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

Friday, July 27, 2018

Newent, Gloucestershire

Hats on

These recent weeks of hot weather have seen me more often than not wearing a hat when out and about. The media have been full of advice about covering up and I’ve also seen statistics about the great temperature difference in the shade. I don’t need statistics, though – in sun this hot I instinctively make for shadows, overhangs, arcades, and other refuges, like this lovely timber-framed market house or Butter Market, built in c. 1668 in Newent. It has one big room upstairs and a ground-floor open-sided space for a market: the same layout as many others in English and Welsh towns. The timber work on the end in the sun is quite plain, but the side facing the street has a winning combination of diagonal and curved braces, together with curvy bargeboards to please the eye. The weather vane – in the form of a running fox – is an added touch of charm that catches the sun.

The space for the market has quite a low ceiling – there are about ten feet of headroom – and if not a forest at least a grove of thick supporting posts. The effect of standing inside it reminded me of a description by Ian Nairn of another market house, the one in Llanidloes. Nairn described the even lower space in the market house there as ‘a very personal possessed space: it is not so much a question of walking in but of putting it on like a hat.’ In Newent I tried on the building myself for a minute, before walking out again into the sunshine. The fit was not bad at all.

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§ See Ian Nairn, Nairn’s Towns (updated edition, Notting Hill Editions, 2013)

Monday, July 23, 2018


Mr Fothergill

A discussion on Facebook about the name Fothergill reminded me of an architectural Fothergill – Watson Fothergill, a late-19th century architect who did a lot to transform the streets of the city of Nottingham. I’ve posted about Watson Fothergill before, featuring in particular the office building he designed for himself in his characteristic mix of Gothic and ‘Old English’ styles, in glowing polychrome brick. I think of him as one of the ‘local heroes’ of English architecture, one of those architects whose impact was confined mainly to one town or city but whose work was both distinctive and high in quality. Of course Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a ‘local hero’, in that nearly all his buildings are in or near Glasgow, but his impact was worldwide. I’m thinking of lesser, but still notable, talents. The Jearrad brothers, who built quite a bit of Cheltenham; the Bastards, who created Blandford Forum, virtually from scratch, after a devastating fire; the Goddard family of Leicester, and so on. Many towns have one such architect, many have more than one – Leicester has Arthur Wakerley as well as the Goddards; Nottingham has Thomas Hine as well as Watson Fothergill. 
Watson Fothergill began life as Fothergill Watson. He swapped his names around in mid-life, in an attempt to perpetuate his mother’s maiden name. But he failed to keep the Fothergill line going: both his sons predeceased him without fathering children. He worked industriously all over Nottingham and in some nearby places, designing banks, offices, at least one church, and a lot of houses. His legacy, then, is his buildings and his architectural character is portrayed in his own office building, which lays out his artistic lineage like an architectural family tree. Here’s what I wrote about it in the early days of this blog:

It’s a wonderfully Victorian mixture of advertisement and creed. ‘I can do multi-coloured brickwork, timber-framing, and intricate Gothic details,’ it says. And also: ‘I employ the best carvers and take trouble with my lettering.’ But it’s more than this. The little heads above the windows are identified as A W N Pugin and G E Street, two of the most revered Gothic architects of the Victorian period. The man who displayed mentors like these on his office façade was insisting that he could deliver the best – and that he believed in the transcendent value of Gothic architecture. Further along the front are more names – William Burges (another Goth with a flair for decoration) and Norman Shaw (pioneer of the Old English style that inspired the Arts and Crafts movement). Fothergill learned from these designers too, to Nottingham’s benefit.

In spite of the emphasis on Gothic that his choice of architectural mentors suggests, it’s the Old English style that comes through most strongly in his buildings. Colourful brickwork abounds, as do timber-framed gables, large chimneys, and ornate turrets, often poking up at different heights to give variety to the skyline. It’s intricate stuff, and much of it is not just asymmetrical, but almost hyperactive, as bay windows break free of the building line here, and turrets enliven a corner there. Daring work, in its way, but also thoroughly right for a busy, fast-moving Midland city that’s also aware of its illustrious past. Its virtue is long-lived indeed.

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Photograph, top, of whole building by Darren Turner, reproduced with thanks under Creative Common licence CC BY-SA 3.0.
Other photographs by me.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


Lost in the post?

