Tuesday, November 29, 2016
A good hat
When I give talks about building materials or vernacular architecture, this picture sometimes elicits a gasp of amazement. A field wall, made of cob (here a mix mainly of mud and chalk I think) and roofed with thatch. Such a thing seems eccentric these days. People think cob must be an ephemeral material – but it can last a lifetime with the proper protection, given, in the old phrase, ‘a good hat and a good pair of shoes’. The hat is provided by tiles or thatch. But thatching is a skilled trade and roofing a wall like this takes a lot of effort and expertise: it must be a costly process. In past centuries, though, the cost of materials and transport could be a larger proportion of the total bill of a typical building project, and both time and labour could be cheaper than they are now. In the Middle Ages, if stone was not plentiful, mud and thatch could at least reduce the cost of the materials.
And yet, clearly, people who could afford to buy stone and bring it to the site also just liked the idea or the look of an earth wall. In c. 1320 at Lambeth Palace, London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who could have had stone for the asking), six perches† of garden wall were repaired and rethatched with reeds. Mud or cob walls for fields and gardens are not so common now, but you still find them in some places. I’ve come across them in Northamptonshire, for example. Chalk areas (parts of Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire, for example) also have chalk walls, similarly thatched. I hope people still like them enough to make the effort to maintain them.
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*Cob: a building material made from mixing earth and straw. Lime may be added and in some areas the cob can contain a large proportion of chalk. In Buckinghamshire, especially in the Haddenham area, chalk cob is known as wychert; in Cornwall cob is also referred to as clob.
† A rod, pole, or perch: an old measurement equivalent to 161/2 feet – just over 5 metres; so six perches would be a good 30 metres: quite a bit of wall.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
The red and the black
A lot of people like a fox. Attractively red-haired, bushy-tailed, and proverbially cunning, foxes capture our imagination somehow. They’re dog-like, but a bit wild. At least since the ancient Greeks* they’ve been admired for their resourcefulness. So if you’re actually called Fox, and you’re a shopkeeper, you must feel almost obliged to use the animal’s image in your publicity and on your shopfront. Like the wonderful Fox umbrella shop in London Wall. This is a delightful frontage that reflects the high fashion in retail architecture in the late-1930s. On one level, it’s very simple: just a plain rectangular window to set off the goods on display, a big name sign, the latest in black cladding – and the foxes, of course, on either side of the name.
But on another level this is a very elaborate and expensive confection. The metal window frames are stainless steel. The black cladding is Vitrolite, a coloured glass sheet material that was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s because it looked good, shed the dirt, and was available in the fashionable hues of the time – pink, eau de nil, black.† The windows had curved non-reflective glass. And that simple three-letter name plate is not so simple either. The steel letters light up at night thanks to neon tubes, also highly fashionable.
The style of the shopfront reflected the quality of the products sold within. Apparently Winston Churchill used Fox umbrellas, and that personification of 1960s television style, the character John Steed in The Avengers, played by Patrick MacNee, carried an umbrella by Fox. The company still exists, though they no longer trade at London Wall.§ The premises are now given over to fine wines and dining, but the only concession to this is one line of signage below the shop name. The rest is still intact and glistening. Rain or shine.
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* The poet Archilochus has a fragment, variously translated, that contrasts the fox and the hedgehog: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’, or words to that effect. And these days, foxes are all over greetings cards, on which they’re nearly as popular as hares.
† Vitrolite was used in the bathrooms at the Savoy Hotel. See my post here.
§ Fox are here.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Regular readers of this blog will have noticed my liking for market buildings of all kinds, from medieval mutli-arched halls to the glass-roofed markets of the 19th century. I also like market crosses – the focal points of market activity that still stand in many towns, many of them medieval and elaborately carved.
Market crosses, like this one at Shepton Mallet, are partly shelters for stall holders, partly three-dimensional signs to indicate the site of the market, and partly religious buildings that reminded medieval traders and shoppers that their business took place under the eye of God – and probably that deals agreed under the cross had an oath-like and binding force.
