Thursday, January 28, 2016

Bath, Somerset

Other worlds

People sometimes ask me why I do not do more posts about interiors. There are various reasons. First of all: what most interests me about buildings is the face they present to the world – not just how they look from the outside, but also how they relate to their surroundings and how they enhance (or not) our experience of townscape, villagescape, landscape, or whatever other kind of scape we find ourselves in. I also find it easier to take photographs of exteriors, and what I most like to do is show you one photograph that combines with a small piece of text that tries to sum up what I feel about the building. Although I sometimes can’t resist a church interior, interiors on the whole are another country (if not another world) and I’d have to do things differently there.

But now and then there’s nothing like an exception to prove, as they say, the rule. A few weeks ago the Resident Wise Woman and I went to a concert in the Forum, Bath. I knew, from reading, that this was a former cinema and that it had some kind of art deco interior. But this information, plus the rather classical stone-clad exterior (this is Bath, after all) could not prepare me for the delights inside: a virtually complete art deco interior of 1933–4, with chromium-plated handrails, doors of fine woods (walnut, ebonized timber), all kinds of plasterwork embellishments, a classical frieze of naked warriors, and lighting (both concealed and visible fittings) to die for.
If ever there was a place, I’d thought, that sums up the glamour of the interwar cinema, it must be somewhere like the Muswell Hill Odeon (all streamlining and swirls). But for my money, the Forum knocks such places into a cocked hat. Only the mad Gothic interior of the Granada, Tooting (by the once-celebrated theatrical designer Theodore Komisarjevsky, whose very name takes one to other worlds) can compete. The architects of the Forum were a Bristol practice, W H Watkins and E Morgan Willmott, who were enthusiasts for American design – not just decoration influenced by the New World but also planning, including the generous splay of the fan-shaped, 2,000-seater auditorium. You can’t sum this sort of thing up in one picture, taken quickly before the house started to fill before the performance, so here is one image that catches, albeit inadequately, the plasterwork, the frieze, the rather Egyptian surround of the proscenium arch, and the use of colour; plus two details of a light fitting and a bit of incised plasterwork. I enjoyed the concert, but if it had not been so good I’d have had a good time anyway looking at my surroundings. Another world indeed.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Chewton Mendip, Somerset

Somerset stunner

For my money the west tower of the parish church of Chewton Mendip is one of the most beautiful in this county of stunning church towers.* The tracery of the bell openings and the blind windows below them is well proportioned; the pairs of corner buttresses frame the tower superbly and turn into pinnacles with elegance; the crowning openwork parapet and corner pinnacles top the structure off well without being exaggeratedly large. There are plenty of small details (shallow niches on the upper parts of the buttresses and on the pinnacles, crockets, the tiny upright shafts that run up parallel to the upper pinnacles) that set the design off and that come over as finishing touches rather than over-elaboration. I’d say that this was pretty much as good as it got in 1540, the approximate date when this tower was finished.

Pevsner reminds us that this showpiece in Doulting limestone is one of the tallest of the Somerset towers, as 126 feet (38.5 metres). The antiquarian Leland called it a “goodly new high tourrid steeple” when he saw it just after it was completed. No matter that, by then, Gothic structures like this were starting to look a bit old fashioned: the masons of Somerset had been building stunning church towers along these lines for the whole of the 15th century and for a few decades of the 16th they continued.† The one at Chewton Mendip dwarfs the church (yes, there’s a church there, attached to the lower part of it, but invisible because of the rich vegetation in the churchyard) but that is no doubt what the priest and parishioners there wanted. Perhaps they said that they liked elements in nearby towers¶ and wanted something similar but better, and that this kind of tower fulfilled exactly their aesthetic preference, their desire to honour God through the building, and the skill and flair of the builders at their disposal. It must have taken their breath away when the scaffolding finally came down. It probably still does today.

* I’ve posted about two other Somerset favourites: Huish Episcopi and Isle Abbots.
† Wikipedia has a list of Somerset towers here.
¶ Some compare Chewton to Batcombe, but when you actually look at the two towers they’re not that similar.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Jackfield, Shropshire

Guides to a better world. . . 

I’ve noticed that some of my most popular posts (finding many readers and numerous comments by email and in person) are those I’ve done about the tiled decorations once used by W H Smith on their shop fronts. Few of these now survive in the shops where they started out. I’ve reported before on a glorious duo of examples, one on either side of the W H Smith shop window in Malvern, showcasing postcards and maps, and a single panel on a shop in Bath (this one no longer occupied by Smith’s), depicting Nature Books.

