Rory Fraser, author of Follies – An Architectural Journey, engages the reader with his infectious enthusiasm for the mad, bad and, possibly, dangerous to know
Ostentatious, overambitious and useless. Architecture for the sake of architecture. While such descriptions would be damning for most buildings, not so the folly, contends Rory Fraser, author of the new book Follies – An Architectural Journey.
Follies positively rejoice in such attributes. And in this attractive little publication, Fraser rejoices with them, exuding engaging enthusiasm as he takes the reader on a road trip of his favourites across England, armed with paints, sketchpad and his trusty ‘follydar,’ which steps in when satnav lets him down. The resulting paintings provide the attractive illustrations for the book.
Before we set off, Fraser explains his interest in follies. A self-confessed odd child, he became captivated by history then architecture, and spent his leisure time cycling to explore and draw old buildings. While studying English at Oxford University, he was drawn to the work of the poet, satirist and garden designer Alexander Pope. Here he found the connection between wit, architecture, landscape and literature that he had been looking for. As he developed his thesis, it led him naturally to the folly, a building where the ‘world of the imagination meets with the landscape around it’, combining ‘landscape, literature and aesthetics into brick and stone’.
Fraser, who worked for John Simpson Architects after his studies, is interested in both the architecture of follies with their happy breaking of architectural rules, and in the people who built them. We learn that these two aspects go hand in hand, since behind every great folly, there’s usually a great eccentric and a great yarn, as he is happy to relate.
As we get going on the folly tour, Fraser certainly tells a good story, scattering his historical research with popular references ranging from the horcruxes of the Harry Potter books to a famous photo shoot for the Rolling Stones.
In all he takes us to 25 follies, organised as early, classical, romantic and modern. Many are given particular accolades, whether the oldest (Freston Tower, Suffolk, 1578), the most elegant (Worcester Lodge, Badminton), the best folly bridge (Palladian Bridge, Prior Park) or the weirdest (Jack the Treacle Eater, Yeovil). He has a good way with description. Entering Worcester Lodge, he says, was like walking inside a Viennetta ice cream. Meanwhile at Freston ‘at first glance it’s as though a giant has lopped off a corner of Hampton Court and plonked it down in the middle of nowhere’. We learn that it was built by a socially aspiring merchant in order to wave to Queen Elizabeth I when she sailed past nearby.
Rushton Triangular Lodge in Northamptonshire, described by the author as perhaps the most extraordinary building he’s ever seen, resembles a giant casket and is an architectural expression of The Trinity. It was built by Thomas Tresham in 1593 after his release from imprisonment for hiding a Catholic priest. During his long captivity he had turned to geometry, scrawling numbers and scribbles over his cell wall in a sort of blueprint, that he eventually was able to make an architectural reality.
The Temple of Venus at West Wycombe was quite another matter. Built in the 1750s by the flamboyant Francis Dashwood, co-founder of the Society of Dilettanti, we hear how this mound, perforated by a hole and topped by a tempietto, was ‘an architectural representation of a vagina’.
As well as the erotic, there are several exotic follies, notably William Chambers’ pagoda at Kew Gardens, described as a taste of the Forbidden City in the English equivalent, and Sezincote House, lauded by the author as the Taj Mahal in Gloucestershire.
After falling out of fashion in Victorian times, follies apparently enjoyed a revival in the 20th century. The eccentric Lord Berners built Faringdon Tower on top of a hill in Oxfordshire as a birthday present for his lover in 1935. It proved a difficult design process, turning from gothic to classical back to gothic, and after all that, the recipient said he’d have preferred a pony.
Fraser is several times unnerved on his folly trail and prone to being a little fanciful, which all adds to the fun. At Rushton, he fancied ‘ the building was whispering in a foreign tongue that I half remembered, but not from where’. At Vanbrugh’s Temple of the Four Winds at Castle Howard, he imagines statues coming to life and slipping off their plinths once he’s looked away. And at Swarkestone Pavilion he gets a little carried away with the theatricality and decadence of the folly’s history. ‘Hang around on a summer’s evening and, if the moon is in the right position, and enough wine has flowed, you might well mistake even the doughtiest Landmark Trust visitor for a nymph darting naked around the enclosure…’.
All these tales of country estates and the escapades of the gentry, seasoned with a sprinkling of ha-has, might not be for everyone. To be fair to Fraser, he does bring us relatively up to date with a few more urban examples, with the inclusion of the ‘modernist folly’ of Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee and the ‘postmodern folly’ of the Headingley Shark in Oxford. The latter recently provided the inspiration for this year’s Architecture Foundation Antepavilion winner. But I’m not convinced that main houses (Sezincote) and ruined churches (Christ Church Greyfriars) should count as follies.
While Fraser takes his follies seriously and is keen to show them as portals for understanding the periods in which they were built, this is nevertheless a colourful and enjoyable read, and provides welcome escapism from today’s troubling times.
Follies – An Architectural Journey by Rory Fraser, Zuleika, £14.99