Friday, November 14, 2008

Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

French curves

When someone says ‘Art Nouveau’, I automatically think of Paris Metro stations and large houses in Brussels, buildings put up around the beginning of the 20th century and decorated in a style that owes its extraordinary movement and plasticity to curving, sinuous lines. It’s a style that lends itself to pottery, glass lampshades, ironwork, and jewellery, but it doesn’t always sit happily on buildings, which tend to have lots of straight lines and rectangles in them. As if recognizing this fact, the architects of Vienna – and their great Scottish colleague, Charles Rennie Macintosh – developed a more rectilinear form of Art Nouveau, involving abstract patterns and geometrical shapes, that they applied to all kinds of buildings from houses to art galleries. In Central Europe this style is called Secessionist, after the group of Viennese artists who seceded from the establishment.

All of this means that Art Nouveau architecture isn’t a very English phenomenon. Edwardian architecture was a riot of styles, from Arts and Crafts to Bankers’ Baroque, and the delicate wave patterns of Art Nouveau got squeezed out rather. But now and then you spot these forms, especially at the point where architecture and decoration intersect, and one of these points is the shop front.

The picture shows part of a shop front in Leamington. These little curved mouldings caught my eye and immediately reminded me of the sinuous Parisian Art Nouveau. How satisfying that some shop designer should have thought to set off his glass window – itself a great curving swathe of transparency – with this small detail. High up above eye level, mouldings like this are ignored by most shoppers. Why look at the window frame when you’re interested in the goods inside? But no doubt the designer was after a subliminal hint of quality and European sophistication. Hence, for a moment, this fleeting imitation of the way they ordered these matters in France.


Neil said...

What a lovely detail. There are towns full of Art Nouveau (in France, I think particularly of Moulins), and it's great to see such things in a coherent context, but you're so right to point out these subtle touches that are almost subliminal in their intention and effect.

Peter Ashley said...

Excellent post. I suppose these beautiful additions to shop windows are the equivalent of theatre curtains swept back to show off the delights on stage. I wonder too if they weren't put into use to soften the effect of so much glass. Writer and traveller J.J.Hissey moaned about plate glass windows, but then he moaned about everything post 1800.

Anonymous said...

Always love looking at those same windows when waiting for Mrs to come out of the Oxfam opposite - lovely detail!