The excellent Jackfield Tile Museum on the site of the Craven Dunnill factory at Jackfield near Ironbridge has a few more of these wonderful panels. Today I’m sharing two of these, both, like the others, produced by Carter and Co of Poole in the late-1920s, to designs by an unknown artist. One is a further, rather different panel advertising guidebooks. This one is less dramatic than the Malvern Postcards panel (which has a looming castle tower and stunning night-time colours). Instead it has a more restrained, perhaps faded, palette, and shows a couple looking across a stylised landscape of hills and trees. There’s enough detail on the woman’s dress to suggest elegance; her male companion is delineated in a few simple touches of brown. They look out over blue and green hills, as if they’ve found their way using one of Smith’s guidebooks and are now drinking in the view. The overall effect is like a faded Brian Cook book jacket: redolent of England between the World Wars and full of topographical promise.

My second example from Jackfield, Ladies' Papers, is another epitome of narrow-waisted poise. The turned head, the waving arm, the hand lifting the dress just enough to show the heel stepping out across the grass, the point of the other shoe just visible – there’s plenty to catch the eye. Once more, the setting is very sketchily drawn, but the pale colours set off the figure well.

As you can probably tell, I like these panels a great deal. Combined with Smith’s classical lettering (by Eric Gill), they project a sort of accessible sophistication that must have been right up Smith’s street. W H Smith’s were then, as now, more than just newspaper merchants. They sold books and maps, and their range of magazines was a large one. They hoped to remind potential customers that you could buy more than your Daily Express and a packet of cigarettes at their counters. There was self-improvement on sale here, and books that could guide you on a route to history or literature, or could tell you about the most interesting places to visit. Their shops could be windows into a better world.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Kennington Road, London

Growing complex

Just when we think it’s all concrete boxes, post-war architecture surprises us again. This concrete screen, with its surface that bends organically in and out and up and down, is set within a five-storey building in Kennington Road, not far from North Lambeth underground station. Most of the building, a standard modernist flat-topped box, all straight lines, is an office block. The screen signals a different function: this part of the structure is a church and was built in 1958–60 to replace an earlier bombed-out building. The architect of both the box and this extravaganza set within it was Peter J Darvall. When I shared this picture on Facebook, one friend said it made him feel slightly queasy. Perhaps the facade’s fluidity induced a seasick feeling; or maybe it just seemed to resemble a sinister growth. It does, it’s true, combine an organic quality with a weirdly mutant one. The veined twisting and turning forms make me think of a hosta gone wrong; the way the structure ducks and dives under and above itself is also faintly disturbing. A bad trip?

And yet. There’s something compelling about it, something that makes your eye follow the facade up and down, in and out, and something that makes you admire the architect’s use of concrete to create more than just another box. It made me look twice at it – made me turn round, go back, and look a third time, actually. It’s a reminder, too, that at around this time architects were experimenting with all kinds of fluid forms in building. A reminder that this is a period when anyone who writes about buildings needs to resort to metaphor: sails in the harbour, or nuns fighting (Sydney Opera House), a pair of wings (New York’s TWA Flight Center), Paddy’s Wigwam (Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral). The last is woefully inaccurate, of course, and all these descriptive attempts are limited in their usefulness. But they remind us that buildings can both define places and suggest other places or things entirely, creating paradoxes that twist and turn like the undulating surface of this facade.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hercules Road, London

The heart and the honeysuckle

Growing up in Cheltenham, I was fascinated early on by the variety of the ornamental ironwork patterns in the town. Leaves, stylised flowers, scrolls, Greek key patterns and all kinds of designs in ironwork trail their way across balcony fronts all over the parts of the town, delightful details dating from its Regency heyday. One of the most common and distinctive is a combination of hearts and the classical anthemion or honeysuckle motif, usually in pairs and usually on their sides. Ironwork of this pattern was made by the Scottish Carron ironworks in the 1820s and sold to builders by a local supplier called Wheeler.

