Thursday, May 26, 2011

Compton Verney, Warwickshire

The ice man returneth

In 1626 the great writer and polymath Francis Bacon discovered that he could preserve a fowl by packing it with ice and snow. Tragically, the philosopher caught flu and died after his experiment with the fowl, but soon after this sad episode the use of ice caught on in the kitchens of the rich. Ice was used not just for food preservation, but also to make chilled desserts and to cool wine. If you had a country house with a lake (or special ice ponds), you had a ready source of ice in the winter. To keep the ice for use in the warmer months, you needed dedicated storage: enter the ice house.

Ice houses were small structures built to keep in the cold. A typical design consisted of a brick-lined chamber sunk partly into a hillside (or into an earth mound) and roofed with thick thatch. Some architects specified a double wall, for extra insulation; there was generally a drain to carry away surplus water; and there might also be a brick-vaulted entrance corridor with a door at either end, to cut off the ice chamber from the warm outdoors. Ice was packed carefully into the ice chamber, a job supervised by the head gardener, who would ensure that there were only the tiniest of gaps between the blocks of ice, to minimize air pockets and discourage thawing.

The ice house at Compton Verney, built in 1771–2, recently restored, and resplendent under its round thatched roof, is a beautiful example. It has a well constructed brick-lined interior and even though visitor access is to the entrance corridor not the ice chamber itself, it’s pleasantly cool in there. And one can see that, if Osbert Sitwell, comparing his family’s ice house at Renishaw to one of the vast stone-vaulted tombs at Mycenae, was laying it on a bit thick, he had a point – they really are very imposing interiors.

It was a bonus, when visiting Compton Verney to see their current exhibition of pictures by Ben Nicolson and Alfred Wallis, to find this ice house restored, a reminder of the time when Compton Verney was not an art gallery but a flourishing country house and an indication of the ingenuity of those who supplied its inhabitants with food and wine.

Above Entrance corridor, Compton Verney ice house

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There is more about the restoration of the Compton Verney ice house here, and more about Compton Verney itself here.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Guilsborough, Northamptonshire

Down to earth

Cob is one of the oldest and most basic of English building materials. It’s basically earth, with added straw, manure, and often small stones, built up in layers a foot or two thick and a foot or two high, which are then left to dry before the next layer is added. Building up a wall like this takes time, but, provided the cob wall is kept dry by constructing it on a stone plinth and protecting it with an overhanging roof, it can last for centuries.

Devon and Dorset have many cob buildings, but cob has been used in many other parts of England too, from Cumberland to Hampshire. This example is on the village green of the Northamptonshire village of Guilsborough. It’s known as a stable, but Alec Clifton-Taylor, in his classic book The Pattern of English Building, says that it was used to keep a supply of coal for the poor of the village. Its cob is reinforced here and there with brick and has the orangey colour of the local stone. Cob in sandstone areas can have a pink tinge, while in chalk districts it is paler – although cob walls are generally colour washed, so the colour of the earth is often hidden.

The shed or stable at Guilsborough probably dates from the 18th century, although the lower side wing was added in 1897 and is built of brick. Since the lettering I featured in the previous post was admired by several of my readers, I include a photograph of some painted lettering on this extension. This bit of sign-writing (“DIAMOND JUBILEE BUILDING 1897”) must date from a recent repainting, but its letterforms’ curvaceous As and Es and carefully detailed J, evoke the late-Victorian period perfectly, an added bonus to a little building that's already full of interest.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chadlington, Oxfordshire

Word and worship

This is the archetypal form of nonconformist chapel: a pair of round-headed windows on either side of a central door, a hipped roof, and, sometimes, quoins and window-surrounds picked out in dressed stone to make the building look more substantial and important. It’s a form that was created in the 18th century, but was still in use well into the Victorian period, by which time thousands of towns and villages had at least one chapel or meeting house belonging to the Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, or Quakers.

In rural areas, many of these places of worship never had large congregations, and thousands of them have fallen out of use to be demolished or, like this one, to benefit from sympathetic conversion. It’s good to see this example preserved because it’s a small local landmark and because, like so many of these small buildings, it is both typical and different. Typical because of the windows, hipped roof, and so on. Different because it’s built of local stone rather than the brick so often favoured for country chapels.

