Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

A cold coming

Although England has thousands of churches dating from the Middle Ages, very few of them have more than a handful of fragments of medieval stained glass. The few places where there are substantial amounts of medieval glass – such as York Minster and the parish church of Fairford in Gloucestershire – are famous. One of the less well known places to admire the art of the Gothic glaziers is Malvern Priory.

The 15th-century stained glass in this building is some of the best English medieval glass to have survived. We do not know who made it, but similarities have been spotted with one of the windows in York Minster, the work of a glazier called John Thornton of Coventry. Whoever created the Malvern windows, they are the work of a master.

This Adoration of the Magi is one scene from the collection. It is a good example technically because it shows the way the 15th-century glaziers used lots of pale glass, so that plenty of sunlight got into the building, but highlighted these areas with rich accents of more deeply coloured glass, especially red and blue.

Mary sits with the Christ child on her lap and one of the kings, dressed in a rich red, fur-trimmed mantle over a blue tunic, kneels before them. He has removed his crown, which lies on the ground at the Virgin’s feet, and has taken off the lid of the cup he carries, revealing his to be the gift of gold. The infant Jesus reaches out for the gift with his left hand while raising his right in blessing. Behind, the other two Magi wait their turn, one in the act of removing his crown, the other raising his left hand. Joseph stands behind Mary and the thatched roof of the stable and the distant towers of a city make up the background. Shining with irregular rays that suggest its twinkling, the star completes the composition.

There is so much in this image, so many details that engage the viewer and encourage one to look for more. The faces, the interesting forms of the headgear of the Magi; the different-shaped vessels in which they bring their gifts; the way in which a cross has been concealed in the detail of the stable roof covering; the ermine trimming of many of the garments; the architecture of the distant city – all these are details to ponder in this moving depiction of a familiar subject, one that takes us straight back to the medieval world.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Angel Choir

Lincoln is my favourite of all the English cathedrals – for its stunning hill-top setting (a site equalled only by that of Durham cathedral), its graceful silhouette, and its absorbing Gothic interior so packed with detail that there’s always something new to see no matter how often one visits. Much of the cathedral was built in the late-12th and early-13th centuries after the previous building had been severely damaged in an earthquake. The rebuilding took place under the auspices of a dynamic bishop, Hugh, now known as St Hugh of Avalon (Avalon being near Grenoble, where Hugh, who spent his early years as a Carthusian monk, was born). Between 1255 and 1280 there was another building campaign, this time extending the cathedral beyond the high altar to make a new east end, with space for a shrine containing the remains of the now canonized Hugh. This new space is known as the Angel Choir and is the part of the cathedral in the photograph above.

The Angel Choir is one of the most beautiful spaces in all architecture. Its proportions are very English – wide but not too high (a French cathedral would be higher in proportion to its width). The window tracery, with its geometrical patterns, is stunning. But the space gets its effect mainly from three other aspects of the design – the use of different coloured stones (light limestone contrasting with dark Purbeck marble), the linear rhythms set up by the multitude of vertical shafts and the mouldings of the arches, and the rich carved decoration (on the capitals, on corbels, up the sides of the windows, in the blind arcading beneath the windows, and elsewhere).

The angels that give the choir its name, incidentally, are high up, carved in the spandrels of the triforium arches – the row of small arches that look like dark unglazed windows above the main arcade. These angels are barely visible in the photograph, which, although grainy and from an old book, is better than any photograph I’ve taken of the place because it highlights the differing tones of the stonework and reproduces, as in all the best Gothic architecture, the magical play of light.

A footnote. My affection for Lincoln Cathedral is musical as well as architectural, because in the 16th century the great English composer William Byrd was organist there. Byrd wrote and published much music for the Anglican church, music that would have been heard in buildings such as Lincoln Cathedral. But he was himself a Catholic, and perhaps his most sublime works are settings of the text of the Mass that would have been sung by small gatherings of Catholics worshipping behind closed doors at a time when to follow the old faith was to risk persecution.

