Saturday, December 3, 2016


A Georgian favourite

St Swithun’s, Worcester, is one of my favourite Georgian churches. A typical town church, it’s hemmed in on all sides by streets and buildings – and by its 15th-century west tower, which is the only surviving part of the earlier church that stood on the site. The present St Swithun’s was built in 1734–6 to designs by Thomas and Edward Woodward of Chipping Campden, who also refaced the tower and gave it a round-arched doorway.

In this as in many 18th-century churches, it’s the interior that I particularly like, a welcoming space filled with natural light. The virtually untouched collection of box pews fit the nave beautifully, some facing towards the altar, some at the back facing inwards towards the aisle; there’s also a west gallery,* an impressive three-decker pulpit, and some terrific ironwork.† As you take all this in, your eye moves upwards towards the curving plaster ceiling. This is a beguiling confection, its ribs and corbels evoking Gothic architecture, while its roundels and garlands have a classical feel. Its pale white plasterwork reflects the natural light from the big windows down on to the pews, increasing the splendour of the interior.

My admiration for this church meant I was sad to read on social media the other day that rain has penetrated the roof of St Swithun’s, damaging the lovely plaster ceiling. This ceiling is more vulnerable because, apparently, there are no nibs or keys§ attaching the plasterwork firmly to the wooden laths that should be supporting it. The Churches Conservation Trust, who look after this church, are of course aware of the problem and are on the case. There is a fund-raising scheme in progress at the moment to obtain funds not only for retiling the roof and other repairs, but also to create craft skills apprenticeships, and to make the building available for artistic exhibitions and performances. As usual, the Trust deserve out support.

The partly-gilded ironwork supporting structure of the altar, St Swithun’s, Worcester

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*This gallery is built up against the west wall, which is also the outer wall of the tower, the diagonal buttresses of which are still visible in the interior.
†The ironwork includes not only the altar that I illustrate but also an ornate sword-rest rising from the mayor’s chair – a subject for a future post, perhaps.
§Keys or nibs are the bits of base-coat plaster that the plasterer pushes between the laths to ‘key’ the plaster to the woodwork.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Idmiston, Wiltshire

A good hat

When I give talks about building materials or vernacular architecture, this picture sometimes elicits a gasp of amazement. A field wall, made of cob (here a mix mainly of mud and chalk I think) and roofed with thatch. Such a thing seems eccentric these days. People think cob must be an ephemeral material – but it can last a lifetime with the proper protection, given, in the old phrase, ‘a good hat and a good pair of shoes’. The hat is provided by tiles or thatch. But thatching is a skilled trade and roofing a wall like this takes a lot of effort and expertise: it must be a costly process. In past centuries, though, the cost of materials and transport could be a larger proportion of the total bill of a typical building project, and both time and labour could be cheaper than they are now. In the Middle Ages, if stone was not plentiful, mud and thatch could at least reduce the cost of the materials.

And yet, clearly, people who could afford to buy stone and bring it to the site also just liked the idea or the look of an earth wall. In c. 1320 at Lambeth Palace, London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who could have had stone for the asking), six perches† of garden wall were repaired and rethatched with reeds. Mud or cob walls for fields and gardens are not so common now, but you still find them in some places. I’ve come across them in Northamptonshire, for example. Chalk areas (parts of Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire, for example) also have chalk walls, similarly thatched. I hope people still like them enough to make the effort to maintain them.

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*Cob: a building material made from mixing earth and straw. Lime may be added and in some areas the cob can contain a large proportion of chalk. In Buckinghamshire, especially in the Haddenham area,  chalk cob is known as wychert; in Cornwall cob is also referred to as clob. 

† A rod, pole, or perch: an old measurement equivalent to 161/2 feet – just over 5 metres; so six perches would be a good 30 metres: quite a bit of wall.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

London Wall, London

The red and the black

A lot of people like a fox. Attractively red-haired, bushy-tailed, and proverbially cunning, foxes capture our imagination somehow. They’re dog-like, but a bit wild. At least since the ancient Greeks* they’ve been admired for their resourcefulness. So if you’re actually called Fox, and you’re a shopkeeper, you must feel almost obliged to use the animal’s image in your publicity and on your shopfront. Like the wonderful Fox umbrella shop in London Wall. This is a delightful frontage that reflects the high fashion in retail architecture in the late-1930s. On one level, it’s very simple: just a plain rectangular window to set off the goods on display, a big name sign, the latest in black cladding – and the foxes, of course, on either side of the name.

