Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Animal assortment

Hereford's museum is one of many built in the 19th century as the Victorians, rich from the fruits of empire, set about furnishing their cities with monuments and buildings that spoke of culture and education. The burghers of Hereford chose F R Kempson as their architect. Kempson had been working in South Wales and moved to Hereford in the 1870s to build this museum, following it with many other buildings in the city and surrounding area. He seems to have brought some grey Welsh sandstone with him for the building, and designed it in a kind of Venetian Gothic, a homage, as it were, by a great maritime power at its height to another that even then, as Ruskin himself had pointed out in The Stones of Venice, was slipping quietly into its lagoon, its decline a terrible warning to us all.

The ornate parapet, rows of pointed windows, little loggia, and arches on the ground floor are all Venetian Gothic features. Typical of both the Venetians and the Victorians is the rich carving, which here runs to an array of birds and beasts, indicative, no doubt, of the natural history displays that the building originally contained. Some of these creatures sit on the parapet at the very top of the facade, and two of them, a cat and a bird, are enacting a hunting drama that is concluded at a lower level, where we see that the cat has caught its prey.

                     On the parapet...
                    ...on the prowl
The cat has suffered a little from time and the elements, and must always have been rather lean and mean. It's also looking as us – shouldn't it be concentrating on its dinner? Or is it rightly keeping a weather eye out in case we interrupt its hunting? Whatever the reason, these characterful carvings by Robert and William Clarke are engaging. If I was a young child, still unsure about what to expect in a museum, they'd draw me in. Come to that, they drew in this more experienced visitor too.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lacock, Wiltshire

Looking up in Lacock

You probably know Lacock. It's the Wiltshire village that's wholly owned by the National Trust and preserved as a perfect prospect of limestone and timber framing. The village centre, with its range of houses from medieval to 19th century, its stone barn, its medieval church, is almost too perfect. Take away the cars and it could almost be an English village of the early-19th century – and it has played just that role in various film and television adaptations of Jane Austen novels, including the famous 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. It has been in Harry Potter films and other movies too.

Faced with such picture-perfect villagescape, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. So here, up near the eaves of one house, are, if not trees, some leaves – or at least carvings of leaves. These odd carvings with leaves and spirals are actually capitals – they want to be on top of columns or pilasters, doing the architectural job that capitals usually do. But all they have beneath them is plain wall, as if the builder had a spare lot of capitals left over from some other job and someone said, "Oh well, let's stick them up here, then."

They are an unusual kind of capital too. Most of us are familiar with Ionic capitals, with their spiral volutes, but Ionic capitals have no leaves and their spirals are the other other way around. This "wrong way round spiral with added leaves" was made popular by the great Italian baroque architect Francesco Borromini and was copied by various builders in England. I've noticed these Borromini capitals before at Blandford Forum in Dorset, where the local builder, the splendidly named John Bastard, used them more conventionally, at the tops of pilasters. But if Borromini capitals raised an eyebrow in Blandford Forum, here on the top of house at Lacock they are a real source of surprise.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Badmin's England (2)

As a follow-up to my previous post about the book Village and Town, written and illustrated by S R Badmin, here is one more of his evocative illustrations. This is "A limestone village", Badmin's portrayal of the architecture of the limestone belt that sweeps up England from Somerset, through Gloucestershire, parts of Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Rutland, to the eastern part of Lincolnshire. From this broad band of stone country, Badmin has set his imaginary stone village in the Cotswolds – it is all rolling hills and golden walls.

The houses have the rows of parapetted gables typical of the region, together with the stone-mullioned windows and tall chimneys mostly placed at the gable ends. A church tower, reminiscent of the one at Chipping Campden, looks down on the scene, and the field in the foreground has a drystone wall. To the right is a large stone barn (based loosely on the barn at Bradford on Avon on the fringes of the Cotswolds in Wiltshire), on which the Cotswold stone "slates" are laid in the traditional way, large stones at the bottom of the slope near the eaves, smaller ones at the top, near the apex.

As with other illustrations in Village and Town, Badmin has brought together buildings and objects from different places to create his village scene. And not just the buildings. That cart in the foreground looks like something Badmin had spotted and drew and couldn't wait to incorporate into a bigger picture. (In the same way he incorporated a wonderful crane into a woodland logging scene in his Shell Guide to Trees and Shrubs.) But made-up as it is, this Limestone Village scene is convincing in terms of both architecture and landscape.

