Francis Bacon


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.




Bacon's essays: Of Deformity

Rumor has it that Bacon wrote Of Deformity with reference to his cousin, Robert Cecil, who had recently died. If you’ve read any of my Francis Bacon mysteries, you know all this stuff. Francis’s competition with Robert is a major subplot. But here’s the nutshell for the rest of you.

A dwarf in a nutshell

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury

First, Robert wasn’t really a dwarf. He was 5′ 4″, which is short, but not outside the norm. He was obliged to stand around the court with tall, handsome men like Sir Walter Ralegh and the Earl of Essex, which must have been unpleasant. The Queen sometimes called him her Dwarf — one of her sharp little nicknames. He had a crooked spine and a crooked shoulder and walked with a flat-footed gate. He possessednone of that beauty of graceful motion Bacon praised so highly last month.

He was the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer and for many decades the most powerful man in England. In those days, nepotism was just the right way to do things. He started moving Robert toward the seat of power from an early age.

He had to hold his somewhat taller and smarter nephew, Francis Bacon, at arm’s length to keep him from competing. Burghley’s resistance is the only sensible reason for Elizabeth’s persistent refusal to grant Francis any real honors or any position of real influence during her lifetime. He had to sit by and watch while his cousin was knighted, appointed to the Privy Council, and named Secretary of State. Bitter dregs!

Even under James I, who looked much more favorably on Francis, Robert surged ahead. He had been created Earl of Salisbury before his death in 1612. At that time, Francis had been knighted and made Solicitor General, but no titles. Pfui.

On the other hand, Bacon kept being distracted by philosophy. He often failed to toe the party line with respect to things like subsidies (taxes.) He could see all sides of any question and was inherently more interested in the balance than the conclusion. He was an exemplary Lord Chancellor, but I don’t think he would have been a good Secretary of State.

Back to deformity

“Deformed persons are commonly even with nature; for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature; being for the most part (as the Scripture saith) void of natural affection; and so they have their revenge of nature.”

Richard III, another famous crookback

Mean-spirited, I think. Nature twisted your body, so you spite nature by becoming a twisted person.

“Certainly there is a consent, between the body and the mind; and where nature erreth in the one, she ventureth in the other. Ubi peccat in uno, periclitatur in altero.” [The Latin is a translation of what Bacon just said: where nature erreth…”]

This is a small counterpoint to the notion that twisted persons get even with nature. Really, nature is the one doing all the twisting. She screwed up that spine, why not go all the way to the character?

Then he walks that back a little bit. His cousin is dead, Bacon’s venom falls only on cold earth.

“But because there is, in man, an election touching the frame of his mind, and a necessity in the frame of his body, the stars of natural inclination are sometimes obscured, by the sun of discipline and virtue.” 

Election means choice; selection. He means here that people have some choice in determining their own behavior. You can’t change your twisted body (in those days), but you could mitigate your  twisted nature by discipline and virtue.

A cause, not an effect

“Therefore it is good to consider of deformity, not as a sign, which is more deceivable; but as a cause, which seldom faileth of the effect. Whosoever hath anything fixed in his person, that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself, to rescue and deliver himself from scorn.”

Tyrion Lannister. Oh, yeah. He’s extremely bold!

Deformed people are spurred to extreme measures in order to rise above the contempt of others. Makes sense.

“Therefore all deformed persons, are extreme bold. First, as in their own defence, as being exposed to scorn; but in process of time, by a general habit.” Extreme boldness is a hard habit to break, all right.

Now we get to the real nitty-gritty about Cousin Robert.

“Also it stirreth in them industry, and especially of this kind, to watch and observe the weakness of others, that they may have somewhat to repay. Again, in their superiors, it quencheth jealousy towards them, as persons that they think they may, at pleasure, despise: and it layeth their competitors and emulators asleep; as never believing they should be in possibility of advancement, till they see them in possession. So that upon the matter, in a great wit, deformity is an advantage to rising.”

Great men (foolishly) don’t worry about these deformed and stunted servants. They can’t lead armies can they? (No, but they can fund them.) Cecil let others condemn his enemies (Essex and Ralegh), sitting quietly in the background pretending to be neutral. Although neither of those strong men was stupid enough not to take Cecil seriously. Still, they must have failed to recognize the extent of the web he wove under and around them.

Never trust a eunuch

“Kings in ancient times (and at this present in some countries) were wont to put great trust in eunuchs; because they that are envious towards all are more obnoxious and officious, towards one.”


If you don’t learn anything else from the Game of Thrones, it should be to never underestimate your eunuchs, slaves, and dwarves!! Not to mention the little girls. That series could have been written by Robert Cecil, now that I think of it.

For the record, Robert was not a eunuch. He married and had two children. His line continues unbroken to this very day. He also famously had affairs with some fine ladies, like Lady Suffolk, Lady Derby, Lady Anne Clifford — or so it was said. Knowing Robert, he might have started those rumors himself. He something of a model for George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister, now that I think of it.

“But yet their trust towards them, hath rather been as to good spials [spies], and good whisperers, than good magistrates and officers.”

Cecil won and held office principally by having all the threads in his hands. He started courting James of Scotland while it was still borderline treasonous to do so. He was just super-clever about it, laying on the flattery and warning young James about devious persons like the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh. Although in fairness, by all accounts he was an able administrator.

“And much like is the reason of deformed persons.” This is how they think. That’s all there is to it.

Pedro de la Gasca

Or not quite all. “Still the ground is, they will, if they be of spirit, seek to free themselves from scorn; which must be either by virtue or malice; and therefore let it not be marvelled, if sometimes they prove excellent persons; as was Agesilaus, Zanger the son of Solyman, AEsop, Gasca, President of Peru; and Socrates may go likewise amongst them; with others.”

If they have a choice between virtue and malice, at least a few will go with the virtue. And here we go with another totally obscure list of examples. Sigh.

Pedro de la Gasca doesn’t look like a dwarf or a deformed person. His Wikipedia page doesn’t say. He was a very able administrator, however, being both a priest AND a lawyer. Agesilaus was King of Sparta, though short of stature and lame from birth. He was admired by his good friend, the historian Xenophon — a good strategy if you want to be remembered positively.

Zanger the son of Solyman sounds like a Marvel character. Nope; he’s the youngest son of Suleiman the Magnificent, who had a lot of sons. His real name is Şehzade Cihangir and he was born with many physical defects, though he was said to be very clever. I’ll bet old Suleiman was shooting damaged bullets by that time.

Aesop and Socrates, well, fine. Socrates was short and homely, if not precisely deformed.

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