Monday, December 28, 2015

Poet of places

The man who fought the planners

For many, I know, the period between Christmas and the New Year is a dead time, especially for those who don’t fancy what in the UK are still referred to as ‘the January sales’ – the post-Christmas time when the shops lure us on to the High Street with promises of massively discounted goods. Now many of the the sales start before Christmas anyway. But there’s always television or that Christmas-stocking box-set or whatever the online suppliers can offer…

Or maybe something a little different. I thought one or two of my readers might like The Man Who Fought the Planners, a documentary about the writer and broadcaster Ian Nairn that was made a while back and has surfaced on YouTube. Ian Nairn (1930–1953) was a writer, broadcaster, and poet of descriptive prose whose work I’ve enthused about before. My review of a an excellent book about him will fill in the background for those who don’t know about him; my account of Nairn’s London, which I think is his best book and one of the all-time best books on London, is here.

If you want something to cheer you up in the post-Christmas gloom, this video may not be a good idea. This is, after all, a documentary about a man who drank himself to death, who spent a lot of energy lamenting destructive planning decisions, and even whose enthusiasms, which are many and revealing, are expressed with a kind of melancholy. But fans of Nairn will know that his observations on buildings and, especially, places are the things that make this unlikely and unglamorous broadcaster worth watching – the insights into townscapes, the sense of space, the love of the unloved. The memories of those who knew him, worked with him, or who, like me, are simply people who like his writing and have benefitted from his perceptions – all these are valuable too.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Ancient styles

Sometimes a few notes, or a particular quality of sound, can do it: a memory is summoned and I am somewhere else entirely. Listening on the radio to an extract from a new recording by British vocal group Stile Antico the other day, I was transported back a few years year to a concert given by the same group in the late-medieval church of St James in Chipping Campden. The building is one of the Cotswold “wool” churches, built, that is to say, using the proceeds of the wool trade in this part of England. These churches have tall bell towers (without spires), big windows, and spacious interiors with flattened arches and roofs not very steeply pitched. Campden church is a particularly graceful example of this style – known to architectural historians as Perpendicular, for its marked vertical emphasis. The bands of stone running right the way up the faces of the tower are an example of this trait, as are the windows with their long vertical glazing bars that extend from the top of the frame to the bottom.

The rather box-like proportions produced by the shallow pitch of the roof work well both visually and acoustically, in my opinion. Churches like this have clear acoustics that are not too echoey and this quality is put to good effect in Chipping Campden when the church hosts a summer music festival. And it was a concert in one of these festivals in which I remembered this group singing. Stile Antico is a small group – just twelve singers I think. They perform early vocal music – mostly written before the 18th century, and mostly the kind that interweaves several different lines: Italian masters such as Palestrina and Monteverdi, English stars like Tallis and Byrd, out of the way composers such as the Slovenian Jacob Handl, whose extraordinary harmonies caught my ear on the radio the other day. They sing this complex polyphony without a conductor.

For the English Buildings blog, some English music: here they are in a piece of music by William Byrd. It’s his setting of the Ave Maria, from a recording of English music for Advent and Christmas. This Ave Maria is two minutes of grace indeed. Renewed wishes for a Happy Christmas to all my readers.

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Stile's Antico's website is here.

The photograph at the top of this post shows the tower of St James’s church, Chipping Campden and the East Banqueting House (part of the largely vanished Old Campden House.
Image by Saffron Blaze, used used Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 unported license and attributed to: W. Lloyd MacKenzie, via Flickr @

Friday, December 18, 2015

Jackfield, Shropshire

Seasonally graphic

A few weeks ago the Resident Wise Woman and I visited the Jackfield Tile Museum in Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire. Housed in the former Craven Dunnill factory (visitors can see tiles being made in the adjacent buildings), this place is a visual feast, packed with tiles from the most interesting designers of the 19th and 20th centuries, from William de Morgan to John Piper, and the products of all the major British manufacturers, from Doulton to Carter's. Single tiles, panels of tiles, entire tiled room sets: the museum is a joy.

My picture shows one example from the Jackfield museum. Its cheerful and Christmasey image is on a tile produced by Maw and Co, one of the most prominent tile manufacturers in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. Maws started in Worcester in 1850, before moving in 1862 to the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, where there was plenty of good clay suitable for tile-making. They produced millions of architectural tiles and were especially famous in their early days for their encaustic tiles, which were widely used in churches, public buildings, and houses. They also made colourful pictorial tiles like this one, which were sometimes used, in the late-19th century, to decorate furniture.

