Saturday, April 18, 2015

London revealed


London Night and Day: Illustration of the Month

In contrast to my illustration last month, this month’s offering is from a well known illustrator and author. Osbert Lancaster (1908–86) was probably best known as a cartoonist and had a small but important influence on the development of British political cartooning through the daily ‘pocket cartoons’ he did, for decades, in the Daily Express. But Lancaster had more strings to his bow. He was an enthusiastic traveller, and recorded some of his impressions – of Greece especially, in books such as Classical Landscape With Figures and Sailing to Byzantium. Both of these books are funny and perceptive and have interesting things to say about the places he visits and the buildings he looks at and draws. He also wrote a number of books on architecture, illustrated with his own cartoons. Pillar to Post is probably the best known of these. Others include Drayneflete Revealed and Progress At Pelvis Bay – their titles are true to their lighthearted tone.

London Night and Day is a book Lancaster illustrated but didn’t, as far as I know, write.* My illustration is the cover of the first edition, which came out in time for the Festival of Britain in 1951. The book shows you the sights of London, through the prism of a 24-hour day, introducing different aspects of the city at appropriate times – shops in the morning, some cultural sites in the afternoon, theatre in the early evening, clubs later, and so on into the early hours when the market traders of Billingsgate are at work, offloading their piscatorial produce.

Lancaster’s cover encapsulates the architectural side of the book, though not the omnipresent human side of it (perhaps the influence of the publishers, The Architectural Press, was at work here). But even without Lancaster’s tweedy, hatted human characters, the cover is appealing. Its simple flat-colour drawings sum up a world of London architecture, from Thames-side warehouses to Regency terraces, and a lot of what the book describes, from parks to theatres, churches to shops. The diagonal division into night and day is a lovely touch and the lettering in the central panel works very well – particularly the way the illustrator has made use of the light and dark division of the cover to allow the word ‘NIGHT’ to appear black on white and the word ‘DAY’ to be reversed out of grey.

For anyone interested in this sort of thing, it’s worth looking out for a copy of London Night and Day. I already have two, one a slightly later edition with the Festival of Britain material removed and a higher price (five shillings instead of three and sixpence: inflation city). But you don’t have to haunt the secondhand bookshops. Old House Books have thoughtfully done a reprint that’s surely worth a purchase by any lover of London. Hurrah!

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*Note No author’s name is given, but the title page credits one Sam Lambert as the book’s ‘editor’. No one I’ve asked knows the identity of Sam Lambert. Did Lancaster himself write it? Or some of it? Is ‘Sam Lambert’ a portmanteau name made up of the names of two or three writers (it has a bit of ‘Osbert’ in it, of course). Who knows?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Kingly Street, London


Mr and Mrs Atlas

Here’s a brief post as I wrestle with a deadline.

There are whole books about looking up in London, and rightly so: you miss a lot if you don’t. A chance glance when hurrying along Kingly Street in search of congenial friends in a pub led me to stop briefly and take a photograph of these figures through the gloom of dusk. They remind me of those baroque atlases – common in central European cities like Prague – that seem to strain to hold up doorways in grand city houses. I’ve noticed them in London too, in particular in a very studied baroque revival facade in Mortimer Street.

Here the figures are on a more modest frontage, with lots of glazed tiles. It’s almost as if the architect threw in a bit of baroquery as visual relief and to stop the frontage looking like a kitchen. It’s a standard assemblage – swags (heavy), scrolls (curvaceous), date stone (bulgy). And the figures: male and female supporters straining at their job and somewhat squashed-looking, but with enough space to stick their elbows out and their knees up, as if to support the swags. A neat and confident bit of decoration from 1911, in defiance of the Cubism, Futurism, and abstraction that were bursting out everywhere in the visual arts. Tradition still had its place.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Piccadilly, London


Formerly, formally: modernist style

In modernist design, we used to be taught, a ‘style’ is not imposed on the building or the object being designed: form follows function. A Brno chair by Mies van der Rohe, a door handle by Walter Gropius, a door by Le Corbusier are the way the are because that’s the way they work best.

Aren’t they? Well, not entirely. That tubular framework on the chair is brightly polished, that door handle aligns precisely with the light switch, that door had a painting on it for goodness sake. They look like that because the architect liked the way they looked. Modernism is a style, just as Gothic or Baroque are styles.

And here’s a funny thing. When it’s the function of a building to be glamorous, to be an upmarket shop in Piccadilly or on Fifth Avenue, which has to look right to attract the right kind of customers, part of the building’s function is to be stylish. So form does follow function after all – but in a stylish sort of way.

The Simpson store in Piccadilly, designed by Joseph Emberton in the mid-1930s, was built in just such a fashion: stone cladding, beautiful detailing, shop windows with gorgeous concave glazing that seems to invite you to fall into the window display and wallow around in it. It’s structurally clever too – the steel frame is constructed so that the shop has vast uninterrupted floors, ideal whether you’re selling men’s clothing....or books. Because it’s a branch of Waterstones [sic] booksellers now, and the current owners have their own annoyingly apostropheless name above the door.

