John Ramsey: Castle Howard

Audio Version

Text Version

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited two friends, Charles and Sebastian, lounge in the colonnade of Brideshead Castle, the stately home of Sebastian’s family. They have just come down from their first year at Oxford. It is a peerless summer’s day. Charles is sketching an ornamental fountain.

Referring to the main house, Charles says, “Is the dome by Inigo Jones, too? It looks later”.

Sebastian replies, “Oh Charles, don’t be such a tourist”.

It is believed that Waugh based Brideshead on Castle Howard, the only stately home of England to have a dome. It also has its own box in the Conway Library, with many photographs taken by Anthony Kersting. One image, showing the south front from the fountain, looked wrong somehow. Why? The dome had disappeared.

Image of Castle Howard from afar, no dome visible.

The south front of the house with the dome missing. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. CON_B00944_F002_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Inspired by the photographs in the Conway, I visited Castle Howard on another peerless summers day, two years ago, and discovered the story.

During the Second World War, stately homes were either requisitioned by the army or by private schools needing to move away from towns and cities. The owners preferred the schools, as the army would damage the structure and ruin the landscaped gardens. Castle Howard became a girls’ school. Tragically, this apparent good fortune did not prevent damage to the structure. In November 1940, a fire broke out in the South-East wing and swept through the house into the Great Hall, destroying the dome. The Howard family were determined to rebuild the house and to live in it again. The dome was finally completed in 1962.

 

Image of Castle Howard taken from afar, in it we can see the dome clearly.

The south front with the dome restored. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. CON_B00944_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Work still continues, as time, money and opportunities permit. In conjunction with the filming of the TV serial, Brideshead Revisited, in 1981, the Garden Hall was rebuilt. Apparently, many tourists believe that the novel was based on historical events, and the characters on real people.

The reference to Inigo Jones is also a fiction. The architect was John Vanburgh, best known at the time as a Restoration playwright. He was a member of the elite Kit Kat Club, along with the then owner of Castle Howard, Lord Carlisle, who was looking for an architect to rebuild his medieval castle. Vanburgh had trained as an architect but had never built anything. However, Carlisle believed Vanburgh could design a structure of appropriate grandeur and dignity, that reflected the spirit of the age. Vanburgh had toured Europe extensively and the result is a sumptuous blend of the Baroque and the Palladian: ornate sculpture and decoration, with symmetry, arched windows, and temple-like features. He was supported by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral and was the architect of several City churches rebuilt after the Great Fire of London.

I am not sure why being a tourist was such an insult. Presumably, the aristocracy at the time could afford to despise the idea of visitors paying to see their estates. It crops up later in the novel when Charles and Sebastian visit Venice, and “become tourists” themselves.

Please do be a tourist and visit Castle Howard. It is a completely wonderful experience, and they still need the money.


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Sophie Buckman: the serene beauty of Robert Byron’s Isfahan

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

Being presented with immediate free rein in The Courtauld’s Conway photographic library was delightfully overwhelming, and I spent much of my first day flitting between folders of images of Cumbrian churches, the Callipygian Venus, and Florentine stained glass.

Eventually and unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the section of files on the architecture of Iran, and soon came across the two on Isfahan. Having visited the city a few years ago, I was curious to see the photographs of what I remember as one of the most beautiful cities in the country of my family. An ancient Silk Road city, Isfahan flourished in the Safavid period, and its skyline is still marked by the imperial sandstone of Shah Abbas’ golden age.

The domes and minarets of Isfahan’s mosques and palaces colour the city a vibrant blue, evoking memories of invading Mongols and their eastern ceramics. In The Road to Oxiana (1937), travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron (1905 – 1941) saw reflections of this dominating colour in the Zayandehrud river which cuts through the city; he describes it “catching that blue in its muddy silver… and before you know how, Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures”.

Expelled from Merton College, Oxford, Robert Byron was a member of the infamously flamboyant Hypocrites Club, and in the 1920s a “bright young thing” of the London social scene. While the excess of his early years was immortalised in novels by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, much of Byron’s life was spent travelling and soon he became a wildly successful travel writer, ahead of his death in combat in 1941.

