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.
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*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.
Saturday, August 27, 2016
I must have been only about 7 or 8 years old when I first saw the tower of Coningsby church. My father pointed through the windscreen as we approached the village, telling me that I had to take a look at this clock: there was something unusual about it. I noticed at once its extra-large size. At about 16 feet across it was easily the biggest clock face I’d seen. But it seemed to be telling the wrong time. It took me a minute to work out that it has just one hand, an hour hand, so half past nine in the photograph above looks at first glance like twelve minutes to four.
With a really big clock face a single hand doesn’t work badly. When you look closely, you can see that the face is marked in quarters of an hour, with a red diamond at each half hour, so with practice you can read the time to within a few minutes. And to make a face like this you don’t need any complicated metalwork or carpentry – it’s just painted on to the stone of the wall: a good sign-writer could do it. The mechanism of the clock must be simpler too – and is apparently 17th century so has stood the test of time. Hats off to the clock-maker…and to the people who climb 35 steps to the winding mechanism every day to wind the clock and keep it going. Time well spent.
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
After the stink
Among our greatest heroes should be Joseph Bazalgette and the other Victorian engineers and builders who created London’s network of underground sewers. The scandal of Victorian London’s inadequate open sewers (poor disposal, contaminated drinking water, cholera, typhoid, and appalling smells) was finally confronted in 1858, the year of the ‘Great Stink’, when the odour from the Thames was so great it penetrated the nostrils of the powers that sit in the Houses of Parliament.
Joseph Bazalgette’s enormous and far-sighted engineering project put an end to this. Miles of pipes and brick-vaulted tunnels stretch beneath the capital, removing the effluent to a vast reservoir (49 Olympic swimming pools’ worth, in language appropriate to August 2016), which was then emptied into the Thames at high tide, to be flushed out to sea. Most of those pipes and tunnels are still use today.
The pumping work was done at steam-powered pumping stations, one of which was the Crossness Pumping Station on the Erith Marshes in the Borough of Bexley. This South-East London engineering marvel was opened in 1865 and was used until 1956, when a new sewage-treatment works was installed. But the building has survived, thanks to its extraordinary architecture, grant-aid from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the hard work of volunteers and restorers. The original pumping engines are there too (they have 52-ton flywheels and may be the largest remaining ones of their type in the world).*
It’s the architecture that gets me going, of course. The white Gault brick exterior is impressive, but the inside, a riot of multi-coloured ironwork, is what’s special. This is the sort of iron extravaganza that raises the same sort of cloud of journalistic clichés as the great London railway termini: it’s a cathedral of cloaca, a palace of poo, a temple of…
Enough of that. It’s an irrepressibly Victorian building, its walls and windows drawing on the Romanesque revival (semi-circular arches, artfully arranged in groups), on Gothic (foliate ornament, pointed motifs in the balcony railings), and on the sheer power of engineering. In other words it represents that coming-together of ancient and modern that the Victorians liked so much – as in the railway stations again. But there’s something else. They built this stuff to last. We’re still the beneficiaries of their thoroughness, of their glorious over-engineering, every time we flush a lavatory in Lambeth or load the dishwasher in Dagenham. Think of that, as you admire the iron curlicues, which have lasted too, thanks to the engineers’ skill and the restorers’ art.
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* Visiting times are limited at the moment. They’re on the web here, where there is also much more information about the building, its engines, and its restoration.
Photograph I nearly always use my own photographs on this blog, but this time the image above is copyright © Christine Matthews and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
Illustration of the month: by S R Badmin
A post about the illustrator S R Badmin by Peter Ashley of Unmitigated England reminded me that I’d not uploaded an Illustration of the Month recently, and that I had an illustration I particularly wanted to share. It’s the artwork that represents Surrey in the old Shell and BP Guide to Britain (1964); in a slightly expanded version it also adorns the cover of one of the Shell Shilling Guides to the county, part of a series of short guide books – booklets really – designed to distill the essence of a county and present its highlights, in the interests of people getting in their cars to explore, using Shell petrol to get them there.
S R Badmin was one of the mid-century’s best illustrators of places, and one of the best artists of all for trees. Buildings frequently feature in his work, often in typical local styles that make them effective markers of location. His Shell and Picture Puffin books on trees have beautiful illustrations – many thousands of people must have learned the difference between oak and ash from his artwork.* Another favourite is Village and Town, a Picture Puffin he did showing different styles of local architecture, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog.
The Surrey image brings together a beautiful wooden landscape in the Surrey hill county with a good-sized house in the rural tradition of southeast England – red tiles on the roof, more red tiles hanging on the walls, white-painted window frames with small panes of glass. Badmin’s fine brush also pictures a domestic scene: a small girl runs to greet her arriving father who, hatted and briefcase-carrying, has just got home from the office. His wife, holding a trug and dressed in trousers, is also welcoming him – she has been gardening and has no doubt heard the car pulling up.
