Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lincoln


Men’s room

Looking back over the photographs I took on my visit to Lincoln a few months ago, I found a couple more I wanted to share with you. One small group pays homage to a building type I’ve noticed before: the Victorian cast-iron lavatory or urinal. This one is in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life and is a rather more ornate version of a similar one I found some years ago in a park in Bath. This Lincolnshire example was originally installed at Woodhall Junction station, which closed in 1970. It was made at the Elmbank Foundry in Glasgow, the premises of James Allan Senior and Son. The great Scottish city was a major source of iron goods, and in the architectural sphere one comes across everything from barns to pissoirs made in Glasgow and exported in pieces down south.

Such pieces of fine Scottish ironwork are often highly ornate, as we can see here. Every sort of floral ornament that was popular in the the 19th and early-20th centuries, from acanthus to sunflower, was used, and buildings often exhibited more than one, as in my example. There’s also a rich array of abstract patterns – the wavy lines are especially striking (click on the image above to reveal more detail). Impressive too is the way in which the walls are pierced around the ornament near the top. The pattern made by the piercing can be seen clearly in my imperfect photograph below, which shows that even the tops of the screens between the stalls are ornamented. Victorian men were well provided for: it is a shame that less regard was given to the needs of women.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Worcester



Hopping*

There’s not much left these days of the Venetian Gothic architecture of Myer’s hop warehouses in Worcester’s Sansome Street, but the sculpted pediment survives. It shows a group of women hop-picking, with, in the background, ‘luxuriant clusters of the bine’†. Those are the words of the Worcester Journal, commenting on the building when it was new in 1875. The newspaper attributes the design to an architect called Haddon, of Malvern and Hereford, while the sculptor William Forsyth of Worcester did the carving.  

Forsyth was born in Scotland, but by the 1850s was working at Eastnor Castle with his brother, James, also a sculptor. Whereas a commission took James to Somerset, where he settled, William set up in Worcester, and the city has quite a bit of his carving, from work on the restoration of the cathedral to decorations for business fronts. He must have done a lot of work in the area for by the 1870s his yard employed twelve men and three boys. Clearly he could carve vigorously, and the deeply cut hop-pickers and hops, even chipped and blackened as they are now, are very effective.

In the Victorian period, of course, a yard of skilled carvers like Forsyth’s would have had a lot of work doing church restorations. But Forsyth’s success was also due to a culture in which shopkeepers and businessmen like Myer the hop-merchant wanted good looking decoration for their premises – decoration that acted as a recognisable sign in an age when signs were built to last . How lucky we are that this one did. 

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* When I lived in southeast London I remember stories, remembering the time not so many decades before, of poor people from London who took working ‘holidays’ picking hops in Kent. This phenomenon was known as ‘hopping’, or, more colloquially, ‘oppin’. 



† Bine: a twining or flexible shoot; cf woodbine.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Loxley, Warwickshire


Recycling

Last night I gave a talk about parish churches to an appreciative local audience. January is usually a quiet month for talks – people tend not to book me to travel far in the unpredictable winter weather, but this talk was in a venue so close by I could easily have walked there, had it not been for the impedimenta (laptop, projector, extension lead, notes, wires, and other odds and ends) that I take with me on such occasions.

One picture that got a strong reaction was a wall made of rubble in a Cotswold churchyard, a place I’ve already featured on this blog. It reminded me that a few weeks ago I came across another example of a wall partly made of recycled bits and pieces at Loxley in Warwickshire. The winter afternoon was already coming to an end by the time I got there and found somewhere to park, and in the low light I thought I’d got the measure of the building as I looked at it from the road: medieval beginnings with lots of changes in the Georgian period including the nave windows and the upper stage of the oddly placed southwest tower.
A closer look revealed a lot of Saxon-looking herringbone masonry in the chancel and a vestry partly built of 17th- or 18th-century gravestones and parts of chest tombs. Winged putti, skulls, crossed bones, extinguished torches and a cornucopia, together with plentiful cartouches and scrolls, some of them quite vigorously carved, feature in these stones, along with some baluster shafts that are now doing duty as window jambs. They’re all arranged quite artfully, almost as if the size of this small extension has been dictated in part by the proportions of the recycled slabs.

