Sunday, November 30, 2008

Burford, Oxfordshire

From the Brazils

This is one of the figures on the monument of Edmund Harman, barber-surgeon to Henry VIII, in Burford parish church. Harman became a prominent Burford resident in the 1540s, when he was one of the beneficiaries of his boss’s dissolution of the country’s monasteries. He and his wife were granted Burford Priory.

Like many a big cheese before and since, he made sure his monument was made well before he died. Dating from 1569, it also commemorates Agnes, ‘his only and most faithful wife’ and their 16 children, only two of whom survived their parents. Quite why the wall plaque is surrounded by figures like this one, whose feathered headdresses seem a long way from standard Oxfordshire attire, is not known. The best guess as to their identity – though there’s been a lot of scholarly argument about it – is that they hail from the banks of the Amazon. They may have been copied from illustrations in a Flemish book that appeared a few years earlier.

But why are they in Burford, on this particular monument? Apparently Agnes Harman’s family included merchant adventurers and perhaps it was her connexion with people who had sailed across the Atlantic that inspired these unlikely carvings, creating in the process one of the many pleasant surprises in this beautiful church on the edge of the Cotswolds.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Page Street, London

Full English

Before I leave Page Street, here’s the other building I noticed as I made way to Tate Britain. The Regency Cafe (‘established 1946’) still has the black tiles and white lettering that must have gone up just after the end of the Second World War. It smacks a little of the ‘back end of Art Deco’ that cafe designers liked to use at around that time, but looks forward too to the clean modern lines of the 1950s. Just the thing, in fact, to represent the mix of post-war optimism, Italian flair, down-to-earth food, and good coffee that made the English ‘caff’ what it once was and, occasionally, still is.

Inside this resilient survivor there’s some original wall tiling to set off some classic posters, plus a lot of later formica-topped tables and plastic chairs. We’re in archetypal cafe territory, in other words: a lived-in place that looks as if it’s been delivering a hearty breakfast and decent coffee since the time when muffins were always toasted and barristas stood up in court not behind counters. I hope when next I’m passing I’ll have time to go in and try the place for myself.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Page Street, London


A few years ago I was involved in a campaign to provide more affordable housing in the small Cotswold town where I live. Some people argued that they didn't want new buildings cluttering up the town, and I would say that social housing didn't have to be ugly. It could be well designed and a visual asset to a place. It could be well built in local stone in the Cotswolds, whereas in London, maybe brick or stucco might be more appropriate materials. Get a good architect to do the designs and you'd really enhace the neighbourhood. Well, I know it doesn't always work out like that, but it's good to aim high.

I was reminded of these discussions the other day when I was on my way to Tate Britain. I’d often admired and boggled at these flats in Page Street and neighbouring Vincent Street before finding out their history. Interestingly, they're an example of getting a successful architect to design social housing using, as it happens, those quintessentially London materials, brick and stucco. Of course there are plenty of brick and stucco buildings around, some as vibrantly patterned as streaky bacon, some more restrained. But none of them are quite like this. The chequerboard-patterned blocks were designed by Edwin Lutyens no less, and built in 1929–30. Lutyens was the great master of country houses, banks, and other grand buildings, and, famously, did the design for the Cenotaph in Whitehall. These flats were his only large-scale social housing scheme, and were done for the Westminster City Council. The blocks, by the way, are divided by little Classical pavilions containing shops and entrance halls that are much more in the expected Lutyens style. But what catches the eye are these expanses of brick and stucco, traditional materials put to unprecedented use. On the eve of the 1930s, the Edwardian master had not lost his eccentric touch.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Brackley, Northamptonshire

Marking time

I have a fondness for the old town halls of the 17th and 18th centuries. They form visual climaxes to so many high streets and market places and they combine civic pride and usefulness in a way that seems just right. The typical layout is an open, arched ground floor where you can have a market, a big upper room for meetings, and a cupola on top, often with a clock.

The clock is important. Back when the Town Hall at Brackley was built (by the Duke of Bridgewater, in 1706) not many people had watches or clocks of their own. So they relied on the church clock or a town hall timepiece like this one to tell the hours. The church wasn’t always visible from the main street, so to give a town a clock, right in the centre where everyone gathered to meet, buy, sell, and gossip, was a real gift to a town.

Such a gift needed to be visible and town hall builders started adding these cupolas, perfect little bits of carpenter’s Classicism, to show them off. The cupola at Brackley is one of my favourites. Everything about this ornate little structure – the fancy weathervane, the neat dome on its eight Classical arches, the cube containing the clock with its white corner brackets – shows that the builders took special care and gave the job the time it deserved.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

French curves

When someone says ‘Art Nouveau’, I automatically think of Paris Metro stations and large houses in Brussels, buildings put up around the beginning of the 20th century and decorated in a style that owes its extraordinary movement and plasticity to curving, sinuous lines. It’s a style that lends itself to pottery, glass lampshades, ironwork, and jewellery, but it doesn’t always sit happily on buildings, which tend to have lots of straight lines and rectangles in them. As if recognizing this fact, the architects of Vienna – and their great Scottish colleague, Charles Rennie Macintosh – developed a more rectilinear form of Art Nouveau, involving abstract patterns and geometrical shapes, that they applied to all kinds of buildings from houses to art galleries. In Central Europe this style is called Secessionist, after the group of Viennese artists who seceded from the establishment.

