Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Coleshill, Berkshire

Gone, but not forgotten

Coleshill was the archetypal large house of the mid-17th century. Designed by the gentleman architect Sir Roger Pratt for his cousin, Sir George Pratt, apparently with the advice of Inigo Jones and perhaps also the involvement of John Webb, it had all the features of a grand house of its period – the Italianate proportions with rows of sash windows, the semi-basement storey to raise up the main floors, the strong cornice, the hipped roof with dormer windows, the big chimney stacks, and the best in classical mouldings and details. The interiors were impressive too, especially the grand double symmetrical staircase, lit by a cupola from above.

Alas, one day in September 1952 the whole lot went up in flames. In a chain of events similar to the fire at Uppark in Sussex in 1989, the blaze began during repair work, and house staff and estate workers ferried antiques and paintings out of the house, dodging molten lead from the roof as teams of firemen tried to bring the blaze under control. In spite of their efforts, the building was gutted and – here the resemblance to Uppark ends – the remaining masonry shell was later demolished. So Coleshill is a memory, one that lives on in black and white photographs in old architecture books.

But the great house has left its traces – estate buildings such as a farm and cottages, and these gate piers, which, with their accompanying stone wall, signal to the passer-by that there was once a grand building hereabouts. It’s initially a surprise that these piers are more ornate on the inside, away from the road. And then one realises that they signal no entrance drive and are a few paces away from a ha-ha surrounding the park. Clearly, they were designed to be looked at from the park, perhaps from the house itself, to enhance the view, a charming bit of visual punctuation amongst the water meadows and parkland that were once home to a very special English house.

Coleshill House in the years before the fire

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hans Road, London

Voysey comes to town

Charles Francis Annesley Voysey was one of the great domestic architects of the Arts and Crafts movement, famous for his low-slung, landscape-hugging country houses, with their sweeping roof lines, rendered walls, low-ceilinged interiors, and meticulous details. But at 14 and 16 Hans Road, built in 1891–92 and just a stone’s throw from Harrods, is evidence of what Voysey could do when designing town houses.

Here in Knightsbridge, an area where many houses were built in the late-19th century in the ‘Queen Anne’ style, the emphasis is on tall, narrow buildings and the dominant material is red brick. Voysey went with this theme but played his own variation on it, with stone dressings, shaped parapets and neat tall oriel windows above the entrances. The house numbers are in cartouches that are shaped using a variant on Voysey’s trademark heart motif, and the wooden doors have striking iron hinges. The houses were designed for Archibold Grove, a Liberal MP and the designs were well liked, both for the elegant exteriors and the internal layout, with most rooms benefiting from plenty of natural light. The overall proportions of the houses were praised in the press, too, as was the restrained use of carved decoration.

Voysey was to have designed the neighbouring number 12 too, but Archibold Grove’s liberality was wanting when it came to the fee, and the architect and client fell out. As a result, the commission for this house, beyond Voysey’s pair in the picture below, went to A H Mackmurdo.

C F A Voysey's 14 and 16 Hans Road, with A H Mackmurdo's 12 Hans Road beyond

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill

Readers within striking distance of London still have about three weeks to see the exhibition Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Horace Walpole, writer, collector, letter-writer, and man of taste, bought his house, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, in 1749 and rebuilt and extended it over the next 17 years. In doing so, he created one of the most influential of all English buildings, the house that kick-started the Gothic revival.

Strawberry Hill is a very special house with a very special atmosphere, built in a Gothic style that draws on a range of different sources – a chimneypiece based on a tomb in Westminster Abbey, bookcases inspired by a screen in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, and so on. Its variously shaped rooms, decorated with medieval stained glass and 18th-century imitation-Gothic vaulted ceilings, are impossible to recreate in an exhibition, but the V & A designers and curators have done a good job with a sequence of irregularly sized and shaped spaces decorated in a way that evokes Walpole’s ideal combination of glom and warmth which he christened ‘gloomth’.

