Sunday, December 23, 2007

All Saints, Margaret Street, London

This nativity image is from All Saints, Margaret Street, one of the masterpieces of the architect William Butterfield. The church is a typical Butterfield building in polychrome brick, and is full of the sort of beautiful fittings and decorations that provided an appropriate setting for the kind of worship favoured by the Victorian Tractarian movement. The building was finished in 1859, but in the 1870s Butterfield returned to design scenes and figures to be painted on tiles in the North aisle. The stars shine down on a very Victorian tiled stable. The Gothic revival came early to Bethlehem and Our Lord, of course, merits only the best when it comes to quatrefoils, columns, and canopies. Season’s Greetings.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Broad Street, Worcester

Another upward glance during the same visit to Worcester (see previous post) yielded this ornate George IV lamp and Regency ironwork. It originally formed part of the frontage of the Crown Hotel, one of Worcester’s old coaching inns, but now marks the entrance to Crown Passage, a shopping arcade. Coaching inns were once such a prominent and important part of the English scene and it's pleasing that the authorities of the city hung on to the old decoration of the Crown. The lanterns act not just as a mementoes of what was there before, but as effective beacons for shoppers heading for the mall. They're so much better and more characterful than the bland signage beneath them.

I am especially fond of old guide books, particularly the Shell Guides to the counties, which still have a lot to tell us about the spirit of the places they describe and the buildings one can find there. Browsing James Lees-Milne’s 1964 Shell Guide to Worcestershire I was pleased to see, amongst the other attractions of the city (the cathedral, the Guildhall, some beautiful Georgian houses) a fine Edwin Smith photograph of the lanterns and ironwork of the Crown. It’s good to know he noticed them too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Shop front, Worcester

In 1881 people could be bothered with things like this. A small shop in a side street in Worcester is topped with this grandiose collection of panels, scrolls, pediment, date stone, and curvaceous lamp bracket. And in the pediment is a relief of a basket of flowers, picked out in colour. So this was a florist’s, then, in 1881, and the proprietor wanted his colourful wares to be presented to the public in a veritable temple of Flora.

I include this building not because it’s an amazing piece of design or a show-stopping example of architecture or a breathtaking bit of townscape. It’s none of these things. But it is an example of the small pleasures that can be had by looking up in the least likely of places, of the modest gifts that history gives the eye.

Shops are rather good for this. Their ground floors alter restlessly with new tenants and changes in fashion. Upstairs, things evolve more slowly, or not at all. Bits of former houses, faded painted lettering, fragments of ornament, or old window frames betraying a building with a longer life than you’d guess from looking at the shop window – these are the kinds of historical trove an upward glance can yield. So look up, and be amazed.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Commonwealth House, New Oxford Street, London

Corners can be the most interesting parts of a building. From medieval castles with their mural towers onwards, how a structure makes the transition from one plane to another can tell you a lot about the building’s purpose, or its builders’ priorities. Early builders often emphasized the corner’s strength with buttresses, extra-large quoin stones, or those castle towers. But in the skyscraper age, when the structure became a hidden metal frame and the wall a ‘skin’ of glass, the priorities changed – the glazing could go right up to the corner, glass meeting glass with little or no visible means of support. Art deco buildings sometimes even had panes of glass that curved through 90 degrees, dissolving the corner completely.

But here’s a skyscraper-age building that turns a corner with emphasis. Commonwealth House is sited where New Oxford Street and High Holborn meet at an acute angle. The architect, H. P. Cart de Lafontaine, placed a round tower at the junction, a tower banded with windows and topped with a modernist clock face. It was built in 1939, and like a lot of buildings from the 1930s it’s a mixture of steely modernism – strip windows and lots of them, the numberless clock face – and, elsewhere on the building, restrained detailing drawing on Art Deco motifs. But this circular tower, placed at a major junction, is a cut above the norm, a landmark for a new age that was about to be stopped with a jolt in its tracks.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Melbourne, Derbyshire

Regular readers of this blog will remember the post a couple of weeks back about the parish church at Elkstone, Gloucestershire, an attractive small church in the Norman style of the 12th century. Here’s another Norman church, but on an altogether larger scale. This is a church planned like a cathedral. There’s a grand west front with twin towers and a large entrance portal. Inside, the nave is lined by round piers and semi-circular arches, high above which are yet more arches – and all on a scale you’d normally expect in a church in a much more important town or city. The imposing effect of the architecture is enhanced with plenty of carving too – zigzags around the arches, together with a plainer moulding that gives the design a more restrained look than Elkstone. The tops of the piers have capitals with crosses, scrolls, and other designs. Elsewhere there are some interesting animal carvings, all from the 12th century.

Why did this place have such an imposing church? Apparently the place was an outpost of the bishops of Carlisle, who used to come down to south Derbyshire when the going got tough in their northern bishopric on the border with Scotland. And so visitors to Melbourne get a pleasant surprise. The church is tucked away down a side street and most people don’t find it unless they’ve come to see Melbourne Hall, the local big house, which is nearby. Those who do stumble on it discover one of the gems of English building.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Aynhoe Park, Northamptonshire

Aynhoe Park is a striking country house in Northamptonshire, constructed in golden stone for several generations of the Cartwright family, who lived here from 1615 until the mid-1950s. This picture shows just one wing of the building. The house evolved over the decades between the 17th and early-19th centuries, and includes work by two great architects, the baroque master Thomas Archer and the Regency genius John Soane. Capability Brown landscaped the grounds.

In a way though, this illustrious pedigree doesn’t matter very much. What matters most about this house is its location. It’s a country house in the middle of a village, one that stands on its head the convention of the upper classes isolating themselves in large parks and sweeping away their tenants’ cottages when they spoil the view. So when you approach Aynho from Banbury, the road bends dramatically to the left – and there’s the house, one the best surprises English architecture has to offer.