And also because of the inscription. Often on chapels there is a rectangular date stone above the door that gives the name and date of foundation. Here the builders inscribed the date over the door and the purpose of the building in elegant capitals along the string course. It’s nicely carved if slightly rustic work (look for the slight difference in the two Ps, for example). But it also has real vigour. I especially like the kicking angled serifs at the top of the S and C. In letter-cutting on inscriptions, date stones, and gravestones the Victorian nonconformist churches often employed craft workers of great skill and sensitivity. Their typography and printing – on items such as circuit preaching plans and the small tickets with Biblical texts handed out at Sunday schools – was often very good too. As ever for the dissenters, what mattered was the word.

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Thanks to Emma Bradford for telling me about this building.

Monday, May 16, 2011

18th-century round-up

I've now added a page to my blog, accessed here or via the PAGES menu in the right-hand column, which covers the architecture of the Georgian and Regency periods – roughly from 1700 to 1837.

As with previous round-up pages, you'll find a brief description of the key features and styles of English architecture during this period, with links to examples that I've included on posts in this blog.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Chrisp Street, London

Festival Britain (3): Built to last

Looking back, people are apt to think of the South Bank Exhibition as ‘The Festival of Britain’. But what went on by the Thames was just the centrepiece of a much larger Festival. There was an Exhibition of Science at South Kensington, an Exhibition of Industrial Power in Glasgow, a Farm and Factory Exhibition in Belfast, and a travelling exhibition that visited Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, and Birmingham. Smaller communities put on special events, and in towns that already held some form of annual festival, this event in 1951 was subsumed into the national celebrations. And then there was the Live Architecture Exhibition, tucked away in Poplar, East London, in the area that became known as Lansbury.

It was an exhibition, but not as we know it. The idea was to rebuild a section of still war-damaged London and present it as an exemplum of the way Britain could be rebuilt after the bombing. There were temporary pavilions too, containing displays on architecture, planning, and building science. But the idea was that, unlike most of the Festival structures, Lansbury would be permanent. The principal architect was Frederick Gibberd (now better known as the designer of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral) and a group of other architects were commissioned to design areas of housing and a primary school. Gibberd himself did the market place.

The development gave architects the chance to show what they could do when it came to designing housing and to produce something that was more lasting and less flashy than the exhibition buildings on the South Bank. The focus of Gibberd’s market place was the clock tower, shown in the picture. Gibberd proposed making this into an observation tower containing a pair of staircases, one to go up and one to come down, and the concrete framework of the landings and staircases was exposed on the outside, to make a pattern of pale diamonds up the sides of the tower. The spaces within the diamonds were left clear, so that those ascending and descending could look out.

Gibberd somewhat ruefully described what happened to his building: ‘It was a practical folly that gave pleasure, but only for a short time. The fear was suicides; the base was surrounded with spiked railings and the viewing platform enclosed in wire mesh.’ At least now the tower is home to some dramatic lighting, ensuring that it remains a visual focus for the area, night and day.

Photograph by Louise Joly
Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike 3.0 Unported license

Monday, May 9, 2011

South Bank, London

Festival of Britain (2): Festival Games

I’m particularly pleased that Abram Games’s Festival of Britain symbol survives on the Oxford Street building in the previous post, as it’s good to be reminded of the flair of Games’s design – especially as the symbol has been simplified – and in my opinion sorely mangled – in the current reworking for the Festival anniversary celebrations. For those who don’t know the symbol, or don’t recall its details, here it is reproduced on the original guide to the South Bank Exhibition, and, in another 1951 iteration, on the Festival Souvenir Weather Forecast, provided so that people knew what to wear as they strolled, or dashed, from the Dome of Discovery to the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion.

The symbol is very much of its time, of course. It’s patriotic, its stylized Britannia presiding over the points of the compass rendered in red, white, and blue. It’s celebratory and bunting-bedecked. It could be stuck into a Festival map like a pin; or be placed like a finial at the top of a stylized maypole to advertise the Festival pleasure gardens; or float in space like a presiding spirit. Its combination of flatness and solidity, in tandem with that very 1950s Festival lettering, helped it exemplify the kind of modern design the Festival embraced – up to date and whacky, but with more than a toe planted in tradition. And such a combination of modern and traditional is worth celebrating, it seems to me.

For those who are interested in such things, I got my copy of the weather forecast when I bought the exhibition guide secondhand (I’m not quite old enough to have gone to the original Festival). The forecast is for 28th May 1951, when the outlook for the London area was “Mainly cloudy, Chance of some showers later. Rather cool.” Quite so.

