Paul Cooper is a writer based in Norwich, England. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy and Asymptote.
Decadence, awe, and jealousy inspired a strange 18th-century architectural trend.
If you walk through Belvedere House Gardens and Park in Westmeath, Ireland, a dramatic sight rises through the trees: an enormous, shattered abbey, a staircase of broken stones climbing to the sky. Visitors often wonder what imposing building once stood here, but the whole thing is a deception. The ruin, which is called the Jealous Wall, was constructed in this dilapidated state in the 18th century by Robert Rochfort, a man known to history as “the wicked earl.” On either side of the ruin stands a country house: One is beautiful and well maintained, the other a ruin in its own right, overgrown with ivy.
The story of how this strange situation came to be offers a glimpse into the tortured mind of a real-life Gothic villain—and highlights a bizarre architectural fad that swept the decadent world of the 18th-century aristocracy.
Ruins have always captured the imagination. For artists and writers, they are places where time seems to stand still, where we might become lost in dreams, and where the inescapable power of natural forces is in full display. As the German sociologist Georg Simmel once put it, in the ruin, “Nature has transformed the work of art into material for her own expression as she had previously served as material for art.” All of this meant that as the 17th century came to an end, the sight of a crumbling abbey or dilapidated temple had become desirable. Now rich landowners all over Europe were building ruins that were not natural at all.
Into this scene strode Robert Rochfort, a man who was to become the subject of one of the great social scandals of 18th-century Ireland. One of 11 children born into a wealthy Irish family, Rochfort got off to a promising start in his political career as the first Earl of Belvedere. But two of his brothers were instrumental in his downfall.
The story of Rochfort’s famous decline is recounted in James Howley’s The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland and Nic Barlow’s Follies of Europe. Around 1743, Rochfort heard rumors that his young wife, Mary, had been unfaithful to him with one of his brothers, Arthur. Rochfort flew into a rage. He refused to speak to Mary, and spiraled into paranoia and recriminations so bitter that he eventually had Mary locked up in their family home at nearby Gaulstown. She was kept alone other than her servants. If she wanted to walk the grounds, she had to ask Rochfort’s permission, and the cruel earl had a footman walk ahead of her, ringing a bell and shouting obscenities.
Mary would remain incarcerated in that house for 31 years. Twelve years into her imprisonment, another Rochfort brother, George, took pity on her and helped her plan an escape. But the paranoid Rochfort managed to intercept their letters. When the escape went ahead, he had her arrested and returned to her prison. The conditions of her imprisonment became harsher. It’s said that in her solitude, Mary’s voice became only a shrill whisper, and she began talking to the portraits in the house as though they were real people.
Rochfort never forgave George for plotting against him. In 1773, George entertained Sir James Caldwell, the former high sheriff of Fermanagh, who declared that George’s home—a beloved country house at Tudenham—was the finest in the district, even though it was smaller than Rochfort’s mansion at Belvedere. Rochfort heard of this insult, and once again his jealous rage took over. He commissioned an Irish architect and a renowned stonemason to build an extravagant sham ruin to stand between him and his brother’s estate, so that he would never again have to look at the competing house.
Rochfort died in 1774. Mary was finally set free, though she didn’t live long after her liberation, and the scars of her imprisonment were never erased. Today, the story of the Rochfort scandal is remembered in the landscape of Westmeath, written in the shattered abbey that was never whole, and the overgrown shell of George’s grand country house that it was built to hide. The ragged outline of the ruin evokes a certain kind of Gothic sensibility, a cruel desire to create a ruin where none had existed before.
At the time Rochfort built the Jealous Wall, the fashion for false ruins, or “ruin follies,” was spreading all over Europe. Everywhere, the aristocracy was building ruins from scratch or ruining their existing buildings to create dramatic and picturesque effects. In 1836, one English landowner at Scotney Castle in Kent went so far as to move out of his beloved country home, an opulent Elizabethan mansion with a great hall and oak staircase, and build a new house for himself at the top of a nearby hill. He then smashed the stones of his old country house and blew several picturesque holes in its walls.
A great deal of eccentricity was expressed through the trend for ruin follies. But it wasn’t only the madness of paranoid earls and fashionable landowners that was encoded in them. Sham ruins were also used by radicals and revolutionaries to communicate the fast-moving changes that were sweeping the world. As Rose Macauley argues in her book Pleasure of Ruins, “politics, passion, and religion have played their parts in ruin building.” In the late 18th century, the radical Whig Duke of Norfolk was a great supporter of the American Revolution. In his estate at Greystoke in Cumbria, he threw up two “anti-British ruins” to support the collapse of British imperial interests in North America. He called them Fort Putnam and Bunker’s Hill, after the war’s legendary fortifications.
False ruins were used to celebrate British imperialism, too. The “Temple of Augustus” at Surrey’s Virginia Water used genuine columns and capitals from the Libyan ruins of Leptis Magna to position the British Empire as a natural successor to the legacy of Rome.
The French made the most outrageous statement of all. In the Désert de Retz, a series of ornamental gardens built in the late 1700s, stands a six-story tower, designed to look like the ruined classical column of a gigantic temple. This “colonne brisée,” or shattered column, known today as the Column House, evokes a kind of connection to the ancient world that is half satire, half dream. Built to look like the base of one of the columns of the Parthenon blown up to titanic proportions, the viewer of this surreal ruin is supposed to imagine the size of the building it might have once supported. Completed in 1782, only seven years before the French Revolution, the broken column house seems to represent the excesses of the old regime, and perhaps even to presage the destruction that would soon sweep it away.
Sham ruins enjoyed a long history. It’s tempting to imagine that by the 20th century, more false ruins dotted the European landscape than real ones. The eccentricity and vulgarity of these ruins—not to mention the arrogance of their creators—can be striking. The wealthy aristocrats of old Europe often used these monuments to imagine themselves as a new kind of God, remaking the world as they wanted and creating a false impression of a history that never was.
But these false ruins also carry with them a strange kind of melancholy. It’s only with the coming of the 20th century, its cataclysmic changes and the genuine ruins its wars spread across Europe and the rest of the world, that the trend for ruin-building faded. In the ashes of Dresden, Coventry, and Stalingrad, the romantic ideal of the ruin in the European imagination was changed forever.
Although the sham ruins of old aristocratic Europe were often built to deceive, the irony is that they have ended up surpassing the hopes of their creators. Today, just like the ruins they were made to imitate, they sit and crumble into the earth, surrounded by stories and myths, pointing to a world that will never return.
This article originally appeared in The Atlantic.