This tile is one of several along the back of a washstand. Its combination of red-breasted robin and red-berried holly is very appealing: one can't be surprised that robins and holly have become symbolic of the Christmas season. They did so in the last decades of the Victorian period, the era when the Christmas card developed (it was officially invented in 1843 and was commercially widely available from the 1870s onwards); Christmas cards greatly helped popularize all the images now associated with Christmas. Their arrival and rise in popularity coincides pretty closely with the heyday of the decorative tile in England.

Some readers might find things to take exception to in this picture. The holly is a variety with variegated leaves, not the traditional deep green stuff that we find growing wild in England – but variegated holly is common enough in gardens. The robin* is rather sleeker of build than what we think of as typical – but the last couple of robins I saw in the garden did in fact look less plump than those on many a high-street card. I think of this robin, then, as an image from the garden, and offer it, with my seasonal greetings, to all my readers.

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*And, of course, it's a European robin (Erithacus rubecula), which is very different from the North American robin (Turdus migratorius). Even now I can remeber my puzzlement as a small child when, watching the film Mary Poppins, the bird that popped up during the song 'A spoonful of sugar' ('A robin feathering her nest') looked nothing like the European robins that I'd seen in our English garden.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why am I here?

For the last of my clutch of pre-Christmas reviews, I turn to a book about the life and works of one the great Victorian architects, George Gilbert Scott. It’s a revelation…

Gavin Stamp, Gothic for the Steam Age:An Illustrated Biography of George Gilbert Scott 
Published by Aurum Press

Until now, history has not done well by George Gilbert Scott. He was immensely productive and designed some major buildings, but a lot of his work seems dull beside, say, the polychrome dazzle of Butterfield, the vision of Street, or the souped-up inventiveness of Teulon. And yet you can’t get away from Scott, and if you actually look at his work, there’s much to admire. Gavin Stamp’s excellent new book shows us why, and tell us quite a lot about the work and the life of the man who created it.

The first half of the book covers Scott’s life (mainly his hyper-active professional life) and begins with a section on how his work in general has been received over the decades since his death, from the almost general dismissal of Victorian architecture that prevailed during the first half of the 20th century to the more open-minded approach to the period, pioneered by John Betjeman, since World War II. This turn-around has been accompanied by a less prejudiced way of looking at Scott’s restoration work – he’s seen now as a much more conservative restorer, respectful of old work, keen not to replace when he could repair, than was the case after his death: it took his reputation a long time to recover from the maulings administered by William Morris.

The section on the life begins with a brief account of his youth. Unlike most of his brothers, who went to Cambridge and became priests like their father, George Gilbert Scott was a difficult, solitary boy, who got most of what education he had at home. He was apprenticed to a London architect called Edmeston, who was no great shakes as a designer (and a classicist to boot), but gave his young pupil the rudiments of building and construction. After a spell as an assistant with Henry Roberts, he set up in practice with Moffatt, whom he’d known at Edmeston’s office. Scott and Moffat started at the right time, just after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act created a demand for a new building type: workhouses. Scott designed dozens of them, honing his skills in Gothic and beginning his life of whizzing around the country (on mail coaches at this date, later on trains) to make client- and site-visits.

Scott built on his success with the mixture of dedication to Gothic architecture and sheer hard work that became his hallmark. Before long more interesting commissions were coming his way – the Martyr’s Memorial in Oxford, educational buildings (the universities were expanding), and countless churches. There were church restorations too, by the dozen, and a series of jobs restoring cathedrals; this side of his work lasted his whole life, and he was involved with the restoration or repair of virtually every English medieval cathedral. He, his assistants, and his many pupils (they included stars-to-be as such Street, Bodley, and T G Jackson) were so busy that it’s possible to believe the story of Scott told by W R Lethaby and others: ‘…having left town by the six o’clock train, “the office”, on slackly assembling, found a telegram from a Midland station asking, “Why am I here?”’.

Gavin Stamp summarizes this burgeoning career, telling briefly the story of such high-profile projects as the Albert Memorial, covering Scott’s fruitful relationships with craftsmen in metal, glass, and stone, and surveying the architect’s developing attitude to different kinds of Gothic. Scott is known for his use of a specific sort of Gothic (Geometric Middle Pointed), but Stamp shows how he also respected the later English Perpendicular style, and how he could be influenced by the medieval architecture of France and even Italy. There’s also a telling passage showing Scott’s openness to the use of ‘new’ materials such as iron, quoting a passage from one of Scott’s books reminding his readers that the Crystal Palace was more like a Gothic cathedral than a classical temple.

