Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Green Street, London

An entrancing entrance

The late-19th century saw a lot of building activity in the Grosvenor Estate, that chunk of Mayfair owned by the Duke of Westminster. Green Street was one place where a number of new houses were built. The low numbers on the northern side of the street consists mainly of a run of brick houses that were speculatively built, but this particular house was a bespoke design. It was originally for the Hon St John Brodrick, but according to the Survey of London, Brodrick decided he couldn’t afford the house, so it passed to other owners who kept Brodrick’s choice of architects, Balfour and Turner.

Eustace Balfour and Thackeray Turner were from very different backgrounds. Balfour was Scottish and was the Harrow- and Cambridge-educated nephew of the former Prime Minister the Marquis of Salisbury and brother to a future PM, A J Balfour. As such he could talk to the aristocratic owners of the Grosvenor Estate, for whom his firm worked as surveyors, or almost equal social terms. Turner was a grammar-school boy from Wiltshire with a passion for old churches; he was a friend of Arts and Crafts luminary W J Lethaby. In spite of their different backgrounds, Balfour and Turner seem to have got on, going into partnership in the early 1880s and continuing until Balfour’s death in 1911. They shared an interest in the Arts and Crafts movement, a commitment to the work of the SPAB, and an ability to create work with considerable visual flair. They were kept busy in such Mayfair streets as Brook Street, Grosvenor Street, Green Street, and Balfour Street.

This house stands out both for its overall design, with its stone oriels, and the fine details. Loveliest of these details is the carving by the door, which Pevsner describes as a tree of life. It is probably by Laurence Turner, the sculptor brother of Thackeray Turner. It’s a wonderful urban alternative to the rural fashion for roses around the door.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

St Pancras, London

Why Sir John hangs on to his hat

This blog is now three years old this month, so bear with me while I reflect about how I blog, and why. A regular reader, noticing that most of my photographs are of exteriors, recently asked me how often I manage to look inside the buildings I post about. The answer is sometimes, but not that often, and the reason lies in how I blog.

I had to decide at the beginning how I’d approach this blog. It would be possible to do lots of research, contact building owners in advance, and hope some would oblige with guided tours, information, and, in an ideal world, tea on the lawn. But, interesting and nutritious as all this would be, it would also take a lot of time, and, like most people, I have many calls on my time. So I decided on a different approach. I travel around – on business, for pleasure, or on the lookout for interesting buildings. When a building, often one I didn’t know about before, catches my eye, I take photographs of it, do some research, and see where this leads. If it turns out to be interesting, I write a post. So, in general, I look from the outside, though I take advantage of buildings that are open anyway, like many of England’s parish churches, and step inside.

This way of working reflects my interests, which are as much to do with the history, quality, and atmosphere of place, with townscape, with local distinctiveness, and so on, as with architecture. And the buildings turned up by my serendipitous methods reflect my interests too, which extend to barns and breweries as well as castles and cathedrals. When I wrote The English Buildings Book I described these preoccupations by referring to the great Nikolaus Pevsner. At the beginning of his book An Outline of European Architecture, Pevsner defines his subject by example: ‘A bicycle shed is a building,’ he says. ‘Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.’ So in calling our book The English Buildings Book, Peter Ashley and I were saying that we wanted to include all types and conditions of buildings – and both Lincoln Cathedral and a bicycle shed make their appearance in its pages. The English Buildings blog works along similar lines.

There’s another consequence of working in this way that has, I’d argue, wider significance – that one can find out a lot about buildings without privileged access, and that this way of looking at buildings is open to anyone who can use their eyes. Sir John Betjeman knew this. When extolling the pleasures of ‘church crawling’ he insisted that you need only two things: a map (in England it has to be an Ordnance Survey map) and ‘an eye’. Keep looking, look around you, above all look up, and you will be rewarded – and that is surely why Sir John is looking up, a practised hand keeping a firm grip on his headgear as he does so, in the statue by Martin Jennings at St Pancras Station.

A lifetime of looking at buildings and writing about them made Betjeman very well informed, of course. But he insisted that a knowledge of architectural styles was less important than observation. The eye comes first, and all of us who have eyes to see can use them in the way Betjeman intended. Doing so makes every journey one of fascination and I hope some of the fascination comes through in this blog.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Colour and light

Here’s a rare survival. Victorian shop windows could be a riot of colour and lettering, and examples like Smith’s umbrella shop in London, subject of an earlier post, hold the attention of anyone interested in the history of lettering or retailing. This Norwich shop is different. Instead of the lettering, what remains to catch our eye here is some of the old stained glass. Victorian shop designers were aware that there was a ‘dead’ area of the window at the top. Goods displayed too high would not be noticed, so how did one use this upper area of the window? One solution was to divide it off with a horizontal glazing bar (called a transom) and glaze the upper section (known as the transom light) with stained glass. So it could glitter with colour, and catch the eye in a different way.

