Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Oh, Shakespeare he’s in the alley…
St Stephen’s Street is one of Bristol’s narrow central thoroughfares, a street that’s easy to overlook and if one does come across it, one’s attention is likely to be taken by its main architectural attraction, the eponymous church, which has a glorious tower, a sibling of the late-medieval towers that make Somerset so architecturally rewarding. Across the road, though, are other delights, mostly unregarded and, I’d guess, rarely photographed, because the street (a bit more than an alley, to be fair, but far from wide) makes these quite tall buildings hard to get in the frame.
One example is this building of 1878. It was originally a warehouse, apparently, through I don’t know what was stored in this four-storey structure faced in multi-coloured glazed bricks. My top photograph, showing just the central section of the facade, gives you the idea – mostly yellow, with an orangey-brown plinth, some bands of blue, a little Pennant sandstone here and there, and terracotta ornaments.
The ornaments are three terracotta busts of English poets: Milton, Tennyson, and Shakespeare. The Shakespeare looks like a Romantic poet, with more flowing locks and a bonier face than the familiar portrait by Martin Droeshout that appears in the First Folio. The Milton is not too far from portraits of the poet in early printed editions of his works and the Tennyson is faithful to the writer’s profuse beard and sometimes upward-curling moustache. The Tennyson bust has him wearing a hat – several contemporary photographs and portraits show the poet hatted. At one time in his life Tennyson favoured a cloak and a very broad-brimmed sombrero, a get-up well beyond the ken of most Victorians. A young woman who went for a walk with him was embarrassed when everyone stared at them, transfixed by this outré garb; she was even more embarrassed when he turned to her and said she ought to wear a less conspicuous dress next time she went out because ‘People are looking at us’.
I suppose the choice of poets is unsurprising for the period. Shakespeare is always with us; for the Victorians, Milton’s works too were much-read classics, even if their author did not have the huge influence he’d had for the previous generation of Romantic writers. As for Tennyson, he was very popular in his lifetime. His long poem In Memoriam, an elegy for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam that grapples with matters of faith and doubt (burning issues for the Victorians), was a bestseller and a favourite of the queen; some of his other poems, such as Enoch Arden, Maud, and The Idylls of the King, also sold in numbers far beyond the sales figures of poetry today.
We got a lot of good things from the Victorians (hospitals, Education Acts, Charles Dickens, drains…). I’d suggest that their love of poetry is another influence that we could emulate.