Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mortimer Street, London

Sculptural practice

I know the area north of Oxford Street quite well, especially the bit around Portland Place, home to the RIBA and its marvellous architectural library, which I use from time to time. But I don't recall walking along this part of Mortimer Street before, or seeing number 82, a striking facade that made my jaw drop. This frontage of the very late 19th century features an artful collection of stone pediments and tall windows, with the main features picked out in stone against a background of red brick. What took my breath away, of course, were the two figures that support the upper pediment. They're cousins of the hundreds of straining figures – usually male, and usually known as Atlantes – that support lintels and arches on countless buildings in Europe. Part of the repertoire of baroque architecture, they're less common in England than in Italy or Central Europe. But here they are, doing sterling work in the middle of London. 
Figures like these are generally male. Female supporting figures more usually take the form of caryatids, which stand upright and are bereft of arms – their heads do the holding up. Here, though, we have one seated male and one similarly seated female, and a fetching pair they make. Their bodies, drapery and faces are well carved and I particularly like the way they are placed, sitting on the curving lower pediment and holding up the one above. Back home, looking the building up, I wasn't surprised to find that it was designed by Beresford Pite, a notable architect with a strong London practice, who loved to include carvings on his buildings. Long-standing readers of this blog may remember him from a post of another London building, also richly carved, that I did a long while back. On today's facade, the sculptures were done by Thomas Tyrell who I think taught at Lambeth School of Art.

This building was originally a consulting room for an anaesthetist and coincidentally, the other building by Pite that I posted had a medical connection too. As so often when I notice architectural sculpture in London, I find that Chris Partridge and his excellent Ornamental Passions blog has got there first. Chris Partridge speculates that the figures represent waking – the upward-looking male – and sleeping – the female who pulls the hood or veil over her head. Such subjects would certainly be appropriate for the occupant of the building. Whatever their intended subjects, though, I'm grateful to have been alerted to their presence.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Preston Capes, Northamptonshire

Englishman's home, Englishwoman's folly...

Just a couple of hours before finding the eccentric houses in the previous post, I came across this, another unusual building. It's known as The Folly, and it's two brick-built, crenellated dwellings with an archway between them. The picture shows them from the lane that gives access to them, but they must originally have been built to be seen from the other side, from across the fields. From that angle, there are more crenellations and the sloping roofs are largely hidden – but looking that way the day I was there, the building seemed to be largely screened by trees. So I was left admiring the building from the public road. It's still a rewarding view, with its engaging mixture of turrets and gables, its combination of tiny castle-like windows and larger, more domestic-looking ones, and its pleasing colour combination of red brick and green leaves.

According to the Preston Capes website, the building was originally commissioned in the 18th century by Lady Knightley of Fawsley Hall. It had the dual purpose of an eye-catcher and estate accommodation and in those days, apparently, the building contained four separate dwellings, each with a largish downstairs living room and a scullery downstairs and main bedroom and small room upstairs. The turrets contained staircases. So the building was hardly the grand castle that it might have looked like from a distance, just a cluster of very compact cottages, as down to earth as they are eye-catching.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Farthingstone, Northamptonshire


A row of early- or mid-19th century cottages is often an ornament on a town street or in a village. Gothic glazing with small glass panes, panelled doors, and flattened arches are all features that one might expect to find in this sort of row, and very decorative they can be. But here in Farthingstone, the builders had a different, possibly unique, decorative agenda. There's not only a winning combination of stone with brick arches, but also something bizarre: a multi-coloured collection of embedded pottery fragments, glass bottles, clinker, and oyster shells. Fragments of white, blue, yellow, and brown can be seen; there are whole cups in there, and bits of the necks of bottles. It's quite extraordinary, and even on this roughly north-facing frontage, where the sun doesn't get much chance to catch the pottery fragments, there's still a kaleidoscopic effect. One gets the impression that someone has seen a shell grotto in a landscape garden and decided to bring something of that kind of fantasy to a residential row using down to earth materials like old pots. And so, on a quiet village street, where one might least expect it, English buildings are calmly getting on with being eccentric. And yes, that does appear to be a model grey squirrel, legacy of more recent times, making its way along the wall.

