Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

On the road to recovery

There will be celebrations today in Shrewsbury, with the announcement that one of its major buildings, which has been 'at risk' for years, has been allocated a large grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Ditherington Flax Mill (also known as the Flax Mill Maltings) looks set for a fresh start.

This is an enormous building and was made still larger when it was converted to a maltings. The original part, the flax mill on the left built in the 1790s, contains some 30,000 square feet of factory floor ranged over five storeys. But the key thing is not the size, but the structure. It's held up by a framework of iron – not just iron columns, but iron horizontal beams and tie rods too – and this makes it the world's first fully metal-framed building.

The mill was designed by wine merchant, textile manufacturer, surveyor and engineer Charles Bage. Bage's interest in the use of iron in building wasn't surprising – the first iron bridge at Coalbrookdale was not far away, there was an iron foundry in Shrewsbury, and he was a friend of civil engineers such as Thomas Telford and William Strutt of Derby, a builder of mills who had already employed iron columns in his structures but hadn't gone the whole hog and used iron beams as well. Bage made that extra step to a full metal frame.

The advantages of this kind of building were clear – modular construction, minimal interruption of the floor space by the slender columns, and resistance to fire. The fire-resistant quality of a building made of an iron frame supporting brick walls and arches was especially attractive to mill owners, although this building was not truly fireproof – the metal would have buckled at high temperatures. Bage used cast iron and, although later engineers would later prefer wrought iron, and then steel, for structural frameworks, he had made a beginning, one which would make possible the rise of the skyscraper, and all that has entailed.

I'm pleased that this landmark building, one of countless historical industrial buildings that has lain unused because of the substantial repair and conservation costs, is now a big step further on the road to a secure future.
Flax Mill, interior showing iron columns and brick-arched ceiling
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There is more about the Flax Mill here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire


This surprising structure, Henley's Imperial Hotel and its flanking shops, is meant to make travellers pause in amazement. It stands near the entrance to the town's railway station and, although not directly linked to the station as many such hotels were, was no doubt intended to attract people using the railway. Its heady mixture of timbered gables, bay windows, oriels, balustraded balconies, and tall brick chimneys, was put together by the architect William Theobalds in around 1897.

Theobalds had no doubt absorbed the influence of Richard Norman Shaw, who liked to give his houses timbered gables and tall chimneys and made this kind of domestic Tudorish revival popular. But Shaw knew as well as anyone that this kind of building drew on a variety of sources. As Shaw said modestly, 'If I could get myself to believe that my half-timbered work and tall chimneys were in any way my own, I should sit up on my hind legs and purr away like our tom cat John, but common honesty compels me to own that they are simply indifferent copies of old work.'

Theobalds added to the mix, using wooden-framed windows where Shaw preferred mullioned ones, adding an ornate finial to make the skyline interesting, fitting natty bargeboards, and cladding the piers on either side of the entrance in granite. The shop fronts that curve away from the main central block are unusual too, with their large, arched main windows and row of little square windows above. The whole row, the big hotel gable with its flanking smaller gables, makes a confident impression that reflects Henley's status in the late-19th century as Thames-side resort and is still dazzling in the sun.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bretforton, Worcestrshire

Brush with the lore

Peacocks, lambs, ducks, foxes: thatchers often like to top off their roofs with an animal finial. I’ve been noticing these flourishes for years, and, having seen flocks of pheasants in one village and congregations of ducks in another, I’d wondered idly, without really thinking about it, whether these were craftsmen’s ‘signatures’, rather as people used to say that the ornate patterns cut in the straw just below the roof ridge ‘belonged’ to the individual thatcher, and were his way of making his mark.

For her 1939 book Made in England, for which she trawled deeply among local tradition and lore, Dorothy Hartley asked about the significance of these figures and was given various answers. Some of her interlocutors said that the ornament identified the thatcher; some that it related to the owner of the house (or of the haystack, because stacks were also thatched and sometimes topped with animal figures). Another interviewee replied gnomically: 'Corn bird steals no corn and frits off corn buntin'.' A kind of scarecrow, then. I know someone who keeps a life-size model of a heron next to his fish pond for a similar reason. Nowadays, on a roof that's already covered with wire mesh to stop birds removing the straw, a fox or peacock is likely to be there because thatcher and owner think it will look good, or amusing, or catch the eye of bystanders. You can even buy straw animals online to add to your roof. Long live traditional crafts…

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Brewood, Staffordshire

Gothic on speed

In the middle of the small town of Brewood, strategically placed by a T-junction, is Speedwell Castle. This house is totally surprising, completely unlike the low-rise, rather modest houses and shops that surround it, and guaranteed to make the jaw drop and the eyebrows shoot up in astonishment. It's a house of the mid-18th century by an unknown designer – probably someone who had access to the architectural books produced by the memorably named garden designer and writer Batty Langley, a man who tried to make Gothic architecture better by elaborating it and applying classical rules to it, and who signalled his love of the classical past by giving his children names like Euclid and Archimedes.