The government buildings in Whitehall, in which Scott had to contend with a badly run competition, a Prime Minister (Palmerston) who hated Gothic, and a very mixed reception from members of his own profession, are another key project. Scott had to abandon his Gothic design and re-do it in Classical form, and the book makes a case for treating these designs seriously, and not as the compromise that some observers have seen. The conception works, in spite of Scott’s admission that he had to mug up the classical style by investing in ‘some costly books on Italian architecture’.

Gothic For the Steam Age is a model of concision, covering all this material with vividness, sharp description, good well chosen illustrations, and a gift (born of looking at Scott’s work for years) for picking out the key aspects of each building. For anyone remotely interested in the period and its architecture, it’s a must.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

On the green

I thought I was aware of the full gamut of English building types, and that this blog was having a good go at embracing the least regarded, from public lavatories to bus shelters. But here in my fourth pre-Christmas review is a book that highlights a building type I’d not even considered. It’s a specialist book, to be sure, but fascinating nonetheless…

Hugh Hornby, Bowled Over: The Bowling Greens of Britain
Published by Historic England

What would you say was Britain’s national sport? The beautiful game? The summer game?* If you’re Scottish, do you prefer golf? Hugh Hornby makes a case for another sport entirely: bowls, which has a longer history than any of those and is played in some 7,200 clubs up and down the country. In Bowled Over, Hornby traces this long history, from the time of Henry VIII who banned it (too much of a distraction from honest trade and labour), to its Victorian golden age (standardization, a proliferation of clubs) to the sport today, with its almost sedate image but great popularity. He looks at the two rival traditions (crown green and flat green bowls, with their different cultures and origins) and traces the sport’s social role through time and across the social classes. Anne Boleyn played bowls as did, famously, Francis Drake. Bowls is in the national psyche, from Drake’s famous determination to finish his game before going off to teach the Spanish Armada a lesson to the imagery of Shakespeare.†

And then, yes, there’s the architecture. In tracing the stories of many bowling clubs, Hornby beguilingly introduces some delightful buildings, structures with stories and that look wonderfully at home next to expanses of greensward from Land’s End to all points north. Tiny green-side shelters like the little white timber-fronted ones, probably Regency, at Hadley Heath, Worcestershire or the lovely thatched shelter next to a pub green in Painswick in the Cotswolds; more formal structures like the classical stone bowling green house at Chatsworth, probably by William Talman and the lovely red-brick pavilion, with Gothic glazing bars, at Newark; or still more assertive pavilions such as the almost baronial-style turreted eye-catcher at the Fulwood Conservative Club, Preston and the vast Tudoresque pavilion at Old Trafford, Manchester. I hope at some point to write some individual posts about some of these buildings. In the meantime, I have been entertained and informed in equal measure by Hornby’s account of them and the sport that gave them birth.

* Non-British readers might find it helpful to know that these are football (aka soccer) and cricket respectively.  
† As in 'there's the rub' (Hamlet); George Herbert also uses the phrase.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell others

My third pre-Christmas review this year is about a book that chronicles the history of a great English house, Renishaw Hall, through the stories of its various owners. They’re the members of the Sitwell family, an interesting bunch, in many different ways…
Desmond Seward, Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells
Published by Elliott & Thompson

A few decades ago someone with my interests couldn’t avoid coming across traces of the Sitwell family, the literary siblings who shot like a comet over England’s literary and social life in the mid-20th century, and then sank noisily behind the horizon. There was Edith with her outré poetry (she influenced Dylan Thomas a lot), Sacheverell with his books about architecture (the baroque was a  particular passion), and Osbert with his extended memoirs, which said how great he and his siblings were but how appalling their father, Sir George Sitwell, was. None of them is so well known now – a few of Edith’s poems have survived, and the ‘entertainment’ called Façade, her collaboration with the composer William Walton, but otherwise, not a great deal else. Except for the family house, Renishaw.

Desmond Seward starts with the house and its early inhabitants. The first chunk of the book consists of entertaining brief lives of all the owners of Renishaw from the first George Sitwell in the 17th century to Sir Reresby Sitwell (died 1862), followed by more extended accounts of Sir George, his famous three children, and their descendants. The opening ‘brief life’ chapters are a joy. They portray a varied and interesting cast of characters – a Cavalier, an ancestor who got involved in an almost-ruinous legal case, a noted gentleman scholar, a merchant who restored the family finances, a Regency buck avant la lettre, a formidable Victorian woman who saved Renishaw through her financial nous, a watercolorist and friend of Ruskin, and others. Each is a rounded portrait, vivid and full of incident, and in each case the owner’s contribution to the house, the lasting legacy, is described. I found myself wanting more, but also keen to get on to the next character in the saga.