Shepton’s handsome stone cross dates from the year 1500, although it has been much altered and the precise dates of its various parts aren’t entirely clear. The central shaft looks largely original (though it may have been restored in the Victorian period). The surrounding hexagonal structure with its shallow elliptical arches has a 17th-century appearance, so may replace an earlier set of arches, it being unlikely, though possible, that the shaft originally stood without the surrounding structure propping it up. Above the arches are six very Gothic-looking pinnacles that seem out of keeping with the Jacobean arches but very much in keeping with the central shaft: perhaps they date from the 19th-century restoration, when the outer structure was Gothicized, to make it more like the original cross. There is a lot more detail about the history of this building on the local Shepton Mallet website.*
Whatever the exact story, the market cross still forms a focus in the town square.† Shepton is, I think, no longer quite the bustling place it was – although I was last there on a quiet Sunday and it may well be busier during the rest of the week. But the town has obviously looked after this beautiful structure for over 500 years, and I hope it attracts more people to the town’s shops. I hope to be back soon on a weekday, when they’re open.
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* For example, the website gives evidence for work on the cross in 1841, with various accounts including one that says only the upper part of the cross was rebuilt at this time – though we are not told exactly what ‘rebuilt’ means in this context. However, this online account is itself a very shortened version of a much longer study. See the website for more details.
† One more thing hat adds to the historical interest of the market cross is an old iron road sign, attached to one corner, that shows distances to various towns and cities. I did a post about this sign some time ago, here.
Saturday, November 19, 2016
Looking down again
Among my recent posts, one of my personal favourites (and if web statistics are anything to go by, one of my readers’ favourites too) is one I did in August about the mosaic floors in the National Gallery, created by the Russian-born artist Boris Anrep, starting in the 1920s.* Anrep adorned one other London gallery, the Tate (now Tate Britain), and these mosaics are just as fascinating, though not quite so easy to see.
The Tate was damaged in a Zeppelin raid in World War I, and after the hostilities ended needed a new floor in one of the octagonal corner galleries. Boris Anrep, who was yet to do his bigger floors in the National Gallery but had established himself as a mosaic-maker of some flair, offered to make a mosaic floor for the room. Better still, from the gallery’s point of view, he was prepared to work for nothing if no funds could be found.
This suited Charles Aitken, the gallery’s keeper, although as it turned out he was able to secure some money for Anrep’s materials, and Anrep settled on illustrating eight of William Blake’s proverbs, this being a room, at that time, where some of the gallery’s considerable Blake holdings were displayed. The proverbs are of course very Blakean: ‘Exuberance is beauty’, reads one; ‘If the Fool would persist in his Folly, he would become wise’ is another.
There’s quite a lot of tension in these mosaics. In ‘The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion,’ the lion has a bottom-up pose, a spiky mane, and prominent claws: a well-fed and powerful feline. The fox by contrast in long and rangy, with matchstick legs: providing for yourself can be a hard business. ‘Expect poison from standing water’ has a different kind of tension: the female figure seems about to drink, but the restraining hand of God hovers above – will she heed it?
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* This earlier post also has more information about Anrep, which I have not repeated here.
† There is also a certain amount of reflection from the lighting, which I have tried to minimise but which can still be seen in the photographs.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Last of my current clutch of book reviews is a new book about London. It’s about mudlarking, the wonderful pastime of recovering objects from the banks of the Thames. But it’s also about the history of London, and the fragmentary nature of the mudlark’s finds says something too about the fragmentary nature of historical evidence, about the way the past comes back to us in bits – but bits that can shine with the vividness of jewels...
Ted Sandling, London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures
With a foreword by Iain Sinclair
Published by Frances Lincoln
Once or twice I’ve walked down one of the sets of steps by the River Thames in London, to take a photograph from the shore. I’ve always felt a bit uneasy down there (Should I really be there? Will I be apprehended by a River Policeman or some imagined embankment beadle?). But I’ve also wondered what it would be like to be a mudlark, walking slowly along the shore and scavenging the historical detritus – old clay pipe stems, bits of pottery, colourful chunks of glass, the odd Victorian lemonade bottle – that gathers there.
