Sunday, November 18, 2018

Homes for heroines

It’s that time of year again: for a week or so this blog is given over to some reviews of new and recent books – for your friends’ Christmas stockings, perhaps, or your own...

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, Prefabs: A Social and Architectural History 
Published by Historic England

In the late-1940s, Britain had to build more houses than ever. A huge chunk had been taken out of the housing stock by bombing – and there were pre-war slums to clear. The call went up again, as it had after World War I, for ‘homes for heroes’. One solution was the prefab – the prefabricated bungalow, mass produced and able to be quickly erected; a way, it was hoped both of filling the housing need and providing work for factories that had made the fighters or bombers that were, mercifully, no longer required in such numbers.

The story of Britain’s postwar prefab has been told before,* but there is room for another book, and especially at this time, when so few prefabs are left and residents of those that do remain are having to fight for the survival of their much loved homes. This new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova tells their story in the light of new research,† a fresh emphasis on their social history, and the sense of the urgency and relevance that’s needed if some of these modest but important buildings – and their histories – are to be preserved.

The book looks at the historical background to prefabrication in building (everything from Paxton’s Crystal Palace to Nissen huts), the modernist architectural context of thinking about prefabrication in the 20th century, and the setting up and implementation of the governments Temporary Housing Programme that brought the prefabs into existence. It deals with the various different designs of prefab (Tarrant, Uni-Secos, AIROHs, and so on), but much of the fine detail here (production figures, costs, number off each type made, etc) is hived off into an appendix, which makes it easy to find and allows the authors’ main narrative to stick more to cultural and social history.

So we learn quite a bit about the people who lived in the prefabs – who they were and, especially, what they thought of their new homes. The reaction, on the whole, was very positive. Many early residents found the prefabs futuristic: not just because of their rapid construction and unusual materials (asbestos, aluminium), or because they had electricity when many houses outside cities did not, but also and especially because of their fitted kitchens and bathrooms, features very rare in British homes of the 1940s and 1950s.§ Women especially liked these, and also praised the fact that prefabs came with gardens – somewhere to grow plants and a place for children to play safely. The interiors were uncluttered and easy to clean too.

Postwar prefabs were greatly loved by their occupants, and the narrative is well supported by residents’ comments and anecdotes, and by historical and recent photographs. But Blanchet and Zhuravlyova don’t gloss over the bungalows’ faults. For example, the heating was not very effective in many of the first prefabs. People complained of the houses getting stuffy in winter and freezing cold in winter. But this was put right later.

The authors extend their survey to look at other kinds of prefabricated housing built after the initial postwar programme, ranging across concrete Airey houses, wooden Swedish houses, and other types. Most of these, unlike the postwar prefabs, were intended to be permanent, and some have lasted well. But to the surprise of many, a few of the postwar prefabs, meant to last a decade, are still going strong, 70 years after construction. Some of the best preserved – those in Moseley, Birmingham, for example, and a small group of what used to be a crowd on the Excalibur Estate in Catford, London – have been listed. If only there were more. Blanchet and Zhuravlyova have done them proud.

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* I have learned much in particular from Brenda Vale’s Prefabs: A History of the UK Temporary Housing Programme and G Stevenson, Palaces for the People. But Vale’s is an academic book focusing on the technical and architectural history and Stevenson’s is most valuable for its excellent pictures – and neither are that easy to obtain. This new book gives a more rounded picture. 

† The authors draw, particularly, on Elisabeth Blanchet’s work with the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which has researched, documented, and archived much material (oral as well as physical) relating to the history of prefabs and their occupants.

§ Some of those moving to prefabs in the 1940s had been used to a lack of: electricity, a fitted kitchen, hot running water, and even, in some places, mains sewers. I remember my own maternal grandparents, living in rural Lincolnshire in the early 1960s: they survived without any of these facilities.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Taunton, Somerset

Georgian Art Deco

Here is something I have little to say about – with the exception of single a observation. This Post Office in Taunton was built in 1911 in the neo-Georgian style (red brick with stone dressings on the upper floors, stone on the ground floor) then popular for Post Offices. I have noticed before how this style was popular in the early-20th century, and seemed to work well.

But look at the letterforms used on the identifying 'Post Office' sign above the door. Cut carefully into the stone, the letters look nothing if not Art Deco – those elongated letters popular on shop fronts in the 1920s. I am thinking of the Fs and Es with cross bars near the top of the letter, the enlarged bowl of the P, the slightly forward-sloping S. Is the lettering later than the rest of the building, or unusually forward-looking? I really don't know, but I like the way the two things work together – and how they made me pause and ponder as I walked along the street.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Stoke Newington, London

Grave matters

I was reminded today of the importance – historical, architectural, and religious – of London’s great 19th-century cemeteries. The reminder came in the form of an article in the Evening Standard* that was reporting a call from Historic England§ to support London’s seven historic 19th-century cemeteries, which are in constant need of help because the upkeep of these fragile places is increasingly labour- and money-intensive as vegetation spreads and stones decay and fall. Naturally, the media now calls these cemeteries (Highgate, Kensal Green, Brompton, West Norwood, Abney Park, Tower Hamlets, and Nunhead) ‘the magnificent seven’, a description that may be modishly allusive to popular culture but is also apt.†

My own favourite was always Nunhead, in part because I once lived near it and got to know it. But now, thanks to my son who’s currently living in Stoke Newington, I’ve become an admirer of Abney Park too. Founded in 1840, Abney Park was special in several ways. It was designed by William Hosking, a professor architecture and engineering, who laid it out with generous planting of trees and shrubs, and a vast number of roses. Unlike most London cemeteries, it was not consecrated and was not rigidly Anglican. So dissenters could be buried here, and were, in large numbers; they valued the opportunity to have a grave here all the more because what had been the usual nonconformist cemetery, Bunhill Fields, was filling up by this time. Among the prominent graves of nonconformists is that of William Booth and his wife Catherine, founders of the Salvation Army. Abney Park was also home to the deceased of poorer families. It did not charge the burial fees you had to pay in the Anglican cemeteries, so it answered another pressing need among a large part of the capital’s population.
Nowadays, Abney Park cemetery is not at all its former self. It’s very overgrown, and the Gothic chapel, shown in my upper photograph, is the worse for wear.¶ And yet… Regular readers will guess that I’m not totally out of sympathy with the dilapidation and the advancing greenery. I know that overgrown weeds need to be cleared if they’re not totally to overwhelm and destroy the memorials and pathways. However, I can still see beauty in this overgrown place, where one gets glimpses of worn stone angels through thickets of foliage, and where shafts of sunlight find their way through the trees. The place is still an oasis in this part of London, still the green world away from the noise and traffic that it was always intended to be.

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* The Evening Standard article is here.

§ There is a good short piece on historic cemeteries from Historic England here.

† There are good accounts of London cemeteries in Catharine Arnold, Necropolis: London and its Dead (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

¶ As a reader has pointed out, my use of the term Gothic here is rather far from the whole story. The building displays a spire, pinnacles, and a pointed ogee arch that are certainly Gothic inspiration, but some of this is certainly more like Georgian Gothick than the authentic recreation of medieval Gothic that Victorian architects such as Pugin advocated. The chunky turrets on either side of the entrance, square at the bottom and octagonal higher up, with their round-arched openings at ground level, are different again: they remind me a bit of Vanbrugh’s architecture (as if the architect had been admiring the mock-castle Vanbrugh built for himself in Greenwich). I should have mentioned, too, that if the rose window looks odd, it’s because the tracery that would have filled the opening is missing. I do not know the story of how the building came to be designed this way, but am resolved to find out more when the current heap of work is reduced somewhat in volume.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Hotel town (3)

Seasoned visitors to this blog will know about my liking for three-dimensional inn signs and for swans. These two interests have collided at several places (including Wells and Leighton Buzzard†). Here they are again in Harrogate, in the form of this beautiful 3D sign, nicely posed and modelled. I don’t know how old the sign is: it stands on a post well distanced from the facade and most ‘vintage’ images of the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate zoom in close and miss out the sign completely.

