Sunday, May 26, 2019

Somewhere in Gloucestershire

On the paper, on the ground

So it’s National Map-Reading Week. I’m not a great one for all the commemorative ‘weeks’ and ‘days’ that social media seem so keen on, but they allow people to promote good causes, so they can’t be all bad. I think map-reading is, if not a good cause exactly, certainly a good thing. I’m as likely as anyone to get out my phone and open the Map App when I’m in a hurry and trying to get somewhere in an unfamiliar city. But I believe that ability to plot one’s progress, step by step, on a proper map, taking in not just the thin line of the planned route but also the context – what lies on either side, in terms of landscape, settlements, and (you saw it coming) buildings – is an essential skill that should be nurtured.

One day when I was a teenager, I realised another unexpected benefit of being able to read a map. I had to sit an O Level exam* in Geography and for some reason I found the main part of this ordeal difficult – I’d not been bad at the subject at school and everyone else seemed to think the paper wasn’t hard, but somehow I didn’t connect with it. I thought I was staring failure in the face. I tried not to panic, and got down on paper everything I knew that seemed connected in some way with the questions, and hoped for the best. But there was another part to the exam, and this involved being given a section of an Ordnance Survey map of an unfamiliar bit of Britain and answering questions about it.§ Luckily, maps had always fascinated me. I was able to answer all the questions, and I was confident that my answers were right. No doubt my high marks in that part compensated for my abysmal showing in the first bit, and so I scraped through with a low grade. I’ve been thankful to map reading ever since.

I’d already discovered that maps helped me navigate effectively. I learned to recognise landmarks on paper, and use them to work out where I was, and where I was going. I saw that OS maps pointed out things like churches, telephone boxes, and industrial buildings often identified with the word ‘Works’†, and I was soon using these to tell my father, at the wheel of the car, where he should be heading: ‘Just past the factory, turn left by a telephone box’: that sort of thing. It made me more observant, and more appreciative of my surroundings. I like to think these qualities have stood me in good stead.

Having introduced myself to maps by looking at the one or two Ordnance Survey maps that we had at home, I realised that they opened my eyes, and my imagination. I could sometimes see places in my mind’s eye from just looking at the map. And when I came to be interested in architecture, I could see the buildings too – abbeys, churches, town halls, railway stations, ‘works’: there they all were. You don’t get this driving along using a satnav – though, heaven knows, satnavs have their uses when you need to get somewhere quickly – and I for one am sad that the rise of this powerful technology has meant that fewer of us get the thrill of map reading and the revelation it can bring.

Of course, there are Google Satellite View and Street View – hugely useful tools. They’ve helped me locate a building precisely on many occasions, and have led me to remote rural locations when the paper map in my car was not detailed enough and when the postcode information I’d put into the satnav sent me to a geographical area so huge it seemed to encompass half of Oxfordshire. But if we can’t read this information on paper, something has been lost: the thrill of seeing a place or a landscape came alive through the symbols on a map.

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* Subject-based examinations set in British secondary schools between 1951 and 1988 for students aged around 16. The O stood for ‘ordinary’. Students who stayed on at school after O Levels sat A (advanced) Level exams two years later.

§ My illustration shows a section of an early – 1907 – OS map for Dursley and Cam in Gloucestershire; clicking on the map will make it larger. I show this because it gives an idea of the ‘drawn’ quality of the early, pre-computer, maps, which I find pleasing. It features a fair share of landmarks: mills, churches, inns, farms, a Roman camp, etc, etc. Woods are green, and height above sea level is indicated by thin brown contour lines (and numerical heights for hill tops), just as on current OS maps. Although old, this map may be © Crown copyright.

† Often abbreviated to ‘Wks’. Ordnance Survey abbreviations (Fm, Wks, Tk of old rly) have a poetry of their own.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Quenington, Gloucestershire

Harrowing of Hell

Here’s the tympanum from the south doorway at Quenington, the north doorway of which was the subject of my previous post. This time, the subject is the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is seen piercing the body of Satan with a cross – or a spear with a cross at its upper end. To the right are three figures is positions of supplication – they’re said to have emerged from the mouth of the serpent at the bottom right of the carving, which symbolizes the mouth of Hell.  The whole scene is framed within a round-headed Norman arch, set on round shafts. A charming (and unusual) detail is the sun that shines above the figures, as if suggesting that they have come out and up into the light, which is symbolic of the Lord’s presence.

The framing arch is unusual and is smaller than the overall arch of the doorway, the zigzag carving of which is visible around the edge of the photograph. It’s as is the carving was originally intended for a smaller doorway. Or as if it was done by a different carver from the doorway and someone got the measurements wrong. The rather gawky result in a way adds to the charm.

In our postmodern, 21st-century way, we are apt to be affected by such naïve carvings, and even to be condescending about their simplicity. But to medieval Christians this was serious stuff: the descent of Christ into Hell, in order to bring about the salvation of those who were righteous but had had the misfortune to die between the beginning of time and the coming of Christ and had therefore ended up for a few centuries or more in the bad place.* It was a very real and dramatic image of Christ’s power and his ability to save souls.  However we think about that now, the carvings that such stories inspired still have the power to draw us in.

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* These souls were also said to be in Limbo, a region of Hell that was separate from the Hell of the damned.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Quenington, Gloucestershire

Coronation of the Virgin

While I’m in Gloucestershire, two more posts about a building in my home county that I’ve revisited recently. It’s St Swithun’s church, Quenington, one of the smaller and less assuming of the Cotswolds’ remarkable collection of parish churches. It’s a medieval building, but one much restored in the 1880s by F. S.Waller, a Gloucestershire architect who worked on quite a few local churches, but not always with the best of results. Waller rebuilt most of the western end of the church, added a vestry that was no doubt practically very useful but aesthetically far from ideal, and replaced an early-19th century tower with a picturesque bellcote.

Waller also built porches for the north and south doorways, and this is cause for celebration because these are the features of the building that really stand out and deserve protection from the elements. The doorways are Norman, of the mid-12th century, and remarkable. Here’s the tympanum over the south doorway. The carving depicts the Coronation of the Virgin and this in itself is interesting, as there are very few representations of this subject in England before the 13th century, when it – and the wider cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary – became very popular. She sits together with Christ, holding (it is said) a dove, while he crowns her. Round about are the symbols of the four Evangelists, two angels, and on the far left, an elaborate domed Romanesque building – either a church or, as Pevsner speculates, the Heavenly Mansions.
Detail of the Coronation tympanum, Quenington

I’m a fan of Norman tympana – see past posts about Elkstone and Great Rollright, for example – but I get particularly excited about this one for various reasons including its unusual subject and the depiction of an elaborate building. It’s a nice illustration of the way in which even an isolated village church can reflect notions, from the design of domed churches to the evolving reverence for the Virgin Mary, that were probably more current in far-away cities than in remote villages, but which had travelled there, via writings or word of mouth, carried by priests, monks, and stonemasons, among whom were the best travelled and most knowledgeable people of the Middle Ages.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Hidden industry 3: Handing it to them

My third example of Tewkesbury’s industrial architecture is just opposite the vast Borough Flour Mills in a recent post. It’s the Tewkesbury Brewery, built for Blizard, Colman & Company, and it shares the larger mill’s combination of red brick with blue brick dressings. There’s a band of stone running beneath the 1st floor windows that bears the building’s name, now visible only as a very ghostly image indeed. A closer view also reveals the careful details around the windows – the way the blue bricks are curved to meet the window frame, and the neat way they merge with the horizontal string course. The best detail of all is the roundel bearing a carving of a hand grasping a bunch of hops. This motif is repeated on the side elevation of this corner building.
The overall effect is similar to many industrial buildings of the mid-19th century – not so much in Gloucestershire as in neighbouring Worcestershire: I was reminded especially of some of the former carpet factories in Kidderminster. And the roundels and brick details give the structure that bit of swagger that I associate, not altogether unjustly, with brewery buildings of the Victorian period: the fine buildings of William Bradford spring to mind, although this is not, I think, one of his. After brewing ceased here, the building became a warehouse, but now it seems to be empty. Let’s hope someone finds a purpose for it, and soon.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Hidden industry 2: Able survivor

As I indicated in my previous post, milling in Tewkesbury goes back many centuries before the Victorian Borough Flour Mills were built. The earlier history of the industry in the town is beautifully reflected in the Abbey Mills, originally part of the property held by Tewkesbury Abbey at this end of the town, and rebuilt in the 1790s, long after the dissolution. Unlike the Borough Flour Mills, which were first powered by steam (later by electricity), the Abbey Mills were water-powered. There were four water wheels, of which one remains.