Then there’s Sir George, portrayed by Osbert in his multi-volume memoirs as a repressive unimaginative dull dud and upper-class buffoon. This is a picture (upheld by Edith but not so much by the other son, Sacheverell) that has been generally accepted by readers and biographers until now. On the contrary, Seward shows him to have been a kind and astute man, who improved the house, developed its garden and spearheaded the revival of baroque art that his son Sacheverell also championed in his books. Sir George also seems to have been good at making money (on the Stock Exchange), ensuring that he could keep the hose and buy and restore another home, Montegufoni in Italy, which provided him with a refuge.

Sir George, then, not his three children, is the hero of this book. Osbert made his mark on the house - not least in commissioning John Piper to paint it many times: there’s a magnificent collection of Pipers at Renishaw as a result. But both Edith and Osbert come over as the difficult and pesky characters they were: they made enemies easily and were undoubtedly damaged in different ways by difficult relationships with their father; these problems were not all one way. Sacheverell is portrayed as more genial and more likeable. Osbert being gay (Sir George clearly had a big problem with this: he did have his flaws), the house passed to the descendants of Sacheverell, who seem to have inherited his geniality. So the book ends on a happy note. The house survives in all its eclectic glory, the garden flourishes. We can be thankful to Desmond Seward for writing about Renishaw and its inhabitants so eloquently. And the John Pipers glow: for those, at least, we can be thankful to Osbert.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Bill Stickers will be celebrated

The next review in my current series of featured books is something very different. It tells the story of a colourful episode in the history of the National Trust. It’s an engaging, often amusing, story in its own right, but also throws fascinating light on all kinds of subjects, from the history of conservation to women’s work during World War II. Welcome to the world of Ferguson’s Gang…

Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck, Ferguson’s Gang
Published by National Trust Books

1939. In the era of British anxiety over Irish terrorism just before World War II a pair of masked bandits enter the annual general meeting of the National Trust, thrust an unidentifiable object (What is it? A bronze pineapple? A grenade?) into the hands of James Lees-Milne, Secretary of the Trust’s Country House Committee,* and leave. Does it contain high explosive? The members of the distinguished gathering pass it gingerly from one to another, like a jittery game of pass the parcel. When one of them plucks up the courage to look more closely, it turns out to contain a donation of £100: a gift from Ferguson’s Gang, one of a series of such unorthodox deliveries.

This is a story from the era of debagging and appie-pie beds, a tale of a group of upper-class and upper-middle-class young women dressing up as gangsters and pulling off amusing stunts: not the kind of book I’d normally read. But this book is different from the expected account of jolly japes. The pranks were benevolent and they involved raising money for the National Trust and delivering the cash to the baffled Trust board members with élan. It’s also an episode in the fascinating story of how people became more aware of issues to do with conservation (both architectural and environmental) in the interwar years.

The gang members were interesting in their own right. Although they came from variously rich and privileged backgrounds, they were a conflicted and troubled lot. Their leader (there was no Ferguson) was Peggy Gladstone (later Peggy Pollard, great-great niece of Prime Minister W E Gladstone), known in the gang as Bill Stickers; she had a double first from Cambridge in Oriental languages and felt the early death of her beloved father deeply. Others included Brynnie Granger (aka Sister Agatha), the confused product of a ménage-à-trois consisting of her parents and her mother’s close friend Henrietta Sadd; Joy Maw (aka Kate O’Brien the Nark), fragile of health, impoverished, feeling the effects of her parents’ disintegrating marriage; Rachel Pinney (aka Red Biddy) depressive, confused, sexually abused by her father, who was the General of Siegrfried Sassoon’s celebrated poem; and Ruth Sherwood (aka the Bludy Beershop), artistically gifted, Slade-educated, who invented a series of rituals for the gang that seem like early incarnations of performance art. It’s the opinion of the authors of Ferguson’s Gang that the group used make-believe as a way of coping with and escaping from their troubled home backgrounds, and they’re probably right.