Now I know. Ted Sandling’s enchanting new book reveals what it’s like to be a mudlark, and tells stories from London’s history, based on the fragments he’s found down on the shore. It’s a winning way to look at history, juxtaposing photographs of the finds with narratives about their origin or use or context. Sandling makes bottle stoppers speak to us about the history of London’s consumption of mineral water; bits of glass reveal an international industry embracing Asia, the Levant, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic; an ink bottle has things to tell us about the history of literacy; pins provide evidence of early mass production; and so on.
There’s a very special immediacy about the connection with history. You pick up a bit of clay pipe stem. It’s one of the most common things to find on the shore, but you may be the first person to handle it since its owner threw it away, broken and useless, 200 years ago. It’s very intimate, too, this connection. That original user put his lips to that stem; another grasped the wine glass of which you’re holding a fragment; yet another curled his wig with those curlers.
Some of the fragments animate very specific stories. A bit of glass marked ‘ECKHAM’ and some bits of letters that look like ‘Manwaring’ lead to the origins of a South London pickle manufacturer. ‘BATTERS’, ‘ENGLAN’ and a bit of ‘Morgan’ is evidence of a firm making patent ceramic crucibles (first in Wales, then in Battersea, then back in Wales again). They were the state of the art then, and they still exist as manufacturers of crucibles – and, now, of parts for jet engines too.
There are even bits of buildings washed up by the tide. A chunk of masonry from the old Palace of Westminster that burned down in 1834 is a prize exhibit. Delft wall and floor tiles are no less fascinating. And I learned, in the course of a passage about a wine bottle neck, that bottles as well as buildings had string courses. Such things, the objects themselves and the short accounts of them, do not lose from being fragments – visually, they are stunning, and historically they exemplify how the past comes to us in fragments that we have to piece together.
Sandling’s enthusiasm for his material is infectious. He can luxuriate in the coloured decoration on a tile, the glow of a piece of glass, the texture of anything he holds. He’s good at recreating the surprise of discovery and the strangeness of some of the finds – some of them, after all, have taken long journeys to get here: the river both is the essence of London and is something flowing into it from outside. Even what were everyday objects – a pipe bowl in the shape of a horse’s hoof, a Tudor money box – can seem strange until their stories are filled in, and Sandling is good at getting this sense of strangeness, as well as giving us the background information we need to understand the objects better. He recognises, too, that odd, uncertain feeling that I felt when stepping on to the mixture of sand, gravel, and mud beside the Thames. Nearly everyone feels it, he says, when they first go down there. Bottles and buttons and bear heads (yes) and writers and mudlarks too, we are all strangers on the shore.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
The next of my handful of new book reviews is of the latest addition to Pevsner’s Buildings of England series. For many, these books are self-recommending. But now the revised editions are coming out, many of them getting on for twice the length of the original books, it seemed a useful idea to have a closer look at the benefits of revision – and it’s certainly not just a case of deleting demolished buildings and adding newly built ones...
Chris Pickford and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Warwickshire
Published by Yale University Press
The arrival of a new revised edition of one of Pevsner’s Buildings of England volumes has me rubbing my hands with glee, especially when it’s on a county in my local area. As I live in north Gloucestershire, not so far from the border with Warwickshire, the new edition of Warwickshire is right up my street.
Pevsner’s original Warwickshire came out in 1966, so a full update was due. As seems usual these days, the new Warwickshire has 800 pages (there were just 529 smaller pages in the 1966 edition), but unlike its processor it doesn’t include Birmingham, which will appear in a forthcoming volume on Birmingham and the Black Country. There’s plenty of space, then, for new extended entries on Warwick and Coventry Universities, and for many individual new buildings (Pevsner’s account of Coventry Cathedral, a new building in 1966, is reproduced with little change, apart from some notes on recent minor alterations and additions). The old buildings (and there are some belters in this county: Warwick and Kenilworth Castles, Baddesley Clinton and Stoneleigh Abbey) are covered in more detail. The book also includes much more information about many places – small towns such as Bedworth and Atherstone, for example, are covered in much greater depth. We get a richer picture of this fascinating county as a result.