The structure is a focal point for this part of the riverside townscape, a once practical and now simply handsome collection of hipped and gabled roofs, mottled brick walls, and weatherboarded extensions and gantries – all this partly from the 1790s, partly the result of an extension in the mid-19th century. Harmonising with all this is the weatherboarded structure in the foreground, a relatively recent building acting as control house for a sluice installed in the 1990s.

Unlike the Borough Flour Mills, over the years the Abbey Mills have found a succession of new uses that have ensured the building’s survival. I remember it in the 20th century festooned with signs and  housing a café, together with shops selling antiques and souvenirs. It was then capitalising on its role as Abel Fletcher’s Mill in the best-selling Victorian novel John Halifax, Gentleman, by the writer known back then as ‘Mrs Craik’.* More recently it has undergone conversion to apartments, and is looking well on it from the outside at least. As I took my photograph, I was joined by a number of visitors to the town – some vocally envying the residents, some simply admiring the view.

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* I’ve read quite a few 19th century novels in my time, but the works of Dinah Maria Craik, aka Dinah Maria Mulock, aka Mrs Craik have passed me by. John Halifax, Gentleman is apparently a Victorian rags-to-riches story exemplifying the virtues of middle-class life. I’ve read it described by one critic as ‘moving’ and by another as ‘mawkish’.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Hidden industry 1: Cereal healing

The riverside town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire has a long history and has been well known for several things – for its magnificent abbey church (a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in Norman or Gothic architecture), for the Battle of Tewkesbury (which in 1471 was one of the turning points of the Wars of the Roses), for its mustard (thick and hot like Poins in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2*), for the picturesque mixture of timber-framed and brick architecture in its main streets. Look a little more deeply, though, and walk down two narrow streets called Red Lane and Back of Avon, and you find the remains of industrial Tewkesbury, and they’re impressive.

As in many towns, brewing was done in Tewkesbury on an industrial scale; as in numerous riverside settlements, boat-building was an essential activity. But the big industry in Tewkesbury was milling flour. There were earlier flour mills,† but the really large mill was Healing’s Borough Flour Mills, originally built for Samuel Healing by W. H. James in 1865 and expanded in various directions over the years.§ By the 1890s it was enormous and was said to be the largest flour mill in the world. Grain came in, and flour poured out, via the adjacent river, by rail, and by road. Water transport was still being used in the 1990s, with two barges regularly taking on grain imported from France and Germany at the Sharpness canal and carrying it to Tewkesbury. Although today most of the traffic on the Avon and Severn is pleasure craft and the railway has gone, the attractive and rather delicate iron road bridge into the mill remains, lovingly restored. The vast mill itself, however, closed in 2006 and now stands empty, with grass sprouting from the parapets and weeping willows surrounding and hiding the prodigious corrugated-metal extensions and silos on the far side.
What remains is still impressive: tall red brick walls, windowless for long stretches, relieved here and there by a little diaper-work, window arches, and cornice decoration in contrasting blue bricks; slate roofs; stone string courses; and a well carved stone giving the mill’s name and, for those with good eyesight, its date of original construction. There’s also a certain amount of additional equipment such as hoists. On a sunny day, the mill still manages to look impressive and not too heavily scarred by time and neglect. One hopes that a use can be found for it, so that it can remains, not simply as a bit of decaying history but also as an important asset to the town, just as it was for about 140 years.

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* See Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 2, Act II scene 1i, line 240, were Falstaff says of Poins: ‘He a good wit? Hang him, baboon! his wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard, there’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet.’

† There was a medieval water mill, known as Town Mill, somewhere near here, perhaps on this site, although this is not certain. Another early mill, the Abbey Mill, is a little further downstream and I hope to cover this in another post shortly.

§ Structural strengthening and extension in 1889, further extension in the 1930s, and further modifications in the 1970s–1980s; but large parts of the Victorian structure survive.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Ramsbury, Wiltshire

Pattern language

People who follow me on Instagram (where I am @philipbuildings ) may have noticed a while back that I posted one of those old black and yellow AA signs on a brick wall in Ramsbury. It occurred to me then that I should post a brick building from this Wiltshire town, and the blog seems the place for it because most of my readers look at the blog on a bigger screen than those of the mobile devices most often used with Instagram. Blowing up the picture by clicking on it will reveal the bricks more clearly.

Brickwork makes up a rich architectural language of patterns and this house is no exception. Many will recognise straight away the pattern of alternate stretchers and headers (the long sides and short ends of the brick) that makes up Flemish bond. That’s not unusual – Flemish bond is often seen on old brick buildings in England, though it’s not that common in Flanders, as Alec Clifton-Taylor and others have pointed out.* What’s different here is the use of darker bricks for those facing header-outwards. These are probably red bricks with ‘vitrified headers’, in other words headers that have been given a dark glaze at one end, either because those ends were facing a very hot part of the kiln, or the brick-maker added salt during the firing process, or a particular type of wood was used for firing.

This is an effect quite often seen in South Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Wiltshire, where according to Clifton-Taylor the presence of lime in the clay fosters the darkening process. These grey vitrified bricks were fashionable from the 18th century, and sometimes you see a house with a front wall in grey bricks with the more common red bricks reserved for the sides and back. More frequent still are walls where the two colours alternate, as here, to give a variegated effect that I find delightful. It’s sometimes said that creating these patterns was a way of using up bricks that had partly darkened, and that may sometimes have been the case. But I’m more convinced that people made these choices because of their visual effect, which adds colour and interest to many a building in this part of Central Southern England. Long live vitrification!

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* See Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Pattern of English Building (Faber & Faber) for a feast of information on English traditional building and building materials.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Enham Alamein, Hampshire

Stop here

I thought I’d got used to the varied kinds of English place names. I had to pick up some of the basics of the history of the English language when I was at university many moons ago and I recall learning how place names often contain ‘standard’ elements and how these derive from different languages used at various times way back in history – elements like ‘ham’ or ‘ton’ from Old English, ‘by’ from Scandinavian, ‘brent’ or ‘pen’ from various Celtic tongues. And then here I was looking at a sign saying ‘Enham Alamein’, the first bit familiar in feeling but the second the name of a battle in World War II. Clearly, the explanation lay in more recent history: in 1919 the place became a ‘Village Centre’ for the accommodation and rehabilitation of injured and war-disabled soldiers. When, after World War II, a large continent of veterans of the Battle of Alamein came to Enham, the place acquired the second part of its name.

