It’s better than real, it’s fake

Kenwood House in North London is impressive. The exterior, the interior, and the gardens. As you approach you notice the perfect symmetry of the house.

Both wings match exactly, windows delicately balancing each other either side of the entrance. Once inside, you’re impressed by the library. Both the extensive collection of books and the large marble pillars.

Looking out over the grounds you’re impressed by the almost perfect view. A Constable-style landscape gently rolling down to a meandering stream, disappearing under a wooden bridge. It all seems too perfect to be real. And it is. It’s all fake.

A huge, beautiful, elegant, impressive fake. Robert Adams did the house, in the late 18th century. Capability Brown did the gardens.

Take the beautiful marble pillars in the library. They’re actually made from wood, and painted to look exactly like carved white marble. There are no books in the impressive library either. Just the spines stuck to the wall.

The beautifully symmetrical windows are complete fakes on one side. Stuck to the outside wall of the music room, which requires solid brick walls for its acoustic qualities.

The beautiful view of the gardens is worth investigating. When you walk down to the stream it’s actually two ponds and, on the left, the cut-out shape of a bridge stuck next to them.

A clump of trees between the ponds connects them in your eye, and the ‘bridge’ confirms the direction the ‘stream’ goes in.
The whole of Kenwood house is an exercise in trickery and manipulation. The late 18th century was the height of The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was born out of The Reformation. The idea that man wasn’t just a slave to fear and superstition anymore.

For the first time, with reason and logic, man was able to work out and control his own destiny. And Trompe L’Oeil was a visual manifestation of that. Trompe L’Oeil just means “trick the eye”, what we’d call an illusion.

It became very fashionable in the late 18th century. A way to demonstrate that the eye, and consequently the mind, could easily be fooled and manipulated. Our senses couldn’t be trusted. We needed to stop ‘believing’ in things and make the effort to think for ourselves.

This is what separated the cultured individual from the merely wealthy. Previously, a person’s worth was based on wealth.
If you wanted a beautiful house, you just built it. And the cost demonstrated how rich you were.

The Enlightenment signalled a change from money as the main indication of someone’s worth. Now intelligence was a much higher value. Intelligence was demonstrated by an understanding, for the first time, of the mind’s importance.

That the mind actually in fact determined reality. Trompe L’Oeil was a visual manifestation of this. If you trick the eye you trick the mind. This was far cleverer than merely spending money on something that just looked like what it was.

How dull. How wasteful. It was better to use your brains rather than just throw money at it. Far more clever to out think someone rather than just out spend them.

Take a look around at the advertising we’re doing today. Where million pound commercials are no longer anything unusual.
Where people brag in print that their commercial is the most expensive commercial ever filmed.

Do we think advertising could learn anything from Robert Adams and Capability Brown? From Trompe L’Oeil and The Age Of Enlightenment? Anything?

  • Anca

    I don’t know whether advertising people are willing and able (because I have my worries regarding their intellectual possibilities and limitations…) to learn anything from such brilliant examples, but I do know I could define a new job title: Walking Conscience. That’s what I do these days, among many other things. I’m not interested in what ad agencies are doing – mainly because most of what they do is not interesting in any way and that’s hardly my fault. I’m interested in their clients. And the discussions I have with their clients are EXACTLY about those advertising budgets that are simply going down the drain due to lack of inspiration unskilfully hidden behind irrationally expensive production. Wasting a client’s money like that is no way clever/inspired/creative. It’s just immoral and disgusting. And when you do that you’re not only screwing your client, you’re screwing yourself as well, it’s a lose-lose business, no matter what financial satisfaction it might bring. Once you decide to be the white-collar type I guess you also consider that your professional evolution will be measured using an intellect-related gauge. That’s not money — that’s how your family, friends and secret lovers judge you maybe, but not your clients who happen to expect concrete results; yeah, f_ckin’ bastards! (And even financial satisfaction is subject to debate, because personally I don’t think I could get by on the amount of money a young creative is payed these days. Survival doesn’t particularly look like an impressive achievement to me but then I always judge by unusual standards, ignore me. Living vs. surviving, efficiency vs. ad awards, personal satisfaction vs. fame among ad people (‘cause nobody else cares who did X ad, though it’s painful to admit) … — yeah, I’m kind of abstract, definitely ignore me.)
    So I don’t know, Dave. I’m not even sure I want ad people to learn anything from great examples like the ones you mentioned. It’s so easy to be different when everybody proudly wears this obstinate refusal to personalise ideas before ingesting tradition as an immutable course of action. My brother and I always tell our parents: “Thank you for deciding to have children at the right time. This is the perfect generation: intellectual monopoly feels like a game. Everybody has access to infinite information resources, nobody uses them.” Long live The Copy/Paste Generation! Why not visit your dentist for a… laterally-thought lobotomy?
    (Took a short trip to London last month and again I thought: “What a paradox… to live in London and to look for inspiration on YouTube…”)