Langley's book Ancient Architecture Restored of 1742, republished in 1747 under the title Gothic Architecture, Improved by Rules and Proportions, did much to encourage the fashion for the fancy, filigree version of Gothic that's often known as Gothick. This Batty Langley Gothick is all double-curved ogee arches, delicate pinnacles, and intricately patterned glazing bars. It was much used for small garden buildings and was developed by Horace Walpole in his famous Twickenham House, Strawberry Hill.

Walpole had in some ways a lighter touch than the builder of Speedwell Castle. Strawberry Hill is an asymmetrical building and sits beautifully in its garden. Speedwell by contrast is symmetrical and seems to burst out of its low-key urban setting. It makes you stop and stare – and ask how on earth it came to be built. No one knows the answer for sure, but there is an old story that provides a clue. The story goes that one William Rock, a local pharmacist who died in 1753, built the house with money he won betting on a horse called Speedwell. The story thus neatly explains the presence of the building and its name. An attractive tale, in lieu of any better explanation of the origin of this extraordinary bit of Gothic on speed.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rushey Green, London

We are amused

'Give us more architectural cats,' requests a friend, in the wake of Shugborough's classical maritime mouser and Fairford's ecclesiastical feline. This is not, I suspect, quite what she had in mind. But the Catford Cat, a fibreglass sculpture poised above the entrance to a small shopping centre opposite the green in this southeast London town centre has long been a treasured landmark. The shopping centre was built in the early 1970s to designs by the Owen Luder partnership, which had also produced the more architecturally famous office block Eros House nearby. Owen Luder and his brilliant architectural partner Rodney Gordon, who did most of the actual designing, were Brutalists. The cat is a surprising prelude to a Brutalist building and has elicited responses that range from, 'What could they have been thinking of?' to 'Why not?'

It's my imagination of course, but in my mind's ear I can hear the discussion in the meeting when the architect came up with idea.
'Catford. It's a bit anonymous. And the place is rather, well, stiff these days.* It needs an identity. What better than a gigantic statue of a cat? Right over the entrance to the shopping centre.'
'A gigantic cat? Come on.'
'Yes. The place needs a bit of softening up. But not too soft. Not a Persian or a Siamese. A street cat. Black and white. After all, the area is a bit of a mixture of…'
'All right, all right. And how do you propose to get a whacking great sculpture up there and support it?'
'Easy. We're not talking the Burghers of Calais. Make it out of fibreglass. And we could call the parade of small shops Catford Mews.'

However the original decision was made, the Catford Cat, reaching down from its lofty perch to take a swipe at the pigeons and pedestrians on the pavement below, has been a familiar and well loved landmark on Rushey Green for around 40 years. And for all those who say that Catford, the butt of comedians from Billy Cononlly to Doon Mackichan, deserves such kitsch, there are as many who smile fondly as they pass by, and even a few who, making a pause for thought, reflect that such an outsize dose of humour wouldn't be likely in the glassed-over, gated-in, hyped-up malls of more recent vintage, and that the Catford Cat is not altogether a bad thing.

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* Ian Nairn, revered architectural critic (see foot of right-hand column), had said in his book Nairn's London that the main street of Catford had been given some much-needed 'stiffening up' by Owen Luder's Brutalist Eros House.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Shugborough, Staffordshire

'Get a cat' again

In a post a couple of years ago I recalled the lovely story in Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese about a Greek ship's captain whose boat was troubled with rats. The captain called in a priest, who duly carried out the rituals for casting out vermin – chants, incense, holy water, the lot. As the clergyman prepared to take his fee and depart, he assured the seaman that he would have no trouble now: the rites always worked. 'One more thing,' the priest added. 'Get a cat.' And Paddy remarks: 'Since then the phrase "getting a cat" means, in maritime circles, making surety doubly sure.'

My original post on this theme was about a church in Gloucestershire that got a cat and memorialized the creature in the churchyard. Now here is another of the remarkable garden structures at Shugborough, a monument to what may have been a genuine maritime feline. According to one account of the monument, this is a memorial to a family pet. But another story says that it commemorates the cat that accompanied Admiral George Anson on his ship the Centurion in 1740–44, when Anson undertook an expedition to the Pacific with the aim of seizing a Spanish treasure ship.

Anson's expedition was so poorly planned that one wouldn't have given it a chance. There were eight ships and the motley crew of 1,000 included 259 Chelsea pensioners (average age just under 70) and 210 untrained recruits. Ill winds and navigational errors played havoc with the expedition. At one point they mistook a fleet of Spanish warships for cargo vessels and had to make a hasty retreat. Disease killed hundreds of the men, supplies ran low, and at least one ill-repaired vessel simply broke up. Anson and his remaining 200 men pushed on, finally found a (heavily armed) Spanish galleon, attacked it, and relieved it of its cargo of treasure. Limping into the Chinese port of Canton, for a rest presumably, they found the place on fire and had to lend a hand putting out the flames. They eventually sailed home and Anson's share of the treasure helped rebuild Shugborough.