If you caught a bus to Enham Alamein, you’d get off here. It’s the most modest of the village’s many 20th-century buildings, a large number of which have an Arts and Crafts or vernacular revival look to them. This shelter does too, and with its octagonal shape and thatched roof is positively picturesque. The walls are in a bicolored brick, with occasional dark bricks adding variety to the red, and the reds themselves exhibiting a variety of shades – they may lack the slight roughness of surface that gives really old bricks their character, but the colours make up for this. Bands of flint – a typical local touch around these parts – enliven the effect, and the thatched roof tops it off with a flourish. It’s an admirable addition to a village green, and lavishing this much care on such a small structure must help boost local pride.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Neal Street, London

Advertising your wares

However many times (it must be hundreds, maybe thousands) that I’ve walked along Neal Street in London’s Covent Garden, I never fail to spare a glance for the Crown and Anchor. It’s not a pub I ever patronized when I worked in the district, even when, in the early days, a key requirement for holding down a job in publishing seemed to be the ability to ingest large volumes of alcohol.* Nevertheless, its architecture has that inviting quality associated with the urban variety of the traditional British public house.

‘Traditional’ in this case means a building put up in 1904. There’s much to like in the architecture of this corner-dwelling building – a neat domed corner turret, a datestone high up on the Neal Street side, helpfully telling us when it was built, and what you can see in my photograph: a bright red tiled frontage, liberally supplied with arched windows in that brown wood finish that many associate with similar finishes that once made English pubs so warm and inviting inside. The fashion now is for lighter wood effects (‘Out with the brown furniture!’ cry the mavens of the modernist revival), but the darker look can work well in an Edwardian pub.

The red tiles and dark wood also set off the fine tiled panels advertising what, back in 1904, one could expect to be served from the pumps: Watney’s ales and, as in this panel, Reid’s bottled stout. These panels are done with typical Art Nouveau lettering. What’s Art Nouveau about it? Mainly, the way the letters are proportioned – the way the S and the B have tighter curves at the top, broader ones at the bottom; the high position of the cross-bar of the E; the larger, tapering loop of the R. It’s stylish stuff, but also clearly legible, not over the top.† The other letters visible here are the big gold capitals of the pub name. These are probably standard off-the-shelf letters and may well be made of wood. The way they stand slightly proud of the red wall (producing a bit of shadow), their clarity, and colour are all effective. It’s a shame the R is hanging loose. And was it intentional to make the ampersand slightly bigger? Who knows?

Set all this off with some colourful hanging baskets and no wonder the pub was already attracting lots of custom when I passed one late morning recently. I must return and sample the interior.

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* The culture changed, and both my own alcohol intake and that of most of my colleagues, dropped appreciably as the 1980s progressed.

† The position of the apostrophe, high and oddly tilted, is perhaps a bit eccentric, but it’s my impression that you often see it on lettering of this period.

Friday, April 26, 2019

From Bloomsbury to the Downs

Celebrating Batsford books

Bradley Thomas Batsford opened his doors as a London bookseller in 1843 and by the end of the century was one of this country’s most prominent publishers. B. T. Batsford was a family firm, steered in those early decades by its founder and his three sons, who built up a reputation as general publishers with a particular strength in architecture and the arts. These were the subjects that they became particularly known for, although their list was strong in other areas, from science to theology (many of the early customers in the bookshop were clergymen). The expertise in selecting and reproducing illustrations that they developed for their books on the arts continued to grow in the 20th century, when they produced many striking and popular illustrated books on history, arts, crafts, architecture, and, at the junction of all these subjects, the heritage of the British Isles.*

Batsford was also notable for producing series of books that readers wanted to collect – the Batsford Heritage Series (begun in the 1930s) and the Face of Britain Series (starting during World War II) were pivotal. Batsford chose knowledgeable and often excellent authors for the books – in the Face of Britain Series you can find W. G. Hoskins writing about Midland England, M. W. Barley on Lincolnshire and the Fens, and Richard Wyndham on Southeast England. Another Batsford favourite of mine, is John Russell’s Shakespeare’s Country – it wasn’t published under the banner ‘The Face of Britain’ but is similar in format.

These series were instantly recognisable because they had covers illustrated in colour (in itself a stand-out feature back then) with distinctive cover artwork by Brian Cook, Bradley Thomas Batsford’s grandson and therefore the third generation in the family firm.† Brian Cook created a style that was boldly simple, and brightly coloured: were any book jackets back then as bright and colourful as his? Very few, I’d guess. To print them, he used the Jean Berté process, which employs water-based colours and rubber printing plates, one per colour, into which the artist cuts the design.§ In the right hands, the results are stunning, and books with Cook’s jackets are prized by collectors. I have a whole shelf of them, but most of mine are quite badly faded (as this was a watercolour process, the inks fade in the light). Catching sight of one that has preserved its originally vivid palette is like being warmed by a ray of sunshine from another age.¶

The long history of Batsford, from those beginnings as a bookseller to the name’s current life as an imprint of Pavilion Books (still producing good books, in artistic and historical subjects especially) is charted in a small exhibition currently in Holborn Library, Theobalds Road. It’s good to see the imprint commemorated in this way and if you’re near that part of London the exhibition is worth a look.‡
There have been other celebrations. A notable one, which also marks 80 years since the outbreak of World War II, is a reprint of one of the Face of Britain series with a Brian Cook illustration on the cover. This is the volume originally called Southeastern Survey, by Richard Wyndham. It has been reissued this year with a new title, Sussex, Kent & Surrey 1939, with an introduction by Peter Ashley. Wyndham’s text is one of the better ones in the series and, written in 1939 and published in 1940, it marks that moment when the war began and people increasingly reached for books about the Britain they were fighting for. All of Britain was vulnerable of course, but these counties close to London felt that vulnerability as much as any. And books about England had another urgency. The war made foreign travel impossible for most, and few inland journeys were undertaken lightly. Authors like Wyndham reminded people what they’d got, and what, on these brief journeys, they might see.

The author, designer and photographer Peter Ashley, who’ll be no stranger to many readers of this blog, is an excellent person to introduce the book. Peter is a Batsford collector and is knowledgeable both about England’s places and the books that have described them. I’ll certainly be shelving a brightly covered copy next to my faded first edition of the book: it’s a worthy companion.

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* Quite early in my life I realised that the books on English historic architecture I was taking out of the local library to inform and develop my new interest were published by Batsford: in the 1960s, they were dominating the field.

† Brian Cook changed his name to Brian Batsford Cook, adopting his mother’s maiden name to emphasize his family connection to the firm.

§ The French printer Jean Berté (1883–1981) patented his method in 1926, so Cook was on to something quite new when he started using the Jean Berté process soon after 1930.

¶ For more on the early history of Batsford, see Hector Bolitho, A Batsford Century (B. T. Batsford, 1943)

‡ Batsford: 175 Years of a Bloomsbury Publisher is at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, Holborn Library, Theobalds Road, until 28 June.

The top image is Brian Cook’s depiction of Kersey, Suffolk, for The Villages of England (Batsford, 1932).

Monday, April 22, 2019

Somerset House, London

Taking pains

Quite often I find myself in or near Somerset House in the centre of London – partly because work sometimes takes me to the Strand, partly because I’m a regular visitor to the Courtauld Gallery, both for its stellar permanent collection and for its often excellent temporary exhibitions. You get into the gallery through a door inside the vast building’s entrance archway, but I often take a minute to walk around the vast courtyard while I’m there, marvelling at the building’s size, proportions, and plethora of architectural sculpture. It’s easy to take for granted Somerset House’s 18th-century classicism and vast size now, but back in the 18th century this was an innovative building: London’s first office block and a formidable feat of organisation in bringing together several diverse bodies of scholarship and government – the Royal Academy, the Navy Board, the Stamp Office, for example, and accommodating them within what looks like a classical palace. This year, however, the Courtauld Gallery (which occupies just a small part of the complex) is closed for redevelopment* and I’ve not been in the Strand entrance – my most recent encounter with Somerset House happened to be at the back, when I was walking along the Thames embankment.

As you move along the pavement on this river side, it’s hard to take in the facade because it’s enormous – some 800 feet long. It’s also part of a major engineering project. The architect, William Chambers, had to cope with the fact that there is a 40-foot drop between the Strand frontage and the river shore. So he had to construct the embankment to allow for this and support the southern part of the building. From the pavement, you see a succession of massive stone walls, much of the masonry heavily rusticated, some of it vermiculated, and punctuated with arches, niches, and occasional pieces of carving on keystones.