The inn itself goes back at least to 1777, but much of the current building probably dates from a remodelling during Harrogate’s boom years in the late-19th century. This was when the hotel was upgraded as the Harrogate Hydro and fitted with Turkish baths and other luxuries. Today, as the Old Swan, it looks very spruce and more welcoming than the rearing swan on its sign which, feathers up and bill at the ready, still pleases the swan-loving bystander.

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† This avian combination makes me wish that the village of Hanley Swan in Worcestershire had a Buzzard Inn; alas it does not.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Hotel town (2)

Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, in my previous post, straddles the mid- and late-19th centuries in style, with the restrained classicism of the first period topped and tailed by the more elaborate architecture of the end of the century. The Majestic is from the very turn of the century, and isn’t just grand, but very grand. It’s huge, but the design avoids the impression of any sort of tedious uniformity because the architect, G. D. Martin, packed the facade with architectural incident – bays, balconies, fancy gables, and a great central dome.

Whether you’re in a suite with a balcony, the building seems to say, or in a smaller room up in the mansard roof, you’ll be aware that you’re sharing the experience of staying in a landmark building that makes its mark on the skyline. Placed solidly on a rise behind an expanse of greensward and beside trees and shrubs, it must make you feel that when you arrive here, you’ve really arrived.*

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* A short post, this, as some may well be for the next month or so, as I wrestle with work commitments, deadlines, and the gloom of cloudy wintry days and lengthening nights. But the photograph is enough: just look at this pile – it’s almost as wide-angle-lens-defying a monster as the vast civic buildings of Leeds.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Hotel town

Harrogate is well supplied with large hotels, many dating to the town’s boom in the late-19th century – or even before, the spa being well established by the early-18th. One witness to the town’s earlier life as a watering places was the traveller redoubtable Celia Fiennes, who visited in 1697 and recorded that she could not force her horse to come near the ’Sulpher or Stincking Spaw, not improperly term’d’.* She tried a couple of quarts of the noxious water and found these doses to be ‘a good sort of Purge if you can hold your breath so as to drink them down’. The hotels are variously classical, Italianate, or a sort of free style with many bays, prominent gables, and mansard roofs. My photograph shows the Crown, which is in a mixture of styles, and has a long history.

Before the current building was put up, there had been a hotel here for a long time, even before the Crown was owned by the Thackwray family form 1740. Lord Byron, who stayed in 1806, was one of the best known guests, and he recorded that his beloved dog Nelson§ had to be put down after attacking a horse in the hotel’s stable yard. The Crown was very convenient for the town’s sulphur well, which only a few yards away and available to all. Joseph Thackwray, however, sunk his own private well in a building adjoining the Crown, greatly reducing the flow from the public well. There was an outcry from other innkeepers, and when a group took legal measures against him, he relented. It is said that this case actually alerted the town to the value both of its wells and of its pleasant environment generally, and so preserved the generous public green spaces that distinguish the place to this day.

In 1847 the Crown was rebuilt in the classical style, and this building remains the core of what’s there now – the 3-bay central section (pilastered, with rectangular windows), flanked by slender 1-bay side wings. This was extended in the Italianate style (bay windows, with round-topped central openings) in 1870, when the two parts were unified by building the balustered parapet across the top of the whole front. almost concealing the low hipped roof behind. There were yet further elaborations, including extensions to the sides in around 1899, including the tower visible on the right. The result is an impressive ensemble, near the centre of the town and not far from the greenery of The Stray. In short, an excellent venue for the festival† I attended two weeks ago and no doubt a fine centre for visitors who’ve been coming for hundreds of years.

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* Christopheer Morris (ed.), The Journeys of Celia Fiennes (The Cresset Press, 1947)

§ A mastiff, apparently, not the poet’s most famous dog, the Newfoundland Boatswain.

† The Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Yorkshire philanthropy, Yorkshire grit

Last week I spent an enjoyable couple of days in Harrogate, speaking at the excellent Raworth’s Harrogate Literature Festival and spending a lot of time just standing and staring at the architecture. As someone who grew up Cheltenham and has a particular affection for Bath, both spa towns, I’ve always liked the spa town of Harrogate too – though I’ve not been there for years. I was struck by the stone: Harrogate is a stone town, like Bath (and unlike Cheltenham, where the buildings are predominantly stucco). But whereas Bath’s local stone is creamy limestone, the builders of Harrogate used mainly sandstone from the surrounding area, the various millstone grits with picturesque names (Follifoot Grit, Addlethorpe Grit, Upper and Lower Plompton Grit, and Libishaw Sandstone) that give the place its characteristic look. These stones vary in colour from grey to brown, and many look darker than the southern limestones typical of places like Bath. They’re also often finished less smoothly – sometimes rock-faced, sometimes with a flat face but with the chisel’s tool marks left very much visible.

The other thing that marks Harrogate out from those other two great spas is its date. In contrast to Georgian Bath and Regency Cheltenham, Harrogate came into fashion in the second half of the 19th century, so much of its architecture is Victorian. This building, for example, is of dark stone in a mix of masonry finishes – mainly rock-faced stone for the walls, with smooth ashlar around the windows and doors. The trefoiled upper windows and the clock tower with its short spire take their cue from the Gothic style, as is not unusual for for almshouses of the Victorian period. They were built in 1868 by textile manufacture George Rogers, whose business was in Bradford but who had a close connection to Harrogate and intended as houses for elderly people from either place.
Rogers's emblem of hard work, the bee and its hive, is placed above the central doorway. Bees must be in evidence, too, in the courtyard’s lovely garden, which was still showing a little colour in the late-October warmth. That garden, together with the architectural flourish of the spire, suggest that a decent environment was (and is) being valued here, not just a necessary minimum. Victorian values weren’t all bad.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire

Down in the chalk country

In a lot of southern England the rock that underlies the fields, villages, and towns is chalk: there’s a lot of chalk underfoot in Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, and Surrey. You can build with chalk, but it’s a soft rock and not an ideal building material, but along with the chalk goes flint, which is found in the upper layers of the chalk and is used in many places for building. Flint, on the face of it, isn’t an ideal building material either. It occurs in rounded nodules, and to build a wall out of these small lumps of flint, you usually need a lot of mortar. When napped or split into workable pieces with a flat side to form the face of the wall it often looks black or grey, and this can be overwhelming in large stretches.

So for visual reasons and for structural ones (lots of mortar can make a weak wall) the builders of the chalk areas have devised lots of ways of combining flint with other materials – bands or strips or blocks of other more workable stone, or courses of bricks. This kind of combination of flint and brick, which I was looking at in Wiltshire and Hampshire the other week, can be particularly attractive.

These houses are in Hurstbourne Tarrant, where there are several such buildings. Brick is often used at the corners, and around windows and doors, as can be seen clearly in the left-hand house. In the thatched house to the right, the combination is more of a mash-up, probably because the building has been altered or rebuilt at some point (or at several points). One often sees houses that combine these flint and brick walls with walls of other materials – a side wall that’s all brick, for example, or, nearly as often, a front wall of brick and a side wall of both flint and brick. The resulting patterns are usually pleasing from whichever angle you view the building, with ingenuity and visual flair working well together: in places with this kind of architecture there’s never a visually dull moment.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Stockbridge, Hampshire

Staging post

I’d never looked properly at Stockbridge before, and when I finally stopped for a walk round I was struck by it in several ways. ‘A walk round’ is not quite the right phrase in Stockbridge, because the place is basically a single long street, which you walk up and down. It gives them impression, with its generous width, its imposing Town Hall, and its landmark hotel, that’s it’s the High Street and market place of somewhere much larger. As you walk along you go over bridges – you’re never far away from moving water because the place stands on various branches of the River Test, fast-flowing, trout-rich, and beloved of fishermen for centuries.

