Monday, July 15, 2019

Bovey Tracey, Devon

Something for the weakened

I do like bits of traditional signage. Today's high streets are too full of ephemeral plastic signs, designed by computers with the help of committees, plonked on facades with one thought only: to shout loudest at passers-by. Many high street businesses have either given up or seem to be trying too hard, buses drive around swamped in graceless advertisements like walking billboards, and round my way the Co-op screams at me in a sign of bilious green.*

There are, though, quite a few places where an effort has been made to stop this rot. Bath is a haven of decent, discreet signage; so is Chipping Campden; towns like Ludlow have some terrific examples of traditional shop signs; in Upton on Severn they have even revealed a number of beautiful old ghost signs and have found ways to keep these visible while creating new signs that work among and around them. More often, it's a mixed picture, with lacklustre stuff interspersed with signs in which someone has been allowed to get out his brush and mahl stick and do his best.

My eyes having been rendered bloodshot by poor signage recently, and my spirits weakened by the sheer oafishness of some of it, it was good to come across one or two modest gems. Like this barber's in Bovey Tracey. It could hardly be simpler. Just a small square window, without anything much to display in it. And a sign which, though simple, shows that someone has paused, and thought, and cared. Plain, sans serif capitals, hand painted; a colour scheme that reflects the traditional barber's pole†, and a frame for the sign in the same red as the window frame.

Screw the sign firmly to the wall and you're done. Locals are reminded where a chap can get a haircut and visitors are shown the way too. The simple purposefulness of the sign suggests a good old-fashioned barber's shop, where a man will ply his scissors with skill and a cut-throat razor will be on hand to smarten you up around the edges. Will there by Brylcreem? Maybe.§ Vitalis? Possibly.¶ Will the barber ask quietly under his breath if the customer would like 'Something for the weekend'? Perhaps. But whatever the answers to these nostalgic questions, the appreciative passer-by will be pleased with the look of the shop and its sign, and will proceed with his jaded spirits uplifted. For surely such things are indeed something for the weakened.

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* That's enough bile from me for now. I do try to restrain myself when writing my posts, and I steer clear of commenting about some of the bad architecture around us. Others do that better than I could, and I'm happy that they do. My role in general is to share what I appreciate and like.

† The traditional sign, the red of which is sometimes said represent the blood let during the barber-surgeon's work. Curiously from a modern perspective, the two 'trades' of barbering and surgery were combined in the Middle Ages and early modern period.

§ Brylcreem, fashionable in during World War II and the post-war period, certainly still exists as a range that includes the 'traditional' hair cream. As can be seen from my photograph, the barber's wasn't open on the day I was there, so I was unable to investigate the interior, its contents, or what might be offered to customers.

¶ Vitalis, something on my barber's shelf when I was a boy, is marketed as a 'hair tonic' that makes your hair more 'manageable'.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sticklepath, Devon

The Quaker graveyard in Sticklepath

I came to Sticklepath by accident, stopping there because the village shop advertised coffee, which I needed. I didn’t have time to visit the place’s most obvious attraction, the Finch Foundry (a working forge, not a foundry) other than pausing to admire its water wheel from beneath the head race, dodging drips as I watched the ironwork turn. But I did stop for a moment in the Quaker graveyard behind the forge, for a short contemplative break, and to wait for the clouds to part and the sun to shine on the tiny structure in my photograph.

It’s a shelter in one corner of the graveyard. I’ve no idea how old it is – the very solid looking walls seem to have some age, but the lovely thatched roof is recent, though no doubt a replacement of earlier thatch, perhaps of many generations of earlier thatch. It’s tiny, just big enough to contain a bench seat with room for two, looking out over the graves. It seemed to me to be an excellent example of the value of taking pains over a modest structure: how much pleasure it must have given, over the years, to people who need a rest, and to those who just like to see something well made.

I don’t usually feel morbid in graveyards and, in spite of the proximity of the tables where visitors to the forge could take refreshments, the place was quiet and peaceful. Could I hear the occasional drip and splash from the water wheel? Maybe. I’m not sure. I don’t recall noticing it, but if I had it would have seemed a sound fit as much for calm as anything. The mood was enhanced by a poem by the hymn-writer and humanitarian James Montgomery (1771–1854) about just such a place.* The words are hand painted on a noticeboard attached to the back of the shelter. The poem seemed apposite: it ends:

Green myrtles fenced it, and beyond their bound
Ran the clear rill with ever-murmuring sound.
Twas not a scene for grief to nourish care,
It breathed of hope & moved the heart to prayer.

