Saturday, April 24, 2010

Blandford Forum, Dorset

Glorious Bastards

In 1731 a fire swept through Blandford Forum in Dorset and destroyed most of the town. The task of rebuilding was given to two memorably-named brothers, William and John Bastard, who combined the roles of architect, surveyor, carver, and designer of plasterwork. The Bastards created one of the most beautiful town centres in England, with a Market Place lined with finely detailed houses, a grand Town Hall, and a large church at one end. The streets leading off the Market Place were also rebuilt.

This building at the end of the Market Place opposite the church shows the quality of the Bastards’ work, which is carefully detailed in a rather playful classical style with hints of the baroque. The walls are brick, laid mostly in courses made up of headers, and there are lots of details picked out in white. The architects took a great deal of care over these details – look at the upper row of windows, with their curving aprons below and their protruding ‘ears’ above; the meticulous details around the windows on the middle-floor (originally the main floor of the building); the central pediment, its baseline ‘broken’ to accommodate the round-headed window. And the pilasters that seem to support the pediment are special too. At first glance they have Ionic capitals with spiral volute decoration, but when you look more closely you see that the volutes are actually the 'wrong' way round. These are capitals taken from a design by the Italian baroque architect Francesco Borromini, which the Bastards would have seen engraved in the book Studio d’architettura civile di Roma by Domenico de’Rossi, a publication that did much to publicize the designs and details of Rome’s baroque architects in the early-18th century. The close-up below is from a nearby building, where the spirals are still very crisp and clear.

So what was this lovingly detailed building? Not, as one might think from the central carriage entrance, a coaching inn, although there is such an inn, with an almost identical frontage, just along the street. In fact it was originally three houses. John Bastard liked the left-hand one so much that he lived in it himself. He was indeed both a clever and a lucky – fellow.

'Borromini' capital, Red Lion, Blandford Forum

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shobdon, Herefordshire, again

The architecture of fragility

The church that replaced the 12th-century one at Shobdon was just as remarkable in its way as that lost Romanesque masterpiece, but it could scarcely be more different. It was built for the Bateman family, 18th-century lords of the manor and friends of Horace Walpole of Strawberry Hill. And as one would expect from people with links to Walpole, the church is Gothic – not the medieval Gothic of poised stone structure but the 18th-century reinvented Gothic of exquisite decoration, lace-like plasterwork, papier mâché trimmings, and theatrical interior effects.

This kind of architecture is now known as Strawberry Hill Gothic, after Walpole’s famous house in Twickenham. At Shobdon it is an architecture of pinnacles, double-curved ogee arches, and panelling festooned with Gothic motifs. Arches float in the air, without supporting pillars. Pews, pulpit, reading desk, and walls, all are given the same pale, delicately Gothic treatment.

The architect is unknown. Henry Flitcroft, usually a Palladian specialist, who worked at Woburn Abbey and Wentworth Woodhouse, is a possibility. Or maybe, like Strawberry Hill, it was created with the help of Walpole’s ‘Committee of Taste’, his group of artistic friends. If so, they had the unity of vision to keep the design all of a piece. If visiting the church is a bit like being inside the icing of an overgrown wedding cake, or a particularly elaborate country-house drawing room, it is also unique. In no other parish church was Strawberry Hill Gothic used with such verve; nowhere else do pulpit, reading desk, pews, and other furnishings complement one another, and the interior as a whole, with such conviction; in no other church does 18th-century Gothic delicacy turn into such fragility. And now, well into its third century, the building is as fragile as it looks, with its full roster of cracked walls and rotten beams. Its custodians deserve our support in preserving it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Shobdon, Herefordshire

Oliver's arches

In the Middle Ages the Norman Mortimer family was a powerful presence along the borders of England and Wales. They came over with William of Normandy, maintained castles to defend their lands against the Welsh, and took key parts in political and military history – one of them, Roger Mortimer, led the rebellion that deposed Edward II, for example. In a family as powerful as this, their key servants were powerful too. In the 12th century their steward – the man who ran their estates – was called Oliver de Merlimond, and he was important enough for the Mortimers to grant him a manor of his own, at Shobdon.