But on another level this is a very elaborate and expensive confection. The metal window frames are stainless steel. The black cladding is Vitrolite, a coloured glass sheet material that was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s because it looked good, shed the dirt, and was available in the fashionable hues of the time – pink, eau de nil, black.† The windows had curved non-reflective glass. And that simple three-letter name plate is not so simple either. The steel letters light up at night thanks to neon tubes, also highly fashionable.
However, creating a good shopfront isn’t solely a matter of using the best, most fashionable materials. It’s also about arranging them artfully. The long rectangular window, for example, is a not quite as tall as many shop windows: this gives an almost cinematic feel, as well as allowing plenty of height for signage and the fascia, so that the short shop name can make its fully impact with large letters. Another artful touch is the way the steel letters of ‘FOX’ are edged in red, giving just a bit of colour during the day (there’s more at night, of course, with the neon lighting). Mr Fox’s shopfront is the bee’s knees.

The style of the shopfront reflected the quality of the products sold within. Apparently Winston Churchill used Fox umbrellas, and that personification of 1960s television style, the character John Steed in The Avengers, played by Patrick MacNee, carried an umbrella by Fox. The company still exists, though they no longer trade at London Wall.§ The premises are now given over to fine wines and dining, but the only concession to this is one line of signage below the shop name. The rest is still intact and glistening. Rain or shine.

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* The poet Archilochus has a fragment, variously translated, that contrasts the fox and the hedgehog: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’, or words to that effect. And these days, foxes are all over greetings cards, on which they’re nearly as popular as hares.

† Vitrolite was used in the bathrooms at the Savoy Hotel. See my post here.

§ Fox are here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Shepton Mallet, Somerset


Regular readers of this blog will have noticed my liking for market buildings of all kinds, from medieval mutli-arched halls to the glass-roofed markets of the 19th century. I also like market crosses – the focal points of market activity that still stand in many towns, many of them medieval and elaborately carved.

Market crosses, like this one at Shepton Mallet, are partly shelters for stall holders, partly three-dimensional signs to indicate the site of the market, and partly religious buildings that reminded medieval traders and shoppers that their business took place under the eye of God – and probably that deals agreed under the cross had an oath-like and binding force.

Shepton’s handsome stone cross dates from the year 1500, although it has been much altered and the precise dates of its various parts aren’t entirely clear. The central shaft looks largely original (though it may have been restored in the Victorian period). The surrounding hexagonal structure with its shallow elliptical arches has a 17th-century appearance, so may replace an earlier set of arches, it being unlikely, though possible, that the shaft originally stood without the surrounding structure propping it up. Above the arches are six very Gothic-looking pinnacles that seem out of keeping with the Jacobean arches but very much in keeping with the central shaft: perhaps they date from the 19th-century restoration, when the outer structure was Gothicized, to make it more like the original cross. There is a lot more detail about the history of this building on the local Shepton Mallet website.*

Whatever the exact story, the market cross still forms a focus in the town square.† Shepton is, I think, no longer quite the bustling place it was – although I was last there on a quiet Sunday and it may well be busier during the rest of the week. But the town has obviously looked after this beautiful structure for over 500 years, and I hope it attracts more people to the town’s shops. I hope to be back soon on a weekday, when they’re open.

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* For example, the website gives evidence for work on the cross in 1841, with various accounts including one that says only the upper part of the cross was rebuilt at this time – though we are not told exactly what ‘rebuilt’ means in this context. However, this online account is itself a very shortened version of a much longer study. See the website for more details.

† One more thing hat adds to the historical interest of the market cross is an old iron road sign, attached to one corner, that shows distances to various towns and cities. I did a post about this sign some time ago, here.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Tate Britain, London

Looking down again

Among my recent posts, one of my personal favourites (and if web statistics are anything to go by, one of my readers’ favourites too) is one I did in August about the mosaic floors in the National Gallery, created by the Russian-born artist Boris Anrep, starting in the 1920s.* Anrep adorned one other London gallery, the Tate (now Tate Britain), and these mosaics are just as fascinating, though not quite so easy to see.