One huge gain in the revision process is the scope to draw on the results of new research about all kinds of buildings. Recent books on the architect Sanderson Miller (very active in his native Warwickshire) are a case in point. Andor Gomme’s work on the architect and builder Francis Smith of Warwick is another. Recent research also throws light on the designers of important houses such as Compton Verney. And on rediscoveries. Why didn’t the 1966 Pevsner tell me about the wonderful Norman tympanum in the church at Billesley, I wondered? Answer: because it was only rediscovered in 1988! The new book includes it, and provides a photograph of it too.
It didn’t take long before I got out and about with the new Warwickshire in my hand. It throws light even on places that are familiar to me, as I discovered when I took it on a journey through parts of the south of the county. There was much more than in the original book on the large village of Brailes, for example, and about smaller ‘hidden’ places like Idlicote, with its church, house, and dovecote, and about places I’d driven through hundreds of times, like Halford, a village on the Fosse Way with a good church (another bit of excellent Norman carving (who said Herefordshire had all the best Norman sculpture?) and some elegant early-19th century houses. I finished my trip in Shipston-on-Stour, which I thought I knew like the back of my hand. But the Pevsner encouraged me to explore more closely a former nonconformist chapel I’d overlooked before, and introduced me to a bit of the town I’d not visited, where it pointed me towards an extraordinary former police station with, of all things, 19th-century Gothick ogee windows.
So Warwickshire doesn’t disappoint with the familiar places. And I’m already noting down buildings I don’t know that I want to see. I think the list will continue to grow for some time. Anyone with any kind of interest in Warwickshire, its history, and its buildings, will I’m sure react in the same way. There’s no need to hesitate to buy this latest Pevsner.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
With continuing news of change in British retailing (Marks and Spencer are among the latest to announce store closures and a change of emphasis), it’s time to look back over the history of another great name on the British High Street. So here’s a new history of the impact the Woolworth’s chain made in our towns...
Kathryn A Morrison, Woolworth’s: 100 Years on the High Street
Published by Historic England
From 1909 until their demise in 2008, Woolworth’s* was a ubiquitous and familiar name on Britain’s High Streets. Selling, at various times, everything from children’s clothes to gardening equipment, recorded music to sweets, they were famous above all for low prices and good value. Woolworth’s red-signed store fronts and signature lines (pick n’ mix) were so familiar that they were taken for granted. Everyone was shocked when they closed.
Kathryn A Morrison, historian of retail architecture, is well qualified to chronicle the American company’s story in this country, with special reference to the way in which they designed, decorated, and arranged their stores. She begins with the man himself, Frank Winfield Woolworth, the American entrepreneur who built up a huge and successful chain of fixed-price nickel-and-dime stores before exporting the idea to Britain. She charts the company’s progress through the challenges of World War I, the subsequent recession, World War II, the post-war reconstruction, and the peak of the 1960s when the company had some 1130 outlets and had reached saturation point in Britain. There follows the sad decline, with the company making repeated attempts to revive the business with new names and approaches (Woolco, Shopper’s World, Woolworth by Post, Savermarket, Furnishing World, Kidstore, etc, etc), restructurings, and redesigns, before the final closure in the relentless economic crash of 2008.
This story, fascinating in its own right, is just the background to the main subject of this book, which is the history of the way Woolworth’s designed and presented their stores. At the beginning it’s a canny tale of careful choice of sites (near bus stops and railway stations), enticing signs and window displays and notices assuring the customer that everything inside cost just 3d or 6d, of drawing customers in with weighing machines in lobbies, of creating an identity with Classical facades and carved stone lions. Morrison shows how the stores were distinctive inside too, with goods laid out on open counters rather than out of reach as was normal then. This arrangement proved an irresistible temptation to shop-lifters (early reports showed stolen items ranged from soap, combs and scissors to a tortoise – a revealing snapshot of the sort of stock that was carried).
Later highlights from the history of Woolworth’s architecture and design include big Art Deco and Moderne frontages from the interwar period, more stylized Classical fronts for smaller shops, and a restrained neo-Georgian style that seems to have been adopted in response to the increasingly strong 1930s conservation lobby. All these styles were being built at the same time, but the stores were unified visually by motifs from the bright red signage to the use of a distinctive ‘W in a diamond’ monogram that became closely associated with the company. The design of everything from cafeterias to counters, window frames to pressed-steel relief panels, is noted along the way, and illustrated in a rich array of period photographs.
Period photographs, indeed, dominate – a lot of these stores have gone, or have been very thoroughly adapted. But there are hints and traces of these formerly glorious stores all over the place, and Morrison shows us what to look for and where to find it. She also features some of the outstanding stores that remain with little alteration to frontages at least. The 1930s shop in Monmouth (original windows at street level, stylized Classical brickwork above), the flagship store in Lister Gate, Nottingham, all faience fins and mouldings like an Art Deco cinema, and Ledbury’s small-town neo-Georgian outlet are the stars here.
I have space only to mention a tiny fraction of the fascinating things in this book, which throws light on subjects as varied as the company’s treatment of its staff in the early days to their change from leasehold to freehold properties and how this affected their growth. Morrison’s book is wonderfully revealing about the design and history of a business that was a familiar, and much loved, presence in Britain for a century and is essential reading for its insights into architectural, retail, and social history.
Friday, November 11, 2016
It's that time of year again. As winter sets in and Christmas approaches, I post a few reviews of recent books that have struck a chord with me this year. I begin with a new book on Brutalism and, especially, on concrete – subjects that I've only rarely touched on here...
Barnabas Calder, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism
Published by William Heinemann
Over the last few years, Brutalism, the architectural style of the 1960s par excellence, has begun to be described, discussed, and appreciated more than ever since the building boom in which these boldly massed and often controversial structures were built. In this new book, Barnabas Calder nails his colours to the mast. He likes these buildings, has always liked them, and likes, more than likes, loves the material most of them are made of. The book’s first sentence is, ‘I am a lover of concrete.’
Over 300-odd pages, Calder presents a detailed account of a clutch of Brutalist buildings, documenting their history, anatomizing their design, and explaining what’s good about them. Several are the usual architectural suspects in London – structures such as Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron Towers, the vast Barbican development by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, and Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre. There are also less well known and more far-flung but equally interesting buildings, like New Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge, and buildings I’d not thought Brutalist at all, like Stirling and Gowan’s Engineering Building for Leicester University. And there’s the commercial Brutalism of Richard Seifert, the architect of London’s Centrepoint block.
They all throw up memorable stories. We meet the rebarbative Goldfinger getting angry that someone in his office isn’t working and sacking him on the spot; the victim turns out to be a visitor. We get insights into the struggles between architects and builders at the Barbican. We marvel at how Denys Lasdun coped with multiple and contentious committees when building the National Theatre. And we meet Sir Leslie Martin, the quiet man of Brutalism, overseer of so many projects for the LCC and mentor to so many young architects.
Along the way, Calder tells us a lot about concrete. That, after all (and notwithstanding Jim Stirling’s red buildings, which flaunt their red brick and problematic glazing) is where Brutalism begins, with béton brut, the raw concrete of the title. Calder loves this material but his is not an unquestioning love. He loves it most when it is good quality concrete. And although many people think of concrete is a cheap material, good concrete isn’t cheap. His accounts of the hammered concrete at the Barbican make this clear. Bush hammering produces the artistically roughened surface that makes much of the Barbican so impressive. You get it by hammering off the topmost layer. But that doesn’t mean you can pour the concrete any old how. Concrete destined for hammering has to be just so before you set to work with the hammers – if it’s not, the stuff breaks off unevenly and you have a mess. And the hammering itself takes a lot of time, noise, and dust. It’s a tough job. Similar pains went into the production of the concrete at the National Theatre. Here it was poured in situ into wooden shuttering. But the shuttering had to be just right, and only reused once – more than that and it would not produce the crisp image of the wood on the concrete surface that is such as feature of the building. Structures like the National required as much craftsmanship as good brickwork or stone masonry. All this is conveyed with the author’s winning mixture of clarity and zeal.
