Renovating Castle Lyndon

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Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: “Each shot acts as a kind of narrated painting.” (hopelies.com)

Here is a set of passages from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, which I am reading for the first time after seeing the movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick in a sort of cinematic slo-mo. The novel is an extended exercise in irony, narrated by Captain Barry, in which every line exaggerates the Irish adventurer’s supposed lineage and breeding. Here he is reminiscing, decades later (1814), at the changes he made to his new wife’s family castle.

The exterior was, when I first arrived, a quaint composition of all sorts of architecture; of feudal towers, and gable-ends in Queen Bess’s style, and rough-patched walls built up to repair the ravages of the Roundhead cannon: but I need not speak of this at large, having had the place new-faced at a vast expense, under a fashionable architect, and the façade laid out in the latest French-Greek and most classical style. There had been moats and drawbridges, and outer walls; these I had shaved away into elegant terraces, and handsomely laid out in parterres, according to the plans of M. Cornichon, the great Parisian architect, who visited England for the purpose. …

All the rest [of the bedrooms] were redecorated by Cornichon in the most elegant taste; not a little to the scandal of some of the steady old country dowagers; for I had pictures of Boucher and Vanloo to decorate the principal apartments, in which the Cupids and Venuses were painted in a manner so natural, that I recollect the old wizened Countess of Frumpington pinning over the curtains of her bed, and sending her daughter, Lady Blanche Whalebone, to sleep with her waiting-women, rather than allow her to lie in a chamber hung all over with looking-glasses, after the exact fashion of the queen’s closet at Versailles. …

Venuses and Cupids were the rascal’s adoration: he wanted to take down the Gothic screen and place Cupids in our pew there [the castle’s chapel]; but old Doctor Huff the rector came out with a large oak stick, and addressed the unlucky architect in Latin, of which he did not comprehend a word, yet made him understand that he would break his bones if he laid a single finger upon the sacred edifice. Cornichon made complaints about the “Abbé Huff,” as he called him (“Et quel abbé, grand Dieu!” added he, quite bewildered: “un abbé avec douze enfans!”): but I encouraged the church in this respect and bade Cornichon exert his talents only in the castle. …

Whilst these improvements were going on in my estates, my house, from an antique Norman castle, being changed to an elegant Greek temple, or palace – my gardens and woods losing their rustic appearance to be adapted to the most genteel French style – my child growing up at his mother’s knees, and my influence in the country increasing, – it must not be imagined that I stayed in Devonshire all this while, and that I neglected to make visits to London and my various estates in England and Ireland.

I’ll see if I can find an illustration connected to the book or, more likely, the movie. Long ago I avoided reading the book because the movie was criticized as boring. The movie is not boring. It is deliberate in the sweep of its lens as it captures beauty. “Each shot is a kind of narrated painting,” writes a critic. So I am pleased, also, at finding the book itself so entertaining. Old historical novels by writers like Thackeray are not a taste inculcated in many young people by their teachers these days. Too bad!

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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