What struck me as I took all this in was not just the sheer scale, but also the meticulous craftsmanship. A close-up of an arch and a neighbouring bit of wall, above, might demonstrate what I mean. For a start, the sheer effort in cutting by hand all that vermiculation on the stone blocks. Admirers of the brutalist architecture of London’s Barbican Centre sing the praises of the concrete, in which many of the surfaces have been bush-hammered to give it a textured finish. True enough, this takes care and skill, and the effect is admirable. But look at this detail of Somerset House – square yard upon square yard of hand-cut vermiculation: it represents skill and effort in abundance. So does the moulding of the arch and the precise cutting of its blocks. But look still more closely (clicking on the image should help) and one can see that the surfaces of these apparently flat pieces of stone have been expertly and finely tooled so that their surfaces are actually made up of a series of precise parallel lines, the work of who knows how many skilled man-hours. A similar affect is even visible on the bevelled edges of the vermiculated blocks.

I’ve recently been reading Richard Sennett’s Building and Dwelling, and looking back at one of his previous books, The Craftsman, which focuses on the kinds of skills involved in this kind of work and highlights the importance of doing things well.† There’s lasting value, and also pleasure, in taking pains to get it right. It’s easy enough for admirers of Somerset House to praise the architect who brought it into being: Chambers certainly deserves admiration for his design. But spare a thought – spare more than one thought – for the masons and carpenters and sculptors and plasterers who brought it into being. In these days when developers are content to put up a host of poorly designed, ill-finished and no doubt ephemeral blocks along the banks of the Thames in order to make a fast buck, it’s worth lingering here and reflecting on the effort this building took and the way it has lasted.¶

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* A small selection of master works from the permanent collection is currently on display in the National Gallery and remains there until April 2020; some are also on loan to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. Reopening is not expected until some time in 2020.

† Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling, Allen Lane, 2018; The Craftsman, Allen Lane, 2008

¶ The photograph is slightly high resolution than usual, because I hope that will help readers to see the surface of the flat stones clearly. I have also increased the contrast a bit, to bring out this effect. Clicking on the image, as usual, will enlarge it.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Paris: Reflection on the destruction in France

Seeing a cathedral burn

I spent much of Monday evening staring at the television screen, in silence like most of the watchers in Paris, as the cathedral of Notre-Dame burned. I kept thinking of an essay by the American writer Guy Davenport* in which he describes the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who was descended from the carvers who worked at Chartres. During World War I, Gaudier watched in northern France as a cathedral caught fire, and he saw ‘great globs of lead’ falling from the cathedral roof on to the floor below. For Davenport, watching a cathedral burn was a symbol for the disintegration of civilisation that occurred during World War I: nothing afterwards was ever quite the same. This notion got somewhere near suggesting how important medieval cathedrals are in European culture, and the Gothic cathedrals of France especially. It was in France – at St Denis, north of Paris – that Gothic began, and the style spread, thanks to the advocacy of churchmen and stone masons, across the continent, as the ideas of western Christendom spread. Gothic was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and for many architects was the essence of architecture, and of church architecture especially. Of all French architects, perhaps the greatest 19th-century advocate of Gothic was the magnificently named Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who restored Notre Dame and built the slender central spire that was destroyed this week.

Viollet’s work was a reminder that the medieval cathedrals have been subject to repair and restoration almost as long as they have existed. Monday’s fire was terrible, but it was one in a catalogue of mishaps and disasters from which these buildings have often recovered. In Britain we think of the fire at York, the damage caused to Coventry in the blitz, the destruction of old St Paul’s in London’s ‘Great Fire’, itself one of a succession of city fires. York represented a recovery; Coventry the survival of a ruin and a spire; St Paul’s destruction, but a destruction that brought into being Wren’s magnificent 17th-century cathedral, a resurrection of a different kind, as Wren himself proclaimed.

The medieval cathedrals often survive, because their structures are built mainly of stone, which can certainly be damaged by fire and be badly affected by smoke and fire-fighters’ water, but which is more resilient than flammable wood and lead, the materials used in their roofs. So as I watched the television I kept hoping that, once the wooden parts had been consumed, once the ‘globs’ of lead had fallen, the stonework would not be too badly affected and that perhaps even the stained glass might escape at least in part. Then we would not need quite yet to contemplate the vision in a poem by Gérard de Nerval, in which he foresees a moment, in some future millennium, when time has laid waste to Notre-Dame and all we have to contemplate is a magnificent ruin, through which we can imagine the old cathedral, ‘like the shade of one dead’.† My hopes may have been justified. It’s far too soon to know how much damage there has been to the stonework. But a lot of the stone vault is still there – surveyors will be watching it like hawks in the coming days and weeks. The twin west towers still stand, and the stone skeleton of walls, columns, and buttresses seems largely complete. There’s even glass in some of the windows. It’s enough to give one hope.

Another thought I had was that restoring the building would have to be a vast project of collaboration. The French would of course be the prime movers in this, and they don’t lack expertise, experience, or skill. But if people from other countries could take a hand too then something might be gained among the losses. So I was heartened to hear what President Macron had to say about restoring the cathedral (though I questioned his five-year target for the project§), and pleased to see that offers are already coming in from a range of places – with estates in England setting aside oak trees, with offers of expert help coming from the Czech Republic, to mention only two examples from countries with which I’m connected. Such a coming together, reflecting the coming together of international talent that produced the medieval cathedrals in the first place, would be heartening and valuable. If all this comes good, we won’t be looking at Nerval’s ‘shade of one dead’ for too long. We’ll be acknowledging that a building 850 years old has to be conserved, and has to be occasionally renewed. Instead of a shade, we’ll be marvelling at one of the very greatest medieval buildings, arguably the best of the Gothic cathedrals and one of the first, the one Ruskin dubbed the noblest of them all.¶ And, disaster that the fire has been, we’ll not be experiencing the worst consequence of seeing a cathedral burn.

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Photograph: AP.

* The essay is in The Geography of the Imagination (Picador, London, 1984). The cathedral would have been Reims, as suggested by an anonymous commenter to this blog and as I have now confirmed by checking in H. S. Ede’s book Savage Messiah, his account of Gaudier’s work and short life.

 † Notre-Dame is one of those buildings with a literature of its own. There is, most famously, the book by Victor Hugo that we Anglophones call The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (simply Notre Dame de Paris in French), which Nerval refers to as ‘le livre de Victor’ – we know which book he means. There are bits of Henry James (a wonderful response from Strether in The Ambassadors); there’s Nerval’s poem, another by Théophile Gautier, another by D G Rossetti, to name but some. There’s a selection in the magazine Apollo, illustrated with paintings and prints, here. I use Geoffrey Wagner’s 1958 translations of Nerval, in an edition that also includes the original French text.

§ Big restoration projects take years; conservationists can debate for months about a handful of decisions; everyone will brawl about new designs for the spire, maybe for years. But a spirit of collaboration could still work. We’ll see.