This performance of the Agnus Dei from Byrd’s Mass in Five Parts is by the Tallis Scholars, stellar performers of Renaissance choral music. The text ends, ‘Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem’. Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Amen. And happy Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bishopsgate, London

Stop and research

My photograph shows part of the façade of the Bishopsgate Institute in London. This building, opened in 1895, provides educational facilities including courses and a library and was but one of many institutes set up in this period by charities and communities to fulfil cultural and educational aims – in the words of the Institute’s website, ‘for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions, and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts’. The Institute is fortunate to be housed a stunner of a building, one of three major buildings in London (the others are the Whitechapel Art Gallery and South London’s excellent Horniman Museum) designed by the great turn-of-the-century architect Charles Harrison Townsend.

Townsend’s work, as is widely acknowledged, combines wonderfully the traditional values of the Arts and Crafts movement with the decorative flair of Art Nouveau. That decorative element is shown in the ornament on the Bishopsgate façade, created by architectural sculptor William Aumonier. There is an additional influence on Townsend’s style (noticed by the authors of the revised Pevsner volume on the City of London) – the work of the great American architects of the late-19th century, especially Henry Hobson Richardson. That generous entrance arch is a very Richardsonian touch.

I especially wanted to share the decoration on this building, but standing on the opposite side of Bishopsgate pointing my camera at it reminded me of something else. Back in 2004, when Peter Ashley and I were doing preliminary work on The English Buildings Book (see right), I asked Peter to take a photograph of the striking police station up the street from the Institute. This simple, but perhaps naïve, request led Peter into a long and rather sticky ‘conversation’ with the police: ‘You nearly got me arrested,’ he said to me the next day.

This all came back to me the other day when I read in the paper complaints by photographers who had been stopped and questioned for photographing apparently much less sensitive buildings in London (for example, St Paul’s Cathedral, another Wren church, a fish and chip shop, and 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Gherkin). It made me think that the authorities are taking things rather too far if photographers – professional or amateur – cannot stand outside a building in London and aim their camera at it without being questioned and, in some cases, required to delete from their memory cards the images they have made.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that the police need to go about their business, and part of that business includes measures to combat terrorism. As someone who knew one of the victims of the London bombings of July 2005 this is very much in my mind. But we also need to preserve the freedoms that terrorists would take away from us, and one of those freedoms, a significant one I’d argue, is to be able to stop, and look, and take photographs of our glorious built environment – and disseminate the resulting images and the fruits of our research for educational and cultural purposes. The founders of the Bishopsgate Institute would, I hope, have agreed with that.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ten of the best

English Buildings has been going for nearly two and a half years now and has attracted many regular readers. Most of you found this blog part-way through its history, so I thought I would create a way for you to catch up with some previous posts. Enter my Ten of the Best feature. In the side-bar to the right you will find a list of ten posts on particular aspects of English Buildings. The first list is on the theme of small buildings and covers a varied and occasionally bizarre assortment of structures from an unusual bridge to a miniature building designed to house bees. Look out for more lists on other themes in coming months.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Bradford in Cheltenham

This is almost all that remains of the premises of the Cheltenham Original Brewing Company, which brewed beer in the centre of Cheltenham for nearly 240 years. The site is now a ‘retail and entertainment experience’, I’m afraid.

The Agg-Gardner family began brewing in Cheltenham in 1760, and the brewery in the centre of the town belonged to Sir James Agg-Gardner in 1888 when the Cheltenham Original Brewing Company was formed to manage the business. By this time the malthouse (below), the oldest building on the site and probably built in the 1860s, was already there and the brewery buildings were to the north of it. But on a summer Sunday morning in 1897 a fire started in the hop room and swept through the brewery, destroying most of the complex. The architect William Bradford (who may also have designed the malthouse) was called in to design a replacement. Brewing continued on the site for a further century, with the business eventually passing to Whitbread’s.

