Wednesday, August 31, 2016
The air of antiquity
Walking around Coventry looking at the areas of the city centre rebuilt after the bombing of World War II (most of the city centre, that is), I was drawn now and then to what was left of the old city. Close to the cathedral, this early-18th century house facade was one thing that caught my eye, as how could it not? There must have been quite a few of these in the city before the Luftwaffe got to work. Now there’s just this one and a couple of others – the only houses of this scale and date left in the centre. And not even this is what it seems. Only the facade is original: what’s behind is a rebuild of 1953.
In my opinion the frontage was certainly worth preserving. The generous windows, Ionic pilasters, and ornate doorway with its Gibbs surround constitute the image of the 18th-century civilised house. The ironwork of the railings, gate, and overthrow are very impressive too. David Wells, the man who built it in c 1721, must have been proud of it. Wells was a wine cooper (a producer of barrels) and his business is commemorated in the vine leaves in the ironwork where the railings join the gateposts. The facade isn’t a perfect design – the attic is rather plain and lumpen. But whoever built it knew his classical orders, and had looked at the work of the great 18th-century architect James Gibbs.*
Wells was interested in history – he was Coventry’s first member of the Society of Antiquaries, and called his house The Priory. There seems not to have been an actual priory on the site, but it’s very close both to the Cathedral and to Holy Trinity church. Antiquity clings to the place. Even more so now that it’s a rare enclave of the Georgian period in a largely 20th-century city.
- - - - -
*The architect is not known, but the master builder and architect Francis Smith of Warwick liked the Gibbs hallmark of that door surround with alternating protruding quoins and the Coventry house resembles some of Smith’s work. However, Andor Gomme, the authority on Smith, thinks this house was not by him.