Friday, January 14, 2022

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

There is nothing like a dome

I thought I knew Great Malvern well. I visit it quite often, have inspected it beautiful, late-medieval priory, admired its splendid Victorian railway station, walked its leafy, genteel streets, trekked up – or part-way up – its hills in search of wells and views, and have poked around its secondhand bookshops in search of more things to add to my shelves. So the other day, walking down one of its streets for the first time, I looked to one side and saw the surprising structure in my photograph.

So what is it? Fortunately for me, a lottery-funded scheme to put up plaques explaining bits of Malvern’s history obliged with some information. It turns out to be something rather unusual. It is one of the very few surviving Binishells (named after their inventor, the Italian Dante Bini, and sometimes called Bini domes) in the UK. What distinguishes such a dome is the way it is built. The structure starts with a base, which takes the form of a concrete ring beam. On top of this is laid a large circular sandwich, in which the bread is two sheets of neoprene, while the filling is a mesh of expanding steel coil and a lot of wet concrete. When all this is in place and lying flat on top of the base, the builders pump air into the space between the base and the sandwich, inflating the neoprene, stretching the skin and expanding the reinforcing coil. In the case of the Malvern dome, which is 36 metres across, an hours’ pumping inflated the dome to 11 metres high. The air and stretched neoprene were then kept in this position, supported by air pressure, for three days, by which time the concrete would have set. Result: one dome, for use as a school sports hall..

In this example, eight windows were cut into the lower part of the dome once it had set solid, to provide natural light. When it was completed in 1978, the Duke of Edinburgh† came to open it, and it has been used for its original purpose ever since. Although it looks rather an interloper amongst Malvern’s greenery and mainly 19th-century architecture, its green curves are not entirely out of place among the trees. I hope it continues to be used and maintained – I know of only one other Bini shell in England, in Mildenhall, Suffolk, also a sports hall, though there may well be others. Here’s to Dante Bini and his domes.

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* Dante Bini, architect and industrial designer, born 1932, admirer of such innovative engineers as Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller, the latter famous for his pioneering work on geodesic domes. Bini has also been involved in designing rapidly built housing for the victims of disasters, making his designs available to others royalty-free.

† The dome is called the Edinburgh Dome in his honour.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Stowe, Buckinghamshire


Buildings in a landscape, 3

Set on a rise, looking across Stowe’s Elysian Fields towards the Temple of British Worthies (see previous post), the Temple of Ancient Virtue is circular, domed, and surrounded by 16 Ionic columns. By making the temple round, William Kent chose one of the purest, most symbolically perfect architectural forms to house a shrine to four exemplary ancient Greeks: the general Epaminondas, the law-maker Lycurgus, the philosopher Socrates, and the epic poet Homer. Viscount Cobham, owner of the house and garden when Kent was doing some of his most notable work there, chose Greeks, not ancient Romans, for his ancient heroes, because he and his Whig friends were suspicious of the ruthless empire-building Romans (who after all conquered Britain), preferring the Greeks, who invented democracy and stood high for them as founders of western civilisation.

Peter Scheemakers was commissioned to create full-length statues of these great Greeks, but the originals were sold off in 1921 when the owners fell on hard times, and today the temple contains plaster replicas. This itself might be seen to symbolise the decline of the ancient virtues in the modern era, but by the 1730s, Cobham had already thought of this. Near to this temple he also commissioned a Temple of Modern Virtue. This was conceived from the beginning as a ruin and has since decayed so badly that there are only a few traces left, walls poking out of the soil here and there and promising more evidence of what once was hidden beneath the accreted earth. How pleasing that so much else in this remarkable garden has fared better, or has been sensitively restored thanks to the various efforts of Stowe School, the Stowe House Preservation Trust, and the National Trust.

Stowe: the remains of the Temple of Modern Virtue

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Mitcheldean, Gloucestershire

C + M + B

During the time I spent in the Czech Republic, I got used to seeing the letters ‘KMB’ chalked on doorways. They refer to the three magi, traditionally named Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, although in Matthew’s Gospel, the only one of the four to mention their visit to the infant Jesus, they are not individually named. They do, however, occupy a longstanding space in Christian iconography, often appearing in Nativity scenes and in paintings, carvings and stained-glass images specifically portraying the Adoration of the Magi. I posted about a stained-glass Adoration during the Christmas period some years ago, but it is one of many in English churches.

In the Czech Republic, Epiphany is celebrated as the day of the Tři králové (Three kings), and children dressed as the three kings or magi travel the streets, collecting charitable donations. The letters K + M + B (for the Czech spellings of the names, Kašpar, Melichar and Baltazar) are chalked up on the doors of houses that the kings have visited.

I was surprised to see the initials of the magi chalked in an English church when visiting Mitcheldean last year. But apparently the idea of ‘chalking the door’ with the initials is catching on in England and other countries these days. Here it is not necessarily linked to donations to charity, but to ceremonies or prayers designed to remember the three kings, to bless the house or location, and to express one’s hopes for the coming year. I’d like to express my own hope that the new year brings my readers good things. Or, in the roughly translated words of the Czech ‘kings’: ‘We three kings are coming to you and wishing you health and happiness.’

