Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Taunton, Somerset


Light thrown on the familiar

A brief stop in Taunton on my way deeper into southern Somerset a while ago saw the south facade of the castle bathed in sunlight. I took time to pause for a few minutes and take in some of the details. The gatehouse, accessed by a bridge over a dry moat, still boasts work of the 13th or 14th centuries, when the castle belonged to the bishops of Winchester. It was apparently more a centre for running the large estates of the diocese than a military fortress, although later, in the mid-15th century, it was strong enough to be worth besieging, and later still its garrison put an end to the uprising of Perkin Warbeck against Henry VII. Henry’s coat of arms can still be (just) made out at the top, above those of Bishop Langton over the archway. The upper part of the gatehouse dates to a remodelling of the late-15th century.

What we can see from here of the rest of the building looks the way it does thanks to another set of alterations, this time between the 1790s and c. 1816, when Sir Benjamin Hammet (a banker, building contractor and MP for Taunton) rebuilt parts of the structure to accommodate Assize Courts and judges’ lodgings. The facing of the wall and the pointed windows are from Hammet’s time; the smaller mullioned windows downstairs are later still.

One hopes that the judges appreciated the efforts made on their behalf, with well-lit upgraded accommodation very close to the courts where they worked when the Assizes were in session. Those who were not judges but also needed somewhere to stay had a choice of two gothic-style inns that are still there, very close by but out of my photograph. These are still impressive but much altered compared to the castle, so for now at least, I’ll let this building have its place in the sun.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Still busy

The beehive has been a powerful symbol for centuries. For some it has represented ‘the winged republic’, where society runs in an equitable way, with each individual playing their role to general benefit of the whole. For others, it has stood for industry and productivity. Perhaps the latter train of thought was behind the adoption of the beehive as the symbol of Lloyd’s Bank in 1822. It was the bank’s sole symbol until they took over Barnett ’s Bank in 1884, when the company also began to use Barnett’s emblem: the black horse. Both symbols were used by the bank until the 1930s, when the hive was phased out and the black horse remained.

But the occasional Lloyd’s beehive survives, like this one on a hanging sign in Bury St Edmunds. Since sign and bracket alike have clearly been carefully designed and made with some skill, it’s understandable that no one wanted to throw it away. The sign has a dome shape at the top to accommodate the hive, which is itself cut out from the background and coloured the same gold as the lettering. The bracket is shaped to follow the contours of the hive, adorned with curlicues and finials, and braced with a diagonal strut; it’s fancy, but not distracting because the clear lettering and symbol make the sign very easy to read: I’d say the combination works very well. No doubt that fact that the building it’s attached to is still branch of Lloyd’s means it’s still effective too, alerting anyone who doesn’t know to the bank’s location as they approach along the pavement. It was, I’d say, a good investment.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Bishops Cleeve, Gloucestershire

The Madonna of the Butterflies with Saints Michael and Jerome

Something a little different for my Christmas picture this year. Fortunate is the church that has a piece of modern art that works as well as this altarpiece, painted in 2018 for the church of St Michael and All Angels, Bishops Cleeve by the local artist P J Crook. P J Crook’s works range widely and are exhibited in galleries all over the world. For this altarpiece, she worked within the traditional framework of the triptych, filling the work with symbols that are familiar to anyone who had looked at a lot of Christian art. Yet the imagery is also unmistakeably of its time and of its painter: the directness of the way the faces are painted and their deceptively simple range of skin tones, the teeming detail, and the way in which the imagery spills out on to the frame are all typical of the artist.

The triptych shows the Virgin and Child with Mary’s head surrounded by butterflies and angels; saints Michael and Jerome are portrayed in the side panels; the base bears an image of the Last Supper. The butterflies, with their metamorphic life cycle (there’s a caterpillar, by the way, at the bottom of the picture), stand for resurrection, renewal, and the release of the soul from the body. They are just one of an array of symbols: rosemary represents remembrance, the lily of the valley is also called Our Lady’s Tears, the poppy indicates that the altarpiece was painted at the time of the anniversary of the end of World War I. The dove to which the infant Jesus points is a symbol of peace, but also represents the Holy Spirit.