¶ In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1855, he said that the building’s Gothic architecture was the noblest of all.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Enstone, Oxfordshire

Passing wonders

This drinking fountain is on the roadside at Enstone – actually in Church Enstone, which stands slightly apart from what I take to be the ‘main’ village, although, as is clear from the name, it’s where the parish church is. The fountain was designed by G. E. Street, with carvings by Thomas Earp,* and was built as a memorial to Eliza Marshall, who died in 1856. When I first saw it, my eye caught by the band of acanthus carving, I thought of it as ‘a horse trough’, but it’s actually three troughs, at different levels, with lion-mask spouts taking the water from one to the next. So far, so ingenious, I thought – a clever bit of design, taking advantage of the slope in the ground, and providing a no doubt once well-used facility for passing traffic as it made its way through the village.
It struck me at the time that the lion masks were rather more badly worn than the rest of the structure, and I wondered if they were carved from a different stone – the lions, looked at close to, seemed less pinkish in colour the the other carved sections, although the differences in colour are probably due at least in part to the presence of moisture and the growths of lichen. Then, my memory prodded by Pevsner, I recalled the Enstone Marvels, a series of waterworks, cascades and grottoes, built in the 17th century at an another nearby hamlet, Neat Enstone, and visited by Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria. On the main road there’s a cottage, one part of which is built of chunky and deeply vermiculated masonry inset with niches, which may well be part of a grotto from the Marvels.§

Spectacular waterworks were, as they say, a thing in the 17th century. For example, Salomon de Caus, a French Huguenot engineer, published a book in 1615 called Les Raisons des forces mouvantes, which illustrated an early form of steam pump as well as various elaborate waterworks, fountains, grottoes, and the like. He and his brother, architect Isaac de Caus, worked in England and Isaac was an associate of Inigo Jones. The fact that such experts in the field spent time in England, and that the king was interested, goes some way to demonstrate the fashion for such works, mostly now long vanished. As for the Enstone Marvels, we know about them from Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677). This much I knew, but the further possible link between the Marvels and this Enstone drinking fountain is drawn by the author of the website Polyolbion, who has images of both the cottage and the lions on the drinking fountain.† These beasts indeed have a baroque look about them and might just possibly be a bit of inspired, historically important, bit of recycling.

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* A specialist in architectural sculpture and a regular collaborator with Street

§ The cottage is visible from the road, but not easily photographable without the kind of intrusion I was not prepared to make.

† The relevant page from the Polyolbion site is here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Shadows abound

A long time ago I absorbed the idea that photographs with a lot of shadow were a bad thing. The idea was, I suppose, that the shadow obscured the subject and there wasn’t much point in a photograph in which half of the frame was a vaguely legible black hole. There’s something in that, but it’s not the whole story.

For one thing, shadows exist. A photograph with a lot of shadow can be an accurate reproduction of reality, and there’s something honest about that. I was reminded of this fact when looking through my images the other day and coming across this one of the Market House in Ross-on-Wye, built in around 1650 at the top of the hill occupied by the town’s centre. You can imagine me walking along the street, struck (yet again) by the beauty of the pink-tinged Herefordshire sandstone and the way in which the sun’s rays illuminate and warm the side wall of the Market House. As I paused to look, I became aware too how the light and shadow threw the stonework into relief so that I could really appreciate its appearance: the worn stones of the arches and the pier holding them; the coursed but rather rough blocks of the middle parts of the wall; the smoother ashlar blocks further up – clearly the gables and roof were renewed at some point. Then you can imagine me leaning against the shop to my left and waiting for a gap in the traffic and for a moment when most of the passing shoppers were enveloped in shadow.

Later there world be time to admire the clock tower, which Pevsner says is probably early-18th century. Maybe that is when the roof was altered too. Or was the change made as early as 1671, when the building was said to have been ‘newly erected’. Relevant to this period is the stone roundel, between the two windows, which has a portrait of Charles II on it. This sculpture was recut in 1959, but presumably goes back to the king’s reign (1660–1685). It’s a drawback of my contrasty picture that you can’t see the details in this carved roundel, but I went back later and took another one, as a reminder that you can see things in more than one way.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire


It was back in 2014 when last I posted about a relief on the building that was once Cheltenham’s Odeon Cinema, and before that its Gaumont cinema: a pair of naked women, tangled in curls of celluloid, who’d been removed from the building’s facade prior to its demolition. Back then, I wrote this about the sculpture:

These relief panels are by Newbury Abbot Trent, a prolific sculptor who produced many war memorials. He was the brother (or, according to some sources, the cousin) of the cinema’s architect, W. E. Trent. The panels are the kind of thing that often adorned cinema buildings of the 1930s, although they were often carved in stone, with a more neutral surface than the shiny metallic finish of these Cheltenham examples. Such sculptures often show female figures – always glamorous, often naked, sometimes, like these, with exaggerated proportions – and were meant to entice us into the magic and seductive world of the cinema, at a time when only a tiny minority had television and cinema-going was a regular weekly recreation for millions. When they were new, shiny, and properly lit, they would have reminded film-goers and passers-by alike of the magical, flickering world inside. It’s a shame they are no longer there.

Several times since, I’ve had the chance to admire this piece of work in its new setting, at ground level, where it can be studied in much more detail and where it is protected by a transparent covering. It’s great to be able to see these ladies from close quarters. I’d been vague about the material when writing about them in their original location, high above the pavement, referring just to their ‘metallic’ surface. For ‘metallic’ read ‘metallic-looking’. They actually are carved out of stone, but stone has been painted to resemble silvery steel or aluminium. At eye level their surface still looks shiny, but also grainier. The details of the carving also look rather coarser – after all, the sculpture was never intended for them to see seen from so close. It’s still good that it were preserved, though. It’s a bit of Cheltenham history and part of the career of a notable sculptor whose work, so often attached to buildings (and cinemas above all), is frequently vulnerable to the demolition ball or the contractor’s hammer. With their exaggerated figures, sleek hair-dos, and filmic context, the women are very Art Deco and very evocative. Let’s raise a glass (filled with a cocktail of our choice, of course) to their creator.
The sculptures in situ on the front of the cinema (now demolished)

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Piccadilly, London


My obsession with the unregarded aspects of English architecture often brings me up against a small detail on a very famous building, a detail that seems to be unnoticed by most people. I’ve posted before about the unique telephone box in the entrance way to Burlington House, the grand home of London’s Royal Academy in Piccadilly. When I enter the building’s courtyard I also often pause at a place close by, to admire a set of relief carvings that encrust the stonework of the entrance arches. No one is ever looking at these when I go through – there is, after all, usually something else inside in the form of a major loan exhibition that’s waiting for their attention. But I think the carvings are worth more than a glance, even if the combination of animal and plant life with urns and ornament, plus cameo-like heads (not to mention classical draped figures in the spandrels of the arches), is hardly fashionable.* The work is certainly interesting if one bothers to look – if the urn in all its swagged and pelleted elegance is out of a pattern book, that bird with its opening beak, carefully delineated feathers, and inquisitive eye is a charmer. And the beast in the lower photograph is arrested and engaged me as I looked and tried to work out the relationship between head and massive paw and wings. I’m not sure who made these carvings – someone out there must know.†  For the rest of us, they’re a diverting free show for the eye, a prelude perhaps to the serious art inside, or an interlude on the way up Piccadilly.

* Perhaps I should say, especially because it’s hardly fashionable…

† Pictures of Burlington House’s architectural sculpture appear quite often on line, on photo-sharing sites, but I’ve not seen anywhere the name of the person who did these carvings. There’s an excellent post about the more prominent statues of artists on the same building at the Ornamental Passions site, here.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Ilminster, Somerset

‘The war’

In 1940 long defensive lines were constructed running across southern England to hold up an enemy advance in the event of an invasion. These lines, made of barbed wire defences, tank traps, and thick-walled concrete pillboxes, were extensive, but they had weak points where access routes crossed them. One such point was at Ilminster in Somerset, where, in those days, the A303 passed through the middle of the town. Ilminster itself was therefore fortified, with a ring of barbed wire and tank traps, some earthworks, 17 pillboxes (each with a machine gun), and a heavy gun emplacement.  As well as the machine gunners, there would be riflemen dug in, and altogether about 400 people (up to half of them local home guard members) were needed to man this complex, defend Ilminster, and, so it was hoped, play their part in repelling the invading force.* Parts of this defensive line still exist. This pillbox is on a public footpath that once formed part of one of the long entrance drives to Dillington House, connecting the mansion to the town. The thick concrete has survived well, and the polygonal structure still looks fit for purpose. Eighty years’ growth of moss, plus some ivy, only help to camouflage the box.

