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Going by the book

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Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture By John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843). Donhead, 2001. 2 vols, 1317pp. £99

Books, building and architecture have long been associated. Famous architects made themselves still more prominent by publicising their works and theories - from Serlio and Palladio in the 16th century to James Gibbs' Book of Architecture of 1728. More modest but still important was, for instance, William Halfpenny's Practical Architecture of 1724 - but the most prolific author was Batty Langley, who published some 20 'builder's guides' between 1726 and 1751.

For the next century, much of the detail of our more ordinary (yet precious) Georgian architecture was based on 'pattern book design'. With the development of architecture as a profession, however, and repression of craftsmen's initiative, the importance of such books diminished. So their re-emergence in the 19th century makes JCLoudon highly significant. His Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture first appeared in 1833, and Donhead has now issued an enlarged facsimile of its second edition, which was prepared by Loudon's widow in 1846.

Loudon, born in 1783, was primarily a horticulturist and landscape gardener, producing encyclopaedias on gardening, agriculture and plants before turning to architecture. By 1800 it had become imperative for a 'gentleman's home' and its surroundings to be designed as one.

Agricultural prosperity and the developing industrial revolution combined to produce the Victorian building boom and Britain was at the centre.

Loudon, a Scotsman, made a fortune at farming, lost it by investing badly, and rose again through publishing. He declared that he wanted to see decent accommodation for the 'great mass of society in the temperate regions of both hemispheres'. This, of course, implied that land and landed estates were the norm and that all classes were catered for, with even farm labourers having tasteful cottages.

In compiling the work Loudon used a number of contributors, especially for architectural elevations, with the young architect EBLamb providing many of the Gothic designs. Loudon summarised his architectural theory in terms largely derived from Scottish rationalist philosophy, set out in Archibald Alison's Essays on the Nature of the Principles of Taste (1790). He was in fact on the same road as Pugin and the ecclesiologists but, unlike them, he was prepared to be eclectic in style - which adds to the interest and wide-ranging subject matter of the encyclopaedia.

Volume I of the work contains cottage designs for labourers and mechanics, gardeners, bailiffs and 'other upper servants', and for small farmers. These are followed by designs for farmhouses, inns and parochial schools. Volume II is devoted to villas with various degrees of accommodation.

The work does not stop just at building types but looks at interior design, furniture and fittings, ornamental garden structures and conservatories, heating systems, and the inevitable Victorian gadgetry, verging on the daring and eccentric. We find, for example, a liquid manure tank for the privy, an improvised ironing stove, an American portable ice house, Hazard's portable pneumatic shower bath and Mr Lamb's piano.

The encyclopaedia is certainly ambitious, but in that it reflects the confidence of its age. While Paxton's Crystal Palace provided a focus and a magnificent container for the Great Exhibition of 1851, Loudon would have achieved the same in a thousand disparate buildings set in a huge Elysian landscape - a dream that architecture can satisfy almost all ambitions for mankind?

Above all, this work is an exciting adventure into architectural history. Wellillustrated, it is both nostalgic and invigorating - a pleasure to read. Might its ideas and images still enrich the rural or urban landscape?

John Sparkes is an architect and chartered surveyor

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