So this street is very much what Stockbridge is about, and not just because it’s so impressive but also because it must once have been an important travel route. Coaches travelling west out of London would mostly have travelled on roads that lie further north – through Andover, say, or Newbury – to head for Bristol, Bath, and the far West. But someone in the 18th or 19th centuries wanting to go to Salisbury, or on down to Weymouth, beloved of George III and those who travelled in his wake, might well have travelled through Stockbridge.

They could have stayed at this inn, the Grosvenor, which is early-19th century, built of yellow brick, and sash windowed. Its stand-out feature, the one that stopped me in my tracks, is this large porch. Its bowed front is big and the windows are huge. There must be a very light, grand upper room in there, with a ceiling higher than those on either side, as one can see by comparing the window heights and positions. The slender Doric columns shelter a commodious ground floor area through which you could almost drive a car. Or at a small carriage, enabling passengers to alight in the dry and get quickly indoors for a side of beef or a bumper of sherry.*

No doubt the porch also did its work sheltering passers-by from the rain and wind. Now its job seems to be to house tables and chairs for afternoon tea. Not the only place, as I discovered, where it’s possible to sit, enjoy refreshments, and watch the passing pedestrians and traffic, which the day I was there included no carriages, but what was to me a pleasing selection of classic cars. The High Street still seems to be a well used road, if more for local and leisure traffic than for those travelling long distance, who nowadays sacrifice urban scenery for speed, and make for the faster-moving A303.

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*Or if you couldn’t quite drive underneath it, you could at least pull in at the front, and your passengers would be undercover in an instant.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Portishead, Somerset

Where the light is right

The small, sturdy metal structure of Black Nore Lighthouse was put up in 1894, to assist shipping in the Severn Estuary. It flashed every ten seconds to guide countless vessels towards and away from the harbour at Bristol, until it was taken out of service in 2010. It originally had a clockwork drive mechanism and this was only replaced with electric motors in the year 2000. Although this light is no longer needed, there’s another not far away at Battery Point, which still guides ships.

Fortunately, the lighthouse has been preserved (it now belongs to a trust that looks after it), so I could find it the other day when I was in Portishead to give a talk and arrived – as is my wont – much too early. I’m a great advocate of arriving early for meetings and talks, as it usually gives me the opportunity to have a look round somewhere and, as often as not, find some interesting bit of architecture or structure. I especially like the metal cross rods, attached with screw threads and nuts to the bit of metalwork in the centre, shown in my lower photograph.

So I was pleased to have a little time here, to find this relic – even if the sun was obscured by clouds and the scene looked a little more gloomy than I’d have hoped for. Light is as vital for photography as for navigation.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire

Look on my works…

Churchyards are often interesting places and you never know quite what you might find in them. Having admired a number of memorials in the churchyard at Hurstbourne Tarrant, including some near the church that dated to the early 19th century, I walked towards the northern edge of the graveyard, through trees, and up a considerable slope. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going as I picked my way through windfall apples. What I found was a further section of churchyard, screened from the church by the trees, and at its far edge this mausoleum, with classical pilasters and a pyramidal roof, itself almost hidden by vegetation.

At first I thought I’d found a bit more funerary architecture of the Regency period, a squire’s tomb of c. 1820, perhaps, with a nod to the Egyptian taste on a firm classical base with a couple of bands of rusticated masonry. But there was something not quite right about it. Weren’t those wrought-iron gates with their curvaceous metalwork rather Art Nouveau in appearance? And inside I made out a plaque recording a death in 1935. Yes: didn’t the details look a bit like 1930s Georgian revival in places?

They did. There seemed to be nothing about the building in the church, nothing in my old Pevsner volume*, and, when I got home, it didn’t seem to be listed either. Odd. Eventually I turned up the story in an online copy of an old newspaper, the wonderfully named Kingston Daily Gleaner, for February 23, 1935.†

At some point in the early 1930s, Henry Wykey Prosser was told by a London specialist that he had less than five years to live. He immediately began putting his affairs in order, a process that involved drawing up a will providing a fund of £2000 so that elderly residents of Hurstbourne Tarrant could have Christmas provisions and leaving the then considerable sum of £100,000 to his housekeeper (provided that she remained unmarried and continued to live in his house). His last years were also spent supervising the construction of this mausoleum.

The newspaper records that although Prosser spent a lot of money improving his house and estate, he was not well liked in the village, because he was constantly arguing with local people, particularly about rights of way, drove a hard bargain, and went to law if he did not get his way. He was also obsessed with security, overseeing a nightly ritual of door locking and shuttering before taking his loaded revolver to bed with him.

The position of the mausoleum at the far end of the churchyard at the top of the slope suited Prosser because he could see it from his house – and keep an eye on its builders without leaving home. For visitors, however, it means that this little structure, which down near the church would look bulky and assertive, is out of the way – and for many I’m sure, completely unregarded. The atmosphere felt for me like one of those lesser known London cemeteries – Nunhead, say – where among the ivy and leaning gravestones, one comes across the mausoleum of some Victorian worthy, once famous or notorious, now forgotten. Look on my works, ye mighty…

*Note to self: I must invest in the updated edition.

†Yes, a Jamaica newspaper. Postscript: One of my readers wonders whether Kingston, Jamaica, was named after the Duke of Kingston, of Thoresby Hall: She notes: ‘He was still an Earl in 1703. He was a (very?) rich man, and a Tillemans painting of him of c. 1726 shows him with a black servant… Very possibly, he was a plantation owner/slave trader. He laid out a vast landscape at Thoresby on the 1700s.’ If anyone knows more about him, this reader would love to know more, so did please reply via the Comments section of this blog.

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A couple of other unexpected things in churchyards: a bee shelter and a beautiful sculpted seat.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


On the move (3): Scriven’s Conduit

Just a few yards from the building in my previous post is another structure that has been relocated from its original site. This ornate octagonal pavilion is Scriven’s Conduit, built in 1636 in Southgate Street in the centre of Gloucester as part of the city’s water supply. It displays a wonderful mix of architectural styles, Gothic rubbing shoulders with Classicism in a way not unusual in the 17th century. The top was rebuilt in 1705 and originally bore a finial featuring Jupiter Pluvius (Jupiter in his role as rain-bringer) pouring water on to Sabrina (the goddess of the Severn). Although this has now gone, there are still some magnificent lion masks and some very worn roundels depicting notable trades found in Gloucester. Like the King’s Board, it was taken down when no longer needed in the city centre and moved. It went to Edgeworth Manor before returning to Gloucester, this time to the site in Hillfield Gardens where it remains to this day. Gloucester, an ancient city that has lost much through redevelopment, actually preserves quite a lot of historic architecture – several medieval churches, some friary buildings, its great dock warehouses, not to mention its magnificent cathedral. Search a little further, and, as I hope this and my previous post have helped to show, it’s amazing what riches the city discloses.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


On the move (2): The King’s Board

My second example* of a building on the move is a small building known as the King’s Board, which now stands in Hillfield Gardens in Gloucester. You can just see it from the road as you pass the gardens and when I’d driven past previously I’d taken it for some elaborate garden seat or gazebo built by the owners of Hillfield House, Gloucester’s grandest Victorian house and now occupied, I think, by offices – an effective and unusual garden feature, indeed, which it still is.

