Follies: An Architectural Journey by Rory Fraser

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

A delightful little book put out by a relatively new publisher founded in 2017 with a rather intriguing list, this would make a lovely gift for the historian or architecture buff in your circles.

Taking in 25 follies during the summer after university, Rory Fraser skips around England looking at them from outside and in, meeting the odd (or very odd) inhabitant or current owner and producing an exquisite watercolour of each, which punctuate the text of this very pretty and well-designed book beautifully. With no chapter headings, the reader hops through history with Fraser from the very earliest folly to a teacup on an obelisk, via the whole gamut of architectural styles and featuring characters from dodgy aristocrats with unpleasant caves to cheery rock stars having a day out in the countryside.

In the introduction, we find that an inspirational schoolteacher fostered Rory’s interest in architecture: he went on to work for English Heritage, we find out from the author bio on the flap, and while at university he realised what he was really interested in:

I found the connection that I had been looking for. A focal point between wit, architecture, landscape and literature … the precise point of convergence between these various threads lay not in the quill, but the folly, where the world of the imagination meets with the landscape around it.

and it is this article that he pursues in one seemingly single, headlong journey, criss-crossing England in strict date order.

What is a folly? Officially, it’s “an elaborate building set in a beautiful landscape that serves no purpose other than to improve the view” but there prove to not be very many true follies like that, and indeed the first one he visits, at Walsingham, as well as a shell of a Wren church in London later, are actually part of a ruined building left to stand incongruously in its surroundings. There are also mounds, caves and a fibreglass shark embedded in a suburban roof, as well as the more expected classical temples or gothic frills in lovely parks. The only period we skip is the Victorians – and that’s fine in a book which very much panders to the author’s personal taste: he finds their works always had to have a purpose, a job – a clock tower, etc. – which goes against the central idea rather.

Sezincote House – the Taj Mahal in Gloucestershire, built in 1805.
Sketch by Rory Fraser

Fraser hops enthusiastically through history, kings, landowners and peers, sharing what he learns with glee and seeing the same people crop up a few times, English (and other) eccentrics drawn to eccentric buildings. We’re looking at folklore one moment and Empire the next, always with something new to read about. It’s also something of a garden history, looking at the development of the landscapes in which follies often exist, framing huge swathes of land, as at Stowe, or a view of a city, as in Bath.

We also follow the buildings through their uses through history: at least one still houses a hermit, whereas a number of towers have been used as watch towers in more recent wars than some they’ve seen. And there is an excellent modernist pavilion in the new town of Peterlee, County Durham, which along with a few others brings matters right into the 20th century, pleasingly – we carry on being eccentric and providing buildings with no purpose, just as we should. The final tea cup obelisk returns to the countryside and lives in a landscape that’s been worked at through the whole period the book covers in a nice circularity.

As I said, an ideal gift, small and perfectly formed with charming illustrations, unusual but appealing I’m sure to many.

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Liz Dexter does not have any architectural follies in her garden, and this is frankly a shame. She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Rory Fraser, Follies: An Architectural Journey (Zuleika, 2020). 978-1916197787, 111pp., col. ill., hardback.

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