But does this scene represent an idealized view of England? It certainly looks very neat and tidy – neater and tidier than the Cotswolds I remember from my boyhood a couple of decades after the picture was made. Back then there was much poverty, houses were often badly maintained, and you were more likely to meet a heard of cows than a traffic jam. Now everything is tidier and in better repair, but there are cars everywhere.*

To be fair to Badmin, he does show us that this is a working place. The barn is in use; the cart stands ready; chickens are scratching around (it all becomes clearer if you click on the image to enlarge it). In the distance is the farmland that kept people alive in Badmin's time and brought prosperity to this area in the Middle Ages, making possible all this upmarket stone building. A mixture of cornfields and sheep pasture extends into the distance, over the hills, between the woods, and towards the far horizon.

*And it sometimes feels as if you have to have the income of a movie star to live here.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Badmin's England (1)

When I'm not actually looking at buildings or reading about them, I often seem to find myself looking at pictures of them. One of the artists whose work I have admired for longest is S R Badmin (1906–89), a British painter whose artistic responses to landscape were celebrated because of their clarity, detail, and sensitivity to the character of places – and because they were much used to illustrate the covers of magazines such as the Radio Times and British editions of the Reader's Digest. I first came across Badmin as the illustrator of the Shell Guide to Trees and Shrubs, a classic of the 1950s. But I didn't realise until later that the hand that could delineate both arboreal verdure and the architecture of branches and twigs was also at home with actual architecture. If Badmin was brilliant at trees, he was also rather good at buildings.

The books that brought this home to me were two that Badmin illustrated for the children's series Picture Puffins – Sir George Stapledon's Farm Crops in Britain (which includes a striking depiction of an upland northern farm – and the lovely book Village and Town, which Badmin both wrote and illustrated. Here are a couple of illustrations from Village and Town, a book that is much concerned with the ways in which traditional architecture varies from place to place.

A Timber, Plaster and Thatch Village, from Village and Town

These villagescapes are generic: they don't, I think, represent specific places, but bring together examples of the building types and styles of particular areas of England. This first is titled "A timber, plaster and thatch village". It is of a place somewhere in eastern England – in Essex, perhaps, or the eastern part of Hertfordshire – where the lack of good local stone meant that people used timber for framing and thatch for roofs. In some of the houses, the timber frameworks have been left exposed, but in many buildings the frame is hidden behind a coat of plaster, which is sometimes coloured pale pink, sometimes, as in the house on the left, white and decorated with the moulded patterns known as pargetting. Some of the buildings – such as the shed or small barn in the foreground and the church tower in the distance – are boarded, and the tower is topped with a kind of splay-footed spire found quite widely in the south and east. If there is any stone, it's flint, as in the flint and brick wall next to the pargetted house.

 A Brick and Tile Village, from Village and Town

The other picture shows "A brick and tile village" and must be in Sussex or Kent, another area where there is not much good stone (though, again, there is some flint, as in the wall behind the pigs), but where there is plentiful clay for brick- and tile-making. Some houses are brick-walled, some have timber frames with brick filling the gaps between the timbers, and some have tile-hung upper storeys. Other wall finishes on display include weatherboarding, this time painted white, as is the stucco-fronted shop towards the top of the street.

These two illustrations wonderfully show how use of local building materials gave places in different parts of the country their own visual character. But they also show what is less often noticed: that vernacular and traditional architecture are not just about materials but also concern local fashions and aesthetic preferences. The timber, plaster and thatch village shows a love of plaster decoration that is much more common in eastern England than in the Midlands or west. The close-set vertical timbers of the central building – apparently now a pub – are another visual feature common in the eastern counties. In the brick and tile village, on the other hand, delight has been taken in the patterns of hung tiles and the clean lines of white-painted boarding. All these features, from the plasterwork to the white boarding, show local visual sensibilities at work. People in past centuries were not slaves to their materials and made aesthetic choices just as we do – and S R Badmin clearly realised this too.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire


Ross on Wye is a favourite town of mine, boasting as it does two important characteristics of a town as far as I am concerned: a supply of interesting buildings and a good secondhand bookshop. I've been buying books at Ross Old Books for years and there are also occasional bargains to be had in the market. The town is beautifully set on a rise above the Wye and from the 1770s this beauty was famous due to writers such as William Gilpin, who celebrated the scenery of the Wye as a charitable example of the Picturesque. By the 1830s many visited the town as a base for boat trips on the river and the large white ornately bargeboarded Royal Hotel was built to accommodate the tourists.