  • Grilla Login

    Goes for me, too.

  • Bob Ashwood

    Anca (and Grilla Login), Do I take it that you guys are not in the ad business?

    RE: Dave’s discussion on illusion, slight of hand. I have always contended that advertising creatives possess the bicameral minds of small children. Not that they’re childish or immature (although, sometimes it helps) but they DO believe what you tell them in the brief. So you’d better damned-well get the brief right. First time! Like the small child, truth becomes the absence of judgement. Up to a certain age, infants don’t distinguish between conscious and unconscious. Their world is void of judgement. They simply experience. There’s a great freedom in that. For some reason Rhinehart’s Dice Man comes to mind as well. Who cares if it’s an illusion or a fake? It’s my reality right now. I agree that most advertising appears to lack a modicum of scruples. Which is more down to laziness than poor ethics. Yes, we know there some people in the business who behave badly. But, there are many others, if given the chance to ‘celebrate a truth’, they embrace it and give it the respect it deserves. Architectural or theatrical llusion is nothing to do with deceit. As Dave says, it’s part of an intellectual game. Games are fun. People aren’t stupid (she’s your wife – David Ogilvy). But some people are in danger of taking things a little bit too seriously. Yes, advertising MUST look to the era of Adams and Brown (though not exclusively) to learn about hardwork as much as inspiration. Have you seen the Lord of the Rings fanclub ‘home’ movie they made because they couldn’y wait for the next epic from Peter Jackson. It’s all illusion (just like Jackson’s) and it cost £3000 and a lot of hardwork, shot at weekends only for a year or more. Nothing immoral or disgusting about it? But they did cheat with relish.

  • Anca

    @Bob Ashwood

    Let’s just say I’ve found a discreet/unusual way of being in the ad business. :)

  • Bob Ashwood

    How intriguing. As I once had to remark to a client who wouldn’t tell me what he had to sell, who he had to sell it to, and how much he wanted to sell it for, ……I’m an advertising agent, not f__king secret agent. :)

  • Anca

    Oh, but it’s no secret at all, Bob, it just takes a lot of writing to explain and I don’t think I can be arsed to go through the entire process. I think I’m more comfortable with the risk of passing as some weird alien creature. I promise I’ll write it all down one day. Or paint it.

  • geo tannenbaum

    Dear Mr. Trott,

    I’ve always admired your work.

    This comment is more about the differences between the English and American ways of telling a story. So it pertains, in its way, to all your posts.

    You tell a story. Over a cup of tea. There are breaths, pauses and nuances.

    In America, we have built-in clocks. We are programmed to think in :30s. God is missing from our details. But we are fast.

    I enjoy reading your stories.

    Thank you.


  • Dave Trott

    Thanks George.
    I always thought if you could take the best of the US and add it to the best of the UK, leaving out the worst bits of each, it would be a great mix.
    We tried to bring our kids up that way.
    The English have restraint, but can become emotionally repressed.
    Americans are spontaneous, but can become emotionally incontinent.
    If you could raise kids to be spontaneous and confident, like Americans, but with self control, like Brits, that would be the best of both.

