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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Funny Thing about Follies

Many people hold the opinion that a ‘folly’ should be avoided – the word derives from the Old French ‘folie,’ the same one that gave us ‘fool’ and ‘foolish,’ and is commonly applied to errors in judgment  – however, some follies fall into a different category. A folly, in gardens, is a structure that puts its form (often frivolous) above its function. After the gazebo, the most readily identified example is probably the artificial ruin – a structure often modeled after Greek or Roman artifacts, sometimes crafted with signs of “decay.” 

Folly production began in Europe and peaked in the late 1800s. Marie Antoinette commissioned a grand example which still stands at Versailles. Supported by Corinthian columns and crafted of pure marble, the Temple of Love is Marie’s extravagant tribute to Cupid. Fans of Downton Abbey may recognize the follies from the grounds of Highclere Castle, a setting for the show.  Among them is the celestial Heaven’s Gate, built high on a hill so that a hiker peering through it receives a phenomenal view of the estate.  

Follies often have intriguing stories behind their playful facades. Eleutherian Mills, the first American home of the du Ponts, featured gardens decorated with “Italian ruins” including reflecting pools, terraces and classical sculpture. Ironically, in the latter half of the twentieth century the artificial ruins fell into neglect and were in danger of being lost before the site was turned into a museum.  

Glass lantern slide of Eleutherian Mills. Wilmington, Delaware, circa 1914-1949. Garden Club of Wilmington.  

A “ruin” in Eleutherian Mills. Wilmington, Delaware, 1970. Richard W. Lighty, photographer.

The creation of follies may have slowed since the eighteenth century, but they are far from forgotten. The Folly Fellowship is a group dedicated to folly preservation in the United Kingdom. On Flickr, a folly photo group has uploaded thousands of images (though traditionalists might take issue with some, which include gazing balls, gnomes and pink plastic flamingos.). A folly may delight, surprise, confuse or amuse, but it is certainly a treasure worth finding!

Jessica Hemphill, Spring intern, 2013
Archives of American Gardens

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