Nairn’s London #20, #9

Nairn’s London #20
All Souls, Station Road

THEN: Nothing outside. But inside, to roof the central octagon, the architect put an amazing timber cage on top of his mean walls: a temple inside a temple, the intensity making an absurdity of the weary Gothic detail underneath. The architect’s other buildings are just as weary, so perhaps this was the one marvellous thing in his whole life. It is enough.

NOW: No real time to sit and admire, as a service was just starting. But as Nairn suggests, the roof is magnificent. There’s a real sense of utility – you get the feeling beauty is a by-product, not present in the architects original ambition. And its all the better for it. Modern pine-style furniture detracts from the church’s overall grandeur. But its worth a look, nonetheless.

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Nairn’s London #9
Chiswick House

THEN: Lord Burlington may have been an aesthetic autocrat to his followers, but he was a personal and original designer himself. Chiswick was his own house and he designed something far more than a copy of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda. Palladio’s harmony and sun-trickling mellowness have gone completely: instead there are staccato details and violent changes of scale. Mantuan violence, not Vicenzan harmony. The best place to feel this is the south front, towards the lake; a taut thin door under huge windows, smooth stucco capped by a crop of obelisks. This is in fact only ten years old: a really brilliant reconstruction done after the wings were demolished. Another building would be ruined by taking the additions away; at Chiswick the original design was so important that any amount of copy-work would have been justified.
Oddest of all is the main entrance under the portico: a dramatic, windowless cleft burrowing into the heart of the house. Mannerism could hardly go further than this secret, unostentatious penetration into the womb of the place. (The visitor today arrives by the plan ground-floor rooms and an equally unostentatious spiral stair.)
Once inside, by these sneaky portals, there is magnificence without limit. The first room is the central rotunda, and only here can any trace be found of the unemotional classicism which Burlington advocated and inflicted on England. The rest is barbarous grandeur, one of the triumphs of eighteenth century decoration in Europe, never mind Britain. Beyond the rotunda is the three-part saloon. The central rectangle has apsed ends with openings through to an octagon and a circle. And as the rooms get smaller, the scale gets bigger – something which is caught exactly by Gordon Cullen’s superb drawings in the official guide. Here, one and sixpence brings a set of graphic masterpieces as well as information. Monstrous big doors on a curve, their open pediments leering at you. Cherubs and swags of incredible density, with all Inigo Jones’s ability to suggest solid space. (In fact some of Jones’s designs for ornamental details were re-used at Chiswick.) The rooms curl back left and right from the saloon, ending in two intense closets on either side of Lord Burlington’s cleft into the building. Here, richness is achieved by the simplest means of all: wallpaper of such intensity that the whole room vibrates with colour: green and white in one sequence, red in the other. Oh those English, with their placid exteriors and all that passion underneath. The incredibly rich and complex ceiling of the Blue Room is English secret avowal at its most vivid, spoilt only by an awful painting by William Kent. Yet it must have been Kent’s magniloquent decorative sense which created this room, and al the other rooms, in the first place. That’s life.
The gardens are Kent’s too and historically important. But no fun, partly the result of trying to cram a quart into a pint pot, partly due to their dog-eared condition. Kent needed more space to do his best, whether it is seductively curvy like Rousham or stark and grand like Holkham.

NOW: There’s little chance I’ll match Nairn’s word count here. But no matter, as his review mostly still holds true. The building is in great condition, cared for by English Heritage. The wallpapers (which Nairn mentions near the end) are still as vivid and colourful as I imagine they were when he walked around. Only the gardens have changed – they’re pristine. And with their restoration came a new cafe block: concrete, cuboid, and with a slight touch of Frank Lloyd Wright.

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