Actually, the cottages of the village don’t spoil the view either. Aynho is one of Northamptonshire’s most beautiful places. Naturally, the houses are all built of local limestone. Naturally, lots of them have espaliered apricot bushes growing up the walls. A delicious place, if ever there was one.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Langham Court Hotel, Langham Street, London

The word ‘eye-catcher’ was coined for this place. When I caught a glimpse of it from a side-street I had to have a closer look. What I found was a hotel – but it hasn’t always been that. This dazzler was built in 1901 as a nurses’ home. The glazed-brick façade is no doubt meant to look hygienic – its shiny surface would have easily shed the build-up of city grime in the smoky period when it was built. The style is a kind of neo-Norman – the semi-circular arch above the doorway is a kind of homage to doorways like the one at Elkstone in the previous entry, as the jagged decoration around the arch and the spiral-twist shafts on either side of the door make clear. But no genuine Norman building was ever like this. The bold black-and-white design of the frontage takes the medieval love of pattern-making to new extremes – some of the treatment almost recalled the bold graphics of the Secessionist movement in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Arthur E. Thompson, the building’s architect, might have found this comparison strange. He’d no doubt have found it odd too that his nurses’ home had become a fashionable hotel. At least guests must find it easy to locate when they come back after a long night out.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Elkstone, Gloucestershire

It’s always a pleasure to come to St John’s Elkstone, which is one of the most beautiful small churches of the Cotswolds. When you enter the porch and see this carving above the south door, you know you’re in one of England's special buildings. The zigzag carving around the arch is a typical bold gesture of Norman masons working in the late-12th century. So are the tiny beakheads, a bit of grotesquery that the Normans of this part of England seem to have particularly liked. The semi-circular panel above the door depicts, in a style that’s naïve but clear, Christ in Majesty, the symbols of the Evangelists, the hand of God the Father, and the Lamb of God.

Inside, a Norman arch frames a tiny sanctuary and chancel vaulted in stone. Norman and later medieval details abound, from the carved boss at the centre of the vaulted ceiling to the tiny windows. But it’s not just the architecture that impresses here. It’s the warmth of the atmosphere. This is a building that’s been cared for for over 800 years and is still much loved today.

I can’t resist posting a photograph of one more detail though. Around the outside walls of the church are rows of corbels that display more of the fancy of the Norman carvers – heads of animals and people, abstract patterns, and coiled serpents are among the subjects. This centaur archer, copied from a medieval bestiary that gave the monks and masons their take on Classical mythology, is a personal favourite.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Riding House Street, London

Here’s another outstanding combination of signage and architecture that remembers a long-gone industry. Boulting’s made stoves, sanitary goods, and related products throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. The signs on this building, on the corner of Riding House and Candover Streets, tell us that this was their ‘Range & Stove Manufactory’, although it appearance and fenestration are more like those of the neighbouring apartment blocks from the same period.

The style is that mix of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts that enlivens many of the better English buildings of the turn of the century. The combination of varied colours of brick, stone dressings, and ornate details like the 1903 datestone with gables, bays, and different-sized windows is a feast for the eye. Boulting’s signs, with their Art Nouveau lettering in gold and green mosaic, make the whole composition richer still. Pevsner tells us that the architect was H. Fuller Clark, who also designed the interior of the Black Friar pub in the City of London. Not exactly a household name, but a man who could work wonders of building design. Boulting’s must have been pleased with their permanent advertisement. Modern passers-by get pleasure too from this striking landmark.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Former Hat Factory, Hollen Street, London

Back in the early 1980s, I used regularly to take the short train ride from New Cross Gate to London Bridge. On this brief inner-city commute my train passed all kinds of factories churning out products from foods to light engineering goods. Paper bags, biscuits, malt vinegar, and flags were all being made near that busy railway line. Most of these industries have since vanished from the area and many former inner-London factories are now given over to apartments or shops.

Walking across central London the other day with the Carreras building (see previous blog entry) still in my mind, it occurred to me how many of these inner-London industries there used to be. I passed some of their former buildings in Soho, including this old hat factory in Hollen Street. A fairly ordinary building of the 1880s is enlivened with this lovely lettering. It’s as if the maker of the letter forms put in just that bit of extra effort into the design, just as the hatters inside wanted us to know that they would take similar pains with a homburg or a trilby. It’s good to see such care lavished on a relatively modest building in an obscure side street.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Greater London House, London

For decades, London took its wonderful Art Deco factories of the 1920s and 1930s for granted. Then from the 1950s to the 1970s they became the victims of makeover merchants and snooty design gurus who despised them as the cinematic fripperies of a past age, irrelevantly ornamented with details from an age still older: what had the ancient Egyptians, for goodness sake, done for us? And so the sunbursts and bright flashes of colour – and sometimes the entire buildings that bore them – began to disappear.

From the 1980s onwards, though, people started to realise that the world was a duller place for the loss of these exuberant buildings. Changing fashions and the rise of postmodernism with its penchant for outré ornament helped. So did the realization that the 20th century had contributed more to design than hair-shirt glass-and-steel modernism. So, of course, did amenity groups like the Twentieth Century Society. As a result there have been some dazzling successes of preservation and restoration.
By the approaching millennium, the old Carreras cigarette factory in Mornington Crescent had been shorn of many of its decorative details. The front of the 1926 building, designed by M.E. and O.H. Collins, had been the epitome of Carreras’ Black Cat cigarette brand, with cat-head roundels repeated across the façade and two eight-foot high seated cats, inspired by the Egyptian feline goddess Bastet, guarding the entrance. Triumphantly, the cats were brought back for the millennium, and the whole frontage – cat heads with wiry whiskers, stylish Art Deco lettering, colourful Egyptian capitals – was restored. This corner of North London is all the better for it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The enormous Edwardian Exchange in the centre of Manchester was a trading centre for the agents and salesman of thousands of Lancashire businesses, especially mill owners, cotton importers, and others involved in the textile business. When it was completed in 1921, the fourth building of its type on the site, the place buzzed with activity, but by the 1960s, a combination of industrial depression, mergers, and new means of communication meant that the trade there had declined. In 1968 the vast hall, with its three glass domes and massive neoclassical columns, had to close.

When the hall was put to use in 1973 as a temporary theatre, its success set people thinking. How could a permanent theatre be built to make best use of the cavernous space? The solution, designed by Levitt, Bernstein Associates, seemed to have been made for the phrase ‘the shock of the new’: a theatre pod with a visible framework of tubular steel. With the Apollo moon landings fresh in everyone’s memory, this building-within-a-building soon became nicknamed ‘the Lunar Module’. It wasn’t hard to see that something extraordinary had landed.

