Friday, January 20, 2017

Button Oak, Shropshire

Changing times, changing materials

Shape and form are of the essence of architecture. They’re a huge part of what gives a building its character, and some forms can be instantly recognisable from a distance, or in a passing glance. Driving through Wyre Forest northwest of Bewdley, a building at the side of the road caught my eye and one of those recognitions took place. “A tin tabernacle,” I thought, stopping to take a look. But when I walked back and examined the building, I saw walls clad in wood, not corrugated iron. As a dedicated fancier of corrugated iron, I was rather disappointed, but, on reflection, it seemed that the proportions, pointed Gothic windows, little bell turret, and porch were exactly the kind normally seen on Victorian and early-20th century ’tin’ churches: surely this one had started as a corrugated iron building and had been reclad.

According to Ian Smith’s book Tin Tabernacles, this was indeed originally an iron church, erected in 1873 and supplied by S. Dyer, manufacturer of iron churches, of Euston Road, London. Like so many, it was produced in prefabricated form by a specialist firm, who would offer churches with different variations of windows and fittings, and sized to provide the required number of ‘sittings’. This church seats around 60, and was originally built as a mission church, attracting people who worked in Wyre Forest.

Having lasted just over a century, the tin church of St Andrew, Button Oak, was restored in 1975, when the corrugated iron was replaced with cedar boards, and this building, perhaps originally thought of as a temporary structure, has had a new lease of life. The vertical boards have a visual effect similar to the original corrugated iron, as does the later square-section metal sheeting on the roof – an effect close enough to catch my eye, make me stop, and subsequently think about those forest workers, coming to worship here over 140 years ago.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Ludlow, Shropshire

Clifton-Taylor’s English towns: In the marches

My short armchair travel series concludes for now with another of my favourite English towns – Ludlow – in a further programme from Alec Clifton-Taylor’s 1978 series. He begins with the Norman castle that gave the place its reason for being, and with a wonderful aerial shot of the castle and the town. A helicopter shot really helps one to understand Ludlow – not just the layout of the castle but also the town's grid plan, which is a notable example of medieval town planning.

Further joys unroll thereafter, including Ludlow’s fine parish church (especially its carved misericords) and the carving on the town’s timber-framed houses (the Feathers, above, best of all). If these were built on the prosperity that came from wool, the profits from the new industry of glove-making helped the Georgians improve the town in the 18th century, when it also became a notable social centre. Bigwigs’ mansions and the smaller houses of Georgian merchants offer further delights. The house with eight Venetian windows brought a smile to Clifton-Taylor ’s face, as it did to mine.

Entertaining diversions involve bad graveyard materials (e. g. ’nauseating crème de menthe chips’, luckily absent here) and the ‘de-blacking’ of timber framing. The whole programme is entertaining and an admiring portrait of this lovely town, still one of the gems of the west of England.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Clifton-Taylor’s English towns: Down by the riverside

Next in my short series of posts on Alec Clifton-Taylor’s 1970s television programmes on English towns see the presenter not far from my backyard, exploring the town of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, as Vauxhall Vivas and Rover 2000s zoom about in the background. Tewkesbury is a waterside town by two rivers (the Severn and Avon) built around a huge medieval abbey. I’ve posted about Tewkesbury several times before, noting its vulnerability to flooding, its noble abbey, its historic houses, and its very special Baptist chapel. My photograph shows the west front of the abbey, its enormous Norman arch now filled by a late-medieval window. Clifton-Taylor ranges outwards from this huge stone pile to the town’s mainly timber-framed buildings, up its characteristic alleys, and along its bounding rivers. There are interesting diversions on brick production and glass-making on the way, too.

Tewkesbury is a busy local centre, and much appreciated locally, but many tourists miss it, because they are distracted by the Cotswolds ten or twenty miles away. It’s well worth the diversion, as Clifton-Taylor fascinatingly shows.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Chichester, Sussex

Clifton-Taylor’s English Towns: Brick and flint

January’s cold and dark days encourage armchair travel rather than the real kind. I’m using my armchair to sit and rewatch some of Alec Clifton-Talyor’s television programmes about the history and architecture English towns. They’re almost forty years old now, and have a different pace from more recent documentary television. But for well informed commentary, accompanied by relevant shots of the towns, their streets, buildings, and surroundings, they’re still terrific.

The link below is to the first in the series, on Chichester, and at the beginning, Clifton-Taylor explains what he does. It’s an exercise in looking, he says, and he looks especially at houses, and at their building materials. At Chichester he starts with the Romans and the medieval builders who came after them, and their use of flint to build walls. The Romans also created the town’s street plan, with its two main streets at right-angles,* and the medieval period brought the ornate market cross at their intersection (above) and the nearby cathedral. Clifton-Taylor is very good on the different stones (various limestones) used for the cathedral, and on the calamitous collapse of the spire in 1861.

The second half of the programme turns to the town’s houses, many of them Georgian and beautiful. Here we’re back to flint again, and the camera shows with great clarity how builders coped with the challenge of making regular courses using lumps of flint of highly irregular shape. The diverse colours of Sussex bricks are another feature that makes Chichester’s houses stand out and both brick and flint walls are complemented with painstaking details like elegant fanlights and meticulous cornices. As usual, I find Clifton-Taylor’s restrained, old-fashioned enthusiasm infectious.

