Saturday, July 30, 2011
On the green hill
It's not far from the A417 (formerly the Roman Ermin Street) that roars its way between Gloucester and Cirencester, but you could be in another world. You drive along a remote lane past dry-stone walls and sloping sheep pastures. Here and there a still narrower lane branches off to a farm or a couple of houses, but there is little hint of a community that might support a church, indeed little hint of a church, if you miss the discreet sign and gateway. But for those who see the sign and stop, there’s something very special. A path of grass, the quietest of approaches, leads down to the church, and as you gasp at the tiny tower, you realise that the land slopes steeply away towards one of the streams that cuts its way into the limestone hereabouts. You make a sharp right turn after the second gate at the end of the grass path, and take in the way this little building clings to the slope.
The walls have fragments of herringbone masonry – the angled arrangement of stones favoured by the Saxons – suggesting that this building was put up before the Norman conquest. The minute round-headed window in the chancel may well be Saxon, whereas the two slightly larger, taller lancets to the right of the porch were cut into the existing wall in the 13th century. The Saxon builders took advantage of the slope to build a tiny barrel-vaulted crypt beneath the chancel, and a later generation, probably in the 12th century, decorated the walls of that chancel with a simple pattern resembling masonry blocks, semicircular arches, and stylized flowers.
The porch and tiny tower are later though. The tower actually bears an inscription telling us that it was built in 1587 by a mason called John Haden. It’s unusual for a church of this date to bear the name of its mason, and this is a far cry from the grander architect-designed “signed” buildings of later centuries. Part of the satisfaction of this place, indeed, comes form its very modesty and simplicity. And continuity. The idea that people have been coming hear for maybe 900 years to worship on the slope of the green hill, or to contemplate the cutting of stone and the passing of time.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
I have produced another in my series of round-up pages, telling briefly the story of architecture at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth, illustrated with links to posts on this blog. This round-up of architecture in England between 1880 and 1918 covers the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, and the collection of revivalist styles fashionable in this period, including 'Queen Anne'. It also draws together a number of posts on the architectural decoration of the era, covering buildings from shops to pubs, offices to public libraries. To read this overview of late-Victorian and Edwardian building, or just to catch up on some past posts, you can access this page from the PAGES menu in the right-hand column, or from here.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Nowadays, fire stations are often seen as utilitarian buildings and most of us don’t give them a second glance. But in the Edwardian era, when the idea of purpose-built fire stations across the capital was still quite new, they could be built to stand out. A number were built in the early years of the 20th century when the architect to the London Country Council was William Edward Riley, son of a fireworks manufacturer. Riley got the LCC job in 1899 and stayed until his retirement 20 years later. He had a busy time, building slum-clearance housing schemes, continuing a programme of school building, and providing the capital with utility buildings such as fire stations.
The most famous of these is the fine Arts and Crafts inspired one at Euston, but here’s another good one, the Westminster Fire Brigade Station in Greycoat Place. The brickwork of the upper floors with its stripy stone dressings, sash windows, pilasters, and tall chimneys, is typical of the revivalist style called “Queen Anne”, a kind of loose imitation of a way of building popular in around 1700. But Riley placed this above a lower storey of granite, treated with banded rustication and big key stones above the openings. Details like the semicircular window to the side elevation and smaller round window on the front façade add to the interest.
This is a mix of styles and features that, although we could call it “Queen Anne”, defies classification. Architectural historians often resort to the term “Free Style” for this and other Edwardian mélanges. There’s certainly a freedom about the mix of styles and materials, and the various sizes and shapes of windows and doorways, all of which belie the stolidity of the classical granite and the sober but elegant lettering of the fire station’s name. But what we call it hardly matters. It’s a monumental building with some telling touches – a cracking display from the fireworks-maker’s son.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Hunting the hart
Spotting my recent posts on unusual inn signs, and anticipating that I’d soon be moving on to post a three-dimensional sign, Peter Ashley of Unmitigated England sent me this picture of the White Hart at Hingham. Hingham is known for its fine collection of Georgian houses, built apparently when local gentry moved in to reduce their reliance on the area’s inadequate roads during the winter, giving them elegant town houses and Hingham itself the nickname ‘Little London’. The White Hart sign is a real winner, a visual asset where a conventional hanging sign, or maybe a row of wooden letters attached to the wall, would have been expected. I like the way that Peter’s photograph catches the beast as if it is just becoming aware of the pursuing hunter – a hunter equipped of course with a weapon no more deadly than a Leica.
