Friday, February 22, 2008

Mary Ward House, Tavistock Place, London

Cutting across London to the north of Bloomsbury, I was immediately struck by this stunning building of the 1890s. Who was Mary Ward, and what was her 'House' for?

Mary Ward was known in her lifetime as Mrs Humphry Ward, a prolific Victorian and Edwardian novelist. Ah yes, Mrs Humphry Ward. I'd heard of her. Her novels are not much read now but were successful in their time and tackled the social subjects and issues of faith and doubt that were beloved of the Victorians. She was also, it turns out, a noted philanthropist and social mover and shaker. Her social work was a mixture of progressive and backward-looking initiatives. As one of the founders of the institution that became Somerville College, Oxford, she helped open up university education to women. She promoted the education of the working classes through the ‘settlement’ movement (which settled students in working-class areas where they worked among the poor). Curiously, she also became a leader of the anti-suffragist movement, campaigning against giving women the vote.

One of her most inspired initiatives was founding Passmore Edwards House in Tavistock Place. This building, funded by publisher and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards, was part of the University Hall Settlement. It housed the first properly equipped classrooms for children with disabilities and was also home to a centre where children could come to play in a safe, warm, bully-free environment. A hall, gym, library, and other communal rooms were provided, and there were also residential rooms for those living in the settlement. Early residents, young professionals who worked during the day and gave time to the settlement in the evenings, included architect Banister Fletcher, now famous for his much-reprinted history of architecture. Gustav Holst was for a while the settlement’s director of music.

The building’s young architects, Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer, themselves lived in the settlement, so knew the background to the settlement movement and grasped the building’s purpose and potential. They proved a good choice. The style the adopted for the building was that fruitful blend of Arts and Crafts with Art Nouveau that proved successful in London buildings for education and the arts at around this time. The style is seen in the work of Charles Harrison Townsend, architect of South London’s marvellous Horniman Museum and of the Bishopsgate Institute. Here, Smith and Brewer brought together segmental arches, a variety of window shapes, fine stone detailing, and other features to make an arresting façade. The lettering over the entrances is also delightful.

In 1921, a year after Mary Ward died, the house was renamed in her honour. There is more information about this building and its current use here.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Stanway, Gloucestershire

Stanway is a magical corner of the Cotswolds. A stone manor house, mostly of the 16th and 17th centuries stands hard by an ornate gatehouse, a medieval tithe barn, a parish church, and a small group of cottages. Nearby is a thatched cricket pavilion, built for the author Sir James Barrie, who was a frequent visitor to the big house. The parish church was restored, heavily, twice, once in the 1790s and once in the 1890s, so a lot of the original medieval church has been swept away.

Some of the sweepings found their way into this churchyard wall, a charming bit of recycling. What can be seen here are lots of fragments of Norman stonework, various bits of moulding, some carved foliage of the 13th century, and a chunk of a figure from the early-14th century. Oh, and a stone coffin, performing the role of a kind of shelf.

One can imagine the zealous restorer of the 1890s – actually the then vicar, the Rev Bullock-Webster, feeling slightly sheepish about having run around the building like a bullock in a china shop, and getting his builder to reuse some of the bits he’d thrown out by putting them in the churchyard wall. If only more of the most enthusiastic Victorian church restorers had done the same.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cowley Road, Oxford

The last, for the moment, of my selection of Oxford's less well known buildings is the Elm Tree pub in East Oxford's Cowley Road. For me, this is an example of the way, when walking around a city, a previously unnoticed building can suddenly catch the eye. I don't know anything about this building. Most of its features – the low-sweeping roof, fancy dormer window, curved canopy above the door, the long band of stone-framed windows, the tall chimneys, and so on – testify to the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late-19th century. The lettering above the door is pretty self-consciously crafty too – reminiscent in fact of the kind of letter forms often seen on the covers of Victorian children's books, the ancestors of The Dangerous Book for Boys. Perhaps someone out there knows the history of this pub, the penultimate stop before the Ultimate Picture Palace next door.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

St Michael's Street, Oxford

In the early 1700s, one of the most important and monumental English buildings was begun just outside Woodstock, near Oxford. Blenheim Palace, the nation’s gift to its military hero the Duke of Marlborough, is a country house on a vast scale, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh. Soon, builders began to learn about Vanbrugh’s heavyweight, rather ponderous brand of Classicism, and the influence of Blenheim was being felt in other new buildings in Oxfordshire.

This house in St Michael’s Street is an example. The twin giant pilasters that shoot up on either side of the door, the curious canopy above them, and the curve-topped windows above that – all these are Vanbrugh-type features. So are the heavy keystones – the central wedge-shaped stones the top the first- and second-floor windows. It all adds up to a surprising piece of grandeur in a side street, but it’s the kind of thing that English cities are good at – pulling us up short with something dramatic in a quiet or everyday setting. Not for nothing is this compact piece of architectural splendour called Vanbrugh House.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Covered Market, Oxford

In my undergraduate days you could get most things in Oxford’s Covered Market – fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, secondhand books and records, and discounted jeans. It was also home to a couple of tea shops the provided a welcome refuge from the Bodleian Library when the afternoon energy gap yawned.

The Covered Market, tucked behind the High, has been serving both town and gown for about 230 years. It was originally built in the early 1770s as a way of tidying away the stalls that cluttered the city’s main streets. The architect was John Gwynn, who also designed Magdalen Bridge, but most of what we see today, including the intricate roof trusses, dates from a 19th-century rebuild. It’s thus a typical Victorian market hall, with partly glazed roof and stalls that are mostly enclosed like miniature shops. The shops are arranged along four aisles, which open up here and there into cross-passages and spaces bathed in light that comes in through the roof and the high windows.