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*Already partly pedestrianized in 1978, so there are relatively few glimpses of old cars (Triumph Heralds and Hillman Imps among them) in the background of this programme.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Tiles revealed

As a pendant to my previous post about my favourite Art Nouveau shop front in Cirencester, here’s a detail from another shop in the same town that I noticed recently. The tiles were revealed to me when I looked at this frontage closely for the first time. Again, the style of the tiles seems influenced by the Art Nouveau movement – the curvy forms, drawing on leaves, stalks, and perhaps flowers or sepals are typical of the period just after the year 1900.They form a lovely touch, probably not noticed by many, but they add a welcome a splash of colour and pattern to an already quite ornate frontage.

As you can see, even from my photograph of this small detail, the shop front has some elaborate woodwork – that carved pendant inside an openwork box resting on a scroll console, top right, is especially ornate. The window frame, too, features some impressive carpentry, including the curved and moulded glazing bars in the top part of the window, just visible in the upper left area of the photograph. More winning details on a little-noticed facade at the end of a busy shopping street. And the reflection in the window doubles the decoration – here’s to added value!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Bonne année, art nouveau!

Some of my happiest half-hours have been spent in secondhand bookshops. It’s not just the possibility of picking up a bargain (though that appeals), nor the prospect of being among the most covetable stock in trade,* but above all the serendipity – you never know just what you are going to pick up, and the accidents of discovery in secondhand shops are so much more frequent and more surprising than in the usual shop selling new books, where you come across – surprise, surprise – what’s new, newly published, recently reviewed. A good secondhand bookshop can help you find books you didn’t know existed, didn’t know you wanted. Alan Hancox of Cheltenham, Thornton’s of Oxford, the old warehouse-like shop in Greenwich near the market: all were part of my education as well as perpetual sources of pleasure. And they are all gone now, and the world is diminished by their loss.

Secondhand bookselling is, of course, thriving online, and it’s a marvellous resource. But you search for things online, you tend not to find them accidentally. A small mercy (though they had their role in the demise of the other shops) are charity bookshops. If I’m in Cirencester, I always make for the Oxfam shop. It’s small, but I’ve made some good purchases there and these make me go back; I even sometimes donate books to them. I also like the architecture of this shop’s frontage. It’s wood, early-20th century, and in the Art Nouveau style.

To my mind the best features of this shop front are the lovely pane of curved glass on the left-hand end of the window, sweeping towards the door, and the slender glazing bars at the tops of the main panes. These glazing bars do curvaceous things in the very upper portion of the window where, in a Victorian shop window, there would be a horizontal band of frosted glass with lights concealed behind it. In fact, the irregularly shaped panes in the top part of this window probably were glazed differently – look at the two left-hand ones, which seem to have a milky-looking kind of glass in them. Perhaps the lighting in the window was arranged with bulbs just behind the pairs of half-roundels. However it worked, it’s splendid that the window survives, and that the shop it fronts is being put to such good use. Happy New Year!

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* Somebody (Melvyn Bragg?) compared the situation of secondhand booksellers to that of the vintners in Omar Khayam: Why would they want to sell their books at all? What more desirable things would they buy with the money they made?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Strolling around the V&A just before Christmas, I came across Cornelia Parker's Breathless, which was made in 2001 and has been in the museum's collection since, I think, 2005.* It's made of 54 brass instruments that have been flattened, silver-plated, and suspended on thin steel wires. They float, these trombones and trumpets and tubas, between two levels of the museum, occupying a hole that was opened up where a ceiling and floor used to be.

I've been in the V&A quite a few times over the last ten years, but I'd not seen this piece before. I was immediately engaged by it and found myself wondering just how those instruments had been flattened (a friend tells me he thinks the deed was done with a steamroller§) and how it hard it must have been to get them all sitting in the same plane. Questions were also forming in my mind about the destructive side of the creative process that had taken place – I mean, shouldn't these instruments be used for playing music? I see that the V&A's documentation insists that they were 'defunct brass instruments', though. (Even so, an impish fantasy began to form in my head. Ms Parker had been made to play in the back of the string section in an orchestra and had had her ears blasted once too often by the trombones at her back. Now, with a steamroller at her disposal, she has her revenge....It's pure fiction of course.)

After thinking these subversive thoughts, I settled down to realising how full of meaning Breathless is. Brass instruments are enduring symbols of power – trumpets voice calls to arms and warn of the last judgement; trombones likewise accompany last things (they resound awesomely in the requiems of Mozart and Berlioz); tubas are usually quieter beasts, but when Wagner wants music to denote a dragon. it's the tuba he turns to. Squashing such powerful symbols can create a powerful symbol in itself.¶

Above all, perhaps, Breathless is a meditation in glinting silver on music and silence.† Squashed, the instruments have had their wind, and their speaking power, squeezed out of them. Their mouthpieces will no longer be met by an embouchure, their valves are jammed, their water keys are useless, their bells need no longer be fitted with a mute, for they are mute indeed. Yet for all this, their outline is still unmistakable – they could be nothing but brass instruments – and they shimmer in their silence with a ghostly new life.

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* More on Breathless can be found on the museum's website, here.

§ Thank you to a reader for enlightening me further about this. It turns out that the hydraulic mechanism that raises Tower Bridge was used to squash the instruments. Apparently there is a label somewhere in the museum that explains this, but I missed it; my mind must have been full of the Gothic Revival furniture that I'd just been looking at, and the wonderful Christmas carols that were being performed live somewhere in the museum, their sounds floating up through the squashed brass ensemble to the spaces above. The aisle was full of noises.

¶ If you hear the clash of symbols in this sentence, remember that it's not only the high seriousness of the most highly serious classical music that's at stake here. Think of what Louis Armstrong could make a trumpet do, or Jack Teagarden a trombone. Such musicians can be poignant and jocular by turns. Silencing them is pretty awesome too.

† Where there is music, there must also be silence. Silent and listen are anagrams, as Alfred Brendel, for one, has noticed.