They’re lines very much of their time, and somewhat conventional, but well made and right – like the little shelter that contains them, and no doubt the products of the forge nearby. Fortified by such thoughts – or maybe by the coffee – I went on my way.

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*James Montgomery was just a name to me, someone whose work was praised by Lord Byron. He seems to have been a good egg, supporting abolitionism, upholding the right of protestors to make their case, and writing a poem against the practice of employing small boys to climb up chimneys to sweep them. He wrote the carol ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ and adapted Psalm 23 to create the hymn ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Ashburton, Devon

Hung well

When I was staring at the medieval arch in my previous post and checking my camera, a woman came up to me and said that if I liked old buildings, I should look at one a couple of doors along the street. This was a slate-hung building with a very unusual set of shapes cut into the slates. I told her I’d already spotted it and she said that the shapes cut into the slates – hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades – were there because the building was once ‘a gaming house’. I've not been able to find any reference to this history in books or online – I have few books on Devon apart from the usual Pevsner and Shell Guides. It’s possible, but it’s equally likely that someone just liked the shapes and had a bright idea about how to use them them.
As with the arch in the previous post, it’s interesting to think about this history, but my appreciation of buildings relates at least as much to aesthetics as to their usefulness or the ways they may have been used in the past. I like the way this building looks, with its slate-hung  walls, its twin gables over an overhanging, dentil cornice, and its sash windows with their small panes in the Georgian style. I hope the current occupiers (the Co-op) are proud of it.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Ashburton, Devon

The sweep of history

Places like Ashburton warm the cockles of my heart. Any small town with an ironmonger and a bookshop is bound to please me. Anywhere with a good selection of charming houses, dating from the medieval period to the 19th century, is likely to please me too. Put the two together, with some decent coffee shops and a smattering of other eateries and pubs eateries, and you have a winner.

I was, of course, immediately attracted to this medieval arch, around which later buildings have grown up and multiplied with a casualness which, combined with slate-hung walls, or timber framing, or decent brickwork, makes satisfying townscape. That sort of satisfying milieu is just the context here, and the arch, charmingly encumbered with washing-up bowls, dog baskets, and other impedimenta of ironmongery, plays its part. It’s thought to be late-medieval, and looks it, and there have been remodellings in various periods, from the 16th century onwards

The building must have changed use a few times. It is said to have once been the Mermaid Inn. It’s easy to start fantasizing about the life this building has seen – everything from drunken brawls to debates about the merits of plastic and galvanized metal buckets – and this modest building played a part in at least one of the pivotal phases of the great sweep of English history. It’s reported that General Fairfax, Parliamentary General of Horse and supreme commander (before he was replaced with Cromwell when he refused to march against the Scots, who supported Charles II), stayed here after he drove the Royalists out of the town on 10 January 1646.

Fairfax is certainly a figure worth remembering, but this small medieval building, with its arch made of huge chunks of granite, is worth looking at for itself. Not least because medieval town houses are unusual. In Devon they’re almost as scarce as hens’ teeth.

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* During their advance into the West Country, the Parliamentary army were active in Tiverton, Bovey Tracey, Torrington, Launceston, and Truro. There is more information here.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Varieties of architectural experience

Susannah Charlton, Elain Harwood, and Clare Price (eds), 100 Churches 100 Years
Published by Batsford

Lots of people like visiting churches, but the image of the traditional ‘church crawler’ is of someone who likes old buildings – and often old buildings in the countryside. That range of interests excludes most 20th-century churches, which are widely seen as assertively modernist and are most frequently in towns. So 20th-century churches tend to be neglected by visitors, except for experts and the growing number of enthusiasts for the art and design of the last 100 years. This new book, published under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Society, presents a fresh look at British church architecture between 1914 and 2015, revealing the field to be rich and full of surprises.

The range is enormous. The period is not all about rebarbative modernism. It embraces such fine buildings as St Alphege, Bath (designed in the style of an early Roman basilica by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott) and St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough (Ninian Comper’s masterpiece, in a style that blends Gothic and Renaissance); or St Saviour, Eltham, London (by Cachemaille-Day, Welch & Lander, under the influence of German expressionism) and neo-Byzantine St John the Baptist, Rochdale (by Hill, Sandy & Norris, with glittering mosaics by Eric Newton). There’s modernism aplenty too, like St John the Baptist, Lincoln, where architect Sam Scorer and engineer Kálmán Hajnal-Kónyi contrived a hyperbolic paraboloid roof of breathtaking sweep, or, yes Brutalist-fanciers, the sad, decaying corpse of St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, a concrete masterpiece (‘already British modernism’s most spectacular and erudite ruin’) that’s quietly rotting away.

