Grand Designs

10 01 william beckfordToday is the birthday of William Thomas Beckford,. He was born at his family home at 22 Soho Square in London in 1760. At the age of ten he inherited £1 million from his father and a further annuity of around £50,000. That was a lot of money in the eighteenth century. Let’s have a look at how he spent it.

Beckford became a compulsive art collector. He had a large collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and a good deal of fine antique French furniture which he acquired from French aristocrats who were fleeing the Revolution. He also fell completely in love with the Orient and owned a lot of furniture and prints from the Far East. Beckford was a restless sort of fellow and he frequently sold pieces only to buy them back later.

At the age of 21, his interest in the Orient and a fascination with the tales of the Arabian Nights, which had been translated into English in 1708, led him to write a novel. He claimed to have written in only three days and two nights. Not only did he write it quickly, he also wrote it in French. It is called Vathek and is about a Caliph who lives in a vast palace and follows a life devoted to sensual pleasure and to acquiring forbidden knowledge. He builds himself an enormous tower, with 11,000 steps, in an effort to communicate with the stars, but finds that, once at the top, he is no nearer to them. Then a mysterious stranger comes to his court, offering him access to the Palace of Subterranean Fire which was filled with wonders. The price is that he must give up his faith and perform certain rituals. Then Vathek renounces Islam, takes up the magic arts and embarks on a terrible series of human sacrifices. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well. Beckford claimed that his book was an emotional response to events that happened in his home at Fonthill, in Wiltshire, at Christmas in 1781, so goodness knows what went on there but it may have been when he first met William Courtenay. Vathek is a sort of mixture of the Oriental and the Gothic which stands alongside Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as one of the earliest examples of Gothic literature.

10 01 william courtenayBeckford achieved notoriety when, in 1784, he was found to be having an affair with the much younger William Courtenay, then regarded as the most beautiful boy in England, who would later become 9th Earl of Devon. Beckford was married only the year before to Lady Margaret Gordon and may also have been having another affair with his cousin’s wife, Louisa Pitt. The papers got hold of the story and there was a massive scandal. William Beckford and his wife, who died in childbirth two years later, left for Europe in a self-imposed, but probably necessary exile. He spent the next thirteen years travelling through Europe with a vast entourage which included a doctor and twenty-four musicians. He also carried with him many of his books, his prints, his plates, his cutlery and also his bed. There are stories that he required any inn that he stayed at to have his rooms repapered before he arrived, and that once, in Portugal he ordered a flock of sheep to be sent from England to improve the view from his window.

10 01 fonthill abbeyIn 1796 he returned to England with a plan. He surrounded his estate with a twelve foot high wall which very much annoyed his fox-hunting neighbours, but Beckford was against bloodsports and also wanted a bit of privacy. He also wanted a new home, somewhere suitable to house his huge art collection – it would be a Gothic cathedral. Not a house that was a bit like a Gothic Cathedral, an actual massive Gothic cathedral with thirty-five foot high doors and a central tower that was three hundred feet tall. To help him with his plan he employed an extremely popular architect called James Wyatt. Wyatt was not on site quite as much as he perhaps should have been which left Beckford in charge of the project for quite a lot of the time. Wyatt’s design was amazing, it included different architectural styles to make it look as though it had been constructed over a long period of time. His preferred building materials though were timber and cement, which proved to be not such a great idea. Also Beckford was in a hurry to get it finished. He had five hundred labourers working day and night. He bribed four hundred and fifty more, who were supposed to be building new royal apartments at Windsor Castle, to come and work for him instead. He did this by increasing their ale ration. He commandeered every wagon in the area to transport his building materials. By way of compensation for this, when the weather was cold, he delivered free coal and blankets to the poor.

Whether it was due to the poor building materials or the drunken labourers isn’t clear, but parts of the building began to crumble almost as soon as they were completed. One Christmas, he insisted that the dinner be prepared and served at the Abbey, even though the mortar in the kitchen was still wet. As the servants carried the food into the dining room, the kitchen collapsed behind them. Then the huge central tower was destroyed in a gale. Far from being disheartened, Beckford appears to have enjoyed watching his house crumble as it gave him the opportunity to start building anew. When his tower collapsed for a second time, his only regret was that he wasn’t there to see it. The tower was rebuilt for the third time, this time in stone, and the building was declared finished in 1813.