Inside the little theatre in the round, every audience member is close to the stage. It’s intimate theatre at its best. Outside, the alien structure is small enough not to overwhelm the hall of the Exchange. One can still appreciate the grand architecture – the columns with their gilded capitals, the brilliant glazed domes. When Manchester was bombed in 1996, the architects came back to do refurbishment work, taking the opportunity to build in new services. Add to that a dramatic new lighting and decorative scheme in the hall and the combination is even better. Old and new contrast, but work together, an object lesson in allowing modern design and traditional architecture to coexist in symbiosis.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

This plaque in the centre of the Herefordshire town of Ross-on-Wye commemorates John Kyrle (1637–1724) known as ‘the Man of Ross’. Kyrle was rich, but was not attracted to the high life so he stayed in his home town and devoted himself to charitable works – he was said to have helped the poor by paying the dowries of impoverished brides and subsidizing apprentices’ fees and, trained in the law, he gave free legal advice to the needy. In addition, he improved his town, laying out a public garden called the Prospect (still partly intact), planting elms, giving the parish church some pinnacles and restoring its spire, and leaving money to Ross’s charitable school. The poet Alexander Pope wrote about Kyrle in his third Moral Essay, the Epistle to Bathurst, praising both his charity and his flair for landscape gardening, and ensuring the lasting fame of this modest man.

In the 19th century, the proprietor of the Royal Hotel took over the Prospect and closed it to public access, planting cabbages over part of it. There was a public outcry and in 1848, while revolutions broke out across Europe, Ross had its riot too. After several years the Prospect’s lease was taken back, the garden was given to the town, and Kyrle's generosity was remembered once more.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bee shelter, Hartpury, Gloucestershire

Almost too small to be a building, this structure is simply too special to ignore. It is a shelter containing 33 niches or boles to accommodate straw bee skeps, the traditional English forerunners of bee hives. There is nothing else like it in the world.

The shelter was originally made in the Gloucestershire town of Nailsworth by a stone mason, Paul Tuffley, some time between 1824 and 1852. Its carved scrollwork decoration shows that Tuffley was an accomplished carver and from the beginning the structure must have looked impressive. By the 1960s, though, it was unused – the bee skep had long been replaced by the wooden hive and the shelter looked likely to be demolished. But it was rescued and resited at Hartpury Agricultural College – only to be moved once more to Hartpury churchyard in 2002, when it was thoroughly restored. It’s still there, showing how well housed some of Gloucestershire’s bees once were.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

While we’re on the subject of Anglo-Saxon buildings, here’s one more Saxon church, the remarkably well preserved St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon. Its date is uncertain. Documentary sources refer to a church in Bradford as early as the 8th century, but St Laurence’s looks more like a 10th or 11th-century building, and the best guess is that it was built in 1001 to house the relics of Edward the Martyr, who had been killed at Corfe, Dorset, in 978. Edward’s remains were originally kept at Shaftesbury Abbey, but scholars think they were moved to Bradford in 1001, possibly because this was a site less vulnerable to Viking raids, possibly to remind those who venerated the Northumbrian martyr Oswald (whose shrine was also in the region, at Gloucester) or the Mercian Saint Kenelm (whose remains were at Winchcombe) that there was also a Wessex martyr who was worthy of veneration.

This little building was no longer a church in the 18th century. It became a workshop, and then was converted for use as a schoolroom and cottage. But it was ‘rediscovered’ by a Victorian clergyman and restored, and has survived its first millennium in very well. Its tall, narrow proportions, tiny windows, and narrow, round-headed doorways are all typical of Anglo-Saxon buildings. So is the way the walls are decorated with narrow strips of stone, called pilaster strips, forming a series of arch-shaped panels.

The interior is small, plain, and rather magical. High up on one wall are two carved stone angels, beautiful pieces of relief carving that may have originally formed part of a crucifixion scene, a fitting climax to a remarkable building. You can read more about its archaeology, history, and architecture here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Repton, Derbyshire

Here is a hidden marvel, a gem of Anglo-Saxon architecture that is familiar to scholars of the early history of English buildings, but not well known to non-specialists. It is the crypt of St Wystan’s church, Repton, a building with a history stretching back to the 7th century.

It’s quite unusual for a parish church to have a crypt. You usually find these underground spaces beneath large cathedrals, where they housed sacred items such as the remains of saints. Parish churches didn’t often run to such precious relics, but monasteries sometimes did, and the church at Repton began as a monastic church, and an important one, that became the burial place of the kings of the Saxon Midland kingdom of Mercia. King Ethelbald of Mercia, who died in 757, was buried here; so was King Wiglaf (died 840). When Wiglaf’s grandson Wystan was murdered, he was laid to rest here too. When Wystan was canonized, Repton became a place of pilgrimage.

To house these hallowed remains the Saxon masons built a crypt about 16 feet square. The crypt was probably first constructed in the 7th century, but was rebuilt in the 9th century, when it took the form that it still has today – a square space with a vaulted ceiling held up by four columns, each made from a single stone and each encircled with decorative spiral bands. It’s quiet, dark, and small, but there would have been space enough for the royal tombs and the saint’s shrine, and there are two staircases so that pilgrims could file down one and up the other, in a steady one-way traffic of devotion.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sudbury Hill Station, London

It’s well known now how in the early decades of the 20th century London Underground’s (later London Transport’s) head Frank Pick changed the face of London’s transport network by presiding over a ground-breaking redesign. A new typeface (designed by Edward Johnston) for the signs, the improved ‘roundel’ symbol (also by Johnston), the diagrammatic and wonderfully clear tube map (which, in its latest incarnation, still guides us around), and a remarkable series of new stations serving newly developing suburbs from Sudbury to Cockfosters were among the results.

The stations brought a very special version of modern architecture to London. It was the time when Le Corbusier’s work was becoming well known here and the Bauhaus was bringing a new rigour to design in Germany. But Frank Pick, and his architect Charles Holden, looked farther afield for inspiration. They were taken by the work of Scandinavian architects, especially Swede Gunnar Asplund, whose public buildings combined Classical proportions with an awareness of modernism and a winning use of brick. This Scandinavian influence, combined with Holden’s genius for massing and his way with materials produced a series of outstanding station buildings, the most famous of which is Arnos Grove, recently celebrated by the Guardian.