One hundred of these diverse examples, each glowingly photographed and briefly described, make up the body of the book. There’s also a series of short chapters on notable architects and practices – including Edward Maufe, H. S. Goodhart-Rendell, George Pace, and Gillespie, Kidd & Coia (the latter the progenitors of the ruin of Cardross). And in addition the editors have called into being specialist chapters including revealing surveys by Jane Brocket on stained glass and by Alan Powers on the art and artefacts, from fonts to altars, murals to lettering, that enhance many of these buildings.

It’s often the art that lingers longest in my mind when I visit these 20th-century churches, but the book is more than a series of portraits of single buildings and fine artworks. It also gives a sense of how changing ideas about religious practice, different artistic influences from Europe, and varying social and economic conditions have influenced the architecture.  So we get a sense of the variety of architectural choices – but also the monetary constraints – at play in the 1930s, of the moves towards liturgical reform in the late-1950s and 1960s, of the influence today of the changing landscape of faiths (the subject of another specialist chapter, by Kate Jordan). And so the change and variety continue, and along with them the plenitude of artistic and architectural interest. 100 Churches 100 Years will inspire many to seek these qualities out.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

From Berlin to Britain

Alan Powers, Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America
Published by Thames & Hudson

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Bauhaus, the influential German school of design that began in Weimar before moving to Dessau and finally to Berlin. The school nurtured so many artists, designers, and architects who were pivotal to the modern movement during the 20th century. Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy were all at the Bauhaus: Gropius was its founder; Breuer was a student and then a teacher there; Moholy taught the famous foundation course, as well as heading the metal workshop. All three spent time in Britain after the institution closed under pressure from the Nazis in 1933. Other less well known Bauhäusler came to Britain too, a small host of people such as teacher and textile artist Margaret Leischner and Otto Neurath, an associate of many Bauhaus people, who created the important ‘picture-language’ system called Isotype. All these, and many more, appear in Alan Powers’ Bauhaus Goes West, a highly informative and readable study of the school’s influence on British art and design.

The British work of each of the ‘greats’ (Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy) merits its own chapter, and these chapters throw up fascinating insights. We see Gropius building in timber and brick, in contrast to his more famous works in concrete; we learn of Breuer’s insistence that modernism need not be ‘cold’ or ‘mechanistic’, we find Moholy at work on a model of a future city for the film Things to Come. And we learn about the networks sustaining the modernists. An example is the various ventures of Jack Pritchard who was behind a company manufacturing plywood furniture and the now-famous Isokon flats in Lawn Road, North London, designed by Wells Coates but also involving Breuer. Indded Pritchard was pivotal in the British careers of Gropius, Breuer, and Moholy.

All this is fascinating, but perhaps still more so are Powers’ general chapters. One of these, ‘Elective Affinities: England and Germany’ outlines the relationship between the two countries in terms of design. It shows how British interest in modernism and modernist ideas predates the Bauhaus émigrés, tracing links between Britain and such architects as Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, and noticing items with modernist elements being exhibited– carved reliefs by Eric Gill, textiles by Phyllis Baron, Dorothy Larcher, and Enid Marx, to name but a few. As businessman and social reformer Harry Peach (who himself visited the Bauhaus at Dessau) said of Britain in 1927, ‘we had a modern movement’.

So Britain was fertile soil for the Bauhaus designers when they arrived, a point shown in another general chapter, ‘The People With No Taste: English Modernism in the 1930s’. This chapter title is of course ironic. Powers shows that there was plenty of taste around, and much of it involved appreciating modern design. It was possible, as Paul Nash famously said, both to ‘Go modern’ and to ‘Be British’. A host of examples – some starting before the Bauhäusler arrived, some under the émigrés’ influence – shows British modernism alive and kicking. Powers covers both the endeavours that showed people ready to appreciate modernism – the efforts of Nikolaus Pevsner, the Council for Art and Industry, the magazine Circle – and the actual products of the designers – from innovative light fittings to revolutionary school buildings.