There are also local allusions. There are minute figures of the Magi on horseback (their mounts a reminder that Bishops Cleeve is a stone’s throw from Cheltenham Racecourse). St Michael (battler with the devil, weigher of souls in heaven) is there in part because of the church’s dedication – and that dedication gives the presence of angels in the altarpiece further relevance; there’s a small image of the church above the saint’s left shoulder. The female figure entering through the door beneath the dove is Margaret Whitehead, a local school nurse who was killed in a car accident. She is also seen in the background in her nurse’s uniform, with a group of children. A painting of the infant Christ can also look forward to his crucifixion and resurrection, and this triptych deals with mortality in several ways. The images of Margaret Whitehead represent one way; St Jerome’s contemplation of mortality (symbolised by the skull) is another; the presence of a fox, symbolising King Herod, who ordered the massacre of the innocents, is another; candles stand not only for the light of God but also for remembrance of the dead.

The complexity of this altarpiece, then, reaches the depths, but the directness of the imagery is powerful too and the way in which its art enhances life is, in my eyes, a triumph. I hope that all my readers have an enjoyable and life-enhancing time over the coming days of celebration. Happy Christmas – and season’s greetings, whatever your beliefs.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Daglingworth, Gloucestershire

Under snow and in hiding

The heading above could be about me. Gloucestershire has been snowbound for days, the temperatures have dipped to new lows, and I’m hardly venturing out at all, let alone looking at buildings. So I thought I’d find an appropriately chilly photograph: one from some years ago of the church at Daglingworth, near Cirencester, seems to fit the bill.

Looked at in passing, there seems to be nothing unusual about this little building. Apparently it’s a medieval church with a short version of the plain and simple west tower so common in the Cotswolds, and a later chancel, which turns out to be a Victorian rebuild of 1850–51. Look closer, however: long and short quoins and a doorway with a semi-circular arch of great simplicity suggest that the nave is Anglo-Saxon. Inside is a Saxon chancel arch and a group of four carved reliefs – two Crucifixions, a Christ in Majesty, and a St Peter – that also look pre-conquest.

The better preserved of the Crucifixions is the most striking of all. Set in the nave very close to a south-facing window, it’s difficult to photograph at all well, but the image above will give you the general idea. The crucified Christ wears a loincloth and his head is surrounded by a circular nimbus with a cross. On either side stand two Roman soldiers, one with the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, one with the vinegar-soaked sponge. Scholars argue about when and where it was carved – the late-10th or early-11th century seems to be the most likely guess for its date.

What’s certain, however, is that this relief and two of the others spent years hidden from view. They were only discovered when Victorian workers took apart the nave’s east wall during the rebuilding of the chancel. They found the stones reused in the masonry, their carved faces turned inwards so that they could not be seen. Were they hidden during the iconoclastic period of the Reformation, their images concealed by someone who revered them too much to destroy them? The Victorians had other ideas, removed them from their hiding place and displayed them on the walls. Although damaged, the carvings are still strong and moving images and although the church has been empty whenever I’ve visited, I’m sure people come many miles to see them. Historians of early medieval art and church-crawlers certainly know about them. Others should too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Southwold, Suffolk

Going Dutch

We didn’t get the chance to go inside Southwold Museum on our recent visit to the town. But I spent a few minutes to admire its modest but lovely exterior, which was built as a house in the late-17th or early-18th century, and was converted to a museum in the 1930s. I have a weakness for this kind of thing: small buildings on which a bit of extra effort has been expended; curvy ‘Dutch’ gables; the combination of brick and pantile; odd-shaped windows.

By 1933, when the building was left to the town on the condition that it was made into a museum, this small house was in a dilapidated state. According to the museum’s website, much of it had to be rebuilt, and the brickwork of the walls does seem to be of various dates. The restorers maintained the overall design of the street front, with windows of the same size, shape and position, although the side windows got longer to give the interior more natural light. Structural strengthening was needed too – the ends of tie rods can be clearly seen on the street front and the side wall.

