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Novelty and the Sense of Continuity

Matrix 20This article by Olive Cook appeared in Issue 20 of Matrix and in it she shows her vehement distaste for contemporary art and architecture and the 'shock of the new', making a temporal leap to compare modern trends with her perceptions of how the 'new' was expressed and experienced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In a review of the Exposition Universelle of 1855 and of the work of Delacroix, the artist as a force that excites a sensation of the new. The whole history of art can indeed be seen as a chronicle of innovative creativity. But during the century and a half that have passed since Baudelaire's article was first published the new, which he rightly recognised as the unsought by-product of a great imagination, has become the object: of a deliberate and ever more frenzied quest and of a demand which has crescendoed into a deafening roar heard from New York to London, Paris, Tokyo and beyond. 'The point is', as one of the characters in the trendy film Trainspotting says, 'you've got to find something new.' And after more than a hundred years of 'isms', of leap after leap from vanguard to vanguard, we are confronted at the dawn of the third millenium by sliced and pickled animals, a grubby and disordered condom-strewn bed, casts of the underneaths of chairs, a twenty-foot-high bronze cast of a popular animated toy and a crude representation of the Virgin partly painted with elephant dung and decorated with cut-out images of genitals, all masquerading and acclaimed as outstanding works of art. We are dismayed rather than stimulated by buildings of Brobdignagian proportions and materials, more alien than concrete, like those of Canary Wharf and the many similar developments and by structures which like the museums at Bilbao and Stuttgart, the one a giant glittering sculpture rather than a work of architecture, the other defying tradition and gravity alike with its lurching walls and eccentric manipulation of space, seem at odds with the purpose for which they were commissioned and impinge on their surroundings like objects from outer space.

It is not only the dull-witted who greet such manifestations of the new with scepticism: they are dismissed by art lovers and artists who acknowledge and rejoice in the novelty of genius, who delight in the energy and fecundity of Picasso's endless, exhilarating transformations of visual experience, in the charm of Klee's exquisite waking dreams, in Chagall's astonishing formal variations on recurring themes and poetic surrealism and Howard Hodgkin's ravishing juxtapositions of colour.

Perhaps some light may be cast on the controversial new of the present time by a glance at an age distant from our own but akin to it in its preoccupation with novelty, memorable for the splendid vitality and daring of its creative endeavour In every field and of exceptional interest because it was then that men's minds turned away from the contemplation of the eternal and the absolute towards the particular and the ephemeral which are now our chief concern. During the sixteenth century the mediaeval world, Its all-embracing celestial vision and the security of its ancient limitations, came to an end. The discovery of a new and unsuspected continent, the establishment of a new Church, revolutionary political, social and economic upheavals, the pioneer work of physicists like William Gilbert of Colchester, of mathematicians like Napier, the inventor of logarithms, of astronomers like Thomas Digges and John Blagrave, of geographers like Hakluyt and of the cartographers Speed, Norden and Saxton; the setting up of the new iron and copper mining industries, the development of the already existing industries of coal mining and brick and glass making, and the introduction of many new technical devices such as the stocking making machine and the water closet all laid the foundations of life as we now know it.

The extraordinary rush of energy that gave rise to these reasoned, practical achievements was also the source of a miraculous outburst of great works of art. This was the age of Shakespeare, Spenser and Marlowe, of a glorious upsurge of both religious and secular music and of the emergence of the new arts, born of a heightened sense of personality, of the portrait miniature and the life-like effigy. Agreements of that period for sepulchral sculptures often specify 'exact similitude' or 'a resemblance as he was in life'. These figures seldom lie, like mediaeval divines and nobles, in calm resignation with hands clasped in prayer: alert and bugle­ eyed, painted to counterfeit the hue and freshness of living flesh, they turn on their stone cushions, kneel, stand and take up familiar attitudes, eagerly proclaiming their zest for life. Elizabeth Williams, dressed in the height of fashion and wearing a large, becoming hat, leans on her elbow gazing at passers by in the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral; the young, muscular Grissell Barnardiston is informed with such vigour that she seems about to rise from her knees as she stares boldly into the nave of the church of St Peter and St Paul at Kedington in Suffolk; John Farnham stands, clad in armour, against a realistic relief of a battlefield with cannon and cannon balls; Dean Boys sits at a table covered with a fringed cloth in a marble reconstruction of his own library in Canterbury Cathedral.

