Nore Hill Folly, West Sussex – A Note on Follies, Eyecatchers and Fabriques

February 27, 2012

On Saturday afternoon I joined some friends for a short walk about the Sussex countryside. It was a day with an extra 10 degrees on the thermometer, bright sunshine, obedient daffodils and crocuses making their salutations, and all the other rites that bring the first sight of spring.

We began in Slindon village and were soon marching across the brow of one side of a small valley and,  turning to the other side of this small dip in the land, we could see Nore Hill Folly in the near distance. To feed a little ruinlust we made our loop take in this architectural  castaway and before long we were  weaving ourselves down and along one hill and then up the other to take a closer look, passing a beagle hunt,  a phalanx of ruddy-checked riders out with their puffing ponies, the London Symphony Orchestra playing a medley of Handel, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, countless other scenes straight from the small ads of Country Life, etc.

Nore Hill Folly, near Slindon, West Sussex, UK

On closer inspection the folly is like a ruinous medieval gatehouse (of a heavy, Northern European build), with one arch intact and the other shattered. Asymmetric, it has a tower to one side and crude battlements that run horizontally from one side to the other. The odd thing about the folly is that the tower, and the arch built ‘complete’, face up the hill. This suggests that the intended way of approaching the folly is from north to south, from an elevated position above the folly itself. It is worth noting how this ‘eyecatcher’, as follies of the eighteenth-century period were sometimes known, can catch the eye both from the village to the south (as it did as we began our walk) as well as collate a view down the valley, through its decaying aperture, towards the village and the panorama beyond. But little is known about the construction, intention and history of the folly at Nore Hill. It simply remains, without every aspect of its existence reducible to deed and document. It, like many other sham ruins of its kind, produces a time of stories that makes the factual basis of this architecture of secondary importance. This is the aesthetic tradition of the folly (and I am really not satisfied with the limitations of the word ‘aesthetic’, for the reasons given below). What I’m getting at, I think, are the conditions that produce the grounds for speculation, to give a narrative architecture engineered through the distructure of a built ruin.

Nore Hill Folly, near Slindon, West Sussex, UK

Although strongly associated with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some say that the desire to build sham ruins has a far longer history.[1] Vasari notes the interventions of Girolamo Genga, an architect of the early fifteenth century who was in the employment of the Duke of Urbino and commissioned Genga to build a palace, “a well-planned fabric, and full of apartments, colonnades, courts, loggie, fountains, and most delightful gardens, there is no Prince that passes that does not go to see it […] From the design of this same master, the Duke caused the Palace at Pesaro to be restored, and also the little park, making within it a house representing a ruin, which is a very beautiful thing to see.”[2] Genga’s building project was one that included the construction of a ruin, a visual diversion for the Duke’s visitors. It is worth noting that Genga’s ruin is approximately contemporary with Botticelli’s nativity works and this ruinous folly might be considered a secular equivalent to the temporal distinctions witnessed in those paintings. Later in the eighteenth century, spurred by Grand Tourism, the rise of the European picturesque and made manifest in both formal and irregular garden design, fabricated ruins became a common feature on the property of Europe’s fashionable elite. Writing in 1728, the writer and garden designer, Batty Langley, recommended ruins as a way to terminate avenues or vistas:

Ruins may either be painted upon Canvas, or actually built in that manner with Brick, and cover’d with Plaistering in Imitation of Stone. And since we are to build no more thereof than as much of the shell, as is next to our view, I therefore recommend their building before their painting, not only as the most durable, but least expensive (if the Painting is performed by a skilful Hand) and much more to the real Purport intended.[3]

Ruins provide a practical solution to the limitations of garden space and Langley preferred classical ruins for this role – “After the Old Roman Manner for the termination of Walks, Avenues &c.”[4] Again, the ruin is employed to resolve spatial distances with temporal distances. In the images that accompany Langley’s influential work, David Lockley’s simple etchings include mouldering structures to fill the gaps and channels created by ornate hedgerows. The effect of these ruins must have been to provide a telescopic vista, which gathers the manicured present within a theatrical past. Turned towards vantage points that would emphasise the ruin’s capacity to stand at odds with (and simultaneously within) the domestic space that surrounds it, these sham ruins serve to disclose many of the ruin’s narratological effects. The deployment of ruins in European gardens can be seen to follow the diktats of the picturesque as they were laid out by William Gilpin later in the century, “the picturesque eye is perhaps most inquisitive after the elegant relics of ancient architecture; the ruined tower, the Gothic arch, the remains of castles and abbeys. They are consecrated by time; and almost deserve the veneration we pay to the works of nature itself.”[5] Gilpin’s sense of the picturesque is deeply invested in the veneration of a past that ruins mediate. Engaging in the contrasts, transience and permanence that they suggest, ruins leave the historical to be “physically merged into the setting”, allowing ruin to become the visual index or material manifestation of time.

