Friday, January 28, 2011

Regent's Park, London

Say it large

On my way to visit friends near Mornington Crescent the other day, I decided to take a detour around the edge of Regent’s Park and admire some of John Nash’s extraordinary terraces, which, with their plaster decorations, sculpted pediments, and rows and rows of Classical columns, are probably the grandest terraced houses in London.

When I came to Chester Terrace, the longest of them all, I was distracted from the palatial front when I looked at the Corinthian arches at either end. Perhaps appropriately for London’s most grandiose terraced houses, they have what must be the biggest street signs in the capital – huge white capitals on a blue background, picked out in relief. The chunky letters with their extra-large serifs are over the top, dwarfing even the big Corinthian capitals below and looking rather alien – this is not the kind of thing you expect to find in a classical frieze. But if the over the top approach works anywhere, it’s surely here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ledbury, Herefordshire


During the 13th century the Early English Gothic architecture described in the previous post became gradually more ornate, its surfaces and details more complex. Window tracery – the intricate patterns of stonework in the top of each window – developed and masons played increasingly elaborate variations on its design. Foliage carving became more naturalistic. There were new forms of arches and moulding. And vaults, in buildings that had them, got more complex too, their patterns of ribs mirroring the lace-like patterns of the window tracery. By the beginning of the 14th century, these developments had gelled to form the style that is now known as Decorated Gothic.

This window, in the parish church at Ledbury, is an example of the Decorated style in which the window tracery forms small pointed arches within the window’s larger pointed form, while in turn within these arches are fourfold lobed shapes called quatrefoils. This interplay of shapes and stone glazing bars of various thicknesses shows the 14th-century masons’ skill in creating patterns and rhythms.

Look closer, and it shows something else: their use of the spherical ornament called the ballflower. There must be hundreds of ballflowers on this window, running up the mullions, along the arches, and around the quatrefoils and other shapes. Their spherical bodies and three-lobed openings catch the sunlight and form strong shadows, breaking up the smoothness of the masonry and reminding us, if we need reminding, that Gothic architecture is always a matter of the play of light. The repetition of the ballflowers at Ledbury is almost obsessive, and one of the most extreme examples of a fashion common in this part of the west of England – such flowers run around the 14th-century windows of dozens of churches in Herefordshire and the neighbouring counties, from the humblest parish church to Hereford Cathedral itself. They form a signature motif of the western masons and a testimony to their artful manipulation of light and shade.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Uffington, Oxfordshire*

Pointed architecture

Read the architecture textbooks and they will tell you that Gothic architecture is a way of building that developed in France – specifically at the Abbey of St Denis near Paris – in the 12th century, spreading to England by the beginning of the 13th century. In its classic form it’s a way of designing churches with pointed arches and high stone vaults, supported by flying buttresses, and lots of stained-glass windows that flood the interiors with coloured light. That’s quite a good description of the way the Gothic cathedrals were built, from Notre Dame in Paris to Salisbury and York in England. But what about parish churches? In the countryside, few parishes had the resources to build ambitious stone vaults and flying buttresses – if there are stone vaults they are on a smaller scale than the soaring stone ceilings of the great cathedrals. So in most medieval parish churches, Gothic means above all the use of pointed arches.

The parish church at Uffington, built around 1240, is a typical and wonderful example of the first phase of parish church Gothic – the style that the Victorians called Early English. The dominant feature is the tall, narrow pointed lancet window. These lancets can appear singly or in groups – there are lots of pairs and trios of lancets at Uffington. From the outside, they look rather austere. But inside, they’re treated decoratively, with slender shafts on either side of each window. Uffington is unusual in having an octagonal tower. The upper section is an 18th-century addition – the lower section was originally topped with a spire which came down in a storm in 1740 – but the extended tower still provides a graceful focal point to the building.

* * *

Since writing this post, I've had some interesting comments, including one from Helen of Art and Architecture, Mainly, who asks who needs stone vaults and flying buttresses: 'Early English Gothic was about height and elegance, and the church dominating the townscape.' I agree, and I'd add that this way of building was also about line, as evidenced by all those interior shafts – and the shafts and mouldings at churches such as Eaton Bray, which I posted about a while ago. Height, elegance, line, and shadow: the essence of Early English architecture.