10 01 fonthill abbey insideBeckford lived alone in his enormous house, excepting his servants and four dogs which I read were called Nephew, Tring, Mrs Fry and Viscount Fartleberry, I really hope that’s true. He didn’t have very many guest either. His neighbours were extremely curious, but because of his relationship with William Courtenay and subsequent exile, they still held him in disgrace. They would attempt to visit whilst he was away. If he heard about it, he would rush home and provide a banquet for them, knowing that etiquette would compel them to stay, even though it also compelled them to shun him. Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton dined there in 1800 and were met at the thirty-five foot high front door by a dwarf. Beckford kept an odd collection of boy servants, a harem possibly, to whom he gave nicknames such as Pale Ambrose, Miss Butterfly and Mr Prudent Well Sealed Up.

When at last this immensely wealthy man was stuck for money he sold his Abbey to an arms dealer called John Farquar in 1822. The tower collapsed again in 1825, taking part of the west wing with it. Beckford moved to Lansdown Crescent in Bath, where he had another tower built to house his treasures. It is still standing, you can even hire it out as a holiday home. Beckford died in 1844 and, after resting for four years at Bath Abbey cemetery, was reburied close to his Lansdown Tower in a tomb which is inscribed with a line from his novel Vathek: “Enjoying humbly the most precious gift of heaven to man – Hope”.10 01 collapsed abbey


09 24 horace walpoleToday is the birthday of Horace Walpole, son of the first British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. He was born in London in 1717. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he seems to have managed not to take a degree, then spent two years doing a Grand Tour in Europe. He later became MP for a constituency in Cornwall that he never visited and later of a Rotten Borough near Kings Lynn. None of these things are great, and they reek of over-privilege but there are two things he did that I want to tell you about.

Firstly, he built himself a splendid house called Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, which was then south west of the capital. It seems eighteenth century Twickenham was bit of a rural retreat for London’s wealthy and artistic people. I’m not entirely sure why as a quick look at the history of the area tells me that it was also home to factories that produced sulphuric acid and gunpowder. The house that he bought there was a relatively modest dwelling belonging to a coachman which was called Chopped Straw Hall. The name didn’t suit him at all and a search through the archive turned up an old lease which called his new acquisition Strawberry Hill Shot., much nicer. What he really liked about the original building was it’s asymmetry.

09 24 strawberry hillThe original house wasn’t nearly grand enough though, and he began to add to it. Strawberry Hill sprouted Tudor style chimneys, medieval battlements and pointed Gothic windows. It was an odd mix of architectural styles that would become known as Strawberry Hill Gothic which foreshadowed the Victorian Gothic Revival. Walpole loved Gothic architecture and he continued the theme in the interior of the house. There is a gallery with an amazingly ornate ceiling in white and gold inspired by the ceiling of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The shelves in the library are based on the an illustration of a doorway in Old St Paul’s Cathedral and there is a fireplace which was influenced by the tomb of Edward the Confessor. What Walpole was after was the ambience of an ancient building, something for which he coined the term ‘gloomth’.

Strawberry Hill is not at all the dark sort of place that we would associate with Gothic architecture today. The corridors were dark but the rooms they opened into were bright and jewel like with lots of stained glass. Nor was the exterior gloomy, it was painted a brilliant white, making it look like some sort of fantastic piece of confectionery. The gardens were cheerful too. No fake ruins, no hermitage for him. He thought it was: “…almost comic to set aside a quarter of one’s garden to be melancholy in.” He thought Gothic should be confined to architecture but gardens should be all about the gaiety of nature, something that he referred to as ‘raint’.

09 24 giant helmetWhile Walpole was building his house and being an MP he also found plenty of time for writing. His most famous novel is ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is cited as being the first Gothic novel. It begins with a forthcoming marriage but then the groom is killed when a giant helmet falls out of the sky and hits him. There’s a lot of intrigue, ghosts, unrequited love some tragic death and everyone lives miserably ever after. It would influence later writers such as Mary Shelley and ‘Bram Stoker.

Up In The Air

09 16 airship at empire state forgery.On this day in 1931 it was reported that an airship had managed to dock at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. This sounds like a pretty unlikely scenario and to explain how it came about, I need to go back a bit.