Soon after he acquired the manor, Oliver undertook two acts of piety – he went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Compostela and rebuilt the small Saxon church on his manor. The tantalizing evidence we have of Oliver’s church tells us that it was small but stunningly decorated, its arches carved with dazzling patterns and mythical beasts, its shafts adorned with intricate interlaced decoration and figures, the semicircular panels above its two doorways bearing beautiful depictions of Christ in Majesty and the Harrowing of Hell. The church seems to have been the first building decorated by the celebrated Herefordshire school of sculptors, and was followed soon after by Kilpeck, Castle Frome, and a host of others.

So ornate is the Herefordshire sculpture, so unlike what was being done in the rest of England at the time, and so like other work in Europe, that there has been speculation that Oliver’s journey influenced it in some way. Did Oliver bring back a carver from Spain or France? Or did the group of pilgrims with which he travelled include a local stoneworker who absorbed the powerful influence of buildings on the route to Compostela?

We will never know, but whoever worked for Oliver created a masterpiece at Shobdon. He worked at other churches in the area too, carving in a style that seems to combine French, Celtic and Scandinavian influences and also teaching apprentices, sons perhaps, who carried on his work in the pink Herefordshire sandstone that must have been so rewarding to carve.

Oliver’s church survived until the 18th century, but then a lord of the manor with a taste for a very different kind of architecture decided that it was time Shobdon had a new church. In a curious act of creative vandalism, he pulled the old church down, but preserved the entrance doorways and chancel arch, taking them apart and re-erecting them – with added gables and pinnacles – as an eye-catcher in his park. They’re still there, and are universally known as the Shobdon Arches.

Although they are very worn now, the arches give some idea at least of what a wonderful building the old church must have been. To add to our enlightenment – and also, it has to be said, our frustration that such a building should have been swept away – a plaster cast of the Christ in Majesty was made in 1851 for the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. As for the originals, they are sadly weathered, as if the once-crisp Romanesque carving has begun to melt away, like ice at the end of a long winter.

Shobdon Arches, detail

Cast of Christ in Majesty, Victoria & Albert Museum

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

Times of change

Another white van goes past, and then a car, and as the traffic clears and I raise the camera to my eye a steady procession of pedestrians crosses between me and the building. I lower the camera again and wait. It’s not that I necessarily object to including people in my pictures – there are always people in a busy market place on a Saturday, after all. But not everyone wants to be photographed, and not everyone wants to appear on the web, so I lower the camera.

Perhaps I should just take a photograph of the clock turret and leave it at that. I’m an admirer of the wooden clock towers that often appear on traditional market halls and town halls. Architecture books seem to say little about them – they’re seen, I think, as minor carpentry-stuff, rarely attributable to a specific craftsman or designer, and fit more for the fancier of clocks than for the serious business of architectural history. However, I like their variety and their usefulness and I’m pleased to spot this one. I’ve already assumed, without looking very hard, that the red-brick building that it’s topping is the town’s market hall. Another gap in the traffic, and I look more closely. The building bears a sign saying ‘Fire Station’. ‘Wrong again!’ I think.

But not entirely. This was indeed the site of Leighton’s market hall, and for centuries there was a market building here with an arched lower section for stalls and an upper room used for courts and meetings. The structure was rebuilt in 1851 in brick along similar lines and that, substantially, is the building that still exists. Except that in the early-20th century it was converted for use as a fire station, with a big arched opening for whatever appliances there were to come and go.

The upper part of the building – the big window, the pinnacles, the decent brickwork in a sort of honest simplified Gothic, the clock turret that caught my eye – is very much as it was in the Victorian period. The lower part was remodelled for the fire service with the addition of the big arch and the neat stone plaque. It continued as a fire station until 1963 and has since had other uses. It’s a restaurant now, and is not the first garage-style building with generous floor space to make this transition.

Buildings (like pop stars, political parties, magazines, and the rest) seem to need to reinvent themselves from time to time in order to survive. Buildings are often made redundant because their original user needs more modern premises, or goes bust, or relocates. At this point, many buildings remain empty and decaying until the land they stand on is worth more than the bricks and mortar, and they get pulled down. Unless, that is, someone comes along with some lateral thoughts about how the structure can be used. That’s where the reinvention comes in, and here in Leighton Buzzard instead of firemen sliding down slippery poles there is pasta sliding off forks. And we can all enjoy this Leighton landmark standing proud among the clutter and the crowds. Tortellini, anyone?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Eaton Bray, Bedfordshire

Masters of iron and stone

Curving and recurving across the door of St Mary’s church at Eaton Bray is some of the most remarkable ironwork from the Middle Ages, a series of intricate scrolls that date from the middle of the 13th century. Structurally, they help to bind together the timbers of the door; they are also like a signpost telling visitors that they are in for something special here.

