The Wessex Project: Thomas Hardy, Architect: Part II

Kester Rattenbury

This is the second of three extracts, each a series of vignette studies, that we will publish over the next few weeks; they are all taken from Kester Rattenbury’s fascinating full-length study: The Wessex Project: Thomas Hardy, Architect, which approaches the great author from the perspective of his first career as a young architect in London and Dorset.

As he established himself as a novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy gave up architecture as a profession, but that early experience both directly and indirectly remained an inescapable presence throughout his written work and in the development of his vision of Wessex – and also at Max Gate, the house that he later built for himself and his wife.

– Niall Hobhouse


A Laodicean (1881) is flawed, awkward, sometimes hammy, dictated from Thomas Hardy’s sickbed to Emma Gifford, who is sometimes credited with its uneven final shape. [1] But it was centrally about architecture: architect-hero, client-heroine; architect stooge and villain. The plotline is driven by the rebuilding of an ancient castle with polemic debates on professional ethics, conservation, the ‘style wars’, even contract management – and a whole realm of architectural perceptions. It opens with the architect Somerset using ‘moulding’ strips: pressing strips of lead to take the profile of an ancient church door (there are several examples of such stencil-moulds in Hardy’s notebook). An archetypal craft moment – from which we immediately depart. Somerset (who is lost) follows a telegraph wire – to find an ancient castle.

There was a certain unexpectedness in the fact that the hoary memorial of a stolid antagonism to the interchange of ideas, the monument of hard distinctions in blood and race […] should be the goal of a machine which beyond everything may be said to symbolise cosmopolitan views and the intellectual and moral kinship of all mankind […] the little buzzing wire had a far finer significance to the student Somerset than the vast walls which neighboured it. But […] the modern mental fever and fret which consumes people before they can grow old was also signified by the wire… [2]

Remarkably, A Laodicean is not a conventional architectural history, but a highly charged exploration of what conservation means in the modern world. Paula, the heroine, daughter of a railway engineer, inheritor of a castle, is startlingly modern. She uses telegrams with the excitement and obsession of a social media addict, ‘sending messages from morning till night’. [3] Somerset watches with disquiet, a telegram conversation between Paula and her friend Charlotte: ‘about himself, under his very nose, in language unintelligible to him.’ [4] And she is interested in architecture. Havill, the ‘uneducated’ local architect, says:

As regards that fine Saxon vaulting […] I should advise taking out some of the old stones and reinstating new ones exactly like them.‘But the new ones won’t be Saxon’ said Paula, ‘And then in time to come, when I have passed away, and those stones have become stained like the rest, people will be deceived. I should prefer an honest patch to any such make-believe of Saxon relics…’ [5]

This is sometimes quoted as a modest example of Paula’s good conservation thinking. However, this was not the standard good practice of his time, but an unusual stand within a contentious field of debate. Indeed, the whole book is structured on the juxtaposition of conservation with the shifting realities, communication, shape and speed of the early electrical age. It directly challenges the architectural thinking of Hardy’s time. John Ruskin condemns such interest: ‘of mechanical ingenuity there is, I imagine, at least as much required to build a cathedral as to cut a tunnel’. [6] Paula asks: ‘have you seen the tunnel my father made? The curves are said to be a triumph of Science.’ [7] Somerset tells Paula, ‘You represent […] the steamship and the railway, and the thoughts that shake mankind.’

That is another remarkable architectural prevision. Le Corbusier, arguably the Modern architect, became famous for comparing steamships with architecture in Towards A New Architecture (1921), an idea which pervades modern thinking. Somerset is also surprised by the beauty of the tunnel: ‘When he had conscientiously admired the massive archivault and the majesty of its nude ungarnished walls, he looked up the slope […] mentally balancing science against art, the grandeur of this fine piece of construction against that of the castle and thinking whether Paula’s father had not, after all, had the best of it.’ [8]

Somerset goes into the tunnel, musing on that speck of light – and is nearly run down by a train, stepping into a recess to let it pass. Another great cinematic trope; another working detail; another way of jolting reader-viewer into visceral reaction. Another piece of event-architecture, before the fact. Paula wants to convert a mediaeval courtyard in Greek Revival style: architectural heresy, especially when Gothic was all the rage. Somerset (though allegedly eschewing the style wars) objects – then, for romantic reasons, draws it up. His rival, Havill, stirs up an outcry in the press; Somerset redesigns according to his better original judgement. Here is his revised proposal – far more radical, in the age of Gothic ‘Restoration’, than it sounds now.

