Friday, July 1, 2016

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

Classical conventicle

Most British people, even if not chapel goers or architecture buffs, are aware of the thousands of nonconformist chapels that dot the towns and villages of England and Wales. And even if we’ve not thought much about it, most of us could draw a typical chapel from memory: central door, a pair of quite tall windows,* shorter window above the door, and a plaque with a name or date somewhere in the centre too.

Once everywhere, these familiar buildings are not quite so common now, but there are still many, and the variations on this simple design seem endless – Gothic or Classical or Romanesque style; brick or stone or stuccoed walls; variations in window height and proportion. Most of them were put up by local builders without the help of an architect and it’s very difficult (for a non-expert at least) to classify them or to find any sort of pattern that might ascribe one style to the Methodists, another to the Baptists, and so on.

The builders of the Bridgnorth Baptist Church set to work in c 1742, the town’s tiny Baptist congregation of the early-19th century having clearly expanded quite a bit.¶ Their chapel is therefore earlier than the big Baptist expansion that occurred later in the century, with the popular preaching of men like Spurgeon and the resulting large Baptist churches (‘large classic convenictles’, as John Betjeman described them§). At Bridgnorth they used the simplest of classical means to produce a quiet, well proportioned facade: very plain pilasters in the centre and at the corners; moulded surrounds to the windows and doors with just a little elaboration; quite a large parapet in which draws the eye to the central name plaque, which is done in the clearest sans serif capitals. A lick of paint, together with the sunlight, throwing all those details in relief, does the rest.

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*Or two pairs of windows, arranged one above the other on either side of the door.

¶The Baptist Magazine (in a piece by one J. B., dated 7 January 1821) says that in 1816 the church numbered just three members, one of whom died the following year; by the time of the article, the number was up to eight. The writer prayed, ‘May the set time to favour this part of Zion soon come!’ It looks as if this prayer was answered.

§ See John Betjeman, ‘Nonconformist Architecture’ in First and Last Loves, 1952. Betjeman does attempt to ascribe styles to specific denominations, and to generalize about the differences in architectural approach between different groups of, say, Methodists (Weslyan Methodists favouring a solid, faintly Gothic style, Primitive Methodists going for much plainer buildings in general, with the occasional ‘flimsy Italianate’ city chapel). But generalizatons about this are difficult. I am eagerly awaiting Historic England’s forthcoming book on nonconformist chapels, scheduled for publication towards the end of this year.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

Deco memories (2)

Here is one more memory from my brief visit to Wisbech a year ago, and it is another Art Deco structure that probably gets overlooked by visitors – even those who appreciate architecture – this town being so rich in buildings from earlier eras. This is the Empire Theatre, built in 1932 to designs by F B Ward and C E A Woolnough. A lovely example of its type, it features symmetry, metal-framed windows with stunning geometrically pattern glazing bars, and jazz-age details like that central pinnacle – all things that we associate with this type of cinema, but which are all too rare these days.

I did not manage to get inside, which is a pity, because when I returned home I read that the Empire (now given over to bingo) has a magnificent period interior. And that is even rarer, as so many cinema and theatre interiors of the 1920s and 1930s have gone, often as a result of perfectly understandable moves to upgrade, convert, or modernize. Fortunately, there are images of this extraordinary interior online, revealing stylish plasterwork, luxurious inlaid wood, metal banisters, and all kinds of other details. No wonder the building has a grade II* listing. I hope the sustaining bingo business thrives.

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Addendum An Australian reader comments on the brownish stone cladding of this facade, which would be unusual on a movie theatre in Australia. It's not that common in the UK either. In my experience, British interwar cinemas are generally built of brick, with the entrance front often covered in stucco or sometimes clad in white ceramic tiles. Back, sides, and unregarded portions generally are usually left unclad: it's the entrance front that is meant to count, and to catch the eye. I've posted about a ceramic-clad cinema before and also one in which which the brickwork is left exposed (although on that occasion my main interest was a decorative element in the form  of a carved relief).    