William Bradford was the doyen of Victorian brewery architects. He was famous for ornate designs amongst which perhaps the best examples are the Hook Norton Brewery and the Bridge Wharf Brewery at Lewes (for Harvey’s) – elaborate fantasies of multi-coloured bricks and curvaceous ironwork featuring towers that are both eyecatching and functional. By this stage in his career, however, his designs tended to be more restrained, and at Cheltenham his priorities were different. He was careful to specify fireproof construction, with the floors separated by concrete arches, for the new Cheltenham brewery – no doubt his clients were keen on this feature too.

Most of Bradford’s 1898 structure has now gone but the developers kept his tower, with its fancy ironwork. And the malthouse, with its polychrome brick walls, remains too. Low down at pavement level is a metal plate embossed with the deathless words, ‘COMMIT NO NUISANCE’, presumably addressed to those who had imbibed the brewery’s products too freely.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire

Smoke-filled rooms

Today many people would say that the most important room in their house was the kitchen – the place where food is cooked and, often, eaten; where the family gathers; where it is always warm. For many, the kitchen is the social centre and heart of the house. In some houses it’s an economic centre, too – I’ve known business people who hold meetings in their kitchens, and a farmhouse kitchen can be the chosen meeting place for the farmer’s family, the farm workers – and often anyone who happens to be passing.

It comes as something of a shock, therefore, to discover that many medieval houses didn’t have a kitchen as such. Outside the grandest of houses (and specialized buildings such as monasteries and colleges), most people lived in one, all-purpose room. This open space, known as the hall, was kitchen, dining room, office, workroom, and bedroom rolled into one. There was a central hearth for heating and cooking, and trestle tables at which to eat. Come night-time, the tables were taken down or pushed aside, and people lay down to sleep on mattresses on the floor. More prosperous households managed a private room (the solar) for the head of the household and his wife, but much of the life of the household still revolved around the communal hall.

With its central hearth, the medieval hall was the archetypal smoke-filled room – there was no chimney so the smoke from the fire had to find its way through a hole in the roof high above everyone’s heads. People seem to have got used to the smoke, no doubt learning to control it by opening and closing the room’s doors to create the right kind of draught.

In a few houses, where food was produced on a large scale, there was another smoke-filled room, a separate kitchen reserved just for cooking. These dedicated kitchens were not very common, and few survive today. This is the one at the manor house at Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, and it probably survives because the family decamped for another village in the 18th century, demolishing much of their old house but leaving some of it in place but unmodernized.

The kitchen was probably first built in the 14th century, and reroofed and given new windows in the 15th. Inside, fires were made against one wall, where spits turned to roast meat; there are also three ovens. As with the more common medieval halls, there was no chimney – the smoke rose to the ceiling where it exited through holes beneath the roof. Above all this is a cat’s cradle of timbers supporting the octagonal pointed roof, the whole thing topped off with a griffin made of lead.

The servants at Stanton Harcourt no doubt got used to the smoke, but it surprised one famous guest, the poet Alexander Pope, who stayed at Stanton Harcourt in 1717–18 while translating the Iliad. With Classical mythology very much on his mind, Pope compared the kitchen to Vulcan’s forge or the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus. A dark cave of creation, then, closer to Homer’s world than Pope’s, and miraculously preserved into our own.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Desirable alien (2)

In contrast to the British ‘alien’ of a few posts back, my other urban invader really is from overseas. It began life, of course, in China, and was donated to the city by the Wing Yip Company (Britain’s foremost Chinese grocer) in 1998 as a ‘thank you’ to Birmingham, the place where its business became prosperous. It enlivens a roundabout in the city’s inner ring road.

The Chinese pagoda was carved in Fujian. The granite structure was then shipped to Britain in sections and the whole thing was assembled on site. At 40 feet high, it is impressive, and, unlike the Pevsner City Guide to Birmingham, which finds it ‘gloomy’, I think it cheers up its busy roundabout. It makes is effect in spite of being dwarfed by the tall office and hotel buildings that cluster hereabouts, especially the partly pale blue Beetham Tower which, with its 36 storeys faced in glass panels, is something of an alien presence itself.