This post is by way of an apology to a number of my readers. One of the pleasures of having this blog is the number of comments I’ve received about my posts. Nearly all these comments are positive and constructive, they are often informative, and not infrequently appreciative: I enjoy getting them, and often respond to them.

For years now I’ve had a system set up that alerts me to each comment by sending me an email. For some reason, this system no longer seems to work, probably because Google, who host the blog on their servers, have changed the way things work. They often make such changes, usually notifying bloggers of what they are doing, and I generally take notice of these notifications. But this time, I didn’t realise what was going on. As a result, many of you have made comments and I’ve not read them. But they are not lost in the post: most of them are there, in the system, and I have now bulk published many of them to their relevant posts, and over the coming weeks will go through them, read, digest, and comment myself.

I’m sorry about this. I do value your comments, will continue to respond, and will now look out for them. I hope that all of you – old friends, longstanding online acquaintances, new readers, and the rest – will forgive me, and carry on reading.

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The letter box that illustrates this post is one I saw in Bath. Its rather lovely ‘Greek key’ decoration, architectural as it is, particularly appealed to me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Stoke Newington, London

Hurrah for fount pens!

Lots of people like ghost signs, and they have a far from from spectral presence on the internet these days.* There are whole websites and blogs¶ devoted to these old painted signs, and people are fascinated by them for all sorts of reasons – for their design and letterforms, for the light they shed on local and social history, for the generalised nostalgia they evoke. All this came to mind the other week as I walked with my son down his local high street, Stoke Newington Church Street, and looked up at this building. Nostalgia first of all. Wasn’t it rather satisfying to write with a fountain pen, to experience the smooth flow of black ink from a well made gold nib? Indeed it was, and I sometimes wonder why I abandoned my quite good fountain pen for drawerfuls of cheap disposable pens – rollerball, fine points, fibre tips, plain ballpoints. Maybe it was the association of my fountain pen with the strain of writing exams. I didn’t literally throw my fountain pen away when I finished my university finals, binning it after writing my final, never to be remembered bon mot (what was it is about? Milton’s Paradise Lost, perhaps), but I hardly used it again afterwards. And then I became an editor, and needed at least three different colours of ink, and I wasn’t going to have three different expensive fountain pens on my desk.

It was all very different, clearly, in the first half of the 20th century when, these old signs seem to tell us, a fountain pen was an investment for life, which you took in for repair when it needed attention. Fountain (or, occasionally, ‘fount’) pens – pens with a metal nib and their own internal reservoir of ink that the user could fill with ease – had been developed over several decades in the 19th century and had come into their own in the 20th.† By about 1900, the fountain pen was the writing implement to have – cleaner, more reliable, and higher status than the old steel-nabbed dip pen, which you had to dunk in an inkwell every few seconds. This Stoke Newington shop would sell you a new Waterman if you needed it. But they’d also fit a new nib, or sort out your reservoir, or no doubt sell you a bottle of black or blue-black ink to keep you writing.

So you hung on to your pen, looked after it, got it mended if it needed it, and took a long view. No drawers of throwaway ballpoints in those days. This culture of the long-term is reflected in these signs: not paste-on paper posters, but signs that someone has painted straight on to the brickwork so that they could last for years. There might be the occasional repainting, but these signs were made to last…and they have done. Their simple letterforms – only the curved layout of ‘Watermans’, now partially obscured, is at all fancy – stand out. For the rest it is plain letters, with or without serifs and mostly capitals in white. As clear as the good handwriting of someone using a reliable fountain pen in a time when clarity took care and effort, not just the ability to hit the right key. 

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* I did a post about ghost signs long ago, here, which sums up some of their enduring interest for me.

¶ See, for example the excellent Ghost Signs site.

† As with most technological advances, the fountain pen has no single inventor – its development was the work of several manufacturers and inventors, standing on one another’s shoulders to use the appropriate Newtonian metaphor, over many years and in many places.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Great Coxwell, Oxfordshire

More shade

In the previous post, I featured a carving of the sun, and alluded to the fact that medieval churches are often good places to go to keep cool. This set me thinking. Which other buildings might one combine historical and aesthetic pleasure with the welcoming embrace of cool shade in a heatwave? An ancient stone barn, spacious, airy, and lacking large windows, could be such a place. One of my favourites is Great Coxwell barn, southwest of Faringdon. I expect it is a favourite of quite a few of my readers too, as it’s a National Trust property and has won the praise and attention of everyone from William Morris to that great photographer of place, Edwin Smith. I’ve blogged about it before – in fact it featured on one of my very first posts. Here’s part of what I wrote about it, back in July 2007:

It’s one of the barns built by Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire to store the corn produced on the monastery's far-flung estates. Built in around 1300 of glowing Cotswold stone, it’s a barn on a grand scale – it’s just over 150 feet in length and the doors are broad enough for the farm's biggest carts to drive straight in. Smaller openings in the walls are for owls to fly in and eat up any rats or mice rash enough to nibble away at the grain. Inside, from threshing-floor to rafters, the space soars like a cathedral – a comparison made by William Morris, one of this glorious building’s greatest admirers.

I’d encourage anyone who’s not visited this great barn to give it a go. If you’ve been already, and are anywhere within striking distance off the Berkshire-Oxfordshire borders, I don’t need to encourage you to visit again.

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My post about Edwin Smith, featuring his photographs of Great Coxwell barn and Didmarton church, is here.

The National Trust has visitor information about Great Coxwell barn on its site, here.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Ripple, Worcestershire

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

St Mary’s church, Ripple, has an impressive set of misericords, those medieval fold-up seats that have a ledge that protrudes when in the folded position, enabling tired monks or canons to lean while standing to say, or sing, the office. Twelve of them illustrate the labours of the months, but my photograph above shows one of the others, a rather splendid sun. It’s quite unusual for a parish church in a small village to have carved misericords like these, but Ripple church is quite surprisingly large. No doubt this is because it was in the Middle Ages a possession of the cathedral-priory of Worcester.

The carvings on the seats – vigorous and here quite deeply chiselled – are not the sort of great sculpture that the cathedral authorities would have used to adorn the walls and vaults of their great ‘mother church’ in Worcester. In contrast, they are typical of the vernacular work that one finds on misericords, and more than good enough for a monk to rest his bottom on, and for us to admire when in this summer’s searing heat we take refuge in a shady church, for the peace and the cool.

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I have put a couple of other misericords from Ripple on my Instagram page @philipbuildings 

Friday, July 6, 2018

Lutterworth, Leicestershire

Local interest

I know some people who would scoff or at best smile tolerantly if I said I’d made a point of going to Lutterworth. A similar admission about a trip to Kidderminster once elicited a snort of disbelief from an acquaintance. These are places off the tourist trail – and places in addition that the road network has made it easy not to stop at. But I know from experience that I can find something of interest in any English town, and that somewhere engraved in my consciousness is the maxim embossed on the cover of Jonathan Meades’s book Museum Without Walls: ‘There is no such thing as a boring place’.

So I expected a bit more than Pevsner’s somewhat dismissive comment that most of the town centre was rebuilt in the first half of the 19th century ‘predominantly in a debased neo-Greek style’. Here’s something later, a detail of the Reading Room, built in 1876, near the churchyard gate. A decorative bargeboard breaks out into an eruption of turned spindles above two carved panels that give the date and purpose of the building amid sprays of flowers.

None of this represents the height of sophistication, but it’s interesting and heartening that the Mechanics’ Institute built a reading room for their members in 1876, and lavished a bit of care on its construction. This was a time when, since the 1850 Libraries Act, local authorities were allowed to levy an extra charge on the rates to pay for a public library for their town. But few did, in part because because the provision only allowed for funds for the building – books had to be paid for separately, which posed an additional challenge of fundraising that many places could not rise to.

Mechanics’ Institutes sometimes filled this gap, and offered lectures and discussion groups as well as reading rooms. They were a boon to workers who wanted to supplement what education they’d been given, which was usually basic at best. Lutterworth has long had its own public library and the old reading room is now used as a museum. And so it fulfils another important cultural function, helping to enhance the town and to reflect the aspirations of those who founded the original Mechanics’ Institute.