For anyone looking for an introduction to this aspect of British modernist architecture and design, this book is an excellent place to start. For someone keen to refresh and sharpen their knowledge of the Bauhaus and its influence in Britain, Bauhaus Goes West is likewise truly enlightening.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Carving out a life

Alex Woodcock, King of Dust: Adventures in Forgotten Sculpture
Published by Little Toller Books

When I’m wandering about looking at old buildings, I often get into conversations with people. One of the most frequent comments I hear when standing in front of a beautifully crafted bit of masonry or carving is: ‘Of course you couldn't find anyone with the skill to do that now.’ I usually respond by pointing out that, although skilled stone masons and carvers are hardly thick on the ground, they do exist, in the workshops attached to our great cathedrals, for example. A few cathedrals, like my local one, Gloucester, retain a full-time group of masons who work away at the conservation of their cathedral’s ancient and fragile fabric – replacing worn stones, carving new corbels or gargoyles, and so on.

Alex Woodcock – an archaeologist, expert on medieval sculpture, and poet, among other things – knows all about this. He took a mid-life career turn, perceiving that he might learn more about stone carving by actually doing it, and training to become a mason and carver. Coincidentally, he cites the writing of Richard Sennnett (whose recent book on cities I reviewed in my previous post), who said that when ‘the head and the hand are separate…it is the head that suffers’. By learning how to make the sort of sculpture produced by the builders of medieval churches one should come to a deeper understanding of the ancient work.  

This book is Woodcock’s account of the route he took from fascinated student of medieval carving to fully trained carver working on the repair of the sculptures of Exeter cathedral. His narrative is absorbing, even moving, and full of insights into the way such a carver has to work. It is nourishingly rich with descriptions of different kinds of stone (Woodcock loves stone), knowingly alert to the qualities of tools such as mallets and chisels, and atmospherically thick with the dust and stone fragments of the mason’s yard. It is also full of descriptions and appreciations of the Romanesque carvings in parish churches in the English West Country. It’s hard to describe the appearance of these carvings briefly – Woodcock evokes it in a series of accounts of different churches, building to a picture of a style that, broadly, combines figures carved with a simple and powerful directness and ornamental patterns of sometimes great complexity but similar boldness. Anyone who doesn’t know these wonderful carvings – on doorways, crosses, baptismal fonts – will find the book an eye-opener.

Woodcock describes these carvings, which date from the 11th or 12th centuries, in a way that brings them alive in the imagination. He has a go at the scholars and writers who pigeonhole this sort of work as ‘crude’ or ‘primitive’ with the implication that it’s far inferior to the more ‘finished’ and ‘naturalistic’ Gothic sculpture that came after it. By contrast, he sees in the simplicity and clarity of the Romanesque carver’s lines and forms something of the power of modernist sculpture, comparing it to Brancusi. I agree. Woodcock is with the artists in this – John Piper loved this sort of thing, for example, as did Henry Moore – and the descriptions in this book are persuasive and are worthy to stand beside Piper's photographs.*

There’s a clue in those references to past artists and fellow-appreciators of the Romanesque, a clue to what makes this book stand out. It’s raised above the level of another ‘mid-life journey from crisis to fulfilment’ narrative by its deep appreciation of the ancient sculptures and by its admiration for past advocates of these neglected works. Among the book’s heroes, along with Piper, are people like the historian Kate Marie Clarke, who learned to understand and appreciate Norman fonts by making line drawings of them, and architect Philip Mainwaring Johnston, who restored churches and whose talent for drawing informed his sensitive work on medieval churches. These are all people for whom hand and head worked effectively together.

By the end of this book I was ready to give a triumphant cheer for Woodcock when he found employment as a stone mason, and was ready to believe I understood the carvings a lot better for reading his informed accounts of them. I now have another list of churches to visit and sculptures to look at. I was also ready to applaud Little Toller Books for publishing the book and for commissioning the excellent artist Ed Kluz to do the jacket. I hope that face smiles out across Britain's bookshops and that it attracts many buyers. I don't think they'll be disappointed.

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* If you can get hold of the Shell Guide to Dorset, look at Piper’s photograph of the font at Toller Fratrum to see what I mean.

Friday, June 21, 2019


For a week or so, English Buildings turns into a book blog as I review some recent publications that have struck me. To begin with, a book about cities and the life lived in them...
Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling
Published by Allen Lane

There are lots of books about cities and how they should be shaped to meet our needs today. They range from academic studies and guides for planners to more general works, all of which can be peppered with obfuscating jargon (that can be variously weighted with politically biassed meaning, or vapid, or both). Richard Sennett is part academic sociologist, part city planner, and part generalist. His recent books have included studies of craftsmanship and cooperation. Building and Dwelling is the third in a trilogy that includes those two predecessors. Like them, it’s direct and clear in its language, rich with telling examples and engaging anecdotes, and full of good sense.