Calder talks about how the buildings work, too. And he’s honest about this. While thoughtfully explaining how well planned most of the structures are, he also admits some of their shortcomings, such as their energy consumption – they were built at a time of relatively cheap electricity. Even so, for Calder, these buildings are about as good as it can get. He’s always their advocate and his book is an enjoyable, informative, and entertaining read.
Monday, November 7, 2016
A few weeks ago the Resident Wise Woman and I decided to grab an hour or two out and go over to the Rollright Stones, a prehistoric* stone circle that we’ve visited a few times before. I don’t know what it is about this place. Some say it feels spooky, others that it recharges their energies. I find it atmospheric – but very hard to photograph. My pictures of it seem to show expanses of grass with some tiny stones in the distance, or close-ups of stone that look like just…stone. My best effort was probably on a misty morning† when you couldn’t see the stones very well at all – at least there was atmosphere, even if it was mostly made of water vapour.
Once we’d had a walk round, imbibed the atmosphere on this much clearer day, and admired the way people had been decorating the hedge with coloured ribbons, we decided to walk around the neighbouring field to look at a smaller, associated group of stones, the Whispering Knights. They’re probably the remains of the inner chamber of a neolithic burial mound. The earth mound has long gone and the stones now form a tight cluster. Huddled together against a background of the gently undulating Oxfordshire countryside they make it easy to see why people imagined them as a group of conspiratorial figures speaking to each other sotto voce.
The Knights hold people’s attention just as magnetically as the stone circle. On approaching we saw that visitors have tossed coins that have gathered in a shallow depression in one of the lower stones; they have also left little twists of straw and a bunch of flowers. Offerings to the gods? To Mother Earth? Memorials to loved ones who loved this place? Or just encouragement to the people who look after the stones? Maybe all of the above. Evidence anyway of the ways in which people today still connect with this fascinating and haunting place.
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*The stones have their own website, here, which gives approximate dates of 2500–2000 BC for the stone circle and 5000 BC for the Whispering Knights.
† My previous, misty encounter with the Rollright Stones is remembered here. The comments section to this earlier post includes accounts of various legends associated with the stones.
Friday, November 4, 2016
Post boxes: readers who return often to this blog might have noticed that I have bit of a thing about them – I must have done at least half a dozen posts about post boxes over the years. Although they’re not strictly buildings, they’re built structures, and some were designed by architects. And the people who decide which buildings should be listed don’t have any problems with including them: there are quite a few listed boxes.
A number of these are Penfolds, the lovely Victorian hexagonal boxes that celebrate their 150th birthday this year. They’re named for their designer, architect John Wornham Penfold,* and they are rather architectural in character, with the acanthus leaves around the top. They were made between 1866 and 1879 before being superseded by cylindrical boxes that were less costly to manufacture.
Original 1866 Penfolds are quite rare. There are 20 of them in use on Britain’s streets, including a fair number in London and no fewer than 8 in Cheltenham†. So as I live near Cheltenham, it’s a local Penfold I’ve chosen to share with you. It’s rather special in that it still has the original white enamel flap over the slot, chipped and spattered with red paint, but still hanging there, helping to keep out driving rain and autumn leaves.
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* Penfold was a distinguished member of his profession. He became President of the Architectural Association and a Fellow of the RIBA. There’s more about him and his post boxes here. I'm also indebted to an article in NADFAS Review, Autumn 2016, for reminding me about this anniversary.
† The total number of Penfolds in use, both 1866 examples and later ones, is about 70.