Thursday, August 29, 2013
Towers among trees
This charming house caught my eye as I glimpsed it across fields and through trees. Called Treago, it was originally built in the late-15th century and altered in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The original building was a squarish stone structure with round towers at the corners and an internal courtyard (now roofed over). Treago was built as a fortified manor house and there would probably originally have been only small openings on the outside walls, with bigger windows looking into the internal courtyard. The windows visible now were added in the 18th century (the sash window), and in the 19th century.
With its corner towers and (originally) a moat, Treago looked strong, but maybe the fortifications of this manor house were built mainly for show. The site isn't ideal for defence (there's higher ground to one side, overlooking the building) and Anthony Emery, in his book Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, thinks that this 'nullified any pretensions to serious defence'. Moreover he adds, 'The house was formerly embattled, but the porch had no more than a draw bolt, and the cross loops in the angle turrets are decorative.'
If the main aim of the architecture was to look impressive, the altered house manages to combine this quality with a certain quaintness that isn't entirely out of place in this secluded spot in the Herefordshire countryside. It has been the home of the Mynors family at least since the 16th century, probably since it was built in c 1470. It seems that they have looked after it well.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
Torbryan's stolen panels and an appeal
Readers of this blog, especially those who live in the United Kingdom, may have read about the recent theft of two painted panels from the 15th-century oak screen in Holy Trinity Church, Torbryan, Devon. These panels, depicting St Victor of Marseilles and St Margaret of Antioch,† are very rare. Very few medieval painted screens have survived in our churches – many disappeared during the iconoclasm of the 17th century and not all the other survivors are of such good quality as the Torbryan panels. To make matters worse, the neighbouring panel, portraying a female saint, was also badly damaged during the theft.
The church at Torbryan is one of 341 in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a charity that cares for and conserves churches that have been made redundant by the Church of England, and are of historical and architectural significance.* The CCT maintains the churches so that they meet community needs (all remain consecrated so that occasional services can be held in them) and encourages people to visit them. They do terrific work, conserving and looking after these fragile buildings and the artefacts inside them, and keeping the buildings open so that people can enjoy and appreciate them, and they deserve our support. Several of the churches I've posted about in the past – for example Billesley (Warwickshire), Little Washbourne (Gloucestershire), and Inglesham (Wiltshire) – are cared for the CCT, and I hope my enthusiasm for these buildings comes through from my posts.
One way in which the CCT is furthering its work is with a project called History for the Future. This involves an appeal for funds towards work to conserve important and historic fixtures and fittings in various CCT churches – items from a Norman door in Hertfordshire to a stunning collection of monuments in Derbyshire. There will be the added benefit of match-funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. For four years, HLF will match every pound raised by the CCT History for the Future appeal. Churches that stand to benefit are several of my personal favourites – St Mary the Virgin, Shrewsbury, with its glittering 14th-century Jesse window, All Saints' Cooling, Kent, with its Dickensian associations, and St John the Baptist, Inglesham, with its extraordinary multi-layered wall paintings. There's information about the appeal here, and I'd encourage all who can to contribute.
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† St Victor of Marseilles was one of the Christians persecuted under the Roman emperor Maximian. Victor denounced the worship of idols and refused to offer incense to Jupiter and was subsequently tortured before being crushed under a millstone. He is therefore often shown with a windmill and sometimes also, having been a soldier, with a sword.
St Margaret of Antioch was a probably legendary figure, said to have been the daughter of a pagan priest at Antioch. A noted preacher who converted many to Christianity, she was said to have suffered various tortures, including being swallowed by a dragon, which later burst asunder so that she might escape. She was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages, having promised divine protection to those who study her history, burn lights in her honour, or dedicate churches to her.
* The photograph at the top of this post, showing the damaged screen after the theft, is courtesy the CCT and used with their permission.The photograph of the screen prior to the theft is by Diana Neale.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Here comes the sun
While I was at Lyme, most of the buildings that caught my eye were more substantial structures than the beach huts in my previous post. One of my favourites is this house on Marine Parade, facing the sea. It's a lovely building mainly of blue lias masonry and the design, with mullioned windows, decorative leadwork, emphatic bay, and rubble walls with dressed quoins and windows, suggests the hand of an architect who followed the Arts and Crafts movement. And so it proves. This house is the design of the Scottish architect Arnold Mitchell, who worked as a young man in the 1880s for Ernest George and Peto, one of the most successful London practices of the time, where he would have seen some stunning houses on the drawing board and imbibed a range of influences – Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts, Flemish revival, and so on. When Mitchell eventually set up on his own he had, from the evidence of this building, acquired some of George and Peto's assurance.
The house dates from 1903 and stands out from the white- and pink-washed buildings, mostly rather lower, that surround it, on some of which Mitchell also worked. It's a building that wants to insist that it's at home here, though – the wall at the bottom is studded with ammonites, one of the types of fossil that makes this place famous among palaeontologists. The most stunning feature, though, is the sundial. The glorious scrolling foliage and characterful head of Sol himself make this feature, generously large, stand out to the full. The lettering is good too, especially the motto at the bottom, which completes the frame. The whole relief is wonderfully fitting for this coastal setting, on a house looking confidentially out to sea.
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Small, colourful wooden buildings sitting on the boundary between land and sea, beach huts have been with us since the end of the 19th century. They have their origins in the movable 'bathing machines', the sheds-on-wheels that could be pulled out into the sea to give the Victorians the ability to change and to bathe in privacy. Since then, stationary beach huts have become a familiar sight at seaside resorts all over Britain. Prized by owners for their convenience and by passers-by for their appearance, beach huts are much loved.
