Thursday, May 23, 2024

Snowshill, Gloucestershire

Wolf’s Cove

The other week the Resident Wise Woman and I revisited one of our local Cotswold country houses, Snowshill Manor, a place we had not been to for years. Snowshill, a 16th-century building much altered over the years, is now best known fior the collection it houses, which belonged to the architect-craftsman-artist-collector Charles Paget Wade, who bought the house in 1919. Wade’s collection is so large that it fills every room and spills over every surface. There is one room full of suits of samurai armour, another housing a large collection of musical instruments, one full of weaving equipment and domestic appliances, an attic room containing many bicycles, models of traditional British farm wagons, and perambulators. The theme that unites these apparently random and undoubtedly diverse objects is above all their owner’s passion for craftsmanship in all its forms. Wade would buy broken items and learn how to mend them himself, in the process giving himself a deeper understanding of how they were made. So Snowshill is a three-dimensional portrait of his interests and obsessions. Stepping inside the house, more than any place I know apart perhaps from Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, is like taking a trip inside its owner’s head.

After the frantic plenitude of the house, it’s a relief to step outside into the garden, arranged as a series of courtyards by Wade, taking advice from his friend the great Arts and Crafts architect M. H. Baillie Scott. In a corner of the garden is another Wadeish eccentricity, a model village that he called Wolf’s Cove. Before World War I, Wade lived in Hampstead (he had worked with the architects Parker and Unwin on the garden city at Letchworth and the planning of Hampstead Garden Suburb). While there he had created in his garden one of the earliest outdoor model villages, and when he moved he took its buildings to Snowshill and re-erected them, adding more buildings and turning it into a sea port. Houses cluster around the end of the harbour, straggle up the slope beyond, and there is also a railway and station (invisible in my photograph, it is to the left behind the wall).

J. B. Priestley is his book English Journey (1934) describes visiting the manor and seeing Wolf’s Cove. He calls the village ‘boy’s play on a smashing adult scale, defying all common sense but glorious in its absorption in the exquisitely useless’. Priestley also points out that all the buildings (with the exception of the walls and jetty of the port) are moveable, and are designed to be taken down and put into indoor storage in winter. At the time of Priestley’s visit, Wade was making drawings for a possible castle to overlook the village, but that’s a project that does not seem to have got off the drawing board.

Wade gave up his architectural practice to concentrate on running his house and its eccentric collection, funding his obsessions with a private income, I believe. Making the buildings for his model village must have been a sort of surrogate architecture for him. For modern visitors, leaving the eccentricity of house for the quiet beauty of the garden, it’s one reminder that we have not quite escaped the bizarre magpie world of Charles Paget Wade.

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*Wade’s village has a claim to be the first of all miniature villages. This label is usually given to Bekonscot, near Beaconsfield (begun in the 1920s), however, presumably on the grounds that it has always been in the same location and was always a permanent construction, not one designed to be taken indoors in winter. However, if primacy of the idea is important, Wade should be given credit too.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Cogges, Oxfordshire

Sixty years a queen

The diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 inspired a host of commemorative items, from plates to trays, medals to jugs, including some jugs made by Doulton of Lambeth emblazoned with the legend, ‘She wrought her country lasting good’. I don’t know how much good Victoria did her country, how much her influence has lasted, but such commemoratives are certainly still highly visible, as a visit to any antiques fair will show.

One can also find Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee commemorated on buildings. Jubilee clocks are still keeping time on some public buildings. There are also ceramic plaques like this one attached to the lychgate to the churchyard at Cogges, telling us that the gate itself was built in Jubilee year. The 1880s and 1890s were a great age of ceramic decoration on buildings – terracotta sunflowers and sprigs of foliage were a favourite motif of builders constructing houses, especially the larger than average houses of well to do streets in the suburbs. A builder could buy standard sunflower or foliage tiles or order bespoke panels bearing house names and insert them into the walls as the courses of bricks went up.

This Jubilee plaque is on a still larger scale. A profile portrait of the monarch, like one from a coin or a postage stamp, is surrounded by a roundel, a band containing her title ‘Empress of India’ and a border naming her other principal domains, from Gibraltar to New Zealand. Lions and crowns fill up the remaining spaces, as if we needed the imperial idea to be emphasised still further.

A number of these plaques survive on buildings in Great Britain and, for all I know, in the countries of what was then the British Empire. They were made, I believe, at Stanley Brothers Brick and Tile Works in Nuneaton. This one on a lychgate would have been seen every Sunday by those going to church. Others, I’m sure were on still more prominent buildings on High Streets in major towns. As we know from recent decades, British people still know how to celebrate a jubilee, but in its memorialisation of empire and dominion, this commemoration belongs to another age.

Friday, May 3, 2024

Shaldon, Devon

Reuse it!

In the list of things that need to be done but which are better put off till tomorrow, book-weeding is near the top. When bookpiles stealthily grow like silent stalagmites on the bedroom floor, it’s an indication that there’s no let-up in the book-buying. My shelves of English architectural history, of English literature, of books about places, music, art, keep growing. And the Resident Wise Woman is adding to the accumulation with her collection of contemporary poetry. Our house is not of infinite size. It’s not even large. So occasionally, I try to go through my shelves, weed out some volumes I think I no longer need, and make room for the recent acquisitions.

