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A folly of modern art

Updated Friday, 9th October 2009

For a lot of people, folly seems to be the hardest word. However, one artist aims to turn a folly in Brighton into the talk of the town.

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As regular readers of this blog will know, I am interested in the value of architecture and public art to the historian, but I also have a special place reserved in my imagination for that curious outcrop of eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture – the folly. Conforming to no especial architectural style, these were often buildings that had no discernible use and were erected either for curiosity value, to display their creator’s wealth, or merely as Georgian eye candy. Many have been lost over the years, but a goodly number still remain, mostly crumbling away in the estates of country houses and paying tribute to the strength of the ‘polite’ style in Hanoverian Britain. If a chance ever presents itself to visit a folly, it is rare for me to pass it up.

So, when it transpired that a generally forgotten (and determinedly locked-up) nineteenth century example – Tarner Folly – was being opened up for the Brighton Festival, I had to take a look. Not only that, but it was also to house an innovative piece of public art called ‘Path of the Echo’, which endeavoured to exploit the unique acoustics of the folly’s inside chamber.

Tarner Folly is a small, flint-studded tower, half concealed by foliage, that sits in the corner of a children’s play area, sandwiched between Kemp Town and Hanover on the east side of Brighton. It has not been opened for quite some years, which is a shame because such things get forgotten all too easily. There is a question as to whether it can genuinely be described as a folly, since it appears to have been built as a lookout tower and local myths abound that it concealed the entrance to a tunnel that led to the shore (perhaps suggestive of a smuggling operation). Frankly, I’d say that its correct categorisation is really more a matter for the folly anorak, if such people exist.


Tarner Folly
Tarner Folly.

However, an enterprising artist had managed to persuade the city’s council to open up the folly for the festival in order to house an experiment that could well be described as an attempt to forge a symbiotic relationship between public art and architectural history. Inside, I discovered, sat a rather ingenious art installation. The artist, Mark Mitchell (no relation), demonstrated that by pulling various ropes and cranks, the apparatus would play a variety of string and percussive sounds, which would echo around the chamber. The installation was almost entirely constructed from ‘found material’ – a admirable recycling effort – although I was told that, in fact, Mark had liberated his flat-mate’s wok for part of the mechanism!

The 'Path of the Echo' installation
The 'Path of the Echo' installation.

As an exercise attempting to draw in two distinct audiences – the historical community and the artistic one – I thought that the installation worked marvellously well. The trouble with such experiments, though, is that they can be somewhat short-lived if funds of some description are not forthcoming. Thankfully, Mark and the Friends of Tarner (a local historical society) have come together in an attempt to keep the tower open. The idea is to curate the folly as a space for other exhibits, which might be generated by other artists through workshops with local community groups and schools.

To bring the tower up to standards of public safety, however, requires funds in the region of £30,000, for which a bid to the lottery heritage fund is being prepared. I can only hope that these efforts to rehabilitate the folly as a valuable piece of history and a unique art-space are successful, since even in straitened times society needs its circuses as well as its bread. Besides, there seems something curiously apt about melding together public art and social history in this fashion. The folly builders of the Georgian age had a far more limited audience in mind, but they too were often inspired to construct their idiosyncratic monuments by a desire to create a dramatic talking-point, an aspiration that seems wholly reflected in contemporary public art.

Taking it further

If the above blog has caught your imagination, you may also find the following resources from The Open University interesting:

High Street History

Explore the hidden corners of your high street and see how history is buried in the everyday environment with our interactive high street history feature.

Learning Space: Brighton Pavilion

On the other hand, if you’re interested in the history of Brighton, then the OU offers you this free Open Learn resource on the Brighton Pavilion – which perhaps could even be called a folly itself!

Related courses from The Open University:

Heritage, whose heritage?

Who decides what should be preserved from the past as our heritage? Who is this heritage for and how should it be presented and explained? How can I engage actively with my heritage and have an impact on it? This course endeavours to answer these questions and to engage with current debates on the preservation of the past.

Art of the twentieth century

If you are drawn to art history more generally, this wide-ranging course discusses developments in the recent past and includes study of all the major twentieth century artistic movements.





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