It was in this charged, electric time too that the word 'architect' made its first appearance in the English language. It occurred on the title-page of the only book on architecture to be published during the reign of Elizabeth I, John Shute's The Firste and Chief Groundes of Architecture used in all the ancient and famous monyments; with a further and more ample discourse upon the same, than hath been set out by any other. Published by John Shute, Paynter and Archytecte. Imprinted at London at the Flete-strete near to Saint Dunstans Churche by Thomas Marshe, 1563. The publication marked the beginning of the momentous distinction between the designer of a building and the master craftsman of the Middle Ages who planned and directed the work from the masons' yard and the carpenters' shop. When Robert Smythson, the inspired author of Wollaton and probably of Hardwick, Longleat, Fountains and Barlborough died in 1614 he was called 'Architector' on his tombstone. And while industry was already making its impact on the landscape, that landscape was transfigured during the sixteenth century by an explosion of domestic building.

Whole villages were rebuilt and local materials varying from the fine-grained limestone of the Cotswolds to the dusky brown sandstone of the north, and from the grid-patterned half timber of the West Midlands to. the close-set framing of East Anglian wattle and daub, were brilliantly exploited. But it is the great houses of the period, their scale, their ostentation, their idiosyncratic and imaginative translations of the classical idiom and of classical symmetry, their fantastic, exuberant novelty which excite our attention today and seem to be of peculiar significance.

It is impossible to imagine the effect of these buildings on those who watched them going up and who first saw the triumphant conclusions of their creators' audacious fabrications. Four hun­dred years later they are still among the most exotic and most ingeniously planned works of architecture that have ever been seen. Even Longleat, at first sight one of the most restrained of these houses, is of startling originality. Of classical symmetry, it is set on the newly introduced high base and moves to the rhythm of the great storeyed, projecting, glass-filled bays which were one of the most spectacular inventions of the era.

Great expanses of glass play as important a part in Elizabethan architectural design as they do in the buildings of today. The massive ornate bulk of Wollaton with its huge, tower-like central hall is so lightened by its enormous windows that it rises on its hilltop site above the surrounding industrialised landscape like an elaborate birdcage. Glass turns Montacute, Burghley, Earlborough, Fountains and Kirby into fabulous openwork structures. At Montacute the abstract patterns of gridded glass running across each of the three storeys emphasise the stately advancing and retreating movement of the design, contrast with the diverse forms of obelisks, semicircular pediments, curly gables and disc-shaped niches and set off the grave beauty and realism of the sculptured figures in military dress standing in recesses between the windows of the top floor. The profusion of tall windows in William Cecil's palatial mansion at Stamford and the assertive vertical accent of the mullions counteract the powerful horizontality of the thick mouldings which divide the three storeys and hold down the riot of pepperpot domes and chimneys in the guise of Tuscan columns soaring above the parapet of arches and obelisks. At Barlborough the projecting hexagonal bays are fashioned almost entirely of glass. They shoot up above the roof line like turrets and enhance the grace and lightness of the whole captlvating composition. The grand display of windows filling the entrance range of quadrangular Kirby is clearly based on the design of a Perpendicular church nave but this is an utterly novel interpretation of the mediaeval invention, for pilasters have taken the place of buttresses and the facade is electrified by a porch of rivetingly bizarre aspect. Fashionably placed in the centre of the symmetrical front it is like one of those showy frontispieces of the period turned into stone. Rising high above the rest of the building it is surmounted by an attic storey which like that of a Continental Baroque conceit is purely decorative for there is nothing behind it. It takes the unexpected form of a Dutch gable flanked by flaming ball ornaments set at either end of a screen of seven Corinthian colonnettes placed on brackets bulging from a frieze of strapwork. Below this an arched and balconied opening with a broken pediment rests on coarse brackets between pairs of tapering columns with bases like colossal leaves. The arched entrance is again flanked by coupled columns, fluted and with a stronger entasis than those above them though this is gently checked by a third column set round the corner on each side of the porch.

Hardwick Hall, west front, by edwin Smith ©RIBApixGlass makes a major contribution to the newness of all the houses so far contemplated; but it is at Hardwick that it makes its most overwhelming impact. This wonderful house is, as the old jingle goes, 'more glass than wall'. It faces west and to come upon it from this direction at close of day is a most thrilling experience. The entire incredible stretch of leaded lights spreading across the front above a classical colonnade and embracing two rectangular towers is ablaze with the crimson and molten gold of the setting sun.

Four more towers, two on the east side and one jutting from the middle of each end of the building, join with those of the west front to coax the whole prodigious conformation into slow angular and aspiring motion. From their tops all six towers brandish the letters 'E. S.', the initials of Elizabeth Shrewsbury (Bess of Hardwick) the formidable, zestful, gifted owner and the driving force behind Robert Smythson's masterpiece. The battlements of sixteenth-century towers take many odd forms but none so individual and ostentatious as these.