When not wielding his Leica, incidentally, Peter Ashley has had his paintbrushes out. The result is a rather lovely capriccio depicting a selection of the most notable buildings in the town of Stamford in Lincolnshire. It’s an artful image, containing lovely examples of architecture from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, plus a number of picturesque inclusions, from a railway train (steam-hauled, naturally) to street furniture. Prints of the image have been made and some of the proceeds from their sale will go to the Stamford Civic Society. You can find out more about the prints here and there’s a short film about them here.
Peter Ashley, Unmitigated Stamford
Sunday, July 17, 2011
The Ship is a pub of the 1880s in a brick and stucco Italianate style that fits well with the look of late-Victorian and turn-of-the-century London. But, in true public house fashion it stands out from the crowd with ornate pilasters, capitals, pediments, scrolls, and other details that make the building shine.
And, as a business that was part of the massive construction boom that hit the capital in the late-19th century, a pub certainly needed to stand out to attract custom. What above all helps this building achieve this is the plaster sign, showing the ship in almost full sail, slicing its way across the waves in front of a pale but grimy sky. It’s carefully framed by the architecture, vigorously modelled, and an eye-catching alternative to the conventional hanging pub sign. Splice the mainbrace!
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
The traditional pub sign hanging from its iron bracket is one of the most familiar highlights of England’s towns and villages. Even in these times of pub closures and corporate domination, there are still plenty of good ones, painted with vigour and originality, to stimulate our eyes and our taste buds. But I’ve recently noticed one or two less conventional signs that take different forms and are also eyecatching. Sadly, some are on buildings that are public houses no more.
This example is in the Market Place in Newbury and marks a building that was the White Hart Inn from 1627 to 1951, when it was converted to offices. In the early-20th century the building was emblazoned with lettering in big capitals, declaring that this was a ‘FAMILY AND COMMERCIAL INN’ and a ‘POSTING HOUSE’ with ‘LIVERY STABLES’ round the back. Now just the pictorial sign remains, not hanging from a bracket but fixed to the wall.
I don’t know how old this elegant hart is. I’ve seen an image of the building dating from around 1900 that shows the creature facing the other way, so he must have been painted some time in the 20th century. He makes a charming landmark, enlivening a plain white wall, near a corner of the Market Place, a visual reward for those who look up as they pass by.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
It’s a small church up a lane not far from Lewes, and from the outside, it’s charming but unassuming. A few gothic windows, a wooden bellcote, a low porch. This is the kind of exterior that makes one expect rustic charm inside rather than great architecture. None of which prepares one for the wonders within. Because inside, although the architecture itself is indeed very plain, there is a stunning set of very early wall paintings. Their exact date is unknown, but the best guess is around 1100, which is probably also the date of the semicircular chancel arch.
The clearest painting, above this arch, shows Christ in Majesty, apparently flanked by apostles and angels. The painting immediately to the left of the arch, beneath the band of ornament and above the niche, depicts Christ handing the keys of heaven to St Peter; that in the corresponding position to the right of the arch, much more fragmentary, is said to show Christ giving the Book of the Law to St Paul. The left-hand wall shows part of the Last Judgement, with the souls of the good being led to heaven; there is also a painting of a hexagonal arcaded structure thought to be the City of God. The right-hand wall (not visible in my photograph) continues the last judgement theme and includes what is thought to be souls of the damned being led by a devil riding a beast.
