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.