However this little building did not begin life as a gazebo. Originally it was in the centre of the city and looked quite different, because the arches, which now make up the sides of a polygon, were once arranged in a straight line along the front of a rectangular building. This rectangular building can be seen in Kip’s engraving (c. 1710) of Gloucester and had been in Westgate Street (one of the city’s four main streets named for points of the compass). It had been a butter market and was reputed to have been given to the city by Richard II. By Kip’s time the roof had been altered to house a water cistern but by 1750 it had been taken down and relocated. After several more relocations, including a spell in the grounds of Tibberton Court, northwest of Gloucester) it was moved yet again to its current site in 1937. It’s not known for sure at which of these moves it was remodelled as a polygon rather than a rectangle.

No doubt its polygonal form, the fact that it once had a cross on the roof, and the religious relief carvings it bears fuelled the tradition that it began life as a preaching cross, though the rectangular layout shown in the 1710 engraving – and the fact that archaeology has confirmed this – put paid to that theory. Medieval markets often bore crosses and religious imagery too. The sculptures are charming. They cover the story of Christ’s Passion, including the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, and other subjects. Although partly restored and even so highly worn, they preserve plenty of detail – the crenellated walls of the city, the monkey, St Peter’s keys, for example are all visible in the image of the entry into Jerusalem in my lower picture. The King’s Board is still highly effective in offering interest and shelter, some 80 years after it was re-erected here.

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*Following my post about Carfax Conduit, in Oxfordshire, here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire

On the move (1): A distant prospect of Carfax Conduit

I went to Nuneham Courtenay to look at the church and, as so often happens, saw something else as well – or at least caught sight of something else. Nuneham Courtenay is home to a large 18th-century house, built by the first Earl Harcourt, who famously displaced the village to make his garden and park, inspiring Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village in the process. Although the house is much altered, the nearby church built by the earl is not. It’s a gem of the classical revival, to which I will return. I’d been reminded of it by the Heritage Open Days leaflet for Oxford and, as I was in the city, I drove out to Nuneham, parked (almost certainly in the wrong place) and made my visit. I expect I’ll do a post about the church soon.

Then I decided to have a walk and find this other, still more surprising building. I suspect, having parked in the wrong place, I missed the helpful person from Heritage Open Days who’d have directed me, and having set out, I came up to a gate with a very serious notice saying ‘Wildlife protection area. No admittance’. Another path seemed to lead to an impassable stream. Running out of time, I turned back to retrace my tips and go home when I saw in the distance the building I was looking for.

It’s Carfax Conduit, and was originally built in 1617 as part of a scheme to supply the city of Oxford with fresh water. Its name comes from Carfax, the crossroads at the centre of Oxford where the building was sited at the end of an underground pipe that led from a spring on a hill at North Hinksey, outside the city. Being able to get clean water from the tank in the Carfax building would have been a health-giving boon to most city residents, who had no private water supply of their own and had to rely on a medieval system that by this time was leaky and dysfunctional. Although I didn’t get close to the conduit this time, I could make out quite a bit of the detail. The overall design is rather like a medieval market cross – or, as the listing text has it, a Renaissance version of such a structure. The square lower section is plain, with very simple pilasters and mouldings; it’s mostly 18th-century, replacing the original structure that housed the water tank. The upper part is original, richly ornamented, and bristling with statuary and other carving. The Os and Ns are the initials of Otho Nicholson, who built the conduit, and the statues are a selection of mythical and historical figures.

Earl Harcourt snapped up the building when it was taken down in 1787, when it was deemed to be holding up traffic. Oxford got a smaller tank, the earl got a garden ornament, which he had re-erected where he’d planned to build a Gothic eye-catcher. The 18th-century taste for an interesting garden ornament resulted in a bit of creative preservation and posterity benefits too – even if it only manages to achieve a distant prospect of Carfax Conduit.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Irreplaceable at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

History and places

On Tuesday evening I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum for a dual celebration: to celebrate Historic England’s campaign Irreplaceable and to mark the publication of my new accompanying book, Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.* The idea of the campaign was to highlight and celebrate one hundred remarkable places that have in some way shaped the history of England. The public were asked to nominate their favourite historic places and a panel of ten expert judges¶ then took the thousands of nominations and reduced them to a list of one hundred, equally allocated over ten different thematic categories, from “Music and Literature” to “Power, Protest and Progress”. The result is a fascinating and diverse list of places, from obvious and internationally famous buildings such as Canterbury Cathedral and Windsor Castle to less well known sites, such as a rainy Jewish cemetery in Falmouth and some allotments in Wiltshire.

My job was to write something about each place and so create a book, illustrated with Historic England’s excellent photographs. It has been fascinating. Half the time I have been writing about places I know well, half the time about places and buildings that were new to me. The book we have produced is not a continuous history of England but a patchwork, reflecting not just the variety of the choices but also the many different ways of looking at history and at England in particular – cultural, social, military, industrial, technological, political, and so on and on.

The gathering at the V&A was well attended and convivial. We were honoured to have several distinguished speakers – Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A; Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England; Mark Hews, Chief Executive of Ecclesiastical;† and Rosie Ryder, Media Manager, Historic England. Among the many filling the main domed hall of the V&A were a good number of representatives of the one hundred places, including people who’d come to London from Durham, Rochdale, and Birkenhead. It was a great pleasure to meet many of these people and hear about their enthusiasm for ‘their’ places and the hard work that goes into maintaining and running all kinds of places, from museums to open-air swimming pools, from Bletchley Park to the Dreamland Theme Park in Margate. Everyone seemed pleased with the book, and I hope it plays its part in celebrating these wonderful sites, in telling their stories, and in highlighting in general the extraordinary diversity and richness of England’s historic places. 

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* Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places is published by Historic England. It is available from bookshops, the usual online sources, and from Historic England themselves. For more information, click on the book cover in the right-hand column.

¶ The expert judges (and their categories) were: Monica Ali (Music & Literature), Mary Beard (Loss & Destruction), George Clarke (Homes & Gardens), Will Gompertz (Art, Architecture & Sculpture), Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (Sport & Leisure), Bettany Hughes (Travel & Tourism), Tristram Hunt (Industry, Trade & Commerce), David Ison (Faith & Belief), David Olusoga (Power, Protest & Progress), and Lord Robert Winston (Science & Discovery).

† This whole project – campaign, book, and the celebration at the V&A itself – could not have happened without the support of in the insurance company Ecclesiastical. This company insures the majority of the Grade I listed buildings in England and donates its profits to charitable causes, including many heritage-related projects.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Far from sheepish

This is one of five elaborate carved piers set at the entrance to a driveway that serves some houses in Cheltenham’s Bath Road. The houses stand back from the road, and have their own driveway, running parallel to the street, so that owners could dismount from their horses and carriages (and now from their cars) away form the bustle of the main drag. The five piers vary in design (some are topped with urns) but these caught my eye one day when waiting in a traffic queue on the Bath Road.

The fluted columns and the swags put them very much in the Regency taste – that’s exactly the period (the late-18th and early-19th centuries) when Cheltenham expanded as its fame as a spa grew. The neighbouring houses were built in the 1820s and early-1830s, and online sources date the piers to c. 1823. The rams’ heads are a charming and intriguing touch. I doubt if they’re symbolic of anything specific. They’re a popular motif of the period, seen sometimes as terminations for arms on chairs, as bits of ornament on buildings, or with fountains gushing out of their mouths. Now I’ve noticed these, no doubt I’ll be seeing others in all kinds of places.