Friday, June 24, 2016

Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

Deco memories

I quite often take photographs, intend to blog them, and then, such is the richness of English architecture – and such the breadth of my enthusiasms – pass on to another building that seems more enticing. Looking back through my pictures for something else, I came across just such a building, which I photographed about a year ago. It’s the office building of a canning factory in Wisbech and was originally built for the Smedley’s company in around 1923.

The flat roof line, gridded windows, and Art Deco detailing make it typical of a spate of industrial buildings put up in the period between the two world wars, although this one is rather early – most of them, in my experience, date from the late-1920s or 1930s. The Art Deco elements are confident but quite restrained compared to the Egyptian ornament of London’s Hoover Building or the feline extravaganza of the Carreras Black Cat tobacco factory, also in the capital. Here we have a stepped pediment, some more stepped effects on either side of the entrance, some diamond and rectangle motifs framing the facade at either end and picked out in red and blue, and some red saw-tooth pattern along the top of the frieze. There are more touches of red above the doorway.

True to the tenor of the times, this bit of modernistic display was laid on for the offices, the company’s public face. The working buildings are round the back and no doubt in the 1920s, as now, they were low utilitarian shed-like structures, with very little decoration to them. The building now belongs to Princes, who have inserted their company name where the sign previously said ‘Premier Foods’ and before that, according to the building’s listing text, ‘National Canning Company Ltd’.

I’d not associated this kind of building with food production. Most of the examples I’ve seen, on the outskirts of towns and along London’s arterial routes like Western Avenue and the Great West Road, have been engineering factories, electronics producers, firms making goods associated with the automotive industry, cosmetics companies, and so on. But there’s no reason why canning peas or baked beans shouldn’t be done behind a smart Art Deco facade, and the new owners have integrated the glowing red letters of their name rather well into the design. Can do.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Suffolk Place, London

A cunning plan

I often walk down side streets to avoid the bustle of the more well trodden thoroughfares. Suffolk Place was just such a cut-through, between Regent Street and the National Gallery, and I was glad I took it, because what I found was a rare architectural survivor of the Regent Street development – the grand scheme created by John Nash in the 1820s. This particular row of houses was built as a speculative development by Nash and has the sort of classical proportions and Greek Revival details that would have attracted buyers or tenants – particularly those generous full-height first-floor windows set off by shallow arched recesses, suggesting luxurious and airy drawing rooms inside.

The iron balcony rail with its elegant design made up of long rectangles and ‘wheels’ is another attractive touch. It’s very much of its period, and very much what we think of when we think of Regency architecture. The balconies are supported on Greek Doric three-quarter columns, which frame the ground-floor windows and give the lower part of the building a sense of solidity. I did wonder whether these columns were cast-iron, like those on Nash’s similar frontages on The Mall, but I could not get close enough to give them an investigative tap or kick.*

Whatever they’re made of, though, these columns are not quite as robust as they seem. When you look more closely, the building has a basement with, as is usual in houses of this period, a void (known as the area) in front of it, so that the basement can have windows. Pedestrians are prevented from falling into the area by the railings, but from the pavement one can look down into it, and it is very narrow.
Suffolk Place: a three-quarter column resting on a bracket, saving space in the area below

The columns, if they continued down to basement level would obstruct the area too much, so the architect has placed them on brackets, leaving the area easier to access. It’s not quite proper to support such columns on brackets. According to the conventions of Classical architecture, the columns of the ground floor should stand on bases or, if they’re Doric, on the ground itself.† But the arrangement works, combining structural support, convenience, and elegance – almost the triad of ‘firmness, commodity, and delight’, which the Roman writer Vitruvius said were the three essential qualities of a building. Clever Nash.

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* I posted about Nash’s iron Doric columns, and the occasional need to kick a building, here.

† There are other ways of solving the problem of the attached ground-floor column above a basement. In Bath, for example, the attached columns of The Circus rest on a stone ledge, created by setting the lower wall forward slightly. The result is more solidity, but the design takes up more space. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire

More musicians

When my recent post on the medieval carvings at Adderbury provoked some interest, I found myself being rather apologetic about the lack of precision in some of those vigorous, if rustic, sculptures. One carving of a person playing a stringed instrument, probably a rebec, showed the musician holding it in a rather odd way. But how do you hold a rebec, anyway? As with skinning a cat, there's more than one way, apparently.