In the late 1920’s there was a huge amount of rivalry between a small group of very rich people to see who could build the world’s tallest skyscraper. The competition continued to rage despite the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. At first there were two projects involved, the Bank of Manhattan Building at 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building. Each added extra stories to their plans during construction. It looked as though 40 Wall Street would come out on top, but the Chrysler building had a secret. They had constructed a 125 ft metal spire and hidden it inside the building. It took only ninety minutes to add the surprise spire. The Chrysler was a clear winner at 1,050 ft. But it didn’t last long.

In 1930 construction began on a third skyscraper. The Empire State Building. Like the other two designs, extra stories were added to the design. The building was going to be eighty-six stories high and, at 1,050 ft, the same height as the, then uncompleted, Chrysler Building. Unlike the builders of 40 Wall Street; the main investor of the Empire State, John Raskob, suspected that the Chrysler would pull some last minute stunt. He suggests that his building: needed a hat.

The hat would be 200ft high and bring the building up to 103 stories and a height of 1,250ft. Al Smith, chairman of the building’s construction company, insisted that this decision was not taken to outdo the Chrysler, but that it was an economic investment. The mast would be used as a mooring point for airships. The airship would be able to throw out a line which would be attached to a winch. Then it’s nose could be pulled right up to the mast. Passengers would be able to simply walk down a gangplank, into an elevator and be on Fifth Avenue within seven minutes. It would be much better that the lengthy journey currently experienced by international airship passengers, all the way from Lakehurst, New Jersey.

The Navy Department, who ran the landing site at Lakehurst, were pretty sure it was a terrible idea. Landing an airship was a tricky business even on the ground. They said that they would really need to experiment with a mooring tower somewhere else first before they tried it over a massive city. They further pointed out that a Graf Zeppelin would at some point need to jettison hundreds of gallons of water ballast before it could rise as high as the Empire State. Dr Hugo Eckener, commander of the Graf Zeppelin, and probably the greatest expert on the subject, agreed that it would be too dangerous. He knew that there would be irregular and violent updraughts of air between the high buildings, the worst possible conditions for an airship. Even if the ship did manage to anchor it would be unstable. If a draught caught the underneath of it, it could be lifted vertically and wind up standing on it’s nose.

09 16 uss los angelesThis is true, it had actually happened at Lakehurst in 1927. An airship was moored to a mast only one tenth of the height of the Empire State Building. It was a calm day but a sudden sea breeze caught the tail and the ship was lifted almost vertical and began to swivel around. After that they started to use much smaller mooring towers and weighted down the tail end. Eventually even Al Smith had to admit that there was a problem. Weighting down the tail would mean fifty ton lead weights swinging high above the streets of Manhattan. Not really a thing that people would be comfortable with.

09 16 enna jetik blimpIn May 1931 when the building opened, the necessary winching gear had still not been, and never would be installed. So the airship that was reported to have ‘moored’ there was not an international airship, nor did anyone actually get on or off. In was an advertising blimp belonging to the Dunn & McCarthy Shoe Company. In winds of 45 mph the ship battled to get close enough to drop ropes to a ‘ground crew’ of just three men. Without winding gear, they were only able to hold the ship for about one and a half minutes before they were completely exhausted. It was decided that the mooring tower would be best used for delivering mail.

An attempt to deliver some newspapers via airship was made two weeks later. The photographers and celebrities invited to witness the event were almost swept from the narrow balcony by a wind-tossed blimp. It also had to drop it’s water ballast, drenching everyone for several blocks. A more successful effort was made the following day, but still the person who cut the stack of papers from the lowered rope was lucky not to be pulled over the balcony. The delivery was hailed as a mighty success by Al Smith, but no further attempts were made to use the docking station.

Fuck It, That’ll Do

leaning tower 2On August 9th 1173 work was begun at the cathedral at Pisa to lay the foundations for a bell tower. It would take 199 years to complete. The tower is seven stories high topped by a bell chamber. Five days later work began on the ground floor. In retrospect it might have been sensible to spend a little more time on the foundations. They are only three metres deep, which isn’t really enough for a building eight stories high. In addition to this the ground beneath the tower is soft. Seven metres of silt over a layer of clay which is softer on the south side of the tower. Again, unsuitable for a building that weighs around fourteen and a half thousand tonnes.