The round tower in my picture looks like something from the age of chivalry, but was actually built in the 1830s as part of the setting for this hotel. Flanked by walls incorporating a blocked pointed arch, it looks from a distance like part of some medieval fortifications: town walls, perhaps, to protect the inhabitants of Ross from the marauding Welsh. But when you get near the tower, you can see that the battlements on top are tiny – they're meant simply to afford the building the right chivalric-looking silhouette. The windows, though authentically pointed, are too large for a fortified tower. So this is a tower meant to look good from a distance, as visitors drew close to the town from the valley, and as a kind of marker to lead people to the hotel, which is the other side of the greenery on the right-hand side of my photograph. A beacon for the approaching traveller, in the 1830s, and in 2012, whether that traveller is in search of scenery or books.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Corsham, Wiltshire

Being busy together

Bees and their hives have been powerful symbols for thousands of years – probably ever since human beings first observed communities of bees working together and first tasted the honey they produced. As well as standing for sweetness (think of the madrigal "Sweet honey-sucking bees" by John Wilbye and "the bag of the bee", icon of sweetness in "Her Triumph", Ben Jonson's most mellifluous lyric) they're also symbolic of industry, especially industry that involves working together. And that's why bees and hives have been powerfully symbolic of the Co-operative movement ever since it was founded in the 19th century.

So I wasn't surprised to find out that this plaque showing an old-fashioned bee skep, high above a shop window in Corsham, was put there by the local Co-op when they built their shop here in 1906. Whoever carved the plaque thoughtfully included some flowers for the bees too. A century on, there's still a Co-op in Corsham, but on a different site. However the concern for bees continues with   "Plan Bee", the Co-op's campaign to support much-needed pollinators in our gardens, market gardens, and fields. From this Arts and Crafts influenced plaque to Plan Bee, advertised on my pot of breakfast honey, the link between natural and commercial cooperation is still vital.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bromsgrove, Worcestershire

Knocks and scrapes

Before we leave behind the subject of the red telephone box – admirably preserved and given a new use by the Henry Moore Foundation, as noted in the previous post – here's another red box picture from a few weeks ago. As more and more of these boxes disappear under the rising tide of mobile phones, it is more and more unusual to see the little groups of telephone boxes that used to be common in British towns and cities. One place where these boxes are preserved is at the excellent Avoncroft Museum, near Bromsgrove in Worcestershire. As well as a fine collection of rescued and relocated old buildings from the Midlands, Avoncroft is home to the National Telephone Kiosk Collection. Here are four K6 boxes, gathered together in the museum's phone box area.

It's good to see them well looked after (so many roadside boxes look rather dishevelled these days), their paintwork shining and red. When Scott designed the original K2 box, the slightly taller predecessor of these 1935 K6s, he intended them to be painted silver outside and "greeny-blue" inside, but it's hard now to imagine them any other colour than red.*

The vehicle is a Morris Minor Van of the type used by telephone engineers in the 1950s and for years afterwards. The Royal Mail used similar vans painted red, but the telephone engineers' vans were green and had black rubber front wings. According to the Morris Minor Owners' Club, Royal Mail red vans were allocated to specific drivers, who were trusted to look after "their" vehicles. The green engineers' vans were driven by many different drivers, who, it is said, were thought less likely to be careful with their transport. Hence the rubber wings, which were proof against at least some knocks and scrapes.

I'm pleased that at least a few red telephone boxes, and this van, are being protected from knocks and scrapes by the good people at Avoncroft.

* * *

* Unless you come from Hull in Yorskshire, where the telephone boxes were installed by the local council and painted cream.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Perry Green, Hertfordshire

Red Cube

There were plenty of telephones in Hoglands, the Hertfordshire house of the sculptor Henry Moore. They were symbolic, perhaps, of Moore's central position in the art world for much of the 20th century and testimony to the fact that everyone from Kenneth Clark to Helmut Schmidt wanted to keep in touch with him. If the house phones were busy, Moore could pop out of the front door, cross the road, and use the public telephone box on the village green.

The K6 box was decommissioned in 2009 and in 2012 became the art gallery Red Cube* (regular readers may remember another post box gallery in Settle, Yorkshire). The gallery is a joint project of  Much Hadham Parish Council and the Henry Moore Foundation, which is based at Hoglands and opens the house, Moore's studios, and the surrounding grounds to visitors. Red Cube was opened earlier this year. It makes an agreeable stop on the short walk from Hoglands to the Hoops Inn, another building owned by the Henry Moore Foundation.

I think Henry Moore would have approved of all this. The gallery is a way of offering a small exhibition space to visitors, staff of the Foundation, clients from the Drawing Room (part of St Elizabeth's Centre, a national centre of expertise for epilepsy) and others. It helps to preserve a small landmark on the village green. And it enables people to engage with Moore's art in an active way – hats off to those who come and draw.

* The gallery's name wittily alludes to the name of London's famous White Cube gallery (Red Cube is also the title of a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi)

For more about the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green, go here.

For more about Red Cube, go here.