The Civic Society column with David Winpenny
The first names of children may be getting more varied, if we are to judge by newspaper births columns and school attendance registers. But it's unlikely that anyone will give to a newly-born son the name enjoyed by an 18th Century writer, architect and landscape designer '“ Batty.
Batty Langley’s father Daniel, a gardener, was not a mean man, and he didn’t lumber his son with this, to our eyes, unfortunate name out of malice. In fact, our use of ‘batty’ to mean slightly odd (‘bats in his belfry’, suggesting odd ideas flitting about in the brain) came into use only in the early 20th century, so we can exonerate Daniel altogether. So why call the child Batty?
It was, in fact, a piece of flattery to one of Daniel’s professional clients, called David Batty, who had an estate called The Park in Twickenham – his surname became the first name of Daniel’s son. But in many ways ‘Batty’ (in its modern sense) seemed to suit the son, whose career was eccentric and whose writings were praised and mocked in equal measure.
Batty trained as a gardener under his father, and at first worked at some of the larger houses in the Twickenham area, including Twickenham Park and Orleans House.
For the latter he produced a new design for the garden: this was probably done on spec, rather than as a commissioned job, but it was an indication of his interest in design rather than practical gardening.
In 1719, at the age of 24, he married a Twickenham girl, Anne Smith; by the time of her death in 1726 they had had four children.
He married again soon afterwards; his second wife Catherine bore him 10 more. Among them were four sons called after biblical and classical architects and geometers – Hiram, Archimedes, Vitruvius and Euclid, probably as a result of his initiation into Freemasonry.
In 1724 Batty had published his first book; it was ‘An Accurate Description of Newgate’, the notorious London prison. This was the building that had been rebuilt after the Great Fire of London and from which the burglar Jack Sheppard escaped – through the cell door that’s now at Newby Hall.
It is said that Batty was imprisoned there for debt, though the reason for the book may rather be that Batty’s brother William was a turnkey, or warder, there.
Once Batty had the writing bug, it was difficult to stop him. In 1726 he brought out ‘New Principles of Gardening’, which was not a practical guide to planting, grafting and nurturing plants but a book that provided plans for the laying out of gardens.
Its subtitle gives its flavour – ‘or The Laying out and Planting of Parterres, Groves, Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues, Parks etc’.
Langley’s idea was to reform the formal and semi-formal landscapes of the early 18th Century into what he called the ‘Arti-Natural’ style – combining the art of landscaping with the look of nature.
So instead of straight avenues and a central axis in a garden, he proposed winding paths, leading visitors through the landscape and unfolding new vistas gradually; he wrote that there was not ’any Thing more shocking than a still regular Garden; where after we have seen one quarter thereof, the very same is repeated in all the remaining parts, so that we are tired, instead of being further entertain’d with something new as expected.’
‘New Principles’ had international influence, including in America, where George Washington bought it and used it in laying out the garden at his own house, Mount Vernon. And if Langley had confined himself to gardens he might have been thought to be a man in the vanguard of taste – unusual, perhaps, but not eccentric.
But, having sold an impressive number of copies of his gardening books (which also included ‘A Sure Method of Improving Estates’), he moved on to architecture, hoping to have the same influence in that art.
His most famous architectural work was very odd indeed. He hated the then-fashionable Palladian style, based on classical architecture and reliant on harmony and proportion.
He thought British people should have a British style – the Gothic (though he knew it equally as the Saxon style; early 18th Century architectural history was always vague about dates). And he thought that, just as classical architecture was classified into the ‘orders’ – Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite – so should Gothic architecture be classified.
So in 1742 he brought out his most famous book, ‘Gothic Architecture Improved by Rules and Proportions’. It was a book that consisted entirely of plates, drawn by his brother Thomas under Batty’s direction.
In the first part, he notes, ‘We shall exhibit five new Orders of Columns, Plain & Enrich’d’; these were his attempt at classifying Gothic, but which succeed only in looking much more 18th Century than medieval. No one took them seriously, though if you look carefully at Georgian garden buildings today you are likely to see details copied from them.
But it was the second half of the book that had more influence, for here Langley produced designs of his own for doorways and windows, fireplaces and colonnades.
More importantly for posterity, there are drawings of garden temples, and some of these were actually constructed. The most famous is Plate LVII, showing a ‘Gothick Temple’; there are several examples of this in gardens, including at Bramham Park and at Castletown in Ireland.
Though few appreciated Langley’s Gothic ideas, they were influential in the gradual realisation that Gothic could be properly studied, and eventually led to the 19th Century Gothic Revival.
Before that, though, he soon came to be reviled; for almost two centuries ‘Barry Langley Gothic’ became a term of abuse for the frivolous use of what was to become a serious style. Perhaps today, in spite of his name, we can appreciate Batty’s real place in architectural history.