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It can be said, without fear of contradiction, that Welbeck Abbey, speaking Architecturally, is an unusual place. It can also be revealed, very simply, what constitutes this strangeness. It is not that it was once a private landholding of enormous extent, or that the 5th Duke of Portland aimed to bequeath to his heir the best-ordered Estate in Britain. It is the way in which he did this.

He tunnelled.

The 5th Duke was a mid 19C 'coal baron'. His mines employed miners. So he also employed them to dig a most extensive network of tunnels, which still run for miles in perfect physical order, lined and segmentally-vaulted in brick, under the remaining (still vast) estate. These were lit by cast glass skylights, that appear like pools of ice in the grass, and hundreds upon hundreds of gas jets (lit, when they existed, by coal gas). The gasworks has now been refashioned, very beautifully - a real 'Architect's building - craftsmanship run wild - into the Gallery of the Harley Foundation. And why not - the Foundation's main object is to encourage the Crafts? The tunnels would emerge into huge buildings, like a sunken ballroom, whose blank walls and skylighting betray that it doubled as an Art Gallery (no ram-raiders here!). The horses and carriages which traversed the tunnels, like full-size working models of a city metro, emerged into the vast glazed concourse of the Riding School (now sublet as a book depository) - alike in every way to the railway termini being conceived at that time. For we are very early here - the first decades of the second half of the 19C. Indeed a narrow-gauge rail track still remains in the earthen floor of the tunnels.


To a 20C 'critic' the works of the 5th Duke of Portman might appear ludicrous - the travails of an eccentric paranoid. On the other hand what idea has not first been explored, in the so-called 'real' world, except by an 'unusual' person? Why not read Welbeck as a working model of something both very much of its time - the free-thinking mid 19C - and, at the same time, far in advance of it. After all, a transport system buried under a 'romantically and artificially' constructed landscape of poetic palaces, cottages, lakes, woods and giant, industrially-scaled, green-house agricultures sounds more like a futuristic 21C space colony than anything the 20C has built on Earth in its second half. What has our century made except glacial moraines of concrete, deserts of desuetude flowing out under the hydrocarbonated lava spills of personal transport, in whose petrified grip are embedded, marooned like ships in ice, the flotsam and jetsam of the shattered cities of the late 20C?


Compared to this Welbeck can be conjured as a lifespace of an unsettling level of imagination and cunning. For another common error might be to imagine that the buildings themselves are no more sophisticated than that of one of the illustrated 'How to build a Tuscan villa' manuals of the time. Yet the parts that the 5th Duke built can be argued to be ingeniously attuned to the 'geist' of his moment of History.

They were mostly the 'working' parts of the great estate. So one might expect them to be as rigidly planned as any of the great new Factories arising during those hectic times. But they are not. Their huge lithic bulks skid around the terrain as if mounted on airpads. This 'artless disorder' was surely intended to testify to their placement by circumstances over which mere (post-Napoleonic - revolutionary - rational) Mankind had no control. The hand that guided them to their final, inscrutable, fixity would have been that of either God or Nature, two increasingly confused principles in the mid 19C (soon to be surgically parted, like Siamese twins, by Darwin).

Their Architecture recalls the confections of the Elizabethan Proto-Renaissance. The Estate Buildings are closer to the naturalistic polymorphism of India than the Hellenic formalisms that preceded and suceeded them in the 18C and 19C. The Disraelian, early-Victorian project, of the Neo-Feudal society of "Young Britain", aimed to coincide a form that was 'natural' - artlessly given by Nature - as well as hierarchically articulated (by God) according to a reasoned structure graded according to Degree and Function. Or was it the other way around?

The 'working' buildings may appear 'inconsequentially' distributed across the land. Yet they share a strict 'livery-uniform' that is, in its turn, mysteriously theatrical and redolent with emblems of high degree. These are made all the more strange by the many 'blind arcades' which, in their 'trophy house' originals, would have been filled with glass, like giant shopwindows, to advertise the splendours within. The uniformity of the 'architectural players', when combined with the obscurity of their purpose and manifest lack of 'plot', has an effect much sought-after by 20C artists, that we call aleatory - or governed by chance. In the case of the 20C, this registers 'despair', in the case of the 19C, God's Inscrutable Nature.

Are they so far apart and do we have to submit to either? The Court of Alice-in-Wonderland comes to mind with its privacies of purpose and obscurity of surface.

These are not the crushing architectural mechanisms of the Normans, with their armoured Viking imagery of proto-cogwheels, or the Scholastic compulsivenesses of Gothic orthogal planning. Both of these returned in force in 20C design - albeit 'mystified' by being stripped of their properly explicit ornamental decorum. The 5th Duke seems to have been pursuing a synthesis of Natural Artlessness with a 'Naturalistic' Artifice. There is, somewhere in all this, a missing text, or texts, which are of importance - as is the actual work of the Elizabethan Play to the explanations of the "Theatre of Memory". The 'architectural actors' (and by inference the human ones too) seem, in Welbeck, to be peculiarly free of 'formal compulsion'. Yet they also appear to be situated in an ambience that is 'theatrical' in the extreme sense of being dislocated from any reality exterior to the Great Estate. What was the 'script' to which they walked on right and exited left?

