The special beauty of decay

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Ruins of the Forum of Julius Caesar, in Rome. (Leon’s Message Board)

I’ve been trying to decide whether to post the only passage I thought worth quoting from the section on Cardinal Manning in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, recently read by your peripatetic couch-potato. When I discovered it was not a quote by Manning – the famous traitor to the Anglican Church who ended up a cardinal of the Roman Catholics, I was shaken in my resolve to post it. I mean, the book has absolutely nothing to say about architecture. But then I found that the passage came from Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant-Duff. I decided to post it to memorialize the oddity of the name.

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Sir M.E Grant Duff. (Wikipedia)

Well, you have to admit that it is an odd one even for a member of the British aristocracy in the Victorian period. The name seems almost to mock Victorian bric-a-brac, yes? So here is the passage, which comes toward the end of Strachey’s very sly and subtle defenestration of the great ecclesiastic and his seemingly unchristian desire to step upon any obstacle in his rise up the ecclesiastical ladder. Manning enjoyed being the eminence gris at such places as the Metaphysical Society, in London, where he occasionally condescended to read a paper of his own. The passage that follows considers the occasionally curious subjects of the members’ papers, which they read aloud at meetings of the society. The brackets, by the way, are Strachey’s, so maybe he inserted the quote because he was as amused by the name as I am.

I think the paper that interested me the most of all that were ever read at our meetings [says Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant- Duff] was one on “Wherein consists the special beauty of imperfection and decay?” in which were propounded the questions “Are not ruins recognized and felt to be more beautiful than perfect structures? Why are they so? Ought they to be so?”

This was the only passage in the Manning chapters that touched on architecture. I have long felt so myself, regarding decay more than ruins. I prefer the degeneracy of the French Quarter of New Orleans and on trips to Charleston have always enjoyed seeing ancient houses as they look before they are restored. But I don’t really know why. Of course, this can be taken too far. Around here (in Providence) if a building gets to looking too old, it might pass right through the stage of “ruin” to the stage of demolition, which is almost always sad because these days a lovely old building is almost never replaced by a lovely new building.

Where have I heard the name Grant-Duff before? Was it from an episode of “Jeeves & Wooster,” the excellent series starring Stephen Fry and based on the humorous novels by P.G. Wodehouse? [Here is a full episode.]

Looking up Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant-Duff, I find this Wikipedia entry. The first line runs thusly:

Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff GCSI CIE PC FRS (21 February 1829 – 12 January 1906), known as M. E. Grant Duff before 1887 and as Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff thereafter, was a Scottish politician, administrator and author. He served as the Under-Secretary of State for India from 1868 to 1874, Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1880 to 1881 and the Governor of Madras from 1881 to 1886.

It seems that the hyphen has been dropped since Lytton Strachey’s day. Is it not time to return it to its traditional place?

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,, 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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4 Responses to The special beauty of decay

  1. Pingback: Chinese Gordon in Khartoum | Architecture Here and There

  2. Steve says:

    Great post, David. Manning…ha! He just came home.


  3. Good! And thanks for the note, Rob. I was downstairs proofreading my already published post and saw that I’d forgotten to doublecheck something I should not have put in there in the first place. Hate it when that happens! So very happy, though, to hear I was wrong.


  4. David,
    In respect of Stephen Fry, I must have recourse to the words of Mark Twain -“reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. Mr Fry has recently announced that he has been recovering from surgery for prostate cancer, but seems as erudite and witty as ever.


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