I identify this design so strongly with Cheltenham (and with reason – there really are quite a lot of examples) that it’s a shock when I come across it elsewhere. But hearts and honeysuckles could travel from Scotland as easily to other towns as to Cheltenham, so they do pop up here and there. Here’s one I spotted the other day in North Lambeth on my way to meet up with a friend in London.  As in many of the Cheltonian examples, the structure it adorns isn’t a full-scale balcony – it’s too narrow to step out onto, though it could support a window box full of flowers. But its main purpose is stop you falling out when you open the generous floor-to-ceiling window: an elegant solution to a 19th-century health and safety problem. A world away from the lumps of concrete (or indeed lengths of coloured tape) with which we solve similar problems today. Autre temps, autre moeurs…

Monday, January 11, 2016

Martock, Somerset

Edward, Edward…

The first time I went through Martock, I paused for just long enough to notice the bold black lettering painted around the curving corner of the Post Office. It looked like a nice touch in a small town that seemed proud to have retained this key local service when so many places have lost their Post Offices since email replaced letter-writing for so many people and some of the services provided by Post Offices moved elsewhere or declined in popularity. My eye having been caught by this strong lettering, I started to look at it a little more closely (noticing how that final ‘E’ looks a little cramped, and how the effect varies slightly as you move around and the curve) and then realised I soon needed to be somewhere else. So I took a swift photograph, jumped in the car, and drove away.

Later, looking at the photograph, I kicked myself for not examining more closely the post box to the left of the door. The splash of red with a white plate above told me that it must be a Ludlow – a type of box, distinguished by this white enamelled plate, the lack of a rain hood over the slot, and, if one could see how it’s made inside, a wooden inner body. I’ve noticed Ludlow boxes (named for their manufacturer) before. Months later, I was talking to someone who knew a lot about the history of post boxes and she mentioned this box in Martock as an uncommon example of one made and installed in 1936 with the monogram of King Edward VIII, who was king so briefly that he was not even crowned. When I was passing near Martock more recently, I stopped again and saw that there’s an ‘E R’, in a very curvaceous, ornate letterform. 

But which Edward does this monogram refer to? Now, I’m no expert in the minutiae of post-box design. This ‘E R’ is certainly different from the plainer, more classical one used in connection with a Roman number ‘II’, on the boxes marked with the monogram of the current queen, Elizabeth II. However, the curvy letterform on the Martock box is similar to that on some boxes said to be of the earlier Edward VII period, whereas most Edward VIII pillar boxes have a still more curly E made up of two loops. Online sources seem to disagree about all this. But it’s a charming bit of lettering anyway, and worth a pause. I’m pleased I managed to go back and see it.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

Growing old

The Ancient House, Tudor Cottage, The Old House. England is full of houses named for their antiquity. Such names beg the questions: ‘How old? When was it actually built?’ The answers, as we know, are rarely simple. Almost any English house older than a few decades has had alterations, extensions, modifications: we tinker, upgrade, downsize, adapt to current needs, endlessly. Any building that’s really (really?) old is likely to have had this done to it several times. How old? It depends on which bit you mean.

This Old House had me scratching my head even before I saw the name. There are wooden uprights and struts, but these look very much like later additions to make the place look old; the front wall seems not to be timber framed, after all. There are interesting bay windows, but their shape has something of the late-19th century about them – not notably old by English standards – and yet the leaded lights, especially those in the downstairs windows, have an older look to them. Ornate patterns of glazing bars like those were much used in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.

Back home, I try to absorb the collective wisdom of Pevsner, the house’s listing text, and sundry online sources. The house, they confirm, is originally old – 16th or 17th century, but as Pevsner puts it with a little of that disapproval that he reserves for buildings that are not lit fully by the lamp of truth, ‘but much faked up inside and out at various times’.* A timber-framed core, then, encased in brick at some point, then painted white and adorned with faux timber-framing and rather delightful bay windows, some of which preserve earlier leaded panes. That could be about the size of it, though someone who knows the house well might be able to correct the story or fill in more details.

Does it matter if not everything is quite as it seems, that it’s ‘faked up’, as Pevsner puts it. When I was growing up and first reading about buildings, many writers and architects were very much influenced by the notion that a building should be true to its materials, that it should not dishonestly try to hide its origins or its structure. That’s a view influenced by generations of truth-seekers in architecture and design, from Ruskin and William Morris (both harking back in their different ways to their view of the Middle Ages) to the designers of the Bauhaus in its various incarnations. Attitudes are different, and more varied, now. I for one try to adopt a more open-minded approach to buildings like this. I like it that a building presents a puzzle, that it asks more questions than we can answer, that things like this can be fun to look at and think about. And as I myself get older, I like it too that buildings offer different ways of thinking about what it means to be old.

