"Folly is the direct pursuit of happiness and beauty"
-- George Bernard Shaw
I was recently perusing one of those beautifully photographed, shiny-papered coffee-table books on the "Gardens of England." Prominently featured was the "folly," the quintessential piece of architecture that came into renown particularly during the Romantic and "picturesque" movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A folly is defined primarily as a building that has no purpose other than ornament, or one "so extravagant that it transcends the normal range of garden ornaments or other class of building to which it belongs." A folly must be eccentric and also intentional. A broken-down windmill does not become a folly. It must be purposefully constructed as an adornment, a sham - a tower without a staircase, a temple without a priest, a shrine without a worshipper.
[This construction in Pontypool, Wales is quite simply known as "The Folly Tower"]
The setting is key for the folly: ideally, it belongs to aristocratic grounds and to the countryside. It should peep out of a copse of forest, sit tidily in a clearing, or preside majestically on a tiny island in a man made lake. The folly becomes part of the landscape, its very uselessness making it an object not quite of a piece with the man made world. It somehow manages to represent aristocracy, grand wealth, and eccentric solitude at the same time. Many, of course, doubled as hunting lodges, the original gazebos, or even as glorified garden sheds with a touch of whimsy. It comes as no surprise that the majority of listed follies are to be found in England, also the home of "The Folly Fellowship" -- an organization dedicated to awareness and preservation of these artifacts. (Including a must-read magazine!)
One of the most famous of all follies is the "Temple of Apollo" (pictured below) at Stourhead in Wiltshire -- the estate also includes "King Alfred's Tower." The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead is the scene of Mr. Darcy's first, rejected proposal to Elizabeth Bennett in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice. It is as if the filmmakers sought the locale of a "folly" to reflect Darcy's own rashness in proposing to the lady whom he has not yet adequately wooed. His more thoughtful effort, facilitated with the passage of time, is rooted quite literally on the soil of eternal, unornamented England.
[The "Temple of Apollo," Stourhead, Wiltshire]
The "folly" expresses our desires which are simultaneously fanciful and unfulfilled. It is of no surprise that the genre came of age at the epitome of rationality, represented by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. But while "efficiency" was the new byword of the time, many felt the irrepressible urge to rebel against it. Hence, the Romantic movement, which was ironically made possible by the resources, tastes, and leisure that the changing world afforded. The "folly" expressed a hearkening back to some imagined ancient glory; the apparently "useless" object invoking something that was dearly longed-for but perpetually intangible.
Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils