Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Clifton, Bristol

Small differences

Growing up in Cheltenham, I got used to Georgian and Regency architecture very early on. Many of the town’s streets were terraces, crescents, or squares of tall, stucco-fronted houses, many with ornate iron balconies, and when I first went to Clifton, there were many similarities. Not surprisingly. Clifton expanded at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, when Bristol was booming as a port.

However, there were also differences in the architecture. I’m relying on my memory here, but I’m sure my young eyes noticed two things, neither of which are much in evidence now, except on the occasional house, like the one in my photograph, which is on Sion Hill, Clifton and dates to the 1780s. What I noticed was that a number of the balcony roofs were striped black and white, and that many of the windows had shutters. These were unfamiliar things to me and seemed to my uneducated eyes to give the houses an exotic quality, like something out of a story book.

In a way, I wasn’t far wrong. External shutters are much more often seen in Continental Europe than in Britain. I’ve pulled external shutters closed to keep the hot sun off inward-opening casement windows in Italy, but not in Britain. Here, I wouldn’t often want to. As for those stripy roofs, well…even though they weren’t as colourful as deckchair fabric, they seemed even then to give the area a holiday atmosphere.

Looking at the place with an older eye, I can see other differences now. The balcony fronts have a different pattern, and the metalwork is much thinner than usually in Cheltenham – it doesn’t look so much like cast iron, more like wire work, at least in places. And then there are other interesting bits of ornate carving and unusual Classical orders and more rounded bow windows than in Cheltenham. In a way, the place reminds me of Brighton more than my home town, but a Brighton as it would be if it were miles away from the seaside.

I don’t know when this balcony canopy (and the two next to it) were painted in this way. I found one old photograph on the web dated 1945, in which they are not striped. Perhaps stripes came into fashion in the post-war period, or in the 1960s, when I first went to Bristol Zoo and had my first sighting of Clifton. Or maybe they are more recent still. Whatever their vintage, they give the street something of a holiday air – a little more festive than Bath or Cheltenham. Such are the small differences that give a place its character.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

If the Leicestershire of the period is any indication, it would seem likely that Clifton (& Cheltenham) were created by largely very local architects (sometimes just termed "builders"), which would fully account for the differences you mention. I imagine too that the ironwork is local - Brislington ironworks or one of the others? Brislington Castle & the walls of Kelston Park being made of iron waste implies an awful lot of founding in that period. The accounts of the time remark on the number of dirty smoking industrial chimneys - something you wouldn't associate with the Bristol of today.

Joe Treasure said...

Distinctively different from Cheltenham, as you say. On a tangential point, I wonder about the history of the black and white option (separate from the half-timbered and mock Tudor context). In the late 60s, as a teenager in Cheltenham, casually employed by my father in painting jobs, I was aware of the preference for white walls with black iron work and trim. I remember noticing a terrace that had been renovated with the iron railings painted white and liking the lightness of this effect. It wasn't until I moved to Oxford in the mid-70s that I saw rendered walls of terraced houses painted in a cheerful variety of pastel shades. Monmouth was almost entirely black and white when I moved there (though now, on return visits, I begin to notice a mixture of interesting and sometimes brash colour choices). Has white (as in whitewash) always been the default option I wonder? And what did the Georgians do?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: Discussions multiply about this, but briefly, rendered Georgian facades would probably have had a pale stone colour; window frames, cornices, fanlights, etc probably off white or pale stone; railings green or grey or, again, stone; front doors various greens and browns. These colours are from , the site of an expert on historic paint colours. Black railings was a 20th century thing, apparently. But I am in no position to be dogmatic about this. More evidence needs to be collected from layers of old paintwork, and it might well reveal a more varied result.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

White paint is cheapest.

Philip Wilkinson said...

...and perhaps in the Georgian period off-white was cheapest.

Joe Treasure said...

Thanks Phil for that surprisingly (though I shouldn't be surprised) comprehensive answer. And thanks Joseph for reminding me to follow the money.