When I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s, local pillboxes in Gloucestershire were somewhere to play. We all knew they had been built ‘for the war’, but the reality, that, if we’d been boys 20 years earlier and things had gone differently, our own fathers, or, more likely, grandfathers, might have been risking their lives defending them, hardly impinged.† Seeing such boxes now (and experiencing briefly the temptation to ‘play’ with them in another way, imagining not the brutality of war but the origins of brutalist architecture) brings one up short, as I’ve been brought up short by reconstructions of the First World War trenches in Piccardy or by exploring the formidable defences put up in Czechoslovakia, to no avail, in the late 1930s in the hope of protecting the country from invasion by the Nazis. I hope I’ll never have to confront this brutality in person, and that neither my son nor my nieces will either. All politicians should look at such buildings, use their sometimes limited imaginations, and reflect.

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* Information panels on site tell the story of these defences. I’m indebted to them.

† Back then, c. 1960, memories of World War II were close for adults; everyone knew what you meant when you said ‘the war’.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Whitelackington, Somerset

Quietly showy

This is the west lodge to Dillington House, a mainly Jacobean revival house, now leased by Somerset County Council and run as a centre for continuing education, conferences, and other events. It’s a small cottage orné of about 1830,* sited where the drive to the house joins a bend in the road, its three ‘front’ faces looking out on the road and giving no doubt a useful range of views of the curve. It would originally have been occupied by someone whose job (or part of whose job) was to oversee and open and close a gate to the grounds of the great house. The accommodation would be small and basic – I’ve seen inside a similar cottage built for toll gate on a road and it was on the cramped side of compact. Polygonal buildings also have the drawback of non-rectangular rooms, which can pose difficulties with fitting it furniture, although these difficulties aren’t insurmountable. Many such buildings, if in use today, have been extended at the back.

This house’s Y-tracery, Gothic doorway, and thatched roof into which the upper windows protrude are all classic features of the ornamental cottage of the 19th century. The building is clearly meant to be a small landmark, telling visitors that they have arrived at the entrance to the grounds, and its ashlar masonry on the front walls, rubble on others, makes it obvious that it was always designed to be seen from the road. The ‘three sides to the road’ design is similar to that of other lodges not far from Ilminster, which mark another former way in to the house, but these lodges don’t have the thatched roof that makes this little house stand out. None of the buildings is grand. They’re not the kind of lodges that bring instantly to mind the phrase ‘trumpet at a distant gate’† although the gates in both cases are certainly distant from the main house. If a trumpet sounds, it’s fitted with a mute. The tune it plays is charming nonetheless.

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* For more on this kind of house, see Roger White, Cottages Ornés (Yale U. P., 2017), which I reviewed here.

† See Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw, Trumpet at a Distant Gate: The Lodge as Prelude to the Country House (Waterstone, 1985)

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Looking sideways, reaching skywards

I mentioned in a recent post the perils of concentrating on ‘what one should be looking at’. My point was that in going in search of, say, the rightly celebrated early-Georgian houses of Bridgwater, one might miss a Victorian shop front, an Art Deco clock, and other delights. So you will sometimes find me taking a perverse look in an unpredicted direction – going to Bath and looking not at Royal Crescent but at public lavatories, or finding Gog and Magog in Norwich rather than medieval churches, or when I am in a medieval church, making time for some modern fixtures and fittings as well as the more obviously ‘interesting’ Norman carvings. It’s my version of what the designer Alan Fletcher called The Art of Looking Sideways.*

In Cheltenham, the town where I grew up and near where I now live again, I’ve had several decades to look sideways in many different directions. Cheltenham, of course, is a Regency spa. But there’s much more to it than that. Most visitors, their eyes on the town’s Regency terraces and squares, its spa buildings, the shops in its Promenade and Montpellier, don’t look, for example, at the town’s collection of 19th-century churches. And Cheltenham has some fine, not to say extraordinary, churches, the fruit of an interesting religious history in a town that embraced both Tractarianism and a vigorous evangelical revival – both high and low Anglicanism, in other words (not to mention most other branches of Christianity, from Roman Catholicism to Unitarianism).

Here’s one of my favourite Cheltenham churches. It’s Christ Church, built in 1837–39 to designs by the brothers R. W. and C. Jearrad. Although its architectural components are in many ways standard Gothic ones (Early English or 13th-century-style Gothic mostly, with a Perpendicular or 15th-century-style tower) they are wielded with such originality that the building makes you stand and stare. There are acute-angled gables, pointed-topped buttresses, and little spires on the tops of stair turrets everywhere, all sending the gaze relentlessly upward, as do the narrow lancet windows. The tower’s walls are more ornately carved walls than the rest of the building, but its slender corner pinnacles and tall windows continue the upward pointing theme, as do the curious gable-like features that frame the clock faces half way up. The gable visible on the face of the tower in my photograph makes it look at if the tower is set some distance back from the west front, but actually it’s hardly set back at all.

How to sum up this extraordinary building? Pevsner can do no better than quote the description of Harry Goodhart-Rendell: ‘An outstanding fantasy in the style of a Staffordshire china ornament, that could stand on the largest chimneypiece in the world. There is also a tall Perpendicularish tower with a lamentable expression; you expect it to sob.’§ That’s apt, and gets to the heart of this design. In a way, it’s a decorator’s idea of a Gothic church, the fulfilment of the idea that Gothic points heavenward and uplifts us, with a surge of verticality. It is then, above all, a design that’s keen to provoke emotions in the beholder, in a way that 19th-century churches did much more than those of the previous period. But then (and this is perhaps where the sob comes in) it’s a design that seems to lament the fact that as mere mortals we can never quite reach as far into the sky as we’d like.

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* See Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways (Phaidon Press, 2001)

§ For Goodhart-Rendell’s description, see his English Architecture Since the Regency (Constable, 1977)

¶ The way the Victorians placed emphasis on a building’s ability to move its users is excellently expounded in William Whyte, Unlocking the Church (Oxford University Press, 2017), which I reviewed here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Lea, Herefordshire

The elephant in the room, or, Odd things in churches (11)

Although it’s not at all odd for a church to have a font, this one is odd, as English fonts go. First of all, it’s Italian; secondly, it’s elaborately carved and inlaid; thirdly, it didn’t start out as a font at all, but as a stoup. That I was able to come across this exotic object in a church in Herefordshire, near the border with Gloucestershire, is due to a gift. The font was donated by a Mrs Hope-Edwards, as a memorial to her mother, and she got it from a London dealer who imported it for Italy. It’s said to be of the 12th or 13th century, and Mrs Hope-Edwards gave it to the church in 1909.

The round bowl is carved with various interlacing patterns and a number of small scenes – just visible in my upper photograph are a man in a boat (he’s holding an oar, but the vessel’s large sail is also visible), and a fox making short work of a chicken. Other scenes feature a dog attacking a ram, a peacock eating a fish, and a woman also with a fish. The bowl is set on a distinctive shaft that has a faux-knot halfway up and the staff is carried on the back of an elephant, a creature that seems to have ears very like human ones. As well as the carving, another delight of the font is the mosaic or Cosmati work running around the bowl and around the saddle cloth that is draped over the elephant’s body.
Scholars of medieval sculpture have made comparisons with work in such places as the cathedrals of Canosa di Puglia and Bari. I have seen ‘knotted’ shafts like this one at Modena cathedral. The meticulous mosaic work, with its tiny diamond-shaped and triangular tesserae certainly has an Italian feel too. In the right lighting conditions the golden tesserae must glitter attractively. Alas! England could not provide sunny weather on the day I visited, but the font still brightened a rather gloomy interior.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Gaulby, Leicestershire

The far pagodas

My recent visit to Leicestershire involved the great pleasure of being taken to a couple of churches I’d not seen before. It’s always good to be on the road with my Leicestershire correspondent, and to be taken to little known gems via scenic routes in an under-appreciated but often beautiful part of the country. The church at Gaulby is just such a place, and just the sort of thing I like to celebrate on this blog: not great architecture, but interesting, distinctive building that is worth a closer look.