Here’s one of the less well known examples, Sudbury Hill, built in 1932. It’s a happy combination of concrete and brick, straight lines and curves, window and wall. Johnston’s letters are still announcing the name clearly, Holden’s generous metal-framed windows are still lighting the interior, and the station is still streets ahead of the dull imitation of a brick, mansard-roofed terrace that has sprung up to the right. Buildings like this, modern and friendly, spacious and clearly signed, get as near as one can to making real the dream of mass public transport that’s a pleasure to use.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Rubber factory, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

19th-century factories can be paradoxical buildings. Their rows of evenly placed windows can look arrestingly modern, forerunners of the ‘what you see is what you get’ aesthetic of the 20th century. So often, though, factory owners wanted a bit more than this, and a pilaster here, a Classical column there are testimony to the pretensions of mill-owners and the aspirations of builders who wanted to create ‘proper’ architecture. ‘I could do you a mill without a portico, Mr Arkwright, but it wouldn’t be a proper job.’

The rubber factory at Bradford-on-Avon, designed by Richard Gane, takes a different approach. For a start, delightfully in this stone town, stone was used for the walls. So the building conforms to the town’s honey-coloured palette – not that a structure this size would do anything as unassuming as blend in, but the colour helps. More than this, though, the building gets its character from a pleasingly eclectic mix of design features: a Classical looking cornice and, of all things, pointed, Gothic arches. It shouldn’t work really, but it does. It seems right in a town in which a Saxon church jostles with Jacobean houses and Victorian factories – a feast, in fact, for the building-fancier. I hope to return soon.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hollen Street, London

High above Hollen Street, in one of Soho’s unregarded corners, a group of putti are making music. It seems a strange decoration for this otherwise industrial-looking building in a Soho side street. But this plaque, and another up the street that depicts putti churning out pages on a printing press, are a clue to the building’s origins. This was the printing works of the music publishers Novello’s, just around the corner from their offices (now Chappell’s) in Wardour Street.

Both these buildings were designed by Frank L Pearson, who was the son-in-law of the company chairman and the obvious choice for the job. The printing works came first, in 1898, and were followed in 1906 by the offices, all in brick with stone dressings. The office building has a beautiful small concert room on the first floor, done out in the style of a 17th-century hall – the kind of oak-panelled room you find in a country house or Oxbridge college of the Commonwealth period or just after. It’s not normally open, but can be glimpsed, often lit up, from the comfort of the pub opposite in Wardour Street. Among the neon-lit media offices and restaurants of Soho, the concert hall and the charmingly decorated printing works form a throw-back to another time.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Kings Sutton, Northamptonshire

‘Northamptonshire for spires and squires’, says an old proverb, and Northamptonshire spires don’t come any more beautiful than this one at King’s Sutton, near the border with Oxfordshire. Its delicate, almost lace-like details suggest that it’s probably late-14th century, and although it was restored in 1898 it’s likely that it looks very much the way it did when it was built. The pinnacles, flying buttresses, and openings are classics of their kind. Pevsner’s Buildings of England volume on Northamptonshire calls it ‘one of the finest, if not the finest, spire in this county of spires,’ and it’s easy to agree.

Pevsner was not the only admirer of Northamptonshire spires. The Victorian architects who revived and developed Gothic church architecture used them as models of their churches. Many of these designers especially admired the Gothic of the 14th-century – they called it the Decorated or Middle Pointed style – and ‘Northamptonshire’ spires can be seen above the terraces of London and between the mills of Yorkshire towns.

The 198-foot spire makes a stunning centrepiece for Kings Sutton, with church, manor house, court house, and ironstone cottages around a green. A traditional rhyme praises some of the place’s other attractions:
King's Sutton is a pretty town,
And lies all in a valley;
It has a pretty ring of bells,
Besides a bowling alley:
Wine and liquor in good store,
Pretty maidens plenty;
Can a man desire more?
There ain't such a town in twenty.

Hats off to the inspiring churches and villages of Northamptonshire.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Roundhouse, Melksham, Wiltshire

This small surprise is tucked away in a side-street in the Wiltshire town of Melksham. It’s an 18th-century structure, built, Melksham being a wool town, as a wool-drying room. When the wool trade declined in the 19th century many such buildings were no doubt demolished. But this one survived, playing down the years a multitude of roles – armoury for the local volunteer militia, feed store, business premises, tourist information centre, and museum. England has many specialized structures like this, the often odd-shaped remnants of local industries – oast houses and lime kilns come to mind. Often they seem designed so precisely for their original function that adaptation appears impossible. But with a little imagination, many of them have been recycled to the delight both of their users and of passers-by.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ralph Allen's Town House, Bath

Just visible through a gap between buildings, to the rear of North Parade Passage in Bath is the grandiose town house of Ralph Allen, a man who had a huge influence on the development of the city. Allen was Bath’s postmaster, but his main claim to fame is that he bought Combe Down quarries, a principle source of Bath stone. Allen marketed his stone effectively. He installed a wooden railway and was involved in making the River Avon navigable so the stone could be transported more cheaply. Bath builders bought the stone enthusiastically and soon new houses clad with this beautifully creamy material were appearing all over the city.

Allen bought the lease of this house in 1727 and straight away began to improve it. Both the flat-topped façade to the left of the picture and the much more elaborate free-standing extension to the right were built for him, perhaps by premier Bath architect John Wood the Elder. The carved pediment, huge Corinthian columns, and big, round-headed window of the extension make up an inspired bit of infill, which you can see if you peer through the space between the adjoining structures.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Wool, Dorset

They don’t take any nonsense in Dorset. You damage this bridge and you’re out, understand? It’s been here since the 16th century and we want it to stay that way. Not that there’s any room for misunderstanding with all this typographical shouting (‘guilty of FELONY’, ‘TRANSPORTED FOR LIFE’), which reminds one of the barely suppressed menace of old income tax forms (‘if you are a MARRIED MAN’). It all looks like zero tolerance, a century before anyone thought of the term. I don’t think they’ll put you on a slow boat to the antipodes any more if you damage this bridge, wilfully or not. But you’d better behave. Just in case. OK?

Many thanks for the picture of the bridge sign at Wool to Peter Ashley, who blogs about England’s glories and eccentricities here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lancaut, Gloucestershire

Lost among trees on the Gloucestershire side of the River Wye is the tiny ruined church of Lancaut. There’s a farm and a cottage nearby, but no village – just some lumps and bumps in the ground that mark the foundations of neighbouring buildings that disappeared long ago. The church is 12th century, shows signs of having been heavily restored in the 18th century, and was abandoned in the 19th.