Bess of Hardwick's personality is felt in every corner of the interior of her house - in the unusual choice, prompted by her passion for light, of the top floor for the most important rooms and in the novelty and fantasy of the architectural detail, the furnishings and decoration. A spectacular broad and shallow stone stair, departing utterly from Gothic practice, climbs. without a balustrade through half the length of the great mansion, giving unity to the composition and yielding sudden, unexpected vistas as It leads to rooms of delightful variety, rooms where tapestries, marble and alabaster sculptured ornament, velvet hangings, remarkable needlework, including collage made by Bess herself from monastic copes, and springy floors all stir up rumours of the life that filled them four hundred years ago. The most original and evocative of all are the High Great Presence Chamber and the Long Gallery. The source of the haunting beauty and romantic atmosphere of the High Great Presence Chamber is the astonishing, enchanting, moulded and painted plaster frieze (see frontispiece). It is twelve feet deep and vividly contrasts with the dim tapestries below it, from which it is separated by a bold cornice. The tapestries interpret the story of Ulysses with ltalianate academic correctness; the plaster relief illustrates themes from classical mythology with marvellous freshness and spontaneity. Venus and Cupid, Diana and her attendant maidens, Orpheus and Ceres, huntsmen, dogs and wild animals all emerge from the spring and summer green of an English forest of smooth-stemmed trees and giant foliage. The frieze is a stupendous example of a new art.

The Hardwick version of the room that was a special Elizabethan creation, the long gallery, is memorable for the extraordinary effects of the crystal light pouring through the gigantic windows on the garden side of the apartment. It shivers in huge rectangles on the rush matting and plaster floor and heightens the idiosyncrasy of the decorations. The walls are hung with Brussels tapestries unfolding the tale of Gideon, more than half hidden because used, with audacious lack of scruple, as the blue and umber background for jewel-like portraits of Bess of Hardwick's relatives and friends. The tapestries are also the muted back­ ground for two superb architectural chimneypieces, Thomas Accres's inspired variations on a design by Serlio. The all-pervading light irradiates the subtle and contrasting colours of the local alabasters and marbles of which they are made and draws the eye to the vigour and curious form of the strapwork surrounding bold ornamental figures of Justice and Misericordia. And the beauty and the strangeness of this and all the rooms are echoed by the enigmatic motto that runs through the house like a refrain:

The redolent smell of eglantine
We stagges exalt to the Divine.

Lulworth Castle, Dorset, by Edwin Smith ©RIBApixThe towers of Hardwick, the central mass of Wollaton, the upward shooting turret bays of Barlborough, all conjure up memories of the mediaeval castle and in an age when the ideal of chivalry was kept alive by the spectacle of the tournament, it was natural that architects should be stimulated by the castle architecture of the past. They refurbished some Gothic strongholds as grand houses, Wardour, Carew and Naworth among them, and they built castles of their own ardent imagining. East Lulworth, ruined and set by the sea, belongs to the same spellbound world as A Midsummer Night's Dream. Rectangular and battlemented, with big circular angle towers, it rests on a high base and is approached by a rush of steps. The entrance, round-arched between Ionic columns, is surmounted by a mysterious wheel window filled with seven tangent circles which seem strangely significant. On either side of this window life-size figures, bare-headed and in the dress of Roman soldiers, raise their arms in salutation of whomever climbs the weed-encumbered steps.

This castle of high romance is a place of magic, but as an embodiment of the new it is surpassed by the theatrical metamorphosis of the castle theme at Bolsover. It was designed by John Smythson, the son of Robert, but its form was dictated by the architect's patron, Charles Cavendish whose mother was Bess of Hardwick and who had already been concerned with other castles at Slimsby, Blackwell in the Peak and Ogle. Sited on a promontory, Bolsover commands a prospect of industrial housing, scarred hillsides, stone-walled fields and traffic­filled roads, all of which intensify the drama of the great withdrawn, make-believe pile. Its nucleus is a towered and turreted keep consciously recalling the Norman keep of the fortification supposed to have been built on the site by William Peverell. But no one would take it for a mediaeval stronghold since it is crowned by a pretty lantern and cupola and lit by large rectangular windows and a balconied, projecting bay resting on corbels and an Atlas figure. In front of the keep is a small, stony forecourt shut in by a battlemented wall and entered between stout, squat pavilions, crenellated and adorned with obelisks.

