Sunday, April 5, 2020

Dartmouth, Devon


In the list of things I’ve meant to post, for ages, but not got round to, the south doorway of Saint Saviour’s church, Dartmouth, must be near the top. As so often with medieval church doors, it’s the ironwork that stands out. Indeed ‘stands out’ is putting it mildly. This ironwork gets up and roars at you, ‘Look at me! Have you seen the like?’*

What we’re looking at above is the the top half of the door, which shows one of two strap hinges in the shape of stylised heraldic lions. As well as incorporating the working hinges (at the tail end), the lions help tie together the half dozen wooden planks that make up the door. They stand in the branches of a tree, and their extended bodies look heraldic.

This lion’s face is crudely drawn and, frankly, not very leonine, although there are traces of jagged lines, presumably to indicate a mane, incised on the creature’s chest. The tail, doubling back on itself, its thin length ending in a tufted tip, is clearly a lion’s tail, however. Such tails (and the raised front paw) are very much drawn from heraldic convention, witness the three lions passant guardant on the English royal arms.§

The tree the lions stand in has gently curving branches and a few charming notched and serrated leaves. It’s the style of these leaves that suggests to most authorities† that this ironwork is medieval, and probably 15th century. The date on the door, 1631, may indicate when a major repair was carried out. Whatever the date, this ironwork is a terrific example of English craftsmanship producing something satisfying – a strong image that also makes for a strong and effective door.

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* Special thanks are due to the Resident Wise Woman, who got busy with her camera while I just stood there in amazement.

§ They’re certainly not literal copies of heraldic lions – there are lots of details that would make a herald send them back to the drawing board – but surely that’s where the inspiration came from.

† Such as the inspector who wrote the listing text for the building, and the most recent edition of the Pevsner volume for Devon.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New Cavendish Street, London

A kind of looking

This is a brick building on the corner of Great Portland Street and New Cavendish Street in central London. I’d passed it before, so rather than being a ‘Blimey! I hadn’t noticed that’, it was a ‘I really mean to look at that more closely and take a photograph’. On this occasion, I wasn’t rushing to a meeting, or to lunch, and I wasn’t in a hurry to catch a train, so I took the photograph.

Taking a photograph is a different kind of looking, and can work in several ways. One is the look that concentrates so closely on a specific detail – like the curvy, Art Nouveauish name panel on this building – that I don’t notice what else is in the frame: I remember with amused embarrassment how I once looked through my viewfinder with a sort of antiquarian tunnel vision at an archway and totally missed the man putting up a deckchair in the far right-hand part of the frame. On such occasions I remember some text I once edited for a book about taking photographs. The author, a professional photographer and teacher of photography, explained how the controls of an old-fashioned sheet-film camera with a bellows and a big focusing screen encouraged the user to work slowly, scan the image after each adjustment, and check many times before pressing the shutter. The cost of sheet film probably encouraged such a method too.

It’s all a bit different these days, when one holds up a smartphone, strokes the screen gently, and walks on. Often, I remember that bellows camera, try to slow down, and study my screen. And on this occasion, when I zoom out a little I see three different kinds of lettering, and frame the picture so that a good sample of the other two signs can be seen too, while still giving prominence to the one I’m most interested in.

So what do we have? On the left, a standard City of Westminster street sign. This design was created by the Design Research Unit in 1967–8 for the newly formed Borough of Westminster and is familiar to anyone who knows London.* Sans serif capitals in black for the street name, red for the postal district and, beneath a black rule, smaller red capitals for ‘CITY OF WESTMINSTER’. It’s simple, and conveys three levels of information clearly. No wonder this way of showing a street name is familiar all over the world. To many it means London.

Running along the bottom is the name of the café that occupies the ground floor. The letterform used for this sign is a far cry from the mostly very traditional typography of the books in which I’ve made my working life. I guessed that the letters were designed some time in the 1960s or after and they turn out to belong to a font called ITC Bauhaus. This font was designed in the 1970s.† It seems to say that it’s modern, a bit different, and easy-going, but that’s just my take on it. It looks of its time and it’s clear and different enough to stand out and tells us where we are.