But what makes the exhibition memorable are the objects from Walpole’s collection. Strawberry Hill was furnished like the most precious cabinet of curiosities, but the collection was disposed of in a great sale in 1842 and its constituent items have been dispersed around the world. Many of them have been brought together again for the exhibition, and these rooms in the V & A once more give an idea of what this outsize cabinet of curiosities must have been like.

There are paintings of course (including a stunning Eworth) and books about architecture, portraiture, antique sculpture, heraldry, and even the symbols with which ‘swan-uppers’ marked the beaks of their captives. There are objects with interesting historical or artistic associations – John Dee’s mirror, Cardinal Wolsey’s hat, a vase bearing the arms of the Medici. There are designs for different parts of the house – a tentative drawing of an elevation by Chute, a finely worked design for a Gothic ceiling by Robert Adam. Personal memorabilia abound, from Walpole’s wooden cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons to the goldfish pot in which his cat (celebrated by the poet Gray as ‘Demurest of the tabby race’) was drowned.

Drawings and examples of furniture give an idea of the house as it grew, thanks to designs by Walpole’s friends Chute and Bentley, as well as Adam and Walpole himself. And there are hints of Walpole’s other achievements, such as his modestly titled Some Anecdotes of Painting in England, in fact a compendious work still used by art historians.

As for the house itself, it is currently being restored and will reopen to the public later this year. Walpole characterized the fragility of its filigree Gothic when he called it a ‘paper house’. The restoration (marked by a tantalizingly brief video in the exhibition) shows that it has actually proved rather robust. But in another way Walpole was right. It is one of the most written about of all houses, celebrated for its pioneering Gothic asymmetry, its remarkable guidebook (probably the first for a private house), its expression of its owner’s character, and its lasting influence. We’ll carry on writing about it for generations to come.

There is more about the exhibition, which continues until 4 July, here.

Strawberry Hill, interior, from Chambers Book of Days

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Stopping by works on a summer evening

Driving round a one-way system in Worcester the other evening I came across this gigantic building. I’ve passed it several times before, always resolving to stop and take a look, so this time I pulled up and marvelled at its decayed magnificence. Here, surely was a factory from the era of Victorian optimism, and what stronger symbol of Victorian optimism than the railways? This is the former Worcester Engine Works built in 1864 to the designs of Thomas Dickson. Dickson’s strong façade of polychrome brick, with its tall windows, big pediment, and clock tower at one end was a bold statement, suggesting that this was a veritable palace of industry.

The Engine Works formed part of a wave of engineering and railway factories that were started in the city in this period – no doubt it was hoped to give the place a boost in the wake of the decline of some of its traditional industries, such as glove-making and nail manufacturing, which were losing out to mass production. Alas, by the time the building was opened the railway boom was at an end and the engine works did not thrive. Demand fell, the business passed to the West Central Wagon company in 1872 before being closed and the equipment sold off in 1876. After various different uses, the vast building is languishing – it seems to be largely empty and plants are taking hold here and there, but its multicoloured brickwork, cleverly imitating classical details, is still impressive. It seems to be crying out for some manufacturer to take it over.

Pediment and frieze, detail

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Rousham, Oxfordshire

English Elysium

Rousham House, built in the 1630s and altered by William Kent in the mid-18th century, is set in a 25-acre garden that is one of the most enchanting in England. Close to the house are formal walled gardens that evoke the Stuart period when the house was first built, but beyond these, a remarkable landscape garden extends towards the countryside, a series of spaces at once very English and very Classical that is the work of Kent at his best.

Vistas open out towards the countryside, an arched ‘ruin’ forming a focal point on a distant hill. Paths lead from lawns down slopes and into woods, where there is a surprise around every corner. One’s route curves past statues of Roman gods and dying gladiators. Glades appear, with more statues and grottoes. Water trickles through rills or into pools. Temples and classical gazeboes cling to slopes or are framed by trees or laurels.

