The whimsical world of garden follies

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Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

English country estates are often associated with intricate networks of rooms and strict social hierarchies. But just outside the country house is an entirely different world—the garden, a freer, more whimsical space where the rules are relaxed.

“The garden is a place of diversion and distraction,” says Michael Lewis, professor of art history at Williams College. “While the house itself is organized, ordered culture, outside one encounters rain and heat and wind—capriciousness! The walk through the garden is different every time.”

One means of diversion was through the construction of garden follies, little structures that punctuate the landscape. Wildly popular in 18th-century garden design, they serve no purpose aside from delighting the eye and sparking conversation.

While garden pavilions gained popularity through the 18th century, they took inspiration from centuries-old landscape architecture: “The source of all of our modern garden is rooted in the Italian Renaissance,” explains Lewis. “From the beginning, that garden was a fanciful place, with fountains and grottos and eccentric grotesque carvings and sculptures.”

The Great Pagoda through the trees at Kew Gardens. (Photo by Ben Perry/Getty Images)

In the 18th century, as the British Empire reached the height of its imperialist expansion and its trade economy boomed, England saw an influx of wealth. As a result, the architecture being constructed in England reflected the country’s new fascination with the building styles traders encountered on their routes.

Books of drawings and prints helped popularize varying architectural styles. In 1721, the Austrian architect Johann Fischer von Erlach published the first survey of architecture, called A Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture.

“This is the first book that showed examples of Chinese pagodas and Moorish architecture,” adds Lewis, who also notes that the 18th century saw the architectural duo James Stuart and Nicolas Revett publish surveys of classical buildings—like The Antiquities of Athens.

As a result, garden follies took a variety of styles. It was most fashionable to construct a chinoiserie folly, which appropriated Chinese architecture.

“People didn’t have the same idea of stylistic integrity,” explains Lewis. “This is ‘associationism’, the idea that each style carries certain psychological associations. The more of an exaggeration of the style you make, the more it’s going to work. It can’t be subtle.”

The Chinese House at Stowe. Courtesy of National Trust / Perry Lithgow Partnership.

The designs weren’t wholly accurate, but they also weren’t meant to be. Lewis explains that many of the designs were based off of prints, not building manuals. The images didn’t specify materials type or constructed technique.

The oldest surviving chinoiserie folly in the UK can be found in the gardens at Stowe House. Called the “Chinese House,” it was completed in 1738 by William Kent. While today it rests on the ground, it was originally hoisted up on stilts, set in the center of a lake.

“Its original use was a little place where you could take tea,” says Rebecca Ellison, conservator at the National Trust. “The idea was that the ladies and gentlemen of the house could ride out on a boat, stop at the house for a cup of tea and then sail back.”

The Chinese House didn’t stay at Stowe long. Ellison explains that about thirteen years later, the Chinese House was sold to Wotton House, where it remained until 1957. The house was then acquired by Harristown House in Ireland, before being acquired by the National Trust in 1992, when it was finally returned to its home of Stowe, 254 years after it was originally built.

The little house, made of painted pine panels on an oak frame, features painted scenes by Francesco Sleter, who did many wall paintings in grand English houses at the time. The scenes depict such things like the Chinese House itself, set in its original landscape in the middle of a pond.

The Chinese House been undergoing restoration work with the support of the Royal Oak Foundation, an American organization that is a partner of the National Trust. The Chinese House was the focus of the foundation’s second annual “Follies” gala, which funds the conservation of garden pavilions in the United Kingdom.

Chinoiserie follies may have reached their height—both literally and figuratively—at Kew Gardens, where William Chambers designed a 10-story-tall pagoda in 1762.

A view from the Great Pagoda at Kew. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

“The Great Pagoda is only one of a number of follies on the Kew—there are also classically inspired follies and there was once a mosque, too,” explains David Holroyd, director of estates at Kew Gardens, which surround the royal Kew Palace.

“The royal family used to promenade around the garden from folly to folly, a means of almost moving around the world, showing off to their royal relatives. This was the time of the expansion of the British empire, mind you.”

The Great Pagoda—which offers commanding views of London and as far as Windsor Castle—is currently undergoing its own restoration. The restoration is returning the folly to its original color scheme. It was erroneously painted red in the Victorian era, but now it is being restored to its original green-and-white palette. Ornamental carved dragons are also being added back to the tiered roofs.

Jackdaws Castle with Highclere Castle in the background. Courtesy of Highclere Castle.

At Highclere Castle—perhaps most famous as the setting for the TV show Downton Abbey—the follies are exclusively inspired by antiquity.

“There was a beautiful formal garden here from 1721 to 1761—and that’s when the owner of Highclere at the time, Robert Herbert, built 12 follies,” explains Lady Carnarvon, author of At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey. “The 18th-century gardens had various allées and avenues. The 12 follies were related to the 12 numbers on a clock, based around a central folly.”

Lady Carnarvon explained that allées would lead from the central folly to other follies around the grounds, like Heaven’s Gate, Jackdaws Castle, and an Etruscan temple.

The Etruscan temple doubles as an amphitheater of sorts, where little plays could be enacted—a nod to the theatrical quality of garden follies.

Over the years, six of the follies have been lost and one was changed. “When Charles Barry was building the castle you see today, he altered the Temple of Diana, which Robert Herbert had built when Highclere was a smaller red-brick home,” explains Lady Carnarvon. “The temple wasn’t big enough to hold its place in the new landscape, so Barry enlarged it.”

Meanwhile, at the Stourhead estate, the Greco-Roman temples were cleverly designed and placed to relate to not only each other—but also the garden at large.

“The Temple of Apollo stands on a hill above the gardens as one of the most powerful follies,” explains Alan Power, head gardener at Stourhead. “Being god of the sun, Apollo is the most powerful thing to keep the garden alive.”

The temple of Apollo at Stourhead. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

He explains that the Temple of Apollo, which was based on a drawing of the ruins of Baalbeck by scholar Robert Wood, has a view across a lake to another folly: the Temple of Flora. “Between the two follies, you have flora and fauna, which keeps the garden alive. Framed between those two temples is the Pantheon in the distance—the temple of the gods,” says Power.

But in keeping with the spirit of follies, there is no direct path at Stourhead from structure to structure, a clever device used to excite wonder—a characteristic most central to garden follies.

“You have to walk with curiosity and have faith in where you’re going,” Power says. “The garden reveals itself to you through various unfolding views—suddenly you have stumbled across a temple! Just one of the many destinations in the garden. It’s fantastic.”