The great storm of November 1703 tore a gorgeous, brittle gallimaufry of a lighthouse from the Eddystone Reef, 14 miles off Plymouth, destroying it and its architect, Henry Winstanley. Since then the few people who have written about him have remembered his lighthouse, his death, his curious house at Littlebury in Essex and perhaps his Water Theatre at Hyde Park Corner - a series of dramatic tableaux made with automata, fireworks and water jets. This is the man Adam Hart-Davis and Emily Troscianko give us in picturesque, anecdotal fashion: chipper, whimsical and upwardly mobile, a 17th-century Toad of Toad Hall.
But beyond the recycled anecdotes is a more interesting man. Winstanley was a successful cloth-importer and an endlessly curious provincial polymath. He learned clock-making and built a perpetual motion mechanism that sold well two generations after his death. He was the first engraver in England to attempt, long before Kip, a volume of commissioned engravings of country houses. He was an architect who built himself a fine house in a modern idiom and an intriguing garden, as well as being clerk of works at the royal palaces of Audley End and Newmarket. He was a consumer of scientific literature, apparently subscribing to the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions and keeping Boyle, Descartes, Bacon and William Harvey on his library shelves.
Winstanley had one foot in the Renaissance engineering tradition and the other in the scientific revolution of the late 17th century. He knew, at least from engravings, the gardens and fountains of the Roman villeggiatura (holiday villas), the cascades and practical jokes that delighted the cardinals of baroque Rome. He knew also some of the great Jacobean gardens of England: Wilton, that wonderland of hydraulic magic and automata, was the childhood home of his patron James Herbert. At Littlebury, Winstanley continued this tradition, filling house and garden with mechanical meravigli (wonders), and building one of the last garden mounts in England.
Winstanley's first patron was the Earl of Suffolk, and he was passed from hand to hand round the network of Suffolk's colleague, Lord Treasurer Danby, a web of Berties, Osbornes and Herberts, exclusionists and Orangists, whose houses he engraved and who helped him up to minor office, further commissions and prosperity. Through them, he was acquainted with a wider circle of peers, clergy and writers. Many, such as the antiquary John Aubrey and Lord Chief Justice Matthew Hale, visited Littlebury.
He was perhaps irritatingly fond of practical jokes and self-advertisement. Some of his schemes, such as the Water Theatre, made money, but money was never his only concern: he was out of pocket more than £3,000 on the lighthouse, and as much again on his house. Gentility he asserted, but not in quite the gauche and infantile way that this book suggests: he was not the first of his family to claim it, and trade was becoming a well-trodden route to the porous status of gentleman.
Winstanley is worth more than this well-meaning but patronising little book, a would-be longitudinal nutmeg, which cheerfully mistakes his wife Elizabeth's name, repeats Horace Walpole's canard in relating him to his namesake Hamlet Winstanley, dates his crucial appointment as clerk of works wrongly by a decade - and asserts an entirely fictitious friendship with Charles II. A man of restless, creative intelligence, Winstanley was more than a clown: he was a businessman who was also a provincial virtuoso and an innovative engineer. In the words of Simon Schaffer, writing of another toyman a century later, he "ingeniously prowled the borderlands of showmanship and engineering". He deserves a serious study.
Martin Rose, director of the British Council in Brussels, is researching a number of 17th-century lives, including Henry Winstanley's.
Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse
Author - Adam Hart-Davis and Emily Troscianko
ISBN - 0 7509 1835 7
Publisher - Sutton
Price - £9.99
Pages - 208