Sunday, December 30, 2012

Great West Road, London


Standing out again

By the early-1930s, a new generation of industry was establishing itself around the edges of Britain's towns and cities. This wasn't the heavy industry that had probably first come to mind when people thought of manufacturing in the 19th century. This was modern, light industry and it was producing all kinds of things – domestic appliances, personal-grooming products, and items connected with the growing car industry. I've posted before about some of the 1930s factories that survive along the main roads of West London –  especially Western Avenue and the Great West Road.

These buildings have gleaming white Art Deco fronts (containing offices, mostly) with larger, plainer, but well-lit workshops or warehouses behind. The fronts acted as advertisements, presenting a modern image on behalf of the owners and their companies. This example on the Great West Road began as the Coty cosmetics factory. Its white walls and strip windows speak of cleanliness and the latest decorative fashion of 1932. The building lacks the brightly coloured flourishes that appear on many Art Deco factories, but there are several telling details that show the architects, Wallis Gilbert and Partners, balancing decorative touches – their design is basically about setting up a rhythm of straight lines (windows, glazing bars, uprights) and then introducing just enough curves, steps, and diagonals to play variations on the grid. The stepped profile of the top of the facade and the detailing (both curves and verticals) around the entrance are key decorative elements. The way the glazing goes all the way up to the corners and the little angled detail on the lower edge of the corner windows is another telling touch.

It's interesting that this kind of building, now surrounded by office blocks of the 1980s and 1990s in various, mostly postmodern, styles (with much mirror glazing and colourful cladding), now looks almost restrained. Apparently cared for and well used, these buildings of the 1930s have found a new way to stand out.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire


Three ways

In the bleak midwinter, with rain on rain in this part of the world, here's a photograph to remind us of last summer's sun, warming up the Cotswold stone at Wyck Rissington, northeast of Bourton-on-the-Water.  Aside from the obvious charm of this stone building in its tree-lined churchyard, I'm attracted to this building for various reasons. Here are three things that interest me about it; three ways of looking at a building, if you like.

First, the architecture. Although this is a small church, built by unknown masons and added to over the centuries in what looks like a haphazard way (look at the miscellaneous selection of window styles), it has had architectural pretensions, especially with regard to the chancel (in the foreground of the photograph). This small part of an obscure church represents a moment in English architectural history. It dates from the mid-13th century and the end wall, with its two pairs of lancet windows and small corner buttresses with pointed tops, is very much of its period. So is the surviving single lancet on the side wall (the larger windows are later; originally there would have been more lancets along this side). This was the period when English builders were beginning to group lancet windows together and add smaller openings (circles, trefoils, quatrefoils) above them to create windows with tracery – the window on the side wall next to the drain pipe is an example from a later phase of building. In the end wall, the two concave-sided lozenge-shaped openings above the pairs of lancets, and the plainer diamond opening above them, create a kind of proto-tracery, as if the masons were feeling their way towards this idea but not quite getting there yet: fascinating.

Next, what has happened to the building recently, for all old buildings need care and repair, and how this is done affects both their survival and their appearance. On my visit in the summer, the church architect happened to be there making an inspection, and we talked both about the 13th-century architecture of the chancel and about the recent work on the church roof. As you can see, the nave roof has been completely recovered in new Cotswold stone "slates". Some of the old slates were still in good enough condition to be recycled, as were quite a few on the chancel roof. So when the nave roof was finished, the chancel roof was redone with the best of the old slates. Both roofs are now good for many years, and the new slates on the naive roof will eventually darken in colour, attract lichen, and match the older ones on the chancel. 

Finally, a historical association, because the people who use old buildings are frequently just as interesting as the buildings themselves. In the early 1890s, the 17-year-old  Gustav Holst got his first job here, as church organist. He soon added a similar position at nearby Bourton-on-the-Water and this work helped to sustain the young composer until he got a scholarship to the Royal College of Music a couple of years later. Holst, who was born in Cheltenham, spent most of his adult life in London, but always loved the Cotswolds. One of his more ambitious works is his Cotswolds Symphony, the beautiful slow movement of which is subtitled "In memoriam William Morris". Perhaps his most familiar work, though, is one that many do not realise is by him, the tune called Cranham (named for another Cotswold village) which is the most popular music for the carol "In the Bleak Midwinter". Here it is, sung by that great British ensemble, The Sixteen. Season's Greetings to you all.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Stroud, Gloucestershire


Letter set (2)

Having finished the book recommendations that have occupied the last few posts, I return to buildings – but without leaving the world of books and words behind completely, because the other weekend I went to a talk in Stroud by Phil Baines, who is a professor at Central St Martin's School of Art in London. He has written two excellent books on the design history of Penguin books (Penguin By Design and Puffin By Design) and is also an expert on all things to do with type and lettering. I had encountered him a few years ago when he led a tour of central London on an antique Routemaster bus, pointing out interesting bits of lettering as we went.

During the course of the talk he mentioned that he had seen the Stroud Subscription Rooms (a 19th-century classical building by Basevi with its name high up in the frieze), and admired the lettering on them, which is a good example of a form of letter generally known as the Egyptian. In Egyptian letters the proportions are very similar to those of the English letter (see my earlier post on this), but the letters have slab serifs – rectangular, square-cut terminating strokes. The strokes often have a fairly even thickness, but if the letters are very chunky, the strokes can have some variation in thickness. Phil Baines encouraged us to go to the Subscription Rooms in Stroud, admire these letters, and pay special attention to the fine letter R. The letters stand out beautifully from the stone wall and Phil Baines was right, of course, to mention this letter; it has a lovely curve to the leg, which bends elegantly to avoid the large slab serif at the base of the descender. The two big slab serifs on the U, which nearly join together in the middle, and the big, generous D are attractive too. But the R is especially good, and in pointing it out, Professor Baines was showing us that he knows his Rs from his elbow.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Shakescenes


Christmas books: 5

My last Christmas book came out as an adjunct to a remarkable exhibition in the British Museum. Shakespeare Staging the World concerns itself not just with Shakespeare's plays but with their context, ranging from contemporary views of Venice to maps of Tudor Warwickshire. Like the exhibition, the accompanying book is a feast...

Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, Shakespeare Staging the World
Published by The British Museum Press

This is the book of the British Museum exhibition of the same name, which puts Shakespeare into his contemporary context by bringing together a host of objects gathered around a couple of handfuls of crucial Shakespearian themes (London, "Country, County and Custom", Kingship and the English nation, Rome, Venice, the Noble Moor, Scotland, the "Matter of Britain", the "Brave new world"). The authors, Jonathan Bate (one of the foremost literary scholars of his generation and the general editor of the excellent RSC edition of Shakespeare) and Dora Thornton (curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum) weave narratives around the themes and exhibits, so that we get the key information about the objects, some account of their historical importance, and an explanation of how their relevance to Shakespeare's life and works.

The book is gripping on several levels. First, we get the chance to look at nearly 200 objects, mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries, mostly fascinating in their own right. Second, we discover how they illuminate Shakespeare. The illuminations can be very specific. For example, near the beginning of the book we are shown a document bearing Shakespeare's witness statement in a court case of 1612. The case concerns the Mountjoy family, with whom Shakespeare was a lodger. The Mountjoys were tire makers (makers of clothing or headgear) who had made "tires" for the queen; Shakespeare wrote plays for the royal court. Mrs Mountjoy consulted the astrologer Simon Forman; Forman went to see Shakespeare's plays and wrote about some of them in his diary. Another witness in the case was George Wilkins, who co-wrote Pericles with Shakespeare. The Mountjoys were Huguenots; Shakespeare wrote speeches for Huguenot asylum-seekers in his contribution to the multi-author play Sir Thomas More, a contribution that we know from the only literary manuscript in the poet's own handwriting that has survived – which is another illustration in the book.

