Matrix – Novelty and the Sense of Continuity

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housing, scarred hillsides, stone-walled fields and traffic­filled roads, all of which intensify the drama of the great withdrawn, make-believe pile.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.

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