Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Nailsworth, Gloucestershire


Sign of which times?

It’s always worth looking out for old signs on shops – not just the sign bearing the shop name or owner’s name, but also signs that advertise goods once sold there. There are still quite a few Hovis bread signs on buildings that are no longer bakers, and during years of blogging I’ve posted signs advertising goods such as Kodak film, Ariel motorcycles, Ty-Phoo tea and Ever-Ready batteries. Walking along the main street in Nailsworth a little while ago, another example caught me eye – this Cadbury’s chocolate sign above the door of a hairdresser’s.

I was particularly struck by this sign because it seems a cut above the usual stick-on plastic ones: separate letters clearly delineated in what looks to me a rather Art Deco (i.e. 1920s or 1930s) letter form, from a time before the familiar Cadbury’s script logo (with its curly ‘C’ and artfully joined ‘db’) appeared in around 1951. In the sign in my photograph, the word ‘chocolate’, with its capitals that diminish in size, also feels true to the 1920s. Looking online, I could find only few versions of this design among the many different Cadbury’s logos and packs that appear when you Google this subject. Online sources give dates as varied as 1906 and 1920. Whatever the exact date, I think this sign in Nailsworth is rather unusual. I wonder if any of my readers know of others like it still in their original setting?

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Rock, Worcestershire

Watcher, cock, or, Odd things in churches (18)

For many of us, weathercocks are almost synonymous with churches. It was back in the 9th century that Pope Nicholas I decreed that a cockerel should be displayed at the uppermost point of every parish church, a reminder of the fateful triple crowing of the cock that signalled Peter’s betrayal of Christ. The practice of putting a rooster on every church long ago fell into neglect (if it was ever universal), but hundreds of churches still have weathercocks, combining the function of symbol with that of practical use. Know the wind direction and you’re part of the way to forecasting the weather. ‘If that cock’s pointing down the street and there’s a dark cloud over the hill,’ said an old gardener from our neighbourhood, ‘It’ll be raining here in an hour.’ He was right, and such knowledge is useful not only to gardeners but also to the farmers and farm workers who were for centuries the mainstays of the rural economy.

Nothing odd, then, about weathercocks on churches. But a weathercock inside a church is decidedly odd. And yet, what do you do with a rooster that has to be taken down from the tower? Throw him away or send him for scrap metal to be melted down? Maybe there’s a better way. Doesn’t it make sense to set him up inside the church, where his symbolic function survives and he represents a bit of church history? Or perhaps you should keep him safe, against the day when funds can be found to re-erect him on the tower, where he belongs.

Whatever the motivation for keeping this weathercock indoors, I was pleased to see him here, where he provided a few minutes’ distraction from Romanesque carvings and other delights in the church at Rock. Close-up, in spite or perhaps because of the repairs, bolts and rivets, he’s revealed as an appealing bit of folk sculpture, perhaps the proud work of a local blacksmith. The details of the head are sketched by way of telling cuts in the metal: eye, bill, comb, crest. The body is surprisingly slim, making me wonder if weathercocks (and maybe actual roosters) got plumper in more recent years. The tail is splendidly broad, its pattern of holes suggesting feathers and presumably leaving enough metal to catch the wind. In a collection of folk art like the wonderful one at Compton Verney, this would be a star exhibit. Here, in its rightful local setting, it’s a delight.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Clifton, Bristol

Classicism, but not as we know it

‘You can park on Clifton Down,’ I was told. ‘Walk down the Promenade and Litfield Place: you’ll like some of the buildings along the way.’ Even so, I was not quite prepared for the sheer size and grandiloquence of some of the 19th-century houses in this part of Clifton. They were built for the most part for merchants, who were dripping with wealth from transatlantic trade, much of it involving slavery, and who wanted sizeable houses close to some greenery, well away from the bustle of Bristol’s city centre and docks, but near enough for convenience. There are views, too, from Clifton’s heights towards the city or the countryside.

Some of these houses are from the first third of the 19th century, like Trafalgar House, which was built in the 1830s with an enormous ‘statement’ two-storey portico. The ground floor level has a lower ceiling and shorter windows thatn the enormous sashes of the floor above, and the masonry of the portico at the bottom is treated with banded rustication. This is in line with the use of ground floors as service rooms, whereas the floor above contained the large, grand rooms, where the owner received guests in the most magnificent of surroundings. So rusticated masonry on the ground floor acts as a kind of class-marker, and this floor (or the basement where there was one) was often known as the ‘rustic’ in the 18th century. The columns on the upper part of the portico are in the plainest of all classical orders, the Tuscan, indicating a sober quality somewhat belied by the statue of the cartoon character Gromit, from the Wallace and Grommit films by Bristol’s animation company Aardman, on the balcony.

But the portico is neither entirely serious nor wholly orthodox. Whoever designed it adorned the lower level with a row of three arches, an unusual touch, which gives the architecture a sense of relaxation and unorthodoxy it otherwise would not possess. The building’s architect is unknown – suggestions include Charles Dyer, who designed other houses nearby, and Charles Underwood, who started in Cheltenham as a builder before moving to Bristol to practise as an architect. Whoever it was created a striking effect that must have pleased the house’s original owners, and pleased me as I passed by the other evening.

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.