The church at Lancaut seems to be the archetypal remote ruin. You drive a long way up a dead end and take to a steep footpath before you get here. But it’s accessible from the river on the English side, the bank being level here in contrast to the towering 200-foot cliffs on the other side of the Wye. Perhaps that fact makes one local story plausible: that the Cistercian monks who later made their home a few miles away at Tintern first settled here before upping sticks and building their monastery at the more famous site. The Cistercians, with their love of remote locations, would certainly have liked the look of this place, and they had a history of trying out sites before moving on elsewhere.

If Lancaut was just too remote for the monks, it continued to serve a tiny local congregation before the church fell out of use in around 1865. The farmers and labourers who worshipped here baptized their children in a cast-lead font (one of a number in Gloucestershire made from the same mould) that is now preserved in Gloucester Cathedral, a small memorial to one of the remotest of English buildings.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

This building began life as Oozells Street School, one of the board schools designed by J H Chamberlain, architect of Birmingham’s School of Art (see previous blog entry). These outstanding buildings were built as the result of a drive on the part of Birmingham’s politicians (especially the Liberals under the leadership of Joseph Chamberlain, no relation to the architect) to make Birmingham better. The fruits of this work included a library, the Council House, the Art School, and 30 board schools. This one is a quality Gothic building in brick with stone ornament, evidence of what its architect had learned from Ruskin and of his employers’ commitment to providing decent school buildings for their children.

In 1997 the school was converted for use as an art gallery. The architects of the conversion, Levitt Bernstein, added new floors and incorporated glass extensions to accommodate the stairs and lifts. They weren’t afraid to be modern, juxtaposing their glass-and-steel stair towers with Chamberlain’s brick walls and Gothic openings. The contrast works. The see-through stair tower gives you close-up glimpses of the fine Victorian detailing while the stair itself adds all kinds of new lines and curves in counterpoint to those of the original structure. It’s a happy marriage of the two styles, and a testimony to the ability of English buildings to combine old and new in dramatic and interesting ways.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

School of Art, Birmingham

Schools, colleges, universities – they’re all buildings that ask for the best in design, but so often money, timing, expediency, or politics dictate that they don’t get what they deserve. J H Chamberlain, a Leicester-born architect who worked in Birmingham in the second half of the 19th century, wasn’t having any of that. As architect of Birmingham’s board schools he produced buildings that were a cut above the usual. And for the city’s School of Art he pulled out all the stops.

The School of Art is a very Victorian blend of brick, terracotta, stone, and tile. It’s very Gothic, too, with lots of pointed arches, little niches, and bits of moulding and carving. Elements like the repeated narrow windows and the band of tiles and moulded panels running around the building hold it all together. It must have inspired the first students when the doors opened in 1885. Even if modern students don’t quite respond in the same way to its Ruskinian Gothic, they still benefit from its light interiors, can still admire its glowing orange brickwork, and can still reflect that it was worth all the care that Chamberlain and his builders took.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Southwark, London SE1

Commit no nuisance
I first came across a sign bearing the words ‘Commit no nuisance’ on a wall in Southwark, London SE1, and realised fairly quickly that it means, in the words of one dictionary definition, ‘Do not use this place as a lavatory’. The sign – and the problem it addresses – is not unique to London. I’ve since spotted examples in other towns including Winchester and Cheltenham, where it is placed low down near one of the entrances to the former brewery, a building designed by virtuoso Victorian brewery architect William Bradford. A recent web search also revealed ‘Commit no nuisance’ signs as far afield as India and South Africa. There was probably one in Dublin, too, because James Joyce includes the phrase in Ulysses. Most of the British examples look as if they are in Victorian or Edwardian lettering; the Cheltenham brewery dates from 1898 and Joyce’s novel is set on 16 June 1904, Victorian values – and nuisances – surviving in to the 20th and 21st centuries.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Meeting Room, Defford, Worcestershire

Corrugated iron has so much going for it. It’s easy to produce, light and cheap to transport, strong, and simple to use. Corrugated iron buildings can be put up quickly, by people without specialist skills. The material can be used to roof broad unsupported spans and is equally at home creating curved or straight surfaces. And another thing: it can look good too.

In spite of all its advantages, most people think of corrugated iron as a lowly material, good for barns, shanty towns, and temporary buildings. Well, here’s a building that’s been standing for over a century and, thanks to a recent lick of paint, is looking as good as ever. It’s a church, one of hundreds of ‘tin churches’ that were put up at the end of the Victorian period to satisfy demand quickly. Many were ordered as flat-packs from companies, often British, who shipped them to the far reaches of the empire – or to needy clients nearer home. The people who put up this ‘Meeting Room’ probably didn’t think that it would still be here in a hundred years’ time, but it’s still functioning, still hosting the weekly service where the Gospel is preached, as the notice says, ‘If the Lord will’.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Lock-up, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire

The lock-up was once a common sight in English towns and villages. The local constable found it useful to have a place where wrongdoers could be detained until the authorities could deal with them and hotheads and drunkards could be locked up until they cooled down. In other words, lock-ups were used in a similar way to the cells at the police station in a time before there was an organized police force.

Cramped and dark, lock-ups fell out of favour when social reformers won better rights for prisoners in the 19th century. Only a few survive, like this 18th-century one at Breedon-on-the-Hill. The tiny, one-room building is all about security. There is a stout door, no windows, and – because tiles or shingles might be removed from inside by an inmate eager to climb out – a solid stone roof. The adjoining wall is part of a secure enclosure or pound, where stray animals could be kept until claimed by their owners.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Upper Parliament Street, Nottingham

One of the landmark buildings by Watson Fothergill (see previous blog entry) is the office and printing works of the Nottingham Express. This picture shows just one corner of the building, the striking entrance, beneath its round tower. Fothergill liked towers and turrets – he knew they gave variety and eventfulness to a façade and must have relished the opportunities they provided for interesting roofs, openings, gargoyles, and so on. This one has more than a touch of one of Fothergill’s heroes, William Burges, the architect of Cardiff Castle. Burges would have admired the polychrome masonry, the Gothic arches and ornate capitals, and the generous use of sculpture on the building as a whole.