Most of the inscriptions on these slabs have worn away completely or in part – those still legible seem to be to members of the Southam family. Their decay is sad in one way. But I for one would not mind if, a century for three after my demise, my memorial was repurposed in this way. Preferable at least to having my stone heaped in some corner to gather dust and moss. On the tower is a sundial with a motto: ‘I DIE TODAY & LIVE TOMORROW’. Indeed.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire


The photographer and the sweep

One person I remember from my childhood in Cheltenham (a time that came back to me forcefully when I recently visited The Wilson in the town and came face to face with the figure in my previous post) was a photographer called Eric Franks. Eric, who was a neighbour of a relative of mine, worked for a publisher of guidebooks, Burrow, who were based in Cheltenham; they presumably sent him round to the various places they were covering in their books to photograph old buildings, picturesque high streets, and atmospheric views. Although colour photography was well established by the time I knew him, colour printing was still costly, and most of his work was in black and white.

Eric Franks didn’t put away his camera when he left work. He was always taking photographs, and built up a large archive of images of Cheltenham between the late 1930s and the 1950s. He was still at it when I came across him in the 1960s and 1970s, but those earlier images especially constitute a unique pictorial record of a very special provincial town before it changed radically with 1960s redevelopment and ‘improvement’. Eric Franks’ book, Images of Cheltenham, shows how good he was. It’s full of evocative scenes – not just architecture, but people, caught going about their everyday lives – children hurrying to school, codgers gossiping on street corners, shoppers, the Spa Harp Trio playing by the roadside. The handling of light in all the images is outstanding.*
One of the photographs shows the most extraordinary trade sign I’ve ever seen: the sooty black figure of a chimney sweep mounted high up on a wall, casting a cold and somewhat sinister eye on the passers-by below.  This figure had vanished from its original home in Cheltenham’s Sherborne Street by the time I was growing up, but what I’d not realised was that it found a home in The Wilson, again mounted high up so that visitors can see it as they would have done when it was above the sweep’s door. 

Its metal construction is clear from the jagged edge of the sweep’s coat and the way the material – zinc – has been rather crudely worked to represent the way the material of the coat bunches above the waist. If the jagged edge of the garment is worn with age, that’s understandable. The museum believes the sign to date to about 1830 and it was only removed from its original perch in 1950, when the last chimney sweep of Sherborne Street hung up his brushes and rods and retired. The last sweep was called Frederick Field, and when he retired he was 79 years old and was said to be the oldest working chimney sweep in Britain. He was apparently often seen around the town transporting bags of soot on the handlebars of his bicycle. Previous Sherborne Street sweeps used a small cart, drawn by a succession of beasts including at various times a donkey and a Shetland pony.

Looking down on us like this, the figure has a rather spooky gaze.† How unlike the appreciative and perceptive eye of Eric Franks, whose photographs shed a benevolent light on the streets and the people of the town he loved.

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* Eric Franks is remembered in the name of one of the prizes given at the Cheltenham Camera Club; his book, Images of Cheltenham, is well worth seeking out. The photograph of the book’s cover I have used is taken from the internet, as I seem to have mislaid my own copy: I hope it turns up and if it does I intend to replace the photograph with one more worthy of its creator.

† As the figure in the museum was well lit, but not ideally so for photography, the face in my picture is rather dark, but not inappropriately so, I think. ‘What we need is some snooted light on the face,’ as a photographer colleague of mine used to say.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire


Happy New Year!

This figure of a Scotsman in Highland dress taking snuff is a memory from my childhood. Growing up in Cheltenham, I regularly saw it outside Frederick Wright’s tobacconist’s shop in the town’s High Street. He is taking snuff – snuff from Scotland being famous – and guiding people towards his owner’s door. He’s now in the town’s museum (known as The Wilson these days), and is one of several extraordinary shop signs be seen there.

Highlander figures were well known as tobacconists’ shop signs by the time of the 1745 rebellion, as after this date highland dress was banned and tobacconists sought to confirm that they could continue to exhibit these figures outside their shops without being accused of breaking the law or of a lack of loyalty to the Hanoverian monarchy. The figures, usually made of wood, were still common the Victorian period, but relatively few survived into the 20th century.

This particular example was a well known landmark in the town and Wright’s address on the accompanying enamel advertising sign is given as ‘The Old Scotchman, 122 High Street, Cheltenham’, in the style of former years equating the building with its sign, to help those who could not read, and those others who could read but could not remember names and numbers. Find the Old Scotchman* and you can’t go wrong.