I like the way our cities can throw up such surprising bits of decoration – surprising, but not entirely random, because the pagoda stands near the city’s Chinese quarter. It’s good that even places that have been so busily modernized and remodernized as Birmingham continue to make us raise our eyebrows in this way. And that a roundabout has been thought about, for once.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Kilpeck, Herefordshire

Sheela na gig

A number of readers of the previous post have asked – via comments, email, or conversation – about Kilpeck’s most famous carving, the female corbel known as the Sheela na gig. Though I have no simple answer to what she is doing here – no one knows quite why pious masons of the 12th century should put such a carving on a church – I’d like to share her never-to-be-forgotten image with you and, startling, plain, explicit as she may be, not gloss over her or evade her as earlier generations must have done.

The Victorians indeed, who found it difficult to cope with such things, apparently removed some of the Kilpeck corbels because they couldn’t stomach such explicit images. But tucked away in the angle between chancel and apse, the Sheela survived. If 19th-century prudes needed to justify the survival, they had ways of reinterpreting the obvious. Years ago, for example, I was doing some work involving frequent trips to the British Museum, where one of the curators showed me the way some of the collection for which he was responsible had been documented in the 19th century. An old record card referring to a statuette of a woman, presumably a fertility goddess, holding up her large breasts in her hands bore the legend, ‘Woman carrying two heavy objects.’ How true, and how wrong.

One Victorian writer about Kilpeck took a still broader detour around reality. G R Lewis, whose mostly useful Illustrations of Kilpeck Church were published in 1842, described the Sheela thus in his survey of the corbels: ‘No 26 represents a fool – the cut in his chest, the way to his heart, denotes it is always open and to all alike.’

Well, church crawlers (especially in Ireland, but in Britain many other places in Europe too) get used to encountering Sheelas, though few this side of the Irish Sea are as well preserved as Kilpeck’s. The possible explanations are several, and are neatly summed up in the current guidebook to the church by James Bailey: ‘A device to ward off evil spirits, a fertility cult figure, a representation of the Great Earth Mother Goddess, a Celtic goddess of creation and destruction, an obscene hag, a sexual stimulant, a medieval Schandbild to castigate the sins of the flesh.’

In a medieval context, perhaps the last explanation is the most plausible. The carvings on the exteriors of medieval churches often portray grotesques, monsters, and the like, as a depiction of and warning against the sins and perils of the world, which we leave behind on entering the sacred, spiritual space inside the building. The Sheela could be part of that worldly community and a warning to sinners. Equally, she could well be a survivor from an earlier culture, a fertility figure most probably, kept on in this Christian context in the way in which one religion will preserve or co-opt some of the symbols of a predecessor. And I’d like to think, too, that medieval carvers were quite capable of knowing that their images could have more than one interpretation, just as we do.

Another interesting thing about the Sheela, and one that you won’t find in the guides and learned articles, is that she has a literature of her own – not the scholarly literature but a rich imaginative literature, having inspired poems by, amongst others, Seamus Heaney, Frances Horovitz, and D. M. Thomas, and prose by B. S. Johnson. These writings (many written for a publication called The Kilpeck Anthology published by the Five Seasons Press) are too rich and various to do justice to here. Heaney comes up with resonant images (‘Her hands holding herself | Are like hands in an old outhouse | Holding a bag open’) that take the poet back to his roots in the Irish countryside and bring us to the idea of fertility again (the bag is full of grain). Anne Stevenson looks back to Jewish lore, and, incidentally, to the humour of many of the Kilpeck carvings (‘This is where God first laughed | and created Lilith’). Nearly all the writers (Jeff Nuttall: ‘She is old in stone’; Fleur Adcock: ‘There was always witchcraft here, you say’) see her as something more ancient than this ancient church. B. S. Johnson traces her back to Egypt and to the prehistoric Beaker People. The meanings of the Sheela na gig are rich and varied, now as ever.