Wednesday, June 10, 2015
The volumes in the Buildings of England series, written originally by Nikolaus Pevsner and added to and revised by later scholars, are invaluable, one of the greatest works of cultural history and commentary ever produced. The recent edition of the Cornwall volume (a revision and expansion by Peter Beacham of the very first volume in the series, issued originally in 1951) is exemplary: packed with information, building on the original work, fillings gaps in it, updating it, and adding something of its own: a real sense of Cornwall as a distinctive place. And yet sometimes, in towns especially, I like to wander without Pevsner in my hand, noticing things for myself, and occasionally missing things of course, and seeing what my own eyes lead me to.
So it was that I stood and admired this small stone plaque in High Street, Launceston, boggling that it was just plonked there, apparently (with a later bit of shop front plonked in turn over part of the left-hand scroll). An angel playing the lute while another helpfully holds a scroll bearing a stave. What religious purpose could this angel-adorned building have had? I looked, admired the carved faces and feathery wings, tried unsuccessfully to work out whether there was any actual music on the stave, photographed the curiosity and walked on.
Round the corner in Church Street, finding a full blown and very architectural shop front, I dug out Pevsner from my bag and read the details. A shop of c. 1870, designed by James Hine in a sophisticated Italianate style as – the inscription makes it clear – Hayman’s Pianoforte Warehouse. That inscription is a striking piece of work, as are the front’s arches, keystones, capitals, and other details, though I was prevented from taking satisfactory pictures by the presence of a large van that was parked there, very close to the facade, for the whole of my time in the town.
Pevsner, what’s more, explains that Hayman’s premises went right through to the High Street, where there’s a relief of angel musicians. Mystery solved. The angels don’t signpost a religious building at all. Like the wonderful lettering on the shop front, they advertise a business where the Victorians could buy pianos (grand or upright, depending on budget and available space) and no doubt harps too and perhaps even lutes (although 1870 is rather early for the early music revival). Advertising built to last.
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Postscript Having years ago written about another musical building adorned with angels – or with putti at least – I should have known.