Questions such as these sent me rummaging in my archives for other images of medieval musicians – or musicians portrayed in a medieval style. Then I remembered Christopher Whall's windows in the wonderful Arts and Crafts church at Brockhampton-by-Ross, one of which shows angel musicians. I'm not going to apologise (again!) for the somewhat moppet-like faces of these young angels (the most recent Pevsner volume for Herefordshire calls them 'somewhat sentimental'). There's too much else to like – the beautiful drawing and rich colours for a start. And then the way one suddenly realises, having studied the details for a minute, that these angel musicians re perched in the branches of trees.

So I offer you a string player and an angel blowing at a woodwind instrument. I'll try not to get tied into too many knots trying to decipher what the instruments are. The stringed one has the indented waist and sideways-protruding pegs of the viol family; the wind instrument to me has the look of a shawm (an ancestor of the oboe). I expect Whall took them from earlier depictions of instruments in medieval art – from other stained glass windows or from carvings. I think they're worth celebrating for themselves.
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For readers who have not heard a shawm, and would like to know what it sounds like, there's a recording of a shawm here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Wing, Buckinghamshire

Above and below

When I arrived at All Saints’ church, Wing, last week, a service was just finishing and I stood back while the parishioners chatted by the porch and gradually dispersed and made their way home. There was plenty to hold my attention, especially at the church’s east end, where I admired the architecture of the apse (in the foreground of my picture above) in particular. This unusual, seven-sided structure probably dates to the ninth century, which puts it on a par with the church at Brixworth (slightly earlier) and the tower at Earls Barton (slightly later) as one of the stand-out examples Anglo-Saxon architecture. The walls are decorated with narrow bands of stone (called pilaster strips) and blind arches – typical Saxon motifs – but the two big windows in this part of the church are later insertions. The apse would originally have had very small, single-light windows like the one remaining low down on the left, where the structure of the apse joins the later medieval aisle.

I knew from reading that this apse stands above a small crypt, and as I walked around the walls I could see the entrance to this crypt, protected by some iron railings (again just visible at the base of the apse walls in my photograph). I could see that the entrance was firmly locked. However, when I finally went inside the church I was greeted by the vicar and several parishioners, lingering after the service, and had an enjoyable few minutes’ conversation about the beauties and history of the building. At the end of this I was offered the chance to go down into the crypt, which was generously unlocked for me.

Descending a few stone steps, I found myself in a small space, vaulted and held up by massive stone piers. The rubble masonry and unplastered stonework make the space feel very ancient and primitive to modern eyes, and yet to design and execute the vaulting in this unusual polygonal space required some sophistication. The overall impression nonetheless is of ancient simplicity. It’s very hard for a non-specialist to date a structure like this. Experts think it may even predate the apse above, being part of an earlier church, and being modified when the upper part of the apse was built. Niches in the outer walls may have housed the remains of the church’s founders; the possible partial rebuild may have been to house holy relics (like those in the Saxon crypt at Repton), but it’s impossible to be sure about this.

I am sure, though, that I’m very grateful to those in the church when I happened to arrive the other day, for giving me access to this bit of history. The life of the inveterate church-crawler and building blogger is so often made more rewarding by the kindness of strangers.
Crypt, All Saints’, Wing, Buckinghamshire

Friday, June 10, 2016

Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

Blue? True…

Here’s one further bit of signage, spotted above the crowds in Leighton Buzzard, as was the lovely swan in my previous post. This is a detail of the Conservative Club, built in 1913 as the Unionist Club*. I rather like the original lettering, which is somewhat restrained but has just enough of the curvaceous (look at the curls on the 9 and 3, and the little ornamental protrusions on the U) to give it some character. I’m pleased it’s still there, although it has been superseded by the bolder blue letters beneath.† These are good letters too, with decent proportions, and well spaced. Sadly, though, they don’t seem to have been made to last in the way the original sign clearly was. The C and L appear to be losing their deep blue hue and their visual homogeneity.¶

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*Non-British readers might not know that the British Conservative Party’s official name is the Conservative and Unionist Party.

†The ‘CLUB’ shown in the picture is preceded by the word ‘CONSERVATIVE’.

¶I will make no cheap political points…