Britain: International Capital of Follies

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Filed under: Practical Jokes and Mischief, The History of Pranks

Why the British produce the best follies in the world
by Harry Mount
The Telegraph
December 27th, 2011

There’s a sad report in today’s Telegraph on the state of Britain’s follies. According to the doyen of the folly world, Gwyn Headley, far too many of them are at risk of crumbling into neglect.

We may not match the Italians for grand art or architecture but, when it comes to follies, we reign supreme. Somewhere, buried deep in the British artistic mind, is the overpowering British desire to crack a joke. Follies are a punchline in stone – the little building on the horizon that takes the edge off the grandness of the great Palladian pile in the valley below.

There are follies all over the world, but Britain remains the international folly capital. Stowe, begun by the Temple-Grenville Whig dynasty in the 18th century, has more follies than anywhere else on the planet. Among the highlights are pavilions by Gibbs, Doric and Corinthian arches, a menagerie, Dido”™s Cave, Vanbrugh”™s Rotondo, Queen Caroline”™s Monument, and temples to Venus, to Ancient and Modern Virtue, to Friendship and to British Worthies.

Follies were originally just that – foolish buildings that showed folly in the builder. The first folly was reputedly a castle in the Welsh borders, built in 1228 by Hubert de Burgh. No sooner had he put it up than it was ordered to be demolished because a new peace treaty had been signed with the Welsh. The mix-up meant the building was given the Latin name, Stultitiam Huberti – Hubert”™s Stupidity, or Hubert”™s Folly.

By the time the folly craze got going in the early 18th century, the word had lost its critical undertone. It came to mean what it usually means now – an entertaining building, rather than a stupid one.

Fawley Court, Buckinghamshire – until recently the Divine Mercy College for the Marian Fathers, a Polish Catholic institution – is the spiritual home of the folly. And its spiritual father is John Freeman, Fawley Court’s owner, who, in 1731, was responsible for the earliest building to combine all the classic folly elements. Fawley”™s sham Gothick ruin has a genuine Perpendicular Gothic window punched into a tumbledown wall. At its heart, a charming domed room is decorated in faux-primitive style with knucklebones and pebbles, its floor tiled in a swastika pattern in the days before the Hindu symbol was hijacked by the Nazis. Statues on plinths once lined a processional route leading to a chunk of altar from the ancient Greek city of Pergamon on Turkey”™s Aegean coast.

The ingredients of the ideal British folly were fully realised at Fawley – a mixture of the antique, the Gothic and the jokey. Freeman’s greatest joke of all survived even his death. In 1731, he built a sham long barrow, near Fawley, at Henley. Perhaps the folly lost its comic value for the archaeologists who excavated the barrow two centuries later, when they they came across an urn with an inscription carved by Freeman, admitting responsibility for the prank.

For all the pleasure of follies, they needn”™t be entirely fanciful. Their beauty can outweigh their humour; as at Virginia Water, in Windsor Great Park, home to the best ancient ruins in the country – the 2nd century AD columns from Leptis Magna, Libya, artfully rearranged in a ruinous tableau in 1826 by Sir Jeffry Wyatville for George IV. Some columns lie broken on the ground; others stand alone, bereft of their capitals, as if this damp, forgotten corner of the Roman Empire on the Berkshire-Surrey border had been sacked by Vandals just yesterday.

The Virginia Water ruins are definitive British folly material: combining an affection for the past with a romantic attachment to decay. Decay is intrinsically pleasing to British sensibilites; that is, until the decay becomes terminal. Let’s hope our threatened follies don’t ever reach that stage.