The Civic Society column with David Winpenny
One of the pleasures of visiting a country house is to look at the shelves in the library and see what past generations have read.
Did they go in for racy novels or for sporting manuals? Was their taste for local history or for the classics?
Did they really read any of them, or were they bought ‘by the yard’ because, as the writer Anthony Powell notes, ‘Books do furnish a room’.
When you are fossicking in an old house library (if you are allowed to do so) you may well come across a number of substantial architectural volumes.
If the owner was a person of taste and discrimination, and anxious to keep up with the latest architectural fashions – or just liked to show off his books to make visitors think he was – then there are certain volumes that you can almost guarantee finding.
The first will be an edition of ‘The Four Books of Architecture’ by Andrea Palladio. This was the ‘bible’ of the English Palladian movement – the movement that saw many early-to-mid 18th-century houses going up in the elegant, unfussy style of classical harmony and proportion.
That the style began to arrive in England at the same time as the Georgian monarchs and the ascendancy of the Whig party in politics was not a coincidence; Palladianism was a new style for a new dispensation.
Which edition of Palladio’s ‘Four Books’ would our country gentleman keep in his library? It is highly unlikely that he would have had a 1570 first edition in the original Italian. He may have had a 17th-century compilation from Palladio’s writings. But most likely he would have had one of the several English translations that began to appear in the second decade of the 18th century.
First off the blocks with his translation was an Italian, Giacomo Leoni, who brought out his English Palladio (and simultaneous French and German editions) in 1716.
It was dedicated to King George I, and had a list of titled and wealthy subscribers appended to it, including the Czar of Russia.
Another of the subscribers was Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, the man who really pushed the Palladian style in England.
If our country gentleman had purchased Leoni’s Palladio, he would quickly find himself out of fashion.
Lord Burlington soon began to criticise Leoni, who had adapted the text and images of Palladio to suit himself. Burlington wanted ‘pure’ Palladianism – and he decided that a new and better translation was called for.
So if you look for Palladio in the country house library, you are most likely to find the edition by Isaac Ware, one of Burlington’s protégés. Ware’s Palladio was published in 1738 and dedicated to Burlington; the dedication thanks the Earl for ‘taking upon You the trouble of revising the translation, and correcting it with your own hands’. The accuracy of the text, and the splendour of the engraved plates meant that amateur architects could find inspiration there, and country gentleman could know enough of what they fancied for their own houses to brief the professionals.
There had been an earlier translation of Palladio by Scottish architect Colen Campbell ten years earlier, but only a handful of copies are known to exist. But Campbell is another important name whose work you will find in a library, attached to his magnum opus, ‘Vitruvius Britannicus’.
‘Vitruvius Britannicus’ is essentially a picture book – these days we may even say a ‘coffee-table book’ – of plans and (more enticingly) elevations of country houses, along with a few churches.
Appearing from 1715 in several volumes, the work is not exclusively devoted to Palladian-style works. Campbell praises ‘the Renowned Palladio’ as ‘this great Master’, but he does include buildings by English baroque architects like Wren, Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor and Thomas Archer.
Campbell’s enterprise was a roaring success, and the volumes were snapped up – for after all, there’s nothing like seeing your own house in print, or being able to be nosy about your neighbours’ or peers’. That some of the buildings illustrated were from Campbell’s own imagination, and not yet built, was a good form of advertisement, too.
‘Vitruvius Britannicus’ allowed the country gentlemen to sit in his library and mull over the various forms that his new home might take, should he be minded to rebuild. But it only dealt with facades.
What if he wanted inspiration for the interior decoration of his rooms?
There were many pattern books available – Robert Adam’s among them – but one of the most influential publications, and one of the most popular books to be found in any country house library, was not intended to influence décor, though it did.
This was ‘The Ruins of Palmyra’ published in 1753 by Robert Wood and James Dawkins. They had visited the ruins of the great city in Syria in 1751 and took with them an Italian illustrator, Giovanni Borra. They measured all the Graeco-Roman ruins and Borra drew many vistas and details. And when their book was published, the drawings and illustrations caused a Palmyra craze.
There were, in particular, drawings of ceilings in the Temple of Bel, the most conspicuous of the ruins, to inspire architects and decorators. ‘Palmyrene’ ceilings began to appear in country houses and other buildings; Palmyra was the wonder of the age. Shelley celebrated it in his poem ‘Queen Mab’: ‘Palmyra’s ruined palaces! – Behold! Where grandeur frowned; Behold! Where pleasure smiled; What now remains?’
Now the Temple of Bel and much of the rest of the wonderful ruins of Palmyra are no more, blown up by ISIS in August 2015. Yet the memory of the great buildings of the desert city still live on, not just in the pages of ‘The Ruins of Palmyra’ in country house libraries but also in the decoration of houses, public buildings, chapels and churches.
This is what Shelly called ‘The remnant of its fame’ – a curious fate that links buildings across the millennia.