The finest and most beautiful square that is to be seen of its kind in England – these are familiar words to those who know Ripon; they come from Daniel Defoe’s ‘Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain, 1724-6’ and describe the city’s Market Square.
Defoe’s next sentence says, ’In the middle of it stands a curious column of stone, imitating the obelisks of the ancients.’ The city’s obelisk is one of its most important structures (hence its Grade I listing) and, perhaps after the cathedral, its most distinctive.
But it is more than that – it has a firm place in architectural history as the first free-standing obelisk in the country. It was put up at the very beginning of the 18th century as part of a scheme to improve Ripon; as the historian Thomas Gent wrote when chronicling the year 1702, ‘John Aislable, Esq: this year the Market Place was paved, and adorned with an obelisk of free Stone, 82 feet high . . . all which cost 564L. 11s 9d.’
Aislabie’s name appears here because in that year he was Mayor of Ripon; the proprietor of the Studley Royal estate, he had been Ripon’s MP from 1695, but was only politically active nationally from about 1704. He soon ascended the heights of government, eventually becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, only to be expelled from his office after the collapse of the South Sea Bubble scheme.
All this was in the future when Ripon’s Square was paved and the obelisk erected. There had already been a plan to replace the existing market cross, described in 1697 by Celia Feinnes as ‘a high Cross of severall steps’; in 1680 the will of Alderman William Gibson of Ripon had left £50 towards a new cross for the square. Among the papers left by John Aislabie is one that indicates what the corporation was considering at the beginning of the 18th century; it is inscribed ‘An estimate of the Doome which is to be Erected on Ripon Market Place May ye 13 1702.‘
This ‘Doome’ – a domed and pillared structure that would have resembled the market cross at Beverley, which went up in 1714 – would have been an ornament to Ripon. But it seems that Aislabie, the dominant voice in Ripon at the time, had other ideas. Probably through his acquaintance with other country gentlemen – especially the Earl of Carlisle at Castle Howard – he came to know of the latest architectural thought, and of its leading practitioners, Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor.
So it is no surprise that it was to Hawksmoor that he went for a new design. Hawksmoor was a practical architect – but he was also a theorist, steeped in the architecture of ancient Rome, so he wanted to realise his own vision of a Roman forum by redesigning and paving Ripon’s Square and placing an obelisk at its centre.
Hawksmoor was also influenced by Renaissance Rome: he wrote of his second obelisk, at Castle Howard, ‘I have sent a design, much like that set up in ye Piazza Navona, by Cavalier Fontana or Bernini’. In the first letter Hawksmoor wrote to Aislabie about the Ripon obelisk, on 15 April 1702, he said, ‘I have drawn this obelisk according to the most exact antient symetry. I am of the opinion they had consider’d well the architectonicall and geometricall reasons for proportions of this nature.’
There was criticism, of course; the obelisk would provide no shelter for market traders. Attempting to meet this objection, Hawksmoor said, ‘I have placed on the lower stylobate [ie, at the top of the plinth] a projecture that in time of rain will shelter ye market people.’ His drawing shows a circular structure painted with the star of the Order of the Garter, perhaps to flatter Aislabie with the suggestion of future ennoblement, though also reminiscent of sun rays– a reference to the original purpose of obelisks in Egyptian temples to mark the passage of the sun.
When the obelisk was constructed, with stone from the Studley Royal estate, this entirely impractical cover had vanished. The work was carried out by the York carpenter and contractor William Etty and the mason William Cowling. Etty seems to have caused trouble; a letter from Hawksmoor says, ‘I have received Mr Etty’s estim’t in which certainly he has mistook in quantity . . . I am sure the difficulty is not so great as he fancys . . . it is the unhappiness of all workmen if you propose anything never so little uncommon, they make a pretence of demanding twice as much as it is worth.’
Nevertheless, the work was completed, with the placing of what Thomas Gent described as ‘The spindle (on which is the Star, Horn and Flower de Luce)’ on the summit. The ‘star’ is another reference to the solar origins of obelisks – but conveniently here is it also the Ripon spur rowel, for which the city was famous. When the rowel, horn and fleur-de-lys went up, the Clerk of Works, Cornelius Barker, wrote to Hawksmoor, ‘Our obelisk now begins to get ye applause of its enemys.’
Ripon’s obelisk has changed over three centuries; there were briefly carved lions on the plinth, and railings around the structure. Hawksmoor insisted on roughened surfaces for part of the base to deter graffiti (little changes!). More drastic was the rebuilding under John Aislabies’s son William – which led to the misleading inscription now on the obelisk.
As a postscript – Ripon’s obelisk and restructured ‘Roman forum’ Market Square might have had an influence on Cambridge, had Hawksmoor’s plans for a major rebuild of that city’s centre been accepted.
It’s good to think that Ripon was so much at the forefront of architectural thinking when Aislabie persuaded (or bullied) the Ripon city fathers to accept the obelisk for the revived square.