Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stanway, Gloucestershire

The near pavilions

It is a winter’s afternoon just before the recent snow and the sun is about to drop down behind the nearby hill. It’s quiet, but not silent: somewhere not far away there’s the sound of a quad bike ticking over and beyond the trees some guns are at their work – a shot cracks through the cold air every minute or two. Parkland – old trees, iron railings, grass cropped by sheep – stretches behind me towards the golden-stone Stanway House next to its church, barn, and cluster of cottages.

But I have my back to all that, and I’m focussing on this unusual building, the wooden cricket pavilion built for the author J M Barrie, who regularly stayed at Stanway House in the 1920s. It (and a nearby tennis pavilion) was the work of a local builder, John Oakey, who provided walls of larch poles and a roof of thatch. Neither of these materials is typical of the Cotswolds and coming on this odd structure in this limestone country pulls one up short. But in a surprising Cotswold touch, the whole thing rests on staddle stones, those mushroom-shaped objects originally meant to support granaries, lifting them off the ground to deter vermin. These days staddle stones are more often seen lining people’s drives or keeping cars off grass verges, so it’s good to have this reminder of their original purpose.

During the summers Barrie spent at Stanway, many literary and artistic friends came to stay too, and cricket teams may have included such luminaries as H G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle. The Australian composer Percy Grainger also came to stay and one wonders whether, in between expeditions collecting folk songs, Grainger presided over some kind of amateur ashes contest. It’s a beautiful setting for an innings, even for an innings defeat…

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Huish Episcopi, Somerset

Season's greetings

The more medieval parish churches I visit, the more I’m struck by the way their architecture and decoration varies form region to region. Often this is a matter of building materials, but just as frequently it’s a question of some local preference for a specific kind of feature or visual effect. And sometimes, this preference produces work of such quality that it stands out from the crowd – the graceful stone spires of Northamptonshire, the extraordinary decorative carving of the small Romanesque churches of Herefordshire, the woodwork – screens, font covers, angel-crowded roofs – of East Anglia are all memorable examples. So are the wonderful late-medieval towers of Somerset, of which Huish Episcopi is one of my favourite examples.

These tall and elaborate towers, built in the 15th century, dominate town centres and sometimes surprisingly small villages. They mostly follow a similar pattern, on which the masons played subtle variations. There is a large window above the doorway; above that, storeys are separated by bands of carving, and the upper levels have openings that look like windows but contain pierced stonework to allow the sound of the bells to carry. There are sometimes niches for statues. The tower is crowned with a lace-like openwork parapet and slender pinnacles. The tower at Huish Episcopi has all these features, arranged in a beautiful balance, so that we look up in admiration. The 100-foot tower is rather big for the church it crowns, but, no matter, it takes the breath away.

The interior of this church has one treasure from a later era that also stops visitors in their tracks. This is the stained-glass window of the Nativity, designed by Edward Burne-Jones and produced in the workshop of William Morris. Crowded round with onlooking and music-making angels, Mary reclines on the straw of the stable, cradling the infant Jesus in her arms. The Magi wait on the left to present their gifts. It’s an unusual composition, dominated by the pale robes and pinkish wings of the host of angels, topped by the stable roof and the hint of a starry sky, and the elongated figures are very much of their time. If the recumbent Mary seems odd to our eyes, she has a long pedigree: there are examples of this posture in Nativity scenes in medieval stained glass in Chartres and Cologne, worthy sources of inspiration for a window in this noble building crowned with its wonderful tower.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog this year. Season’s greetings to you all.

* * * *

Note: A commenter has pointed out that the Mary is often portrayed in a recumbent posture in Byzantine art. There are a couple of examples here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Denham, Buckinghamshire

Corrugated iron to the fore

Regular visitors to this blog will know all about my enthusiasm for corrugated iron as a building material. Barns and, especially, churches, made of the material have caught my eye in the past. So it will come as no surprise that I’m also keen on corrugated iron railway architecture. These are amongst the humblest examples of their kind, but are not without a certain flair. They’re called pagoda shelters, and were a form of building introduced by the Great Western Railway in about 1904 as a way of providing cheap platform waiting space at small stations and halts.