It was original; and it was fascinating. Its originality lay partly in the circumstance that Somerset had not attempted to adapt an old building to the wants of a new civilisation. He had placed his new erection beside it as a slightly attached structure, harmonising with the old; heightening and beautifying, rather than subduing it. His work formed a palace with a ruined castle annexed as a curiosity. [9]

We will be returning to Hardy’s remarkable conservation thinking. But here, also remarkably, Hardy is describing the world from inside an architect’s head. Hardy said in 1900 that A Laodicean had more facts of his life than any: [10] it is surely the intimate discussion of architectural ways of imagining which must be his own. Somerset shows Paula how to read traces of the building: ‘… pointed out where roofs had been and should be again, where gables had been pulled down, and where floors had vanished, showing her how to reconstruct their details from marks in the walls, much as a comparative anatomist reconstructs an antediluvian from fragmentary bones and teeth.’ [11] Or: ‘She pulled off her glove, and, her hand resting in the stone channel, her eyes became abstracted in the effort of realisation, the ideas derived from her hand passing into her face […] Somerset placed his own hand in the cavity […]’. [12]

Besides its erotic charge, this is a remarkable account of architectural imagination, working between hand, eye and brain, instinct and knowledge, one person and another. Somerset challenges Havill on the ‘Saxon’ vaulting: ‘not an arch nor a wall’ of the castle can be older than 1100, he says. Paula, astounded, calls architecture ‘An art which makes one independent of written history.’ [13] Architecture, as shown here, is ‘an alternative way of knowing’ as John Schad says. [14] It is still rare to describe how architectural ideas are produced, [15] but we see four people at work on this building – Somerset, Paula, Havill and Dare. This book turns on unusual accounts of how people actually do design, how they make, see and interpret buildings. [16] Paula, leaning over Somerset as he draws, says: ‘Ah, I begin to see your conception.’ For Havill, secretly viewing his rival Somerset’s drawings: ‘the conception had more charm than it could have had to the most appreciative outsider; for when a mediocre and jealous mind that has been cudgeling itself over a problem capable of many solutions, lights on the solution of a rival, all possibilities in the field seem to merge in the one beheld.’ [17]

But Havill does not simply copy; he is inspired by Somerset’s work: he has ‘possessed himself of Somerset’s brains’; ‘When contrasted with the tracing from Somerset’s plan, Havill’s design, which was not far advanced, revealed all its weaknesses to him […] the bands of Havill’s imagination were loosened, he laid his own previous efforts aside, got fresh sheets of drawing paper and drew with vigour.’ [18] There is a fascinating new body of research, by architects doing PhDs on their own ‘tacit’, hugely sophisticated, part instinctive, part learned, part technical working design practices [19] – but such analytic description is, even now very unusual. A Laodicean even gives an imaginative description of different building contracts:

At his suggestion, Paula agreed to have the works executed as such operations were carried out in old times, before the advent of contractors. Each trade required in the building was to be represented by a master-tradesman […] who should stand responsible for his own section of labour, and for no other, Somerset himself as chief technicist working out his designs on the spot […] Notwithstanding its manifest advantages […] the plan added largely to the responsibilities of the architect, who, with his master-mason, master-carpenter, master-plumber, and what not, had scarcely a moment to call his own… [20]

Hardy is not just showing how architects work, but how they must imagine how other things work: the understanding which comes from seeing a building, or another person’s designs. Even things which are not entirely visible: age, electronic communication, the processes behind photography: things which change how the world works – and the way we see, imagine and understand it: ‘the message sped through the loophole of Stancy Castle keep, over the trees, along the railway, under bridges, across three counties – from extreme antiquity of environment to sheer modernism – and finally landed itself on a table in Somerset’s chambers in the midst of a cloud of fog.’ [21] It is important that troublemaking Will Dare, an illegitimate (in both senses) architect’s assistant, distorts photographs maliciously, warping the plot by making his subjects appear drunk or mad. This is a world of faked images and unreliable evidence.