The piers look as if they have been carefully restored, but they have actually changed quite a bit. They originally provided a bit of local street lighting: they were topped with iron tripods bearing oil lamps. Later these were converted to gas and later still they were removed completely. Now the piers simply perform the other part of their function: to mark the entrance to the driveway and to add to the elegance of this bit of Regency Cheltenham. And they’re good enough at that and at complementing the nearby houses to ensure admiration and a grade II listing. Hurrah!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Where credit is due

Readings and rereadings (1): Lucia Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography

The chance purchase in a secondhand bookshop recently of three paperbacks form the late 1930s prompted me to think about a woman who, like many in the history of the arts, has been marginalised. She is Lucia Moholy, and among her publications is A Hundred Years of Photography, published by Penguin Books in 1939.

Lucia Schulz was born in Prague in 1894. A good linguist (like so many people in that city where it was an advantage to be fluent in both German and Czech), she qualified as a teacher of German and English, before studying philosophy and art history at university in Prague. She then worked as an editor in various publishing houses, including Rowohlt in Berlin, before marrying in 1920 the artist László Moholy-Nagy. He was developing his interest in photography and the couple explored this medium together. 

When Moholy-Nagy went to teach at the Bauhaus – first in Weimar then at its new school at Dessau designed by Walter Gropius – Lucia, now known as Lucia Moholy, joined him, working first as an apprentice and assistant in one of the Bauhaus photography studios, then as a Bauhaus-based freelancer. She collaborated closely with László on the experimental images (photograms, for example) made at the Bauhaus, but this work was published under his name only. She also made immaculate photographs of many of the objects created at the Bauhaus and at Dessau also photographed the buildings. It was Lucia Moholy’s photographs that introduced the Dessau Bauhaus to the world, that illustrated Bauhaus publicity, and that made Gropius’s designs of the school and the associated masters’ houses well known as leading examples of modernist architecture. For most people who could not go to Dessau for themselves, Lucia Moholy’s images of Bauhaus buildings and objects were the Bauhaus.*

By 1933 Lucia had split up with Moholy-Nagy, moved to Berlin to work in Johannes Itten’s school there, and had a communist boyfriend. Realising that her life and values would not appeal to Germany’s new National Socialist regime, she emigrated, travelling to Prague and Paris before reaching London, where she found work as a portrait photographer and wrote her history of photography for Penguin books. Allen Lane of Penguin was producing his Pelican series of non-fiction titles, their blue and white covers contrasting with the orange and white of the main Penguin list, which was mostly fiction. Books that seemed to have a pressing contemporary interest, like Anthony Bertram’s Design were published as ‘Pelican Specials’, and stood alongside ‘Penguin Specials’, which covered key subjects in the news or in contemporary politics. Photography, although it had been around for a century, was clearly developing quickly, with photographers responding to contemporary events, and taking their medium in interesting new directions, so Moholy’s book became a Pelican Special.§

The book is short, succinct, and covers the pioneers with authority and grace. Nicépohre Niepce, William Henry Fox Talbot, Louis Daguerre, Nadar – all are there, their significance explained with clarity. Perhaps Moholy allowed herself (or was allowed by Lane) too little space to cover the more recent photographers – some significant figures are mentioned only briefly. But her account would have been a useful primer for anyone engaged by photographic imagery but not sure of how it came to be, anyone who did not know their collodion from their silver nitrate, or their David Octavius Hill from their Roger Fenton. The short book and its three dozen pictures have just enough scope to show the amazing range that photographers had achieved by the 1930s, with everything from the Crimean war reportage of Fenton to a portrait by Cecil Beaton, from infra-red shots to high-speed photographs, from the clear imagery of Nadar to a portrait with the face daringly in shadow by Moholy herself.

Most of these images are scrupulously credited to their makers. Lucia Moholy was not so lucky with her own photographic work. At her hasty departure from Berlin, her beautiful glass-plate negatives of the Bauhaus were passed to Gropius, who used them widely in publications to showcase his architectural work without ever mentioning the photographer. Several times, when things were more settled, she asked Gropius to send the negatives back; several times he refused or ignored her requests. Meanwhile she carried on taking photographs, organising exhibitions, directing documentary films, and writing about art. She never did get all her photographs back from Gropius, although she was able to explain her work and that of her husband László in a bilingual publication, Moholy-Nagy Notes, which came out in 1980, nine years before her death.

Thanks to this later book, to contemporary archivists, to the internet, and to broadcasters such as Roman Mars, Sam Greenspan and the team at 99% Invisible,† Lucia Moholy’s story is much better known today. She has become one of many women in the history of the arts, once overlooked, who are now recognised for their achievements.¶ I was pleased to find out more about her story after listening to the 99% Invisible programme about her and the other week by buying a copy of her 1939 Pelican Special almost 80 years after it was issued, finding it in a secondhand bookshop here in Gloucestershire, priced at just one English pound.

Masters’ Houses, semi-detached house Kandinsky-Klee from north-west, architecture: Walter Gropius / photo: Lucia Moholy, 1926. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016.
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* For much of the post-war period, most people could not go to Dessau, because for outsiders travel to East Germany was difficult if not impossible – and in any case photography at the Bauhaus building was banned between 1950 and 1980.

§ Lucia Moholy wrote the book in English.

† 99% Invisible, ‘a tiny radio show about design’, is exemplary; its website contains dozens of illuminating back episodes. The one on Lucia Moholy is here. There is more information about Lucia Moholy here.

¶ Some of these eclipsed women – for example, in music Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, in architecture and design Charlotte Perriand, Ray Eames, and Eileen Gray – are now being given their considerable due.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Croome, Worcestershire

A connoisseur of views

On a couple of occasions in the past I’ve explored the grounds of Croome Court in Worcestershire, and have looked not only at a building in the park near the great house but also further out, to take in structures built as eye-catchers in the wider landscape. One of these outlying buildings that I’d not seen was the panorama tower, which was put up on the western side of the estate, in part as an eye-catcher and in part as a place from which which to admire the views. Recently I set off to find the panorama tower, an exercise that first off all meant getting over to the western side of the M5, the motorway having sliced through the old Croome estate, cutting the tower off from the house, park, and other eye-catchers. Coming out of the village of Kinnersley, I missed the place where I thought it was, and so pulled in where there was a parking space near a road junction. As soon as I got out of the car and peered over a gate I realised that I could see the tower not far away across a field – I’d reached the right place, by accident rather than design.

The tower, I saw, was round, domed, and classical in design. James Wyatt was the architect but apparently he based the tower on a drawing by Adam, so its design is earlier than the years on either side of 1810 when it was built. It’s very plain – the columns are Tuscan, the niches blank, the cornices simple, the dome shallow. Yet the overall effect is satisfying, thanks to the rhythm of the openings, the relationship between the lower section and the small domed upper storey, and the modest way in which the building occupies its elevated position, not dominating it but offering itself up and affording views eastwards towards Croome itself and westwards towards the Malverns and the Welsh hills.

The tower’s builder, the 6th Earl of Coventry, had a thing about towers and views, as many landed aristocrats did in the 18th and 19th centuries. The panorama tower beautifully complements the medieval-looking eyecatchers elsewhere in the park and also reminds us that the earl built the great Broadway Tower, miles away to the southeast on his Spring Hill estate. This is a sizeable and impressive presence on the Cotswold scarp, built to give views over thousands of square miles towards Croome and, again, far into Wales. Although much preoccupied with gardening and building, the earl must have been aware too of the beauty of Britain as a whole, and his towers – pigeonholed by some as ‘mere’ follies, both enhance that beauty and aid its appreciation.

