Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Wantage, Berkshire

Not too novel

In a quiet side street in Wantage, this shop front has insinuated itself into a terrace of 19th century red brick. If you'd told me that there was as Art Deco frontage in this red-brick street, with white paint, a black panel, and the rest, I might have imagined an intrusion. But the Wantage Novel Library is well mannered and far from intrusive, thanks to the discreet geometrical patterns of its glazing and, above all the lettering.

It was the lettering that caught my eye. Its proportions (the narrow L, B, and E), the small serifs, and the careful spacing suggest the influence of ancient Roman capitals – inscriptions on monuments such as Trajan's Column or various triumphal arches. Not that this is a direct imitation of a Roman script, of course – how could it be when it relies so much on the letter W, for which the Romans had no use? But the spirit is there, and the forms of these letters are subtly different from many English architectural letters, which can be wonderfully classical but tend to be broader in proportion.

A sign like this must have been the perfect prelude to the literary delights of the Wantage Novel Library, which was presumably a commercial subscription library of a sort no longer common in this age of peering at Kindles and prodding at iPads. Though this is hardly a triumphal arch or a monumental column, the letters do the building proud.

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There is much information on architectural lettering, together with examples of Roman lettering and photographs of modern architectural letters in all their variety in Nicolete Gray, Lettering on Buildings (The Architectural Press, London, 1960)

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A note on English county names An observant reader has pointed out that Wantage is in Oxfordshire, not Berkshire. This seems a good time to point out that I normally use the traditional, pre-1970s county boundaries, which put the town in Berkshire. I do so because I'm attached to these old ways of delineating our local areas and the rich history that they represent. I also find the old counties useful because the invaluable series of architectural guides known as The Buildings of England, started by Nikolaus Pevsner and continued, revised, and expanded since his death, also use these boundaries. (I also have to say, though, that the building in this post, The Wantage Novel Library, is not, so far as I can see, included in the excellent Berkshire volume [edited by Geoffrey Tyack, Simon Bradley, and Nikolaus Pevsner] of The Buildings of England.)


worm said...

what a cool building and a cool name - the sort of thing that would be snapped up and used in an 'ironic' hipster fashion for some overpriced london emporium

Philip Wilkinson said...

Worm: Spot on! As it is, the facade reminds us in a timely, literal, and unhipsterish way that The Wantage Novel Library must have been just that, a library, in Wantage, from which people borrowed novels.

Evelyn said...

You can correct me if I'm wrong but my maps and current materials place Wantage in Oxfordshire rather than Berkshire. I know it's close to the mutual border but not so close as say Mapledurham being claimed by both counties. Don't want to quibble I just want to make sure I'm correct. Thanks !

Philip Wilkinson said...

Evelyn: You're quite right. I should have added that I habitually use the old, pre-1970s counties. I do this for two reasons, firstly because I have a sentimental and historical attachment to them, secondly because they are also used by the county-based volumes in Pevsner's invaluable series, The Buildings of England.

Anonymous said...

What a delight your blog was today. I would never have noticed the letters if you had not pointed them out. I am reminded of a poem my Mother used to read to me something like this:

Ten men walked along the path that day and all but one passed by.
He saw the hill and the cloud and the sky and he put them down on paper for the other nine men to buy.