Hermann Lea (1869–1952), trick photography by Hardy’s later photographic collaborator. Toucan Press.

The number of postmodern architectural obsessions which can be found in this imperfect, little-known novel is astonishing: social media, Photoshop, Derrida; Roland Barthes’ ‘complete madness of photography’ (surely meant here in comparison to ‘Restoration’s fakery’); ‘Phantasmagoria’ and staged illusions (mentioned in Walter Benjamin’s seminal Arcades Project essay); the Camera Obscura qualities of the castle; and the cinematic vision in the flickering, animated portraits in the fire at the end. John Schad points to all these texts, which are absolutely central to post-modern, literary and working architectural thought. [22] This is a whole new Hardy film waiting to be made.

Hermann Lea (1869–1952), a view across the railway line, Dunster/de Stancy Castle, showing printer’s crop marks. Courtesy Dorset Museum/Thomas Hardy archive at the Dorset History Centre.

In this lumpy novel, this can seem clumsy theatricality. But alongside Hardy’s own explorations of architectural thinking, it is electrifying. All four architectural workers: Somerset, the thinker; Havill, the untrained local; Dare, the maverick chancer and manipulator of pictures; and Paula, the imaginative client (Hardy often projects constructive visions through female characters) can be seen as versions of Hardy’s architectural self; all four classic architectural ‘types’. Hardy was lying in bed with his feet above his head, dictating his written description to Emma, perhaps often lying in darkness, like a projection machine himself. Shifting between new and old frames of vision, he can already see the architectural future.

A review of this book in The Architect and Building News after Hardy’s death calls it curious and outdated: [23] but the boot is on the other foot. Representation, modernity, heritage, steamships, speed, distortion, plagiarism, authenticity: A Laodicean’s substance turns on ideas which were to obsess the critical architectural age of the coming century, and on the act of architectural imagination that we are still, even now, reconstructing.

This vignette was extracted, with permission, from The Wessex Project: Thomas Hardy, Architect by Kester Rattenbury, published by Lund Humphries, available here. The final series of vignettes will be published soon.

Additional thanks to Toucan Press for the use of Hermann Lea material.


  1. Claire Tomalin, Hardy: The Time-torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), pp.184-187.
  2. Thomas Hardy, A Laodicean (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1881; Penguin Classics, 1997), p.18.
  3. Ibid., p.29.
  4. Ibid., p.35.
  5. Ibid., p.60.
  6. John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1849), p.385.
  7. Ibid., pp.101-102; Claudius Beatty, Thomas Hardy, Conservation Architect (Dorset: Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society, 1995), p.36.
  8. Ibid., p.83; p.37.
  9. A Laodicean, 1881, 1997, pp.122-123.
  10. John Schad, A Laodicean (Penguin Classics, 1997).
  11. A Laodicean, 1881, 1997, p.89.
  12. Ibid., p.77.
  13. Ibid., p.61.
  14. Schad, A Laodicean.
  15. For instance, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology PhD by Practice. Until now, most research has concentrated on critical theories rather than accounts of actual practice such as this.
  16. Interestingly, these correspond to John Evelyn’s four categories: the ingenious architect, the architect of words, the client and the supervising architect. Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings (Thames & Hudson, 2000) pp.11-12.
  17. A Laodicean, 1881, 1997, pp.122-123.
  18. Ibid., pp.124-129.
  19. Leon van Schaik, Mastering Architecture: Becoming a Creative Innovator in Practice (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).
  20. Claudius Beatty, ‘Introduction to the Notebook’, in The Architectural Notebook of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy (Dorset: The Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, 1966), p.268; A Laodicean, 2007, p.282.
  21. A Laodicean, 1881, 1997, pp.186.
  22. Ibid., Introduction.
  23. Claudius Beatty, Thomas Hardy, Conservation Architect, p.7.