Most of the exhibits are contextual. These are not objects that belonged to the poet, but they are the kind of thing he would have owned, or handled, or known about, or they illustrate things that go on his his plays. A strip of tapestry designed to go around the top of a four-poster bed is woven with scenes of country life – people hunting, chatting, canoodling, playing the bagpipes – it could be the Forest of Arden. A calf-s heart stuck with pins looks like the kind of thing the witches in Macbeth might have used. A rapier with a blade made in Toledo recalls Othello's choice of suicide weapon, "a sword of Spain" – Othello has selected a weapon that is sharp and well made but also beautiful and obviously an object of quality; his choice of sword is almost a fashion-statement.

Pictures of wild men who could be Calibans; a schoolboy's caricature of his teacher recalling the schoolmaster in The Merry Wives of Windsor harping on the "focative" case; Henry V's saddle (or, as the book carefully says, "Early fifteenth-century saddle, perhaps associated with the funeral of Henry V in 1422"); boar-shaped badges of followers of Richard III ("the most deadly boar"); a glass enamelled with masquerade figures including a "lean and slippered pantaloon" who could be a relative of the one Jacques speaks of in his "Seven ages of man" speech in As You Like It. These are the kinds of objects we encounter in this book.

In the exhibition there were videos of actors speaking chunks of the plays. The book quotes the plays a lot, and we are never far away from the scenes and characters that inspired this whole exercise in the first place. Perhaps the imagery in the book, and its arguments about their contextual relevance to Shakespeare, work best when several examples illuminate a specific part of the Tudor world. The glass with the pantaloon is marvellous, but when there are multiple images and examples – the varied portraits of people of colour, for example, and those of Jews, the depictions of London (some familiar, some less so), the oaks, stagshorns, watering pots and tapestries from the English countryside, and the images of kingship, I feel I am back in the rich and ambiguous world that Shakespeare staged.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Don't mock Tudor


Christmas books: 4

The fourth of my Christmas handful of books actually came out last year, but it struck me as so relevant to the concerns of the English Buildings blog that it easily earned its place here. It is about what for many is the quintessential English building style: Tudoresque...

Andrew Ballantyne and Andrew Law, Tudoresque: In Pursuit of the Ideal Home
Published by Reaktion

Tudoresque – shorthand for the architectural style typified by black and white walls and prominent gables – is something of a national obsession in Britain, and a symbol of our culture. But its modern incarnation, mock Tudor, is decried for the fakery of stuck-on beams and imitation leaded lights. So why are we so preoccupied by it – whether we're in love with it or, like many design professionals and architects, scornful of its suburban manifestations? This is among the questions that Andrew Balantyne and Andrew Law (professors respectively of architecture and town planning) seek to answer in this lively book. They trace the style's 16th-century roots, its various reincarnations – during the vague for the "Picturesque" in around 1800, as a revivalist style (influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement) in the late-19th century, and as mock-Tudor suburban architecture in the 1920s and later.

Fascinatingly, Ballantyne and Law also trace the style's meanings for its revivers – those values that it has seemed to embody and that have been attractive to lovers of Tudoresque down the ages. It turns out that these meanings are far from simple. On the one hand, there is the Tudor style as a symbol of paternalistic old values: of manor houses, aristocrats who look after their patch and their servants, benevolent industrialists housing their workers. This is one-nation Tudorism, if you like, with a lavish portion of the roast beef of old England. From another point of view, it's the style of self-reliance,  of the lower middle class making ends meet, of squatters putting up a timber-framed house on common ground overnight and claiming the right to live there, of the Elizabethan ideal of a cottage with four acres of land, of suburban owner-occupiers.

Ballantyne and Law tease out these meanings carefully, showing that if such subtexts are no longer directly relevant (few people build and squat nowadays) they are still there somewhere in our unconscious, and they contribute the way in which we see things. If Tudoresque cottages appealed to the creators of the Picturesque landscapes of the 18th and 19th centuries, symbolizing patriotism, they also embody values of tradition and Britishness to many dwellers in modern half-timbered homes.  The authors also look at the vogue for Tudoresque in other countries, where it is seen in part as a symbol of Britishness and British values, whether in the swanky abodes of early-20th century US industrialists or in smaller Manhattan apartment blocks, which occasionally resemble Tudor skyscrapers.

Tudoresque pulls all these threads together well. It encompasses real timber-framed buildings and faux-Tudor houses with boards nailed on to brick walls, and shows that what they have in common is more than skin-deep. It made me think more deeply about why people built these houses the way they did, about the gulf that sometimes opens up between architects and home-owners, and about what makes Britain British.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Making and mourning


Christmas books: 3

The next of my handful of Christmas books is the biography of a little known amateur architect who was responsible for the design of one of the most extraordinary buildings of the 19th century. When I learned that Jenny Uglow – author of excellent biographies of William Hogarth, Thomas Bewick, and others – was tackling this subject I was eager to get my hands on the book. My eagerness was justified…

Jenny Uglow, The Pinecone
Published by Faber and Faber

The Pinecone is a biography of Sarah Losh, heiress in a prominent family in the northwest of England, and creator of the church of St Mary in the village of Wreay, south of Carlisle, one of the most extraordinary buildings of the 19th century. Sarah Losh is interesting for all kinds of reasons – for her local philanthropy, for her connections with many of the luminaries of the 19th century from the poet Wordsworth to the engineer George Stephenson, for her role as a woman architect in a man's world. and for the visionary design of her church, a building that has been puzzling people ever since it was built in the 1840s.

Jenny Uglow tells this story with intelligence and verve. She is sometimes hampered by the fact that most of her subject's papers have been destroyed – never mind the creation of a remarkable building, Uglow's biographical task occasionally seems to be like making bricks without straw. But she is helped by being able to look at Losh through her links with others. So we see Losh hearing poems read by Wordsworth and Coleridge before publication, paying calls in Carlisle and in Newcastle, where her family were prominent manufacturers, learning from her radical uncle James (friend of William Godwin), and interacting with her beloved sister Katharine, whose early death cast such a shadow over her life. For this is also one of the great sibling-bond stories, joining William Wordsworth and Dorothy, Jane Austen and Cassandra, William Herschel and Caroline.

Above all there is her church. St Mary's Wreay looks more like a work of the Arts and Crafts period of the1880s than a building of the 1840s. But not even the Arts and Crafts produced a structure quite like this, covered with carvings that are far outside the usual church orbit – a tortoise gargoyle, a crocodile, a dragon, lotus buds, gourds, and pinecones (the latter symbolic variously of creation, reproduction, enlightenment, the spirit of man, and the expansion of consciousness). There are carved angels, it is true, but you have to look hard to find much traditional Christian imagery. It is as if Sarah Losh, having daringly entered the male preserve of architecture, looked at the whole business from a different viewpoint, that of a kind of pan-religious perspective, where all faiths are as one.

By describing Sarah's church in such detail, Jenny Uglow also describes her somewhat elusive subject, Sarah herself and her concerns. The church is an act of making and also an act of mourning (for Sarah's parents and sister and other family members); it is both a gathering together of diverse religious symbols and a very specific act of benevolence to the village of Wreay itself, to which Sarah also contributed a school and numerous hand-outs in times of need; it is both a display of traditional craftsmanship and an artistic bolt out of the blue. Uglow's book nails all this – but does not lose sight of the oddity of the place or the elusiveness of its creator.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Not boring


 Christmas books: 2

This next in my series of December books is the work of a writer and broadcaster I've admired for years. I watch out for his pieces in the press, which are not infrequent, although a book by him is a rare event. The man in the dark suit: Jonathan Meades...

