Friday, February 12, 2016
‘Follow me. I’ll pull in at Desborough. There’s something there you’ll like,’ said Mr A. So I followed the Jaguar’s tail, knowing my friend’s unerring instinct for buildings and interesting bits of England, and soon the car turned into a small hardstanding. I was confronted with the long brick elevation of the former Co-op Corset Factory.* Mr A knew that I’d admire the restrained brick facade (even though the window frames have been replaced), the neat vents along the roof one, and, above all, the lettering.
I have an enduring fascinating with the different styles of lettering on buildings, and the different methods used to create it. Here, the letters have been built up out of white bricks or tiles, with special corner pieces to make the curves of the C and O, parallelograms for the sloping legs of Rs and As, and even tiny triangles to create the ends of the hyphen in ‘CO-OPERATIVE’. The lettering is not perfect. I suspect that those for whom God is in the details would have refined that E, for a start. But it’s clear and legible and part of me finds the informality refreshing. It stops the lettering being as tight-laced as the factory’s original products, after all.
Sunday, February 7, 2016
The light was already going when, just before Christmas, I walked past Liberty’s along Great Marlborough Street, glanced for the umpteenth time at the building formerly known as Ideal House, and remembered that I’d never taken a photograph of it. So the conditions were less than ideal for capturing this monumental art deco block, built as offices for the National Radiator Company in 1928–29, but I went ahead anyway, doing my best to avoid bumping into people as I backed towards one of Liberty’s windows to get the building in the frame.
Ideal House (it’s now called Palladium House) was designed by Raymond Hood and Gordon Jeeves as a smaller cousin of New York’s headquarters of the American Radiator Company, of which the National Radiator Company was the European offshoot. The company started in the 1890s, just as central heating using boilers and radiators was catching on, and did well in both North America and Europe. In the interwar period, more and more houses were being fitted with central heating: to many people it seemed like the latest thing, even though it had been around for decades by then, and a landmark building in the latest, swankiest style must have seemed to project just the right image.
The most lavish finishes were employed. The walls are covered in polished black granite (in the right light it looks very black) and the cornices and lower window surrounds are done out in gold enamel cladding with touches of red and green. These details are in the Egyptian style (art deco could be very modern and very ancient at the same time): Egyptian decoration was very fashionable in the late-1920s, in part because the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb had got so much publicity. So the radiator-makers would have felt they were getting the latest thing – and in their corporate colours, black and gold, too. Nearly 80 years on, the building is still an eye-catcher, even if most passers-by have eyes only for the seductive windows of Mr Liberty.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
The Scythe-Smith: Illustration of the month
During World War II being a war artist was not necessarily a safe or easy option. One of the most famous war-time artistic casualties was Eric Ravilious, who was in a an aircraft that was lost off Iceland while searching for another plane that had come down. What’s perhaps less well known is that Thomas Hennell (1903–1945), the artist who replaced Ravilious in Iceland, was himself a wartime casualty. Having worked with the RAF in Burma, Hennell lost his life in Surabaya, Java, in November 1945, after being captured by nationalist fighters; the precise circumstances of his death don’t seem to be known.
Thomas Hennell was a fine watercolour painter, a noted illustrator (he worked on several books by the countryside writer and conservationist H J Massingham), and a poet and author in his own right. He loved the British countryside that he drew and knew it intimately, and his friend Massingham described him as courteous, moral, fastidious almost to the point of asceticism (he was emphatically no Bohemian), and deeply rooted in his native soil. Yet these qualities, which could imply a kind of detached serenity, did not bring contentment. He suffered a nervous breakdown: there were hallucinations, what Hennell described as ‘a fire of furze’ blazing in his mind, and a period in London’s Maudesley Hospital. Hennell wrote a book, The Witnesses, about this affliction.*
The book from which my illustration comes is Hennell’s last, The Countryman at Work (1947), assembled after his death from a series of illustrated articles he wrote for the Architectural Review.¶ These short and highly informative essays cover 15 or so traditional crafts, from blacksmithing to thatching, hedging to the production of Windsor chairs. In each case, the craftsman is portrayed in his place of work, and the drawings convey a wonderful sense of the people, the sewing, the tools, and the job. I’ve chosen the Scythe-Smith, though it could easily have been one of the others. I like its sense of the working space – a high-ceilinged building full of heat and the noisy beating of the huge tilt-hammer, the head of which is right in the centre of the frame.
In his text Hennell describes in detail the processes used in making a scythe blade. The picture shows one man standing at the forge, manipulating a pair of rings that hold in the fire a bundle of four steel or iron bars. When the bars are hot enough, he will pass them to his colleague seated at the hammer, so that they can be welded together by the hammer’s hefty blows. Each welded bundle of bars will eventually make two scythe blades, another man cuts the piece in two with an enormous cutting device, which I think is what the third man, bent to the task in the middle foreground, is doing. Both hammer and cutter are driven by a waterwheel that turns the shaft which, with its various wheels, takes up most of the right-hand part of the illustration.
I wonder whether this post-war publication with its coarse paper does full justice to Hennell’s drawings. Their line is sometimes broken and uneven, and I think the reproduction might overemphasise this. However, there’s still much to admire – the credible way in which the figures are positioned, the details of tools and machines, the sense that there’s a lot going on, but that everything is in its place. And the sense of space and its special adaptations – that vent in the roof at top left, the hanging chain (it supports the hammer-man’s seat, so that he can move about as needed without getting up), the round pillars on either side of the forge (c. 1780, Hennell tells us). We are in a lost world – a world of traditional Midlands metalwork: hard, back-breaking stuff, redolent of Ruskin’s memorable account of Worcestershire nailers in Fors Clavigera,† but bereft of romanticism and full of metallic crashing and clanking. The white heat of old technology.
* Most of my information about Hennell comes from H J Massingham’s introductory memoir in The Countryman at Work.
¶ A book to place on the shelves along side Dorothy Hartley’s Made in England and John Seymour’s The Forgotten Arts, all three good surveys of the same subject area.
† John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, Letter LXXX. When I say a ‘lost world’ I don’t mean that it’s gone completely (though specialists like Henell’s scythe-smith are rare as hen’s teeth, there are many general smiths doing stirling work). Just that most of us have lost our connection with it, to our detriment.
Monday, February 1, 2016
Boldly incised Norman piers, carved with patterns such as spirals and chevrons, occur only now and then in parish churches. Usually this kind of treatment appears in high-status churches – the famous nave of Durham Cathedral, the crypt at Canterbury, Norwich Cathedral, and so on. I’ve also noticed a Saxon version in the very special crypt at Repton. But by and larger one finds plainer piers in smaller churches, though perhaps their generous cylindrical surfaces were once enlivened with bold painted patterns.
How refreshing then, to come across such columns in a smaller church – but in miniature, in the carved relief around the Norman font at Rendcomb. This lovely font depicts eleven of the apostles plus a blank space for the twelfth, Judas, in Romanesque arches with incised patterns – chevrons, lozenges, spirals, and so on, very like their enormous cousins at Durham. The figures are boldly carved and their garments are carved with bold incised patterns that reflect and complement those on the columns. There is also some rather Classical framing ornament – a version of Greek key and some stylised foliage that seems to have taken its inspiration from anthemion at the top and bottom of the font respectively.
The font has had a chequered history. It doesn’t seem to have started life in this church, but was brought here by the Guise family, who owned the great house (now Rendcomb College) nearby for use as a garden ornament. In the middle of the 19th century someone recognised its worth and the font was moved inside the church. It seems to have endured all this quite well, although the key pattern at the top looks as if it has been curtailed at some point. Overall though, this is still a belter of a font, and a joy to find in a small and little regarded church.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
People sometimes ask me why I do not do more posts about interiors. There are various reasons. First of all: what most interests me about buildings is the face they present to the world – not just how they look from the outside, but also how they relate to their surroundings and how they enhance (or not) our experience of townscape, villagescape, landscape, or whatever other kind of scape we find ourselves in. I also find it easier to take photographs of exteriors, and what I most like to do is show you one photograph that combines with a small piece of text that tries to sum up what I feel about the building. Although I sometimes can’t resist a church interior, interiors on the whole are another country (if not another world) and I’d have to do things differently there.
But now and then there’s nothing like an exception to prove, as they say, the rule. A few weeks ago the Resident Wise Woman and I went to a concert in the Forum, Bath. I knew, from reading, that this was a former cinema and that it had some kind of art deco interior. But this information, plus the rather classical stone-clad exterior (this is Bath, after all) could not prepare me for the delights inside: a virtually complete art deco interior of 1933–4, with chromium-plated handrails, doors of fine woods (walnut, ebonized timber), all kinds of plasterwork embellishments, a classical frieze of naked warriors, and lighting (both concealed and visible fittings) to die for.
Monday, January 25, 2016
For my money the west tower of the parish church of Chewton Mendip is one of the most beautiful in this county of stunning church towers.* The tracery of the bell openings and the blind windows below them is well proportioned; the pairs of corner buttresses frame the tower superbly and turn into pinnacles with elegance; the crowning openwork parapet and corner pinnacles top the structure off well without being exaggeratedly large. There are plenty of small details (shallow niches on the upper parts of the buttresses and on the pinnacles, crockets, the tiny upright shafts that run up parallel to the upper pinnacles) that set the design off and that come over as finishing touches rather than over-elaboration. I’d say that this was pretty much as good as it got in 1540, the approximate date when this tower was finished.
Pevsner reminds us that this showpiece in Doulting limestone is one of the tallest of the Somerset towers, as 126 feet (38.5 metres). The antiquarian Leland called it a “goodly new high tourrid steeple” when he saw it just after it was completed. No matter that, by then, Gothic structures like this were starting to look a bit old fashioned: the masons of Somerset had been building stunning church towers along these lines for the whole of the 15th century and for a few decades of the 16th they continued.† The one at Chewton Mendip dwarfs the church (yes, there’s a church there, attached to the lower part of it, but invisible because of the rich vegetation in the churchyard) but that is no doubt what the priest and parishioners there wanted. Perhaps they said that they liked elements in nearby towers¶ and wanted something similar but better, and that this kind of tower fulfilled exactly their aesthetic preference, their desire to honour God through the building, and the skill and flair of the builders at their disposal. It must have taken their breath away when the scaffolding finally came down. It probably still does today.
* I’ve posted about two other Somerset favourites: Huish Episcopi and Isle Abbots.
† Wikipedia has a list of Somerset towers here.
¶ Some compare Chewton to Batcombe, but when you actually look at the two towers they’re not that similar.
Thursday, January 21, 2016
Guides to a better world
I’ve noticed that some of my most popular posts (finding many readers and numerous comments by email and in person) are those I’ve done about the tiled decorations once used by W H Smith on their shop fronts. Few of these now survive in the shops where they started out. I’ve reported before on a glorious duo of examples, one on either side of the W H Smith shop window in Malvern, showcasing postcards and maps, and a single panel on a shop in Bath (this one no longer occupied by Smith’s), depicting Nature Books.
The excellent Jackfield Tile Museum on the site of the Craven Dunnill factory at Jackfield near Ironbridge has a few more of these wonderful panels. Today I’m sharing two of these, both, like the others, produced by Carter and Co of Poole in the late-1920s, to designs by an unknown artist. One is a further, rather different panel advertising guidebooks. This one is less dramatic than the Malvern Postcards panel (which has a looming castle tower and stunning night-time colours). Instead it has a more restrained, perhaps faded, palette, and shows a couple looking across a stylised landscape of hills and trees. There’s enough detail on the woman’s dress to suggest elegance; her male companion is delineated in a few simple touches of brown. They look out over blue and green hills, as if they’ve found their way using one of Smith’s guidebooks and are now drinking in the view. The overall effect is like a faded Brian Cook book jacket: redolent of England between the World Wars and full of topographical promise.
My second example from Jackfield, Ladies' Papers, is another epitome of narrow-waisted poise. The turned head, the waving arm, the hand lifting the dress just enough to show the heel stepping out across the grass, the point of the other shoe just visible – there’s plenty to catch the eye. Once more, the setting is very sketchily drawn, but the pale colours set off the figure well.
As you can probably tell, I like these panels a great deal. Combined with Smith’s classical lettering (by Eric Gill), they project a sort of accessible sophistication that must have been right up Smith’s street. W H Smith’s were then, as now, more than just newspaper merchants. They sold books and maps, and their range of magazines was a large one. They hoped to remind potential customers that you could buy more than your Daily Express and a packet of cigarettes at their counters. There was self-improvement on sale here, and books that could guide you on a route to history or literature, or could tell you about the most interesting places to visit. Their shops could be windows into a better world.