Monday, July 2, 2018

East Norton, Leicestershire

Ello, ello

‘I know you’ll like this,’ said Mr Ashley, pointing to the word ‘POLICE’ above the door. And, in spite of the rain, before you could say ‘Ello, ello,’ I was out of the car and taking photographs. I was attracted immediately by the beautifully arranged glazing bars that make a pattern of elongated hexagons, diamonds and triangles across each of the five front windows. And to the simple lettering of the sign, cut in stone. And to the peculiar stepped pediment above the door that frames the sign. Not to mention the careful detailing of the brickwork.

As I was taking all this in, the owner of this former police station, now house, emerged. She explained that she and her husband were restoring the house, and that he was busy removing generations of paint from the glazing bars. If you click on the picture and look very closely, you might be able to see that those on the bottom left window, and the left-hand casement of the top right window, have already been done. The difference is remarkable. I’ve written before about the way in which layers of paint, added over decades or even centuries, can blur the detail of friezes and other ornate details. It was the same with these glazing bars, but now it’s being put right. It’s a long job, but it must be rewarding to see the windows emerging crisp and clean.
The owner also told me that the house dates to around 1850, and that the neighbouring building was put up in the later 19th century as a court house. So it has the plainer brickwork and sash windows of the Victorian era, whereas the old police station has the ornate glazing* and fancy detailing that are much more typical of the pre-Victorian period – but with the addition of the rather heavy stepped pediment which looks to me more like a nod to the heavier style then coming in. Altogether a winning combination to come across on a rainy morning. Thank you, Mr A.

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* I associate this sort of filigree glazing with the Picturesque movement of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when it adorned many a charming cottage. But it’s also sometimes used to give a uniform and decorative feel to more workaday cottages built by aristocrats to house their staff, and an online source attributes this police station to a 19th-century Lord Berners. A uniform glazing pattern can give a group of hoses, or a whole village, a distinctive appearance – a phenomenon I’ve noticed, for example, here.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Bridgwater, Somerset

About time

The other day someone asked me if I was on Instagram. I had to admit that I was not. I’d tried Twitter and thought about Instagram, but blogging seemed to be the platform for me. But the question suggested to me that perhaps it was about time I was on Instagram, and prompted me to have another go. I now have an Instagram account, @philipbuildings .

It will not be a torrent of images, but my initial plan is to post more often than I blog, and offer a selection of things I’ve seen, mostly but not exclusively architectural. I’ll probably include more pictures of places and buildings near where I live – I have done blog posts about quite a few local buildings over the years, but as my blog is called English Buildings, I try not to have to much of a local bias. This is not meant to replace blogging for me. For now at least, I intend to carry on here in my usual way. But do have a look at my Instagram and feel free to follow, like, and share.

The clock in the picture, by the way, is in Bridgwater, and is an elegant Art Deco object that reminds me how often shops were adorned with timepieces in the 1930s and the following decades. It marks a branch of the jeweller’s H. Samuel. The H. Samuel chain was begun in 1862, when Harriet Samuel took over her father-in-law’s clock-making business. It’s a familiar name on British High Streets, although now owned by a larger global retail group. Many people who are familiar with H. Samuel’s stores do not realise that they are named after a woman, an unusual example of the acknowledgement of the major female role in early retailing.

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Follow Philip Wilkinson on Instagram @philipbuildings

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

About the houses

The fourth of my summer reviews is a work of both social and architectural history that throws revealing light on a subject of great importance. This is the last of my reviews for now – it will be back to my usual, more architectural, posts, soon.

John Boughton, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing
Published by Verso

This is a history of council housing in Britain. It combines architectural, social, and political history, to tell the story of this form of housing from its roots in the late-19th century, its real beginnings in the period after 1900, and its growth and eventual decline. Along the way the book profiles planners and architects who wanted to improve people’s lives by building better housing – and creating better environments for residents, many of whom had had to endure slum accommodation. It addresses the various political views that have had an impact on the story – the groups who have embraced council housing and who have condemned it. It discusses the economic constraints on the movement, the varying social backgrounds of those who’ve lived in council housing, the transformation brought by the right to buy policy, and the issues surrounding the restoration of housing types from terraces to tower blocks.

