Batty Langley was an engaging self publicist with an eye to an opening in the market coupled with a need to make a living. Last week’s post looked at New Principles of Gardening published in 1728, his first important book. This week I want to look at the rest of his work.
He carried on with his gardening and garden writing but gradually switched emphasis more and more to architecture. Apart from his own not very successful attempts at being an architect, he wrote design books, a string of manuals and pattern books for builders and books on freemasonry, as well making artificial stone for garden ornaments and buildings. Its difficult to know how influential he was although the term “Batty Langley Gothic” is still regularly used to day and ensures that his name lives on.
In 1728, the year that Batty published New Principles he also published A Sure Method of Improving Estates a treatise on the economics of growing various trees which includes lots of mathematics, and makes reference to places around Twickenham that he knew and had probably worked at, such as Twickenham Park, Orleans House and Lebanon Park.
1729 was even busier for Batty. A Sure Guide to Builders described the newly built Cold Bath in the riverside garden of Radnor House, of which a section survives today much altered as a gazebo.
He also published another gardening book, Pomona or the Fruit Garden illustrated, containing a large number of plates.
And not content with this activity by then he had also remarried and left Twickenham for London.
While there still was some occasional gardening work, [for example in 1732, he had some work at Castle Howard, probably on a ‘serpentine brook’], moving to London was presumably because he had long decided that it was just not going to provide sufficient income. Nor was writing since apart from The young builder’s rudiments: or The principles of geometry, mechanicks, mensuration and perspective, geometrically demonstrated, etc. there were no more books for the next 5 years.
As Eileen Harris argues, while may not have Langley been ” intellectually inclined, nor given to original concepts either in gardening or architecture…he was extremely alert to new ideas and fashions.” [British Architectural Books and Writers, 1990, p.263]
He certainly diversified!
In 1731 he moved into the manufacture of “Artificial Stone (After the old Roman manner)made into Ornaments for Buildings and Gardens” – albeit arguably by somewhat fraudulent means.
As something of a showman he got away with it, although as explained in a previous post not everyone was taken in, with George Vertue for example calling Langley ‘a bold face undertaker’. The business continued at least until his death in 1751.
For more on this see a recent article by Christine McAleavy, “Batty Langley’s Early Years in London, 1729–35: Langley, Hans Sloane and Artificial Stone”, in Garden History, Vol.44 No.2, Winter 2016.
Langley was also trying to set up as an architect on his account and it must have helped that he was almost certainly a freemason because around 1734 he designed ‘a curious grotesque temple’ for his neighbour Nathaniel Blackerby, who just happened to be deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Freemasons. You have to wonder when you read the report if Langley hadn’t written it himself! The freemasonry connection is also reflected in the names of 4 of his sons: Euclid, Vitruvius, Archimedes, and Hiram.
In 1735 came a more important commission from the Duke of Kent. [Was he a freemason too?] Langley designed an estate brewhouse and two fanciful amphitheatres at Wrest which were not built…
…but he is also now thought to have designed a greenhouse later replaced by the orangery, and the Bowling Green Pavilion, described by Historic England as having “more than special quality in the exterior classical design [in its] use of materials [and its] artistry and craftmanship.”
But after that there seem only to be more unsuccessful projects.
His bid to design the new Mansion House, the Lord Mayor of London’s HQ, failed and he had no luck either with his design for the proposed new Westminster Bridge in 1736-7 .
The winner, Charles Labelye, a naturalised Swiss engineer and architect found himself on end of a scathing attack by Langley in a pamphlet A survey of Westminster Bridge as ’tis now sinking into ruin, in which he referred to Labelye as Mr. Self-Sufficient, and depicted him hanging from a gibbet under one of the arches of the bridge.
Hell hath no fury like a would-be architect scorned!
This lack of commissions may have driven him back to writing, because in 1735 there was yet anther rehash of his builders manual, this time as The builder’s vade-mecum: or, A complete key to the five orders of columns in architecture, etc. It also drove him to start a school, with his brother Thomas, offering lessons in drawing, geometry, architecture, mensuration, mechanics, and garden design. This was was advertised in his book Ancient Masonry of 1736. In it he also offered to draw up ‘Designs for Buildings, Gardens, Parks, etc. in the most grand Taste’ as well ‘Grottos, Cascades, Caves, Temples, Pavilions, and other Rural Buildings of Pleasure’. Ancient Masonry which was the largest architectural book of its day and included more than 450 plates but I can’t find any evidence that he gained any further work as a result. Eileen Harris thinks his freemasonry gave him a clear duty to raise the status of British craftsmen, and she thinks this is the reason he was to write so much about architecture in simple and affordable ” information books.”