Monday, September 10, 2018


Sun and shadows

Some architecture only looks really good in the sun. That’s true, in my opinion, of this building, the Catholic church of St Francis Xavier, in the middle of Hereford’s Broad Street. When I first saw it, drizzle was closing in and I didn’t feel inclined to linger and look at it. My mind pigeon-holed it away as a rather grandiose bit of early-19th century neoclassicism, trying hard to assert itself over the surrounding buildings, which fence it in. And there was another thing which seemed odd to me about it. The fact that there were only two Doric columns on such a big building seemed somehow strange, as did the paucity of fine detail: just flutes, triglyphs, and a bit of moulding. There was something about this that gave the impression of a small building that had been put under a magnifying glass. All this passed through my mind in a second or two as I passed by the building, without giving it much more thought. The other day when I found myself in this street again, the sun was out and the facade made a completely different impression. The sun lit up the mouldings and flutes, creating tonal contrast and casting shadows that gave a much better impression of their modelling. It also brought out the facade’s rich cream colour. There was something to engage me, after all.

When I got home, I looked the church up in Pevsner, and found that the architectural guide was illuminating about the building. It was designed by Charles Day and built in 1837–39, making it just Victorian. The design of the facade was based on the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi, but the church is taller and the proportions are narrower than those of the ancient Greek building. The architect also intended there to be a pair of short towers, which presumably never got built. Pevsner also told me that Pugin, who was exercised particularly by churches, Catholic churches above all, hated it. He called it ‘a pagan temple’ and ‘a Catholic concert hall’. Only Gothic would do for Pugin. Much as I love Gothic, I don’t share the great Pugin’s doctrinaire views, but on that rainy day I’d have nodded in at least half-agreement with him. Now I’ve seen the church in the sun, I’m inclined to moderate my view. It’s amazing what a bit of tonal contrast will do.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018


Have a butcher’s at this

After a necessarily brief trip to Hereford recently, the Resident Wise Woman and I simultaneously came up with the thought that we ought to return and explore the place more thoroughly. It was not just that interesting buildings other than the familiar cathedral seemed to be popping up all over the place, but also that the sunshine brought out many details I’d not really looked at before, like some of the carving on this timber-framed building in the city centre. This landmark of 1621 is known as Butcher’s Hall, and was originally part of a row of wooden-framed shops and houses built by the city’s butchers. The rest of the row was demolished in a wave of architectural violence that occurred, I think, in the 19th century, when the city’s extraordinary medieval market hall was also destroyed. Only this stunner, now isolated at one end of the long open market place called High Town, remains.

The building’s name is almost certainly misleading. It seems not to have been a public building but was put up by one man, said to be the butcher John Jones, for his own use. It’s a riot of wooden posts, beams, and braces, and is generously windowed with what would have been very costly glass. The carving, on corbels, lintels, and bargeboards, is particularly lavish, although some of that on the porch is actually an 1880s addition, done when the building was converted to form the premises of a bank. In a fishing touch that many must miss, the square brick chimney is finished with crenellations and corner projections so that it resembles a tiny castle keep. With buildings like this, there’s always something that repays a second look. Butcher’s Hall is now a museum, and when I have more time I plan to return and go inside.
Butcher’s Hall, Hereford, chimney and bargeboards

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Poole, Dorset

Fine detail

It occurred to me after I did my previous post about the threshold mosaic in Hereford that I had a recent picture of another, which is better preserved and more artfully put together. On my recent trip to Poole I noticed the entrance lobby of Morton’s jewellers.* I was struck at first glance – and when I looked at it more closely, it seemed better still.

On this shop front the lobby starts at right-angles to the street before deviating to the left, making an odd shape for the mosaicist to work on. However, the result here is actually very impressive. One immediately notices a stylish border with groups of three short vertical lines that recall the triglyphs of Classical architecture. also clear to see is a very effective piece of lettering, with elongated Art Deco influenced forms and an extra-long central T. But look closer (clicking on the image to enlarge it will probably help) and you can see the careful way that the pale background tesserae have been laid. Those closest to the letters follow the lines of the strokes. Those outside the lettering area form fan-shaped swirls.

The whole thing is an impressive piece of work. It’s not strictly necessary, of course, to have an entrance floor like this. A few large tiles would have done the job. But advertising helps any business and intricate decorative work is appropriate for a jeweller’s premises. It suggests that the company cares about details, quality, and style.

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Like my Poole tile finds, this was thanks to an excellent walk guided by The Tile Lady

Monday, August 27, 2018


Jones the entrance

Threshold mosaics were common in shops in the early-20th century. These shops often had a doorway recessed in a small lobby, and the mosaic on the floor was a way of reinforcing the owner’s identity – another kind of advertising, if you like, to add to the name on the shopfront and the display in the window. Now customers and passers-by can enjoy them as charming bits of craftsmanship or as useful historical clues to the past owners of shop premises.

I have to say, though, that I don’t know who the Jones was who had this shop in the centre of Hereford. He or she* has long gone, but their mosaic remains, framed by the rich green tiles of the curving stall risers on either side. The mosaic isn’t in the best condition – it’s a shame about that crack, and the missing tesserae† – and perhaps the person who made it wasn’t the most accomplished mosaicist: I’ve seen other examples where all the ‘blank’ tesserae are laid in staggered courses, like a perfect brick bond. But there’s still much to enjoy, from the multicoloured border to the stylish lettering.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that it’s the lettering that caught my attention.¶ The N, with its curving cross-stroke, and the very curly J are my favourites. To create these, with tiny bits of stone or tile, would have taken plenty of art and effort, as did the serifs present on some letters, and as did the outline tesserae – look at the way the black line of the O is followed by the white pieces that surround it.

If threshold mosaics like this are modest compared to the work of master artists like Boris Anrep and the mosaicists with whom he worked, they still show their share of flair. They deserve to be noticed as we step over them or walk past, as reminders of a time when shopkeepers built their names into their premises in the hope that their businesses and their reputations would prosper and endure through the generations.

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* Probably a he, but businesswomen’s names are sometimes concealed behind the gender-neutral initials of a shop sign. Did you know that the H. Samuel of the famous jewellery chain was a woman?

† Tesserae: the small individual pieces of stone or other material that make up a mosaic.

¶ Am I predictable, or am I predictable?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Marlborough, Wiltshire

Town texture: columns and tile-hanging

Marlborough is one of the English towns (Blandford Forum and Warwick are others) whose history was changed by a great fire. Marlborough’s major fire occurred in 1653 and there were further fires in the late-17th century. Substantial rebuilding in the late-17th and early-18th centuries has left the centre of the town with its own distinctive appearance – the High Street displays a unified townscape of red tiled roofs, gables facing the street, tile-hung walls, bay windows, and arcaded ground floors.* It’s not all like this – there are also a few white and black-and-white facades – but there’s enough of it to set a dominant and satisfying style.

The most unusual and outstanding aspect of this is the arcading. There are a few English towns that have substantial runs of arcading in main streets, and they vary quite a lot in design. At Totnes, the upper storeys of the buildings overhang the walks beneath, so that the columns are flush with the upper part of the facades. At Tunbridge Wells, the famous ‘Pantiles’ have arcades that protrude forwards from the building line, so that they cover the pavements at ground level and house balconies above. And in the case of Chester’s ‘Rows’, the arcades are upstairs, on the first floor. Marlborough’s arcades break forward slightly from overhanging upper storeys, so that they cover only part of the pavement. They are topped not with balconies, as at Tunbridge Wells, but with narrow pitched roofs. These are covered with tiles that match in colour the clay tiles with which the walls above are hung, giving a pleasantly ruddy colour to the facades. Many, but not all, the tiles have a ‘fish-scale’ pattern, so they also have an attractive texture.