Today, the building is full of charm. It doesn’t worry me that that Venetian window is oddly proportioned, or that it interrupts the horizontal band of bricks that marks the eaves level. I’m happy that the building is there, and represents a small example of that kind of brick building, Dutch-inspired and curvy-gabled, that can be seen on the east coast of England, notably (for me) in my native county of Lincolnshire. It’s a bit of local distinctiveness that seems entirely right for a local museum. I hope my next visit is not in the winter so that the museum is open and I can look inside.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Thorpeness, Suffolk

Wild east

I’ve posted here before about the wonderful wooden buildings of Thorpeness, the holiday village in Suffolk built by Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, mostly in the years after World War I. The signature looks of Thorpeness are black weatherboarding and black-and-white timber framing, but there are brick structures here too, and houses with walls rendered in pale colours. Some of the brick buildings were already in the small settlement (then called Thorpe) which was here before the holiday village was begun. I have also read that at the beginning of the 20th century, people started to build houses that looked on to the beach, most of them in pale painted wood. Here’s an example of such a house – it may well have been renewed since the early days – much of the boarding looks spick and span – but it gives, I think, the impression of what those early houses might have looked like.

In the years around 1910 it was possible to buy a plot of land and build on it with relatively few planning restrictions. Many people constructed cheap houses for themselves out of wood (or even out of old railway carriages), a phenomenon seen in the ‘plotland’ settlements of this period. This bungalow, with its simple boarded structure, low lines, and long conservatory clinging to the sides of the building, is the kind of thing I have in mind. Not all were as elegant as this – some of the the railway-carriage houses, which were once quite common, had the rough and ready bricolage character of pioneer settlements. Something I’ve referred to more than once as the ‘wild east’. This house, with its stripy paintwork and curvy bargeboards, is more civilised than some. But either way the owner could be out of the door, through the gate, and on to the beach in seconds. And that is not altogether bad.

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* Thorpeness Halt, the long-closed local railway station, had recycled railway carriages that were used as waiting rooms. I posted a railway carriage house – in Sussex not Suffolk – here.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Bedford

 

Clock and bull story

Like my previous post, this is another Victorian shop facade that caught my eye on a rainy day in Bedford not long ago. Actually it was the clock and its accompanying bull that attracted me first. ‘A fancy job,’ I thought to myself. ‘I wonder if the shop below belonged to a jeweller.’ Jewellers often combined their craft with that of clockmaker and would put a clock on their premises as a way of showing off their wares while also attracting attention. The building did indeed house a jeweller, and was built in 1878. The style is unlike that of Adkin’s building in my previous – Venetian Gothic has been replaced by a version of what became known as Queen Anne – red bricks, terracotta decorative panels, and a lot of fancywork using special bricks to form pilasters, pediments, keystones and other details. The gable is still elaborate, but this time in a classical way, in contrast to the Gothic form of Adkin’s building. There was once a figure of Father Time in the niche above the clock, but he seems to have been overtaken by the very time he represented, and is no more.

As for the clock, it certainly worked for me in that it attracted my attention. The fancy gilded decoration. and the iron scrolls around the edge of the case do the business, as does the golden bull. What is he doing there? Was the building later home to a butcher? Well, the occupant’s name was John Bull, so this imposing creature is a rebus, a symbol of the family name, not an indication that this address was once home to a butcher (although, as it happens, it was). Pevsner tells us that he is a replacement. So someone has been caring for this elaborate bit of street decoration, although not to the extent of getting the clock to show the right time. Accuracy in timekeeping was of course a major concern to clockmakers like John Bull. Apparently there was once a vertical pole set behind the clock, with a ball set near the top of it. At precisely 10.00 am every morning, the ball slid down the pole, striking a bell in the process. The mechanism was activated by an electrical signal from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, thus providing guaranteed accurate time, from which locals could set their watches. Alas on the day I took this photograph, the clock did not display the correct time, but maybe this lapse has by now been rectified.