St Peter’s Gaulby* was rebuilt in 1741 for the squire William Fortrey by the architect John Wing, whose son designed the church at nearby King’s Norton for the same squire. At Gaulby the chancel was left as it was and the rest of the church built anew. Wing took his cue for the architecture of the nave from the existing chancel, which has a five-light east window under a depressed arch, the whole window divided in two by a horizontal bar (known as a transom). So the nave also has transomed windows, also under depressed arches.§

But for the tower, Wing changed styles and made it a classical job with big round-arched bell openings in the upper stage and tiny circular and semicircular windows lower down. At the top of the tower, he added an impressive if bizarre array of pinnacles – little ones like obelisks halfway along each parapet and at the corners tall ones topped with structures like miniature pagodas. I’ve no idea whether the architecture was consciously influenced by pagodas – 1741 seems a little early for architecture chinoiserie in England.† Wherever they come from, they’re certainly arresting, adding an exotic and eccentric highlight to the prevailing texture of vernacular marlstone buildings and stately trees.

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* The name’s alternative form is Galby.

§ The light was rather strong on the morning we were there. It might help to click on the picture to bring the details more clearly into view.

† Sir William Chambers’ book Designs of Chinese Buildings, for example, fruit of his youthful travels with the East India Company, came out in 1757.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Seeing, drawing, teaching

John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing
An exhibition at Two Temple Place, London
Curated by Sheffield Museums and the Guild of St George

‘Is Mr Ruskin living too long?’ asked the architect E. W. Godwin in a piece written in 1878.* Godwin had revered the great Victorian sage and been inspired by his book The Stones of Venice, but now Ruskin was embroiled in a controversy with the artist Whistler; Whistler seemed the latest great thing in art and Ruskin suddenly seemed old hat. Just under a hundred years later, when I was at university, Quentin Bell, art historian and biographer (and nephew) of Virginia Woolf came to persuade us that it was still worth reading Ruskin: few of us can ever have read more than a page or two of the great man, who seemed a distant figure indeed.

In the 21st century, Ruskin can seem yet more remote: a Victorian who wrote interminable books with impenetrable titles,† who promoted a kind of architecture – Gothic – that harks back to the Middle Ages, who had a famously disastrous marriage, who was active in so many areas that it’s hard to pin him down. And yet his influence has been profound. The proto-socialism of his book Unto This Last, attacking free-market economics, guided pioneers of the Labour party, inspired Gandhi to found a newspaper on which everyone was paid equally, and has been said to prefigure some of the ideas of the Green movement. His writings, especially the vast Modern Painters, gave Turner (among the greatest of all English artists) his due for the first time. He developed a new appreciation of Venice and its architecture – as well as a sense of that city’s fragility – in The Stones of Venice, a book that also made an eloquent case for Gothic architecture. He presented art and history in exciting, if sometimes baffling, new ways in works such as Fors Clavigera, his absorbing series of polymathic letters to the working men of England. There’s more? There’s more. He could draw like an angel. He lectured tirelessly. And he gave away much of his inherited wealth to promote educational projects, such as his museum (it has been called a ‘people’s museum’) in Sheffield, and schemes that taught people how to live a better life, like his Guild of St George.
John Ruskin, Study of Moss, Fern and Wood-Sorrel, upon a Rocky River Bank, 1875–79. © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

Most of what Ruskin wrote and did was animated by this educational mission, and he went at it with the zeal of a prophet. That’s one of the things that comes across vividly in the exhibition John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing at Two Temple Place in London. This show features drawings and watercolours that Ruskin did that show people how to see – minute studies of leaves or the surfaces of rocks, of mosses and ferns, of glaciers, of a peacock’s breast feather, delineations of architectural details, landscapes inspired by works of Turner and by Ruskin’s incessant travelling. But the exhibition is also stuffed with things that he collected, for his museum and to show anyone (students at Oxford, members of the public who attended his many lectures) how too look at nature – specimen rocks and minerals, botanical drawings, paintings of birds by Audubon and Edward Lear, old master paintings, architectural carvings.

This commitment to education is something that shines through the exhibition. Most of what Ruskin drew or collected seems to have been drawn or acquired for a practical, instructional purpose – to reproduce in books (works like The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice are full of wonderful prints from his drawings of buildings), to illustrate lectures, to add to the museum.  Ruskin is talking to us through these objects – revealing tiny worlds among the mosses and ferns, showing the effect of light on a carving, demonstrating the use of ornament or different coloured stones on a building, explaining how an artist like Turner saw and painted the St Gothard Pass. It’s a wonderfully varied exhibition, because, as he said, ‘The teaching of art, as I understand it, is the teaching of all things’.

Because art, for Ruskin, is at the heart off all things, this makes The Power of Seeing a very serious exhibition. This does not make it dull, though. Far from it. The interest and quality of what’s on display justifies the seriousness, and makes it worth one’s while waiting to get close to some of the watercolours so that one can take in the minute detail. But there is amusement to be had too. A couple of large panels display quotations from his writings under the heading ‘Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed by John Ruskin’. What does he loathe? The Renaissance buildings of Venice (‘amongst the worst and basest ever built by the hands of men’), lawyers (‘Not one of them shall ever have so much as a crooked sixpence of mine’), Palladio, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, railway stations, cycling, being photographed, Victorian church statuary (‘A gross of kings sent down from Kensington’), and more. Out of step with his time? And with our own? In part, perhaps. But no less absorbing for that and still, at Two Temple Place, very much alive and kicking.

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Top illustration: John Ruskin, Santa Maria della Spina, East End, Pisa, Italy, 1845 © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

* Ruskin was to live until 1900, but by the time Godwin asked his question much of Ruskin’s greatest works were written, with the exception of the later numbers of Fors Clavigera and his autobiography, Praeterita.

† What do all these Latin or Latinate titles mean? Praeterita means ‘Of past things’; Fors Clavigera is difficult to translate, and its author wanted it understood in several parallel ways – you just have to read it.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Church Langton, Leicestershire

The old order

This house, which I’ve admired several times when I’ve been driving northwards through the Langtons, a cluster of villages in Leicestershire north of Market Harborough, seems to be the epitome of Georgian country life, something that looks as if it has been at home in its setting since the 18th century, an admirable and unchanging bit of domestic architecture in the style of the great Robert Adam. The balanced composition, the central arch, the urns and swags – all these evoke the age of Adam (1728–92) beautifully. And yet, although I can do no more than scratch the surface of a building I’ve never been inside, it has actually changed a bit over the years.

The house was built, probably in the 1780s, for a member of the Hanbury family, one of a line of Hanburys who were rectors of this once prosperous living. Its architect is not known for certain, but the design is very similar to that of a house in Mountsorrel and both buildings have been attributed to the architect William Henderson of Loughborough. However, it’s now the Old Rectory, so is no longer the home of the rector. A friend who lives locally showed me a photograph taken in the 1970s from the rear, which shows that the side wings were then little more than brick walls – dummy wings, in short, made to make the house look larger and to balance the grand centrepiece; now they seem to be proper wings with rooms in them.