The author explodes many myths. Council housing was not at first expected to be solely a way of housing the urban poor, not a last resort for the desperate: many early estates were envisaged as mixed communities, containing middle-class and well as working-class families. It was not a form of housing promoted solely by the Labour Party: the government that built the most council houses per year was Macmillan’s Conservative administration. It was not all tower blocks: the ‘cottage estate’, with much in common with garden cities and suburbs, had a major role, especially in the interwar period. Tower blocks do not provide higher-density housing than low-rise: tall towers need space between them (to reduce the effect of shadowing and overlooking) and this evens out the density. Not all high-rise estates became ‘problem estates’. And so on.

Boughton is a passionate, but measured, advocate of public housing, who has produced a highly readable narrative with great pace. His book is written from a left-wing perspective (and comes from Verso, who publish Bernie Sanders and Tariq Ali – and also, with concerns relevant to this blog, Owen Hatherley and John Berger) but this shouldn’t suggest that it is unbalanced or unaware of the problems surrounding social housing. Municipal Dreams is an inclusive account, covering a neglected aspect of British history that has had a huge impact on both our built environment and our wider society. I’ve learned a lot from it, as I have in the past from Colin Ward’s work on housing (written from a very different political perspective) and the pioneering text book A Social History of Housing by John Burnett. Apart from such histories, it’s not a well ploughed field, and Boughton has cultivated it richly.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Opening doors

The third of my summer book reviews is a general book on world architecture with a fresh and visual approach.

John Zukowsky and Robbie Polley, Architecture Inside + Out: 50 Iconic Buildings In Detail
Published by Thames & Hudson

When I was a teenager and starting to become interested in architecture, I looked everywhere – bookshops, the local library, other people’s houses – for information about the subject. After a while it became clear that certain buildings – star examples – recurred in many books, and some of these buildings baffled me. Two of the most baffling were Le Corbusier’s pilgrimage chapel of Note Dame du Haut, Ronchamp; another was Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower, Potsdam. Both of these unusual, curvaceous structures seemed to be puzzles. What, I asked myself, was going on in the Ronchamp chapel’s extraordinary billowing roof? Whatever, apart from the telescope at the top, was inside the Einstein Tower – what did it do? There were plenty of books that told me about how the structure of a Gothic cathedral worked, but few that explained how the shell-like roofs of Sydney Opera House stood up or even that showed me the spatial organisation (if organisation is the word) of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. I wanted not just to look inside these buildings, to open their doors, but to get deeper under their skins.

It’s a bit easier to find this kind of thing out today, but the range of architecture and its bewildering forms (think the Guggenheim Bilbao, all wriggling shimmering curves, or Calatrava’s various essays in white-painted steel) means that there’s still a role for a book that gets under the surface of some of the world’s great buildings. That’s where Architecture Inside + Out comes in. It shows us 50 buildings (a representative selection, featuring a wide range of places and styles, but with a heavy stress on the 20th century architecture), each in a selection of colour photographs and in Robbie Polley’s cutaway drawings that reveal interiors, spatial layouts, and structures.

To take one example, at Bilbao, the short explanatory text is accompanied by a colour photograph of the Guggenheim’s exterior plus a couple of interior shots that give a sense of the character of the museum’s diverse internal spaces. To these are added a drawing of the exterior (giving a sense of the titanium skin and the rectilinear organisation of the building, something difficult to grasp in most photographs), a cutaway drawing showing the way the skin and inner framework connect, a cross-section, and a plan.

Each of the 50 buildings has a series of variations on this mix, which takes in – inter alia – public buildings from the Colosseum to the London Aquatics Centre, buildings for the arts an education from the Soane museum to the National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., places to worship from Hagia Sophia to the Sagrada Familia, and, yes, Ronchamp. The approach of photographs plus drawings works less well in some cases – there’s a limit, for example, to how much a cutaway of a an honest, almost transparent building like the Charles and Ray Eames House in Pacific Palisades can tell us – but overall the approach works and gets us closer to what makes these diverse buildings tick. Anyone looking for fifty ways into architecture should consider this book.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Brutalist world

The second of my quartet of summer book reviews is a massive work of reference on an architectural style that, having fallen out of favour, now seems to be fashionable again.

Oliver Elser et al (eds), SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey
Published by Park Books 

I’ve been impressed by a number of the recent books that have helped us to look with a more informed eye on the concrete buildings of the 1960s and 1970s and have led to a new appreciation of the architectural style known as Brutalism. One of these books has already been reviewed here; others have got me thinking too. I lived through the period when these buildings went up and was educated in a school designed by one of the most celebrated (and occasionally reviled) architectural practices of the period, but these books have told me more about the period and the interest of its architecture.