The few that make it off the shelves and into cardboard boxes go either to second-hand booksellers or – mostly these days – to charity shops. That way, I feel better about things by telling myself I’m doing some good with these rejected treasures. There has been the odd one – usually an obsessively re-read book that has actually fallen to pieces – that has had to go into the fortnightly recycling collection. But on the whole, if my redundant books eventually reach new homes, that’s a plus as far as I’m concerned. Re-use is better than recycling.

It’s similar with redundant buildings. If a building is no longer needed for its original purpose, there’s often an impulse to demolish it and start again. But often it’s far less wasteful to find a new user who’ll take it on, fill it with activity, and maintain it. Years ago I wrote a trio of books to accompanying the BBC’s series Restoration, about rescuing historic buildings that were empty, abandoned, or at risk. I quickly realised that the key step in this process was working out what each structure’s new use could be.

The buildings in those programmes ranged from large country houses to modest workshops. But none of them was as modest as a telephone kiosk. Red telephone boxes are vanishing from Britain’s streets. They’re out of touch with the times now we all have mobile phones and some of them are hardly used at all.

The telephone box was brilliantly designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. Its curving roof, glazed doors and sides, its sign, and its red paint make it instantly recognisable – it’s almost as powerful symbol of our country as a Union Jack or the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. The red box is ideal for its intended purpose. It must have seemed that such a tiny structure could do little else if it was ever found to be redundant. And yet the truth has proved very different. Communities that want to save their telephone boxes have found all sorts of uses for them – miniature libraries or art galleries, places to house defibrillators, village information hubs, mini-museums, even planters . I’d need quite a few telephone boxes to house even the books I ought to get rid of. But when I saw this box in Shaldon, with its shelf of books, I was impressed. It’s a charity shop in little, with a bit of this, a bit of that, books included, to raise money for a local good cause. Creative re-use exemplified.* When I passed it a while back, both the idea and its realisation shed some welcome light on a dull and rainy day.

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* With the exception of the clunky font used for the signage, which could be much better.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Piccadilly, London: a reprise

Red face, red box

I want to reprise a post I did about nine years ago, because it provides some context for another post I intend to write shortly. So here is a brief account of the prototype red telephone box that stands at the entrance to the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London, a tiny building that stands at the beginning of the story of one of Britain’s best known, and best loved, bits of architectural design. Here’s what I wrote back then.

Having coffee in Notting Hill Gate before calling my son to arrange our visit to the Ai Weiwei exhibition, I take out my mobile…to discover that the battery is completely drained. As I search my memory (I did put the mobile on charge, didn’t I?) I’m sure that there’s a public telephone in the underground station…but I’m equally sure that I can’t remember my son’s number. Well, who needs to know phone numbers? They’re in the mobile’s memory, are’t they? The problem requires the ingestion of more caffeine….

As I stare into the coffee lees and try to turn over the compost heap of my memory I somehow uncover part of my son’s number. By the time I get down into the underground and a blast of fresh air and particulates has further invigorated my system, I have managed to recover all of it – I really don’t know how – and my problem is solved. Later, walking into the gateway of the Royal Academy I see the origin, as it were, of my salvation: the prototype red telephone box, the very first K2 box, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott as an entry in a competition in 1924 and built, this experimental one, out of wood.

One or two of my steadfast readers will know that I am occasionally an advocate of kicking a building, but this one I tap, and yes, it gives off a woody sound. Looking at the prototype, it’s very similar to the final iron K2 design. Differences include the precise proportions of glazed to solid area in the door (the prototype has a slightly larger solid area at the bottom) and the pierced lettering of ‘TELEPHONE’, which was replaced by a glazed panel in the final version. The pierced lettering has the added advantage of providing ventilation – the old boxes could get rather stuffy inside. Both prototype and finished designs are again subtly different from the later and more common K6 box, which is slightly narrower and shorter and has a different glazing pattern. The K2, by comparison, is grander, larger, more imposing, truer perhaps to the origins of the design in the neo-classical architecture of that master of shallow domes and ingenious lighting effects, Sir John Soane. Dignified yet brashly coloured, classical yet practical in a modern world, the K2 is, quite simply, a lovely design.

I was grateful, the day I stopped and looked at Giles Gilbert Scott’s little masterpiece, that London still has some public telephones. They’re too often seen, in these days of the ubiquitous mobile, as useless ornaments fit only for tourists to pose in. But they’re still admired as elegant bits of ingenious design, and inventive souls, I’m pleased to say, are busy finding new uses for some of the redundant ones, from miniature art galleries to libraries. Whether used for its original purpose or not, hats off to the red box.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Totnes, Devon

Continuity and change

‘How old is that building?’ people ask. And the answer is often: ‘Various ages.’ Most buildings get altered over the years, as fashions, needs and uses change. So while one might be able to say that a structure was first built in a particular period, what we can actually see today is the result of many stages of alteration and renewal. Here are two neighbouring examples in the High Street at Totnes.