These particular examples are at the station at Denham Golf Club, which came along a couple of years after the club itself was founded in 1910. I found out about them from Peter Ashley, photographer and chronicler par excellence of Unmitigated England, who supplied the photograph in which the wrinkly surface of the metal stands out like magnified corduroy in the sun. They have been repainted since this picture was taken, but are otherwise the same.

He and I both like the way in which corrugated iron’s propensity to yield to a gentle curve has been put to use in the galvanized roofs of these little buildings, giving them their pagoda-inspired outline. This care with a humble building comes from another age, an age in which, as Peter has said, ‘it is not difficult to imagine plus-foured golfers arriving here and lighting up their Player’s cigarettes in the dim recesses of the iron shelters’. The Players (though not, perhaps, the players) may be gone, but these unassuming shelters have survived from another age.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Croome, Worcestershire

Winter blooms

Croome is historically important because it is the first major work of the great landscape gardener and architect Lancelot Brown, known as ‘Capability’ Brown because of his habit of assuring prospective clients that their grounds had great ‘capabilities’ for improvement. At Croome, Brown designed both the house and the park, although his work was supplemented in the house by Robert Adam, who worked on the interior, and James Wyatt, who designed some of the ‘eyecatchers’ around the edges of the park.

The park itself, created for the 6th earl of Coventry from 1747, was designed to feature a river, imitating the nearby Severn, and a large curvaceous lake with an island. Stately trees punctuate the views, as do a fascinating selection of garden buildings, including a grotto, guarded by a Coade stone statue of Sabrina, goddess of the Severn. Some of the buildings were designed by Brown, some by Adam, and James Wyatt added several of the more distant eyecatchers, including a ruined ‘castle’ that I included in an earlier post.

I was planning to do a post about Brown’s grotto at Croome, but on the frosty afternoon I walked around the park the other day the statue of Sabrina was swathed in wrapping, put to sleep as it were for the winter under a protective puffy green duvet, as were the other statues and urns dotted about the park. So instead, here’s a building called the Temple Greenhouse, which was designed by Adam.

Today it looks more like a temple than a greenhouse, because the windows that were once fitted between the columns have been removed. So it can no longer contain exotic plants, but still makes a noble feature in Croome’s landscape. Adam included symbolic sculptures to complement the vegetation that once filled the greenhouse: overflowing cornucopias and this brimming basket of flowers. These vigorous reliefs are full of life, with a variety of blooms turned this way and that, and leaves twisting, as it were, in the breeze. They bring a welcome bit of summer to the frosty winter landscape.

* * *

Croome Park is owned by the National Trust, and there are some stunning photographs of it here. The house, Croome Court, is owned by the Croome Heritage Trust, and is leased to the National Trust, which is managing its restoration.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chastleton, Oxfordshire

Stone, glass, and sunshine

The recent cold weather, which has clad the Cotswolds in ice and snow, has meant I’ve not been much out and about exploring buildings. But a trip to have a pub lunch with friends took me within a short distance of Chastleton House, an old favourite of mine, so I decided to slither along the icy lane to this early-17th century Oxfordshire marvel, and have a look through the gates.

The picture shows the entrance front as one sees it from the lane, its limestone walls and mullioned windows not much changed since the house was built between 1607 and 1612. The first owner was Walter Jones, a lawyer and MP, and the house went down through his family, from father to son, and uncle to cousin, until it passed into the care of the National Trust in 1991.

My observant readers will already have noticed that there is no visible entrance on this entrance front. That’s because the doorway is concealed in one of the protruding bays that flank the centre of the facade – you climb the short flight of steps and the door is right there, on your left. What you find when you enter is an interior not much altered since the Jacobean era – the family never had money for alterations or makeovers, and lived a life apart from the world of fashion. Oak panelling, tapestries, and wonderful plaster ceilings abound, together with some ornate fireplaces and carved oak furniture.

Because there had never been much money to renovate, repairs had been done on a rather ‘make do and mend’ basis and the policy since 1991 has been to keep up this tradition with ‘minimal repair and almost no modification’. The result inside the house is in places oddly tatty, a lived-in look for a house that is no longer lived in. Some find this jars, and I can understand their reservations – and those of people who think a house like this should be lived in rather than kept as a museum. For what it’s worth I don’t share these misgivings. I think the way the house is maintained is sympathetic to the way it was kept by its owners and an education to those who come to see it – and those who come do come to see the house: there’s a minimum of add-on spend opportunities here.