  • Bob Ashwood

    Dave, Spontaneous and confident with self-control? Sounds like a an Australian fast bowler! No I’m not an Ozzie but I did spend 12 years in Sydney.

    They would fit that description. You see it in their walk as they go to work. Head up, shoulders relaxed, weight on the front foot. Very un-English body language. But, yes, I agree, the best of my American friends and the best of my pommie mates is an ideal mix. Anomolies exist in all societies. Can the English take credit (if that’s the right word?) for the likes of Brian Blessed or Michael McKintyre? No shrinking violets in any company.

  • Dave Trott

    Bob, I agree with you about Aussies.
    They seem to split the difference between the US and the UK.
    A nice mix of confidence without arrogance.

  • Bob Ashwood

    This post seems to have segwayed from Real Fakes to English Americans. Is that Freudian?

  • StuW

    Another place to see a good trick of the eye can be found in a liitle church in Prague.Church Santa Anna I think it’s called (not the larger church Santa Anna in the main square) but this one is on the way up to the Cathedral.
    This little place is stuffed to the rafters with what appears to be fine marble columns,statues,gold leaf figurines etc.
    But it’s not untill you’re handed a small piece of paper explaining that the whole original interior of the church suffered catastropic damage and that what you see before you today (due to the lack of funds in it’s day) is a copy of what once stood there. One of the best set builds I’ve ever seen.

  • Grilla Login

    Bob, in answer to your Q. I am indeed in the ad biz; but only in the sense that we’re all now in the ad biz. It’s not those wonderful guys who brought you pearl harbor you need to thank, but Marketing Directors trying to save a few bucks and agency not-so-bright-sparks who think it’ll save them having to use their brains. I’m Grilla&Grilla Advertising as a consequence of that latest marketing trend – crowd sourcing, and I’m coming for all your clients too OOOO OOO!!

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hi Dave,

    I ‘ve often wondered how I became emotionally repressed and incontinent, and now I know. Kenwood house was obviously the inspiration behind the latest Dixons ad that Harrods have got the hump about. Although I think it’s quite cute. A major retailer that will offer you the world for £10 less than Harrods, and it was all the fault of 18th century trickery! Hmmm…..

    There was an interesting programme on TV last night by another Kevin explaining how British Architecture has been influenced by Europe. He took us to Palladio’s masterpiece in Italy, explaining how his pitch won. He was ten times cheaper than the competition, and twice as solid. Then he took us to Venizia and showed us this theatre (didn’t catch the name) with a fantastic illusion of deep perspective in 10 metres of space.

    So what’s my point?
    Fake, better than real?
    It certainly subverts your thinking.

  • Andrew Bent

    Hmm. Just wondering what your Bauhaus heroes would think of all this fakery. Surely Modernism was a rejection of much of the intellectual frippery that a Trompe L’Oeil represents: if something’s made of wood it should look like it’s made of wood.

  • Dave Trott

    Fair point Andrew,
    But I think everything good eventually becomes imtiated, then overused, until it’s time for something new.
    That doesn’t invalidate the original good idea, just the poor mass produced copies.
    Bauhaus itself was copied and overused, and diluted by imitators.
    Everytime it happens it’s time for a reaction against it.
    That’s why creatives must always be rebelling against the status quo and the uncreatives just jumping on the bandwagon.

  • Bob Ashwood


    Ruskin described rebelling against the status quo as ‘The violation of probability’. It’s a turn of phrase that is so wonderfully hostile towards sameness. True rebel talk.

  • Kevin Gordon

    Never Say Die.

  • gotnoteef

    Christian Dell Kaiser Idell desk lamps are design perfection – simplistic functional beauty – if everything in life was like one of these.

  • Kevin Gordon

    What sort of lightbulbs do they take?
    Real or Fake?

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