How enthusiastic Freemason Batty Langley set out to 'improve' architectural styles

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Planning without permission

A bold architect and consummate self-publicist with keen masonic interests, Batty Langley’s career saw him attempting to improve Gothic forms as well as spending time in Newgate Prison

Batty Langley was a man so dedicated to his passions in life – architecture, garden design and Freemasonry – that he named his sons Hiram, Euclid, Vitruvius and Archimedes. He is succinctly summed up by Eileen Harris in ‘Batty Langley: A Tutor to Freemasons’ (Burlington Magazine, May 1977) as: ‘…a Rococo pioneer, the leading spokesman of the opposition to the Burlington establishment, a champion of English craftsmen; above all, an avid freemason, passionately devoted to the education of his brethren’.

Born to Daniel and Elizabeth Langley, Batty Langley was baptised in Twickenham, Middlesex, on 14 September 1696, his unusual forename a tribute tohis father’s patron, David Batty. Daniel Langley was a gardener in Twickenham, a suburb along the River Thames; when Batty was old enough, he took on some of his father’s clients, among them the owner of Twickenham Park House, for whom he designed a serpentine labyrinth.


In the ensuing years, Batty Langley would become a professional landscaper and surveyor. In his New Principles of Gardening, published in 1728, he offered his services for ‘Buildings in general Surveyed, Valued and Measured… Grottos, Baths, Cascades, Fountains, &c. made… and Sun-Dials of all Kinds made for any Latitude… Gardens in general, Made, Planted and Furnish’d with Fruit and Forest-Trees, Ever-Greens, Flowering Shrubs, &c.’

One digression from his work occurred in 1724, when Langley was sent to Newgate Prison for debt, where he resided in the masters’ side of the gaol, reserved for those who could afford to pay for their food and accommodation. In his first book, An Accurate Description of Newgate: Written for the Publick Good. By B. L. of Twickenham, Langley explains that he paid ‘Six Shillings and Six-pence to the Turnkey [on admission] and Ten Shillings and Six-pence to the Steward of the Ward… for his Garnish Money… to provide a sufficient Quantity of Sea-Coal for Firing, Brooms to sweep the Ward and Candles for Light in the Evening…’

Describing the prison in architectural terms, Langley wrote that it was ‘situated in an Elegant Part of the West of the City of London, called Newgate Street… the architecture is according to the Tuscan Order, magnificently built with Stone, with great Strength and Beauty’.

'Cocking a snook at the establishment was not in his best interests commercially’


After the formal establishment of Freemasonry in 1717, it is believed that Langley became an enthusiastic member, although his name is absent from surviving records. However, he appears to have immersed himself thoroughly in the conduct of several liberal arts, which were illustrated profusely within the books on architecture he published over the decades. Practical Geometry (1726) bore a dedication to Lord Paisley, who was installed as Grand Master the previous year. This was followed by The Builder’s Chest-Book (1727), a massive compilation of the works of many architects.

Langley published The Builder’s Jewel in 1741 with an initial print run of 2,000 copies. The evidently masonic frontispiece, designed by Langley and engraved by his brother Thomas, is signed ‘Batty Langley Invent A L 5741’. The reference is likely to be to the masonic calendar: ‘A L’ stands for Anno Lucis, meaning ‘in the year of light’, and 5741 is the date according to the idea that Earth was created in 4,000 BC.

The book’s elaborate illustrations depict a multitude of masonic symbols, including a plan of a lodge in the centre. The intricate design has been featured on many items of masonic stoneware, examples of which can be seen in the Library and Museum at Great Queen Street.


Langley’s best-known piece of self-promotion came in the form of Ancient Architecture, Restored, and Improved, published in 1742 and reissued in 1747 as Gothic Architecture, Improved by Rules and Proportions.

The book, complete with engravings by his brother, illustrated Langley’s attempts to improve on the original Gothic forms by giving them classical proportions and creating a scheme of architectural order. His work provided inspiration for buildings across the country, as well as further afield. Indeed, George Washington used Langley’s works as sources for the distinctive windows at his Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia, USA.

Lessons in geometry, architecture and design were dutifully given by the Langley brothers to help fledgling Freemasons to fulfil their charge to learn and, in reflection of the words of the architect Edward Oakley (whose influential 1728 speech featured in the Book of Constitutions of 1731), to ‘…be industrious to improve in, or at least to love and encourage some Part of the seven Liberal Sciences… for the Advancement of this Divine Science of Masonry… and to the Honour and Instruction of the Craft’.

Langley died at his home in Soho, London, in 1751. He may no longer be a well-known name, but his passion for Freemasonry and its teaching is admirable.

Gothic over Greek

Batty Langley’s writings in 1734-35 caused a furore within the established world of architecture and design.

Publishing in the Grub Street Journal under the pseudonym of Hiram, Langley’s weekly dissections included a lashing of a series of anonymous articles entitled ‘Critical Review of the Public Buildings, Statues and Ornaments in and about London and Westminster’. Unbeknown to Langley, they had been written by James Ralph, a supporter of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who had introduced Palladian/neo-Palladian architecture to Britain – a style that drew on the formal classical temple architecture of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Emboldened by his own anonymity, Langley launched into a scathing attack on all things beloved by the Burlingtonians, including the works of Andrea Palladio, Inigo Jones, John Webb, Burlington himself and his partner William Kent. Langley cocking a snook at the establishment was probably not in his best interests commercially and he did not secure many commissions, but he continued to be a strong vocal protagonist of his beloved Gothic architecture.

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