A further change is that at some stage the urns on the parapet were removed, along with the decorative relief of swags and urn in the central pediment. An illustration in the old Highways and Byways book on Leicestershire, which came out in 1923, shows the front of the building without these adornments. By the time the revised Pevsner Buildings of England volume on Leicestershire and Rutland was produced and published in 1984, there were urns on the parapet once more (modern cement ones, as now) but no pediment decoration. But the other day when I passed and took the photograph above the decorative ensemble had been restored (my local friend assures me it was there in 2007 when he took another photograph), so perhaps the house now looks as good as it ever did. Which in my book is very good indeed.

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J. B. Firth, Highways and Byways in Leicestershire (Macmillan, 1923)

Monday, March 4, 2019

Little Washbourne, Gloucestershire

A short diversion

I have posted about this church before, but wanted to show you another photograph of it because as I drove past the end of the no-through-road where it’s sited today, I noticed that the blossom was already out. A short diversion brought me back to the lane and the churchyard, to see that there are not only trees with blossom but also daffodils in bloom up the grass path to the church.

No through road, lane, grass path – it all makes the tiny church at Little Washbourne sound remote. However, it’s only a couple of hundred yards from the road between Tewkesbury and Stow-on-the-Wold – hardly a trunk road, but not remote either. Yet when you turn off, this spectacle of quiet greenery and blossom awaits you. Part of the joy of English buildings is their settings, whether smack in the middle of a town, like the factory in my previous post, or up a country lane and a grass path.

There’s no grand architecture here – just a medieval parish church modified by the Georgians and left much as it was since then. But where it is, the flowers on the approach to it, the clouds of white blossom to its left, and the still whiter clouds in the sky, all make it worth stopping and looking. And when the main road is quiet, the noisiest thing here is the buzzing of bees for the nearby hives.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Market Harborough, Leicestershire

Clothing the world

My first acquaintance with Market Harborough was when I was a teenager, during a long and exhausting bus journey across the country. There had been a series of traffic hold-ups, driver changes, and diversions, and as far as I can remember the route was not scheduled to include the quiet rural roads of Rutland and this part of Leicestershire at all. By the time the bus reached Market Harborough, it too was quiet. The shops had closed and most of the workers had gone home. But it was time for the bus to make a surprise stop, with ten minutes for a what was then euphemistically described as the opportunity to ‘stretch our legs’. There was just time to find a gents and notice the parish church with its tall spire (dedicated to St Dionysius – I wouldn’t forget that in a hurry), the timber-framed old grammar school, and a vast Victorian red-brick factory, then rather down at heel but still apparently in use, right in the middle of the town.* I had no idea that the factory’s products were almost as outdated as the architecture: this was the corset factory of Symington and Company, who once had the ambition to provide supportive undergarments for every woman in the world.

Yesterday I was passing through the town quite early in the morning and thought it might be quiet enough to take a photograph of the factory without too much traffic around it. There wasn’t the total lack of parked vehicles I’d hoped for, but the towering brick walls dwarfed the large white van that had pulled in on the pavement and the nearby trees, still without their leaves on this February morning, allowed one to make out the architecture. Rows of tall windows make for what must be a very light interior – necessary for the sewing that went on within, using ranks of Singer sewing machines. Symington’s were one of the first companies to modernise their production process by using these machines. The millions of garments they made bore the labels of retailers, such as Marks and Spencer’s, so the company was not famous outside its field. But the formula worked, and Symington’s went on to open factories in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. When fashions changed, and women and girls sought alternatives to the restrictive corset, they invented the liberty bodice, as well as continuing to make corsets and what Symington’s, with good old-fashioned Francophilia, called brassières (grave accent and all).

At first glance the factory’s architecture is a bit like an overgrown Victorian board school, but it’s enormous, and set off with a succession of tall gables, each with a distinctive semicircular window. There’s another such window in the Italianate end tower, too, which is topped with a tapering roof and small cupola – as if the factory were not already a noticeable landmark, visible above the surrounding shops and grammar school. The size of the building speaks of the company’s success – they’d commissioned the factory in 1889 when their previous premises, an old carpet works to the southeast, proved too small. Local architects, Everard and Pick, did the design, and they were still around to extend the building in 1894 and 1926. When the factory finally closed in 1980 and it was converted for use by the local council, the successor practice, Pick, Everard, Keay & Gimson, were the architects. In more ways than one, it seems, the Symington’s factory has long been at heart of life in Harborough.

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* A major part of the impact of this building comes from its town centre site, where it dwarfs the surrounding buildings. It is comparable in this respect with the enormous Wadworth brewery in Devizes, about which I posted here.

Update 5 March 2019 A reader has provided an excellent extended comment, containing much information on the factory and company. You can read this buy pressing the word COMMENTS just below. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

South Bank, London

Back in the swim

This sculpture, called The Sunbathers, by Peter Laszlo Peri, is now on an internal wall in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. The piece was made for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and was installed on a wall of the Waterloo Station Gate to the Festival’s South Bank site, on York Road. Like most of the Festival, the sculpture was not intended to remain there permanently – nearly everything on the South Bank, except for the Festival Hall, was swept away after the Festival closed.

Perhaps The Sunbathers was always meant to be an occasional piece – many of the sculptures made for the event were destroyed. It’s not the greatest depiction of a pair of human figures, but it has significance of several kinds – historically, for its prominent place on the Festival site, compositionally, for the innovative way in which its position on the wall enforces an unusual viewpoint, and technically,  because it was an experiment in making figurative sculpture out of concrete. However, like so much of the art made for the Festival it was long thought lost.

In 2016, Historic England put on an absorbing exhibition in Somerset House called Out There: Post-War Public Art. The show included several images of lost public art, and asked visitors to submit information if they knew the whereabouts of any of these lost works. Two people responded that they had seen The Sunbathers in the garden of the Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath. Investigation revealed the two figures, badly damaged, under a tarpaulin in the garden where they had been left with the hope of restoring them and displaying them somewhere.

For over six decades, The Sunbathers remained a memory, of which readers of histories of the Festival and of Dylan Thomas’s essay about the event* were occasionally reminded. After a crowdfunded project to restore them, the figures are now on show inside the Festival Hall, not far from displays about the Festival of Britain and the origins of this famous concert hall. This spot on the wall in the foyer, a short walk from the work’s original home, does not seem a bad place for it to end up.

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* ‘The Festival Exhibition’, reprinted in Ralph Maud (ed.), Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1991). 

Note On 26 February 2019, I corrected the text of this post because as originally posted, the title of the sculpture and the date of the Historic England exhibition were incorrect. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Temple Place, London

At a slight angle to the universe

In Temple Place the other day* I was charmed to see this – a 1920s K2 telephone kiosk, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, still in situ and sill apparently with a telephone inside. This is the ‘original’ red telephone box design – not in the sense that it’s the earliest type of telephone kiosk, but that it is the first of the red, shallow-domed designs by Scott to be made in quantity. I’ve notice before the prototype, preserved at the entrance to the Royal Academy in Piccadilly and slightly different in detail from the ‘standard’ K2 that developed from it.†

It was an instant success in terms of effective, recognisable design: from the 1920s on, until the 1970s, the ‘red box’ meant a public telephone – even if the later, slightly shorter and simpler K6 box was the one that was made in the largest quantities.§ The K2 has a taller upper part than the K6, gold crowns (which are pierced for ventilation), and a band of fluted moulding running around the doorway. Today, relatively scarce K2s are listed and although they can now be little used they are such a familiar part of the scene that it’s good to see them retained. This one did slightly worry me, though. Look and lean as I might, the box itself does seem to be leaning rather alarmingly. Every other building around it seems to be vertical, but the box is a few degrees out of true. I hope it’s stable, and continues to give visual pleasure and good service for many years.

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* To visit the current exhibition about John Ruskin, which is well worth catching. It’s a curious coincidence that I seem to notice telephone boxes when going to art exhibitions: see the links below for a couple of other examples.

† My post about the prototype K2 box near the Royal Academy is here.

§ There is post about a K6 box near Henry Moore’s old house at Perry Green here.