The imagery is from ancient Rome. A statue of a lion mauling a horse and another of a dying Gaulish gladiator evoke the ‘games’ of the arena. Venus presides over her own fertile watery vale (above). An imposing six-arched building is called the Praeneste, after a temple site outside Rome. All this links 18th-century Britain with the glory of the Roman empire – and with its gods, since in one version of the British origin myth, Britons are descended from the Roman hero Aeneas, who is in turn a son of Venus.

But for all this weight of meaning, Kent arranged this garden with a gentle touch. One’s impression on walking around it, poking about in its corners, and enjoying a picnic on its lawn, is of a beautifully arranged series of delightful spaces – spaces, moreover, that are very well cared for. Rousham has been in the same family since the house was built in the 1630s. We’re lucky that they’ve looked after their inheritance so well.

Dying Gaul, detail

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Knowlton, Dorset

Layers of history (2)

This is the ruined medieval church of Knowlton, Dorset, a village recorded in Domesday Book but now vanished – according to some online sources as a result of the Black Death. This church forms one of the most dramatic bits of historical ‘layering’ in southern England because it is built right in the middle of a circular prehistoric earthwork. The earthwork is a henge, the term for a round or oval prehistoric monument, usually bounded by a ditch and bank, and dating to between 3000 and 2000 BC. Henges are generally thought to have been ritual sites, and are often close to other prehistoric monuments – neighbours of this one include more henges, barrows, and other earthworks.

Judging by the abundance of semi-circular arches, the church must have been built originally in the Norman period – probably the early-12th century. No-one knows why the builders positioned their church inside the henge, though one would like to think that they knew that the site had been used for ancient rituals and wanted to adopt it for their own. Although churches in henges are uncommon, examples of continuity between pre-Christian and Christian religious ideas are not unusual – think of the abundance of ‘pagan’ carvings on the outsides of churches, for example. There are also quite a few circular churchyards where there is no evidence of earthworks, possible evidence of the reuse of an ancient ritual site of some kind.

The fact that the church stands here has helped to preserve the earthwork – earthworks on farmland often get flattened as a result of centuries of cultivation. The church’s unusual siting has probably helped its survival too – although the village has disappeared, the ruined church (itself an example of architectural layering with its Norman nave and later, probably 15th-century, tower) still stands, roofless but proud.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Westbury, Wiltshire

Layers of history (1)

The hillside figures of the chalk downs are some of England’s most memorable sights and testimony of the human need to make marks on the landscape on a large scale. This need has clearly existed for hundreds of years – though quite how many centuries no one really knows, as the origins of these figures are undocumented. There is a persistent story that this one near Westbury in Wiltshire was first cut to commemorate the Battle of Ethandun, the occasion when King Arthur defeated the Vikings in 878. The battle was probably fought near here at Edington, though the exact location is not certain. The chalk beast may originally have been a more stylized horse, like the wonderful one on the downs near Uffington. But the first written mentions of the Westbury horse are as recent as the 18th century – the creature is mentioned in 1742 and was recut in 1778 by George Gee, steward of Lord Abingdon.

The Westbury horse is in a dramatic hillside position and makes a stunning sight as one drives eastwards along the B3098 out of Westbury, the view I have tried to capture in my photograph by risking life and limb and standing in the middle of the road. This hillside is interesting for another reason – it forms the edge of an iron-age hill fort, the earthwork-bound Bratton Camp, which was occupied in the 250 years before the Romans invaded England. And this is a still more ancient site, because the hill also houses a Neolithic barrow some 2,000 years older than the hill fort.

So the horse at Westbury is an example of the tendency, common in England, to place structures or images of significance on or near ancient sites. This is hardly surprising when the ancients picked such good locations for their barrows and hill forts, of course. But it is interesting how often this historical layering of structures marks a continuity of occupation and significance going back over millennia.

Perhaps it only goes to emphasize the importance of the figure and its positioning that in he 1950s someone thought it right to replace the bare chalk with a layer of white concrete, eliminating the need for the figure to be constantly recut. Much as I’d like it to remain a true chalk figure, I’m also glad that, in its modified form, it is still there, reminding us of the past generations who lived on the hill and gave the area is enduring symbol.