Uffington, chancel interior

*Although I still think of it as being in Berkshire, and it will be found in the Berkshire volume of Pevsner's Buildings of England series.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Paddington, London

Far Away Is Close At Hand In Images Of Elsewhere

During the 1970s, when Oxford University was trying to educate me, I would occasionally get on the train and leave the spires behind to go to London for plays, exhibitions, and other diversions. As my train pulled into Paddington, I used to look out for a graffito on a wall that formed for me another landmark of the kind I wrote about in the previous post. In white capital letters a couple of feet high, the graffito read: ‘FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE’.

I had no idea who had written this on the wall, or why, or even what the words were supposed to mean. I imagined some poet, proud of a memorable line and reluctant to consign it to a poem in some ‘little magazine’ that was read only by the people who contributed to it, climbing up at Christmas when the area around the station was quiet, and getting to work with the emulsion paint. But however it got there, it was a landmark I looked out for each time I made the journey, until the wall was demolished in the early 1980s.

Around about 1984 I read a book called Notes From Overground, by ‘Tiresias’. This unlikely but enchanting volume is ‘a commuter’s notebook’, a record of the things the author (actually the poet Roger Green) saw on his daily journey from Oxford to London and back. If that sounds like an unlikely idea for an interesting book, Notes From Overground is actually full of haunting descriptions, literary allusions, and sharp aperçus. In it, lists of truck names turn into prose poems, overheard conversations hint at complex dramas, and unregarded trackside notices, factories, and the like get their few minutes in the sun. I learned from this book that the first six words of the line actually come from a poem, ‘Song of Contrariety’, by Robert Graves, but for years found out nothing more about the subject.

Then a while back I remembered the line again and Googled it. My search led me to the website of Ruth Padel, coincidentally another poet with Oxford connections, who told the rest of the story. Padel, as a Classics graduate student, had published in 1974 a scholarly article about Euripides and this article was called ‘Imagery of Elsewhere: Two Choral Odes of Euripides’. She had given a copy of the article to a classicist friend, Dave, and Dave and his brother Geoff had gone to Paddington on Christmas Eve 1974 and (without telling Ruth Padel anything about it) painted on the wall their mashing together of the words of Graves and Padel. And so the lines were seen by millions of travellers over the years, getting absorbed into Roger Green’s commuter’s notebook, into a song by Catatonia (in an adapted form: ‘Paradise is close at hand in images of elsewhere’), and into my consciousness.

‘FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE’ is a cobbled-together line that became a London landmark – or trackmark – for a few years and can mean different things to different people. But I can’t help thinking that it expresses something about the aspirations of this blog and of writing about place generally. I hope my images of elsewhere occasionally make the distant seem close at hand to my readers, wherever they may be.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Burford, Oxfordshire

Coming home

Landmark noun An object or feature of a landscape or town that can easily be seen from a distance, especially one that enables someone to establish their location.

As we travel around, we acquire a personal inventory of landmarks that punctuate our journeys and help us to recognise places. They can be hills, lone trees, or other natural features, but often they’re buildings. Church towers and spires in distant valleys, factory chimneys, windmills. And also more modest buildings – toll houses at junctions, roadside cafés or pubs, isolated farms. They help us give people directions: ‘Turn left at the White Hart, and first right after the telephone box.’ ‘Park near the church.’ ‘Drive up the hill until you come to the filling station.’ They tell us where we’ve got to on a journey. And sometimes they become personal symbols of a particular place.

When I drive home to the Cotswolds from London, part of my journey is along the A40, which takes me across Oxfordshire and into the hills of Gloucestershire to my destination. Just before the Oxfordshire town of Burford I begin to notice the drystone walls of the Cotswold fields and the limestone architecture of my home patch, and for me, on this journey, all this is symbolized by this stone barn, which sits in a field near trees a couple of hundred yards from the road.

On the Cotswolds, field barns like this were mostly built in the 18th century and later, to service the kind of farming that came in when the open fields and commons were enclosed. They often have just one large porch – unlike farmyard barns, which usually have two, providing a big interior space for threshing. These field barns weren’t used for threshing – they were for keeping fodder for animals and for sheltering the beasts in winter. After a long life, this one has been re-roofed with what looks like corrugated asbestos, a popular cheap roofing material 50 years ago, and I think is unused now.