Jonathan Meades, Museum Without Walls
Published by Unbound

It's not like London buses. You wait for years for a book by Jonathan Meades and then just one arrives. Museum Without Walls.† It's a collection of pieces – essays, TV scripts – some of which the dedicated follower will have encountered before. A grab-bag then,  containing 54 bits of journalism and six  scripts. What unifies them is a preoccupation with places, which Meades calls the "greatest free show on earth". Peel off the jacket of this book and you will see embossed into the cloth of the binding a guiding maxim: "There is no such thing as a boring place." The book richly embodies this notion. A grab-bag? It's the commodious valise of a thoroughgoing topophile.

They're not the usual guidebook places and they are not, for the most part, the places seen or valued by architects. A lot of what interests Meades lies at what some writers call "marginal" places and spaces: asbestos dumps, collapsing Nissen huts, stretches of tidal mud, flaking Portakabins, allotments, "a petrol pump pitted and crisp as an overcooked biscuit". To many of course this kind of thing is far from marginal, it's just marginal to "heritage", to architectural commentary, to curatorial neatness. Such places need a keen eye to notice them and a bracing prose style to conjure them up in our mind's eye, our mind's nose, and the rest. Like Iain Sinclair (and like Richard Mabey in such books as The Unofficial Countryside) Meades has what it takes.

A lot of the familiar Meades themes are here: the centrifugal quality of London, the similarities between the 1860s and 1960s, the ignorance of the countryside that lies behind the Picturesque movement and the corrosive effect of that movement, the deleterious consequences of our love affair with the suburbs, the delusions of the religious, the scandal of regeneration disguised as atrocious government-funded sub-architecture, the tiresomeness of lowest-common-denominator postmodernism ("oafish pediments"), the blinkers through which we see building materials (why is stone better than concrete or corrugated iron?), the delusive hierarchy of building types (why are churches better than factories or sheds?), the glories of shacks and bricolage, the fascination of terrain vague, and so on. And all of this is described, discussed and dissected in prose that is assertive, bracing, in-your-face, logophilic, and sometimes very funny. There are also some tender passages in which Meades writes about his boyhood – First Love, First Shack – and places that played a special part in his young life – pub car parks near Evesham, the confluence of the Wiltshire Avon and the Nadder, Salisbury, Portsmouth, the New Forest, a valley that the young Meades identified as the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Many of Meades's interests are interests of my own – Victorian rogue-architects such as Samuel Sanders Teulon, the beauties of Birmingham and Bristol, corrugated iron, the work and sad decline of that great architectural writer Ian Nairn. But there is persuasive writing about unfamiliar territory too – Buenos Aires, the architecture of Rodney Gordon. Fascinating places and spaces and true to the maxim on the cover: never boring. I learned plenty while enjoying myself reading this book, and I think many others will too.§

* * *

†Is this title derived from The Voices of Silence, the vast theory of art by French writer and politician André Malraux, which has a section called "Museum Without Walls"? Maybe. It's a long time since I read Malraux, but "Museum Without Walls" is his term for the illustrated art book, and he shows (amongst other things – Malraux's is a long and complex and, some would say, windy book) how it liberated us from the confines of the art museum, allowing us to put art in new contexts and to see it free from the blinkers of convention. Meades, on television and in his journalism, does something similar. But to write about buildings and call your collection Museum Without Walls is of course to play both on words and on walls.

§Museum Without Walls is published by Unbound, the crowd-funded publisher. I must declare an interest in that I was a member of the large crowd who helped fund the publication.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Paddy


Christmas books: 1

For the next ten days or so, the English Buildings blog becomes a book blog, as I look back at a few of the books I've enjoyed this year, potential Christmas presents, perhaps. I've chosen books relevant in some way to the main concerns of this blog – buildings, history, places – and, to begin with, a biography of one of the greatest writers about places of the last hundred years or so.

Artemis Cooper, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
Published by John Murray


Left as an infant to grow up with strangers, expelled from various schools, cast adrift and footloose in London, walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople aged 18–19, slept in barns and castles, fell in love with Rumanian princess, joined Greek cavalry charge, kidnapped German general in occupied Crete, won DSO, travelled in Greece, settled in Greece with Joan Rayner, wrote award-winning travel books, lauded as best travel writer of his generation, swam the Hellespont aged 69, died aged 96 after a triumphant life lived on his own terms.

Something along those outlines represented what most of us knew of the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor (Paddy, universally) – that, and what mattered: his two stellar books on Greece, Mani and Roumeli, and his luminous account of his walk to Constantinople in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the first two parts of a projected trilogy, the third part of which never appeared. The baroque prose, the breadth of learning, the delight in and knowledge of languages, the sense of place, the understanding of people: all were in a class of their own.

In Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure Artemis Cooper has filled in the outline and fleshed out the life behind the works. It must have been a challenging task, given that Paddy has said so much about his life in his own books. His bejewelled prose is a tough act to follow. But she has done well, building up the details, throwing light on some of the obfuscations, and maintaining a pace that makes the book compulsively readable. Her biography gives us: a clearer account of Paddy's infant life with his surrogate parents in Northamptonshire than the brief one in A Time of Gifts, plenty of detail about his wartime service and life, a moving description of his reunion with Princess Balasha after war and the corrosive effects of communism had kept them apart for decades, quite a bit on his colourful love life, and plenty of detail about the gestation – both painstaking and painful – of his books.

I have enjoyed discovering that my hero had his faults, which were the ones, mostly, that I'd suspected – a certain thoughtlessness sometimes (amidst much true consideration for others), a know-all quality, an occasional tendency to tweak the facts about his travels (though not the essential facts: it did all happen). Oh, and a troublesome capacity to keep publishers waiting. Every fan of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water knew about this. Where was the sequel? Years went past, and decades: still nothing. Paddy was "working on it", it was "almost ready", and so on.

Artemis Cooper deals rather briefly with the last part of Paddy's life. Even for someone as energetic as Paddy, the pace of life does slow as one reaches one's 70s, 80s, and 90s, so this brevity is forgivable and understandable – yet, was there really no more to say than some 40 pages on the last four decades of his life? However she does address the important question of the "missing" third instalment of the great walk. Briefly, back in the 1960s Paddy had drafted an account of the last part of the journey, but he remained unsatisfied with it, unable to recast it into a form that he felt good enough. His feeling that he could not live up to the quality of the first two books depressed him, and there were deep clouds over his last years. That enviable life was perhaps not so idyllic after all. Artemis Cooper has set this on the historical record, where it belongs. She also holds out hope that an edited version of Book Three of the journey will be out in about a year. She deserves our thanks for that, and for an enjoyable and generous biography.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Leicester


Letter set (1)

Little things can make a big difference. When it comes to architecture, one of those little things is the quality of the lettering used in signs, inscriptions, date stones, and the rest. Here's an example that caught my eye: the name and date stone on a chapel in the centre of Leicester. To harmonize with the classicism of the building the person who cut this inscription used what Alan Bartram, authority on lettering on buildings, calls the English letter. What he means is a letter form in which there is quite a big difference between the thick and thin strokes and in which the change from thick to thin in, for example, the curving bowl of the C here, or the P, can be quite sudden. On the whole the thick strokes are verticals. The serifs (the tiny protrusions at the ends of the main strokes) are generally bracketed, in other words the main stroke flows into them. But in this particular example the bracketing is quite subtle in some of the letters.