But to one side they have left the old Simpson name, in its special rounded letterform by Ashley Havinden. Different colours of metal are used to differentiate the parts of the name so that we can read the ‘p’ in Simpson as the ‘P’ in Piccadilly. The whole thing is carefully arranged along the horizontal divisions in the wall cladding too. It still looks a class act 80 years on. A stylish piece of work indeed.*

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*No, I’m not very impressed with the recently added ‘formerly’ floating around above the original letters. But I wanted to concentrate on the good things here.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Evercreech, Somerset


High and bright

The dazzling painted screen at Long Sutton in my previous post attracted quite a lot of admiration, so here’s another example of restored colour in the late-medieval manner, this time from the church of St Peter, Evercreech, in the same county of Somerset. Like a number of Somerset wooden roofs (the county is rich in medieval church woodwork), the one at Evercreech is inhabited by a flock of angels.
The angelic host look down at us in the nave, their multi-coloured wings pointing towards us, their hands grasping shields, their hair gilded, and their pale faces marked with the merest dot of red, like a touch of blusher. 

The ties beams themselves, plus the other main components of this medieval roof are vividly painted and gilded, and this colouring stands out against the unpainted timbers and the whitewashed walls. As with the Long Sutton screen, this painted roof provides just a hint of the bright colour with which many medieval churches were covered. Anyone who wants to see the kind of effect that coloured decoration can achieve in a high-status building should visit the glorious Sainte-Chapelle in Paris – it’s like stepping inside an enormous jewel box. The effect in this English church is more home-spun. But the carved angels still draw the eye upward, as no doubt their medieval creators intended, so that we can visualise in our minds’ eyes the greater heavenly host.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Long Sutton, Somerset


Turning up the brightness

I have a bit of a preoccupation with the use of colour in buildings. Over the years, in various posts, I’ve noticed the varied colours of shopfronts and other structures in towns such as Launceston, Saffron Walden, and Alcester, have admired the interior decoration of a Tudor building and chronicled the varied delights of medieval church wall paintings. One thing I've not posted about is a subject I was reminded of the other day when visiting the church at Long Sutton in Somerset: the coloured paint applied, or not applied, to church woodwork.

Long Sutton has a beautiful and delicate screen, essentially late medieval but restored, that separates the eastern and western parts of the church. My picture shows the central portion, with its filigree tracery and wooden vaulting crowned by a strip of carved foliage, amidst which sits an owl. The design of the tracery (similar but not identical to that of the East window beyond), the slender shafts, and the ribbed vaulting are all very much in harmony with the late-medieval architecture that surrounds the screen.

But what catches the eye first, of course, is the colour. This screen was restored in the 1860s and it seems to have been then that the woodwork was painted brightly in red, white, blue, green, and gold. These colours are very much along the lines of the decoration that could well have been on the screen when it was first installed. There may even have been medieval traces of colour on the woodwork before the restorers got to work.

I’m sure my readers will have varied opinions about this paint job. Many will lament the covering of what is most likely a wooden surface that’s beautiful in its own right with colour that they’ll see as garish; they might also reflect that Ruskin, Morris, and the modernists were right when they expounded their doctrine of truth to materials. Others will enjoy the vivid impact of the colours, and opine that medieval art was much more colourful than we sometimes admit; they might also like the way the painter has picked out the architectural details so that the details of the tracery, the capitals, the vaulting ribs and bosses are easy to see and not lost in a mass of brown.

Whether or not this colour scheme is historically accurate, it’s still hard to see it as it would have been seen in the 15th century. Context is everything. We look at it now against the background of a church with white plastered walls, exposed stonework (some of it beautifully carved), and glass that lets in lots of light. It stands out. Not, in my opinion like a sore thumb, but like a daring and thought-provoking bit of recreation.

Crewkerne, Somerset

Not out of the woods yet

Some of my readers noticed that my previous post, about the tiny doors that have appeared in tree trunks in a wood in Somerset, was written on April 1st. I thought its unusual subject and slightly tongue-in-cheek tone were appropriate for April Fools' Day. However, the most remarkable thing about the story is that, in substance at least, it's true. There are tiny doors in the wood (though no doubt full-size humans put them there), and they have been proliferating, and those who look after the woodland are indeed putting their feet down. Should my readers be in any doubt, there are accounts – pre-April 1st accounts – of the business in reputable British organs such as The Guardian and (if you prefer) The Telegraph, and on the BBC website too. Only in England...

Normal blogging service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Crewkerne, Somerset


Doors to another dimension

In deepest Somerset, the planning system has been sent into panic by the little people. Yes, that’s fairies, not at the bottom of the garden but in Wayford Woods near Crewkerne. It appears the little blighters have been settling down in hollow trees and erecting tiny doors for their homes. And there's the rub – there are scores of doors and they are in variable architectural taste. Some of the doors are Gothic, some vernacular, some just plain odd.

The more garish doors don't appeal to the locals, or to the trustees of the woodland where the small people have taken up residence, and rumour has it that even some of the fairies themselves (they're a shy people, after all) are put off by many of the additions. The last straw came when a fairy playground was also put up amidst the trees. "We're not anti-fairy. But we've got little doors everywhere," lamented one of the wood's trustees. So fairy control has become necessary in the Crewkerne area, and the hope is that, moderation being the best policy, and perhaps also the best planning policy, some of the outré additions will be removed, restoring the woodland to something like its former glory. The time is ripe for change.
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Photograph by Amber Pritchard, sourced from the BBC News website