But none of this was very relevant the other day as I stared in wonderment at the sun-drenched limestone of Chastelton’s walls and roofs and mullions. The craftsmanship, the rhythm of gables, windows, and towers, the quiet on this freezing morning when no one was out and about – all were as nourishing to me as the hare pie and bitter I was soon to consume.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Portland Place, London

Stucco unstuck

Back in the shiny 1980s, I remember standing in front of a London building site on which a new office block was going up. I was with an architect of my acquaintance, and the building was none of his doing. He contemplated the sheets of shiny cladding with which the building was being covered. ‘I call them fall-offs,’ he said. ‘Because they fall off.’ We bemoaned the terrible times, but we were both well aware that bits of buildings have been falling off for centuries. Take Liardet’s patent stucco, for example.

From the 17th century onwards, the type of plaster known as stucco was widely used to cover the outsides of buildings to create a finish that looked like the finest stone – at a fraction of the cost. As well as providing a smooth render for walls the material was also well suited for the production of moulded decorations – reliefs, swags, heads, and all the other motifs with which builders and architects, especially the classical architects of the 18th century, loved to adorn the facades of the best houses.

Robert Adam and his less famous brothers were among the most enthusiastic users of stucco. By the time the Adams were designing buildings several recipes of stucco had been developed, but the brothers favoured a specific one, an oil-based stucco devised by a Protestant clergyman from Lausanne called John Liardet. Liardet’s stucco, was an oil-based material – it contained boiled linseed oil instead of the water used in other mixes, and this was said to make the plaster more readily workable.

The Adams were enthusiastic about Liardet’s recipe, and acquired the exclusive right to use it – it seemed to be ideal to produce the delicate reliefs and other decorations that they liked so much. These details from a pair of houses in Portland Place show the kind of effect that the Adams created with Liardet’s stucco in the years after they made their business arrangement with him in the 1770s. The reliefs echo on this exterior wall the cameo-like panels showing classical figures, flowers, swags, and other designs that Robert Adam, especially, used to decorate his interiors.

The Portland Place decorations are rare survivors – and in fact are probably restorations rather than survivors in the strict sense. This is because soon after these houses were decorated with Liardet’s stucco in 1778, a problem emerged. The stuff turned out to have a far from tenacious attachment to the walls, and stucco was soon sliding off buildings and landing on pavements and in areas, At least one of the brothers’ clients, Lord Stanhope, pursued them for compensation, and the use of this kind of stucco was abandoned. By the end of the 18th century, more stable stuccos were available and one kind of fall-off, together with its hapless inventor, was consigned to the footnotes of architectural history.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ten of the best revisited

As the BBC1 series Turn Back Time: The High Street comes to an end next week, I am rounding off my series of shop posts by refreshing my ‘Ten of the Best’ feature. In the column to the right, under the English Buildings Book, you’ll find links to ten past posts from this blog, all on a shop or High-Street related theme. Victorian carvings, Art Nouveau curves, Edwardian ornament, and 1930s tiles are among the highlights from a group of buildings that adorn the towns that contain them. I hope you find something here to enjoy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

A substantial world

Having in 1848 got the job of running book stalls on the stations of the London & North-Western Railway, W H Smith have a claim to be England’s first retail chain. Their move on to the High Streets of Britain came rather later – there was a major expansion at the end of the Victorian period, some further growth in the first decade of the 20th century, and a series of outstanding shop makeovers between the two world wars.

By this time Smith’s were well known for their combination of news, books, stationery, and other sales, together with lending libraries at some stores, and their shops stood out. Window frames in light oak and careful decorative details (including even distinctive rainwater goods) were their hallmarks, along with this lovely newsboy hanging sign. There are still a few of these signs around. This is one I pass regularly, a small landmark in the Cotswold town of Cirencester. Peter Ashley, chronicler of Unmitigated England, spotted another at Hull’s poetically named Paragon station.

So many of the telling details of Smith’s interwar shops have vanished. A number bore literary quotations in ornamental lettering. A favourite was Shakespeare’s line from Titus Andronicus, ‘Come and take choice of all my library,’ and in my infancy my local W H Smith shop was emblazoned with Wordsworth: ‘Dreams, Books are each a World and Books we know are a substantial World both pure and good.’ Amen to that.