This strong tendency towards a 'suspension of disbelief' is reinforced by the way that wheeled traffic dives undergound - vanishing from sight in order to succour the 'castles in the air'. Yet the hidden powers of the new technologies that these conduits secreted were soon to overwhelm all attempts at the installation of the Neo-Gothic Kingdom of Britannic Philanthropy. The 'great chain of being' that bound the Monarch to the lowliest creatures of the Animal Kingdom fractured, somewhere around the 1870's-80's, and Philanthropic Gothic, with a peculiar sudden-ness, lost its transformative charisma.

There is even something 'very contemporary' in the 5th Dukes 'lack' of planning. It is uncannily akin to the laboured artifice with which the "contraformalites" of late 20C Deconstruction seek to mimic (it must be said unsuccessfully) the theatrical mystery of Tuscan cities to which all Californian Deconstructivists together with their Neo-NeoClassical antitheses, flock each Academic Vacation.


This mid-19C chapter of the 'traces', that cover an Estate of the size and antiquity of Welbeck, has, it seems, not yet been adequately deciphered. Perhaps it never will be. Or more likely may not prove worthy of the effort - that is always the problem with 'the mysterious' - maybe it is no more than idiocy in the end. Certainly all such efforts will pvove uninstructive if approached as if the Duke was no more than an 'ordinary man' working out some 'private psychological problem' in the socio-political vacuum of 21C Suburb.

The 'Prince' of such an engine of power, whatever his private obsessions, was inexorably driven to steer even so 'private' a thing as his Country Estate across an ocean well-marked by charts and navigational aids of all kinds. That he found a course so unusual should be put to his credit, as a very English 'autodidact', rather than counted as evidence of amateurish eccentricity, if not worse. For, seen from the 21C, one can not avoid the sense that here, in one of the aristocratic power-centres of Britain's culture and politics, a 'Prince', in the Renaissance sense, created a 'City' that has never been understood - perhaps, with entirety, even by himself. For to be original is to act outside conventions and it is hard to be entirely reasonable in such circumstances.

The whole idea of "living in the coutry', that so posesses the English, is so beset with problems and contradictions problematic that it will only be brought off successfully if approached in an entirely different way than at present. For what has been achieved in the last 50 years of the 20C except, as Roger Bacon might have decried: "A subdivision of poverty" - a mere accumulation of disorder where petty householders gobble up land and clog roads with cars.

"Green Enthusiasts" dream of 'living in the country', where no household of adults, of adequate income, ever has less than one petrol-fuelled vehicle per person of licenseable age. 'Villas' lose heat like sieves. No one has time to grow their own vegetables, of keep a cow. They drive to the Supermarket and buy fruit grown in California. Then a trip next door rewards the shopper with a bag of earth from the Garden Centre. This will be used to grow inedible flowers. The whole of British land use planning since the '45 War has been based on the idea that the USA is the correct, and inevitable, model, but can only be built 1/2-scale in Little Britain. It has ruined British Towns, Transport and the beloved 'Countryside'. There is some sense, at the beginning of the 21C, that another 'model' is needed. But there is little sign of the knowledge, let alone the arrogance and self-confidence, needed to invent it.

What should matter to us, today, about Welbeck is the sheer bloody-minded scale of the idea of an 'ideal landscape' (conceived in a very English, off-beat, theatrical, way) yet serviced from a vast rural 'metro', lit, ventilated, railwayed and drained (the tunnels run under lakes!). Where are the Clients like this today, in our world of 'performance standards' and responsibility-free pensionnaires veiled in 'management' gobbledygook? Where are the visionaries, combining thinking about 'Art', illusion, society and 'script', together and a radical grasp of technologies outside the norm, to 'manage the managers'?


In short, every traffic-choked middling country town (that favourite model of British life, all turned iinto 'central areas' today) should have a Welbeck Metro Network drilled under it without further chit-chat in smoke filled committee rooms! How can one possibly think otherwise when viewing the pathetic, muddled, hopeless fabric, that the 20C leaves to its heirs. It is, today, devoid of any forethought beyond the most ad-hoc pragmatism. Yet we can say that, compared to many other countries, and certainly the third world, Britain is well-planned. How can we think of Welbeck as anything except the 'trace' of an extraordinary project that still awaits its recognition by a generation capable of more imagination and will-power than our own?


End of "Burying the Future ",

Click to read "Travelling Light", about the context of Pineapple Place in the Welbeck Estate.    

Return to "Pineapple Place" -Welbeck




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