The Tate was damaged in a Zeppelin raid in World War I, and after the hostilities ended needed a new floor in one of the octagonal corner galleries. Boris Anrep, who was yet to do his bigger floors in the National Gallery but had established himself as a mosaic-maker of some flair, offered to make a mosaic floor for the room. Better still, from the gallery’s point of view, he was prepared to work for nothing if no funds could be found.

This suited Charles Aitken, the gallery’s keeper, although as it turned out he was able to secure some money for Anrep’s materials, and Anrep settled on illustrating eight of William Blake’s proverbs, this being a room, at that time, where some of the gallery’s considerable Blake holdings were displayed. The proverbs are of course very Blakean: ‘Exuberance is beauty’, reads one; ‘If the Fool would persist in his Folly, he would become wise’ is another.

There’s quite a lot of tension in these mosaics. In ‘The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion,’ the lion has a bottom-up pose, a spiky mane, and prominent claws: a well-fed and powerful feline. The fox by contrast in long and rangy, with matchstick legs: providing for yourself can be a hard business. ‘Expect poison from standing water’ has a different kind of tension: the female figure seems about to drink, but the restraining hand of God hovers above – will she heed it? 
These striking mosaics are easy to find. Blake’s works have been moved elsewhere and the octagonal room is now given over the the Tate’s print sales area. The gallery have tactfully positioned the display units so that they do not cover the main parts of the mosaic, but the floor cannot have its full effect, and it’s hard to photograph some of the panels without also including bits of the gallery’s tasteful grey display units in the frame.† However, the mosaics are well worth searching out, and one can understand the excitement that attended their unveiling in 1923. The general praise for Anrep must have helped him secure the National Gallery commissions a few years later and the Tate had a colourful new work of art, full of exuberance and beauty.

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* This earlier post also has more information about Anrep, which I have not repeated here.

† There is also a certain amount of reflection from the lighting, which I have tried to minimise but which can still be seen in the photographs.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Strangers on the shore

Last of my current clutch of book reviews is a new book about London. It’s about mudlarking, the wonderful pastime of recovering objects from the banks of the Thames. But it’s also about the history of London, and the fragmentary nature of the mudlark’s finds says something too about the fragmentary nature of historical evidence, about the way the past comes back to us in bits – but bits that can shine with the vividness of jewels...

Ted Sandling, London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures
With a foreword by Iain Sinclair
Published by Frances Lincoln

Once or twice I’ve walked down one of the sets of steps by the River Thames in London, to take a photograph from the shore. I’ve always felt a bit uneasy down there (Should I really be there? Will I be apprehended by a River Policeman or some imagined embankment beadle?). But I’ve also wondered what it would be like to be a mudlark, walking slowly along the shore and scavenging the historical detritus – old clay pipe stems, bits of pottery, colourful chunks of glass, the odd Victorian lemonade bottle – that gathers there.

Now I know. Ted Sandling’s enchanting new book reveals what it’s like to be a mudlark, and tells stories from London’s history, based on the fragments he’s found down on the shore. It’s a winning way to look at history, juxtaposing photographs of the finds with narratives about their origin or use or context. Sandling makes bottle stoppers speak to us about the history of London’s consumption of mineral water; bits of glass reveal an international industry embracing Asia, the Levant, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic; an ink bottle has things to tell us about the history of literacy; pins provide evidence of early mass production; and so on.

There’s a very special immediacy about the connection with history. You pick up a bit of clay pipe stem. It’s one of the most common things to find on the shore, but you may be the first person to handle it since its owner threw it away, broken and useless, 200 years ago. It’s very intimate, too, this connection. That original user put his lips to that stem; another grasped the wine glass of which you’re holding a fragment; yet another curled his wig with those curlers.

Some of the fragments animate very specific stories. A bit of glass marked ‘ECKHAM’ and some bits of letters that look like ‘Manwaring’ lead to the origins of a South London pickle manufacturer. ‘BATTERS’, ‘ENGLAN’ and a bit of ‘Morgan’ is evidence of a firm making patent ceramic crucibles (first in Wales, then in Battersea, then back in Wales again). They were the state of the art then, and they still exist as manufacturers of crucibles – and, now, of parts for jet engines too.