Since he couldn’t design and build himself he decided to become an architectural critic instead, and this allowed hm to be as vitriolic as he liked. In particular he penned a series of articles in The Grub Street Journal in 1734 and 1735 under the pseudonym of Mr Hiram [the legendary architect of Solomon’s Temple ] which attacked all sorts of architectural projects. The “new Treasury building in St James park” was the “most absurd building that perhaps has ever been erected in this kingdom.” Lord Orford’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields one of the most expensive and worst buildings about London; and that its errors may be avoided in future designs,’tis very reasonable I should point them out” – which he then did with gusto. Langley also laid into Lord Burlington’s Palladianism and praised good Saxon [Gothic] architecture instead. He also lauded Nichols Hawksmoor – who was married to the daughter of his ex-neighbour Nathaniel Blackerby. Nor do older public buildings escape his wrath. Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House is “much applauded for its supposed beauty” but is really full of “absurdities”.
At the same time he produced another string of versions of his building manual: The Builders Compleat Assistant’ (1738); ‘The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs’ (1740); ‘The Builder’s Jewel, or the Youth’s Instructor and Workman’s Remembrancer’ (1741); and at least two new editions of earlier titles. Many of these, as above, showed his masonic connections.
But his most famous and, at the time, influential, book was Ancient Architecture Restored published in 1742 and reissued in 1747 as Gothic Architecture, improved by Rules and Proportions, in many grand designs of columns, doors, windows, chimney-pieces … umbrellos, temples, pavilions &c.
Surprisingly this was a far cry from his more usual builders manuals. In it he shows passion for the Gothic – both in its structure and originality. Its playfulness was mocked by high-brow proponents. Horace Walpole called him “that barbarous architect” and later wrote: “All that his books achieved, has been to teach carpenters to massacre that venerable species, and to give occasion to those who know nothing of the matter, and who mistake his clumsy efforts for real imitations, to censure the productions of our ancestors, whose bold and beautiful fabrics Sir Christopher Wren viewed and reviewed with astonishment, and never mentioned without esteem.”
As Marion Harney points out, Walpole’s detestation of Langley arose because he did not go back to the authentic mediaeval buildings for inspiration but invented his own orders and style, using it for whatever suited his purpose: “The Goths never built summer houses or temples in gardens.” [Place Making for the Imagination, 2016]
But if Walpole didn’t like others did. It appealed to a less-well informed but determined-to-be-fashionable audience of the country squire, the professional commercial elite with their small estates and country retreats. Where Langley led others like the Halfpenny’s followed. And there are still surviving examples, albeit small, built from his designs in it. As many as are 33 listed by Historic England on the Historic Buildings Register. These range from the Gothic temple at Bramham Park to “Batty Langley style” gateways and doorcases, loose boxes, cast-iron columns, fireplaces, a tombstone and a sundial.
You can even stay in a Batty building as one of the gatehouses at Castletown, co. Kildare is now owned by the Irish Landmark Trust.
His style also appealed to our American colonies. British builders pattern books were frequently used, but Langley certainly seems to have been amongst the most popular. George Washington, for example, bought a copy of New Principles of Gardening in 1759 and used it in his development of the landscape and grounds at Mount Vernon. [Follow the link for more info] He also used Langley’s Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Design, for the Palladian window in the New Room.
Perhaps surprisingly he continues to inspire architects. When Quinlan Terry was designing a villa to fit into the Regents Park estate in London around 1990, he wanted to reflect John Nash’s great interest in Gothick style, so chose a pedimented and castellated front employing Batty Langley’s Gothick Orders.
Langley died in 1751. Although he was often ridiculed he helped popularise Gothick and deserves to be remembered for New Principles if nothing else. ‘Arti-natural’ may not have been revolutionary but – the ‘wiggly, puny, playful’ transition between the formal and landscape styles is exactly what Nikolaus Pevsner described as the Rococo garden. So next time you follow a serpentine path or see whimsical a Rococo Gothick building remember Batty Langley with affection.
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