Arriving too early to catch a train from Manningtree station, a friend and I used up the time looking at the Mistley towers, only a short distance away.
The Mistley Towers are the remaining east and west ends of a now demolished church which sat between them. Despite this, these fragments are perhaps the most important Georgian buildings in Essex designed by Robert Adam, one of the greatest neo-classical architects. The original church was part of a redevelopment of Mistley as a fashionable spa town which required the employment of a celebrity architect. These ambitious plans never took off and Mistley was to remain an obscure Essex town unknown to polite Georgian society.
In 1870 when the main body of the church was destroyed the towers at each end were left - perhaps to be reused as a pair of family mausoleums. A Victorian gothic church was built to replace it about a hundred yards further up the road. This is larger and also an ambitious work, completely faced in stone. It would have been a huge effort and cost a fortune to bring the material hundreds of miles to the site which has no indigenous stone.
It’s a mystery why the Adam church was destroyed, perhaps it was too small, or it got subsidence being so near the estuary, but I’ve always believed that buildings that are loved don’t get pulled down. People find ways of keeping the most impractical buildings. I think it was the victim of a change in fashion, and a fashion that had idealogical zeal behind it .With the ascendency of Ruskin and Pugin, classical architecture fell from favour as they saw it as representative of all that is wrong with society; pagan in origin, mechanical in spirit, fake and to top it all - ‘foreign’. Gothic by contrast they saw as the authentic English and the true Christian style. It is hard to underestimate how deeply permeated this was into the minds of Victorians, so deeply they were prepared to spend fortunes on rectifying the situation.
The two towers look superb and I feel almost better than if there was a church between. This is probably because I love pairs of things and follies more than I love ecclesiastical architecture. You can get into one of these towers by fetching a key from The Mistley Thorn, a pub a short distance away down the high street, which we duly did. The inside is not particularly exciting, a handsome Georgian commandment board dominates the east wall, but that’s about it.
It would have been a highly unusual church, entered from the side with towers, I racked my brains for precedents. The only one I could think of is Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona, Rome by Borromini, if you ignore the dome. This would be an unlikely source for an architect whose work is seen as a reaction to buildings like this designed in a florid baroque style. Surely the well-mannered neo-classicist would not allow himself to be influenced by the ‘licentious’ curves of Borromini. But Adam certainly would have known this church having lived in Rome from 1755 to 1757. Also, his mentor Piranesi depicted it in his Vedute de Roma.
I like to think of Adam as a secret baroque fan. Certainly, the exuberant use of colour and exotic marbles which Adam frequently used seems quite similar to the work of Bernini. A baroque side chapel and Adam’s Ante Room at Syon to the uninitiated could be by the same hand. Also, he knew and sketched the pumpkin dome at Hadrian’s Villa which had a profound influence on both him and Borromini who reproduce his interpretation at S. Ivo.
This made me wonder whether the neo-classicists were so opposed to the baroque as the neat chapters of history books suggest. The reality is that artistic movements overlap and re-emerge in ways that do not suit simple classification. The problem with writing about architectural history is that it is often presented as a coherent narrative, to be read sentence by sentence in which each paragraph builds the story heading towards an ultimate goal, but the goals of art history are hard to define, often multiple and shifting. It seems more about kicking the ball around the pitch and enjoying the beautiful game for its own sake. Coupled with this is, our understanding of art history is irretrievably damaged by Ruskin and Pugin where we cannot help but understand architecture in terms of goodies and baddies each fighting for dominance and smashing down the work of the previous generation. Truly great architects, like Adam, ignored stylistic differences, stealing from everyone whether pagan or catholic. His genius was to reimagine these influences in ways which were unimaginable to the original architects to reflect his own particular style of architecture for which he is famous throughout the world.