These paintings are much less bright and distinct than they would have been when first painted, and they are fragmentary and often difficult to interpret. But it is remarkable that they have survived at all – survived, that is, some 900 years, during which time they were covered in whitewash in the 17th century, to be rediscovered by restorers in the 1890s. The frescoes of Clayton are a wonderful reminder that the churches of the Middle Ages were buildings full of art and imagery, alive with spirits and angels, vibrant with colour and light.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Fossils and flutes
Every architectural history and glossary will tell you about the classical orders, the sets of rules defining how columns, capitals, and the structures they support should be designed. They will tell you that there are five orders – three (the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian) invented by the Greeks, and the other two (Composite and Tuscan) added by the Romans. They were imitated and adapted by the architects of the Renaissance, and became fashionable in England thanks to classical architects such as Inigo Jones and the legion of classicists who came after him, from the 17th to the early-20th centuries.
But this is not quite the whole story. Regular readers of this blog may remember a post about the curious ‘Gothic order’, invented in the Georgian period and used on a building in Ludlow. There’s another variation on the orders in Castle Place, a house in the High Street in Lewes. The porch is in the Ionic order – the capitals, with their pairs of spiral volutes, are straight from the builders’ pattern books of c 1810 when this house was built. But what is this on top of the fluted pilasters that bookend the façade? Not spirals in the Ionic mode, but pairs of fossils, ammonites in fact!
The ‘ammonite order’ was the brainchild of George Dance, who used it in London in 1789. It was taken up enthusiastically by Amon Wilds and his son, also called Amon, builder-architects who did a lot of work in Sussex, especially Brighton. Perhaps they liked ammonites because the name afforded the opportunity for a visual pun. Fossil-collecting was already a popular pastime by 1810, and ammonites, or ‘snake stones’ as they were often called, were prized by collectors. Their likeness fits wonderfully, if eccentrically, on top of the pilasters on this Lewes house, and no doubt acted as a kind of advertisement for the builders. In 1816 Castle Place was bought by a Dr Gideon Mantell, who was a geologist. No doubt he liked the ammonites too.
Friday, July 1, 2011
Doing the math
Lewes is full of houses with beautiful brickwork, but sometimes the ‘brickwork’ is not what it seems. Many of the fronts of houses in this town are not built of brick at all but covered with a kind of tile designed to look like brick. These tiles, called mathematical tiles. became popular during the 18th century and were usually used to clad timber-framed houses so that they looked as if they were built in brick. There are lots of them in Lewes, and in other places in southeast England, such as Brighton.
Although mathematical tiles are usually the same colour as regular red bricks, they are quite easy to spot when you get your eye in. They’re a different size from bricks and, because of their slender profile, they look different at joins and at the corners of the building. Sometimes the tiles are not red at all, but black. There are quite a lot of these black tiles in Brighton and they also feature on this Lewes building, Bartholomew House, near the entrance to the castle.
At a quick glance you might think this house was built of black glazed brick. But when you look more closely, there are several odd things about it that give the game away. Here’s a house with the sash windows and fanlights of the 18th century, but the proportions are all wrong. An 18th-century house would not normally have the ground-floor window in the middle: this window would line up with those on the upper floors. The pair of doors is unusual too. And the fact that none of the windows has the classical number of panes. And the way in which the three lower windows almost touch at the corners. And the lack of arches and keystones above the windows.
Put all this together, and it looks as if this is a framework building. In other words, what’s holding it all up is not a brick wall, but a timber frame, and this frame dictates where the windows and doors can be. Some time in the 18th century, the owners decided to upgrade it, following the fashion, using glazed black tiles. If you look at the corners (photograph below), there’s a narrow wooden band covering up what would be an uncomfortable join if the edges of the tiles had been exposed: a neat solution to a major headache with mathematical tiles. The moulding around the windows is probably wooden too (I was so taken with the look of this house that I forgot to kick or tap these parts to find out.)
Why tile a house like this? It is sometimes said that mathematical tiles came into favour as a way of avoiding a tax on bricks that came in in 1784. But mathematical tiles were in use well before this date – and were taxed too†. It was more to do with fashion. Timber was out; brick was in; tiles gave the appearance of brick without the expense of a complete rebuild. Fashion – and finance – ruled the day, and the builders of 18th-century Lewes did the math.
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† As pointed out by Alec Clifton-Tailor in his chapter on Lewes in his Six More English Towns (1981). I’m indebted to his account in this post.