The row: in shadow but glittering – click on the image to enlarge it

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Dinton, Buckinghamshire

With restraint, or, Odd things in churches (2)

A set of stocks does seem an odd thing to find in a church, but it's less odd if viewed in a historical perspective. In the 16th century, the vestry, a committee of parishioners chaired by the church's incumbent, was becoming the key body in parish government. Its responsibilities embraced civil as well as ecclesiastical affairs and included keeping the peace, dealing with vagrants, mending roads, and destroying vermin. These important roles of the vestry continued until Parish Councils were introduced in the late-19th century. Maintaining instruments of punishment, such as stocks and whipping posts, was therefore part of the work of the vestry, and sometimes stocks were set up by the churchyard wall. A few have found their way into the church as historical curiosities, like this set in Dinton, which is kept in the church porch. 

Malefactors – drunks, rowdies, vagrants, and scolds – were often put in the stocks for a while, the mixture of shame, inconvenience, and discomfort being a punishment and a way of detaining people until they calmed down, or sobered up. Perhaps the main punishment was that, stuck in the stocks with feet clasped firmly, a person was brought down a peg or two and was, indeed, a laughing stock.

There's one other curious thing about these stocks, though. There are five holes, and an odd number of holes doesn't seem to go with the usual human complement of two feet. The town where I live also has an old set of stocks with an odd number of holes and the tradition here is that they were made that way because a one-legged man was among the local wild bunch who often got into trouble. I don't know how true this is. Maybe having a single foot in the stocks was considered restraint enough: you certainly wouldn't be walking anywhere with one foot stuck in there. But an uneven number of holes certainly makes these stocks in the porch of Dinton church numerically, as well as ecclesiastically, odd.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Frampton on Severn, Gloucestershire

By the waterside

A lot of Britain is torn by wind and overwhelmed by rain, so here's reminder that the waters can be calm. This is the scene this time last year by the banks of the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal in Gloucestershire, near Frampton on Severn. Where the canal is crossed by bridges hereabouts, there are little classical bridgeman's houses, built in the 1840s. When first built these houses were tiny – just one living room, a bedroom, and a scullery.* The little buildings stand out because of the classical portico sheltering the front door and showing a face of miniature grandeur to the passing water-borne traffic.

The original wooden bridges had two lifting halves that swung open to let through boats and barges: the bridgeman would swing up one half, someone from the boat's crew would lift the other half, and after the craft had passed through, they'd lower them again, ensuring that the road was clear and the canal traffic could pass with relative speed and ease.

Today the attractive 19th-century wooden swing bridges have been replaced by one-piece steel bridges that open when the bridgeman turns a handle (only one or two have electric motors). The houses have mostly been extended, but this has been done discreetly, at the back, so here at Frampton at least, the Doric portico still dominates the tiny frontage, suggesting the continuity of canal-side life, in fair weather and foul.

Canalside Doric, by the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal
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* scullery: My grandparents referred to a room in their house as the scullery. It's an old-fashioned term for a room with sinks and a boiler for heating water; a kind of proto-utility-room.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ware, Hertfordshire

Watching the river flow

A long time ago I lived in house with a garden going down to the bank of a canal. Sitting outside and watching the passing canal traffic, not to mention the swans, was an agreeable way to waste time. How much better would it have been to have a little room, right on the canal bank, from which one could watch the water? A similar thought seems to have occurred to the people of Ware in the 18th century – and they acted on the idea. In their long, narrow gardens – probably originally burgage plots –  that stretched down to the River Lea, they built little square gazebos overlooking the water. Some of these pavilions are still there, and one of my readers kindly sent me some photographs of them, which I reproduce here, for your delectation.