We can’t be certain who the original architect was. Perhaps they were keen to distance themselves from the project because in 1178, when work began on the second storey, the building had started to sink, first on the north side, then on the south. Then Pisa got involved in a lot of battles with neighbouring states and work on the tower ceased. Nothing was done for almost a hundred years and the tower settled some more.

leaning tower 1The Pisans knew their tower was wonky but they kept going anyway. Work was resumed on the tower in 1272. In order to compensate for the lean, the architect (a different one, obviously) began to build using slightly larger stones on the south side of the tower in an attempt to rectify the problem. This means that the tower is slightly banana shaped. In 1278 work stopped again because of another war. The builders had by then begun work of the seventh floor.

In 1319 the seventh floor was finished and yet another architect designed a bell tower for the top that also leant in the opposing direction. The bell tower was completed in 1372. The tower has gradually sunk further and further into the ground on it’s south side. In 1838 someone decided it would be a good idea to dig a trench so that everyone could see the portion that had disappeared underground properly. It wasn’t a good idea. Within a few days the top of the tower had tipped a further two feet. In 1934, Mussolini decided that the leaning tower was not a good image for his vision of a new Italy. He wanted to straighten it. Holes were drilled in the floor and eighty (or two hundred, I’m not sure) tonnes of concrete poured into the foundations. It only made the tower lean a bit more.

More recently, someone had the idea of digging out the foundations underneath the north side. This has allowed the tower to settle back a little and it should be good for another two or three hundred years. That’s if an earthquake doesn’t get it before then.


08 03 joseph paxton 1Today is the birthday of Joseph Paxton who was born in 1803. Some sources say he was born in 1801 but that’s because he once lied about his age to get a gardening job he wanted. Paxton was all about gardening. When he was only twenty he was offered a job as head gardener at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. He was so excited about it that he set off immediately by coach from London. He arrived at Chatsworth at 4.30 in the morning. He set about exploring the gardens, eventually climbing over the wall into the kitchen garden and setting the staff to work. He then went and had a bit of breakfast and also met his future wife, Sarah Brown, the niece of the housekeeper there. He did all this before nine o’clock in the morning.

08 03 joseph paxton 2As well as being in charge of the gardens at Chatsworth, he also built an enormous fountain that required a whole lake to be dug in order to supply it. What he really became interested in though were greenhouses. In 1849 he was given a seedling of the Regina Lily (which is the water lily with really massive leaves) by Kew Gardens. They had acquired the first seeds to come from the Amazon and although they had grown some, they weren’t doing very well. At Chatsworth the leaves were soon four and a half feet across and later flowered. The picture above shows Paxton’s daughter standing on one of the leaves. The plant grew so big that he had to build a larger greenhouse to put it in. He was inspired by the veins that gave the lily leaf it’s strength to build its glass roof with radiating ribs and cross pieces.

It was his experiments with this structure that later helped him in his design of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London. The organisers of the Exhibition wanted a non-permanent structure, they wanted it big and they wanted it soon. They had launched an international competition for the design of the building and had loads of entries but nothing that would work. In truth, they had left it rather late. When Paxton arrived in London for a board meeting , in his capacity as director of the Midlands Railway, there were less that ten months until the Exhibition was scheduled to open. He happened to mention that he had an idea for the building to the chairman who was also an MP. Paxton was encouraged to produce plans if he could do so in only nine days. He was really supposed to be busy with his meetings but instead he was doodling his first design on a piece of pink blotting paper. He was able to submit detailed plans, calculations and costs within two weeks.

08 03 joseph paxton 3The building was completed in only eight months, on time and on budget. It was 1,851 feet (564 metres) long, 408 feet (124 metres) wide and 128 feet (39 metres) high. A barrel vault in the centre was added so that several elm trees could be safely enclosed that would otherwise have been felled. He also installed external canvas shades that could be drawn across the top of the roof. They helped keep the building cool and also softened the light inside. They could also be sprayed with water to act as an evaporative cooling system. At a time when there wasn’t even any mains electricity let alone air conditioning, heat could be a problem in what was essentially a massive greenhouse with thousands of people inside. He also fitted louvres in the walls which could be opened and left gaps between the floorboards so that the air could circulate. The added advantage of the gaps meant that it was easier to sweep up at the end of the day. In fact, Paxton had also designed cleaning machines for sweeping the floor, but in practice, it was found that the long, trailing skirts of female visitors did the job for them.