I love to come across bits of architectural criticism in books or movies where I wouldn’t expect it, and this is one of my favorite passages from my very favorite 20th-century writer, Patrick O’Brian. I got into O’Brian because of the nautical theme in his 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series, but I know that that same theme throws non-nautical people off. He’s really a great historical writer–he not only re-creates the scenery of his period (early 19th-century England) but he also surrounds you with the beliefs and ideas and feeling of the time. It’s inconceivable to me that he never won a Nobel Prize for literature because of his amazing prose and deep insights into human nature–it’s just like Battlestar Gallactica never winning the Emmy–complete discrimination against so-called “genre” art.
But I digress . . .
This passage from the seventh book in the series, The Surgeon’s Mate, reveals a lot about the individual characters, of course, but more importantly for us also shows how new architectural styles, including styles we think of as “classic,” were seen by some in their own time as garish and unfortunate desecrations of the past. To set the stage, Jack (the main character, who is obviously a preservationist) is visiting his father’s medieval manor home, Woolcombe.
“He [Jack’s father] had recently set about altering Woolcombe on an ambitious scale. It was perhaps that which saddened Jack the most. The house in which he was born had no doubt been a raw and staring edifice when it was first built, two hundred years ago–highly ornamented red brick with a great number of gables and bays and high corkscrew chimneys–but no Aubrey since James’s time had sprung up with Palladian tastes or indeed with any tastes at all in the architectural line, and the place had mellowed wonderfully. Now it was beginning to stare again, with false turrets and incongruous sash windows, as though the vulgarity of his new associates had infected the General’s mind. Inside it was even worse; the panelling, old, dark, and inconvenient to be sure, but known forever, had been torn out and wallpaper and gilt mirrors had taken its place. Jack’s own room had already vanished, and only the unused library, with it solemn rows of unopened books and its noble carved plaster ceiling, had escaped; he had spent some hours there, looking, among other things, at a first folio Shakespeare, borrowed by an earlier Jack Aubrey in 1623, never read and never returned; but even the library was doomed. The intention seemed to be to make the house false–ancient outside and gimcrack modern within.