Brick walls, weatherboarding, canted bay windows overlooking the river, hipped roofs, in some cases with details such as a ball finial on the top – all this adds up to something transparently right. And the white weatherboarding and generous windows seem to belong to an architectural style that's perfectly suited to leisure. The big windows must make the rooms light inside and the pavilions combine the functional and the ornamental: their bay windows reach out over the water, inviting those inside to look out, admire the view, and watch – or even perhaps chat to – those who pass by in their boats. It seems that some of these buildings have been here at least since the 18th century, although many of their details, from tiling to weatherboarding, have been renewed over the years.
Some of the buildings to which these gazebos belonged were coaching inns, so guests could have the pleasure of Ware's riverside views while they enjoyed a drink. Many of the long gardens to which they belonged have now been divided up, so presumably the pavilions don't necessarily belong to those original houses or inns. But by the look of things they are well cared for. They must be admired by those who pass them on the water too.

With thanks to Tom Raw for the photographs

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

In the pink

The previous post about the black and white timber-framed Round House in Evesham provoked some comment – in the comments section, via email, and elsewhere – about the relative merits of the black and white 'magpie' look of this building and the more restrained (and arguably more 'authentic') approach of leaving the timber untreated and perhaps colouring the infill with some kind of pigment. I thought this scene in Tewkesbury, showing the latter approach, might interest my readers.

What you can see here is a view along a side street into the main street. In the distance, on the left of the picture, you can catch just a glimpse of a late-15th century row house, which has been restored with natural grey timbers and plain white infill. This row was built by Tewkesbury Abbey and the buildings were originally shops. On the ground floor, where the window and green panelling are, there would have been an opening, closed at night with wooden shutters and open by day to reveal the shopkeeper's wares.

In the middle of the picture is another house, also restored and probably also late-medieval. It has been restored with a pink infill. Not everyone likes this, but it was certainly an approach taken by some house-builders of the late Middle Ages and was achieved by mixing animal blood with the infill material. I'd not want every building to look like this, but the result certainly adds a note of cheer to the street (it wasn't all monochrome in the Middle Ages, or always raining in the ancient world!), especially as the rain relentlessly falls and the floods get worryingly near to the town centre.

On the right is another timber frame in grey and white. This time the original building has been refronted in brick, and heightened too, and the exposed frame at the end of the structure shows how this has happened. It's a reminder that timber frames lurk inside many later brick buildings – although this one can hardly be playing a structural role much beyond the end wall. It's still pat of the story, though, even if it's not entirely clear in this case what the story actually was.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Evesham, Worcestershire

Around the house

I have posted before about some of the timber-framed buildings of the western counties of England, an area that has many wonderful buildings of this kind. Here's one of the best, in my opinion. It stands in the middle of Evesham, and even long ago when Evesham was as full of black and white as a flock of magpies,* it must have stood out. It dates to the 15th century, and the framing is very much as it would have been then – lovely, quite close-studded woodwork, jetties (overhangs) to both upper floors, and all. The windows are later – they're in fact fairly recent replacements made mostly along the lines of the 19th-century windows that were there before the building was restored in the 1960s. Other post-medieval additions include the massive props to the left-hand side, which were put there to stop a pronounced westward lean becoming terminal. They worked, and we are the beneficiaries.

But what is it, this glorious, big building? It was built by someone prosperous, that is for sure – the ample timber work and jetties suggest that. Its usual name, the Round House, seems rather perverse, and fails to give the game away. Although it's not literally round, the building's exterior on its island site in the market place, can be walked around, so that's presumably the excuse for the name. There's another name, the Booth Hall, which suggests it's a market building. But the authors of the Pevsner Worcestershire volume doubt that its lower floor ever housed booths, and there's no sign of any traces the open arches that would have allowed this. Pevsner thinks it may have begun life as an inn. That's possible. It certainly had pole position in the middle of the town. And its architecture raises the spirits now, just as its hospitality may once have done.

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*But not literally. These buildings are probably 'black and white'  because of post-medieval colouring. Grey and off-white would have been more likely.