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There's more about Abram Games here.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Oxford Street, London

Festival of Britain (1): For these reliefs much thanks

Of all the streets in London, or anywhere else for that matter, Oxford Street is probably the place where it’s most difficult to follow the instructions I’m always giving people: “Look around you, and look up.” With a footfall this dense, it takes me all my time to dodge my fellow pedestrians and look where I’m going on the rare occasions when I walk along this street. But, since it’s sixty years since the Festival of Britain kicked off in 1951, it’s time to share with you one of Oxford Street’s highlights: number 219, now part of the Zara store.

This corner block was designed in a neat strip-windowed moderne style by Ronald Ward and Partners (who were also the architects of the Millbank Tower), and was presumably built in 1951. Its simple façade, with long windows, pale masonry, and wonderful corner curve, picks up where pre-war Art Deco and moderne architecture left off. But the frontage is just that bit different because it’s enlivened by three relief plaques celebrating the Festival of Britain. At the top is the Festival Hall*, next is Abram Games’s festival symbol†, and at the bottom are the highlights of the Festival’s South Bank Exhibition, the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon.

Lots of people are remembering the Festival at this anniversary moment, such reminiscences ranging from memories of modernistic aspiration (the Skylon) to evocations of sheer whimsy (the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway). So it’s good to be reminded of the Festival architecturally by these reliefs, especially as so little remains on the ground at the main London focus of the Festival – there is the Festival Hall, of course, but little else on the South Bank or at Battersea, although there are other buildings elsewhere in the capital, as I hope to show in another post soon. Meanwhile, all praise to John McAslan and Partners for their refurbishment of this little gem when building Zara’s main store beside and behind it.

*indistinct in my pedestrian-dodging quick-fire iPhone photograph: apologies
†of which more soon

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There are some clearer photographs of the plaques on this building at the fascinating Ornamental Passions blog.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Charlbury, Oxfordshire

Western light

When taking the train home from London, I’ve often seen the light of the setting sun on the old station of Charlbury before my train pulls out and heads into the Cotswolds along the Adlestrop line. Passing by in the car the other week, I decided to stop and take a photograph, as this simple wooden building is worth a closer look.

Charlbury Station was built in 1853 on what was then the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway. This was a line engineered by Brunel, so shared the broad gauge with Brunel’s Great Western Railway. But on this line money was short, so many of the stations, such as Charlbury, were built of wood. Brunel, though, was not one to produce “railway architecture lite”. He had an Italianate mode – round-headed windows and doorways picked out with a surround in a contrasting colour, a coloured band running around the building like a string course, a broad overhang with undulating brackets – that worked well in wood and gave these humble buildings a touch of class.

So the well-heeled denizens of Charlbury and the villages of West Oxfordshire can feel that Brunel has done them proud. Charlbury has been serving passengers for more than 150 years, and catching my eye for more years than I care to remember as the train moves ever further away from London and Oxford, deeper into the Cotswolds, and out again towards what they used, in the days before computerized announcements, to call “Evesham, Capital of the Vale”.

Monday, May 2, 2011

For steam men

On 1 January 1948, British Railways came into being: Britain’s railways were nationalized and the four regional railway companies (themselves amalgamations of a yet larger group of companies that had existed before) were drawn under the umbrella of the new national giant. A few months into the year the Architectural Review ran this cover by Osbert Lancaster, celebrating the old railway companies and their varied colour schemes. Inside the magazine an article pointed out that the new national colour scheme was about to be revealed, and put in a plea for a rethink, reviving colours that represented the different regions.

The cover beautifully illustrates some of the old liveries. I’m no railway expert and I expect others will put me right and fill in the gaps, but I think I recognise the polished teak carriages of the GNR, the blue locomotive of the Caledonian Railway, southern Railway green, and Midland Railway red.

Since the magazine was aimed at architects, the cover's background is filled with interesting bits of architecture and engineering – a stone wall (millstone grit?) behind the top GNR train, the Caledonian’s viaduct, the lovely trackside house admired by the pipe-smoking guard of the GNR goods (Gothic windows, bargeboards, ornate roof ridge, tall Tudorish chimneys), the row of suburban houses lining the Southern Railway, a green signal box (on a lower storey built of bricks in Flemish bond), the jagged valence above the Midland platform, and so on. Enamel advertising signs abound, too, for Barley Water, shoe polish, soap, and Nestlé’s milk. It’s heartening to think that in the post-war period of austerity, Britain could still look as colourful and varied as this.