The composition is striking: although the view is unmistakably English, there’s something rather Japanese about the way it's laid out – the way the tree trunk slices through the right foreground, echoed by some other trunks slightly further back, including straight pines and bendy silver birches. They lead the eye to the house, but also to the far distance, where successive layers of wooded hill country recede towards the far horizon. As usual with Badmin, there’s platy of detail to enjoy – plants and roots on the woodland floor, a National Trust sign, and, best of all, at the very top right, a perching bird surveying the scene. He’s a bit indistinct, this bird, and seems to have a pigeon shape but a bit of speckle to his feathers. Badmin was not an ornithological specialist (neither am I) so perhaps he’s just ‘a bird’, put there to stand for the viewer, taking in this very local scene, this typical bit of architecture, and a fleeting moment in a family’s day.
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* The illustrations in the Shell Guide to Trees and Shrubs were also used for a series 12 outstanding tree posters, produced by Shell for use in schools; collectors seek these out on eBay.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
Gothic on speed
Set back from the main road from Gloucester to Ross, St John the Baptist, Huntley, is a church I’d been past many times before the Resident Wise Woman and I took the trouble to pull in and have a good look. And we were pleased we did. It’s one of the most interesting Victorian churches I’ve come across. Apart from the tower, which is 14th century, the whole church was rebuilt in 1862–3 by Samuel Sanders Teulon. There must have been a very generous budget (provided by the rector, Rev Daniel Capper) because this little building shows what Teulon could do when he threw everything he had at a church.
The style is a kind of Decorated Gothic, the style of the 14th century that is marked by flowing window tracery, much carving, and a rich approach to decoration generally. But here at Huntley, Teulon gave it many special twists and turns. He elaborated everything: the Decorated window tracery flows more curvaceously than ever, the carving is more profuse, the painted chancel ceiling glows jewel-like. The elaboration starts before we even get inside, with an extraordinary trefoil-headed window (above) that looks like the top of a conventional Gothic window, but with the lower part replaced with a row of five little blind arches filled with decorative carving. The reason for the lack of glazing lower down is that the organ is installed behind – it’s signalled, indeed by carvings of a couple of musical figures that adorn the window. And this is just a hint of what awaits us inside.
Here architectural sculpture breaks loose from its bounds. Profuse isn’t a strong enough word for this interior and its decoration. At the tops of some of the columns are not simply capitals, but what almost amount to pairs of capitals (above), one over the other, the two levels of carving separated by a band of masonry studded with polished stones. The nave roof is supported by carved stone corbels – but there are more carvings immediately below them, framed by banded masonry and picked out with gilding. Teulon was able to employ one of the best Victorian carvers, Thomas Earp, whose work on the reredos and pulpit was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1862.
This is just a sample from this rich and absorbing little building, a Gothic revival structure that’s so elaborated it’s like no medieval church. The architect and critic Harry Goodhart-Rendell wrote an essay, ‘Rogue Architects of the Victorian Era’, in which he included Teulon in a group of pushers of the architectural envelope, men who broke rules triumphantly, who trumpeted their innovations with noisy visual glee, who had, presumably, the kind of pachydermous skins that made them oblivious to the criticism of more conventional souls. How good that they did, and that they found patrons like Capper who gave them the resources to work in the way they wanted.
Saturday, August 13, 2016
The floor is yours…
We often don’t give much thought to the interiors of art galleries. It’s what’s on the walls that counts, and that holds our attention. But there are some galleries in London with architecture or decoration that repays a good look. If you’ve ever cast an eye down as you’ve entered the National Gallery and made your way through the old foyer (it’s no longer the building’s main entrance) you’ll know what I mean. The mosaic floors are a sight for sore eyes, and a fascinating window on a past world. Their story* is interesting too…
In 1926 the Russian (but British-resident) mosaic artist Boris Anrep, was disappointed when an expected commission from the industrialist and art collector Samuel Cortauld didn’t materialise. Cortauld was sympathetic, and said that if Anrep ever had a project in a public building he’d back it financially. The canny Anrep went straight to the National Gallery and said he had a potential patron – why didn’t they commission him to make a series of mosaic floors for the building’s entrance hall? The gallery was enthusiastic, so Anrep went back to Cortauld and said he’d found a project. Cortauld backed Anrep even though the cost turned out to be some ten times the donation he’d originally expected to give, and the mosaicist was launched on the most high-profile project of his life.