There are even bits of buildings washed up by the tide. A chunk of masonry from the old Palace of Westminster that burned down in 1834 is a prize exhibit. Delft wall and floor tiles are no less fascinating. And I learned, in the course of a passage about a wine bottle neck, that bottles as well as buildings had string courses. Such things, the objects themselves and the short accounts of them, do not lose from being fragments – visually, they are stunning, and historically they exemplify how the past comes to us in fragments that we have to piece together.

Sandling’s enthusiasm for his material is infectious. He can luxuriate in the coloured decoration on a tile, the glow of a piece of glass, the texture of anything he holds. He’s good at recreating the surprise of discovery and the strangeness of some of the finds – some of them, after all, have taken long journeys to get here: the river both is the essence of London and is something flowing into it from outside. Even what were everyday objects – a pipe bowl in the shape of a horse’s hoof, a Tudor money box – can seem strange until their stories are filled in, and Sandling is good at getting this sense of strangeness, as well as giving us the background information we need to understand the objects better. He recognises, too, that odd, uncertain feeling that I felt when stepping on to the mixture of sand, gravel, and mud beside the Thames. Nearly everyone feels it, he says, when they first go down there. Bottles and buttons and bear heads (yes) and writers and mudlarks too, we are all strangers on the shore.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Shakespeare's county

The next of my handful of new book reviews is of the latest addition to Pevsner’s Buildings of England series. For many, these books are self-recommending. But now the revised editions are coming out, many of them getting on for twice the length of the original books, it seemed a useful idea to have a closer look at the benefits of revision – and it’s certainly not just a case of deleting demolished buildings and adding newly built ones...

Chris Pickford and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Warwickshire
Published by Yale University Press

The arrival of a new revised edition of one of Pevsner’s Buildings of England volumes has me rubbing my hands with glee, especially when it’s on a county in my local area. As I live in north Gloucestershire, not so far from the border with Warwickshire, the new edition of Warwickshire is right up my street.

Pevsner’s original Warwickshire came out in 1966, so a full update was due. As seems usual these days, the new Warwickshire has 800 pages (there were just 529 smaller pages in the 1966 edition), but unlike its processor it doesn’t include Birmingham, which will appear in a forthcoming volume on Birmingham and the Black Country. There’s plenty of space, then, for new extended entries on Warwick and Coventry Universities, and for many individual new buildings (Pevsner’s account of Coventry Cathedral, a new building in 1966, is reproduced with little change, apart from some notes on recent minor alterations and additions). The old buildings (and there are some belters in this county: Warwick and Kenilworth Castles, Baddesley Clinton and Stoneleigh Abbey) are covered in more detail. The book also includes much more information about many places – small towns such as Bedworth and Atherstone, for example, are covered in much greater depth. We get a richer picture of this fascinating county as a result.

One huge gain in the revision process is the scope to draw on the results of new research about all kinds of buildings. Recent books on the architect Sanderson Miller (very active in his native Warwickshire) are a case in point. Andor Gomme’s work on the architect and builder Francis Smith of Warwick is another. Recent research also throws light on the designers of important houses such as Compton Verney. And on rediscoveries. Why didn’t the 1966 Pevsner tell me about the wonderful Norman tympanum in the church at Billesley, I wondered? Answer: because it was only rediscovered in 1988! The new book includes it, and provides a photograph of it too.

It didn’t take long before I got out and about with the new Warwickshire in my hand. It throws light even on places that are familiar to me, as I discovered when I took it on a journey through parts of the south of the county. There was much more than in the original book on the large village of Brailes, for example, and about smaller ‘hidden’ places like Idlicote, with its church, house, and dovecote, and about places I’d driven through hundreds of times, like Halford, a village on the Fosse Way with a good church (another bit of excellent Norman carving (who said Herefordshire had all the best Norman sculpture?) and some elegant early-19th century houses. I finished my trip in Shipston-on-Stour, which I thought I knew like the back of my hand. But the Pevsner encouraged me to explore more closely a former nonconformist chapel I’d overlooked before, and introduced me to a bit of the town I’d not visited, where it pointed me towards an extraordinary former police station with, of all things, 19th-century Gothick ogee windows.

So Warwickshire doesn’t disappoint with the familiar places. And I’m already noting down buildings I don’t know that I want to see. I think the list will continue to grow for some time. Anyone with any kind of interest in Warwickshire, its history, and its buildings, will I’m sure react in the same way. There’s no need to hesitate to buy this latest Pevsner.