With St Valentine’s Day approaching, the Folly Flâneuse wondered which were the most romantic garden buildings. The most famous expression of love in an architectural form is surely the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his favourite wife. But closer to home are three equally enchanting buildings built as monuments to lost loves – two real, and one imaginary, and each likened to the marble mausoleum in India.
Near Abergavenny in Wales is the Clytha estate. In 1787 William Jones retired there following the death of his wife, Elizabeth, who was buried in nearby Llanarth churchyard. A long inscription on her monument in the church was composed by her ‘most afflicted and grateful husband, as a feeble effort to do justice to the memory of the best of wives’.
A few years later Jones began work on another ‘memorial to my wife’, but this time on a monumental scale. Work began on the ‘Castle’ in 1790, with Jones project-managing the construction himself, and a plaque records that:
This Building was erected in the Year 1790 by
WILLIAM JONES of Clytha House Esq
Husband of ELIZABETH […]
It was undertaken for the purpose of relieving a mind
sincerely afflicted by the loss of a most excellent Wife
whose Remains were deposited
in Llanarth Church Yard A:D: 1787
and to the Memory of whose Virtues
this Tablet is dedicated.
Only a few years later Sarah Anne Wilmot, who was touring Wales in 1802, was shown around by the ‘pensive owner’. She wrote in her journal that the Castle was a ‘united mausoleum and gazebo to his late wife’. Having been taken on a complete tour of the grounds, her party was treated to fine fruit from the hothouse, but nothing could lift the ‘air of melancholy’ which Sarah Anne felt pervaded the house and garden.
The Monmouthshire historian William Coxe also visited soon after completion, and he too admired the ‘ornament’, and admitted that he could not ‘retire from the building without sympathising with the regret, and applauding the gratitude, affection, and taste of the owner’.
Writing about the grade I listed Clytha Castle in Follies: A Guide to Rogue Architecture (co-written with Wim Meulenkamp and published in 1986), Gwyn Headley memorably called Clytha the ‘Taj Mahal of Wales’, which set the Folly Flâneuse wondering if other British buildings had been given a similar epithet. Two notable examples came to mind…
James Williamson, 1st Baron Ashton (1842-1930), fabulously rich from the production of oilcloth and linoleum, built the Ashton Memorial in the early years of the 20th century. His architect was Sir John Belcher (1841-1913), who was president of the Royal Institute of British Architects at the time of the commission. Belcher was a prolific architect of domestic and municipal buildings in a flamboyant Edwardian Baroque style. His works included Colchester Town Hall and London’s elegant Mappin and Webb building, which was controversially demolished in the 1990s to enable the development of No.1 Poultry, but a hilltop palace for a client with very deep pockets is unsurprisingly unique in his oeuvre. As Pevsner wrote in the 1969 edition of his volume on Lancashire, Belcher was ‘put into the position of designing the most sumptuous building in all his career for no utilitarian purpose whatsoever.’
The building is said to commemorate Ashton’s 2nd wife, Jessy, who died in 1904. A plaque actually dedicates the building to all of his family, but the people of Lancaster have always maintained that the loss of his wife was the driving force behind construction on this mammoth scale, and it was quickly dubbed ‘The Taj Mahal of the North’ (although less romantic Lancastrians prefer to call it ‘The Structure’).
Opened in 1909, the monument stands in Williamson Park, the public space created by Lord Ashton, and his father before him, for the people of Lancaster. At around 50 metres high the memorial can be seen from miles around, and whilst Ashton himself was said to be shy and shun the limelight, the same can not be said of the Ashton Memorial.
Meanwhile overlooking the Stour estuary in Essex, there’s a much more recent cenotaph, but this time to a fictional lost love. In 2010 Living Architecture’s Creative Director Alan de Botton met artist Grayson Perry and the idea for A House for Essex was born. Perry worked with architect Charles Holland (then of FAT Architecture) to bring the project to fruition, and it was completed in 2014.
Essex-born Perry created Julie Cope, an ‘Essex every-woman’, whose story is told through a series of artworks in (and on) the House. In brief: Julie finds herself pregnant and marries when still young, she divorces, and when the children have grown she gets the qualifications she missed out on as a teenager. She meets new love Rob, and settles into a comfortable middle-class life. Her life ends abruptly in a tragic accident, and Rob builds the house at Wrabness as her memorial, or as Perry puts it ‘a Taj Mahal upon the Stour’.
You too can stay in the monuments to Elizabeth Jones and Julie Cope, as both properties are holiday homes. Clytha Castle was restored by the heritage charity The Landmark Trust, and The House for Essex is a property of Living Architecture, which exists to create thought-provoking houses which inspire discussion about modern architecture. The Ashton Memorial is open to the public, and to continue the theme of romance, is a popular wedding venue.
There’s more on Clytha Castle here https://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/search-and-book/properties/clytha-castle-6088/#History
And for A House for Essex see https://www.living-architecture.co.uk/the-houses/a-house-for-essex/overview/
The Ashton Memorial is freely accessible https://www.lancaster.gov.uk/sites/williamson-park/ashton-memorial
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