Nowadays the Covered Market has quite a lot of gift shops that cater for the tourists who venture in off the High Street. But you can still buy all kinds of food there too, and the wholesome smell of veg and fish mean that the place retains the atmosphere of a market rather than a mall.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

High Street, Oxford

One of the best products to come out of Oxford is Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. It was apparently first produced in 1874 when Cooper, a grocer on the High Street, had a surplus of Seville oranges and his wife, Sarah-Jane, turned them into a bitter, sticky conserve. The stuff caught on and became a staple of English breakfasts. It is still produced, though no longer in Oxford.

The Coopers’ shop was at 84 The High. It’s a café now, but its impressive Classical frontage of about 1840 survives with its four big Corinthian columns, two plate-glass windows, and double door. The whole thing is on a big enough scale to accommodate a Corinthian order of decent proportions and to catch the eye on a street that’s full of outstanding buildings. Not for nothing is it now called the Grand Café.

Bartlemas, Oxford

Tucked away up a lane (signposted ‘Private’) just a few hundred yards away from Cowley Road in East Oxford, Bartlemas is the remains of a hospital founded by Henry I, who ruled England from 1100 to 1135. This little building is the chapel, which, going by the windows, looks 14th century and so must be a replacement of an earlier original. Just to the north is a long stone range, part of the hospital’s domestic buildings.

When the hospital was built, and for centuries afterwards, this would have been an isolated enclave, far away from the city of Oxford, a place of quiet and seclusion where a few old or infirm inmates could live out their years in peace. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Oxford grew eastwards in ribbons of houses, shops, and factories, the new buildings surrounding and sometimes engulfing what was already there. What’s remarkable is that Bartlemas still keeps its air of quietude, even though it’s now so near to the bustle of the Cowley Road. A haunt of ancient peace.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Coughton Court, Warwickshire

Whenever I drive to or from Birmingham Airport, I see this building, set back from the A435. When its west-facing façade is warmed by the late-afternoon sun, it is the highlight of my journey.

Driving past, one gets the impression of an orange stone building set at the end of an avenue of trees in parkland – a perfect building and a unified composition in a very English landscape. Stop and look more closely, though, and the building is more complicated. Even the stunning 16th-century gatehouse at the centre can’t be all of a piece. At the ground-floor level the turrets are square, but they metamorphose into octagons between the ground and first floors, suggesting that the gatehouse was built in two goes.

The wings on either side are rendered, not stone – but whoever did the rendering got the colour right, so that it blends well with the masonry of the gatehouse. These wings are later. Their windows look 18th-century, and a painting of the early-18th century shows the large windows all in place, although the delightful little quatrefoil windows upstairs hadn’t been added at that point, so they must be later still.

Like so many English country houses, then, Coughton is a hotchpotch of periods, but a hotchpotch in which the ingredients blend together to produce something magical. Maybe the harmony has something to do with the fact that the same family has lived here for nearly six centuries. The Throckmortons of Coughton have always been Catholics, although their loyalty to the faith has landed them in trouble more than once. Their house was sacked by Parliamentarian troops during the English Civil War and the place was vandalized again by a Protestant mob in 1688. But united the family stood, and their house perhaps reflects this unity of faith and vision, over a period of almost 600 years.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Purton Stoke, Wiltshire

There are spa towns all over England, from Harrogate to Tunbridge Wells, Malvern to Woodhall Spa. Their heyday was the Georgian and Regency era, when places like Bath and Cheltenham attracted the rich, and even the royals, in search of a cure for their ills or pastimes to fill hours of idleness. Driven by the fame of these boom towns, many people discovered a spring that produced water with impurities in it, decided these impurities were health-giving, and started a spa in their backyard. There must have been scores that were too remote, too badly marketed, or insufficiently healthy to take off. Usually, they vanished without trace.

Purton Stoke in Wiltshire was one such place but here a trace of the spa remains in this tiny octagonal pump room, hidden from public view along a bridleway. Apparently the spa began as a 17th-century venture, but the little pump room is Victorian and was built in 1859–60. The decorated woodwork and octagonal plan are certainly typical of ‘pleasure architecture’ found in spas and seaside buildings, though Pevsner rightly compares the awnings to railway-station architecture too. The plaque above the door announces, ‘The ancient Salts Hole. Sulphated and bromiodated saline water’. The ironwork on the gate keeps it simpler, and just says ‘Spa’.

Broadway Tower, Worcestershire

Broadway Tower is on top of a hill on the borders of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire on a site that had long been used for lighting beacons. The hill is almost 1000 feet above sea level, so any fire lit there, or any light glimmering from a building, can be seen for miles. The story goes that the wife of George William, 6th Earl of Coventry, wanted a beacon she could see from her house in Worcester, and her husband decided on this site and chose James Wyatt as the architect.

Wyatt was known for his work in the Gothic style, but was a versatile designer – for this building of 1797–1800 turned his hand to a kind of Romanesque revival, with round-headed windows and castle-like turrets. The tower can certainly be seen for miles around, and people who like to make lists of such things argue about the dozen or more counties you are supposed to be able to see on a clear day from the top of the tower. There were of course even more before the local government reorganization of the 1970s.

People talk about buildings like Broadway Tower as ‘follies’. But, all these apparently eccentric towers, sham castles, grottoes, and so on were originally built for a purpose and when we know the purpose the buildings seem less bizarre. Broadway Tower was built to be seen, to be admired, and to admire the view from. Not so outrageous, really.