As on Fothergill’s own office, the carvings tell a story. To highlight the political stance of the Nottingham Express, he included heads of three prominent Liberal politicians: William Ewart Gladstone (who had served his first period as Prime Minister and resigned his leadership of the Liberal Party by the time this building was constructed in the mid-1870s), Richard Cobden and John Bright (MPs and leading campaigners against the Corn Laws). Both architecturally and politically, the Nottingham Express building nails its colours to the mast.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

George Street, Nottingham

The architectural history books are full of the names of the great architects who changed the face of England, the big names whose work took them from one end of the country to the other. But there are also distinguished local architects, people who are known mainly for their work in a specific town, city, or area – Godard of Leicester, the Jearrads of Cheltenham, and the Bastards of Blandford Forum, for example. One of the most notable of these local heroes was Watson Fothergill, the Victorian architect who left the city of Nottingham a host of lively, original buildings. Many of them are still giving pleasure today.

This is part of the façade of Watson Fothergill’s office in George Street. It’s a wonderfully Victorian mixture of advertisement and creed. ‘I can do multi-coloured brickwork, timber-framing, and intricate Gothic details,’ it says. And also: ‘I employ the best carvers and take trouble with my lettering.’ But it’s more than this. The little heads above the windows are identified as A W N Pugin and G E Street, two of the most revered Gothic architects of the Victorian period. The man who displayed mentors like these on his office façade was insisting that he could deliver the best – and that he believed in the transcendent value of Gothic architecture. Further along the front are more names – William Burges (another Goth with a flair for decoration) and Norman Shaw (pioneer of the Old English style that inspired the Arts and Crafts movement). Fothergill learned from these designers too, to Nottingham’s benefit. Shops, houses, offices, a bank, and other buildings from his office enliven the city’s streets.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Adam Street, London

Nowadays people think of Robert Adam as above all else a master interior designer – pastel shades, plaster cameos, and elegant fireplaces were his forte. But his many country house projects show that he could design on a grander scale and he wanted to do so in London. So in 1768 he and his architect brothers leased a site between the Thames and the Strand, planning one of the biggest mixed developments the capital had seen. The project, known as the Adelphi (from the Greek for ‘brothers’, adelphoi), was made up of rows of houses, set above cellars with river access that were to be let for the storage of wine and coal.

It was a grand scheme, designed to high specifications, and the houses were decorated by the best artists of the time. But it proved expensive to build and the houses were slow to find tenants. The brothers finally got permission to run a lottery to finance the completion. Sadly, the Adelphi didn’t last. Many of the houses were altered in the 19th century, and more still demolished in the 20th. Now only a few houses remain, together with the impressive headquarters of the Royal Society of Arts. For many passers-by, the street names (John Adam Street, James Street, William Street) are the only reminder of the brothers’ project. This is one of the best surviving Adelphi houses, its white strips of decoration marking it out as an Adam building. It maintains its neoclassical dignity, in spite of being dwarfed by the office block behind.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Adlestrop, Gloucestershire

ARCHITEXTS: Things written on buildings (3)

Even bus shelters, the humblest of buildings, can have their fascination. At their best, built of local materials, they enhance the roadside scene and make relaxing places in which to sit and wait. But this one has a different story to tell. It is the bus shelter at Adlestrop, the village immortalized in a poem by Edward Thomas, who described how his train stopped unexpectedly at the tiny village station: 'What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name / And willows, willow-herb, and grass, / And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry...'. It's a short poem, but one of Thomas's most popular, both because of its evocative description of a summer halt in rural England and because the place seems to stand for all the villages of England (and the blackbird that sings there for all the birds, not just of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, but of all England too).

Trains to London still pass through Adlestrop, but there's no longer a station here for them to stop at. When it closed, one of the station signs was saved from the collectors of railwayana and erected here, with a tiny plaque on the bench reproducing the text of Thomas's poem – a telling reminder of how poetry and place can creatively collide.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Gloucester Cathedral

Glouceser Cathedral is one of our most beautiful buildings, rightly famous for its Norman nave and for its outstanding 14th-century choir. Here is a detail from a part of the building that most visitors overlook. It is part of a window in a tiny chapel off the Lady Chapel – a chapel within a chapel, as it were. The windows in this little space are memorials to the musicians who have worked in the cathedral, men including that most English of composers, Herbet Howells. This window remembers another Herbert, Herbert Sumsion (1899–1995) who was organist and choirmaster at the cathedral for nearly 40 years of his long life. His window, by Fiona Brown, although almost abstract in style, seems to evoke the Gloucestershire scenery that inspired him and his colleagues, with the winding River Severn and the Cotswold Hills beyond. An empty stave follows the line of the hills, waiting to be filled with more music for the cathedral's choir.

Corporation Street, Birmingham

This is an engaging example of the way a detail can reveal the history of a building. The carvings form part of the front of an imposing 1890s shop front, now occupied by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, not far from Birmingham’s Law Courts. The frieze shows carpenters at work, because the shop was originally built for the furniture firm of A R Dean. Nearby are carvings of people eating, because part of the building was a vegetarian restaurant. The friezes are by Benjamin Creswick, who started out as a knife-grinder in Sheffield before his talent as a sculptor was discovered by Ruskin. There are other examples of his work in Birmingham, including carvings on the Junior School at Bournville.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Edgar Street, Worcester

The 18th century produced some of England's most delightful small houses – buildings that are compact, light, and well proportioned. These Georgian houses in Worcester's Edgar Street, a stone’s throw from the cathedral precinct, are typical. They are arranged in a terrace, but it’s not a grand terrace in the style of Bath – here, each house was built individually, to specific requirements, resulting in lots of variety unified by sash windows, classical door cases, and delicious red brick.

This house stands out not just because it is taller and broader than its neighbours, but because of the large window on the upper floor. This type of three-light opening, with a semi-circular top to the central light, is called a Venetian window, and it was an especially popular feature in the first half of the 18th century. In this house, it breaks the architectural rules of the time. The usual pattern was for the top storey to be a ‘low-status’ floor, housing servants’ rooms lit with small windows – like the ones in the house to the left. The big Venetian window makes this little house look grand all the way to the top.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Marlborough House, London

Most people striding along the Mall towards Buckingham Palace don’t look over the wall about half way up on the right, but they should. Just visible above the stonework is Marlborough House, one of Britain’s royal palaces. This important but little known English building was originally the town house of the Duke of Marlborough, the general who won the Battle of Blenheim and was rewarded by Queen Anne with the stupendous Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Marlborough’s Duchess, the queen’s bosom-friend Sarah, fell out with John Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim, and chose Christopher Wren to design their town house. It was finished in 1711 in Wren’s trademark ‘brick-with-stone-trimmings’ style, though the architect’s son, also called Christopher, may have been mainly responsible for the drawings.