Something similar might be said of the ‘Cavendish House’ name panel. The curvy path the letters take, and their similarly curvy double cross-bars are very much redolent of the 1890s. The curves suggest a hint of Art Nouveau, but the overall impression, from the classical form of the frame to the way the capital C embraces its neighbouring letter, would not, I think, have seemed especially outré, even in the previous decade – there’s a period feel, but it’s not specific. The separation of ‘AD’ and the date is a little absurd, and doesn’t quite achieve the balance that was probably intended, because the top-left-hand corner of the panel is a bit cramped. But I could go on all afternoon (about the N’s high cross-bar, the narrow V…). But anyone with a sense of proportion has moved on by now, stopped staring at their screen, and pressed the button. One way or another, they certainly know where they are.

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* For a further example, see another of my posts, here. The font in Univers.

† The link to the Bauhaus, the prewar school of design founded in Germany, is that ITC Bauhaus is based on (but rather different from) the ‘universal typeface’ designed by Herbert Bayer, who worked on it while he was director of printing and advertising at the Bauhaus in the 1920s.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Lewes, Sussex

A swift half

It has become clear to me that I am long overdue a visit to Sussex, a fine county packed with architectural interest, famously situated, unlike my native Cotswolds, ‘by the sea’, and home to good friends, prized even higher than good architecture! So, as my day began with a conversation about alcohol, thoughts of Sussex also led to Sussex beverages, and to the architecture of the fine Brewery of Harvey’s in Lewes.

Now, careful readers of this blog (I know there are some!) may have noticed that I have a few favourite architects who, though not among the acknowledged greats, nevertheless produced work whose qualities I admire. Not the Soanes or Lutyenses, who seem to be able to handle everything – space, form, surface, facade, light, setting – to produce buildings that are both surprising and wonderfully satisfying – but minor masters who could do one thing well, in a way that tickles my fancy. Victorian rogues like S. S. Teulon, with his bizarre OTT decoration and arresting forms and spaces; or Cuthbert Brodrick, who could do grandiose like no one else and did it, magnificently, in Leeds; or really minor minor masters, like disappointed Peter Ellis of Liverpool, who tried, it seems, to invent modern architecture 50 years too early, and apparently gave up, ignored or crushed by criticism. And then – to get to the point – there are the specialists, such as man-of-many-theatres Frank Matcham and brewery whiz William Bradford.

I’ve had cause to admire William Bradford’s work before, at Cheltenham and, supremely, at Hook Norton. How pleasant, then, to encounter his work again in Lewes, as I did a few years ago. This is the place where one of my favourite pints is produced: Harvey’s Bridge Wharf Brewery. Bradford (1845–1919) may have worked in the brewing industry before turning to architecture, but was in practice in his own right by 1879. This was also the date of his earliest brewery work, although he seems to begin with to have specialized in designing and altering pubs. He notched up some seventy brewery jobs (not all new build – many were upgrades or expansions of existing breweries), and developed his own very special style. From the outside, his breweries can be recognised by their striking roofscapes (with towers often topped with wrought-iron crowns or finials), picturesque grouping of buildings or parts of buildings, and an interesting mix of materials – if he could combine brickwork, timber framing, plasterwork, weatherboarding, and dramatic glazing patterns in one building, he did. Harvey’s Bridge Wharf Brewery (1882) is a good example of this style, which also at its best involved the use of white-framed windows in the ‘Queen Anne’ manner.

Internally, the buildings are well and practically planned and his drawings reveal not only good draughtsmanship but also a clear concern for the most efficient placing of all the varied bits of machinery and equipment used in a brewery – tanks, mash tuns, coppers, hoppers, steam engines, pipes, ducts, and cocks. The picturesque placing of his buildings and towers, then, comes more often than not from putting the different brewing functions where they worked best. That, I think, was why he was so successful, and why brewer after brewer went to him for designs.

But Bradford knew too that a striking building was good publicity.§ Many brewers put an illustration of their brewery on posters, advertisements, and bottle labels. If their premises looked the part, so much the better. Bradford’s building at Lewes looks as good as its products taste. And its owners seem, in planning later alterations, seem to have done so in a manner in keeping with Bradford’s work.† I look forward to the time when I can both see the building again, and join ‘the men that live the South Country’¶ and taste its products on their home turf.

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§ He seems to have liked an event that would make good copy. Lynn Pearson, in her book British Breweries: An Architectural History (1999), to which I am indebted, tells how in 1882, the year of the Harvey’s project, he climbed to the top of the 120-foot chimney of the Swan Brewery, Fulham, along with the brewer and contractors. At the top, they ‘christened’ the structure’s iron crown and drank ‘bumpers of champagne’. I hope they had some beer, later, when brewing had begun. 