* As I’m quoting here from the revised edition of Pevsner’s Buckinghamshire (the 1994 printing), I’m not sure whether these are the actual words of the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, or of revisers Elizabeth Williamson and Geoffrey K Brandwood. But they certainly sound like Pevsner himself.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Limehouse, London

A question of viewpoint (2)

Several of my readers correctly guessed my location in my previous post. I was indeed at the top of the Limehouse Accumulator Tower in East London. Many of you will know this building, which was constructed in 1869 to supply hydraulic power for equipment the nearby Regent’s Canal Dock (now Limehouse Basin). The role of the tower was to hold a huge weight, which pressed down on a supply of water, keeping it under pressure. The resulting hydraulic power was supplied via a network of pipes to provide power for cranes and lock gates in the basin – and also, apparently, to power lifts in offices and hotels. These hydraulic devices have long gone, but some of the remaining pipes now carry data cables. The octagonal brick tower remains, holding a large tube-shaped container which once, when filled with gravel, provided the weight; the tower also contains stairs, which lead to the view that was the point of my previous post.

Here’s another view from the top of the tower, looking roughly eastwards. To the right-hand side of the picture is the pale white Portland stone steeple of St Anne’s church, Limehouse, one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s magnificent London churches, which I’ve posted about before.

To the left of the picture is another church, Our Lady Immaculate with St Frederick. This Catholic church is in a dark red brick, forming a strong contrast to pale St Anne’s. It was designed in 1925 by A J Sparrow and perhaps its most surprising detail is the turret bearing a statue (in painted wood) of Christ the Steersman, who looks out towards the River Thames and was no doubt meant to be seen from there, a signal to seamen, who abounded hereabouts. The number of places from which the statue can be now seen is limited by the more recent brightly coloured tower between the two churches. Visible in the distance, on the horizon between this block and the statue of Christ, is the top of another tower, the Balfron Tower, a block of flats of the late-1960s. This is by Ernö Goldfinger and is the elder sibling of the similar Trellick Tower in West London. One can just make out Balfron’s separate service tower, connected to the main building by a series of covered bridges.

All of this rises behind a low backdrop of Georgian and Victorian houses and offices and the variety goes to show how much one can see in London by finding a higher viewpoint – even if all this interesting stuff has now to contend with some (to me) less interesting architecture from the more recent past.

So, as well as heeding the oft-repeated advice to look up – remember occasionally to look down too.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Somewhere in London

A question of viewpoint

I’m don’t normally do new year’s resolutions, but if I did, they might be contrarian ones: get drunk more, read less, look down when you’re in a city. OK. I’m unlikely to act on the first – and in case you’re wondering that’s not because I spend all my time pickled, but because I hardly get drunk at all, and am happy to stay that way. Read less? Well I do sometimes wonder whether if I read fewer books I might retain more from each of them – but there are so many books that on I go, devouring them and enjoying it and hoping something sticks in the mind. 

But looking down… I am always telling people to look up when they’re walking around. Look above the shopfronts, above your head, towards the skyline. You’ll see more – more architecture, more detail, more decoration, more history, more that’s fascinating and surprising – than you will by keeping your eyes fixed on where you’re going. This is undoubtedly good advice and, with practice, one can do it while bumping into people (people who are texting, naturally!) only occasionally. Yet I’m aware that in recommending this viewpoint, I might also be making people miss other things.

I don’t mean (or only partly mean) the joy of coal holes, or the fascination of what’s beyond and beneath the area railings. I mean also, now and then, trying to get up to a higher vantage point to see what this might reveal. Church towers, office blocks, the odd glimpse from the stair window of a department store – all such viewpoints can yield visual treasure. I once spent a fascinating few hours on top of a London Routemaster bus, as part of a group being shown lettering and signs on buildings by the estimable Phil Baines: it set me off on a track I’ve been following ever since. When it’s not signs, my eyes are fixed on cornices, altered windows, all-but-concealed hints of earlier building phases, tile panels, and bits of plasterwork. So get up there, and look down (preferably not when you’re drunk). You never know what you might see.

Happy New Year!
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Photograph: looking down in London on old railway routes, unofficial greening, and controversial slogans. Special kudos and hurrahs to the reader who first correctly identifies where I was standing. Any topophiles or others who know can respond via the comments section.  Clicking on the photograph enlarges it.