Anrep planned and executed a series of three floors (there was later a fourth, sponsored by a different benefactor), each involving a complex design with several mosaic panels. The subjects were The Labours of Life, The Pleasures of Life, and The Awakening of the Muses; the later fourth floor portrayed The Modern Virtues. The Pleasures included Dance (a girl dancing the Charleston) and Speed (another young woman, this time riding pillion on a motorcycle), and also Hunting, Football, and Cricket. The Labours are such things as Commerce (a market porter carrying baskets), Science (a figure in the Natural History Museum), Exploring (filming a zebra), and Engineering (a man wielding a drill). Anrep (one for serial affairs) could not resist including Sacred Love as a Labour and Profane Love as a Pleasure.
On the half-way landing is the third of the original three mosaic floors: The Awaking of the Muses, in which Apollo and Bacchus preside. The figures here (as in many of the other mosaics) are based on real people that Anrep knew. Euterpe the Muse of music, for example, is Christabel, Lady Aberconway, beloved of William Walton and dedicatee of his viola concerto. Clio is Virginia Woolf, Terpsichore the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, Melpomene is Greta Garbo.
The fourth mosaic floor, The Modern Virtues in the North Vestibule, is also full of portraits: Defiance is Winston Churchill repelling a monster, Lucidity is philosopher Bertrand Russell, Pursuit the astronomer Fred Hoyle. Two of Anrep’s own loves are here too: the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova† is Compassion and Maud Russell (below), patron of this fourth floor, is Folly. This lovely mosaic portrait is perhaps a private joke, referring to Anrep’s and Russell’s folie à deux.
I’ve not listed all the portraits – and there’s so much else here: a resplendent Christmas pudding, a pub sign (yes, these are very British subjects), a harpsichord (being played by the Hon Edward Sackville-West while Margot Fonteyn listens (photograph at the top of this post). That scene represents Delectation (a pleasure of life, obviously). And I hope I have convinced you that there is much here for your delectation too. The consistent clarity of Anrep’s line (in a medium that hardly seems to encourage it), the telling use of colour (the huntsman’s ruddy face, for example, is terrific), the period touches (cigarette holders, the old-fashioned football), the range of poses, the use of frames and borders. It’s a set of pictures fit to stand beside those in the gallery, and a fitting prelude to London’s palace of art.
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*Lois Oliver, Boris Anrep: The National Gallery Mosaics (National Gallery London, 2004) tells their story in detail.
†Anna Akhmatova (pronounce the name with the stress on the second syllable): one of Russia’s great 20th-century poets, much translated into English. She and Anrep were close when they were young, but did not see one another for decades once Anrep had left for western Europe. They met again in old age. A number of Akhmatova’s early lyrics were dedicated to Anrep; these poems are in her volume White Flock; most of what I know of her life is from the biography by Amanda Haight, Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
I'm told that today is International Lion Day. In honour of this occasion, I offer my readers a lion – more national than international, as he is part of the royal arms of King James I of England (aka James VI of Scotland) and is found in the church of Saints Peter and Paul, Wisbech. The coat of arms, carved some 400 years ago, hangs in the head of one of the large arches separating the south aisle from the nave, and if I tell you that it fills most of the upper part of the arch you will get an idea of just how large it is. The lion must be nearly as tall as an average human adult.
Royal arms have been installed in English churches since the reign of Henry VIII, Henry having broken from Rome and declared himself head of the church in England. Many such coats of arms survive in churches, but most of them date from after the English Civil War. That makes the arms at Wisbech triply unusual – as rare survivors from the early-17th century, as amazingly large, and as quite well and vigorously carved. His tongue, teeth, and so on are carefully delineated, and his mane cascades about his shoulders like the wig of any Stuart monarch. Fit for a king, indeed.
Monday, August 8, 2016
New light on old streets
In the late-19th century, many towns were starting to turn on the electricity for the first time. Where gas light had been, electric lighting became increasingly common, and soon, as we known, electricity was powering much more than lighting. With electricity came special buildings: power stations and small urban utility buildings. In the 1890s, with virtually every style available to the designer, architects had to decide what these new buildings were going to look like. They tried all sorts: arched polychrome brickwork, grand neo-classicism…you name it.
The Borough Surveyor in Cheltenham, Joseph Hall, chose something completely different for the Central Electricity Lighting Station of 1894–5: a brickwork design evoking a Renaissance palace, with a big arched central doorway, small windows above, and an upper storey (added later) with a row of terracotta columns and a patterned brick cornice. It’s a striking little building, sticking out alike from the town’s stucco-covered houses and the Victorian Jacobean revival stonework of the nearby library. But looking closely at the upper brickwork (photograph below), the effect is achieved quite simply, with a few different standard pieces used to create the patterns of dentil courses and arches.
