Tent for a prince: 18th-century and regency buildings inspired by Turkish military tents were mostly temporary. Amazingly, one survives in south London, but its future is uncertain.
Placed over the balconies that flank the high altar in the Peterskirche in Vienna, that masterpiece by laced over the balconies that flank the high altar in the Peterskirche Lukas von Hildebrandt, are exotic onion-shaped semi-domes. These are reminders of the distinctive military tents that the Viennese could see outside the city walls when the Habsburg capital was besieged by the Turks in 1683--the high-water mark of the Ottoman Empire. Fortunately, this final assault on Christendom was defeated and the Turks retreated, leaving behind them a taste for coffee and a memory of exotic architectural forms.
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In particular, the colourful, decorative, military tents erected by Turkish forces caught the imagination of monarchs and wealthy patrons. Louis XIV had tents made a la Turque for processions and ceremonies. These, like the Ottoman originals, were temporary, movable structures, but some made theirs more permanent. In Vauxhall Gardens in London, one was built in 1744 as a dining room. Henry Colt Hoare had his Picturesque landscape at Stourhead enhanced with a similarly exotic feature to compliment the classical temples (originally a mosque with a minaret had been intended). And in the gardens at Painshill in 1760 Charles Hamilton erected a domed, open tent, partially constructed of brick. It has been recreated (Fig. 3) but all the other structures have disappeared.
What survive, however, are three of the Turkish tents erected by Gustavus III in 1787 at Haga, the royal park outside Stockholm (Fig. 4). The designer was the French architect and stage designer Jean-Louis Desprez, who made these guard houses for the royal corps-de-garde permanent by facing the timber structures with copper, painted to look like fabric.
Such permanent 'temporary' structures were not necessarily a la Turque, as is the case with the one extraordinary example that survives in England. This was also in origin a royal building. As George III became increasingly incapacitated, Carlton House, the residence of his extravagant son, the Prince Regent, became a royal palace and the focus of social life in London. Banquets, fetes and grand receptions were staged there, but as the house was not large enough for such events, the Prince Regent had marquees set up in the gardens overlooking St James's Park. And as the entertainments became more elaborate, and the cost of hiring and erecting tents increased, it was decided to erect temporary buildings in the gardens of Carlton House. These became the responsibility of John Nash, as one of the architects to the Office of Works.
These structures were needed for the festivities of 1814 when Napoleon's abdication was celebrated and the victorious allied sovereigns were in London, an occasion that happily coincided with the centenary of the Hanoverian monarchy. The culmination was the ball held by the Prince Regent on 21 July 1814 in honour of the Duke of Wellington, and for this the new temporary buildings by Nash, assisted by William Nixon, were used for the first time. The centrepiece was the Polygon Room or Rotunda, 120 feet in diameter, designed in the form of a large tent. No contemporary depictions of it are known, but we have a description: 'Each side of this spacious room was groined and supported by fasces, ornamented with flowers: from these arose an elegant umbrella roof, terminating in a ventilator, decorated with large gilt cords, and painted to imitate white muslin.'
The structures at Carlton House did not last long, although they had a longer life than the Pagoda Bridge in St James's Park, erected by Nash for the Grand National Jubilee, which was largely destroyed by fireworks on the opening night. These festivities and pyrotechnics had been planned by Sir William Congreve MP, a favourite of the Prince Regent and an enthusiast for military projectiles. Congreve may have collaborated with Nash on designing the prefabricated timber structure of the ballroom, and seemed to have had in mind from the start its eventual re-erection at Woolwich, for he also happened to be Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory and Superintendent of the Military Repository there. And so in 1818, the Surveyor General was informed that 'It is HRH'S desire that it should be transferred to Woolwich, there to be appropriated to the conservation of the trophies obtained in the last war, the Artillery models, and other military curiosities usually preserved in the Repository of the Royal Artillery'.
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Nash supervised the re-erection of the Rotunda on an open site west of the Royal Artillery Barracks. To make it permanent, its exterior was encased in a brick wall, penetrated by windows (Fig. 2). Above, the curved roof trusses supported a tent roof faced in lead, reaching up to the tall ventilator finial. Inside, the timber was concealed by a canvas ceiling, with ornamental ropes reaching out to the 24 fluted timber columns standing within the walls while a tall Roman doric column was substituted for the central tent pole (Fig. 1). The Rotunda was opened to the public in 1820, and there it has stood since, its collection of trophies being augmented over the years by cannon and other relics of Britain's wars. But no longer.
Under a plan to unite the several historic artillery and other military collections in a much larger new museum on the historic Woolwich Arsenal site, the Royal Artillery Museum closed in 1999. It re-opened in 2001 in its new premises under the new name of 'Firepower'. The move has left Nash's remarkable Rotunda redundant. What to do with it? There have been various proposals, such as a museum of small arms and, surprisingly, a museum of chocolate, but all have come to nothing. The adjacent site is to become the home of the King's Troop, but they have no use for the Rotunda, not even as an officers' mess. Meanwhile, the building is deteriorating and water is coming through the (rather impractical) tall lead roof.
It is a scandal that this remarkable structure, listed at Grade II*, should be redundant and neglected in government ownership. If no suitable use can be found for it where it stands, perhaps it should be re-erected elsewhere--it has been moved once before, after all. Perhaps it should return to St James's Park, where this festive tent could make a fine and historically resonant cafe and restaurant. Why not?