You can find English letters all over Bath, where they are used for the street names, which are carved directly into the stone walls. Elsewhere they pop up in all kinds of places, and are often, as here, to be found when you look up. They vary quite a bit in style –some have less heavy thick strokes than these. Many have fuller serifs. But if the letters are well proportioned and evenly spaced, they are all satisfying. Especially in the sun.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stanway, Gloucestershire

The iceman's cousin

This is a brief pendant to the previous post about a terrace in Bath and its keystones carved in the form of icemen. A correspondent pointed out that the exuberant carved decoration on the Bath terrace might well be an expression of impatience with the austere classicism of much Georgian architecture, an exercise in lightening up and putting on the frills. I think that rings true. Here is another bit of ornament in a non-classical, but equally unexpected, context.

On a recent Cotswold walk a friend and I crossed a field on a downhill stretch towards a familiar road and missed the proper footpath by a couple of hundred yards, arriving roughly where we wanted to be but by a different, unofficial route. As we did so, we passed a tiny stone building of unknown purpose. The only remarkable thing about it was this rather fine date stone, complete with a mask that is surely, if I'm right in seeing icicles in the beard, a distant modern cousin of the Bath icemen. Whoever he is, he was a pleasant surprise.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Bath, Somerset


The icemen
You know how it is. The road you drive along often is the one you don't look at properly. Whenever I visit Bath I drive into town along London Road, registering various architectural highlights (a Georgian terrace here, a shop front with stained glass there), but not stopping to look properly. So the other day, encouraged by a picture in Michael Forsyth's Bath in the Pevsner City Guides series, I decided to stop outside Grosvenor Place, one of the terraces that runs alongside London Road, and have a look. I'm glad I did.

Architect-builder John Eveleigh started Grosvenor Place in 1791. The idea was to have a swanky central section containing a hotel, with houses on either side. Eveleigh was making a lot of money on speculative building schemes of this kind in Bath, and this site, fronting one of the city's pleasure gardens, seemed like a winner. But in 1793 there was a financial crisis. England and France started a war, the cost of credit rocketed, and Eveleigh, like many of Bath's other builders, found himself in money trouble. He was soon bankrupt, his share in the project was sold, and work on the terrace was halted when it was half done. The project was only completed years later.
Grosvenor Place, carved plaques

Some of the decoration on the building was never finished – three of the oval panels on the facade, for example, were left uncarved. But even so, the central portion of the terrace is extraordinary. It's an extravaganza with giant columns adorned with garlands (towards the bottom of each column is a plain stone band: presumably  this too was meant to be carved into a garland, another job left undone). There are seven columns, a very unclassical odd number which means that the central column is right above the doorway. All very unorthodox and eye-catching.
Grosvenor Place, the iceman cometh...

Among the details I especially like are the little masks on the keystones above some of the windows. Their faces are made of icicles, a motif that Eveleigh also used on another Bath building, Somerset Place. These chilly faces are in marked contrast to the richer carving of the rest of this centrepiece, as if casting a cold eye on all the frivolity around them. Financial crisis? Yes, we know what you mean…

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Haydon Bridge, Northumberland


Postcards from England: 4. Towers of strength

The archetypal fortified dwelling in northern England and the Scottish borders is the tower house. They can take various forms, from small buildings, often called pele towers, that were usually used as refuges and occupied only in times of trouble, to large towers, with lots of rooms and several floors and often turrets at the corners. All these tower houses were built to cope with a tough way of life, in which border territory might change hands and raiders could descend at any moment from either side of the border. You needed thick walls, a good look out, and weapons at the ready. One of the best of these relics of medieval border life  is Langley Castle in Northumberland, one of the larger, aristocrat examples of the type, the subject of my postcard this month.

Langley Castle was built in around 1350, probably by Sir Thomas de Lucy. It has a four-storey central block and 5-storey towers. There is an impressive array of windows. Some of the larger ones were added in about 1900, some, mainly the smaller ones, are 14th century. Fireplaces and doorways from the 14th century adorn the interior. The battlements at the top of the building are mostly from the restoration of the late-19th century, a labour of love by a local historian, Cadwallader Bates, and his wife, Josephine. This work was still relatively recent when my postcard was produced – the card was mailed in January 1906.† Since then, the castle has found a new life as a hotel.

* * *
† My card was sent from Haydon Bridge to Harrogate, to tell someone that "Mr P and Miss H" would arrive at 4.45 pm, an example of the way people in the early-20th century used postcards for short messages, rather as we might send an email today.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ludlow, Shropshire


Treasure trove

In a recent post I hinted that I would add something more about Rickards, the ironmonger's shop in Ludlow that i visited at the beginning of the month. There has been an ironmonger's business on this site for more than 200 years. In the late-18th century the tenant was Edward Egginton, ironmonger, and there was still an Egginton there in 1861. But later in the 1860s, one James Rickards, and soon afterwards his son, Heber Rickards, owned the building.  Heber became successful in the business and a prominent citizen of Ludlow, and the business stayed in his family for over 80 years.
 Rickards of Ludlow: business name in Victorian gilded lettering over the door
Name mosaic, possibly from interwar period, in doorway floor

The premises is a fascinating architectural hotchpotch that bears the imprint of several generations. The two shop fronts, with their narrow glazing bars, look 19th century – the one on the left is probably early-19th century, The gilded lettering over one door may well date from the time of Heber Rickards, while a doorway mosaic may brave been added between the two World Wars. The lettering on the fascia seems to owe something to the Festival of Britain style and I would guess that it dates form the 1950s.

Interior: 19th-century drawers and 20th-century advertisements

As if those details were not riches enough, the interior is a revelation. Rows of wooden draws run along the back walls of both shops. One set of drawers may well date back to the beginning of the 19th century, before the first Rickards took over the business; the other set may date form the time of the Rickards' arrival in the mid-1860s. The array of old advertising posters and cards stuck on these drawers, promoting mothaks, turpentine, and devices to improve your television signal, is a small treasure trove of the history of advertising. The business's 19th-century cash desk, protected by a tiny sliding glass window, is also intact in the middle of the shop.

In short, this place is a marvel – both as a monument to the history of the high street and as a living business serving the people of Ludlow and the surrounding area with everything from kettles to balls of string, bars of beeswax to watering cans. If to me the shop represents a rich slice of history, to local people it must be an invaluable resource, a lifeline even. We owe thanks to the people who, through the thick and thin and economic ups and downs, keep it going.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Covent Garden, London


Every day except Christmas

For some years in the 1980s and 1990s I crossed the piazza of Covent Garden every day on my way to and from my desk in the office of a publishing company. Now and then I paused to admire the main market building, the market house designed by Charles Fowler and built in 1828–30, still largely intact but with roofs (glass and slate supported on iron columns) added in the later 19th century. The rows of Tuscan columns and the corner pavilions with their lower storey picked out with banded rustication, defined the outside and are visible in my photograph of the east end of the market house.

By the time I began work in this part of London, the market was already beginning its second life as a tourist attraction, the original raison d'être of the place, the wholesale selling of fruit and vegetables, having been moved to a site at Vauxhall. But I'm old enough to remember the vegetable market at Covent Garden with its nocturnal life, its lippy porters, its pubs open in the mornings when this was unknown elsewhere in England, its surrounding labyrinth of lanes and alleys in which opera-goers heading for the "other" Covent Garden would occasionally get lost.

I was reminded of all this the other night by a chance online viewing of Lindsay Anderson's documentary Every Day Except Christmas (1957), which chronicles in black and white a day in the life of the market. It is all beautifully shot and composed, from the midnight loading of lorries in Kent, to the organised chaos of the arrival of trucks (apples from the Vale of Evesham, flowers from Lincolnshire, mushrooms from the southeast, and so on) in the crowded streets around the market; from the stallholders' careful arrangement of their stock to their moment of relaxation in a nearby café (this place also inhabited by nocturnal "characters" who seem to have sidled in from another, edgier, world); from the first sale to the removal of vegetables and fruit on precariously loaded barrows and packed vans.