Folly at Hagley Hall, Worcester, built by Sanderson Miller, 1749–50. A.F. Kersting, n.d.

 As the locations reserved for sham ruins expanded beyond the formal spaces of English gardens, they became deployed across the land of the wealthy. The ruin built in the grounds of Hagley Hall provides a useful example, perched upon a hill and set apart from the main house of George Lyttelton who commissioned Sanderson Miller to build the folly in the 1750s. It is interesting to note Joseph Heely’s observations surrounding the historical effects of the structure, when he described the ruin several decades later:

Upon first glimpse of this becoming object, which adds so much dignity to the scene, one cannot resist an involuntary pause — struck with its character, the mind naturally falls into reflections, while curiosity is on the wing, to be acquainted with its history; and I make no doubt that an antiquarian like my friend, would sigh to know what era it was founded, and by whom: — what sieges is had sustained; — and would lament that hostile discord, or the iron hand of all-mouldering time, should so rapaciously destroy it.[6]

Heely’s response to the folly, by way of his anonymous and antiquarian “friend”, is an involuntarily narrative one, a response sensitive to the absent time that ruins make quasi-present. The “dignity” bestowed by Miller’s folly might owe something to the contrast gained from the strict Palladian styling of Hagley Hall. As Horace Walpole wrote to Richard Bentley in 1753, the folly has “the true rust of the baron’s wars”,[7] making a clear reference to a baronial, Catholic England felt to have been superseded by the Protestant neo-Classicalism of Lyttelton and his circle.[8] There is a broader case to be made for the preference for Gothic follies vis-à-vis the Classical, as James Howley argues, “for many advocates of the classical taste, the rival Gothic style was only acceptable in a ruined and defeated state”.[9] The ruin, in this capacity, performs precisely the same function as the ruins found in fifteenth-century paintings, affecting a severance between the time of a ‘then’ and a time of a ‘now’. Although the motivating forces might differ, the role of ruin to divide time remains consistent. The benefit of comparing the use of these ruins, in both paint and in landscape design, is that we are given a clear view of how ruin facilitates the distinction of thought and belief. It not that there is something inherent in these ideas – New Testament theology and paganism, neo-Classicism and Catholic medievalism – that makes them readily associated with the ruin, but these ideas gain their narrative distinction through the structural effects of ruins and the temporal oppositions they are made to mediate.

As eyecatchers, displays of wealth, politically and architecturally-loaded statements of style, follies provide important occurrences when images of waste have profound and explicit use. Whether real or fabricated, the application of waste in the ruinous folly provides just another reason why this thesis avoids making ‘non-use’ an intrinsic capability of things, but, instead, a reversible and contingent temporal effect. In terms of Heideggerian ‘dwelling’, the folly is spared and preserved, but only in so far as it serves an ambiguous ‘goal’, insofar as it maintains the temporal complexity of waste. Whilst the folly is a maintained ruin in one sense, its teleological imperative as a ruin is to be ruinous, to be detached from the temporal nature of maintained use. The ruinous effect, its capacity for picturesque pleasure for instance, depends on not being orientated towards use. This is also true of the ubiquitous practice of preserving ruins, which are preserved only in so far as they continue being ruinous and continue to stand in temporal distinction to the architecture of use. In the next chapter we shall explore in finer detail the delicate conclusions of the ruin that is left to dissolve into indistinction. Until then, we should acknowledge that our understandings of ruin rely upon preserving certain narratalogical structures of recursivity and anticipation. Attempts to stabilise, spare and preserve ruins do not simultaneously impose the temporal enclosure, the “goal” that we associate with use. Instead, to preserve the ruin is, in part, to keep this goal at bay, to preserve and potentially intensify the mediatory, unenclosed effect of ruin.