Marlborough House became a royal palace in 1817. It was the home of Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV, and later of Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). In the 1960s, it became home to the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation. The building is only occasionally open to the public, when the elaborate wall paintings depicting Marlborough’s victories can be seen on the stairs and in the saloon. For the rest of the time, we must be content with the view over the garden wall, while officials diligently discuss burning issues such as the Kiribati question inside.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

West Kirby, Wirral

ARCHITEXTS: Things written on buildings (2)

Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window through thy grace.

From George Herbert's The Windows, in a vestry window at West Kirby, Wirral, Cheshire

Holy Trinity, Teigh, Rutland

A tiny gem in a Rutland village. In 1782, Robert Sherard, fourth Earl of Harborough, commissioned an architect to rebuild the church at Teigh. The result was rather unusual. The medieval tower was kept and extended. It acts as an entrance hall into the main body of the church, which was completely remodelled. Unusually, the pews, instead of facing the altar at the east end in the normal way, are placed facing each other along the length of the church, like cathedral choir stalls or the seats in a college chapel. Parishioners sitting in these pews look one way to the high altar, the other to the west end, where a pulpit and a pair of reading desks are arranged around the entrance door. The vicar climbs a narrow stair from the tower to appear as if by magic in the pulpit above the entrance door. The charming arrangement is completed with a painting of a window, which frames the pulpit.

Who was the architect of this unusual and surprising little building? It was probably George Richardson, who had designed two other churches for the earl. Richardson didn’t design many buildings, but was well known in the late-18th century because he published a number of popular architectural books, generally illustrated with his own engravings. Most of these were pattern books, volumes with titles like A Book Of Ornamental Ceilings or Original Designs For Country Seats Or Villas, containing designs which readers or their builders could use or adapt for their own homes. Richardson also worked for years as a draftsman and designer in the office of the famous Adam brothers. The delicacy of the design – with the domestic-looking plaster ceiling, the little pulpit and tiny reading desks, and the trompe l’oeuil foliage in the painted window – would have certainly been within the scope of someone who worked for Robert Adam and his brothers.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Mundesley, Norfolk

ARCHITEXTS: Things written on buildings (1)

Good friends that to this seat repair
Rest and be thankful but forbear
With sordid scraps the ground to strew.

Shelter, Mundesley, Norfolk (and elsewhere?)

Memorial Hall, Manchester

All eyes in Manchester’s Albert Square turn towards the stupendous Town Hall, designed by Alfred Waterhouse and one of the biggest and most magnificent of all 19th-century Gothic structures. The other buildings on the square are apt to get overlooked as a result, so here’s one worth a lingering glance that was completed in 1866, just before work began on the Town Hall. It’s the Memorial Hall, on the corner of Albert Square and Southmill Street.

The hall was built by Manchester’s dissenters in memory of the Nonconformist clergy who were forced from their livings by the 1662 Act of Uniformity. It was designed by Thomas Worthington, an architect who was responsible for several of the city’s major buildings, as well as Manchester’s Albert Memorial. The Memorial Hall looks like a Venetian palazzo untied from its moorings and floated to Manchester, and these rectangular traceried windows on the upper floor are a typically Venetian feature. Venice and its buildings were in the air at this period. Worthington had been to Italy a few years previously, but the main influence was the writings and drawings of John Ruskin, whose three-volume work The Stones of Venice came out in 1851–3. Ruskin was especially keen on using different coloured materials and Worthington responded with a lively mixture of brick and stone.

Manchester soon had a number of buildings in this Venetian style – Worthington’s Crown Court is another one that has survived. Perhaps it’s an especially appropriate style because Manchester, like Venice in its heyday, was a major mercantile city, humming with commercial activity. The stripey polychrome masonry of buildings like the Memorial Hall seems to reflect the busy confidence of this great and successful city.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Old Baptist Chapel, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

The town of Tewkesbury is famous for several things. In 1471 it was the site of a battle in the Wars of the Roses at which the Yorkists decisively defeated the Lancastrians. It is home to a Norman abbey that is one of the most beautiful churches in England. And it has a virtually perfect medieval street plan, with numerous timber-framed houses and many narrow alleys giving access to the areas behind the main streets.

But right now, in July 2007, Tewkesbury is famous for being cut off by the devastating floods caused when record rainfall made the rivers Severn and Avon burst their banks. As a small tribute to Tewkesbury, this week’s blog looks at one of the less well known buildings in the town.

The Old Baptist Chapel is up one of the alleys that leads off Tewkesbury’s Church Street. It’s a timber-framed ‘black-and-white’ building that began life as a house and was converted for use as a chapel in the late-17th century, soon after the 1689 Act of Toleration made it legal for nonconformists to set up their own places of worship. Apart from the sign, only the large windows (probably installed in the 18th century) make it at all obvious that this most unassuming of English buildings is a chapel. Many features of the galleried interior – from the plastered ceiling to the baptistry sunk into the floor – are probably 18th-century too.

Further up the alley is the Baptists’ burial ground, a tiny walled enclave with early gravestones and chest-tombs. A small plaque proudly announces ‘BAPTIST BURIAL GROUND 1655’, so people were being interred here before the Act of Toleration and this fact raises the likelihood that Baptists were worshipping up this quiet alley too, perhaps in the house that they converted into a proper chapel when the law permitted it. And with the river a stone’s throw from the back of the burial ground, it’s also likely that they baptized their new converts in its waters. In part at least, this charming and evocative old building owes its use to the presence of the water that has dominated Tewkesbury’s history, and still dominates the life of the town today.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Great Coxwell Barn, Oxfordshire

This is a rather better known building than most of the others in this blog, but it's a personal favourite and it deserves to be known even more widely. It's one of the barns built by Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire to store the corn produced on the monastery's far-flung estates. Built in around 1300 of glowing Cotswold stone, it's a barn on a grand scale – it's just over 150 feet in length and the doors are broad enough for the farm's biggest carts to drive straight in. Smaller openings in the walls are for owls to fly in and eat up any rats or mice rash enough to nibble away at the grain. Inside, from threshing-floor to rafters, the space soars like a cathedral – a comparison made by William Morris, one of this glorious building's greatest admirers.