Monday, January 3, 2022

Stowe, Buckinghamshire

Buildings in a landscape, 2

The many buildings and monuments in the landscape garden at Stowe are beautifully positioned, to catch the eye, to form the climaxes of vistas, or simply to enhance the landscape features around them. One of the most effectively placed of all is the Temple of British Worthies, the exedra or semi-circular structure designed by William Kent to display a series of busts of figures who were among the heroes of the garden’s owner, Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham. Sited in the part of the garden known as the Elysian Fields, the building is positioned close to a stretch of water that is actually a narrow lake but is called the River Styx. The water catches its reflection and draws the viewer to cross a nearby bridge and take a closer look.

The inhabitants of this English Elysium are portrayed in sixteen busts (eight by John Michael Rysbrack, eight by Peter Scheemakers) and represent the Whig philosophy that Cobham himself espoused (see previous post). Each bust is accompanied by a text rather like a citation for a Nobel prize that explains the virtues of the particular worthy, in each case bringing out the particular qualities or ideas of the individual that bear most on the values that Cobham espoused – love of liberty, the primacy of human reason, opposition to Roman Catholicism, and so on. Thus John Hampden opposed ‘an arbitrary Court, in Defence of the Liberties of the Country’; Queen Elizabeth I ‘destroy’d the Power that threaten’d to oppress the Liberties of Europe’; William III ‘preserv’d the Liberty and Religion of Great Britain’; King Alfred ‘crush’d Corruption’, and so on. Other worthies, such as Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, and Alexander Pope and praised in more general terms for their understanding of nature and humankind.

All this is very specific – it doesn’t take one long, equipped with a transcript of the texts (the original inscriptions are rather worn) to work out the ideas behind this curious pantheon in which the Black Prince and Cobham’s contemporary Sir John Barnard are neighbours to Locke and Newton. However there’s a curious and very British twist to all this. Resting in the heart of the temple, beneath the pyramidal roof of the centrepiece, are the remains of one Signor Fido, a much mourned companion of Cobham, who ‘neither learnt not flatter’d any Vice’ and who ‘doubted none of the 39 Articles’. This very British worthy was not a man but a greyhound.

Such changes of perspective might make us smile, but they remind us too that there are more ways than one of appreciating such a monument. This in turn should also encourage us to take a step back from all the seriousness and actually look at the building, and remember what drew us to it in the first place. Set in its landscape, on a bright winter's day, it simply looks really good.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Stowe, Buckinghamshire

Buildings in a landscape, 1

Stowe is one of the biggest and most magnificent of English landscape gardens. It’s a 400-acre masterpiece that bears the stamp of great 18th-century gardeners such as Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who sculpted terrain using earth and water and trees to create scenery that was deemed to be more ‘natural-looking’ than the formal gardens that were fashionable in earlier ages. These landscapes were punctuated by dozens of buildings, statues and other monuments that formed focal points for vistas. And at Stowe, men of the calibre of William Kent, James Gibbs and Sir John Vanbrugh all contributed to the architecture.

This array of talent was at the service of the estate’s owners, the Temple family, and of these, Sir Richard Temple (1675–1749), who inherited Stowe in 1697 and was made 1st Viscount Cobham in 1718, was probably the most important. It was he, building on work done by his predecessors, marshalled the talent and provide the funds to create the gardens largely as we know them and to commission the buildings that are one of its major glories still. As is well known, Cobham chose and influenced the architecture to reflect his philosophical and political views, and these views were determinedly Whig, and drew on the ideas of the Enlightenment and of authors from Francis Bacon to Alexander Pope.

To be a Whig in the 18th century meant, so Cobham argued, supporting the British constitutional monarchy, opposing notions of absolute monarchy propounded by the Stuarts and their supporters, and standing up for political freedom and liberty. Cobham saw Whig virtues embodied in certain British heroes, some historical, some contemporary, some people of action, some contemplatives. Many of these qualities were, it was said, embodied in figures such as Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, John Locke, and John Milton, whose busts are displayed in the Temple of British Worthies, one of the buildings at Stowe.

Another large building in the garden is the Gothic Temple, designed by James Gibbs and part of a campaign of building and gardening that took place at Stowe in 1739–42. Unlike the Temple of British Worthies, the Gothic Temple’s connection to Whig values is less obvious. It’s easy to see it as an exception (most of the architecture in the garden is classical) and interesting as a piece of self-conscious Gothic on a large scale that predates Horace Walpole’s house Strawberry Hill, so often cited as the structure that kick-started Britain’s Gothic revival.