Sennett begins with a useful distinction between what he calls, borrowing the French distinction, ville (the architectural, physical reality of the city) and cité (the human life lived in it). His particular interest is in how these two interact – how people live in cities and alter them physically, and how the built environment influences the dwellers within it. A key point of the book is that city planners – like Cerda in Barcelona or Hausmann in Paris – can have a huge influence on the way cities look and develop, but that those living there after the planners are gone alter the buildings and neighbourhoods in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Cerda’s wonderful plan for Barcelona with its distinctive grid of octagons still gives the city its character – but not quite in the way the planner intended; we still walk along Hausmann’s boulevards in Paris, but in 1968 we were reminded that no plan could stop protests and riots as the baron of the boulevards had intended.

In the course of the book, which is dense with examples, Sennett covers as many kinds of diverse territories as a wide-awake urbanist or an exhausted traveller could imagine. At one end of the historical spectrum is classical Athens, with its agora (part marketplace, part law court, part eatery, part temple precinct) and pnyx (home of popular assemblies and political discussions). At the other end is the New York Googleplex, a ‘shell renovation’ of an old building, in which everything is available to Google’s employees – they don't have to step outside to get their clothes laundered, visit the gym, consult a doctor, eat, or even sleep.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that it is best to plan for cities to be adaptable or ‘open’. Sennett finds this admirable quality in unlikely places – in Nehru Place in Delhi, where there are businesses that form a kind of downmarket Silicon Valley, and a market where Sennett buys a dodgy smartphone. Or in parts of Shanghai, where people are faced with garish new capitalist office blocks, but react against their stridency by looking to the past.

But Sennett is not after some nostalgic hankering for an ideal past. At the end, after a traversal of many cities and accounts of many reactions to them (including outright escape from the city altogether), he comes down in favour of adaptability, of reconfiguring or repurposing parts of the city rather than either restoration on the one hand or sweeping everything away on the other. It's a humane kind of conclusion, based on the recognition that grand plans never turn out as they were intended and that modern pieties like ‘public consultation’ are often ineffective. And it's based on an obvious love of the world’s cities. Any other lover of cities with an interest in their history and their future should read this book. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire

A strong support

The House on Crutches is next to the Town Hall in Bishop’s Castle. It’s a 16th-century house with stout oak frame filled in between with wattle and daub and covered by a 19th-century slate roof. The upper floor is a few feet larger than the ground flood and projects beyond it, supported over the pavement beneath with two very solid-looking posts. Many timber-framed houses have a projecting upper floor, its timbered cantilevered out a bit in a feature called a jetty. Among other advantages, the jetty arrangement provides a little more room upstairs. But this house is different: the overhang is enormous and in an altogether different league: no wonder it has been noticed in the building’s name.

Like many an old building, the House on Crutches has seen various uses. Originally presumably a house, it shows signs of commercial use, and is now a museum, so people can learn not only about the town’s history but also marvel at the crooked stairs, fine oak beams, and the rest, within. It surveys the history of Bishop’s Castle – it has been in its time a border settlement with a castle, market town, ‘rotten borough’ with two MPs representing a place with just a few hundred people, and staging post on the route between England and Wales. Now it is supporting the variety of activities (cattle market, two micro breweries, shops, coffee shops) that a town, even a tiny town, needs in order to thrive. The House on Crutches seems to be playing a vital part.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Eardisland, Herefordshire

Fit for new purposes

Looking for something to post at a time when I'd not seen anything new recently, I made a virtual visit to Eardisland by browsing through my photo library. I was reminded that, have diverted to this Herefordshire place when en route to somewhere else, I'd found not only the preserved AA telephone box that I posted some years ago, but also a wonderful brick-built dovecote. They say it's 18th century, although at least one source dates the building to the 17th. The most recent edition of the Pevsner Buildings of England Herefordshire volume sums it up: c. 1700.

Whatever its exact age, it's impressive, even though it shows signs of repair and alteration in the 20th century. The louvre at the top where the doves came in and out, at the junction of the four-gabled roof, is still there, and there are still large stretches of original brickwork, albeit punctuated by a large section of presumably later bricks in a different colour on the flank wall. The square, four-gable shape is not an unusual one for a dovecote. I suppose it has the twin benefits of allowing the birds to fly up into the louvre exit from whichever side they're nesting on, while also producing a pleasing shape that can often act as a focal point in a yard, garden, or, as here, a village street. This dovecote is quite tall, and unusually has ground and upper floors: the ground floor was originally a garden room while the doves occupied the upper space.