Much of what I saw was familiar, from chance late-night crossings of the market years ago and, perhaps, from an earlier viewing of the film itself. But this is where memory starts to play tricks. I hold in my mind a memory of a documentary about the market set to the music of Beethoven's Pathétique sonata, structured around the piece's three movements (fast-slow-fast, mirroring the market's phases of frenetic activity punctuated by an interlude of calm). But there is no such music in Lindsay Anderson's film. Could there have been another documentary covering a day in the life of Covent Garden? Or have I confused Anderson's film with another, on a different subject, but using Beethoven's music? Or have I imagined the whole thing? Googling has not given me an answer. I continue to rack my brains.

Detail, corner pavilion, Covent Garden market, west end

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Stockerston, Leicestershire


Stockerston Hall

You step into a field near the church, walk a few yards and watch the parting clouds that shift to let the sun warm up the brickwork. Thanks to a fence, a wall, a ditch, more brickwork, the house keeps you at arm's length and ensures the owners keep their privacy, as they have done, no doubt, since 1792.

It's simple really: brick walls, low-pitched roof, a Tuscan porch, four bays of blank arcading, framed by pale quoins and shaded by dark trees. It's likely a replacement for an older house (there's a mullioned window in a cellar somewhere, says Pevsner, giving us the gist; on Medbourne Road, two gate piers, 1700†).

I'm thankful for these bits of hidden England.Thanks to the friend who showed this one to me, P. Ashley of Unmitigated England, who posted here about the nearby church.

* * *

† Please see the comments section for an update.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A short cry for help

A friend, currently in the antipodes on a round the world trip, is having trouble posting to his Google blog. He gets a repeated error message from Blogger that includes the code bx-g90x6h when he tries to post. I've looked online and it seems that quite a few people are having this problem, but, although some people can get around it by using a different web browser, no one has offered a solution that works for everyone.

I am wondering whether any of my readers have encountered this problem and know of a solution. If so, could you leave a message in the comments?

My friend is using a recent iPad with the Safari browser.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Ludlow, Shropshire


Still bright, still sharp

"Built to last" is something people like to say about architecture, and buildings are usually seen as enduring structures. Nearly all the buildings I post about are considerably older than I am, and some of them are 1000 years old or more. But I also like now and then to notice the ephemeral bits and bobs that get attached to buildings. Notices and advertising signs especially: old signs and posters pointing us towards camera film, wagonettes, elastic glue, beer, tea… Most of these weren't meant to be permanent, but somehow they cling on to walls and windows, against all the odds and against ideas that tell us that advertising has to keep up with the times, keep reinventing itself.

I saw two more examples at the weekend, stuck to the windows of an ironmonger's shop, Rickard's in Ludlow, a building of which I took many more photographs that I will no doubt share with you eventually. Two stick-on advertisements, one on either side of the shop door, still hanging on, and hanging in.

First, a vibrant sign for Atlas Lamps, which caught my eye because it's so colourful. Atlas lamps were in existence by the 1930s – in 1932 or 1933 Jules Thorn, the founder of the Thorn electrical company, started as a lighting manufacturer by buying up the Atlas Works, in Edmonton, London, where Atlas Lamps were produced. The "For staying power" slogan was in use in the 1940s and 1950s – I've seen it in newspaper advertisements of 1949 and 1950, both using the same distinctive typeface for "ATLAS" that appears on this shop sign. Thorn was still using the Atlas name in the 1960s and 1970s, after which the range was absorbed into the Thorn catalogue. This sign may date from the 1950s, as 1960s Atlas items I've seen online use bold lower-case type for the brand name.
Second, a sign for garden tools made by Wilkinson's. Beginning in the late-18th century as gunmakers, Wilkinson's started producing swords and bayonets in the early-19th century, building up a reputation for producing strong, good quality blades. Diversification into razors (1890) and garden shears (1920) followed. At various points the company produced bicycles, motorcycles, typewriters, and other items too. I've no idea how old this sign is – the style has a late-1950s or early-1960s feel to my eyes, but this is little more than the guesswork of someone trying to cast his mind back many years.

And I like the way these signs take the mind back, though my pleasure in them is more than just nostalgic. I'm interested too in the way that artists and designers presented brands in different ways – from the larky drawing of a modern Atlas lifting a light bulb to Wilkinson's more purposeful twin swords. The use of colour is a big contrast too, Atlas's bright, cheerful, appropriately well illuminated, Wilkinson's more subtle, with its mottled background like an old terrazzo floor and its hint of gold. A lot to think about on either side of this shop doorway, before you even step inside.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Monnington on Wye, Herefordshire



Through the lychgate

One of the rewarding aspects of maintaining a blog like this is the interesting feedback one receives. Among the responses to the previous post about Monnington on Wye was an email reminding me of the tradition that Owain Glyndwr is buried there and an enquiry about the 19th-century clergyman and diarist Francis Kilvert: didn't Kilvert go to Monnington? He certainly did.

Kilvert's sister Thermuthis† (known as Thersie) was married to the Rev William Smith of Monnington and the diarist often visited them. Several entries towards the end of the diary mention Monnington. On one occasion, on 6 April 1876, Kilvert records visiting the church:

Mr. James went with us to the Church which is light and pleasant and cheerful within and seemed well cared for. He told us that in the great flood of February 6, 1852, he and the present Sir Gilbert Lewis of Harpton (then Rector of Monnington) had punted in a flat-bottomed boat across the Court garden, in at the Church door, up the Nave and into the Chancel.

Later the same month, Kilvert recalls a Sunday visit, when the three bells are rung and he goes through "the old slanting mouldering lych-gate" to the church. The Rev William Smith preaches the sermon, Thersie plays the harmonium, and Kilvert reads prayers. 

Even today, Kilvert's descriptions ring true. The place is certainly low-lying and watery: there is a stream nearby, the Wye is not far away, and one can quite believe Kilvert's punting story. The wooden lychgate – in my photograph above – is still there, but not, I'm pleased to say, slanting or mouldering. Its 17th-century timbers and quadruple gables have been given some loving care since Kilvert's time and it makes a fitting entrance to the churchyard. 

The church itself is still light and pleasant too, thanks in large part to the clear glass in the windows. The 17th century, when the nave and chancel were built, was not a great age of stained glass, and while one can regret the acres of medieval stained glass that were smashed by iconoclasts elsewhere in England during the Commonwealth period, the clear glass in this building of 1680 works well and is at one with the plain wooden benches and stone-flagged floor. With the door left open on the day I went there, the light pouring in through the windows, and birds singing outside, it couldn't have been that different from when Kilvert visited. 

* * *

† Kilvert's sister was named after her mother. In the account of Josephus, Thermuthis was the name of the Egyptian princess who rescued the infant Moses from the rushes.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Monnington on Wye, Herefordshire


Hidden England

I left the main road behind and turned down one of those narrow, high-hedged Herefordshire lanes. Behind the hedges were cider apple orchards and somewhere near a motor was quietly humming as an elevator loaded apples into a deep trailer ready to be taken to Hereford to be pressed. With a few more bends the lane petered to a halt by a sign saying "Private" and a drive leading to a big house. There was no sign of the church, and nowhere else to go, apparently, so I pulled up on a verge, got out, and took my bearings. Then I saw another sign, smaller, shaded by trees, pointing up a green lane between two hedges: "To the church". Off I went, past trickling water and buzzing insects, as the path got less green, more muddy, then more tree-enclosed.