The huts are often brightly coloured and usually have gables and pitched roofs, but these simple examples with mono-pitch roofs caught my eye as I walked along the beach at Lyme. I admired the paint colours too – pastel shades that are gentler and more subtle than the seaside norm. Especially appealing are those with pink, green, and yellow doors, shades that reminded me of the strawberry, mint, and vanilla bands of Neopolitan ice cream. Simple, clean, and stylish: perfect for a sunny day at the seaside.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Finding myself in Lyme Regis recently, I decided to try to find Belmont, a house that was familiar to me as the home first of Eleanor Coade, manufacturer of Coade Stone (a successful artificial material used widely for casting architectural ornaments and statues) and later of the novelist John Fowles, author of such major works as The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman. I found the house easily enough, but when I got there I found that the Landmark Trust, who have owned the building for the past few years, had the builders in, making it difficult to photograph it and preventing access.
Looking at the entrance front, Belmont is a detached house built some time before 1784 with a symmetrical classical front. What is outstanding about this front is the decoration. The blocks and keystones around the door and windows, the horizontal band running across at first floor level, and the frieze are all made of Eleanor Coade's artificial stone. The heads of Neptune and Amphitrite in the keystones and the decorative horizontal band are quite delicately detailed; the blocks around the windows are mostly formed to give a rough surface effect usually known as vermiculation. A few of these (the impost blocks) bear reliefs of sea creatures, reminding us that this is a house near the sea – a maritime villa in the language of the 18th century. Around the back are later additions, including an observatory tower, presumably giving the inhabitants stunning views from this already elevated site (the house is not called Belmont for nothing) over the sea.
As part of their restoration, the Landmark Trust have received permission to demolish the later additions at the back of the house, returning the building to its 18th-century form and preserving the observatory as a free-standing tower. There will be a permanent exhibition about the history of the house and its owners in the stables, while the main building will be conserved and let for holidays like the rest of the Landmark Trust's impressive collection of historic properties. Belmont will therefore get back some of its integrity as a Georgian villa, while losing a slice of its history. This plan has proved controversial, but there's a decision here that has to be made by many people working on old buildings. The media talk airily of bring a building 'back to its former glory', but this phrase begs the question, 'Which former glory?' The gem of a villa lived in by Mrs Coade? The rambling 19th century house of residents such as Dr Bangay, who lived in the house in the 1880s and 1890s? Or the much loved home of John Fowles? And how can one best address the issues of how the building will be used while repairing and conserving the fabric?
The changes to the house, planned after much research, have gone through the planning process but the campaign for funding is still ongoing. The Landmark Trust website contains information on the history of the house and the Trust's appeal for funds; an article here outlines some of the controversy surrounding the project; another article describes proposals to incorporate a centre for young writers into the building, though it's not clear how this squares with the Trust's stated aim for holiday accommodation and a museum. Meanwhile, as discussions continue and passers-by like me stand at the gate and squint at the ornate front of Belmont, the fundraising continues.
Saturday, August 10, 2013
It's not just about the architecture
I live just a few miles away from this small Baptist chapel in the Gloucestershire village of Guiting Power, and pass it quite often. For me, it's one of those landmark buildings – the ones that provoke a nod of recognition as we travel around on our regular routes, buildings that remind us that we're nearly home, or ones that are just reassuring because they're still there.
This is a simple building, but the first few times I passed it, I seemed to notice something different about it each time – the coursed rubble masonry, the large quoins, the neat bands of stone around the windows, and so on. Stopping and looking more closely, I saw at once that this is hardly great architecture. The large side windows certainly do their job – their clear glass must make for an interior with plenty of natural light, perfect for reading Bible and hymn book. The masonry bands that surround these windows might be a bit shallow and narrow, their keystones rather small and overshadowed by the roof overhang, but this is the kind of architectural restraint that's appropriate, I'd say, for a nonconformist chapel.
The entrance front, though, looks odd. The usual pattern here would be to have two further large, round-headed windows, one on either side of the doorway. Instead, there's a rather small and mean-looking Venetian window above the door. The reason for this curious arrangement is that the chapel contains an upper seating gallery at this end, with its floor just above the arch of the doorway. Tall windows would not work, as the gallery floor would bisect them. Hence the smaller window placed above the doorway.
A building like this, then, is a collection of compromises. On one level it shows a Cotswold builder of the early-19th century wrestling with the architectural conventions of the time and not always winning. On another, it reveals a happy set of answers to the question of how to produce a well-lit building with enough accommodation for the worshippers in a restrained style that respects the local villagescape. The date stone above the Venetian window reads '1835' and the chapel has been little altered since then. The design seems to have worked.
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
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.)
Sunday, August 4, 2013
Many church windows have a hood mould, a projecting, arch-shaped moulding around the head of the window, to throw off water. Medieval masons liked to carve decorative terminals to these mouldings, often in the form of heads. These carved terminals or headstops are easy to miss, but even on modest buildings they can be highly decorative, like this king on a 15th-century window at the little Cotswold church at Wyck Rissington. The details – the curly hair, the beard, the pointed metalwork of the crown – have been protected from the weather by an overhanging roof.
I don't think there is anything about this carving to identify it as a particular king, but if to modern eyes a member of the royal family seems an odd presence on a church wall, one should remember that kings and queens were all over medieval churches. They recall not only Biblical monarchs such as David and saintly rulers such as Edmund, but also all the others who, anointed during their coronations, held a position sanctioned by the church and had as much right to be portrayed as all the other figures (and monsters) who populate church carvings from the Middle Ages.