The building in my picture probably dates mainly from the post-fire period of the late-17th to 18th centuries. Its 18th-century bay windows have replacement sashes, but some of these retain 18th-century-style small panes. The wooden columns along the ground floor are original and a local builder’s or carpenter’s version of Doric. A number of buildings like this, plus one or two timber-framed ones like the neighbour to the right, combine to give the street its character,

Very broad, long, and curving slightly, this is one of the country’s notable streets, a wonderful setting for the market, for shopping, or for an evening stroll. It’s not always easy to see it as a whole, because it’s so long, and it’s often full of market stalls or parked cars. An aerial view gives one a clearer idea; a closer view reveals its colourful effect and distinctive texture.

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*Tile-hanging is a speciality in the southeast, in Sussex and Kent especially. But you also find tile-hung walls in other places, such as parts of Buckinghamshire, and in Wiltshire in Marlborough and some of the nearby villages.
Image of whole street, above © Country Life

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Poole, Dorset

Carter's cavalcade (4): Showpiece

Here’s one last piece of outstanding tiling from my recent visit to Poole, and in many ways, it is the greatest star of them all. The Swan Inn is a pub of 1906, built to designs by the architect C T Miles, who had a long-established practice in Bournemouth (in which he was soon joined by his son, S C Miles). The facade would be a fairly standard turn-of-the-century design, were it not for the tile cladding, which covers the entire ground floor level.

The Swan is one of three surviving late-Victorian tiled pubs in Poole and is the most decorative. That is thanks not just to the strong tiled lettering giving the names of the brewery (Marston’s) and the pub, in brown on a cream background, not just for the two-tone green of the wall tiles, not even for the telling details such as egg and dart moulding or the little dolphin in the keystone of arch, but above all for the pair of beautiful swans to each side of the entrance archway. Each bird’s cloud of plumage floats among lakeside plants and its beak holds one end of a swag, the other end of which is tied to one of the letters of the pub’s name. This bit of whimsy links the realistic drawing of the swan and its setting to the graphic world of the lettering. That lettering itself has an element of whimsy – the ornate capitals and overlapping strokes recall the sort Art Nouveau lettering I noticed on another Carter’s panel.

This building has been empty for a while. A few years ago a proposal was made to demolish it and redevelop the site, citing a ‘statement of significance’ that declared it to be of ‘little historic or architectural interest’. Fortunately this has been overruled (after objections from the Victorian Society, among others), and the frontage will be retained. The building’s historical value is clear – it’s an outstanding pre-World War I tiled pub facade, a stone’s throw away from the works where the tiles were made. It is also of architectural interest in the way the architecture and ceramics are artfully integrated. You can’t separate the architecture of this period from its decoration. The architectural work of designing spaces, creating plans, and visualising elevations was done, in a building of this type, with the architect collaborating closely with the decorators. The architect, C T Miles, would have liaised closely with Carter’s and their artist over the layout and appearance of the tiles, just as architect George Skipper did with ceramic artist W J Neatby of Doulton when designing the great Royal Arcade in Norwich. That lovely swan means much more here, in the place it was designed for, than it would in a museum.

Workers from Carter’s and Poole Pottery must have passed this pub every day, and many of them no doubt drank here. Managers could bring clients here and say, ‘This is the sort of thing we do’. They were probably proud of the examples of their firm’s work that they saw here and on other buildings around Poole. And if they were proud, they were right to be.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Poole, Dorset

Carter’s Cavalcade (3): Not just seed potatoes

The third (and final, for now) highlight from my visit to Poole is this panel, one of a pair, that originally came from the shop of W H Yeatman & Sons, corn and seed merchants. Yeatman’s, whose former corn mill I’d noticed when I was walking along Poole Quay earlier in the day, had a shop in the town’s High Street. These colourful tile panels decorated the shop from the late-1920s or early-1930s: clearly the owners wanted to remind people they sold more than produce for the farm or vegetable patch. The black background helps the vivid flowers stand out beautifully (there is probably Art Deco influence in this use of black), and the colours are contained within very narrow boundary lines. These were produced using tube-lining, a technique that involves applying wet clay from a syringe, rather in the way that someone icing a cake uses a piping bag. You can feel how the tube lines are raised above the rest of the surface if you run your finger across the tiles.

When Poole’s old town was redeveloped in the 1960s, these memorable panels were saved and mounted on the end of a building that is now an ice-cream parlour. Although sited at a road junction with plenty of pavement in front of them, they’re actually quite easy to miss, and I was grateful to have them pointed out to me by Jo, leader of the guided walk that brought them to my attention.* It’s fortunate that this bit of shop ornament, from a time when such decorations were expected to be in place for decades (unlike so many of today’s ephemeral plastic shop signs), were rescued. As well as serving a local business for years, they have now outlived their original raison d’être for even longer. Built to last: modern retailers please note.

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* Anyone wishing to take part in one of these excellent walks should follow Jo Amey on her Facebook page, The Tile Lady. The page has many pictures of beautiful tiles and she also posts information about the walks there.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Poole, Dorset

Carter’s Cavalcade (2): Hunting the hart

‘Now we’re going to go into Halford’s,’ said Jo, leading our surprised group* into a building which was the scene of what seemed to be the last stages of a closing-down sale: the shop is one of those branches of Halford’s that is to cease trading. Diverting our gaze away from the cut-price car accessories, Jo pointed up the stairs, and this panel is what we saw.

It is the work of Tony Morris for Carter’s of Poole. The White Hart Hotel commissioned the sign in the 1960s and when the hotel closed, Halford’s took over the building. Later they moved, and took the finely drawn ceramic stag with them, displaying him in their High Street premises, where he has been delighting people buying car batteries, windscreen wiper blades, and adjustable spanners ever since. For now, though, we were taking advantage of the last chance to see this rare tiled species, staring at us (is he apprehensive, defiant, or just vigilant?) from atop his pedestal. We were assured that the Hart would remain in position when Halford’s move out. One hopes that the new tenants of the building will display this striking piece of ceramic art with pride.

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* We were on a guided walk. See the previous post for details.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Poole, Dorset

Carter’s cavalcade (1): Very Art Nouveau

I’m going to devote the next couple of posts to some of the things I saw on a visit to Poole the other day, when I went on a guided walk through the centre of the town led by Jo Amey, known online as The Tile Lady. The subject of the walk was the legacy of Carter & Co, the ceramics company that was once based in Poole and which produced a range of tiles, a number of which can be found on buildings around the town. Not all of these are in their original positions, and not all of them are easy to find, which was one reason I was very grateful to go on this walk.*

One of the tile gems we saw on the walk was this glowing panel bearing Carter’s name. It dates to around 1905 and was originally on a wall of the company’s East Quay works. When the works closed and the quayside was redeveloped, several examples of tiling from the old works were displayed on the walls of the new building: this is one of them. It’s prized for its rich reds and its beautiful lustre glazes. A lustre glaze is a metallic glaze that shines with iridescence, an effect produced by metallic oxides. Lustreware was produced in the great civilisations of early Islam, but its most famous exponent in the west was William de Morgan, who revived lustre glazes in the 1870s. The iridescent tiles in this panel were made under the influence of de Morgan, and they make a sumptuous border for the central area of the imposition, framing the company name.

The artful lettering of the Carter’s name is the other reason why I particularly like these tiles. Their expressively curvaceous lines are the essence of the Art Nouveau style, as many readers will recognise. The way the letters are full of curves and loops, the manner in which they break free of the base line, and their habit of overlapping and interlacing – all these are typical of Art Nouveau. But the most typical feature of all is the collection of multiple curves, many doubling back on themselves like waves or whips – hence the term ‘whiplash curve’, by which they’re known. Wherever there is Art Nouveau lettering of the curvaceous kind†, from the posters of Afons Mucha¶ to the early Paris Metro stations, you will find whiplash curves.

