9 June 2014

Here is not there

A post about Madresfield Court and how it was depicted in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited appeared here on 3 June. The day before, The Times had published a photograph (below) of the return to Castle Howard of a vintage Rolls Royce used in the filming there of the Brideshead Revisited TV series. (A more detailed story appeared in the Yorkshire Post.)

The day after (4 June), a letter from Professor Emeritus (of architecture) A Peter Fawcett was published in The Times (£):
Sir, Although Hawksmoor’s baroque Castle Howard (picture story, June 2) will be forever associated with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, his real inspiration came from a building of a very different architectural persuasion: Madresfield Court in Worcestershire. The English Arts and Crafts designer CR Ashbee designed the library in 1902, and the chapel (which features prominently in the novel) is a fine assembly of artefacts from Birmingham’s Arts and Crafts workshops — a far cry from English baroque. Waugh visited Madresfield frequently, and members of its Lygon family owners also appear as prominent players in the narrative.
On 6 June, there were three more letters. Neville Peel thought that:
… Waugh, like other writers, had a variety of sources of inspiration. His description of Brideshead’s central rotunda reminds one of Ickworth and is very far from the Arts and Crafts of Madresfield.
David Bertram pointed out that:
Professor Fawcett deplores the use of the baroque Castle Howard as a visual shorthand for Brideshead, but there was good reason for its use in the TV film. In the novel Charles Ryder says staying at Brideshead signalled the end of his love for the medieval and his “conversion to the baroque”.
Nigel Thomas felt that:
A more obvious candidate is Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, which Waugh would have known through his friendship with Cecil Beaton and the Herberts. Waugh placed Brideshead in a Wiltshire park with a castle that gave its name to a Georgian successor. … Old Wardour Castle overlooks a lake that points to the new mansion on a nearby hill. The largest Georgian house in Wiltshire, Wardour Castle, has splendid interiors and a spectacular chapel. It too was the home to a Catholic dynasty, the Arundells.
which is a little ingenuous given that Sebastian Flyte tells Charles:
“… We had a castle a mile away, down by the village. Then we took a fancy to the valley and pulled the castle down, carted the stones up here, and built a new house.” (Book 1 Chapter 4)
and that New Wardour Castle is in the Palladian style (as is Ickworth), not baroque. On the other hand, a little later Charles remembers:
It was an aesthetic education to live within those walls, to wander from room to room, from the Soanesque library to the Chinese drawing room … from the Pompeian parlour to the great tapestry-hung hall, which stood unchanged as it had been designed two hundred and fifty years before; …
that would be circa 1675, which, while about a century before John Soane started work as an architect and James Paine’s designing New Wardour Castle, was only a few decades before Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard being built in a thoroughly baroque style.

At this point there is a danger of becoming one of those Sherlockians who argue about the exact location on Dartmoor of Baskerville Hall. Obviously it would be pleasing to think that Brideshead was in Wiltshire, South West England, but I suspect the region will just have to be satisfied with Waugh’s having spent much of his adult life there. Not only friendly with the Herberts, in 1937 he had married one, Laura, whose grandmother bought the couple Piers Court in Gloucestershire. In 1956 the family moved further west to Combe Florey in Somerset where Waugh died in 1966. He wrote Brideshead Revisited in Devon in 1944 while on unpaid leave from the Army.

Perhaps Waugh’s notion of baroque in the novel is more a metaphor for Catholicism than a Pevsner-like description of a particular building’s architectural style. His author’s note, "I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they” might be extended: “here is not there”.

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