The internal plan derives directly from that of the Gothic fortress. The kitchen and offices are in a vaulted basement; the hall and parlour (called the Pillar Parlour from its central stone column) occupy the ground floor and on the first floor are the Star Chamber and the black and white Marble Closet together with a bed chamber. Above them are the Elysium Room and the Heaven Room; and on the top floor a group of tiny rooms leads off an octagonal lobby under the cupola. All the rooms are small, richly detailed and strikingly individual. Vaults suggest the Middle Ages but the mediaeval skeleton is clothed and combined with classical motifs: bosses, brackets, pendants and panels display Renaissance mouldings and arabesques, though always adapted with originality and used to define the special character of a particular room. The Pillar Room, for instance, is distinguished by the horse-head brackets of its pendants, intended to celebrate the Cavendish passion for riding and racing. But the most concentrated expression at Bolsover of the hybrid visual poetry of the age is embodied in the energetic chimneypieces. They symbolise the whole character of the period of which they are among its last architectural manifestations. John Smythson used Serlio's designs as his starting point but his amazing inventions surpass their source in the same way that Twelfth Night and All's Well that Ends Well transcend the stories of Bocaccio and Bandello. The fireplaces are extremely varied. Some are square, others are part-octagonal, others, set in the angles of the rooms, are quadrant-shaped with conical hoods enriched with complicated, deeply moulded panelling, crested with strapwork and volutes, embellished with delicately carved bundles of musical instruments or trophies of arms and studded with jewel-like roundels and plaques of coloured marbles. The lintels are never horizontal, but arched in the Gothic manner, and in one instance the opening is trefoil-shaped. Each chimneypiece is set against a rectangular stone slab and enclosed by a stone moulding so that it is like a sculptured relief.

As the climax of the great series of sixteenth-century castle fantasies, the Bolsover keep would be outstanding if it stood alone, but its effect is magnified by the extraordinary building adjoining it, the Gallery, designed by John Smythson for Charles Cavendish's son William in the early seventeenth century. One hundred and seventy feet of extravagant masonry advance along the terrace towards the keep like some wild parody of a Sicilian Baroque facade, so improbable are the architect’s modifications of the classical idiom. The colossal windows are surmounted by pediments feverishly broken into three instead of the more usual two parts and the main entrance, approached by a double stair, is heavily rusticated and topped by a broken pediment of the more orthodox kind but with a detached segmental pediment hovering oddly above it. The wall is further animated by regularly spaced, startlingly unexpected projections, rounded, flamboyantly banded and vermiculated. They cannot be called shafts for they do not support anything. They nonethelesss serve a purpose: they control the rhythm of the mighty composition and they refer picturesquely to the castle's defensive theme, for their shape is that of upright cannon with the bolt at the lower end. Huge thrusting water­ spouts set along the parapet accelerate the movement of this strange composition; and its progress towards the keep is hastened, when the goal is almost reached, by a singular device: instead of making a right-angled turn on reaching the keep, the wall moves diagonally and the gesture is emphasised by a curved and pedimented gable. The two buildings are physically con­ netted by a door which leads from the keep onto the top of a battlemented wall and over an archway into the Gallery. The door itself is an amazing manifestation of the new for its panelling is entirely covered with rustication. Smythson is known to have made drawings of Renaissance rustication but the astounding idea of carrying out this form of decoration in wood was his alone.

This great mock fortress of Bolsover is recognisably related through its keep to its Norman predecessor. And even from the inadequate descriptions attempted here it has become clear that the novelty of sixteenth-century architecture is based on a firm grasp of traditional design. Montacute despite its up-to-date symmetry perpetuates the mediaeval hall house plan with its projecting wings ; Barlborough's adventurous façade is part of a familiar quadrangular structure. Burghley too is built about a courtyard and its great hall is furnished with a double hammerbeam roof in which the spandrel tracery is associated with classical ornament. The serene and symmetrical front of Longleat, when viewed across the park from the top of Paradise Hill reveals itself as a screen behind which gesticulating figures, heraldic beasts and whimsical chimney pots agitate the skyline. Even the staggeringly innovative plan of Hardwick is a development of time-honoured usage, for its H-shape is that of the hall house broadened and with the cross bar projecting on either side. The resemblance of the entrance front at Kirby to the nave of a mediaeval church has already been noted; and of course the enormous windows of the Elizabethan prodigy houses were the successors of the windows of Perpendicular churches. The glass of the monstrous central feature at Wollaton is actually traceried. Each of these unique houses is indeed as much a synthesis of the old and the new as the Church which resulted from the Act of Supremacy of 1550, the break with Rome and the establishment of the Queen as supreme governor of things temporal and spiritual.

Looking back now at the constructions with which this essay opened it is clear that in our own time the word 'new’ signifies a complete break with tradition. The vivid sense of continuity, so essential to our well being and which in the past was nourished by what had gone before and by allusion to particular masterpieces, no longer cushions the shock of the new and plays no part in the ceaseless pursuit of it. The desire for the new is the most telling indication of the post-culture in which we now live.

But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in the saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.