Now when I do talks and lectures I can show people instantly what architectural Art Nouveau is about. And one couldn’t wish for a more beautiful or memorable way to explain this.

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* Another reason is Jo’s wealth of knowledge of the subject; I’d advise anyone who might want to go on one of her walks to follow her Facebook page, The Tile Lady . The page has many pictures of beautiful tiles and she posts information about the walks there too.

† The other dominant form of Art Nouveau, the style of the Secessionist movement that prevailed in Germany and Central Europe, is much more rectilinear.

¶ Also known as Alphonse Mucha. His many French posters, his long residence in Paris, and this spelling of his name lead many people to assume he was French (or perhaps Belgian). Actually he was born in Moravia, which is part of what is now the Czech Republic. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Halse, Northamptonshire

Flexible, portable, durable

The Northamptonshire town of Brackley is somewhere I’ve visited often, but on my most recent visit I left the town by a route I’d not tried before and soon found myself in Halse, staring at this small corrugated iron church. I knew nothing of its history, but was reminded of others* I’d seen – the Mission Chapel at Halse has an impressive selection of the features – pointed ‘Gothic’ inserts to the rectangular windows, quatrefoil openings, a small spire – that could be fitted to a corrugated iron building in the 19th century to indicate that it was a church.

When I got home I looked online, and found the church’s website.† It tells how in 1885 the curate from Brackley had to walk about a mile to Halse to take services in someone’s dining room. It was thought that the congregation of about 40 people (most of the hamlet’s adult population) deserved a place of worship of their own, and the Earl of Ellesmere bought this building for them in 1900. Apparently he bought it secondhand – it had been a ‘railway community room’ for workers building local railways and had to be taken apart and moved to its present site, demonstrating that these prefabricated buildings are portable and adaptable. One wonders whether the ecclesiastical features were added when it was moved to its current location.

The church is still in use and, after a major repair and restoration program in 1999 it looks in good shape – tin churches were not expected to last 100 years. The direction of the very strong sunlight meant I found it hard to take a photograph that does the church full justice (the spire is lurking in the shadows), but I hope the pattern of corrugations, fence uprights, and green leaves is at least pleasant to the eye.

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* I’ve previously done posts on ‘tin churches’ at Rodley, Coombe Green, Defford and Kilburn, London.

† I am indebted to the website of St Peter’s, Brackley for information about the building’s history.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Lutterworth, Leicestershire

Why I like this

This tile panel is on the side of a building in the centre of Lutterworth. The building is now a coffee shop but was clearly once a pharmacy. The panel combines so many of my interests I couldn’t resist sharing it here. So here are my personal reasons for valuing this obscure bit of tiling, that enlivens a side wall in a backstreet.

First of all, the way builders and architects have used tiles – to decorate buildings, to form signs, to create wipe-down surfaces, and so on – has been a source of fascination for me for years. Whether it’s a Victorian gents or an underground station, a butcher’s shop or a house, tiles play their role, and bring a bit of colour into our lives in the process.

Second, it’s on a shop, and retail architecture, ignored by so many but omnipresent, rich in social history, and central to our daily lives, deserves more attention than it usually gets. I’m often struck by tiles on shops. I don’t just mean the ‘hygienic’ surfaces favoured by food retailers, but also – and especially – the way tiles can be used for display and advertisement: the vigorous and often artfully drawn animalier tiles once beloved of butchers ands fishmongers are a case in point; the tile lettering used by retailers such as Lipton’s is another. Here, the old symbols of the chemist – the flask, pestle and mortar – are given a mid-century modern interpretation.

Third is that mid-century modern period itself. The effort that was put into decorating buildings in the 1950s and 1960s, with sculpture, murals, tiles, and sometimes indeed tile murals, is at last getting the attention it deserves. People are still unearthing little known examples and I’m pleased to share this one, which must be well known in Lutterworth but unfamiliar to people elsewhere.* A lot of 1960s architecture was dull, and many people find concrete buildings oppressive and ugly. I don’t,§ but I get even more out of such buildings when they bear this kind of decoration.

Fourth, it’s illustration, and as my working life has revolved around illustrated books I’m always interested in the ways artists represent things, even such humble things as a pestle and mortar. I like the way the artist (I’ve no idea who it was, or which company produced the tiles†) has managed to convey the modelling of these objects with just a few strokes of yellow, green and grey, with a swelling of the line here and a diminution there giving some liveliness to the drawing. And although I’m fond of bright colours, I can find something to admire in the restricted palette too, perhaps because it reminds me of the sort of restrictions we faced in the early years of my publishing career, when we often had to get the best out of two-colour printing if the full four colours were too costly.

I know that 1960s architecture, and illustrative panels like this, are not to everyone’s taste. Sometimes when I show this sort of thing to audiences of talks or participants on courses, they groan (not always audibly, but one can sense the response!), as if longing for a decent bit of Georgian elegance. I hope I’ve explained some of the reasons why such things appeal to me.

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* It doesn’t seem to be in Lynn F Pearson’s admirable Tile Gazetteer, for example. This book is, however, my tile Bible.

§ And yes, I have lived in one. I also went to school in a Brutalist building, and while I don’t subscribe to the ‘schooldays are the happiest days of your life’ notion, the building was certainly one of the things I did like about school.

† The name of the building’s architect, however, is inscribed on the tiles, making me wonder if he designed the tile decoration too. He was Derrick A Knightley, a local man with what sounds like a substantial practice. The date 1961 is also one the tiles.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Theme and variations

Passing through the area of Cheltenham known as ‘the Suffolks’ the other day, my eye was caught by these capitals. They’re part of one of the town’s most beautiful terraces, which runs along one side of Suffolk Square, itself part of a development on land once owned by the Earl of Suffolk and built in 1832–48. The original architect was local man Edward Jenkins, who probably did the overall design before he left Cheltenham* and was replaced by the more famous J B Papworth.

Jenkins included a grand portico-like arrangement of columns and pediments at either end of the row, and the columns are topped by these Corinthian capitals.† I was struck when I looked up how the architect used two variations on the Corinthian design here. There are four round three-quarter columns like the left-hand one in the photograph above, almost free-standing, with a full complement of flutes and the usual Corinthian capital, which has two layers of leaves topped by small scrolls. These are framed by two outer columns, this time square, fluteless, and bearing an abbreviated or truncated version of the capital. This is what you see in the right-hand capital in the photograph, a capital with  leaves only at the corners and a strip of egg and dart moulding that fills the space between them. This different design allows the architect to put two columns very close together without the straight repetition of capital design that one sometimes sees.

These adapted capitals are a reminder that designers and builders were always coming up with variations on the five ‘classic’ orders. In the past I’ve noted the Borromini order (a sort of upside-down Ionic) in Blandford, a Pergamene order in Clifton, a bird stretching its wings among Corinthian foliage in Birmingham, and the wonderfully eccentric and original ammonite order in Lewes§. Classicism in England is often most interesting when not a straitjacket but a jumping-off point for design, a place for elegant variations within a standard framework of features and proportions. And how well it works.

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* For more on the circumstances under which Jenkins left his drawing board, see my earlier post on the church he and Papworth designed, which is very near these houses.

† Their acanthus leaves and small scrolls make them Corinthian; larger scrolls (like those on Ionic capitals) above the leaves would make them Composite.

§ And even a Gothic order, taking us outside the sphere of Classicism