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Monday, 31 October 2011
Celebrating England's chimneypots
Chimney at Hampton Court Palace; Mary Poppins, Bert, the Sweep, and her charges admire London's rooftops - Celebrating England's chimneypots. Article in the Daily Telegraph 27th October 2011
If asked to name some of the things that are unique about this country, I would have said Gentleman’s Relish, red telephone boxes and the House of Lords. Expanding in a cultural direction, I might have added the change ringing of church bells, Prime Minister’s Question Time, ancient oak trees, fan-vaulting and potted shrimps. Chimneypots would not have featured on the list.
It has taken the genius of Dr John Goodall, writing his mammoth, The English Castle, a work whose scholarship will last as long as the castles themselves, to notice that we have a way with a chimney which is unlike that of other lands. To our forebears (the super-rich variety), these conduits for the discharge of domestic smoke became an opportunity to show off inventive fantasy and wealth. On the Continent, their counterparts showed off in lots of other ways, but not this one.
“Look,” says Dr Goodall excitedly, “at Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire.” I look and see works of infinite elaboration, which combine fleurs-de-lys, fancy bricklaying, extruding turrets and even little brick masks. “The tops seem to be modelled on the shape of the oriel windows below them. They are houses in miniature.”
Blow me down, he’s right. The rim of the stacks is even carved with arrow loops (this is a castle, after all). We know the date is 1514 because it is there on a little scroll.
It may have been the early 12th-century Bishop Roger who started the fashion at Old Sarum, outside Salisbury in Wiltshire. He was remembered as “a prelate of great mind,” who “erected extensive edifices at vast cost and with surpassing beauty.” His stone chimneys were carved with complex geometrical patterns. He may be forgiven, perhaps.
Chimneys were a new thing, a development of the wall fireplace that would have belonged only to the most princely of dwellings. Naturally, those who had them wanted to advertise the fact. Most people had to splutter on with an open hearth, the smoke from which found its way out through a louvre in the ceiling, kippering the inhabitants in the process, until the Elizabethan period.
“Full sooty was her bower and eke her hall,” says Chaucer of the poor widow in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Writing The Description of England, 1587, William Harrison, the rector of Radwinter in Essex, a prime example of the Folk-Don’t-Know-How-Lucky-They-Are school of history, noted, as an unwelcome innovation, that chimneys had become commonplace. To Harrison, they seemed morally degenerate and bad for health.
Harrison’s response, though, may not have been typical. In a climate famous for damp and mist, others suffered from chimney envy. Any bloodthirsty baron might have a castle, but only one whose outwardly macho power base was also a dwelling of luxury could boast chimneys.
Colour was one means of drawing attention to them. This must have been particularly evident at the now-demolished Richmond Palace, predominantly a grey edifice, built of stone, above which the chimneys shone like beacons. They were red brick.
Brick was the supreme Tudor building material. It ticked all the important boxes:
Novelty – there had been little of it around before Henry VI decided to use the material for Eton College.
Expense – only fat cats, such as Cardinal Wolsey at Hampton Court, could afford to employ the Flemish brickmakers, making brick the diamond-encrusted Chanel handbag of its day.
Fantasy – unlike stone, which was hard to work with the chisel, brick could be moulded or shaped as raw clay, or carved and rubbed when it was baked; it came in different colours, depending on the earth from which it was made, and the surface could even be glazed. Brick opened the way to ever more florid effects.
Counties such as Norfolk, not blessed with good building stone, rejoiced in them. At East Barsham Manor, Norfolk, Sir Henry Fermor not only had a brick gatehouse, ribbed, turreted and emblazoned with his coat of arms, but a grand exuberance of chimneys, clustered together in double banks of five, each individual stack to a different design.
Chimneys of this kind were a medium for virtuoso display, a rival to the pinnacle, whose decorative value overwhelmed their function, causing some owners to erect chimneys that were manifestly false: sticking up over a window like a middle finger raised in the face of poorer neighbours.
Other nations had chimneys, too: look at Carpaccio’s views of Venice, in which they are shaped like inverted sink plungers. But the more fantastical of the French châteaux, like those on the Loire, made a greater play of the roof. English houses had lead flats, on which the family would walk, admire views and retire, at the end of meals, to eat sweetmeats in rooftop banqueting houses. They would have strolled amid the chimneystacks. The flat roof gave the English chimney a prominence foreign equivalents didn’t have.
The joy that the Tudors took in caprice and magnificence was not shared by the Georgians, who were more anxious to conceal chimneys, than have them soaring above façades chastely modelled on Greek temples.
But if I climb out on to the parapet of our own house, in a Victorian area of London, I am not sure that this peculiarly English obsession quite went away.
Mary Poppins, floating down beneath her umbrella, must have been struck by the extraordinary variety of the metropolis’s roofscape, with, as The Spectator put it in 1842, “red chimney-pots, tall and short, straight and crooked, iron pipes bent in every possible way, and cowls of all shapes and sizes, are stuck up on chimney-stacks as if some daemon of deformity had amused himself with making the habitations of men ludicrous with hideous and unmeaning devices”.
And doesn’t a memory of atavistic chimney love still lurk somewhere in our DNA? Modern houses don’t have open fires and so don’t, strictly speaking, need chimneys; and yet a chimneyless house simply looks wrong. Among savvy architects, the false chimney has made a reappearance. Our Elizabethan ancestors would have quite understood.
Dr John Goodall’s 'The English Castle’ is available from Telegraph Books for £35 plus £1.25p p&p, to order your copy please call 0844 871 1515 or go to books.telegraph.co.uk Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of 'Country Life’.