Gloriously eccentric, and somehow quintessentially British, follies see reason give way to imagination and sensation as prosaic water towers, bathhouses and dairies are transformed into evocative structures, similar only in their diversity and magic. Arbiter of taste and amateur alike took the fundamental human desire to adorn one’s home to new heights of fancy during the eighteenth century, the great era of architectural folly building. As with many fashions, the capital led the trend.
Follies are built entirely for pleasure, and some extraordinary trends emerged during the Georgian era. For example, the ultimate accessory for a landowner’s folly was an ornamental hermit. At Richmond, the thresher poet Stephen Duck lived with his library in Merlin’s Cave, a peculiar Palladian structure with a thatched roof and ogee door designed by William Kent. If a suitably solitary occupant such as Duck could not be found, a waxwork or clockwork hermit would, apparently, suffice.
Follies suited the informal picturesque ‘jardin anglais’ perfectly. Their location within a landscape is as instrumental as the structure itself in enchanting the onlooker. What could be more romantic than rounding the corner of a leafy path and discovering a tranquil temple partially hidden among the undergrowth, or a dramatic vista leading to a ruined tower? As Alexander Pope advised Lord Burlington:
‘Let not each beauty ev’rywhere be spied
When half the skill is decently to hide.
He gains all points who pleasingly confounds,
Surprizes, varies and conceals the Bounds.’
Such follies not only disguise the prosaic, but also offer perfect resting spots for contemplation and the unique enjoyment of a fanciful interior space in the heart of the landscape. Pope’s own grotto in Twickenham is encrusted with luminous minerals, ores, and stalactites shot down from Wooky Hole by his friends. As ever, fashion concedes little to practicality. Grottoes are cold, dark and spiky, yet they were good selling points for homeowners while the trend lasted. Shells were avidly collected in the eighteenth century, and grottoes were popular diversions for the amateur, as well as influential figures like Pope, whose home in Twickenham was a welcome retreat from town.
The desire to find a refuge from the stresses of the city, close to one’s work is not a new one. In the eighteenth century, this corresponded with the idea of creating ‘rus in urbe’, an ideological and aesthetic turn towards nature, health and beauty. It found its public expression in the parks and pleasure gardens of the capital. Those who could afford it built predominantly private retreats beyond the city. The imaginative use of follies unites three such estates – Chiswick, Kew and Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. Although London has now engulfed them, they were once situated in the heart of the countryside, known to the public through visits and popular printed maps.
At Chiswick, Charles Bridgeman (1716-24) and William Kent in the 1730’s created an essay in Palladianism for Lord Burlington. The house was greatly influenced by Palladio’s Villa Rotunda; he had described a villa as a place ‘where the mind, fatigued by the agitations of the city, will be greatly restored and comforted, and be able quietly to attend the studies of letters and contemplation.’ It is a romantic notion, creating an Italianate setting so close to England’s capital. By the imitation of the ancients, Burlington believed that ideals of nature and beauty could be achieved. Burlington used the house and gardens primarily to entertain his friends, and the gardens are still occasionally used for their original purpose with events staged in the ‘amphitheatre’.
While Chiswick embodied a single, classical ideal, Kew Gardens epitomised the vogue for eclectic exoticism. From 1751 William Chambers designed a conscious ‘world tour’ for Princess Augusta. He delighted in chinoiserie in particular, advocating it not as a style equal to the antique but because ‘variety is always delightful, and novelty attended with nothing inconsistent or disagreeable sometimes takes the place of beauty.’
There were over 25 garden structures at Kew, ranging from the ruined Triumphal Arch, (an imitation of a Roman antiquity), to the ten roofed 163ft high Pagoda. The enormous size and lavish decoration of this structure enchanted close to and acted as a landmark for the estate. Other follies included temples of Aeolus and Bellona, the house of Confucius, the Alhambra, Queen Charlotte’s Cottage and a Chinese bridge. Many of these delightful structures can still be enjoyed today during a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens.
While the great estates such as Kew, Gunnersbury and Osterley contain a considerable number of the follies in west London, it was a private home that first revived the interest in gothic architecture as a native style. Although Horace Walpole was quick to condemn the rash of gothick follies inspired by his house at Strawberry Hill, he described his own home as: ‘the prettiest bauble you ever saw … set in enamelled meadows with filigree hedges.’
Strawberry Hill was both a romantic and an intellectual project, and between 1748-90 Walpole consciously assembled a literary work, using ecclesiastical forms in a domestic environment. In 1738 when John Carter painted watercolours of the interiors, a new trend was set. Walpole produced a minutely detailed guide to his home, and received visitors from noon to 3pm from 1st May to October by advance tickets. Garden follies illustrated at the time included a fanciful shell seat by Mr Bentley. The Chapel in the woods by Mr Gayfrere can still be seen today.
The instinct to adorn one’s home with decorative structures is as popular today as in the eighteenth century, with conservatories and elaborate statuary gracing the most modest homes. Perhaps one would more commonly go to Chiswick or Strawberry Hill to see the enchanting houses, or Kew for the botanical specimens, but in visiting them today, we also see inspirational follies and garden structures that embrace serious academic Palladianism, novel exoticism and whimsical Georgian Gothick. In their time they were not only private gardens but educative aesthetic and artistic creations. Their creators would be delighted to know that their plots of enchanted earth continue to inspire today.