At Home(84)

By: Bill Bryson

Brick remained an eminently respectable material for the smartest homes right up into the Regency period, but then there suddenly arose a cold distaste for it, especially for red brick. ‘There is something harsh in the transition’ from stone to brick, mused Isaac Ware in his highly influential Complete Body of Architecture (1756). Red brick, he went on, was ‘fiery and disagreeable to the eye . . . and most improper in the country’ – the very place it was mostly being put to use.

Suddenly stone became the only acceptable material for the surface of a building. In the Georgian period stone was so fashionable that owners would go to almost any lengths to disguise the nature of their house if it wasn’t stone at all. Apsley House, at Hyde Park Corner in London, was built of brick but then encased in Bath stone when brick suddenly became unfashionable.

America played an indirect and unexpected role in brick’s falling fortunes. The loss of tax revenue from the American colonies after the American War of Independence, as well as the cost of paying for that war, meant that the British government urgently needed funds, and in 1784 it introduced a stiff brick tax. Manufacturers made bricks larger to reduce the impact of the tax, but these were so awkward to work with that the effect was to depress sales further. To counter this decline in revenue, the government raised the brick tax twice more, in 1794 and 1803. Brick went into a headlong retreat. Bricks were out of fashion and people couldn’t afford them anyway.

The problem was that a lot of the buildings already in existence were inescapably of brick. In Britain a simple expedient was to give the houses a kind of permanent facial by applying a creamy layer of stucco – a kind of exterior plaster compounded from lime, water and cement, from the Old German stukki, or covering – over the original brick surface. As the stucco dried, lines could be neatly incised to make it look like blocks of stone. The Regency architect John Nash became especially associated with stucco, as a famous line of doggerel records:

But isn’t our Nash . . . a very great master?

He found us all brick and he leaves us all plaster!

Nash is yet another of the people in this story who rather came from out of nowhere, and his climb to greatness could not easily have been predicted. He grew up in poverty in south London and was not a particularly imposing figure to behold. He had ‘a face like a monkey’s’, in the startlingly cruel description of a contemporary, and none of the breeding that could help smooth the way to success. But somehow he managed to land a plum traineeship in the office of Sir Robert Taylor, one of the leading architects of the day.

After completing his apprenticeship, he embarked on a career that showed more enterprise than triumphs, at least in its early days. In 1778, as a career-starting speculation he designed and built two groups of houses in Bloomsbury, which were among the very first (if not the very first) in London to be covered in stucco. Unfortunately, the world was not yet ready for stucco-clad houses and they didn’t sell. (One of them remained empty for twelve years.) Such a setback would have been challenging enough in propitious circumstances, but in fact Nash’s private life was simultaneously unravelling in a rather spectacular manner. His young wife turned out to be not quite the catch he had hoped for. She ran up stupendous, unpayable bills at dressmakers and milliners all over London, and twice he found himself arrested for debt. Worse, he discovered that while he was extricating himself from these legal difficulties, she had been engaged in energetic frolics with others, including one of his oldest friends, and that the two children of his marriage were not in all likelihood his (or indeed any one man’s).

Bankrupted and presumably just a touch glum, Nash shed his wife and children – what became of them is unknown – and moved to Wales, where he built a new, less ambitious career and seemed poised to play out his life as a moderately successful architect of provincial town halls and other municipal structures.

And so his life passed for some years. But in 1797, at the clearly advanced age of forty-six, he returned to London, married a much younger woman, became a close friend of the Prince of Wales – the future King George IV – and embarked on one of the most important and influential architectural careers anyone has ever had. What accounted for these sudden changes has always been a mystery. The rumour, widely circulated, was that his new wife was the Prince Regent’s mistress and that Nash was merely a convenient cover. It is a not unreasonable presumption for she was a real beauty and time had not made Nash any handsomer. He was, in his own words, a ‘thick, squat, dwarf figure, with round head, snub nose and little eyes’. But as an architect he was a wizard, and almost at once he began to produce a string of exceptionally bold and confident buildings. At Brighton he transformed a staid existing property known as the Marine Pavilion into the colourful domed fireworks of a building known as the Brighton Pavilion. But the real changes were in London.