The building on the left with its black and white decoration bears a date, 1585, which no doubt marks its original construction. The N.B. whose initials also appear on the front was Nicholas Ball, a merchant, who was mayor of Totnes in 1585. Ball’s house rests on four stone columns at ground floor level. Originally these columns fronted an open loggia, with doors and windows set back – open colonnades are a feature of a number of buildings in this town. However, the open arches on this building were filled in with sash windows in the 19th century, when the door was also moved forward – although the wooden door itself, barely visible in the shadows in my photograph, is actually the original 16th-century one. Above the shallow arches of the ground floor are two further floors that were altered in the 18th century, when large sash windows fitted on both floors. The front was also heightened, probably at the time the upper windows were installed, as can be seen by the way the black uprights at either end stop far short of the cornice. So the building is a typical English mixture, showing alterations from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and is no worse for that.

Something similar can be said for the house on the right. This has an attractive pair of Georgian windows – a curvaceous bow window on the middle floor and a simple sash window on the top floor. The ground floor has what looks like a 20th-century shop window, although the black pilasters at either end and the panelled door to the left may well be older. The other striking thing about this front is that, in spite of the Georgian windows and quoins running up the sides, it’s jettied – in other words the upper floor sticks out. Jetties were a long-standing fashion from the late Middle Ages to the 17th century, and jettied buildings are timber-framed. So beneath the later plasterwork and fenestration is a wooden framework and a structure much older than it appears to the casual glance.

Thus do buildings trip us up when we make assumptions about their date, but also give us clues.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Shaldon, Devon


Shaldon, a small settlement across the estuary from Teignmouth, was originally busier and much more important than it is now – it was a centre for ship-building, but was eclipse by Teignmouth when the Shaldon side of the river silted up. So by the 19th century, Teignmouth was increasing in size, becoming the town it is today. Meanwhile, Shaldon turned into something of a backwater, although popular as a quiet place to which people retired or visited to enjoy the sea air. This new role of Shaldon saw the building in the early-19th century of a number of houses in the. cottage orné style, often with thatched roofs and Gothic windows with ornate patterns of glazing bars.

Houses like this projected an image of a kind of idealised rural life, and were occasionally decoratively over the top. Hunter’s Lodge is an example of this trend. Visitors will be foxed by the sign giving the date of ‘c. 1650’. While there may have been a house on this site in 1650, what we see today looks like a cottage orné of around 1800. The pointed windows and doorway and the elaborate glazing with its pattern of tiny hexagonal and diamond panes, point in that direction. So too do the large quoins, which, like the similar blocks around the doorway are made of Eleanor Coade’s artificial stone, which was popular in the Regency period and lent itself to the production of multiple copies of the same three-dimensional image.

The decorative piece de résistance, however, is the horizontal band with its repeated fox heads (below), which may too be made of Coade stone. I have to say, these fox faces inspired whoops of joy when the Resident Wise Woman and I first spotted them laid out in a row like more traditional architectural ornamental patterns, from Greek keys to medieval ‘stiff leaf’. Whatever you think about fox-hunting — and the views on this subject are diverse – how can one not find these foxes charming?

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*For more about Coade stone, see an earlier post from this blog, here.

Stroud, Gloucestershire


Place and taste

I was recently reading Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst, about the beautiful castle in Kent restored and lived in by his grandparents, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. Adam Nicolson is the third generation of his family to live there and its garden, also the creation of Vita and Harold, is world-famous. In the book, I found this very apposite observation about places: ’It is an article of faith with me that a place consists of everything that has happened there; it is a reservoir of memories, and understanding those memories is not a trap but a liberation, a menu of possibilities’.

This is very much how I think about buildings and its truth was exemplified when I saw this ghost sign in Stroud. Actually, it was the Resident Wise Woman who spotted it first, and I expressed surprise that, having been to Stroud dozens (at least) of times, I’d not noticed it before. ‘Pritchard’s delicious home-made what?’ we wondered, fancying that we could make out a hint of the first letter of the missing bottom line – could that be part of an ’S’, and could the answer be ‘Sausages’?

It does indeed seem to be the case that this was the premises of Walter Pritchard, butcher, and his two sons, Arthur and Jack, and that the family opened their business here in 1928, the sons carrying on into the 1960s. The shop front, with its elegant turquoise and cream tiles (a tiny bit of it is visible on the right-hand edge of my picture because the window extends around this side wall of the building), could well have been made for them – butchers often favoured attractive ‘hygienic’ tiles that could be wiped down with ease, though this one does not feature the animal tiles that some butchers went for.

For me, the shop has a more recent memory – it was until a few years ago a second hand bookshop, which always had a large selection of books on film and architecture. Quite a few volumes on my shelves came from here. So if some older residents think of it as ‘the old butcher’s’ and remember its sausages (for foods too are at their best local and distinctive), I remember it as a source of books about architecture. No doubt for some it has yet other associations, accruing to form the reservoir of memories that Adam Nicolson mentions.