But from Cobham’s point of view, the Gothic Temple could be seen as symbolising virtues that Whigs valued highly. For him, Gothic meant vigour, hardihood, and a love of liberty, and was valuable as a style with north-European roots, standing at a remove from the ‘southern langour’ symbolised (allegedly) by, say, baroque buildings. It is, from this standpoint, thoroughly Whiggish.* And the building is certainly there to stand out, catch the eye, and stimulate thought and conversation. It’s huge, it’s unusually triangular in plan†, it occupies a prominent, elevated site, and is the only one of Stowe’s structures to be built of glowing orange ironstone. One might ask, seeing it for the first time, ‘Whatever is that?’¶ I’ve tried to suggest the sort of answer its creator might have given to this question. 

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* Although of course looking at it another way, none of these virtues belong exclusively, or even at all, to Gothic any more than they do to other artistic styles. I am simply trying to describe what Cobham and his Whig friends found in the style.

† Had Cobham or Gibbs got Sir Thomas Tresham’s earlier Triangular Lodge in Northamptonshire in mind?

¶ Nowadays it is also a holiday home, restored and managed by the Landmark Trust.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Long Melford, Suffolk



Holy Trinity church, Long Melford, is one of those vast East Anglian churches of the 15th century for which the term ‘awe-inspiring’ is for once quite appropriate. The craftsmanship of its masons and of the other workers who constructed it, the wealth of the local merchants and others that made it possible, the sheer size of a building that serves what is now a small Suffolk town – all make us pause. Not only that, but in this case the identities of the principal patrons are known and in many cases inscribed into the stones of the church. ‘Pray for ye sowlis of William Clopton, Margy and Margy his wifis*, and for ye sowle of Alice Clopton and for John Clopto’, and for alle thoo sowlis’ yt ye seyd John is bo’nde to prey for,†’ reads the inscription over the North porch. Several others have their inscriptions too, and some of these inscriptions are dated, so we know that work was underway in the 1480s and 1490s.

However, my photograph shows a panel of alabaster that must have survived from the church that existed before Holy Trinity got its costly rebuild. It has been dated to the late-14th century, which makes it very early for an alabaster sculpture, and it shows the Adoration of the Magi. It may be a lone survivor from an altarpiece, in which case it’s a marvel that it has escaped destruction. Most images of this kind were destroyed during the Reformation period, particularly when England’s religion turned to an austere variety of Protestantism during the reign of Edward VI. But this panel was removed from whatever position it occupied and was hidden beneath the chancel floor, where it was rediscovered in the 18th century.

There’s much to like in this relief of the Holy Family and the Magi. Mary reclines – a traditional pose much used by the artists of the Byzantine empire, and also in the Christian west. On her lap is a standing, unbabelike Jesus; again, medieval depictions of babies often use this convention, often portraying them almost as miniature adults. He reaches out his hand to the leading Magus to accept the gift, and the giver hastily removes his crown. The other two Magi look on – or do they? They have the hieratic, abstracted expressions and poses characteristic of a certain strain of medieval statuary. There are lovely touches to the left of the panel. A woman (a midwife?) plumps up Mary’s pillow. And the animals in the stable get a look in too: a pair of heads peep from low down beneath the head of the couch.

I find this panel a delight, and I offer it to my readers with season’s greetings and the very best of wishes for the coming year.

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* He seems to have had two wives who happened to share the same name.

† In other words, he is asking us to pray not only for his own soul but for certain others for whom he has promised to pray.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Logistics, Regency style

Although repainted and sliced off on one side, this old sign is still worth pausing to look at. It begs several questions. How did it come to be missing its right-hand edge when the windows on either side look old? How old is it? Who were Isaac Marsh and William Swan? Answering the last question gives a hint of an answer to the second, at least.

There was a Marsh and Son operating wagons out of Cambridge in 1808, but by 1814 the company is called Marsh & Swan. They covered a range of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk towns, as well as operating their service to London’s Bull Inn, Bishopsgate Street, a major destination for London coaches and for vehicles carrying goods such as the flies, vans and wagons* that Marsh and Swan operated. But by 1845, the company was called Swan and Sons. So this sign must date to the period between the 1800s and the early-1840s.

They’d be called a logistics firm today and run a fleet of trucks and they were as essential to commercial life as the companies whose trucks carry everything from food to pharmaceuticals now. However, their modern equivalents do not leave behind them such well crafted signs as this one, which compares more than favourably not only with the lettering on most lorries but also with that on the modern sign below it.

The sign-writer who restored it seems to have done a good job of recreating the letterforms and ornaments of the original. The balance of thick and thin strokes in the capital letters, the fancy curlicues on the ornamental ’T’, ‘Y’ and ‘B’ , and the decorative arrangement of the ‘and’ between the proprietors’ names – all these, I hope, will meet with well deserved admiration .

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* Wagons or waggons were large four-wheeled horse-drawn vehicles for carrying goods. A fly was a smaller wagon, although the term could also be applied to a horse-drawn passenger vehicle – the main feature of both was the ability to travel quickly. Vans were smaller still, with a permanent covered structure.