Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Before and after

Eric Musgrave, Leeds Then and Now
Published by Pavilion Books

Leeds Then and Now is one of a stable of books featuring paired photographs of buildings and streets from great cities, each pair accompanied by succinct and informative text. They’re not the first books to take this approach, but they are certainly among the best. The quality comes through most immediately in terms of the visuals, well chosen historical images from a range of dates, some as old as the 1860s, some as recent as the 1970s, twinned with excellent photographs of the same scenes today taken by David Major. The text for each pair of images is succinct and informative. Both author and photographer have local roots and their knowledge of and pride in Leeds shines through.

The range of subjects extends from the city’s major buildings – such as the Corn Exchange, Town Hall, and City Market – to lesser structures that form part of the complex mix that makes up most of the central streets of Leeds. Impressed on a recent visit how well the greatest of the buildings are standing up to the trials of modern life, I turned to the pages on the Town Hall. Here, a photograph of 1905 shows Cuthbert Brodrick’s monumental urban temple substantially the same, less hemmed by signs and bollards than it is today, but without the trees that now soften its corners. The Corn Exchange is likewise slightly encumbered with signs compared to earlier, but the great sweep of street that runs up to it is still largely clear, and similar to how it was apart from one modern interloper. Another big building, the mock-Egyptian Temple Works, was looking dark and soot-blackened in 1935, but at least you could see it – when the ‘now’ photograph was taken the main block was hidden behind scaffolding and protective plastic; the frontage has also acquired railings that weren’t there in the 1930s. One hopes that the works will be restored and thrive, as have most of the city’s fine arcades like the Grand, Cross, and County, the latter a masterpiece of the great architect Frank Matcham, normally at work designing theatres. An image of 1949, however, shows the striking Victoria Arcade, one that has been lost.

I can get annoyed with a plethora of intrusive modern signs, but a look at the some the street views shows how much interesting signage we have lost. The losses range from Victorian and Edwardian monsters to more elegant bits of Art Nouveau, not to mention some jazzy signs from the 1930s onwards. A stretch of Briggate, for example, displayed enormous signs, with letters almost six feet high, across the upper floors of the Cash Boot Company in 1944. These signs are long gone, and the part of the front that remains has been cleaned so that its bricks and stone gleam; also gleaming is a facade of 2010 fronting one shop, a completely glass-clad front butting comfortably up against brick, stone and terracotta.

So Leeds Then and Now shows us some of what has been lost – stretches of Gothic or Renaissance shops demolished in the 20th century, 16th or 17th century merchants’ premises knocked down by the Victorians, Dickensian enclaves such as Rotation Office Yard, a striking Victorian market hall, the dazzling timber-framed premises of the Universal Furnishing Company, and so on and on. But it also makes us look more closely at what is still there, from details of 19th century shops to the City Markets (still fulfilling their function) to the Third White Cloth Hall, which is now a Pizza Express. Meanwhile we can weigh up for ourselves whether we’re grateful for some of the new building or in mourning for demolished architectural glories; sad about the vanished Victorian shop signs or pleased that the buildings beneath them can be more clearly seen. Either way, the book is a feast, and will encourage readers not only to study its engaging images further, but also to look carefully at what’s left – in my case by making further visits to Leeds.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Deco displayed

Elain Harwood, Art Deco Britain 
Published by Batsford, in conjunction with the Twentieth Century Society

Art Deco is fashionable now. For decades the jazzy and decorative design style encapsulated in many cinemas, factory fronts, apartment blocks, shops, and office buildings had been out of favour. So many Deco buildings have been knocked down that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look to find the survivors. It’s even a challenge to define exactly what Art Deco is.

Elain Harwood’s new book certainly helps a lot. It’s got an elegant picture-book format – at its heart are about 115 double-page spreads with one building each and one stunning colour photograph per building. But don’t let that fool you. The text is packed with information about the buildings, which are arranged by type, making it easier to compare wonders such as the Carreras cigarettre factory in London (all black cats and “Egyptian” lettering) and the more stripped-down but magnificent India tyre factory in Renfrewshire; or to weigh-up the virtues of the interiors of the Midland Hotel in Morecombe with the Regent Palace of Hotel in Westminster. All this provides a colourful picture of Art Deco buildings. They can vary from highly ornate structures that allude to the past, like the jaw-dropping interior of the Granada Cinema, Tooting, made over in around 1930 by émigré theatre designer Theodore Komisarjevsky, to the stripped-down architecture of buildings like the Saltdean Lido.

Can structures as different as these all be Art Deco? Well, yes, they can. One of the best bits of Harwood’s book is the Introduction, which explains how in the 1920s and 1930s architecture in Britain came under an array of influences – decorative developments in France, a leaner architecture in the Netherlands, a new appreciation of Viennese turn-of-the-century design and the closely related work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the theatre sets and costumes of the Ballets Russes, a fresh awareness of certain historical sources (notably ancient Egypt), the advances in building materials happening at that time. This rich soup of influences helped designers in Britain develop in different but parallel directions, creating a range of styles from the full-blown cinematic Art Deco to the plainer mode sometimes called jazz moderne or streamlined modern or just moderne. None of the latter was quite as plain and spartan as the purer architectural functionalism of white boxes and strip windows, though some came close.

It’s not all about classification, though. A joy of the book is the stories that some of these places throw up. Harwood entertains her readers with tales of firemen making covert use of light sockets to run wireless sets at Heston and Isleworth Fire Station; of the beehives and putting green once on the roof of Adelaide House in the City of London; of an intrepid flight across the Atlantic in a Puss Moth in 1931. And she reminds us of the not always obvious visual effects of Art Deco architecture. Some buildings, like Osterley Underground station, need to be seen lit up at night to reveal their full glory; some have details undreamed of (by me, at least), like the unaltered manager’s flat in Blackpool’s White Tower Casino.

Art Deco Britain is a cornucopia of buildings, although there could, as Harwood herself says, easily have been twice as many. I’m grateful for the hundred-odd that are here, and that the appreciation of these buildings will be extended and enhanced by this beautiful and informative book.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The joy of Essex

For the next ten days or so, I am offering a small clutch of reviews of recent books that might appeal to readers of this blog. First of all...

Gillian Darley, Excellent Essex
Published by Old Street

There used to be lots of county books: county histories, county guidebooks, meandering accounts of counties by bellettrist old “countrymen” full of clichés about nestling villages and “delightful churches”. There’s not so much of this about now, and some say we think less about counties than in the days of before local government changes messed about with county boundaries and names in the 1970s. That’s debatable, but people certainly have prejudices about counties, and none more so than about Essex – Essex Man and The Only Way is Essex are familiar parts of Britain’s media landscape. Gillian Darley’s Excellent Essex blows all this out of the window, and wafts some welcome fresh air into the idea of the county book.

Excellent Essex does a good job of evoking the great variety of Essex, which is part rich countryside, part London fringes, part absorbing towns, with a very long coastline thrown in too. And of confronting the contradictions of a place that’s widely pro-Brexit but has always welcomed newcomers. Darley knows her Essex, and gives us absorbing nuggets of history and topographical fact about all these aspects of the county. Essex is full of memorable architecture, much of it there thanks to the wealth coming in from local industries – whether it was Courtauld’s textiles, Bata footwear, or Tiptree jam. Interesting and sometimes highly influential ideas have been born, or at any rate bred, in Essex, which has been home to future American Pilgrims, Tolstoyan anarchists, and women’s suffrage campaigners.

Darley, who has an honourable track-record of writing about architecture and its contexts, is the ideal author for all this, and is alert to the county’s sometimes surprising buildings and their stories. Essex is where we will find historical wonders like Thaxted Guildhall and the pargetted quaintness of Saffron Walden. It is home to Critall metal-framed windows, the Bata buildings of East Tilbury, and the glorious “seaside modern” houses of Frinton – all at the heart of English modernism of the 20th century. The county is also, of course, the site of the memorable and wonderful House for Essex, created by the architectural practice called FAT along with Essex man and artist Grayson Perry. The county also has its share of plotlands and the various offbeat joys of Canvey Island. All human culture, oner might say, is here, from the music of Gustav Holst (who spent a lot of time in Thaxted) to that of Sandie Shaw and Wilko Johnson, from the art of the Great Bardfield painters to that of Alfred Munnings or, yes, Grayson Perry.

Essex is, then, as diverse in its combination of old and new, high and low art, idealism and entrepreneurship, inventiveness and conservatism, as England as a whole. Gillian Darley does a superlative job of portraying this, and her account, rich with history and anecdote, also makes the trip to Essex a highly entertaining ride.