And then there was the tiny timber-framed lychgate, with its four gables and the church beyond. The church was almost entirely built in the late-17th century. Inside, sunlight poured through the mullioned, domestic-looking windows, on to white walls, wooden benches, a screen with barley-sugar-twisted uprights, a communion table, and a font, carved with the initials of the couple, Uvedale and Mary Tomkyns, who paid for the building in 1680. Oil-lamps hung from the plastered ceiling and the brightly painted arms of Charles II (the only brightly coloured object in the place) were displayed on the nave wall. Apart from a gaggle of Calor gas heaters, c 1980, it could almost have been 1680. A bit of hidden England that I shared for half an hour.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Chichester, Sussex


Here be dolphins

Turning my back on Chichester Cathedral and glancing across the road, the roof-top signs of the Dolphin and Anchor immediately attracted my eye, their gilding catching the light on a dull evening.

This building was originally two inns. The Dolphin was probably established in the late Middle Ages but was rebuilt in the 18th century, when the landlord offered all the facilities of a good coaching inn – good drink, food, stables, and a daily coach service to London. The Anchor began in the 17th century and continued in neighbourly competition until at some point (1910 or around 1921 according to which source you read) the two establishments were combined and the joint name adopted.

Hence this fine sculpture of both Dolphin and Anchor above the name of the Dolphin Hotel with its rather crude lettering. When I first saw this I naturally assumed that this sign was adopted when the two inns merged. But it could be older. The sign for an inn called the Dolphin often also features an anchor, recalling the idea that the friendly dolphin would help sailors by twining its body around the anchor, to stop the anchor moving and keep the ship still and safe.

Reginald Turnor, in his book about inn signs†, notices this sign in Chichester, but does not offer a specific origin – he mentions the heraldic use of dolphins and their evocative presence on the watery edges of maps ("Here be dolphins")§. Turnor also remarks that the Dolphin and Anchor in Chichester was "what a country hotel should be – old enough but comfortable". He doesn't mention the gilding on the sign, but it's hard to imagine that it looked as good in his time as it does now. It was regilded a few years ago and still gleams.

* * *

The Spotted Dog (1948), spotted by Zoë in a secondhand bookshop this weekend, for which much thanks.

§Turnor is sceptical about a derivation from "Dauphin", rightly, I think, doubtful about many such folk etymologies. Not for him the old notion that The Goat and Compasses is a corruption of "God encompasseth us".

Thursday, October 18, 2012

East Bergholt, Suffolk


 Postcards from England: 3. Five bells, one cage

Some time back, I posted about an unusual wooden belfry at Brookland in Kent. Here's another unusual way of housing bells, the bell cage in the churchyard at East Bergholt, Suffolk. There was a project to build a stone bell tower on the western end of this church in the 1520s, but for some reason it stalled before the walls had got very high. It is said that Cardinal Wolsey had promised to help with the funding, but he fell from grace before the work was completed. So in 1531 a wooden structure was erected in the churchyard to house the bells, originally, it's said, to the east of the churchyard, although it was moved in the 17th century to a different position, because a neighbour objected to the noise of the bells.

It's a wooden structure, with boarding covering the lower walls and a lattice of wood running around the upper part, so that the sound of the bells can be heard clearly. Inside there is a very sturdy wooden framework on which the five bells are hung. As the bells are housed at ground level, there are no ropes or wheels, and the bells are rung by the ringers pushing the wooden headstocks of the bells. It must be hard work as this is said to be the heaviest ring of five bells in use in England. It's also a highly skilled business, and there is much more information about the bells and how they work here.

The bell cage was originally intended as a temporary measure. No doubt the people of East Bergholt hoped that they would raise money to complete the tower. But they never did, and this wonderful bit of carpentry has proved its worth over more than 480 years.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Lydney, Gloucestershire


A glimpse of gables

After a short walk around the restored docks at Lydney when I watched mist lift from the River Severn, I walked back towards the industrial estate under a virtually cloudless sky. Glancing up a potholed road past silent factories (whitewashed brick, shuttered concrete, blanked-out windows, lots of chain-link fencing and barbed wire) I caught sight of an old gable. I followed the chain-link fence until I left it behind and, beyond a field, a view opened up of a gabled sandstone house of the 17th century.

This is Naas House, built for the Jones family (William Jones was founder of the Haberdashers' Company in London) probably in the early-17th century. It's a big house – this is just one end – and the mullioned windows, string courses, and parapeted gables are very much of the period, as are the false windows in the gables. The central turret, though, with its lead-covered cupola, is a sophisticated touch. From here the owners could walk out on to a viewing platform and look towards the River Severn (to the right) or towards Lydney and the Forest of Dean (to the left).

The Jones family upgraded the interior in the early 18th century, installing panelling in a number of rooms, but in 1771 Mary Jones, daughter of the owners, was murdered on her way home from a dinner at the rectory at Lydney. Soon after this the family moved to another house near Newnham on Severn. Although the family kept Naas House (a Rev Edward Jones lived there in 1839) it was no longer their main residence and this was probably why there were few further alterations and the house keeps its Jacobean character in its quiet backwater.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire


Bursting from the shadows

In 1818 Cheltenham architect George Allen Underwood was elected to his local Masonic Lodge. Two years later, work began on the Lodge's new hall, near the centre of the town, and Underwood was the designer. Underwood was a pupil of John Soane, and Soane would have been impressed, I think, with this building – the confident niches, the mix of carving and stretches of plain wall, the way it looks massive although it's not much bigger than a couple of three-storey houses, the fact that the facade manages to work even though it has virtually no windows. The way it stands there like a rock amongst the pale stuccoed facades and delicate iron balconies that its neighbours present to the world is also remarkable. I have been admiring this exterior for years, and others agree: "probably the finest of the early purpose-built Masonic halls," says Pevsner, and John Russell in his Shakespeare's Country calls it a masterpiece of occasional architecture.

One day, not the day on which I took this picture showing the building bursting out of the shadow that envelops its lower portion, but on another occasion when the light was more even, I loitered across the road for a while, admiring the building and watching the passers-by. There were quite a lot of people walking past because a couple of hundred yards to the right is a large car park and a couple of hundred yards the other way is the centre of the town. Not one person appeared to pay any attention to the building at all. Of course these were probably busy men and women with work to go to or shopping to do. But is was still interesting that a building that is so assertive, a design that is very much in the Regency style but has little of the delicacy or gentility of much of Regency Cheltenham, a structure that would, I'd have thought, divide opinion quite strongly, inspired hardly a glance. Presumably none of those passers-by reads this blog.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Brighton, Sussex


Building society

I wonder if I would have noticed these carvings if I'd not been alerted to their presence by Nicholas Antram and Richard Morrice's Pevsner Architectural Guide to Brighton and Hove. Possibly not, as they adorn a 1930s neo-Georgian building and my eyes would probably have been distracted by Regency onion domes and other fancies. So I'm grateful to Antram and Morrice for pointing me in the direction of the former Citizens' Permanent Building Society.

Building Societies. If you are inclined to think of them in the way we think of banks, financial institutions offering a range of financial "products" from loans to insurance, think again and think back. Building was originally much closer to the heart of what building societies did – holding deposits from some of their members and lending other members money to build houses.


So when he designed the Citizens' Permanent Building Society J L Denman got Joseph Cribb to carve a series of relief panels depicting the building trades and set these panels around the three large windows on the ground floor. Capped and overalled tradesmen mix mortar, saw wood, attach roof tiles, and build walls, and Denman himself appears in one panel, unfurling a plan and discussing progress with another man (a foreman or clerk of works?).