But I’ve been left uncertain of the wider context, and of the definition. What exactly is Brutalism? Every book seems to have a different perspective on this, and much of what I’ve read covers Britain, but doesn’t set this country in the wider picture of world architecture. How unlike books about 1930s modernism, which can’t wait to tell us about Le Corbusier, Watler Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and rightly so.

SOS Brutalism helps with this context. It’s a global survey in two large volumes of Brutalist architecture, combining the views of one hundred authors, several of whom have written extended essays and case studies published here. The first of the two volumes, the big fat one, begins with a short series of essays and case studies. British readers will be especially interested in two contributions by leading authorities: ‘British Brutalisms: New and newer’ by Barnabas Calder and ‘British Universities: Opportunities for a rising generation’ by Elain Harwood. But there are also pieces looking at varieties of Brutalism, and at the style in places from Japan to the former Yugoslavia.

The rest of the fat volume consists of a generous coverage of 120 buildings from all over the world. This gives a broad picture of Brutalism across the world, with enough illustration in the form exterior and interior photographs, details, and, sometimes, plans or cross-sections, to give a sense of each example. This reader was pleased to be introduced to a variety of interesting buildings in South Asia and Latin America, and to be reminded of the Brutalist architecture of Eastern Europe (and by a writer ready to admit the elasticity of the term ‘Eastern Europe’* and keen to stress that generally architects in this region did not use the term ‘Brutalism’ at all). Concrete addicts will not be able to get enough of all this, and some of us will marvel at the depth of interest in parts of the world we’ve not visited, from Africa to South Asia.

This volume is bundled with a second, slimmer but still substantial, of contributions to a symposium held in Berlin in 2012, and published under the auspices of the Wüstenrot Foundation. This material consists of a further 17 essays, some on specific buildings such as Hunstanton School and the Czech embassy in East Berlin, some on particular countries (Italy, the USA, Japan, Germany), still others on more general themes, wrapping up with studies of New Brutalism’s relevance today and on the issue of giving these buildings the status of historical monuments. This whole project, which includes a huge amount of previously unpublished material, is impressive, monumental, and far too large to be done justice in a short review like this. This review is simply a pointer. If you’re at all interested in the subject, find a copy of this impressive double volume, look at it, and decide: it will almost certainly be for you.

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*Many Czechs. for example, insist that their country is in Central Europe, and they have a point. Vienna is more easterly than Prague.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The mosque in the spotlight

For the next week or so, English Buildings becomes a book blog, and I'll post a handful of recent books that have caught my eye. First, an important addition to the architectural library from Historic England.

Shahed Saleem, The British Mosque: An Architectural and Social History
Published by Historic England

This book is a major contribution to architectural history and to wider cultural understanding. It is the first full-length study of mosque architecture in Britain, and starts with the very beginnings: the first mosques in Britain, such as the outstanding Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking (1889), designed by William Isaac Chambers and complete with onion domes and ogee arches: an early example of a style that would become associated with Islam in England. However, as the book shows, mosques can be much plainer buildings, often adaptations of existing houses or chapels. As the book makes clear at the outset, the main basic architectural requirements for a mosque are few: a prayer hall in which worshippers can stand facing the Ka’ba in Mecca; a place for ritual ablutions.

The story of the adapted structures is told alongside the many purpose-built mosques that were put up in the wake of increased migration to this country after World War II. By the 1970s and 1980s a repertoire of architectural symbols – domes, minarets, certain types of arches, decoration using geometrical abstract patterns, and so on – had become established as a way of expressing Muslim identities through building. This identity was expressed in major buildings such as the London Central Mosque (Regent’s Park Mosque) and the East London Mosque, both landmarks in the capital. A revelation, though, is the architectural quality of a range of major mosques, from Gloucester to Bradford. This is already a rich artistic tradition.

The book’s many case studies discuss and illustrate these major structures in some depth. They do so against a background of the social history of Islam in Britain, and with a clear eye on the various ways in which these buildings are used. The British Mosque is a fascinating book, and fills a major gap in the architectural history of these islands.