When you open the door you find the nave and aisles separated by two beautiful arcades. The one in the picture is the more ornate of the two. It is of a similar date to the ironwork on the door and shows the kind of workmanship you’d expect to find in a cathedral rather than a medium-sized parish church in a Bedforshire village. There’s great refinement here. The arches are made up of deeply cut roll mouldings – eleven rolls in all around each arch. Each pier is given extra richness with the addition of eight slender shafts– and there’s an extra trick, in that some of the shafts, such as those around the pier in the foreground, are just slightly detached from their pier, to give additional shadow and depth. Each pier is topped with a capital carved with stylized foliage in a design known as ‘stiff leaf’, a motif that represented high sophistication in around 1240 when this row of arches was built.

English parish churches have an endless capacity to surprise and give pleasure, but often the pleasure comes from homespun, vernacular design. Here it’s more sophisticated work in the style that has been known since the 19th century as Early English Gothic. The breathtaking quality is perhaps to do with the fact that the church had been given to the Augustine abbey of Merton in Surrey the previous century. The unknown mason they employed produced a design of power and grace that still stands out, more than 700 years on.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Dinton, Buckinghamshire


Someone recently asked, ‘How do you find your buildings?’ Well, sometimes they’re structures I’ve known about for years, often I just stumble upon them as I travel around. But now and then, I get a hint from a map. Maps, especially Ordnance Survey maps, offer all kinds of hints about the buildings that are dotted all over the countryside, and this is a subject I hope to come back to. Meanwhile, here is one example.

Between Thame and Aylesbury I spotted the abbreviation ‘Cas’ on a map. I knew of no medieval castle thereabouts, so I made my way along the A418 to have a look. What I found was ‘Dinton Castle’, an 18th-century eyecatcher, now ruined and shielded by trees. It was built in 1769 for Sir John Van Hattam and designed to be visible from his house in the village, over on the other side of the main road. It’s in typical Gothick sham castle mode – an octagonal plan with two round side towers, and ogee-topped windows – designed to impress passing riders and carriage-travellers.

The building is in a terrible state, and obviously has been so for a long time – in the 1960 edition of Pevsner it is described as ‘now in decay’, while the 1981 Shell Guide to Bucks refers to its ‘ruinous condition’. But there are plans to restore it, so it may yet be saved to make a still more dramatic impression on those who pass by on the way from Thame to Aylesbury. I certainly hope so.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Girl power

One of the most elegant rows of shops anywhere is Cheltenham’s Montpellier Walk, It was designed by local architects R W and C Jearrad, begun in 1843, and its chief joy, apart from the way the gentle uphill slope of the street is managed, is the fact that between each shop the cornice is supported by beautiful armless caryatids, the urban, sophisticated sisters of the Atlas figures discussed in a previous post and the descendants of the caryatids that support the portico of the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis at Athens.

Robert Jearrad was one of the town’s most remarkable architects. As well as designing and developing (with his London-based brother Charles) much of the town’s Lansdown area, he also invented a kind of washing machine that was intended especially for hospitals and could sterilize towels in quantity, reducing the risk of infection. The Jearrads designed several other major Cheltenham buildings, including the classical Queen’s Hotel and the gothic Christ Church, with its tall tower, visible from miles away.

Two of Cheltenham’s caryatids were sculpted in terracotta by John Charles Felix Rossi and these were used as patterns for a local sculptor called Brown, who carved the rest in stone. Rossi was another interesting character. He won prizes at the RA, worked for Coade of Coade Stone fame, developed an artificial stone of his own, and produced the caryatids on St Pancras Church in London. After a successful career with work including royal portraits and major monuments in St Paul’s, he died poor, perhaps because his large family (two marriages, sixteen children) soaked up his income.

The Jearrads, Rossi, Brown – as always, it takes many people to make a building. Rarely do they come together so happily, and with such grace and flair.