The Ruined Castle in the grounds of Hagley Hall, near Stourbridge in Worcestershire, was built by Sir Thomas Lyttleton (1685-1751) in 1747-48 as a feature to be visited, and seen as a prospect, on a walk around his park. His eldest son, George Lyttelton (1709-1773), was probably a driving influence, and together they created one of the most perfect sham ruins in Britain.
Designed by gentleman architect Sanderson Miller, the Castle takes the form of a ruin, with one intact tower and three others in varying stages of decay. Originally, loose blocks of stone were placed artfully around the building to appear as if they had just tumbled down from the ruin. Horace Walpole, not always easy to please, famously found the castle a convincing sham, declaring it had the ‘true rust of the barons’ wars’.
From its inception the Castle was designed to have a practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one. At the top of the main tower there was an elegant room where visitors could take tea. The windows were filled with painted glass and specially-commissioned ‘Gothick’ chairs were designed to complement the architecture. There was also a telescope to admire the prospect. The rest of the building provided a home for the Keeper, and the three ruined towers became a Cow House, Coal House and Poultry House.
Intriguingly, in 1697 Sir Charles Lyttleton (1629-1716), a man who employed an interesting phonetic approach to spelling, wrote to a friend to announce that ‘I phancy a Tower wth Battlements’. His tower was built that same year on high ground in the park, and was used as a place where he could rest on his daily walk, as well as being a lodge for the Keeper. Half a century later, his son and grandson followed his lead and created the castle we see today, presumably sweeping away any remains of the earlier building.
Over the centuries the Castle continued to have a practical purpose, and as the craze for sham ruins waned its principal role became that of an extremely sophisticated shed. This can be seen in this mid-20th century view by Lyndon Goodwin Harris. Harris, RI, RWA, RSW (1928-2006) was born in Halesowen to an amateur artist father whom accounts paint as a domineering man. Sidney Harris collected the works of Albert Goodwin (1845-1932), and such was his admiration for the artist that he gave his son ‘Goodwin’ as a middle name. Harris senior pushed his son into practicing art from a young age, and whether he worked under duress or not, the boy clearly had talent. In 1942, when barely into his teens, his father suggested they ‘try their luck’ at submitting one of his works to the Royal Academy Summer Show. The work was accepted, and ‘Midland Boy Artist, 13, Has Picture In Academy’ was the boast in the local papers.
Harris’s view of the castle at Hagley, which was just a few miles from Halesowen, was painted four years later in 1946. At that date Harris was planning his future, and considering his love of painting buildings, it is not a surprise to learn that he considered a career as an architect, and was awarded a valuable Leverhulme scholarship to attend the Architectural Association School of Architecture. But instead he continued to train as an artist, and took up a scholarship at the Slade School of Art.
Harris produced many works featuring local scenes, including these two views of Halesowen Abbey, a genuine ancient ruin, which by the middle of the 20th century was somewhat swamped by a farm. Ironically, its poor condition may in part be because, according to tradition, masonry was purloined for incorporation into the fake ruin at Hagley. A 19th century account claims that windows from the mediaeval abbey were incorporated into the curtain walls of Lyttelton’s Ruined Castle. In 1750 the poet and gardener William Shenstone tried to beg a couple of Halesowen Abbey’s windows to ‘terminate ye Vista’ in his wood at The Leasowes, just outside Halesowen. There’s no evidence that Shenstone’s wishes were met, but he did incorporate mediaeval fragments into a mock ruined priory (now lost) which he added to his park in 1757.
Although talented, painting does not seem to have made Harris happy, and he is believed to have given up painting after his father died in 1971. He became increasingly reclusive and lived quietly in the family home until 2006. After his death his father’s valuable collection was ‘discovered’ in the house, and the local paper was able to trot out the usual phrases: ‘forgotten art stash’, ’treasure trove’, ‘eccentric bachelor’ and ‘astonished family’.
The history of the Ruined Castle at Hagley included here is entirely based on the work of The Garden Historian, aka Michael Cousins, and The Folly Flâneuse thanks him for generously sharing his research (including the new discovery that there was an earlier castle building). His full account of Hagley was published by The Gardens Trust (formerly the Garden History Society) and you can find out more here https://www.jstor.org/stable/40219948?seq=1
Lyndon Goodwin Harris deserves to be better known, and the Folly Flâneuse is grateful to Neil Jennings for introducing her to his work. Neil Jennings Fine Art has a number of works by Harris available. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Hagley Hall hosts weddings and functions and there is a programme of events, including house tours. Visit the website for further details https://www.hagleyhall.com
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