Here at the Courtauld can be found Byron’s own photos from his Middle Eastern trip of 1933–34, taken during the writing of his most famous work, The Road to Oxiana.

Item from the Conway Library. Two images of Isfahan, Persia, showing the bridge.

CON_B02478_F001_002 Robert Byron, a view along Khaju Bridge from the imperial box in its centre. The throne from where Shah Abbas II would have enjoyed summer evenings is long gone.

Central to his view of Isfahan, is the river, “Zayandeh” literally meaning “life-giver”, and its two main bridges, Pol-e-Khaju, Khaju Bridge, and Si-o-se Pol, the Bridge of 33 Arches.

Pol-e-khaju and Si-o-se Pol were both built in the seventeenth century, and function as pedestrian bridges as well as weirs. In Byron’s photographs the Zayandehrud tears between their arches, whilst in more recent years the waterbed has been dry.

The river’s pilgrimage from the Zagros Mountains has fallen short every summer for 10 years now. Some blame bureaucratic mismanagement and the over-allocation of water to steelworks and farms upstream, whilst officials have been quoted as instead blaming the immorality of Isfahanis for the drying of the river.[1]

Item from the Conway Library, two black and white images of the bridge from different angles.

Robert Byron, Khaju Bridge, low water. CON_B02478_F001_001.

Robert Byron’s several visits to the city over those two years provide evidence of the instability of the Zayandehrud’s water levels. In one photograph of Pol-e-Khaju the water is low enough to allow locals to wash and bathe on the crumbling Safavid steps.

In one of Byron’s photos of Si-o-se pol, a group of people seem stranded in his symmetrical framing, the water rising, with several of the men staring deep into the camera’s lens, almost imploring the viewer for help. Photographing this middle section of the bridge isolates these pedestrians, eliminating any view of escape from the Zayandehrud, reframing a simple social scene into a near biblical scene of flooding.

Item from the Conway Library, two black and white images of people standing on the bridge, under the arches.

Robert Byron, high water. CON_B02478_F007_002.

The two bridges have served as meeting-places and social spaces for Isfahanis since their inception, particularly in the evenings, when the workday ends and crowds are drawn to the aureate glow of the lit arcades and arches.

Byron describes the foot passages on Si-o-se Pol being as overwhelmed as the river; “it was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory”.

Despite Byron’s poetic synonymity of crowd and water, the drought of recent years have allowed for the continued tradition of singing underneath the arches of Khaju. Groups of men drink tea, smoke shisha pipes, or “hubble-bubbles” as Byron called them, and sing in groups or unison, their voices echoing off the high, curved roof of the cavernous spaces.

The sound is haunting, and one almost feels transported to a bygone era in awe of this storied tradition.

Robert Byron, daytime under Khaju Bridge, 1933. CON_B02478_F001_005.

A photograph from my visit to Isfahan in 2017, nighttime under Khaju Bridge, with singers.

Much of Byron’s journey through Persia in The Road to Oxiana is impeded by bureaucracy and illness. Many of the entries of his many weeks stuck in Tehran start with some defeated variation of “Still here”. By contrast, the verdant splendour of Isfahan is celebrated, in what I find to be the most beautiful passage of the book:

“The bridge encloses the road by arched walls, on the outside of which runs a miniature arcade for foot passengers. This was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory. The lights came out. A little breeze stirred, and for the first time in four months I felt a wind that had no chill in it. I smelt the spring, and the rising sap. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine. So much it meant to have escaped from Teheran.”     Robert Byron on Si-o-se Pol, The Road to Oxiana 

For the first summer in ten years, 2019 saw the Khaju and Si-o-se bridges flushed with water once again. Through drought and flood, from their building in the 1600s, to Byron’s 1930s, to the present, the serene beauty of these “cafe-au-lait” bridges endures.

[1] The Independent, June 2016, “Iranian women’s clothing “causing rivers to run dry”, says senior cleric” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iranian-womens-clothing-is-causing-a-river-to-run-dry-cleric-says-a7077021.html


Sophie Buckman

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant