Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Down Street, London

On the tracks of old railways (1): Identity

Go on. You know what this is, or what it was, don’t you? If you’ve lived in London, or been to London, and you’re not rich enough to ride around all the time in taxis, you’ll recognise the style straight away. Oxblood-coloured tiles, semicircular windows a bit like the Diocletian windows used in Roman and Palladian architecture, classical details like the dentil course at the top, the occasional Art Nouveau curlicue. But especially those oxblood tiles. It’s an underground station, of course, or, in this case, Down Street Station having closed in 1932, a former underground station. It was never heavily used, being close to other stations on the network and in a well-to-do area in which relatively few people took the tube; those who wanted a train could easily get one at nearby Hyde Park Corner or Dover Street (now Green Park).

That we know immediately what this building is or was is down to Leslie Green, architect to the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, who was tasked in 1903 with designing new stations on lines then opening that later became parts of the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Northern lines on the modern tube network. Green designed all these stations, about 50 of them, between 1903 and his death in 1908 at the tragically early age of 33.

He chose the shiny tiles for these facades because he knew they would be easy to keep clean and their uniform colour would be easy to identify. That would help travellers searching for a station, and so greatly increased the usefulness of the underground network. I remember my mother telling me about making her first trip to London from rural Lincolnshire in the 1940s. She was frightened of getting lost in the capital’s maze of streets. ‘You need never get lost in London,’ said the friends she was going to see. ‘Just find a station and take the tube to where you want to go.’ And so she could orient herself and find her destination, wherever it was, from Oxford Circus to Kentish Town.

With these innovative and enduring station designs, Leslie Green also started another ball rolling. He gave London’s underground network something akin to a three-dimensional corporate identity. That wasn’t a familiar concept in 1903, but it soon would be. He was a pioneer, then, in more ways than one. It’s pointless to speculate, but one can’t help wondering what else he could have achieved if he’d lived longer.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Day in the life

Passing through Cirencester, we spot a large temporary yellow sign telling us that there’s an exhibition of Lucienne Day’s textile designs at the New Brewery Arts Centre.* We have time to spare, so pull in, to find a single, very pleasing room of the work of one of Britain’s best, best loved, and most influential designers of the second half of the 20th century.

Lucienne Day specialised in textile design at the Royal College of Art, met her husband, the furniture designer Robin Day there, and left college in 1940. With the world at war, there wasn’t much work for a textile designer, so she taught for a few years, starting as a freelance designer after the war ended. Widespread recognition came with the 1951 Festival of Britain, when she created her Calyx fabric design for two of the Festival pavilions that contained work by her and Robin. She also sold the design to Heal’s, although their fabrics director Tom Worthington didn’t think it would sell so only gave her half her usual fee. Calyx was a lasting success and was followed by many others – around 70 designs for Heal’s alone.

Calyx (two colourways of which are on the rear wall in my photograph, which can be enlarged by clicking on it) draws on Day’s love of modern art: it seems to speak of the paintings of Paul Klee and Joan Miro  and perhaps the mobiles of Alexander Calder too. It’s a far cry from the old floral prints that people were used to, but it’s not aggressively modern. It combines newness and bright colours with a certain charm. It’s also rooted in stylised natural forms (parts of flowers, seed heads – Day was a keen gardener). This use of natural motifs (albeit abstracted or transformed) is one reason for the exhibition’s title, Lucienne Day: Living Design.

The main display in my photograph shows a selection of Day’s fabrics. In the foreground, Flotilla (1952) is similar in spirit to Calyx and draws on the appearance of buoys floating at sea. Magnetic (1957) is based on a repeated horseshoe magnet motif and is shown here is a particularly vibrant colourway; it was roller-printed and so cheaper than most of the fabrics, which were screen-printed. Dandelion Clocks (1953) is another design drawing on abstracted natural motifs – dandelion seeds and seed heads. Then come Spectators (1953) with its stylised human figures, the tree-based Larch (1961), and another colourway of Calyx.† 

The exhibition also includes smaller pieces of fabric, artwork, and images of room sets (some also featuring Robin Day’s furniture). It makes up an engaging and informative picture of the work of a fine designer, someone who helped to create the style we now think of as mid-century modern and had a huge influence on the look of British interiors from the 1950s onwards. 

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* Lucienne Day: Living Design is at the New Brewery Arts Centre, Cirencester, until 20 May 2018.

† As it is difficult to see Larch and Spectators in my picture, I have provided links to the site of the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation, where there is much information about the designers’ work.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Clifton, Bristol

Small differences

Growing up in Cheltenham, I got used to Georgian and Regency architecture very early on. Many of the town’s streets were terraces, crescents, or squares of tall, stucco-fronted houses, many with ornate iron balconies, and when I first went to Clifton, there were many similarities. Not surprisingly. Clifton expanded at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, when Bristol was booming as a port.

However, there were also differences in the architecture. I’m relying on my memory here, but I’m sure my young eyes noticed two things, neither of which are much in evidence now, except on the occasional house, like the one in my photograph, which is on Sion Hill, Clifton and dates to the 1780s. What I noticed was that a number of the balcony roofs were striped black and white, and that many of the windows had shutters. These were unfamiliar things to me and seemed to my uneducated eyes to give the houses an exotic quality, like something out of a story book.

In a way, I wasn’t far wrong. External shutters are much more often seen in Continental Europe than in Britain. I’ve pulled external shutters closed to keep the hot sun off inward-opening casement windows in Italy, but not in Britain. Here, I wouldn’t often want to. As for those stripy roofs, well…even though they weren’t as colourful as deckchair fabric, they seemed even then to give the area a holiday atmosphere.

Looking at the place with an older eye, I can see other differences now. The balcony fronts have a different pattern, and the metalwork is much thinner than usually in Cheltenham – it doesn’t look so much like cast iron, more like wire work, at least in places. And then there are other interesting bits of ornate carving and unusual Classical orders and more rounded bow windows than in Cheltenham. In a way, the place reminds me of Brighton more than my home town, but a Brighton as it would be if it were miles away from the seaside.

I don’t know when this balcony canopy (and the two next to it) were painted in this way. I found one old photograph on the web dated 1945, in which they are not striped. Perhaps stripes came into fashion in the post-war period, or in the 1960s, when I first went to Bristol Zoo and had my first sighting of Clifton. Or maybe they are more recent still. Whatever their vintage, they give the street something of a holiday air – a little more festive than Bath or Cheltenham. Such are the small differences that give a place its character.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Rodley, Gloucestershire

Six of the best: Old iron

Since my last two posts – one on a house clad in corrugated iron in Mordiford, Herefordshire, one featuring pages from a catalogue of Edwardian corrugated-iron buildings, I thought I do one of my very occasional ‘round-up’ posts, offering links to ‘six of the best’ of my corrugated iron posts.

These are just some of my personal favourites among the various buildings I’ve shared that make use of the wriggly tin in some way. I hope they combine variety and local colour in a way that pleases my readers. Here are the links:

A colourful small railway building

A plotland house near the Severn

A favourite garage on a bendy road near the Welsh border

A rusty barn roof

A bizarrely curving ‘hot tin roof’

A charming rural church

The church, at Rodley in Gloucestershire, is a personal favourite. It’s shown in my photograph above, which I took when I returned to find the laburnum in flower, which it was not when I first discovered the building.

Monday, April 2, 2018


Flat-pack houses, Edwardian style

Thinking about the corrugated-iron house in the previous post, I thought I should have a look in a catalogue of prefabricated buildings from the Victorian or Edwardian periods, to see the kind of thing that was on offer. I have the perfect thing on my shelves: the 1902 catalogue of Boulton and Paul of Norwich.* This company began at the end of the 18th century as an ironmonger, expanding over the years into a large manufacturing business with a very strong line in prefabricated buildings (later they made aircraft too). They made houses, cottages, and bungalows (including designs suitable for ‘the colonies’) in both wooden and corrugated iron, as well as all kinds of agricultural buildings from barns to piggeries, and even prefabricated schools and hospitals, as well as a vast range of fittings and equipment – scrapers, screens, screw jacks, seats, seed protectors, soot boxes, step ladders, stoves, strainers: that’s just a small selection from letter ’s’ in the index.

My photograph (clicking on it should reveal more detail) shows one double-page spread from the section on buildings. The main images show two compact corrugated-iron cottages. These are single-storey buildings that Boulton and Paul would deliver and erect on the purchaser’s own foundations at a reasonable price. Estate owners ordered them for staff accommodation or as hunting lodges; someone with a bit of land could build themselves a house. More elaborate bungalows were available with spacious verandahs – just the thing for a company that was employing a representative in the far reaches of Britain’s then worldwide empire. For a little extra, the manufacturers would include fittings such as a sink, stove, shelves, and ‘Earth Closet Apparatus’. It strikes men that the building in my previous post looks less ‘designed’ than these neat off-the-peg cottages and may well be either a building in another material clad with corrugated iron or something put together by the first owner to his own plans.

Boulton and Paul made an effort to create attractive buildings. There are curvy bargeboards, fancy cresting on the roof ridge, and small panes to the upper parts of the windows, in the Norman Shaw tradition though less well proportioned. The catalogue is sprinkled with testimonials from happy customers. ‘I am very pleased with the House, which answers my purpose admirably. It is evidently very carefully and strongly made,’ writes Buckley Holmes, Esq., from Glenconway. ‘The Cottage is the first of its kind in our neighbourhood, and is much admired,’ says Rev. Chas. Trollope of Wansford. They may have been prefabricated, but these houses were built to last. Nearly 120 years later, most of them have gone, but a few remain, so show us why their first owners were so enthusiastic.

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* There were several other companies, offering very similar designs and construction methods.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Mordiford, Herefordshire

Off the radar

I’m always on the look-out for interesting corrugated iron buildings. They’re mostly off the radar, not the sort of thing that appears in guidebooks – you just have to keep your eyes open, and not ignore lanes, backstreets, alleys, yards, and neglected bits of the railway network. Sometimes the job is made easier because the material can be painted in bright colours, making it stick out helpfully. This example I spotted as I was driving past. Even on a dull day it wasn’t hard to see it among the brick, stone, and timber-framed houses and bungalows of this Herefordshire village – its bright colour, and setting behind a small stretch of greenery, made it easy to spot.

I don’t know anything about this bit of iron architecture that looks as if it’s about to disapear into the greenery. Corrugated iron buildings, often built on fairly lightweight frames, are most often single-storey structures, whether they’re lowly sheds or cavernous barns. This one seems to be on two floors, and has a chimney and quite domestic-looking windows. Perhaps it began life as a house, before being repurposed. Maybe the big black door is a later addition, allowing a car to be stored inside, or for access to a workshop. Does anyone know?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Rousham, Oxfordshire

The foolish and the wise

The use of the word ‘folly’ in my previous post set some readers scratching their heads. What is a folly, exactly? That’s a good question, and one that has had many people stumped. A folly is a building without a practical purpose, some say. But what do we call a practical purpose? A house has a practical purpose, so does a mill, so does a garden shelter that protects people from a sudden shower of rain. But can an ornamental arch have a practical purpose – if it can also be a shelter, for example? And is a purely ornamental role enough for us to pigeonhole it as a folly? If the word ‘folly’ implies foolishness of some sort, we’re on difficult ground straight away: ‘where is the line drawn between foolishness and good sense?’ asks Stuart Barton.* Where indeed?

In what is perhaps the best book on follies, Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp look at it another way. ‘A folly is a misunderstood building,’ they say.† Why would anyone build a tower on a hill, or construct a concrete zoo in their garden, or spend a lifetime tunnelling under Liverpool? The people who did these things had their reasons, but we may very well not know what those reasons were. We have lost touch with the purpose of the building, which may have been practical, or may have seemed so to its creator. So we simplify matters by calling the results ‘follies’.

The writer and illustrator Barbara Jones, in another very good book on the subject, admits that defining a folly is tricky, and offers instead a list of qualities that such buildings often share.§ Follies are produced by people who have money, security and peace; they are most often Gothic (or Gothick) in style; they have much to do with their creator’s mood and emotions; they are fragile; they are very personal; they rely a lot on their setting; the relate to the Romantic movement in literature and painting; their great age was the 18th and 19th centuries. In bringing together these various qualities, Barbara Jones doesn’t get us any closer to a definition, but she at least evokes the mood of many of these structures – and that is a step towards understanding them, at least.

Some 18th-century gardens, like the one at Rousham in Oxfordshire, are full of what people have called follies. A number of these are actually very useful buildings that have a bit of extra adornment added on to them. In my photograph above, the building in the middle distance falls into this category.¶ It is known as the Temple of the Mill, and it is a mill with a fancy ornamental Gothic bit (quatrefoil window, pinnacles, flying buttresses) built on one end. Nowadays it seems to be used as a house. But it also serves as a picturesque feature in the landscape. It’s both useful and amusing.

In the far distance, on the hillside in front of the trees, is the Rousham Eye-catcher. It simply consists of a wall with three arches in it. It is designed to look like part of a ruined building of some kind, and acts as a focus for the viewer’s gaze when admiring the scenery from Rousham’s enchanting garden. It might also offer a little shelter from a stiff breeze, but its principal function is to enhance the view, to give people something to look at, just like Scheemakers’ striking, indeed somewhat disturbing, sculpture in the foreground, which shows a lion attacking a horse.

That’s purpose enough for me, and enough to make me doubt that the term ‘folly’ is really very helpful at all.**

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* Stuart Barton, Monumental Follies, Lyle Publications, 1972

† Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp, Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings, Aurum Press, 1986, reprinted1999

§ Barbara Jones, Follies and Grottoes, Constable & Co, 1953, reprinted with revisions 1973

¶ It may be clearer if you click on the photograph to enlarge it.

** Thanks however, to those who raised the question and sent me off to do some interesting reading and rereading.