4.7 million shells to make the complex.  Their initiative and hard work have paid off: Shell Grotto has a mysterious oceanic splendor and beauty all its own.  The enigma of its nature only adds to its picturesque (but haunting) charm.

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Have you ever read “In Praise of Folly” by the Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam?  It is a magisterial work of humanist values which helped frame the Protestant Reformation (although Erasmus himself always remained a dutiful Catholic priest).  The essay takes the form of a classical panegyric, in which the goddess Folly sets out to praise herself and her unrivaled influence over human affairs.  After a thoroughly convincing enumeration of Folly’s worldwide power (a list which particularly aims at the excesses of temporal and spiritual princes), Erasmus ends his treatise with the concept that only true Christian devotion can combat folly–a somewhat disappointing conclusion if you happen to be skeptical.

"You'll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me."

“You’ll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me.”

Today’s post actually has almost nothing to do with Erasmus…or does it?  Ferrebeekeeper has already evinced an unhealthy interest in architectural follies, fanciful structures with no apparent purpose other than to amuse or divert the great lords who commissioned them.  Today we praise the color folly, a brilliant orange-pink crimson.       Folly is most famous as a fashion color and finds frequent use in lipsticks, nail polish, and lady’s apparel.  The name was first applied to the color during the roaring twenties as a booming chemical industry brought all sorts of new dyes and paints to market (also the name suits the euphoric giddiness of jazz-age excess).

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Folly is not just used in nail polish. The flag of Nepal (which is arguably the strangest national flag because of its double pennant shape) has a folly-colored background.  The pink-crimson of the Nepalese flag is the national color—it represents the mountain rhododendron and the brave yet joyful hearts of the Nepalese people. The rhododendron is not alone, there are many beautiful roses, zinnias, and azaleas which share the hue.

The Flag of Nepal

The Flag of Nepal

Folly is actually one of my favorite colors.  I am not praising it ironically.  I do wonder how we named such a pretty color with such a scandalous name.  Fortunately, it is probably only a devoted fashionista or a history buff who would use the name folly today (everyone else would probably say “bright rose” or “orange-pink” or some bespoke name made up by copywriters), but how did we stumble into the name in the first place?  Did some clever flapper decide to pillory her era by evoking the spirit of Erasmus? Folly is great, but its name is folly.

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

The Sugarloaf Folly in East Sussex (early 1820s)

Yesterday, in reaction to the many follies in the world news, I decided to write a post about architectural follies–remarkable ornamental buildings commissioned by nobles to add beauty and interest to their estates.

the Forever Incomplete Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville (1760s-1770s)

Many follies were towers, fake ruins, or ersatz foreign structures (pagodas, minarets, wigwams and so forth) however some follies were heavy-handed allegories about the nature of life.  Nick Ford, an architectural blogger describes two famous allegorical follies in England writing, “The temple of philosophy at Ermenonville was not completed–to symbolize that knowledge would never be complete, while the temple of modern virtues at Stowe was deliberately ruined, to show the decay of contemporary morals.”

The Temple of Modern Virtue at Stowe (built as a ruin)

Other follies actually had a practical purpose.  Connolly’s Folly in Ireland was created to provide gainful employment for the vast numbers of unemployed workers during the Famine of 1740-1741 (unlike the potato famine a century later, the famine of 1740-1741 was caused by a dreadfully cold two year period in Ireland—one of the last severe cold snaps which marked the end of the Little Ice Age).  Other philanthropists in 18th century Ireland commissioned similar projects such as roads to nowhere and great piers built in swamps. In a way follies were the economic stimulus package of the 18th century.  After the workers were paid, the lordly benefactor at least had a pretty building to show for their charity.

Connolly's Folly (1740)

It will be obvious to the practical reader that I have somehow come full circle.  Yesterday to escape the grim news of economic mismanagement and greedy grandstanding elites, I escaped into the fantasy world of eighteenth century gardens.  Today I am writing about how the opulent structures within those pleasure gardens were the attempts of eighteenth century leaders to aggrandize their status while ensuring an economic “trickle-down” would benefit the struggling workers at the bottom of society (who were starting to feel the first pinches from globalism and industrialization—while simultaneously groaning beneath of the ancient regime).  The little historical digression leads to an uncomfortable truth about the economy of the rich world–much of what we do and strive for is really only status ornamentation.