The dovecote looks well as you approach it over the bridge, and it's good to see it has found new uses – changes of use are often vital if ancient buildings are to be preserved, and can enable a building to become not just a heritage asset but also useful, and so more likely to last. The dovecote now houses a museum on the upper floor and a small shop downstairs. As I was passing quickly through when I took this photograph, I didn't call in at the the shop, but I see online that it's run by volunteers for the benefit of the community. Such an enterprise can be an asset to a village, especially if it has has lost an earlier village store or Post Office. Small shops become community hubs, centres where people not only buy provisions but also exchange news and information, and pass the time of day. Next time I'm passing, I'll make a point of stopping, saying 'hello', and, I hope, making a purchase or two.

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* There is a reference to a dovecote here in 1469, but that would have been a different structure.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Redcross Way, London

Five per cent philanthropy

The second half of the 19th century saw those in power taking belated but welcome interest in the health and wellbeing of the English working classes, and a major issue was providing poor people with adequate housing. This was a particularly pressing issue in big cities, where slums abounded, rents were often high, and tenancies were precarious. The need was publicised not only by works of the likes of Friedrich Engels, but also by the efforts of various high-ranking advocates and philanthropists, not least Prince Albert himself, who was president of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes. An example of a ‘model cottage’ (actually four flats on two floors) was built in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition – it was rebuilt in Kennington Park the following year.

Soon, other campaigners took up the challenge of building better homes for the poor, and a number of organisations were set up. The usual idea was to attract investment in companies that would provide decent homes for poor people. The investors would get a reasonable, but not excessive, return on their investment, foregoing big profits for the satisfaction of helping those in need – hence such schemes were sometimes referred to as ‘five per cent philanthropy’. A number of housing organisations started in this way. Perhaps the most famous was the Peabody Trust, founded with a large donation from the banker George Peabody. The flats in my picture were built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, started by Sir Sydney Waterlow, printer, banker, and Liberal politician. Waterlow set the company up in 1863 with capital of £50,000 and by 1900 it was said to be housing some 30,000 people in London.
Cromwell Buildings, in Southwark, a stone’s throw from the one of the railway lines that snake their way above this part of South London, was one block of flats built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. This five-storey block now has ten flats. Originally the block housed 24 units: 10 flats with four rooms, 12 with 3 rooms, and 2 shops. The flats were said to be modelled along the lines of the prince’s model cottage, and each had its own proper cooking facilities and WC. The balconies are a common feature of this type of workers’ housing, intended to provide fresh air. Good ventilation and adequate space were priorities in communities in which people had been forced to live in cramped accommodation with few windows. So was adequate sanitation – apparently the rooms containing the lavatories jut out at the back, promoting good air flow.

Housing like this benefitted the working classes hugely in late-Victorian and Edwardian London. However, even the flats were out of reach of the very poor. Most of the tenants of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company seem to have been skilled artisans, together with people who worked in services such as the police, plus a handful of labourers. Even so, their impact was huge. It has been estimated that in Southwark alone, about ten per cent of the population lived in blocks built and run by companies and trusts like the IIDC and Peabody. Most of the dwellings are still dong good service today.

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For earlier pieces on model dwellings, see my post on the ornate examples in Pimlico here and the plainer but admirable Peabody flats here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Clink Street, London

In the Clink: bishops, actors, geese

Medieval architecture is not thick on the ground in central London, and it’s a rare pleasure to come across this fragment in a back street not far from Borough Market. When I first saw it, in the 1980s, this area was usually deserted and run down. I only knew about it because I worked nearby for a couple of years, and because, before that, studying English literature, I’d come across references to the area when reading about Shakespeare and Dickens. This is the part of London that housed the original Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were put on, and is now home to the reconstructed Globe – as well as to Borough Market, with its cornucopia of food stalls. So this part of Southwark is a magnet for anyone who likes good food and good drama. But many of those people probably miss this building.

It’s a wall of the great hall of Winchester Palace, the town house of the bishops of Winchester in the Middle Ages. The palace was built mostly by Henry of Blois, who was bishop in the 12th century, although the beautiful tracery of the rose window at the top of the wall is a later addition – possibly in the time of William of Wykeham, bishop in the late-14th century. Why did these men have a palace in London? Because in the Middle Ages, bishops were powerful men with strong connections to the capital: most had a residence in London. After Canterbury, Winchester was one of the most powerful bishoprics of all. The diocese had a lot of property in this part of London, and Winchester was a town with strong royal connections – it was once the capital. Its bishops were usually well connected men from the upper aristocracy: Henry of Blois was a brother of King Stephen; William of Wykeham was not born into the nobility, but rose to a high level in the administration of England under Edward III; he was, famously, the founder of Winchester College and of New College, Oxford.

These important people had a big London home, a palace built around two courtyards, of which this hall would have been the heart. The land controlled by the bishops, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London or the adjoining Southwark parishes, even contained its own prison, known as the the Clink, to which the bishop’s courts could send wrongdoers. The area became known as the Liberty of the Clink.† By Shakespeare’s time, because the Liberty of the Clink lay outside of London’s legal sway, it attracted all kinds of activities frowned upon in the City. One of these was the theatre, hence the presence of the Globe (and the Rose) nearby. Prostitution was also tolerated more here than in the City, and the local members of the oldest profession were known, bizarrely, as ‘Winchester geese’.

So this quaint looking wall harks back to a time when high churchmen played a very different role in society from the one they adopt now. A time when they wielded considerable worldly power, and tolerated activities that would earn them condemnation today.§ They also played host to Britain’s greatest dramatist and were patrons of great artists and craftsmen. We’re most used to seeing the results of that patronage in the great cathedrals. This tantalizing wall is a reminder that they could extend their patronage into the worldly sphere too.

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† A ‘liberty’ was a manorial jurisdiction; nobody knows where the name ‘Clink’ came from, but its similarity to the metallic sound of chains or barred doors is suggestive.

§ As indeed many of us do condemn church authorities for tolerating moral misdemeanours today, when such things come to light.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Norham Castle, Northumberland

Mapping and drawing

As the previous post makes clear, I’ve always liked maps, and find them fascinating. Their variety, and the sheer skill of the people who make them, is admirable, as is the ingenuity with which so much information gets included on the best maps. The task of collecting the information needed to make a map, and to transfer it to paper, is a formidable one, even today, when satellites and computers make it easier, and when we are apt to look at maps not on paper at all, but on some kind of screen. I quickly learned that there were many ways of doing this, and that the surface of the earth can be represented in a host of different ways. As well as the one or two OS maps covering the local area, there were also other kinds of maps at home. Apart from a World Atlas (I remember being told it was out of date, but then they nearly always are), there were some guide books with maps in them, ones like the example above, showing the part of Gloucestershire where I now live, from one of the series of Shell Guides to the English counties. This uses colour to show relief – high land in increasingly deeper orange – and different colours to indicate different grades of road. Railway lines are in black, with stations marked; churches are another kind of building indicated, with a tiny cross; one or two landmark buildings (especially castles) are also marked. There’s not much more fine detail, but what’s there gives a good picture of the land, towns and villages, and major landmarks: it’s a serviceable map, produced in a pleasing style.

But there’s more to it than this. Maps are indeed immensely useful, to help us find out way around, and to tell us what’s on the ground, but they’re also pleasing in themselves – I’d say that maps, at their best, are art. Maps made before the last 30 years of the 20th century have a ‘drawn’ quality to them – after all, someone did draw them originally – and when the drawing has been done well, the result looks attractive, as well as being clear to read. To make the map above, which shows the edge of the Cotswold Hills near Cheltenham, someone working for Bartholomew & Co, who provided the maps for the Shell Guides, actually formed each letter with a pen; they would also have drawn in pen the other black lines on the map – the key lines running along the outer edges of all the red and orange roads, for example, and the flowing black lines that mark the railway lines. Probably on a separate layer, all the colour – such as those shades of orange for the uplands and green for the lowlands – would be added. This was all an enormous amount of hand-work by skilled people, unsung and dedicated, for the benefit of users who appreciated clarity, richness of information, and, I’d say, a result that’s visually very satisfying.
Perhaps I can further demonstrate what I mean by this ‘drawn’ quality by showing a plan of a castle from a 1960s guide book to Norham Castle.* This is one of a series produced by the British Department of the Environment (and their predecessors the Ministry of Public Building and Works) of ancient monuments. The plan was pasted into the back of the guide book, and when you unfolded it you could see at a glance the buildings, earthworks, and other features on the site. The lettering is done in strong calligraphic capitals, the buildings are shaded in different ways to indicate dates of construction,¶ and there’s a clear scale.† Best of all, eloquent strokes of the pen called hachures indicate the ups and downs of the terrain – the thicker end of each hachure is where the higher ground is, the lower ground is indicated by the narrow end.§

I’ve had hours of pleasure walking around castles, hill forts, monasteries and so on, holding a map like this, working out the history of the structure as I go. On a breezy day, the map would flap around, and if one didn’t hold it carefully, it might tear, or even slip out of the fingers and take a short flight like a rather ineffective kite, leaving one, coat similarly flapping, in pathetic pursuit. But I soon learned to hang on, and received both instruction and entertainment as I did so. Nowadays English Heritage produce much glossier guides, with full colour maps and illustrations, as well as putting up interpretation boards here and there to tell visitors about history and architecture. All very good. But there’s nothing to beat the clarity and artistic integrity of these old plans – or of the more conventional maps, sometimes also with hachures, with which we once guided ourselves around the country.