All of this means that Art Nouveau architecture isn’t a very English phenomenon. Edwardian architecture was a riot of styles, from Arts and Crafts to Bankers’ Baroque, and the delicate wave patterns of Art Nouveau got squeezed out rather. But now and then you spot these forms, especially at the point where architecture and decoration intersect, and one of these points is the shop front.

The picture shows part of a shop front in Leamington. These little curved mouldings caught my eye and immediately reminded me of the sinuous Parisian Art Nouveau. How satisfying that some shop designer should have thought to set off his glass window – itself a great curving swathe of transparency – with this small detail. High up above eye level, mouldings like this are ignored by most shoppers. Why look at the window frame when you’re interested in the goods inside? But no doubt the designer was after a subliminal hint of quality and European sophistication. Hence, for a moment, this fleeting imitation of the way they ordered these matters in France.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Stanway, Gloucestershire

Remember them

Here are last year's snows on my favourite war memorial, not far from where I live. The 1920 bronze statue of St George and the Dragon is by Alexander Fisher, the column was designed by Sir Philip Stott, architect-squire of the nearby village of Stanton, and the lettering on the memorial is by Eric Gill. The memorial is wonderfully sited at a junction as the road begins to rise up the hill, past Stanway's few stone and thatched cottages, and on towards Stow on the Wold. Its sculpture, arresting in form and beautiful in detail, does its job well: makes us pause, and look, and remember. It's a work of real quality, and that is, after all, what those who died in war deserve.
Thanks to Zoë, who took the evocative photograph while I scraped the white stuff off the car.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Whittonditch, Wiltshire

Landmark cottages (1)

At the entrances to villages, on dangerous bends, in fields, at wide places in the road, landmark cottages stand and stand out. Often they seem to be in strange locations: not next to a farm or in the centre of a settlement but on the edge or in the middle of nowhere. To the casual passer-by they seem oddly sited. But there’s usually a reason for their being where they are – housing a cowman near the pastures or a gamekeeper where he can get quickly to the covers, for example.

This one is on a now minor road near Whittonditch between Newbury and Swindon (a route now eclipsed by the M4, which roars not far away). It began life as a toll house. The projecting bay, with good views either way along the road, is typical turnpike architecture. The pointed windows and overhanging thatched roof speak of something still more special – this is a cottage orné, the kind of extra-cottagey cottage that architects and pioneers of the Picturesque movement of the late-18th and early-19th centuries loved.

The 20th century, of course, has added its share of special effects: the staddle stones linked by chain, the tools displayed on the wall. But such things are just as much part of what people call home as thatched roofs and log fires. They’re part of the building’s history too. They all help make this building something to look out for, whether it gives us a lesson in social history, or simply reminds us that we’re only 8 miles from Swindon.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Wickham, Berkshire

The elephant in the gloom

Grubbing around in Berkshire looking for a Gothick gatehouse that escaped my searching, I found myself in Wickham. The church looked immediately appealing and I was sure I’d read something about it. But what?

Well, I was immediately impressed by the tower, which is Saxon and has little paired windows, high up, which are typical of church architecture just before the Normans arrived in 1066. The rest of the building looks very different, though – perfect 14th-century Gothic, with fancy window tracery and flint walls. When I got inside I realised, once my eyes had adjusted to the incredibly dark interior on this dull, cloudy day, that it’s far too perfect to be medieval. The main body of the church is a Victorian recreation of 14th-century Gothic, full of elaborate carvings of foliage, curvaceous arches, and angels looking down from the roof. It was the creation of Benjamin Ferrey, pupil, follower, and biographer of the great A W N Pugin himself.

The real surprise comes when you look up at the roof of the north aisle. The timbers here are supported by angels, but with the addition of elephants. These elephants, which are made out of papier mâché, of all things, were shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1862 before being presented to the Nicholson family, one of whom, Rev William Nicholson, paid for the construction of the church. The tuskers, of which there were originally four, were intended for the parsonage, but they turned out to be too big, so four more were made and this octet of elephants now looks down from the roof of the north aisle. The wooden font cover, carved by Maoris (I am not making this up) came from the same source.

Ancient stones, a quiet village, a leaf-strewn path: you think you have a parish church taped. And then, again and again, the building produces something to amaze you. Looking up at the elephant in the gloom even made up for the terrible weather.