Burj Khalifa (2010)

Walk around today and you will start seeing garden follies a thousand feet tall built of steel (especially if you in Dubai or Shanghai or Manhattan) but with purposes as murky as those of the temple of modern virtues.  You might be reading this as you pretend to work in one!

The latter half of the summer is the silly season for journalism.  During August, in particular, when legislative bodies are on break and the titans of finance are estivating in Gstaad, the papers are filled with stories about pie-eating contests, surfing dogs, and other similar bucolic follies.   The evocative Swedish phrase for this indolent time is “rötmånadshistoria” which literally means rotting month—a time when every Swede is on holiday elsewhere and the forgotten leftovers rot in the fridge.

Silly Season 2011?

Well that is how it is supposed to be anyway. This summer the paper is filled with disasters.  America’s leaders have collectively decided they would prefer to see the country ruined as long as the opposite party is blamed.  US Government bonds have been downgraded. The markets are crashing. Darpa’s experimental scramjet is lost.  London is on fire.  Internecine wars grind on in west Asia. Bullet trains are crashing in China. Syria is taking another step on the road to genocidal civil war.   This year seems like a dark literal version of rötmånadshistoria–in which everything is revealed to be rotten. The silliness is simmering over into madness.

Rushton Triangular Lodge (1595)

Sadly there are no facile solutions for any of those problems here.  This post is not meant to be a blueprint for fixing society, but rather a paean to the traditional summer silliness we should be enjoying.  Instead of concentrating on the bad news, let’s pretend none of it is happening! Sit back, imagine that it is a traditional silly season, and enjoy this post dedicated to frivolity.  In keeping with the finest tradition of Erasmus we will embrace absurdity and literally praise folly—or actually follies. So here is the first half of a two-part post concerning garden follies–extravagant ornamental structures intended solely for the amusement of bygone aristocrats. Such structures were expressly built not to be useful.  Oftentimes follies were purposefully manufactured as ruins or were designed with a glaring structural anomaly—like a tower without stairs, or a greenhouse without windows. A folly was often the centerpiece of a large garden and tied together the disparate themes.  Additionally, like powdered wigs, hoop skirts, and most other luxury goods, the very uselessness of a folly was testament to a nobleman’s power and prestige: he could afford to throw away princely sums on a decorative building.

Rococo Folly from Painswick Garden (Ca. 1750s)

Follies originated just prior to the 17th century. It was customary for gentlemen of that era to take a grand tour of southern Europe when they came of age.  As they traveled through Italy and southern France these elite tourists were exposed to actual Roman ruins.  When they returned to England or northern France they built copies of Greco-Roman temples to symbolize various classical virtues and ideals (which were already enshrined in the educational system of that time). Although the first wave of garden follies in the Seventeenth century was motivated by classical and religious ideas, the craze for extravagance and eccentricity deepened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  As France and England reached the apogee of their economic power, the ruling classes of those nations went all out to show their taste, sophistication, and rank with increasingly lavish and increasingly novel garden architecture.  Follies proliferated and took the shape of the eclectic pursuits of the lords commissioning them.  An interest in the Levant filled England with orientalist fantasies. The gothic revival led to a host of spooky medieval towers and pseudo-crypts.  The Earl of Dunmore, a Scottish Earl who loved tropical fruit commissioned an immense stone pineapple as a cupola for his hothouse.

Painshill Turkish Tent (mid 18th century)

The Dunmore Pineapple (1776)

Follies were meant to be beautiful and/or striking. Since they were designed specifically to be interesting ahead of all other concerns they often possess unique fantasy flourishes. In many cases the purpose of an architectural folly was to provide a direct allegorical lesson, however, even when no clear lesson was meant the structures clearly reflected the nature of human beliefs and desires…

The Chanteloup Pagoda (1775)

Perrott's Folly (1758)

To be continued tomorrow

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