Sunday, December 23, 2007

All Saints, Margaret Street, London

This nativity image is from All Saints, Margaret Street, one of the masterpieces of the architect William Butterfield. The church is a typical Butterfield building in polychrome brick, and is full of the sort of beautiful fittings and decorations that provided an appropriate setting for the kind of worship favoured by the Victorian Tractarian movement. The building was finished in 1859, but in the 1870s Butterfield returned to design scenes and figures to be painted on tiles in the North aisle. The stars shine down on a very Victorian tiled stable. The Gothic revival came early to Bethlehem and Our Lord, of course, merits only the best when it comes to quatrefoils, columns, and canopies. Season’s Greetings.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Broad Street, Worcester

Another upward glance during the same visit to Worcester (see previous post) yielded this ornate George IV lamp and Regency ironwork. It originally formed part of the frontage of the Crown Hotel, one of Worcester’s old coaching inns, but now marks the entrance to Crown Passage, a shopping arcade. Coaching inns were once such a prominent and important part of the English scene and it's pleasing that the authorities of the city hung on to the old decoration of the Crown. The lanterns act not just as a mementoes of what was there before, but as effective beacons for shoppers heading for the mall. They're so much better and more characterful than the bland signage beneath them.

I am especially fond of old guide books, particularly the Shell Guides to the counties, which still have a lot to tell us about the spirit of the places they describe and the buildings one can find there. Browsing James Lees-Milne’s 1964 Shell Guide to Worcestershire I was pleased to see, amongst the other attractions of the city (the cathedral, the Guildhall, some beautiful Georgian houses) a fine Edwin Smith photograph of the lanterns and ironwork of the Crown. It’s good to know he noticed them too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Shop front, Worcester

In 1881 people could be bothered with things like this. A small shop in a side street in Worcester is topped with this grandiose collection of panels, scrolls, pediment, date stone, and curvaceous lamp bracket. And in the pediment is a relief of a basket of flowers, picked out in colour. So this was a florist’s, then, in 1881, and the proprietor wanted his colourful wares to be presented to the public in a veritable temple of Flora.

I include this building not because it’s an amazing piece of design or a show-stopping example of architecture or a breathtaking bit of townscape. It’s none of these things. But it is an example of the small pleasures that can be had by looking up in the least likely of places, of the modest gifts that history gives the eye.

Shops are rather good for this. Their ground floors alter restlessly with new tenants and changes in fashion. Upstairs, things evolve more slowly, or not at all. Bits of former houses, faded painted lettering, fragments of ornament, or old window frames betraying a building with a longer life than you’d guess from looking at the shop window – these are the kinds of historical trove an upward glance can yield. So look up, and be amazed.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Commonwealth House, New Oxford Street, London

Corners can be the most interesting parts of a building. From medieval castles with their mural towers onwards, how a structure makes the transition from one plane to another can tell you a lot about the building’s purpose, or its builders’ priorities. Early builders often emphasized the corner’s strength with buttresses, extra-large quoin stones, or those castle towers. But in the skyscraper age, when the structure became a hidden metal frame and the wall a ‘skin’ of glass, the priorities changed – the glazing could go right up to the corner, glass meeting glass with little or no visible means of support. Art deco buildings sometimes even had panes of glass that curved through 90 degrees, dissolving the corner completely.

But here’s a skyscraper-age building that turns a corner with emphasis. Commonwealth House is sited where New Oxford Street and High Holborn meet at an acute angle. The architect, H. P. Cart de Lafontaine, placed a round tower at the junction, a tower banded with windows and topped with a modernist clock face. It was built in 1939, and like a lot of buildings from the 1930s it’s a mixture of steely modernism – strip windows and lots of them, the numberless clock face – and, elsewhere on the building, restrained detailing drawing on Art Deco motifs. But this circular tower, placed at a major junction, is a cut above the norm, a landmark for a new age that was about to be stopped with a jolt in its tracks.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Melbourne, Derbyshire

Regular readers of this blog will remember the post a couple of weeks back about the parish church at Elkstone, Gloucestershire, an attractive small church in the Norman style of the 12th century. Here’s another Norman church, but on an altogether larger scale. This is a church planned like a cathedral. There’s a grand west front with twin towers and a large entrance portal. Inside, the nave is lined by round piers and semi-circular arches, high above which are yet more arches – and all on a scale you’d normally expect in a church in a much more important town or city. The imposing effect of the architecture is enhanced with plenty of carving too – zigzags around the arches, together with a plainer moulding that gives the design a more restrained look than Elkstone. The tops of the piers have capitals with crosses, scrolls, and other designs. Elsewhere there are some interesting animal carvings, all from the 12th century.

Why did this place have such an imposing church? Apparently the place was an outpost of the bishops of Carlisle, who used to come down to south Derbyshire when the going got tough in their northern bishopric on the border with Scotland. And so visitors to Melbourne get a pleasant surprise. The church is tucked away down a side street and most people don’t find it unless they’ve come to see Melbourne Hall, the local big house, which is nearby. Those who do stumble on it discover one of the gems of English building.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Aynhoe Park, Northamptonshire

Aynhoe Park is a striking country house in Northamptonshire, constructed in golden stone for several generations of the Cartwright family, who lived here from 1615 until the mid-1950s. This picture shows just one wing of the building. The house evolved over the decades between the 17th and early-19th centuries, and includes work by two great architects, the baroque master Thomas Archer and the Regency genius John Soane. Capability Brown landscaped the grounds.

In a way though, this illustrious pedigree doesn’t matter very much. What matters most about this house is its location. It’s a country house in the middle of a village, one that stands on its head the convention of the upper classes isolating themselves in large parks and sweeping away their tenants’ cottages when they spoil the view. So when you approach Aynho from Banbury, the road bends dramatically to the left – and there’s the house, one the best surprises English architecture has to offer.

Actually, the cottages of the village don’t spoil the view either. Aynho is one of Northamptonshire’s most beautiful places. Naturally, the houses are all built of local limestone. Naturally, lots of them have espaliered apricot bushes growing up the walls. A delicious place, if ever there was one.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Langham Court Hotel, Langham Street, London

The word ‘eye-catcher’ was coined for this place. When I caught a glimpse of it from a side-street I had to have a closer look. What I found was a hotel – but it hasn’t always been that. This dazzler was built in 1901 as a nurses’ home. The glazed-brick façade is no doubt meant to look hygienic – its shiny surface would have easily shed the build-up of city grime in the smoky period when it was built. The style is a kind of neo-Norman – the semi-circular arch above the doorway is a kind of homage to doorways like the one at Elkstone in the previous entry, as the jagged decoration around the arch and the spiral-twist shafts on either side of the door make clear. But no genuine Norman building was ever like this. The bold black-and-white design of the frontage takes the medieval love of pattern-making to new extremes – some of the treatment almost recalled the bold graphics of the Secessionist movement in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Arthur E. Thompson, the building’s architect, might have found this comparison strange. He’d no doubt have found it odd too that his nurses’ home had become a fashionable hotel. At least guests must find it easy to locate when they come back after a long night out.