Twentieth Century Castles in Britain Amicia de Moubray

Frances Lincoln, pp.200, £30, ISBN: 9780711231788

In the Pevsner volume on Sussex, the otherwise sane topographer Ian Nairn, harrumphed of Arundel ‘that anybody, duke or banker, could as late as 1890 have embarked on the pretty complete building of an imitation castle, remains a puzzle …’  In this amusing and richly illustrated book, Amicia de Moubray gives the answer, and demonstrates how castle-building continued as a serious architectural thread not just in the 19th but throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. The British love of castles is deeply rooted in their psyche as an island race. Children learn to love them from fairy stories and Harry Potter.

Castles are an emblem of Britain itself, an island surrounded by a moat. A castle is a place of refuge and safety where we can do what we wish. It has always been a grand symbol of status and success. It is also a two-fingered gesture to modern, bureaucratic, utilitarian society. Historically it was the ‘residence of a lord made imposing through the architectural trappings of fortification’.  A castle’s appeal is romantic and enduring.  The resuscitation of a ruin or a new castle is the ultimate fantasy for a romantic, as gloriously illustrated herein.

The early 20th century ushered in an amazing revival of castles; crumbling ruins were transformed into something sparkling and new. Lord Curzon was a key figure. As Viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905, he developed the legal preservation of historic buildings which the British instituted after the Mutiny by scheduling the ruins of Lucknow as a monument. Modern British conservation of ancient buildings is one of many happy offshoots of the Indian empire.

In India, Curzon protected all the great Moghul sites and personally carried out a perfect restoration of the Taj Mahal. When he returned to England he brought this experience with him, supporting legislation to schedule ancient monuments and undertaking the restoration of Tattershall and Bodiam Castles with the assistance of the SPAB architect William Weir.

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In his will (where he bequeathed Tattershall and Bodiam to the National Trust), Curzon wrote:

Beautiful and ancient buildings which recall the life and customs of the past are not only historical documents of supreme value but are part of the spiritual and aesthetic heritage of a nation, imbuing it with reverence and educating its taste.

To compare such a sentence with any utterance of any contemporary politician is shattering evidence of the absolute decline of English civilisation.

Where Curzon led, others followed.  Leeds Castle, Hever, Saltwood, Allington in Kent and Hurstmonceaux in Sussex are all examples of Edwardian panache in this field. Lutyens’s masterpieces at Drogo and Lindisfarne were of the same vintage, as was Lord Armstrong’s gargantuan reconstruction of Bamburgh in Northumberland. In Scotland, Lorimer was responsible for Dunderave on Loch Fyne, and Eilean Donan was reconstructed by Major MacRae from a pile of stones in 1928.

The fashion so established has continued unabated. Queen Elizabeth rescued the Castle of Mey in 1952, a key influence on the Prince of Wales. Dozens of Scottish towers have been reconstructed as modern homes since the second world war. Some examples south of the border are Castell Gyrn in Denbighshire, built for himself by the London architect John Taylor of Chapman Taylor, or the amazingly ‘authentic’ Braylsham Castle in Sussex of 1998.

Amicia de Moubray’s entertaining and instructive survey concludes with Corrour, a granite modernist fantasy of 2003 on Loch Ossien. For those who like ‘alternative history’ this book is a must.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated