Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Old Baptist Chapel, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

The town of Tewkesbury is famous for several things. In 1471 it was the site of a battle in the Wars of the Roses at which the Yorkists decisively defeated the Lancastrians. It is home to a Norman abbey that is one of the most beautiful churches in England. And it has a virtually perfect medieval street plan, with numerous timber-framed houses and many narrow alleys giving access to the areas behind the main streets.

But right now, in July 2007, Tewkesbury is famous for being cut off by the devastating floods caused when record rainfall made the rivers Severn and Avon burst their banks. As a small tribute to Tewkesbury, this week’s blog looks at one of the less well known buildings in the town.

The Old Baptist Chapel is up one of the alleys that leads off Tewkesbury’s Church Street. It’s a timber-framed ‘black-and-white’ building that began life as a house and was converted for use as a chapel in the late-17th century, soon after the 1689 Act of Toleration made it legal for nonconformists to set up their own places of worship. Apart from the sign, only the large windows (probably installed in the 18th century) make it at all obvious that this most unassuming of English buildings is a chapel. Many features of the galleried interior – from the plastered ceiling to the baptistry sunk into the floor – are probably 18th-century too.

Further up the alley is the Baptists’ burial ground, a tiny walled enclave with early gravestones and chest-tombs. A small plaque proudly announces ‘BAPTIST BURIAL GROUND 1655’, so people were being interred here before the Act of Toleration and this fact raises the likelihood that Baptists were worshipping up this quiet alley too, perhaps in the house that they converted into a proper chapel when the law permitted it. And with the river a stone’s throw from the back of the burial ground, it’s also likely that they baptized their new converts in its waters. In part at least, this charming and evocative old building owes its use to the presence of the water that has dominated Tewkesbury’s history, and still dominates the life of the town today.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Great Coxwell Barn, Oxfordshire

This is a rather better known building than most of the others in this blog, but it's a personal favourite and it deserves to be known even more widely. It's one of the barns built by Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire to store the corn produced on the monastery's far-flung estates. Built in around 1300 of glowing Cotswold stone, it's a barn on a grand scale – it's just over 150 feet in length and the doors are broad enough for the farm's biggest carts to drive straight in. Smaller openings in the walls are for owls to fly in and eat up any rats or mice rash enough to nibble away at the grain. Inside, from threshing-floor to rafters, the space soars like a cathedral – a comparison made by William Morris, one of this glorious building's greatest admirers.

Great Coxwell Barn, about 2 miles southwest of Faringdon, is owned by the National Trust. Visit it if you get the chance.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Zimbabwe House, Strand, London

On holiday in the Mediterranean you’re used to admiring decaying statuary from the ancient world. But you don’t expect to find flaking limbs and headless torsos decorating a 20th-century building in the middle of London. So what’s going on at the corner of London’s Agar Street and the Strand? It’s a long story – one involving two up-and-coming artists, the building’s two very different owners, and that old chestnut of the last century, artistic controversy.

It all began in the early 1900s, when the architect Charles Holden was commissioned to design a new headquarters building for the British Medical Association. Holden, an architect who later became famous as the designer of some of the capital’s finest modernist underground stations, produced a building with eighteen tall niches, and invited the young sculptor Jacob Epstein to fill these with statuary appropriate to the building’s users.

Epstein rose to the challenge, carving a sequence of larger-than-lifesize nude figures representing the ages of man and subjects such as ‘Chemical Research’ and ‘Primal Energy’. When the scaffolding came down in 1908 to reveal the first of the figures, the public was startled. The full-frontal nudity, not to mention the wrinkled flesh of a grandmaternal woman holding a baby, proved too much for some. A campaign against the statues began, with protests from a group called the National Vigilance Society and a raging debate in the press. In a battle that prefigured the arguments surrounding D H Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley's Lover in the 1960s, the Evening Standard declared that ‘no careful father’ would let his daughter see such depravity, while Epstein’s fellow artists and intellectuals mostly rallied to his cause. They saw the dignity of Epstein’s figures and responded positively to the artist’s aim, to create ‘noble and heroic forms to express in sculpture the great primal facts of man and woman’. The BMA saw sense, and the statues survived.