† Some of what you see in my photograph dates from a later phase than the original Bradford building, but it is all very much is his spirit.  

¶ And the women too. See Hilaire Belloc’s poem, ‘The South Country’ for more praise of this part of the world.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

National Gallery, London

‘You’re the National Gallery, You’re Garbo’s salary…

…You’re cellophane…’ says Cole Porter in the song ‘You’re the top’,* rustling up superlatives, but keeping part of his tongue in his cheek.§ One of the superlative stars of the Boris Anrep mosaics in the National Gallery foyer is Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, whose face – and hairstyle – are based on those of Greta Garbo. Garbo was so famous for being famous, so well known for being able to name her price when it came to a starring role in a movie, so notorious for wanting to reject the trappings of fame (‘I want to be let alone’†), that it’s easy to forget how good an actress she was. Boris Anrep, who had an eye for female beauty, must have found her face captivating but, an artist himself,. no doubt responded to her art too.

A couple of weeks before the virus made travel unwise, let alone proscribed, I spent a short while in the National Gallery looking at some Dutch paintings, and made what has become a habitual stop to look at the mosaics on my way out. They have become for me one of the symbols of what this blog is about. That’s to say, they’re not architecture, but one of the adjuncts to or enhancements of architecture; they’re fun and a bit whacky (people playing cricket and Christmas puddings sit near Apollo and the Muses), and they’re not much noticed.

Now the gallery routes visitors in via another entrance, the mosaics are on the way out and people think as they leave that they are done with art and are making singlemindedly for the door. When people did come in this way, they were heading singlemindedly for the galleries, so didn’t notice the mosaics then either. Now of course the gallery is closed to visitors, no one sees them at all and Garbo, along with Anrep’s other models (Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova, Edith Sitwell, Bertrand Russell, and the rest), are let alone at last.

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* From the musical Anything Goes, 1934.

§ Cellophane? Well, although it was invented in 1908, Cellophane was only licensed for US distribution in 1923. An enhanced version of 1927 made it waterproof and suitable for wrapping food. So in 1934, when the Porter song appeared, it was still a modern wonder-material.

† Which everyone remembers as ‘I want to be alone,’ because the actress was later given this line in the film Grand Hotel. Thanks to the Resident Wise Woman, my go-to authority on Garbo (and much else) for helping me get that straight.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Park Street, London

Take Courage

This is one of my favourite London ghost signs, one that I’ve been meaning to post for a while: now seems like a good time. The plain brick structure is in the area of Southwark known as the Borough, and was once part of a brewery – the largest brewery in the world, I’m told.* It advertises the products of the brewers Courage, who once owned this building.

The sign is said to date from 1955, which which was when Courage (founded in 1787) merged with Barclay, Perkins and Company, who already owned the Anchor Brewery on this Southwark site. The building with the sign accommodated brewery staff. Brewing on this site stopped in 1981, when much of the land was sold for redevelopment – a common pattern with industrial buildings in central London in the 1980s, when many firms realised they could make money by selling their valuable properties and relocating on a cheaper site elsewhere. Mercifully the sign, although faded now, is still there.

The way the sign straddles the wall, the two gables crowning it and drawing attention to it, must have caught the eyes of thousands of people, including many passing to and from London Bridge station. When passing myself, I’ve heard others puzzling over its meaning and assuming that it’s simply an appeal to people to stiffen the upper lip and face misfortune bravely. But beer drinkers, especially those who live in London, know that it refers to their favoured tipple, and when I lived in the capital, Courage Best and Directors bitters were the standard pints in many a London pub. I expect they still are. In these tough times, when pubs are closed, we need courage as much as ever – and Courage too, many would add.

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*It is actually on the corner of Park Street and Redcross Way, close to some of the many railway tracks that criss-cross this part of London, mostly elevated above the roads on brick arches.

Friday, March 20, 2020



The two vintage road signs in my photograph come from a long-gone generation of British signage, once common on this country’s roads. They conform, I think, to a 1934 standard, which used a red triangle to denote a warning or hazard that was specified in the rectangular plate below. This plate often bore a graphic symbol, such as the inclined plane for ‘STEEP HILL’, in the sign in the background. Speed limit signs had a red open circle, and a triangle within a circle was a combination of a warning and an order, as in ‘HALT AT MAJOR ROAD AHEAD’, in the foreground.

