Sir Charles Barry is usually remembered as the architect of grand Victorian edifices like the Palace of Westminster, and for remodelling country houses such as Trentham in Staffordshire and Harewood in Yorkshire. But he was also happy to take on smaller projects, and in 1845 this elegant obelisk was erected to his design in a distant corner of the Bowood estate of the Marquess of Lansdowne.
Curiously, the monument, is completely plain, with no ornament or inscription, and only half a century after its erection by Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne (1780-1863) no-one knew quite why it was there.
It was not until the early 20th century that its genesis and purpose were rediscovered by the 6th Marquess of Lansdowne (1872-1936). Lord Lansdowne, a man of ‘a retiring, scholarly disposition’, found the accounts for its erection in the family archives at Bowood. These confirmed Barry as the architect, and Messrs Daniel and Charles Jones of Bradford upon Avon as the builders, with a total budget of £1359. Barry had worked for the 3rd Marquess of Landsowne at Bowood, in Wiltshire, in the 1830s, so would have been the natural choice when the Marquess decided to erect a monument on an escarpment on the downs.
In the 1920s the antiquarian Marquess discovered a second document in the family papers – a draft inscription in the hand of Louisa, 3rd Marchioness (1785-1851). At last there was confirmation that the obelisk was commissioned to commemorate Sir William Petty (1627-1684), an economist, scientist, anatomist and founder of the Lansdowne family fortune. The plan was for the obelisk to carry the following words:
To the Memory
of Sir William Petty, Knight
Son of John Petty Clothier
To whose exalted understanding
And indefatigable industry
This Country was indebted
For the foundation of science
Which he laid
And his family
Not less for the example which he gave
Than for the inheritance he bequeathed them
This Obelisk is dedicated
By his grateful descendant
Henry Marquis of Lansdowne
The 6th Marquess surmised that the proposed inscription was abandoned in favour of marking the burial place of Sir William in Romsey Abbey, Hampshire, where a recumbent effigy by Westmacott was installed in 1858.
The obelisk has long been a popular destination for visitors, particularly as it sits alongside two other important landscape features: Oldbury Castle, an ancient hill fort, and one of the famed White Horse chalk figures.
In 1988 the obelisk was bought by the National Trust, and two years later a restoration was undertaken with funds from a public appeal and the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission. Sadly, the stone used was not as durable as the original, and it soon began to wear away. In 2013 the National Trust erected hoardings around the monument to protect visitors from falling masonry.
There were hopes locally that the grade II* listed monument could be restored in time for its 175th birthday in 2020, but that deadline passed, and instead the anniversary was marked by an application for the hoardings to remain in place for a further five years. Permission was granted, but with the proviso that the monument would be restored ‘to its former unadulterated condition on or before 1 March 2025’.
In late September 2021 the Folly Flâneuse asked the National Trust for an update, and was told: ‘We are planning to commence feasibility work during autumn 2021, which will give us a realistic idea of the cost of work required’. The local community is very proud of the landmark, and is poised to support the restoration in any way it can.
The National Trust recently announced (August 2021) the completion of the restoration of the Wellington Monument in Somerset. It took two years and £3.1 million to repair that obelisk, the tallest of its kind in the world. Let’s hope the expert craftspersons who worked on the project can soon be redeployed in Wiltshire.
And now a quick plug for an organisation which the Folly Flâneuse greatly admires: the photo’ at the top of the page appears courtesy of ArtUK. You may know ArtUK’s excellent work in digitising oil paintings in public collections. Recently, they have widened their remit, as Deputy Director Katey Goodwin explains: ‘Since 2017 we have been running a major project to digitise sculpture in collections and outside in our parks, squares and countryside. The public sculpture element of the project has a wide remit. As well as recording statues and monuments, we have recorded clock towers, gateways, street furniture and many other memorials and outdoor artworks across the UK’. Make yourself a coffee and enjoy a happy hour browsing the collection https://artuk.org
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