But the saga didn’t end there. In 1935 the building was bought by the Rhodesian High Commission and they didn’t like the statues. When they inspected the figures they discovered that their stone was decaying – how tragic it would be if the extremities of the figures fell off on to pedestrians below. Such mishaps had to be prevented, of course, but instead of repairing the figures, the High Commission had the dangerous bits lopped off, leaving the statues in the sorry, mutilated state in which they remain. In spite of their maltreatment, their 'noble and heroic' character survives.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Hook Norton Brewery, Oxfordshire

As you walk up Brewery Lane in the North Oxfordshire village of Hook Norton, the road climbs slightly. Walking away from the centre of the village and towards bushes and trees, you expect to get a view of hills and fields as you reach the brow of the slope. Instead you come face to face with this most surprising building, a brewery that seems to have escaped from the fantasy-world of some Victorian industrialist, decked out with every material that its builders could throw at it, from the local orangey-brown ironstone to half-timber, lead, and slate.

The structure was the brainchild of William Bradford (1845-1919), a Victorian architect who specialized in breweries and designed dozens, all over England. They weren’t all as ornate as Hook Norton, which was built right at the end of the 19th century. A lot of the architectural features – the half-timbering, tall windows, and ornate roofs, for example – show the influence of the Queen Anne revival style that was fashionable at the time as the way to build posh houses in West London. But Bradford makes the elegant Queen Anne style his own, with a lavish supply of quirky features such as the triangular dormer windows that pop up everywhere like raised eyebrows.

In an age when industrial buildings like breweries were often designed by engineers rather than architects, Bradford was a keen advocate of breweries with architectural pretensions. He spoke with scorn about the majority of breweries, whose design was ‘entrusted to the hands of the same gentleman who provides and fits up the pipes and cocks’. This approach wasn’t good enough for Bradford, who wanted his buildings to look impressive. And he had a point. Buildings like the brewery at Hook Norton have become icons, their images proudly displayed on jugs and beer mats.

Hook Norton Brewery is big, too. What other Oxfordshire village can boast a 7-floor Victorian skyscraper? But then, breweries are often tall, because traditional brewing is a process that relies on gravity. You pump the wort (the basic mixture of water and ground malt) to the top of the building, and then it flows downward through the various brewing processes until the brown nectar emerges at the ground-floor level. Many old breweries have closed, but the one at Hook Norton is still brewing. Naturally, they still use the original 1899 steam engine to pump the wort and power the machinery that crushes the grain. Naturally, they’re still winning praise for their beer. Cheers!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Everard's Printing Works, Bristol

Bristol is rich in interesting buildings, in spite of the fact that swathes of the city were bombed during World War II. Some of the survivors, like the cathedral and the vast church of St Mary Redcliffe, are justly famous. This is one of the less well known. It’s the former printing works of Edward Everard in Broad Street. The interiors have been changed out of recognition, but the wonderful street frontage, covered in Carrara-ware tiles produced by Doulton and Company, survives and gleams.

Gutenberg and William Morris, both working at their presses, stand on either side, looking inwards towards an angelic Spirit of Literature. Below, the company’s name is spelled out in letters designed by Everard himself, while above, a figure representing Light and Truth looks down.

W J Neatby, senior designer at Doulton’s, was the creator of these stunning tiles, and the whole composition, from the heart-motifs on the turrets to Everard’s swirling letter forms, conjures up what was most fashionable in English design around 1900. It’s rather like the early volumes in Dent’s Everyman’s Library, with their Art Nouveau bindings and title pages – a delight to the eye promising a feast for the mind.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Spa Buildings, Tenbury Wells

You’d have to go a long way to find anything like this, the Spa Buildings in the middle of the small Worcestershire town of Tenbury Wells, which became a spa when saline springs were discovered in 1839. The 1862 design, by James Cranston of Birmingham, isn’t much like any other building – it’s a mixture of false-half-timber and greenhouse, with a bit of Victorian brickwork thrown in, all making a bizarre cocktail that contemporaries called ‘Chinese Gothic’.

The big clue is in the word ‘greenhouse’. Cranston had been working on some glasshouses and got the idea of adapting greenhouse structure to a building for people. Out went the glass panes and in came steel roofing sheets and wall panels, to make one of the world’s first prefabricated buildings. The system was flexible enough to produce a pair of halls, a bath complex, and an octagonal tower to house the well with its pumps, which dispensed 20 gallons of mineral water per hour.

Like later prefabs, the Tenbury Spa Buildings were probably not intended to last that long. And they certainly never caught the admiration of the architectural powers-that-be. Nikolaus Pevser, in the Worcestershire volume of his Buildings of England series, described them as ‘much like Gothicky or Chinesey fair stuff, i.e. without seriousness or taste’. The people of Tenbury thought better of their unusual spa, though, and restored it at the end of the 20th century. With galvanized roof panels and a strengthened structure, the building is now better than ever.