The book traces the story of their donations to the Trust and tells us a bit about the places and properties they rescued. Among these were the Old Mill, Shalford, the Old Town Hall, Newtown, Isle of Wight, and Priory Cottages, Steventon, Oxfordshire. They were also key to the purchase and saving of several parts of the Cornish coast (including Frenchman’s Creek, made famous by Daphne du Maurier), and gave generously to other Trust appeals benefitting sites from Buttermere to Avebury. We also learn about their work with architect John Macgregor, known to the gang as the Artichoke, on conserving buildings according to the best practice laid down by the SPAB. And we find out a lot about the lives of the gang members, including their other peacetime work (in schools, in administration, with refugees); or lack of work (talented Ruth Sherwood gave up her promising career as a commercial artist because she saw that other talented artists needed the money more than she did); their war work (on the land, ambulance driving, helping the wounded, designing utility clothing, even firefighting); and their often troubled love and sex lives (Rachel Pinney in particular being deeply scarred by her terrible upbringing). The book is full of vivid vignettes – of the gang’s famous masked visits to the National Trust HQ, of poor well-meaning Rachel Pinney being sent to prison for ‘kidnapping’ a young person she was trying to help, of an elderly Peggy Pollard playing ‘Lily the Pink’ on the organ of Truro Cathedral.

It’s worth reading Ferguson’s Gang for these stories alone. But it’s also worth it for the context: the way in which the gang were responding to an increasing national anxiety about heritage, and bringing publicity to the cause that helped usher in other and more profound changes than they could make themselves – changes to planning law, other Trust acquisitions, broad alterations in our view of our history, architecture, and landscape. On all these levels, Ferguson’s Gang is a treat.

*Lees-Milne’s work led to the Trust’s acquisition of numerous country houses, saving them for posterity and, in effect, setting the Trust’s agenda for many years. His diaries have been published in numerous volumes and make entertaining and informative reading.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Scratching away

As the streets outside get back to normal after my town’s annual pre-Christmas festival and knees-up (everything from Santa’s Grotto to the Mummers’ Play, plus food and presents galore) I realise that it’s once again the time of year when English Buildings becomes a book blog for ten days or so as I review some recent publications. As usual, I’ve stuck to books on subjects in some way related to the main subject of this blog, and to books I especially like, in the hope that some of my readers might find something they’d like to give or receive for Christmas. I begin with a book on a subject I’ve been intrigued by for years: the graffiti scratched on the walls of England’s parish churches, much of it done hundreds of years ago…

Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches
Published by Ebury Press

There’s quite a lot of ancient graffiti in England’s medieval churches. It’s usually not immediately obvious, but once you get your eye in, you see more and more. Ships, animals, abstract designs of various sorts, bits of heraldry, images of people and fish: all these appear frequently, scratched into the stone, and when you add masons’ marks and mass dials, it adds up to a formidable body of imagery that ought to tell us quite a bit about the people who made it. Matthew Champion’s book aims to describe this material and, where possible, to explain why it was made.

It’s a fascinating account of a phenomenon that passes most people by because, scratched shallowly into the surface of the stone, much of the graffiti is difficult to see. The book does a good job of describing it and pointing us towards it, drawing on lots of original research, especially that done by the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, of which the author is Project Director. Other parts of Britain have been researched less thoroughly. There’s clearly a big job waiting to be done.

The text is lively and ranges widely across the evidence – archaeological, documentary, contextual –  that can help us understand the graffiti. The book is often inconclusive – we simply don’t know why a lot of this stuff was produced – but no worse for that because the text is absorbing, asks fascinating questions about the material, and makes illuminating distinctions. Champion distinguishes between the consecration crosses that were carved or painted on church walls for use in the ceremony of consecration and the many cross-like graffiti which are sometimes confused with these. He worries away at the simple little sundials, known as ‘Mass dials’, seen on so many churches, and asks what they could have been for, since so many of them are impractical for people to use to tell the time of upcoming Masses (many of these dials are on north-facing walls, for a start, a number of churches have several such dials close together on the same wall, and anyway most churches had bells). He talks about marks attributed to merchants, pilgrims, and other groups, untangles charms and curses, and suggests sources of symbolism and metaphor. Along the way he has some entertaining examples of how difficult these markings can be to interpret. One of my favourites involves a verbal inscription (few of these marks actually include words: they were mostly done by the illiterate). This line has been translated by one scholar as ‘In AD 1381 was the insurrection of the common people’ and by another as ‘In the year of our Lord 1381, five plough lands belonging to the church were exchanged’.

Fascinating stories and images emerge from such ambiguities. And not only this. The sheer volume and variety of graffiti lead Champion to a modified view of the parish church in the Middle Ages. Parish churches were not, or not only, places where the common people stood and watched the priest uphold the rituals and traditions of the church and celebrate Mass. It was a more interactive space in which parishioners not only responded to the dazzling array of statuary and stained glass (actually, it has to be said, we do not fully understood how they interacted with those things either) but also added their own contribution, making marks in the stone in which we can hear the distant echoes of their lost voices. Medieval Graffiti fascinatingly makes some of those echoes clearer, while modestly and rightly not trying to cover up the remaining mysteries.