A stop at Witley Court near Worcester on the way to North Wales. Partly destroyed by fire, gutted for salvage in the 1950s, and perfect for the recent meander at WhistlesintheWind about what we keep and throw away… pondering the popular view of Britain before the 1960s, what modernised us, and the things salvaged from the 20th century’s garbage skip.
Witley Court is well-managed by English Heritage, a grand shell with a centrepiece fountain that fires on the hour.
There’s a very particular atmosphere, and the link here is actress Deborah Kerr, who appeared in two films that came to mind while wandering around. One was Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Somehow that film made the bright sun of a summer’s day coldly haunting, with images across the water of the house in cadaverous silence. In complete opposition, I also remember Deborah Kerr in a technicolor comedy with Cary Grant, about the inhabitants of a stately home ‘forced’ to take in guided tours to maintain their lifestyle. Witley Court is both – families, dressed in shades of Italian ice cream, sit happily on the manicured lawns, while the brooding, slightly resentful shell of the mansion stands over them.
Solid, stoic – it will not be moved.
Above: the last echoes of the rustle of a dress up the staircase, sweeping away with the speed of a darting peacock’s tail feathers…
Perhaps this is all we need? Nothing could be more honest than Witley Court. The architecture seems to speak more powerfully as a shell – part of the story of the 20th century told with unsentimental beauty.
I remembered last year’s visit to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. I had wanted to go there for years, but what waited there was fairly hideous… a house, like Witley Court, once partly destroyed by fire (in the 1940s), yet risen again. In the 21st century some aspects can only recall garish images of stately grandeur: garden centre statues or statement wallpaper in out-of-town superstores up and down the land.
Elsewhere, it seemed the very essence of the British heritage industry at its worst: the empty, shored-up and once fire-damaged rooms are barely filled with bored displays flogging the dead horse of the 2009 remake of Brideshead Revisited.
Castle Howard is itself unconnected with any of Waugh’s inspiration but remains in the Arcadian imagination as the stage set for the iconic 1981 TV drama.
And yes, something from an earlier age remains – in the occasionally fawning and obseqiuous manner of attendants drooling over the family portraits. Brideshead ended the war as the ghost of its former self. If heritage supermarkets with their cafés complete with suspiciously-stained sofas are what we need to feed a dream, then perhaps we should have let Charles Ryder ride away down the drive in his jeep, never to return.
Some of the most arresting images of recent years are those of ruined Detroit, Michigan by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.
They include the United Artists Theatre, ready to give us vertigo with its height and expanse. But it is monotone, silver-grey – a Narnian witch has withered the unfurling decoration. It’s Miss Havisham’s wedding cake: celebratory splendour gnawed and eaten, enough beauty left to mock us, but fragile as ash.
There are images of hotels, apartments, railway stations – windows like gouged eyeholes of 20th century excess, flaking like the make-up of septuagenarian starlets.
This is ruin on the grand scale. The artists record it on camera and talk of the fall of empires. It’s the sinking of the Titanic, the Statue of Zeus or the Sphinx. It is part of something mighty fallen, and reminds us that humans are here and then were here.
Do we think of ourselves when we see these images? Or are we thinking grandly, of the human race?
Place an upturned plastic chair in the centre of the ruined dancehall and we might respond differently. This is something from within our lifetime, not a distant heritage. It’s the chair we sat on at school, the chair we sat on at interview, the one we stacked at the end of countless work presentations. The chair belongs to now. Yet it’s in a dead ballroom because it has had its time and belongs to the dark (or in the photo, the light…).
Stop, we think – that shouldn’t be there like that. We can hear the scrape of its metal legs and feel the warm grainy plastic and our living, and it hurts, because we know that’s where we’re going too, sometime.
But we are intrigued, like the Romantics who saw ruins lit by moonlight. They saw dark things and spectres that rose to give Byronic shivers of pleasure. This was fear to sip from books and shut away afterwards. Buildings also shut things away, and are well-worn metaphors for the mind, with dark attics and cellars rarely visited.
They also witness our lives – this is where we are born, learn, work, love and die. Is our energy so powerful that it is absorbed by plaster, brick, stone and wood? Do we think houses become human?
Old houses and empty houses turn quickly into gothic, romantic heroines. Daphne du Maurier writes here of the first sight of her home Menabilly, which partly inspired Manderley in the novel Rebecca, where the house is as much a character as the protagonists:
Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still, and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her.
Houses are not meant to be empty. This scares us. They can decline and rot, and remind us of our own bodies. Throw the windows wide, they say. Let some air in.
An empty house beckons us to look into the unknown, an after life: anything could be lurking in the cellar or the attic. We have always known that. So we paper and paint and polish, and keep the structure from returning to the earth. Renew and replenish. Keep the soil from quietly forming in the gutters, moss from lining the path, trees from tapping at the window.
All those Miss Havishams alone, cobwebbed, time-stilled. A house might change hands, and belong to a family. ‘The house lives again,’ people say, because there is energy and love and conflict.
But ruined buildings remind us of the end. And we are fascinated.
The Ruins of Detroit exhibition is showing at the Fontana Fortuna Gallery in Amsterdam from May 12th to June 30th 2012.