Great Coxwell Barn, about 2 miles southwest of Faringdon, is owned by the National Trust. Visit it if you get the chance.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Zimbabwe House, Strand, London

On holiday in the Mediterranean you’re used to admiring decaying statuary from the ancient world. But you don’t expect to find flaking limbs and headless torsos decorating a 20th-century building in the middle of London. So what’s going on at the corner of London’s Agar Street and the Strand? It’s a long story – one involving two up-and-coming artists, the building’s two very different owners, and that old chestnut of the last century, artistic controversy.

It all began in the early 1900s, when the architect Charles Holden was commissioned to design a new headquarters building for the British Medical Association. Holden, an architect who later became famous as the designer of some of the capital’s finest modernist underground stations, produced a building with eighteen tall niches, and invited the young sculptor Jacob Epstein to fill these with statuary appropriate to the building’s users.

Epstein rose to the challenge, carving a sequence of larger-than-lifesize nude figures representing the ages of man and subjects such as ‘Chemical Research’ and ‘Primal Energy’. When the scaffolding came down in 1908 to reveal the first of the figures, the public was startled. The full-frontal nudity, not to mention the wrinkled flesh of a grandmaternal woman holding a baby, proved too much for some. A campaign against the statues began, with protests from a group called the National Vigilance Society and a raging debate in the press. In a battle that prefigured the arguments surrounding D H Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley's Lover in the 1960s, the Evening Standard declared that ‘no careful father’ would let his daughter see such depravity, while Epstein’s fellow artists and intellectuals mostly rallied to his cause. They saw the dignity of Epstein’s figures and responded positively to the artist’s aim, to create ‘noble and heroic forms to express in sculpture the great primal facts of man and woman’. The BMA saw sense, and the statues survived.

But the saga didn’t end there. In 1935 the building was bought by the Rhodesian High Commission and they didn’t like the statues. When they inspected the figures they discovered that their stone was decaying – how tragic it would be if the extremities of the figures fell off on to pedestrians below. Such mishaps had to be prevented, of course, but instead of repairing the figures, the High Commission had the dangerous bits lopped off, leaving the statues in the sorry, mutilated state in which they remain. In spite of their maltreatment, their 'noble and heroic' character survives.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Hook Norton Brewery, Oxfordshire

As you walk up Brewery Lane in the North Oxfordshire village of Hook Norton, the road climbs slightly. Walking away from the centre of the village and towards bushes and trees, you expect to get a view of hills and fields as you reach the brow of the slope. Instead you come face to face with this most surprising building, a brewery that seems to have escaped from the fantasy-world of some Victorian industrialist, decked out with every material that its builders could throw at it, from the local orangey-brown ironstone to half-timber, lead, and slate.

The structure was the brainchild of William Bradford (1845-1919), a Victorian architect who specialized in breweries and designed dozens, all over England. They weren’t all as ornate as Hook Norton, which was built right at the end of the 19th century. A lot of the architectural features – the half-timbering, tall windows, and ornate roofs, for example – show the influence of the Queen Anne revival style that was fashionable at the time as the way to build posh houses in West London. But Bradford makes the elegant Queen Anne style his own, with a lavish supply of quirky features such as the triangular dormer windows that pop up everywhere like raised eyebrows.

In an age when industrial buildings like breweries were often designed by engineers rather than architects, Bradford was a keen advocate of breweries with architectural pretensions. He spoke with scorn about the majority of breweries, whose design was ‘entrusted to the hands of the same gentleman who provides and fits up the pipes and cocks’. This approach wasn’t good enough for Bradford, who wanted his buildings to look impressive. And he had a point. Buildings like the brewery at Hook Norton have become icons, their images proudly displayed on jugs and beer mats.

Hook Norton Brewery is big, too. What other Oxfordshire village can boast a 7-floor Victorian skyscraper? But then, breweries are often tall, because traditional brewing is a process that relies on gravity. You pump the wort (the basic mixture of water and ground malt) to the top of the building, and then it flows downward through the various brewing processes until the brown nectar emerges at the ground-floor level. Many old breweries have closed, but the one at Hook Norton is still brewing. Naturally, they still use the original 1899 steam engine to pump the wort and power the machinery that crushes the grain. Naturally, they’re still winning praise for their beer. Cheers!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Everard's Printing Works, Bristol

Bristol is rich in interesting buildings, in spite of the fact that swathes of the city were bombed during World War II. Some of the survivors, like the cathedral and the vast church of St Mary Redcliffe, are justly famous. This is one of the less well known. It’s the former printing works of Edward Everard in Broad Street. The interiors have been changed out of recognition, but the wonderful street frontage, covered in Carrara-ware tiles produced by Doulton and Company, survives and gleams.

Gutenberg and William Morris, both working at their presses, stand on either side, looking inwards towards an angelic Spirit of Literature. Below, the company’s name is spelled out in letters designed by Everard himself, while above, a figure representing Light and Truth looks down.

W J Neatby, senior designer at Doulton’s, was the creator of these stunning tiles, and the whole composition, from the heart-motifs on the turrets to Everard’s swirling letter forms, conjures up what was most fashionable in English design around 1900. It’s rather like the early volumes in Dent’s Everyman’s Library, with their Art Nouveau bindings and title pages – a delight to the eye promising a feast for the mind.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Spa Buildings, Tenbury Wells

You’d have to go a long way to find anything like this, the Spa Buildings in the middle of the small Worcestershire town of Tenbury Wells, which became a spa when saline springs were discovered in 1839. The 1862 design, by James Cranston of Birmingham, isn’t much like any other building – it’s a mixture of false-half-timber and greenhouse, with a bit of Victorian brickwork thrown in, all making a bizarre cocktail that contemporaries called ‘Chinese Gothic’.

The big clue is in the word ‘greenhouse’. Cranston had been working on some glasshouses and got the idea of adapting greenhouse structure to a building for people. Out went the glass panes and in came steel roofing sheets and wall panels, to make one of the world’s first prefabricated buildings. The system was flexible enough to produce a pair of halls, a bath complex, and an octagonal tower to house the well with its pumps, which dispensed 20 gallons of mineral water per hour.

Like later prefabs, the Tenbury Spa Buildings were probably not intended to last that long. And they certainly never caught the admiration of the architectural powers-that-be. Nikolaus Pevser, in the Worcestershire volume of his Buildings of England series, described them as ‘much like Gothicky or Chinesey fair stuff, i.e. without seriousness or taste’. The people of Tenbury thought better of their unusual spa, though, and restored it at the end of the 20th century. With galvanized roof panels and a strengthened structure, the building is now better than ever.