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* Norham Castle is by the River Tweed, one of the medieval defences of the border between England and Scotland. It’s also the subject of a glorious late painting by Turner.

¶ No colour printing was used – these guides were inexpensive and colour was costly in 1966. The guide to Norham Castle cost just 2 shillings and six old pence (a mere 12.5 pence in today’s money), map and all.

† The metres have got cropped off my photograph.

§ Another nuance of meaning is that the closer together and thicker the hachures are, the steeper the gradient being represented. Many modern maps that use hachures represent them as elongated triangles: these tend to have a more stylised look, without the hand-drawn quality of the earlier ones.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Mapping, walking, looking

The Map that Came to Life

I took to maps instinctively as a child, needing little encouragement apart from there actually being a few decent maps in the house to get me going, as I recalled in my previous post. Some children (the Resident Wise Woman included) found another introduction to maps in a wonderful book, H. J. Deverson and Ronald Lampitt’s The Map That Came to Life. As a further commemoration of National Map-Reading Week, here’s what I wrote about this book back in 2008, when this blog itself was in its infancy:
On one of our recent visits to a local secondhand bookshop, my wife came across a copy of The Map That Came to Life, a book she had read avidly when she was a child. Written by H. J. Deverson and illustrated by Ronald Lampitt, The Map That Came to Life was first published in 1948, and was much reprinted. It describes how two children (and a dog) go on a walk across the English countryside with an Ordnance Survey map to guide them. Much of what they find on the way is marked on the map, whose symbols for roads, railways, telephone boxes, tumuli, and so on and on, turn to reality along the way. The reader, meanwhile, learns how to read a map, and how maps have much to teach us about the world around us.

In some ways the world of The Map That Came to Life does not exist today. These two children set off on a walk across unfamiliar country with only their map for guidance. They talk to strangers – who give them fascinating nuggets of local information rather than luring them into dark corners. Their dog spends most of its time off its lead, rivers and lakes hold no terrors for them, and, of course, this being 1948, they are not much troubled by traffic.

It’s different in other ways too. The villages through which they pass are well provided with the kind of facilities – shops, pubs, Post Offices, a forge – that we mourn the passing of today. Interesting antiquities, such as a ruined abbey and a castle, abound, giving me an excuse for including the book in a blog about English Buildings. If truth be told, all these ancient and modern details are probably rather thick on the ground even for 1948, because their purpose after all is to show us as many map symbols coming to life as can be reasonably encompassed in 32 pages.
And not just the symbols, but what’s behind them. Joanna and John learn about ruined buildings, tumuli, tithe barns, and ancient churches. They listen to bird song and discover what kinds of trees grow beside rivers. They find out the relationship between contours and man-made features like railway lines and viaducts. And by helping to alert some farm workers to a fire in a wood, they learn about one potential danger in the countryside.

Sadly, this book would not be published today. For one thing, it’s very specifically British in its content, and publishers nowadays cry out for books that will work in an international market. For another, it’s not an outwardly exciting book – its information about the past contains no pillaging Vikings, no bombs, none of the opportunistic stink and goo of ‘Horrible History’. Yet in its quiet way it conveys a different kind of excitement – the excitement of finding things out, of being inquisitive about the environment, of thinking about what you see. And that is one of the best kinds of excitement there is.

In 2008 that post garnered quite a few comments and emails: maybe 11 years on it will still strike a few more chords. I might have added that OS maps are still going strong, and still present (on paper and on screen) a superior form of mapping that, in my opinion, conveys more information than any other. For the architectural enthusiast and historian, they include such a lot, from churches (their symbols indicating whether they have a tower or spire or neither) to Roman villas, from tumuli to manor houses. Much of this information just isn’t on other maps. True, it’s all there on satellite view or Google Earth, but often not identified, so it can be hard to know what you’re looking at. And today, more than 70 years after The Map That Came to Life was published, there are new layers of more recent history – things identified as ‘Airfield (disused)’ and ‘dismtd rly’, for the curious to investigate. Such a map is a world.
If you click on this photograph of two pages from the book, it should be visible at a larger size.

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.