I give you two great houses. Both were designed and built in the 1880s and 90s. Both are the expression of one man’s extraordinary vision. Both embody a rich and complex symbolic plan, displayed through a combination of the richest materials and the highest quality of craftsmanship. Both combine an acute historicist awareness of past architectural styles with the most modern technologies. Both houses are overwhelming works of art of a remarkable consistency and unity, and both enchant the visitor as if they had stepped into a fairytale fantasy.
But that’s where the resemblances end. One house, the Palau Guell is located in the centre of the tourist magnet that is Barcelona, and is world famous as the first mature work of one of the most acclaimed architects of all time, Antoni Gaudi. The other, Mount Stuart is at the heart of a large country estate on the island of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. I doubt if even most of Mount Stuart’s visitors could tell you the name of its architect, the atrociously under-celebrated Robert Rowand Anderson .
I first visited the Palau Guell as long ago as 1998, and I have vivid memories of the literally dazzling journey involved in moving from the subterranean entrance to the astonishing forest of tiled chimneys on the roof. Shamefully, I only made it to Mount Stuart for the first time last week, though my excuse is that all my previous visits to Bute had been out of season!
I knew, of course, all about Mount Stuart, and the passionate personal vision of the 3rd Marquis of Bute which found expression not only here but also in the restoration of Falkland Palace, and in Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch in Wales. And I also happened to know something of the work of Rowand Anderson, because many years ago I helped to mount an exhibition on the Victorian architecture of St Andrews, where one of his earlier works is the confusingly named St Andrew’s Church .
But none of that prior knowledge prepared me for the immersive sensual and intellectual experience that is Mount Stuart. I suppose, naively, I had expected something that would be entertaining in a rather kitsch way, like a less excessive version of Mad Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein. Well, if you were a passionate advocate of Modernism’s rejection of ornament, that might be your reaction, as it would be hard to imagine an interior with more decoration. But, as the late Kenny Everett would say, it is all done ‘in the best possible taste’ . The nearest comparison I’ve seen in Scotland is Patrick Allan Fraser’s eccentric masterpiece, Hospitalfield, near Arbroath, but that wonderful building had not yet escaped from a mid-Victorian aesthetic, and so, to contemporary eyes, it does lean to the kitsch end of the spectrum.
Just as Gaudi’s Palau Guell is an early expression of what would become the international style of Art Nouveau, so Mount Stuart, for all the dazzling richness of its materials, is infused with the new aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its nearest comparator would be Norman Shaw’s Cragside in Northumberland, built about the same time and, like Mount Stuart, blending a melange of historical styles with innovative technology. That means that both Cragside and Mount Stuart, despite the immense grandeur of their public spaces, still feel like comfortable homes. All the guest bedrooms at Mount Stuart, for example, have en suite bathrooms.
I described both Palau Guell and Mount Stuart as being the results of one man’s vision, but it would be truer to say that they were the outcomes of a fruitful relationship between architect and patron, save that in Mount Stuart the direction of the relationship was reversed, with Rowand Anderson striving to realise the intensely spiritual concepts of John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquis of Bute, who was so passionate a convert to Catholicism that he chose to be painted and photographed dressed as a monk .
Nonetheless, you couldn’t mistake Mount Stuart for the work of any other architect. Which leads me to wonder why we don’t celebrate Rowand Anderson more enthusiastically. First of all, he was responsible for some of the most prominent buildings in Glasgow and Edinburgh—Central Station Hotel and Govan’s Pearce Institute in Glasgow, and in Edinburgh the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the McEwan Hall, and the Mansefield Traquair Centre. He was also responsible for a huge amount of sensitive historical restoration, at Jedburgh and Paisley Abbeys, Dunblane Cathedral, and Balmoral Castle (the last earning him a knighthood).
Perhaps the problem is that we have little or no opportunity to see his work as a totality. Once you consider all the above buildings, a strong, even idiosyncratic personal style emerges that, for me, makes him possibly Scotland’s most interesting and individual architect between Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And there, of course, in mentioning the ‘Mackintosh’ word I’ve found the explanation for his neglect. It’s as if we only have room in our concept of national identity for ‘one of each’. So Burns is our national bard, and overshadows not only his own exceptional contemporary, Robert Fergusson, but also a host of predecessors and successors. Sir Walter Scott eclipses James Hogg, whose psychologically insightful writings are much more relevant to our modern interests. Even today the understandable fame of John Bellany in painting, Ian Rankin in crimewriting, or James MacMillan in music, leaves too many of their equally gifted contemporaries in the shade.
Perhaps this is inevitable in ‘small’ countries. I imagine Norwegians are equally tired of having their culture identified only through Ibsen and Grieg, as the Finns are probably sick of Sibelius and the Kalevala. But it’s an aspect of the ‘cultural cringe’ that I don’t think gets discussed enough. And it has real impacts. Mount Stuart is, to use a crude term, a world class visitor attraction, and it should be as well known as Gaudi’s masterpieces, and if Rowand Anderson is hardly, in the totality of his work, Gaudi’s equal, he still deserves to be far better known than he is. That sort of fame translates directly into visitor numbers and visitor spend. Yet time after time, from our national tourism agency, to the popular vote for the images on new bank notes (Burns and Nessie), we choose the easy option, and fail to present the true richness and variety of Scottish culture, which of course makes it too easy for sceptics and hostile commentators to deny that such richness exists.
So, do yourself a favour, if you’ve not yet been to Mount Stuart, go soon, go this summer, you won’t regret it. And I haven’t even mentioned the superb gardens, the stunning new Visitor Centre, or the ambitious programme of annual artists’ residencies. Let alone all the other delights of Bute. And all just a short trip from Glasgow.