 Joseph Cribb began as apprentice and assistant to Eric Gill, remaining at Ditchling to work independently when Gill left Sussex for Wales in 1924. His work is in numerous churches and I'd not expected to find his carvings in this context. They rise to the challenge of squeezing their subjects into the spaces and curves around the windows and pick out details, from roofing battens to pulleys, in a satisfying and realistic way. Their concentrated view of life on site also reminds us of what building societies were about. The building, however, is now occupied by a bank.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Brighton, Sussex


Brighton cheerful

Grubbing around in Brighton back-streets looking for the work of local architect Amon Wilds, I came across this lovely terrace, designed by Wilds in the 1820s. Wilds' unusual forename gave him the idea of using the ammonite as his signature, and some of his houses have ammonite capitals, liked the ones I noticed a while back in Lewes. Here there are lots of them, in groups of four capitals at either end of the terrace and in the centre section, beneath the pediment. In each group, the architect carefully turned the end ammonites inwards, to frame the composition, as it were.

For all the artful symmetry of this small but showy facade, I also like the oddity of the semicircular bow window breaking the symmetry to the left of the centre section. Presumably it's a later addition, replacing a short row of square columns like the ones on the opposite side. But it's very Brighton – the place is full  of bow windows and the addition of another here gives the terrace a slightly raffish air which it would not have had otherwise.

The other structure, at the right-hand side of my photograph, is the imaginatively denominated Gothic House, also by Wilds and also dating to the 1820s. How did they think up these names? Perhaps Gothick House would have been more appropriate, since this is the fanciful domestic style, often dubbed Gothick, created by the Georgians: all white walls, pinnacles, false battlements, and fancy tracery, a style that that always makes me think it's made of cake icing and always makes me smile.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Brightling, Sussex


Fit for a king

As promised in the previous post, here is the pyramid in Brightling churchyard, beneath which the local squire, MP. philanthropist, and folly-builder John Fuller was buried when he died in 1834. The pyramid is a substantial stone structure, some 25 ft tall and taking up a large chunk of the southern side of the churchyard. It's similar in shape if not size to the resting places of the Old Kingdom Egyptian kings, but unlike the Egyptian pyramids has an entrance on one side, allowing visitors to peer into the gloomy space within. Fuller built the tomb in 1811, so his friends and neighbours had 23 years in which to get used to the fact that he had chosen this unusual form of monument. It was after his death, however, that the local gossip on the subject seems to have taken hold – in particular a story that Fuller was entombed in the pyramid sitting down at a table with a roast chicken and a bottle of claret. Such unconventionality seemed appropriate to Fuller's larger than life character, and the idea that he was buried with his dinner appeared to fit the ancient notion that the soul would need sustenance on its way to the next world. When the pyramid was restored in 1982, however, the rumours were found to be untrue. The squire is buried in the usual recumbent fashion beneath his pyramid.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Brightling, Sussex


Loafing about

This is the kind of thing I usually leave to Peter Ashley or those marvellous people at the Folly Fellowship. But now and then, I cannot resist…

A Sussex friend brought me here after a ramble around St Leonard's and an agreeable meal in a congenial country pub. I think John "Mad Jack" Fuller, 19th-century squire of Brightling, had had more to drink than we did when he made a bet with a friend that he could see the spire of Dallington church from his lawn. On arriving home and finding he couldn't see the church at all, he hastily had this false spire built – allegedly in 24 hours – to change the view, fool his friend, and win the wager.

The false spire, long called the Sugar Loaf because it's exactly the shape of the conical "loaves" in which sugar was once sold, survives thanks to a repair campaign 40 or 50 years ago. Before that, it's said that someone lived inside the stone cone, although it must have been rather cramped in the brick-vaulted room inside – the whole structure is only 15 ft in diameter and 35 ft high.

This is the stuff of what used to be called "English eccentricity", but there's more. Fuller was a founding member of the Royal Institution, funder of the first lighthouse at Beachy Head, and saviour of beautiful Bodiam Castle. Not so mad, then, as he might sometimes have seemed. But he did build several other eccentric buildings on his estate (there's information about them here), and when he died, his parting shot was to be entombed in a large pyramidal mausoleum in Brightling churchyard. More of that story later.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Campden Hill Road, London


The white stuff

When I lived in Notting Hill I occasionally walked past this block of flats on Campden Hill Road. As one often does when passing half-familiar buildings in one's own neighbourhood, I noticed them, but did not look closely. "That modernist block of flats," I thought to myself. "How well they did things in the 1930s." After all, many of the features of 1920s and 1930s modernism were there: the white walls, the flat roof, the long balconies, the strip windows, and the modernist arrangement of balconies, windows and stepped-back corners on one side.

But this block was not built between the two world wars. It was actually put up in 1965, to designs by Douglas Stephen. In the mid-1960s, British architecture was developing in many different ways – the era gave us Brutalist multi-storey car parks, steel-framed houses, the disciplined poise of some of Denys Lasdun's work, the sculptural concrete of the Barbican. But very little quite like this, a throwback to another era: modernist revival, if you like, or the 1930s revisited, showing the influence not only of Le Corbusier's interwar villas but also of the Italian "rationalist" architects of the pre-war era (long shunned for their links with fascism). There's nothing fascist about this design though. Poised on its leafy corner of west London, it represents a way of building that has endured rather well.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bath, Somerset


Heraldic Coade

I was admiring a neoclassical shop front near Bath's Pulteney Bridge when my eye was caught by the royal arms above the shop window. The shop has been a chemist's since 1828, but the arms are those of Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, who visited Bath in 1817, the year before she died. So they must refer to royal patronage of some earlier business based here or hereabouts. The highly complex heraldry combines the arms of the British royal family with those of her father, who was Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The amount of detail on these three-dimensional arms is staggering – all those harps, bulls' heads, fleurs de lys and so on in low relief, and the extraordinary garland of flowers around the central panel. The lion and unicorn are real characters, the former astonished, long-maned and well fanged, the latter realistically equine.

Beneath the lion, the inscription, "COADE LONDON" tell us that this coat of arms is made in Coade Stone, an artificial, stone-like ceramic material produced at Coade's Artificial Stone Manufactory in Lambeth, London. This business, founded by Eleanor Coade (always known as Mrs Coade, although she was unmarried) in around 1770. Mrs Coade developed the material, which she called Lithodipyra (from the Greek for "stone fired twice"), a ceramic composition in which flint, quartz, grog (a mix of silica, alumina, and other elements), and crushed glass were mixed with the clay. It was generally found to be hard and weather-resistant, and was easy to mould into complex shapes. These qualities made Coade stone popular for statuary and architectural ornaments between 1770 and the 1830s. Just the material, in other words, for moulding harps, lions, and tiny flowers.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bath, Somerset


Bird spotting

A while back I posted some decorative tile panels advertising post cards and road maps, from the front of a branch of W H Smith in Malvern. Here is one still more colourful panel, this time from a former W H Smith shop, spotted by me in Bath today. As with the Malvern panels, the tiles were made by Carter and Company and the letters were designed by Eric Gill. No doubt there were originally more panels on the Bath store, perhaps illustrating different kinds of books. Now only 'Nature books' survives on the shop facade, which now fronts a branch of Patisserie Valerie. As a reminder of the shop's previous role, this toucan, leaning down from its branch, fits the bill.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Buckingham Place, London


Number one, and Number Six

Pevsner classifies the houses of Buckingham Place, in the little enclave between Buckingham Palace and Victoria Station, as neo-Georgian. This isn't a style that normally catches my eye, but No 1 Buckingham Place, with its ornate door case, transcends the blandness of much neo-Georgian, harking back to the very beginning of the 18th century. The architect, L Stanley Crosbie, and his craftsmen really let rip with those scrolling brackets, little heads, acanthus leaves, and the rest.

