Top positive review
9 people found this helpful
A well-crafted and comprehensive biography
on 23 April 2013
From the first page of the Preface of Dr Rosemary Hannah's The Grand Designer: Third Marquess of Bute, I was intrigued. By the fifth page, I was putting off pressing projects and planning my next few days around the contemplation and enjoyment of this treasure. The author lays the foundations of Bute's life with equal parts of the succession narrative, charm, pathos and premonitory details of his infancy. Hannah shows her skill in weaving a connecting thread through the cross purposes, pride and prejudices of the various Victorian egos who hatched their plots and staked their claims to Bute's upbringing - and inheritance. There is careful calculation in her literary architecture; what appear at first sight to be mere flourishes and conceits are then revealed to have both aesthetic symmetry and to structurally bear the load of the whole vaulting edifice.
Bute's upbringing, his family trees with their aristocratic connections (and royal slight), the kindness of the High Church Galloways, his introspective and ritualistic nature, his early literary and artistic creativity; all these form a pattern. Umberto Eco says about his plots that he simply establishes character and situation then knows precisely what such a character will do in such a situation. This is exactly what this comprehensive biography does so well: it comprehends the complexity of character of the grand designer. A good tour guide knows her audience and Hannah shows us she knows her way about Bute's buildings and knows when we want more information, when an anecdote is illustrative and when we need time to look out the windows. An example of her wordcraft is the description of the wooden staircase carved at Cardiff Castle, for Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute, then moved to St John's Lodge, London:
"In among the formal, even pretentious swags, nestle little naturalistic carvings which neatly subvert the whole. A beetle feeds on the acanthus leaves. A pair of mice flirt in a swirl of foliage. A squirrel shins up some formalised berries."
I passed the Bute Medical Building almost every day of my Divinity degree at St Andrews and graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy in the Bute Hall of Glasgow University, never giving John Patrick Crichton Stuart one thought. I am very grateful to Dr Rosemary Hannah for this labour of love and heartily concur with other reviewers, who know far more about architecture than I, in calling it "splendid".