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way I live my life. As someone over 65, I clearly need to watch my health, and I need to look after my wife, whose pre-existing medical condition puts her at risk. More than this, since one can be infected without knowing it, it’s not worth putting others at risk by indulging in unnecessary travel and the human contact that comes with it. So, in spite of the fact that exploring historic architecture has long been for me a necessary part of life, I am leaving the house and garden only to get essential supplies.

This does not, though, mean ‘HALT’ for the English Buildings blog. There are lots of places I have visited or passed by over the last few years that I have something to say about, and since readers seem to appreciate what I say and what I share, it seems worthwhile carrying on. More now than ever,  in fact, as theatres, museums, galleries, and other sources of entertainment and cultural nourishment are having to stop their normal work. The excellent Black Country Living Museum, where the photograph above was taken, is one of those that has had to close its gates.

Many musicians, actors, museums and others are stepping up and nobly presenting concerts, plays, and talks online. In the last day or two alone, I’ve come across poets doing online workshops, a classical pianist podcasting from his music room at home, and an exhibition curator, who must have spent years researching and planning a major exhibition, talking about the exhibits and giving us all the chance to see the art on the walls. Hats off to those who are offering information, interest, and inspiration in this way to anyone who’d have sought them out live – or who are interested enough to give them a try in virtual form.

So I resolve to keep blogging, returning in my memory and via my photo library to places I’ve visited in the past, as a reminder of what’s out there, to entertain and inform, and to signpost what we all hope we’ll be looking at again for ourselves, in months and years to come.

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* To make it clear: the photograph was taken earlier this year at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley, which preserves many relocated old buildings, as well as vintage signs like these. I took the picture last year.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Adam Street, London

The decorative touch

In London the other week and walking down the Strand, I remembered that I’d promised myself another look at a house in Adam Street, one of the few survivors of the ambitious development called the Adelphi, designed by Robert Adam and built by him and his brothers in the 1770s. I’ve actually posted about this building before (there is a picture of the whole front here), and have also used it in a talk I gave about Georgian London, recalling how the Adams cleared an area of small slum houses and built their streets of grand Georgian terraces – pouring a fortune into the venture. Their investment proved difficult to recoup, because a banking crash sent house prices tumbling. Contemporary engravings show glorious terraces, including a spectacular one overlooking the Thames, but most of them have gone, pray to 20th-century demolitions.

It occurred to me when I spoke about the development in my talk that I really needed a photograph that showed the decorative detailing on the surviving facade in Adam Street, specifically the front of a house that has especially elaborate treatment because it faces up John Adam Street, providing a focus for the view along that street. So I stood in the middle of the road, pointing my phone at stucco pilasters and ornamental ironwork, producing some puzzled glances from passers-by and the photograph above.

What it shows is a pair of vertical pilasters in white stucco, standing out from the dark brickwork. The pilasters are decorated all the way up with repeated anthemion motifs – part of the standard ornamental repertoire of ancient Greek architecture, but not often used up a pilaster like this. Below them are the pilasters flanking the door, similarly ornamental, though here the motifs are framed by ovals made up from snaking bands that make their sinuous way up the pilaster. There aree also swags in the lintel above the door. The ironwork complements all this, but this time in black rather than white.

The Pevsner volume on this part of London adds the interesting note that this ironwork was produced by the Carron Company of Falkirk and was some of their earliest. John Adam, furthermore, was a shareholder in the Carron Company, so the choice was a natural one. The financial difficulties with the Aldephi development reveal that the Adams’ investments did not always work out. John’s stake in Carron probably did well for him though. Carron went on to produce architectural ironwork by the ton. I’ve noticed before their ubiquitous ‘heart and honeysuckle’ ironwork used (as here in little ‘balconettes’ or elsewhere in full-blown balconies) from London to Cheltenham.

The Scottish iron founder’s products work well in the context of the Adams’ decoration and the overall effect of their grand, if ill-fated, scheme. People sometimes think of Georgian architecture as sober and plain. But often it has charming decorative touches. especially in the hands of Robert Adam, who usually had a light and felicitous touch.