Bacon's essays: Of Building

It does not surprise me that Of Building is a long essay. Never ask a homeowner about house construction!

Form follows function


Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire

Architect Lewis Sullivan, credited with the saying in this heading, must have been a fan of Francis Bacon. Bacon put it less succinctly: “Houses are built to live in, and not to look on; therefore let use be preferred before uniformity, except where both may be had.”

“Leave the goodly fabrics of houses, for beauty only, to the enchanted palaces of the poets; who build them with small cost.”

I think he’s saying, don’t waste money on things like marble counter tops (modern luxury) or gold-embossed ceiling decorations (old school). That’s always been my policy, and I’ve rehabbed three old houses. But Bacon wasn’t speaking to the likes of little old bourgeois me; he was speaking to his peers in what antiquarian George Eland called the Age of Swank.

Many a magnificent palace was built in the late sixteenth ~ early seventeenth centuries. Many of them survive, and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few. Happily, that makes this long essay easy to illustrate.

Location, location, location

Subtitled, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Gamekeeper’s cottage, Peak District

“He that builds a fair house, upon an ill seat, committeth himself to prison. Neither do I reckon it an ill seat, only where the air is unwholesome; but likewise where the air is unequal; as you shall see many fine seats set upon a knap of ground, environed with higher hills round about it; whereby the heat of the sun is pent in, and the wind gathereth as in troughs; so as you shall have, and that suddenly, as great diversity of heat and cold as if you dwelt “in several places.”

Or perhaps as they say about Lubbock, in the only place in the world where you can be up to your ass in mud and still get dust in your eyes.

“Neither is it ill air only that maketh an ill seat, but ill ways, ill markets; and, if you will consult with Momus, ill neighbors.” Momus is the god of satire and mockery. Not everybody has such a god, but it seems like a wise option, especially if you’re planning a career in comedy.


To close to the Ouse in York

“I speak not of many more;” Bacon says, proceeding to deliver a long list. “… want of water; want of wood, shade, and shelter; want of fruitfulness, and mixture of grounds of several natures; want of prospect; want of level grounds; want of places at some near distance for sports of hunting, hawking, and races; too near the sea, too remote; having the commodity of navigable rivers, or the discommodity of their overflowing; too far off from great cities, which may hinder business, or too near them, which lurcheth all provisions, and “…maketh everything dear…”

“Lurch” is a fun word to add to our vocabularies. No, not the butler in the Addams family. OED says, “To be beforehand in securing (something); to consume (food) hastily so that others cannot have their share; to engross, monopolize (commodities); in later use, to get hold of by stealth, pilfer, filch, steal.”

There’s a lot of lurching of tools & valuable construction materials in my neighborhood these days.

You won’t find perfection, says Bacon the consummate realist. But keep the list in mind so you’ll know which trade-offs you’re making. I, for one, am not too close to the sea (hurricanes) nor any river or creek (seasonal flooding.) Hot in summer? Well, it is Texas. Location won’t help you there.

Make like a bird and… migrate

“… if he have several dwellings, that he sort them so, that what he wanteth in the one, he may find villain the other. Lucullus answered Pompey well; who, when he saw his stately galleries, and rooms so large and lightsome, in one of his houses, said, Surely an excellent place for summer, but how do you in winter? Lucullus answered, Why, do you not think me as wise as some fowl are, that ever change their abode towards the winter?

Interior design

“We will therefore describe a princely palace, making a brief model thereof. For it is strange to see, now in Europe, such huge buildings as the Vatican and Escurial and some others be, and yet scarce a very fair room in them.”

I wish I had a model! Doesn’t look like anybody’s made one. 

“First, therefore, I say you cannot have a perfect palace except you have two several sides; a side for the banquet, as it is spoken of in the book of Hester, and a side for the household; the one for feasts and triumphs, and the other for dwelling.”


Coughton Court

I don’t get the part about Hester and Google isn’t helping, but Bacon seems to be recommending parallel sets of formal and household rooms. Huge houses do this, I think. It’s obvious that nobody actually lives in the houses in Architectural Digest, for example. They live in some wing off the back.

These sides ought “to be uniform without, though severally partitioned within; and to be on both sides of a great and stately tower, in the midst of the front, that, as it were, joineth them together on either hand.” Gotta have that tower, or the whole design falls apart. Except that nobody seems to have taken this advice. Look at eg “Jacobean stately homes.” Nary a tower to be found!

“On the other side, which is the household side, I wish it divided at the first, into a hall and a chapel (with a partition between); both of good state and bigness; and those not to go all the length, but to have at the further end, a winter and a summer parlor, both fair.”

It’s OK to separate the hall and chapel with a mere partition, because if people are in one, they’re not in the other. In fact, they tend to move from chapel to hall en masse.

“And under these rooms, a fair and large cellar, sunk under ground; and likewise some privy kitchens, with butteries and pantries, and the like.” Kitchens with fires and ovens are still going to be outside, I think, in separate buildings. I don’t know when they moved into the basement.

“As for the tower, I would have it two stories, of eighteen foot high apiece, above the two wings; and a goodly leads upon the top, railed with statuas interposed; and the same tower to be divided into rooms, as shall be thought fit. The stairs likewise to the upper rooms, let them be upon a fair open newel, and finely railed in, with images of wood, cast into a brass color; and a very fair landing-place at the top.”

Well, all right then. Maybe he’s thinking about Coughton Court in Warwickshire, or similar, though he never went that far from London. The gatehouse dates from 1530.

Neither paved nor shorn too short


Can never remember which college. St. John’s?

“Beyond this front, is there to be a fair court, but three sides of it, of a far lower building than the front. And in all the four corners of that court, fair staircases, cast into turrets, on the outside, and not within the row of buildings themselves. But those towers, are not to be of the height of the front, but rather proportionable to the lower building. Let the court not be paved, for that striketh up a great heat in summer, and much cold in winter. But only some side alleys, with a cross, and the quarters to graze, being kept shorn, but not too near shorn.”

Now he seems to be talking about colleges at Cambridge, which he did see. Newish in his time; big building spree inspired by the Dissolution. Gotta put that money somewhere everlasting!

“Cast it also, that you may have rooms, both for summer and winter; shady for summer, and warm for winter. You shall have sometimes fair houses so full of glass, that one cannot tell where to become, to be out of the sun or cold.”

That’s a modern problem! Architects have a fetish for big glass walls, even for people who live in the urban core in places with both great heat and fierce cold winds. No sense in it!

“Beyond this court, let there be an inward court, of the same square and height; which is to be environed with the garden on all sides; and in the inside, cloistered on all sides, upon decent and beautiful arches, as high as the first story. On the under story, towards the garden, let it be turned to a grotto, or a place of shade, or estivation.” 

Wikipedia tells me that estivation is a state of animal dormancy. I know the guy liked to take naps, but seriously? He must just mean, get out of the sun for a while.


I could totally estivate in here in the summer

“Upon the ground story, a fair gallery, open, upon pillars; and upon the third story likewise, an open gallery, upon pillars, to take the prospect and freshness of the garden. At both corners of the further side, by way of return, let there be two delicate or rich cabinets, daintily paved, richly hanged, glazed with crystalline glass, and a rich cupola in the midst; and all other elegancy that may be thought upon.”

There’s more, but I can’t take it. I’m overthrown by the elegancy of it all. We’ll end with a picture of Ham House, about which I have blogged, built in 1610. Bacon would certainly have seen this one. It’s just down the river from his hunting box in Twickenham.




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