When I pass this barn I know that I’m in the limestone country at last and in a couple of minutes’ time I’ll be in Gloucestershire and on the last leg of my journey. I always look out for this building, and it has acquired a personal meaning for me beyond any architectural or historical interest it may have. As the sun of a winter’s evening lights up the surrounding trees and suffuses the barn’s limestone walls, catching my eye for a split second as I whiz by, it stands for nothing less than the warmth and welcome of home.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Petworth, Sussex

Spoils of war

I travel often to Central Europe, where of course I find much, architecturally, to admire. One way in which the Czech Republic and its neighbours are different from Britain is the amount of dazzling – sometimes overwhelming – baroque architecture: churches dripping with putti and vast statues of bishops, brightly coloured plastered house fronts, that kind of thing. Our Czech friends insist that there is no ‘proper baroque’ in England, and it’s true, what passes for baroque architecture here – the work of Vanbrugh, for example, or Hawksmoor – is very different from the curious combination of grand scale and icing-sugar delicacy that typifies the baroque of Germany and Bohemia.

But every now and then one comes across something that makes one think a bit differently about what we have in England. These gate piers that mark one of the entrances of Petworth House are a case in point. They conjure up the idea of the spoils of war – an enemy’s armour displayed in triumph. But what extraordinary armour and what a bizarre way to display it. The helmet is supported on – what? Pevsner and Nairn, in their Buildings of England volume on Sussex, suggest a tree trunk. but what kind of tree has a trunk like this? A baroque tree, I suppose. As for the armour itself, from its lavish curlicues to its crested helmet, it’s amazing, the kit of the showiest show-off. The face on one of the shields is an especially ornate touch, as are the swirling crests, the feathered arrows, and the loops and tucks of fabric and tooled leather. Whoever made these piers was a virtuoso carver.

It comes as no surprise that this is the work of a sculptor from the European mainland. Apparently there are some drawings in the Petworth archives signed by ‘V Dost’ of Dijon that show military spoils like the ones on the gate piers. I can’t find out anything about Monsieur Dost, even his dates. I’d have thought the piers were early-18th century but the National Archives web site seems to think that the drawings are 19th-century. I remain delighted in my ignorance.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Isle Abbots, Somerset

God and the details

This is another of the wonderful late-medieval Somerset towers, a cousin of the one I recently described at Huish Episcopi, and it is one of my favourites. It’s tucked away at one end of a village among winding, high-hedged lanes, from which the visitor can occasionally glimpse its openwork parapet and pinnacles above the trees. Closer to, the tower reveals itself as an exemplar of the 15th-century Perpendicular Gothic style – a kind of architecture unique to England, characterized by a strong emphasis on verticals. The windows and bell openings, with their strong uprights, are typical of Perpendicular Gothic, as is the door, with its slightly flattened arch.

The glorious thing about this tower – apart from its fine proportions and its village setting – is that so much of its decoration is intact. Towers like this were often adorned with statues of saints, but these were mostly removed by Protestant iconoclasts of the 17th century, who saw such works of art not as the icons of piety that they originally were but as ‘graven images’ that were apt to distract the faithful from the word of God. As a result, empty niches are all that usually remain to remind us how beautifully decorated late-medieval churches were, and how these churches, with their statues, stained glass, and wall paintings depicting Biblical scenes, saints, bishops, and so on, were intended to symbolize the entire community of the faithful.

But at Isle Abbots the iconoclasts only reached the lower statues. Maybe they didn’t bring a long enough ladder. Maybe the locals did not take kindly to their church being defaced. Who knows? Whatever the reason, on the upper levels of the tower such figures as St Catherine (above) remain. She is shown with two of her symbols, the wheel, on which her persecutors tried to kill her, and the sword, by which she finally died. Although the stone is worn, one can also make out the saint’s cascading tresses and the drapery of her clothes. The surrounding carving – the supporting angel and the ornate canopy above the saint’s head – survive too, to remind us that for medieval masons as for later architects, God was indeed in the details.