By the time he got home, Anson had circumnavigated the globe. I like to think that the cat did too, and that it is remembered with this imposing monument of the late 1740s, in its tranquil glade, surrounded by shrubs and a sea of green grass.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Shugborough, Staffordshire


I might have given the impression in my recent post about the 18th-century garden buildings at Shugborough that the dominant style of these structures was the Greek revival idiom developed by James 'Athenian' Stuart. While it's true that there are memorable Greek revival buildings at Shugborough –  a Doric temple and a building based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates as well as the Tower of the Winds that I posted – this is not the whole story. Just when you think you have the place worked out, you come across this: the Chinese House.

This small pavilion of c. 1747, carefully set on a low mound near water, has the concave curving roof, pagoda-like finial, and patterned glazing bars that mark it out straight away as a building in the Chinese taste. It was originally painted blue and set on an island flanked by two bridges, but the layout of the terrain was altered after flooding in 1795. When first built it was not the only Chinese building in the garden: there was also a pagoda, which is long gone – it was apparently destroyed in the 1795 floods.

1747 is quite early for a Chinese-style building in England – the famous pagoda in Kew Gardens, designed by Sir William Chambers, was completed in 1762. Shugborough owes this early Chinese structure in part to Commodore (later Admiral) George Anson, the younger brother of Thomas Anson, the owner of the house. George Anson made a fortune by capturing a Spanish galleon loaded with gold and silver; he had also visited China.

There is a lot more about the Chinese buildings at Shugborough on the East India Company at Home website and the National Trust Treasure Hunt blog. Both of these point out the paradox that the Admiral who provided much of the money to create Shugborough and its gardens didn't much like the Chinese or their taste. They suggest the possibility that George's wife, Elizabeth, was the family member most closely involved with the Chinese House. Chinoiserie, apparently, was an area of decorative design that found many female enthusiasts in the 18th century: perhaps Shugborough's Chinese House is an example of this feminine influence.

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I include links to posts from the National Trust Treasure Hunt blog in Historic Buildings Round-up, my daily digest of news from the around the web.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

New arrival

Historic Buildings Round-up
Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed a new addition to the right-hand column of this blog, just below the list of Pages. This is a feature called Historic Buildings Round-up. It's a daily selection of news about historic buildings, mostly in Britain, from around the web.

Here's how it works. Each day, the online newspaper service gathers together a small collection of links from a number of sources (I select the sources, looks for the latest posts, news, or whatever from these sources). Current sources include English Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, amenity societies such as the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society, and various blogs about historic architecture and conservation. I add further links myself, when I find them. These links are gathered together on a web page that you can access from the right-hand column, where examples of headlines are quietly scrolling away, to give you an idea of what's there today. When you hit Read it now! the day's links display as a separate page. You can also subscribe to this page (you'll find a Subscribe button on the page itself), and when you do so you receive a daily email containing some of the highlights, with a link straight to the Historic Buildings Round-up page on the web. The page is updated daily, with the new version appearing at around 10 am UK time.

Historic Buildings Round-up is a new feature, and it's in its early days. But even in this embryonic form I hope it will prove interesting, and perhaps even useful, to readers of this blog.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Shugborough, Staffordshire

Quite Athenian, rather British

The landscape garden at Shugborough, the ancestral home of the Earls of Lichfield, has an impressive collection of buildings designed by James 'Athenian' Stuart, the man who measured and drew Greek architecture and, with Nicholas Revett, published accurate drawings of The Antiquities of Athens in the 18th century. Stuart's work inspired British architects to design classical buildings more closely similar to Athenian ones than before, leading to country houses that looked like Greek temples – and to garden buildings that in some cases resembled these temples very closely.

One of the most prominent of the garden buildings at Shugborough is the Tower of the Winds, an octagonal structure of 1765. The main room, on the upper floor, was designed as a banqueting room. In the 19th century, the downstairs was used as a dairy while the upstairs room apparently became a gambling den presided over by the 1st earl.

The tower at Shugborough is similar in general form to the Greek original, a structure on the agora in Athens bearing a weather vane and various sundials and originally containing a water clock. The Shugborough version is octagonal, and has two entrances and a stair tower. But it is missing the frieze (the original has relief carvings of the deities of the winds) and the sundials that adorn the Athenian tower. The sash windows are of course a very English addition. And inside, there is a ceiling based not an Athenian model but on one from Nero's Golden House in Rome. The little entrance porticoes, however, were designed with a close eye on the original. The capitals are a version of Corinthian, with acanthus leaves but no spiral volutes, that are often now known as Tower of the Winds Corinthian.
Tower of the Winds Corinthian

So this little building is by no means a reproduction of the Greek structure that inspired it and that Stuart and Revett had reproduced so carefully in The Antiquities of Athens. Stuart adapted it to his client's needs, to make a useful building (whether for diners, gamblers, or dairymaids) that was also an ornament in the park. A very British compromise.