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Thomas Wright, Arbours and Grottos

I've just walked back from the library with my latest treasure.

One of the benefits of working for a university is the ability to get almost anything through interlibrary loan, and after a bit of effort, my wonderful librarians have obtained a copy of Thomas Wright's "Arbours and Grottos" for me. The facsimile, as only a few copies of the original are known to exist. If you have deep pockets, vol.1 "Arbours" is available at Ursus books for $7,500, which is also one of the only on-line sources for its images. Even the facsimile version has become expensive enough that many libraries won't loan it out. If you happen to see one at a boot-sale, snap it up.

Considered one of the first 'pattern-books' for garden landscapes, Wright's "Arbours and Grottos" shows constructs in an ornamental rustic style we now tend to associate with the Victorian period, though he wrote in 1755. And his own title for the work was much more grand; it was a 'Universal Architecture'.

Wright wasn't just being decorative. His utilization of rough wood elements was an embodiment of the Vitruvian principle that architecture is an imitation of nature--a return to the tree trunks from which stone columns were derived, an attempt at the re-integration of the built environment with its natural roots that architects still seek to achieve. Modern eco-architects like to think they're doing something new.

So do physicists, and Wright was both. Much like super-string theorists today, Wright wanted to develop an integrated and orderly theory of the universe. Unlike them, he expressed his ideas in landscapes with celestial references in addition to writing "Universal Vicissitudes of the Seasons" (1737), "Synopsis of the Universe, or the visible World Epitomized" (1742), and "An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe" (1750) in which he posited the first theory of the Milky Way.

Wright continues to be far better known as an astronomer and mathematician than as a designer, and his landscapes survive only in remnants: at Halswell House in Somerset, ruined grottos are extant (and being preserved), but a Druid House similar to those in the 'Arbours' volume lasted through the centuries only to be felled for its wood in the 1950s.

Wright's design for a garden barge, intended so that Frederick Prince of Wales could travel the Thames in floating sylvan style, was alas never built.

(bigger image available at the Columbia Library Special Collections site)
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Plinius said...

Interesting post - great images. I've just watched a documentary on the recreation of an Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth (this has been big news here recently, not least because of the expense involved.) I think you'd find it interesting if you are able to watch it.

stef said...

treasure trove!

Tatyana said...

I always enjoy reading your posts. I love the images. Thank you!

Chookie said...

What an amazing place and architect! Pity I live a bit far away to visit easily...

Mike said...

I used to be the Head Gardener at The Menagerie, Horton, Northamptonshire UK. Thomas Wright worked there too.

Mike said...

I used to be the Head Gardener at The Menagerie, Horton, Northamptonshire UK. Thomas Wright worked there too.

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