So, whilst part of the charm of a fabricated ruin issues precisely from fabrication, from artificiality, another facet arises from their successful simulation of ruin’s effects. Andreas Huyssen has argued that we can contrast modern ruins with those of the eighteenth century according to notions of authenticity. Huyssen argues that the celebration of ruins in the eighteenth century was driven by notions of “authorship, genius, originality, selfhood, uniqueness, and subjectivity” – by ruins that “seem to guarantee origins.”[10] Huyssen claims that the appeal made to authenticity that these ruins seemed to enact are now all but eliminated in, for instance, the contemporary use of Roman ruins for opera performances or the use of medieval castles for hotel accommodation.[11] But even a superficial examination of eighteenth or nineteenth-century follies shows that trying to periodise ruins according to ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ effects will prove unproductive, particularly since follies were celebrated for their ability to fuse authentic and inauthentic effects, staging both a challenge to notions of authorship, genius and originality, and a means to maintain and uphold these terms. It is better, in my view, to stress the dynamic role that narrative plays in every experience of ruin, each encounter must accept the way in which the ruin makes exigent particular time-bound narratives. Ruinous follies do not simply ‘guarantee origins’ but are capable of fabricating a fictitious past, an inauthentic origin, a time of use that never has and never will occur. In addition to the recycled quality of Sanderson Miller’s folly at Hagley, which took windows from the ruin from nearby Halesowen Abbey[12], we might consider Jeffry Wyatt’s use of Roman ruins at Virginia Water. Wyatt reused architectural fragments shipped from Leptis Magna on the Libyan coast in 1818. Without a clear plan of the original Roman construction, and making no attempt to represent their organisation at Leptis, Wyatt refashioned these fragments into what he called the ‘Temple of Augustus’. These ruins are, in a material sense, entirely ‘genuine’, ‘ancient’ and ‘original’ but their relocation and reassembly erodes any clear distinction between the authentic and inauthentic, or indeed, between ruin and fabrique. The fabrication of the ruin reveals, in Sophie Thomas’s view, “the ruin’s necessarily constructed relationship to questions of history, and its importance in the creation of the present.”[13] This propensity to stage the past, a past that responds to the way in which the ruin is bound to diverging and deconstructed times of use and waste, shows the ruin not to guarantee an authentic origin but to provide a narrative departure for many narrative constructions.

The ruin then, and its manifestation in the folly in particular, discloses one of the principal effects of waste; it suggests a disunity of time and a temporal counterpoint to those objects that surround it. William Ockenden, writing when the popularity of follies was nearing its height, chooses to stress the contemplative attraction of ruins:

 All remains excite an enquiry into the former state of the edifice, and fix the mind in a contemplation on the use it was applied to; besides the characters expressed by their style and position, they suggest ideas which would not arise from the buildings, if entire. The purposes of many have ceased; an abbey, or a castle, if complete, can no more than a dwelling; the memory of the times, and of the manners, to which they were adapted, is preserved only in history, and in ruins […]. [14]

This contemplative potential is, for the large part, a potential born from the comparative and narratological impulse that drives our experience of ruins. “Whatever building we see in decay,” continues Ockenden, “we naturally contrast its present to its former state, and delight to ruminate on the comparison.”[15] In eighteenth-century garden design, as it was on the Grand Tour, the lure of the ruin owes something to the temporal problems it posed. Ockenden does, however, concede a difference between ‘genuine’ and fictitious ruins, “It is true that such effects properly belong to real ruins; but they are produced in a certain degree by those which are fictitious; the impressions are not so strong, but they are exactly similar; and the representation, though it does not present facts to the memory, yet suggests subjects to the imagination.”[16] Those responsible for authoring and experiencing some of the best-known examples of ruin building certainly seem to accept a continuity of effect between ruins and their fabricated counterparts, what remains consistent is the narrative quality common to both.


[1] See Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, 16.

[2] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptures and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere , 4 vols. (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1996), 2:384–385.

[3] Batty Langley, New Principles of Gardening: Or, The Laying and Planting Paterres, Groves, Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues, Parks &c. (London: Bettesworth, Batlry, Pemberton, Bowles, Clarke and Bowles, 1728), xi. Italics in original.

[4] Batty Langley, New Principles of Gardening, 196.

[5] William Gilpin, Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; on Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape, &c. (1794; London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1808), 46. My italics.

[6] Joseph Heely, Letters on the Beauties of Hagley, Envil and the Leasowes. With Critical Remarks and Observations on the Modern Taste in Gardening, 2 vols. (London: R. Baldwin, 1777), 1:172–173.

[7] Horace Walpole, “From a Letter to Richard Bentley (September, 1753),” in The Genius of the Place: The English Landscape Garden, 1620-1820, ed. John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1988), 313.

[8] See David Stewart, “Political Ruins: Gothic Sham Ruins and the ‘45,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 55 no. 4 (1996): 400–411.

[9] James Howley, The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1993), 109.

[10] Andreas Huyssen, “Authentic Ruins: Products of Modernity,” in Ruins of Modernity, ed. Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle, 18, 20.

[11] Huyssen also suggests that the renovation of disused industrial ruins, such as the transformation of Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern in London, also exemplifies the ‘inauthentic’ era of the ruin. Here, it seems, it is not ideas of authenticity or inauthenticity that are at stake but whether ‘ruins’ are allowed to exist ‘free’ of human interference. In any case, the renovation or preservation of ruins is certainly not a modern phenomenon, as Huyssen seems to suggest.

[12] See E. W. Hawkes, “Sanderson Miller of Radway, 1716–1780: Architect,” (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 1964), 45

[13] Sophie Thomas, “Assembling History: Fragments and Ruins,” European Romantic Review 14 (2003): 181.

[14] William Ockenden, Observations on Modern Gardening, Illustrated by Descriptions (Dublin: John Exchaw, 1770), 138.

[15] William Ockenden, Observations on Modern Gardening, 138

[16] Ibid, 138–139.

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