That's the architectural bit. But there's more. What draws me to this building is the fact that as a boy in 1967, I sat in front of the television one September evening and watched an opening sequence that has haunted me ever since…

A storm is gathering. We hear thunder, a roar that turns into the sound of a jet engine. A Lotus 7 speeds along what looks like an airfield runway or a straight road in the middle of nowhere. The same car drives through Westminster, past the Houses of Parliament, around a corner, into an underground car park. The driver, the actor Patrick McGoohan, gets out, walks purposefully – angrily – through doors marked "WAY OUT", up a corridor, and enters an office where a man sits at a desk in front of a world map. McGoohan harangues the man (we can't hear what he says, as the theme music has now taken over the soundtrack), throws his resignation letter on to the desk, hammers the desk with his fist, and walks out. We are aware of a funereal black car following the Lotus as McGoohan drives home to No 1 Buckingham Place, where he packs his suitcase. Is he preparing to go away on holiday? The mysterious photographs he drops into the suitcase suggest something else. But we have no time to ponder this, because his pursuer from the black car pumps gas into the room, rendering him unconscious. McGoohan wakes, a prisoner, in a village by the sea.

British readers of a certain age will probably realise that the sequence I'm describing comes from the opening of The Prisoner, a TV drama series that sees its protagonist – McGoohan, the secret agent who has resigned – trapped in the mysterious Village where the inhabitants are assigned numbers instead of their names. Our hero (now known as Number Six, although he rejects this dehumanizing convention) tries to escape, while also attempting to find out whether the Village is being run by his own former employers or their enemies; the authorities of the Village, meanwhile, try to pump the prisoner for information. It is all very haunting and enigmatic (and, Kafkaesque as it is, has proved so for those who grew up on the eastern side of the iron curtain as well as those in the west).

For many people, the architectural interest of The Prisoner lies largely in the scenes set in the Village, which were mostly filmed in Portmeirion, the fantastic Italianate architectural ensemble on the coast of North Wales designed by Clough-Williams Ellis. But because I sometimes like to show my readers the buildings that aren't usually in the limelight, the ornate doorcase of No 1 Buckingham Place – in shot for a split-second – seemed to fit the bill.

- - -

The Portmeirion village website is here. It also contains more information about The Prisoner.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bloxham, Oxfordshire


Together again

Some time ago I posted a curious capital from the church at Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire in which, instead of the usual plain mouldings or carvings of foliage there were figures with linked arms. I hinted in that post that there were other churches in this part of England with similar capitals – and in fact I remembered that many years ago I'd been in the grand church in Bloxham in Oxfordshire, where I remembered something along the same lines.

I finally returned to Bloxham to check my memories, and this is what I found. This 14th-century capital is more ornately carved than the one at Ludgershall, but shows a similar design, with linked arms, However, the male figure also has a shield bearing a cross and the female wears a floral head-dress, is surrounded by leaves, and is being assailed by a beast of some kind. The column, with its cluster of attached shafts is highly elaborate too, and there is a further touch of ornament around the top of the capital – a band of moulding decorated with bellflowers (a favourite 14th-century motif) and tiny heads.

So is the male figure, with his crossed shield and the staff weapon just visible in his right hand St George? And is the odd beast by the lady's head some provincial carver's idea of the dragon that the saint has come to slay? I don't know. As is so often the case, medieval church carving has left me pondering, but visually nourished.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Brackley, Northamptonshire


A nice slice

A nice slice of brown bread and honey always seems to conjure up for me images of pleasant winter evenings in front of the fire. Comfort food, and, if the bread is wholemeal, nutritious too. In my childhood, Hovis, popular bread that was widely advertised on green and gold signs, seemed to fit the bill.*

The Hovis Bread Flour Company was founded in 1898 to make wholemeal flour, and their name, a shortened form of hominis vis (Latin for 'strength of man') was chosen after a national competition. The company expanded rapidly during the early years of the 20th century and again in the 1920s after the vitamin content of wheatgerm was discovered and publicized. The expansion came in the wake of clever marketing, too. Hovis produced special tins, embossed with the company name, with which bakers could bake loaves made with their flour. They provided branded bags, boxes, and even kitchen bread bins. Wherever they went, British people were reminded of Hovis wholemeal flour.

And then there were the shop signs, green, with gold letters standing out in relief. Their ingenious design ensured that they could be seen and read by passers-by coming from any direction, making them more effective than either a flat sign screwed to the wall or a hanging sign sticking out at right-angles like a pub sign. There are not so many of these signs around now, so I was pleased to find this one, attached to a building in Brackley. Hovis bread is still available and the sign is still doing its job, standing out and doing its bit to convince us that bread made with Hovis flour is outstanding.

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*The virtues of Hovis were imprinted on me well before the famous Ridley Scott commercial, first aired in 1973, another effective piece of marketing. In this curious confection, cobbled steep implausibly picturesque Gold Hill in Shaftesbury stands for a kind of eternal England, curiously underpinned by a speeded up brass-band arrangement ('Hurry up lads, commercial only lasts 40 seconds') of Dvořák's 9th symphony, with its Native American-influenced theme.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Polperro, Cornwall


Postcards from England: 2. Shells suit

The next in my series of postcards of buildings is the Shell House in Polperro. Originally a 19th-century fisherman's cottage, the building was decorated – with thousands of shells from all over the world – between 1937 and 1942 by seaman Samuel Puckey. There's a long tradition of using shells in decoration – numerous country houses have shell grottoes in their gardens, and occasionally shells have been used to decorate the outsides of buildings. But this building is rather different, not the knowing jeu d'esprit of some sophisticate, but a piece of folk art, lovingly created over the years. Its decoration has been preserved and repaired in places, as the detail photograph below, more recent than my post-war postcard, shows. The Shell House deserves such care, and deserves too to be remembered by visitors, long after their memories of piskies and ice creams fade away.

The copyright on this image is owned by Chris Downer and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The Shell House is available as a holiday let; there are details here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hereford


Animal assortment

Hereford's museum is one of many built in the 19th century as the Victorians, rich from the fruits of empire, set about furnishing their cities with monuments and buildings that spoke of culture and education. The burghers of Hereford chose F R Kempson as their architect. Kempson had been working in South Wales and moved to Hereford in the 1870s to build this museum, following it with many other buildings in the city and surrounding area. He seems to have brought some grey Welsh sandstone with him for the building, and designed it in a kind of Venetian Gothic, a homage, as it were, by a great maritime power at its height to another that even then, as Ruskin himself had pointed out in The Stones of Venice, was slipping quietly into its lagoon, its decline a terrible warning to us all.

The ornate parapet, rows of pointed windows, little loggia, and arches on the ground floor are all Venetian Gothic features. Typical of both the Venetians and the Victorians is the rich carving, which here runs to an array of birds and beasts, indicative, no doubt, of the natural history displays that the building originally contained. Some of these creatures sit on the parapet at the very top of the facade, and two of them, a cat and a bird, are enacting a hunting drama that is concluded at a lower level, where we see that the cat has caught its prey.

                     On the parapet...
                    ...on the prowl
 
The cat has suffered a little from time and the elements, and must always have been rather lean and mean. It's also looking as us – shouldn't it be concentrating on its dinner? Or is it rightly keeping a weather eye out in case we interrupt its hunting? Whatever the reason, these characterful carvings by Robert and William Clarke are engaging. If I was a young child, still unsure about what to expect in a museum, they'd draw me in. Come to that, they drew in this more experienced visitor too.