The building lost its original role some time ago and is now part of a hotel, the Strozzi Palace, whose name pays tribute to its architecture. In truth the Lighting Station is only slightly like the 15th-century Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, which has a large arched central doorway and a dominating cornice, combined with a very different stone facade and rows of windows. In spite of the differences though, it does share something of the same spirit, as if throwing a different light on Cheltenham’s architecture, as its bright electric lamps would throw a new light of a different kind on the town.
Friday, August 5, 2016
A view of some rooms
I have just enjoyed immensely the current exhibition at the Victoria Galley, Bath. It is called A Room of Their Own: Lost Bloomsbury Interiors 1914–30, and looks at the stunning interior designs of members of the Bloomsbury group,* especially the work of the Omega Workshops and in particular designs by Bloomsbury Group members Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and Roger Fry.† Only at Charleston in Sussex, the country house of Bell and Grant, and a favourite meeting point of the other members of the group, do such interiors survive. So the exhibition draws together paintings, screens, lamps, painted furniture, ceramics, and other decorative items from various public and private collections, arranging some of them in groups to recreate several long-vanished interiors.
One of the most effective of these room sets (they’re actually partial rooms, arranged where two walls meet to create the effect of a domestic corner) is what one might call an ‘early Omega Workshop’ room (above), inspired by an illustration in Roger Fry’s The Artist as Decorator. Strongly coloured abstract panels on the walls, a fireplace dressed with white vases, a beautiful decorated dining table (its worn surface an angular labyrinth of stripes), and some Omega Egyptian chairs are the main elements. Nearby is a glorious ‘Lily Pond’ screen by Duncan Grant, which, the caption tells us, was made by dripping ‘puddles’ of paint on to its surface to create a vibrant composition of black, green, and pink – a technique prefiguring Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings decades later.
Another room, a music room, shows the more muted colours and figurative art of the later period, with a screen by Vanessa Bell depicting musicians. A further room (below), again subtly pastel in palette, evokes a dining room designed for Dorothy Wellesley in 1929, with paintings of classical nudes and bathers, a fireplace with arched and round decorations like a modernist take on Adam, and an octagonal dining table decorated with a huge flower-like pattern.
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*For the Bloomsbury Group and its contributions to the arts, start here.
†The Omega Workshops, of which the three artists were directors, designed murals, painted furniture, textiles, and other products, as well as decorating whole rooms. The company was founded in 1913 and closed in 1919, but for Fry, Bell, and Grant, the ethos lived on and Bloomsbury artists continued to produce objects in the Omega tradition for years afterwards. Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) was one of the Bloomsbury Group’s most prominent painters and the sister of the writer Virginia Woolf. Duncan Grant (1885–1978) was a painter of portraits and landscapes and a designer of textiles and pottery, and also a theatre designer. Roger Fry (1866–1934) was a prominent critic as well as an artist, wrote influential essays on art, and was responsible for introducing Post-Impressionism to Britain.
Monday, August 1, 2016
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for dovecotes – useful and often picturesque buildings from centuries gone by. Dovecotes often have an usual shape – round or octagonal, for example. Such shapes can be functional as well as picturesque because inside there’s a ladder on a central rotating column that you can push around to reach the hundreds of nest holes inside.
The octagonal dovecote at Idlicote, visible from the gateway to the nearby big house, is especially attractive because it’s tall, so makes a strong impact, and because it has some charming faux-Gothic features: curvy ogee-headed windows, and imitation arrow slits, as if it’s left over from some ancient fortification. It isn’t of course. The first record of a dovecote here dates to 1681, well after the castle age, and experts now think that most of the current fabric is from the 1760s and that Sanderson Miller was probably the designer. The Gothic features sit well with his flair for this style and Miller was a local man who worked a lot in Warwickshire, so this seems to fit.*
Sanderson Miller liked creating an impression of medieval castle architecture with towers and battlements, evoking what Horace Walpole called ‘the rust of the Barons’ Wars’: a hint of the tough, masculine stuff of which castles were made. But he also had a love of the more filigree, feminine side of Gothic – bigger windows, ogee arches. To a purist, these two aspects of the Gothic style sit uncomfortably together, but Miller and his clients had no such qualms. For them, structures like this dovecote seemed to sum up the Middle Ages. For us, they sum up the particular vision of a Georgian architect who was at home in the Warwickshire countryside, as is this charming building.†
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*I’m indebted for this information to the new edition of the Pevsner Buildings of England volume on Warwickshire, which in turn cites William Hawkes, editor of The Diaries of Sanderson Miller of Radway (2005). This new Pevsner volume is full of such nuggets of fact and attribution, and when I’ve absorbed more of them I’ll review the book in my next batch of reviews, later in the summer.
†I wrote about how dovecotes were used in an earlier post, here.