The Resident Wise Woman and I were pleased to have this reminder of times gone by when we made a post-Christmas visit to The Wilson. We were also pleased to be able to introduce our son to the figure. He too was charmed by it, no less so because of its unrealistic ultra-skinny proportions. More porridge required, clearly, in these chilly times.

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*We now regard ‘Scotchman’ as a solecism: ‘Scotch whisky’ is OK, unless you’re in Scotland itself, when it’s just whisky; but a man from Scotland is a Scotsman. But ‘Scotch’ to mean ‘Scottish’ when applied to people not whisky has a long history, as any reader of Lord Byron’s 1809 poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers will know.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

South Newington, Oxfordshire


Christmas already

So it’s Christmas already. Since the last one I’ve written a book, Phantom Architecture (see right-hand column), done various editorial odd jobs, grubbed around several bits of England, visited the Czech Republic again, and posted about one hundred times on this blog. That’s (nearly!) enough from me for this year, then. So here’s an almost seasonal Madonna and Child, one of the wall paintings in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington, Oxfordshire.

Beneath an ornate cusped and crocketed 14th-century painted ogee arch, the Christ-Child reaches towards his mother with one hand while the other holds an apple. There’s just enough left of the painting to give one a sense of the artist’s strong line, his expressive but bony way with hands and fingers, his careful approach to drapery, his love of curvaceous ornament (both architectural and foliate), and what were probably his strong colours. The fragmentary nature of what’s left makes it, as so often with medieval English wall paintings, more moving not less.

I offer the image to my readers, with very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Shaftesbury Avenue, London


Hats off, here they come…

London’s Shaftesbury Avenue is one of the best known streets in the capital – the part between Piccadilly Circus and Cambridge Circus, which is full of theatres, is in the heart of tourist London. But the northern part, north of Cambridge Circus and bordering the Covent Garden area is less well known. If you’re around there, I’d suggest wandering towards the northern end, and having a look at the Covent Garden Odeon, a large Art Deco building that started life as the Saville Theatre in 1931.  

The reason I think this building is particularly worth a look is the long frieze that stretches across the facade. It’s the work of the sculptor Gilbert Bayes* and depicts theatre through the ages, with the ancient Greeks and Romans at one end and the twentieth century at the other. ‘Theatre’ is interpreted loosely (spectacle might be a better term), with Roman gladiators and Greek Bacchantes included and the very English sight of Punch and Judy also putting in an appearance.

I’ve chosen two sections of the panel.§ The first shows some wonderful horses from the Roman section and a group of fetching Bacchantes (plus, presumably, one of Bacchus’ pards) on the right. The naked Bacchantes have a period, Art Deco look, with their short hair and slim bodies. One can feel Bayes having fun with all these subjects, relishing the chance to depict the naked female form and the opportunity to include animals.
The second panel includes another group of women: the Bacchantes have become tamed, as it were, as 1920s dancers, with clingy dresses and feathered headdresses – one can imagine them coming down the staircase behind Imelda Staunton in the wonderful current National Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. To their left are a bunch of ‘Romantics’ from the 19th century including a variety of actors in period costumes. Further left still is a Punch and Judy booth in which Punch looks down at a lifeless puppet – presumably the unfortunate Judy – while the dog Toby sits on the ground beneath; Punch and Judy were famously ‘born’ a few hundred yards southwest of here, in the heart of Covent Garden.†

There’s much to admire in these fine panels, and in some roundels by Bayes set further up on the building. I’d encourage anyone walking along the northern part of Shaftesbury Avenue to look up at the relief and take it in. Although the frieze is very large, many passers-by miss it when looking to see what films are playing, rather as people quite understandably miss the details above shop fronts when looking in shop windows. It’s another example of the use of sculpture to give interest to an otherwise rather large and lumpish 1930s theatre facade – something I’ve noticed on early Odeons and other cinemas several times before. More modern corporations should consider giving space to the visual arts in this way. ¶

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* Bayes also did the panels showing ‘merfiremen’ adorning the London Fire Brigade Building on Albert Embankment. 

§ More detail in each photograph will be revealed if you click on the image.

† The first written account of a Punch and Judy show was a record of a performance in Covent Garden. Punch’s ‘birthday’ is regularly celebrated in May in St Paul’s churchyard, when the massed ranked of the ‘professors’’ booths fill the greensward and the walls echo to the sound of beswazzled voices.

¶ There are more pictures of the frieze on the Ornamental Passions blog, here.