The Victorians used stained glass a lot – not just in churches, where we’re used to seeing it, but also in domestic front doors, in schools, and in shop windows, where it must have glowed beautifully at night. Much of this glass has vanished as features have been replaced and facades made over. What remains might not be the best of the Victorian glazier’s art (that usually was reserved for churches) it’s good to see this example still pleasing the eye. Pleasing it rather more, perhaps, than the rather routine display of stickers and notices in the main part of the window.

* * *

Apologies to readers who saw a discarded version of an older post, which was here, briefly, in error. Those wishing to read this post, about a house in Stratford, can find it here.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Charterhouse Street, London

Fox and anchor and peacock and…

Here is one other example of the buildings adorned with interesting lettering seen on the Routemaster bus tour mentioned in the previous post. This is the Fox and Anchor pub near Smithfield Market, a façade in which architecture, decoration, and lettering are united to create one of the most remarkable examples of London Art Nouveau. The unity comes largely from the use of Doulton tiles specially designed by W J Neatby.

William James Neatby is famous for his work for Doulton’s architectural ceramics department in the late-Victorian period. His best known decorative schemes were done in the 1890s and the first few years of the 20th century. Stylized foliage, elegant figures, and curvaceous lettering flow around his buildings in a framework of ceramic mouldings and shafts. At their best, they unite architecture and decoration in an exciting and uplifting way.

Neatby’s career-path was interesting and unusual. From age 15, he trained as an architect, working as an articled pupil in a practice in Yorkshire before starting as an architect in and around Whitby. When he was 23 he changed direction, going to work for Burmantoft’s in Leeds as a designer of ceramic tiles and after six years there he went in 1890 to Doulton’s in Lambeth as their head of architectural ceramics. At both Burmantoft’s and Doulton’s Neatby delved deeply into the art and craft of ceramics, developing new processes and creating stunning designs. He created decorative schemes for many prominent buildings – his interiors include the Meat Hall in Harrods and the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, while the Everard’s factory in Bristol and the Royal Arcade, Norwich, are among his best exterior schemes.

Even a small building like the Fox and Anchor could benefit from the full Neatby treatment. The fox and anchor of the pub’s name are painted on to the tiles in the gable. Further down there are grotesques like the gargoyles of Notre Dame, a beautiful frieze of peacocks, and ornate Art Nouveau lettering. Grinning heads peep out from keystones above windows. The narrow interior also looks atmospheric and full of period details. But the lettering tour was moving swiftly on to the joys of Edmund Martin, tripe dressers, whose stylish 1930s lettering was partly hidden behind a builder’s hoarding, so I did not have time to sample the interior or its wares. I must return.

Fox & Anchor, detail showing lettering, peacock, and grotesque

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

John Street, London

Bring on the apple sauce

The other day I went on an inspiring trip* aboard a Routemaster bus to look at lettering on buildings around the capital. This expedition was led by Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon, experts in letters both typographical and architectural. We were privileged that our guides shared a wealth of information, giving background stories about familiar bits of lettering as well as pointing out examples that were new even to me (and I’m the one you’ll bump into as I walk around looking ever upward, oblivious to fellow pedestrians, who are probably cursing as they try to dodge me).

This boar is an old friend but I’d never been able to find out much about him. The building he adorns seems to have been a butcher’s shop with offices above, which seems fitting, this being close to Smithfield Market, an area rich in architectural lettering of all kinds. The text next to the boar says ‘Rebuilt by Wm Harris 1897’ and the façade also has a ‘WH’ monogram. So presumably the otherwise mysterious Mr WH was a butcher – probably a pork butcher, since butchers often specialized in the Victorian period.

The lettering, as our guides pointed out, is awkwardly arranged – the strokes uneven in width, the forms crude, the ‘S’ and ‘7’ top-heavy. And the boar itself has an unfinished look, as if Mr Harris, eager to get his premises rebuilt after some disaster – a fire, perhaps – was impatient to get the plaque up, the scaffolding down, and the doors open. In spite of all this, the plaque has a charm that, like so many decorations on buildings in the capital, made it worth an upward glance, and even a crick in the neck.

*And I must offer sincere thanks to both the friends who invited me on this memorable journey.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rous Lench, Worcestershire

The social house

After the smallest building in this Worcestershire village, described in the previous post, here’s the largest, Rou Lench Court, a house of the 16th and 17th centuries, much altered in the 19th century by Charles Henry Rouse Boughton and his successor as Lord of the Manor William Kyle Westwood Chafy Chafy. The photograph shows the western range of house, the part visible from the road, which Pevsner thinks is mostly early-16th century.

The timber-framed upper storey above the sandstone ground floor, the large chimney, and brick chimney stacks all look as if they could be from this date. There’s a solidity about these features, the timbers have the roughness of age, and the patterns of curving braces amongst the timber frames are often seen in the ‘black-and-white’ villages of Worcestershire. The Victorians added decorations and touches of fancy here and there. The ornate dormer windows and the little square turret are probably Victorian additions. I’d guess that the painted inscription above the gate, ‘Welcome ye coming, Spede ye parting guest’ is a 19th-century embellishment too, a piece of self-conscious old-Englishry, but a noble sentiment above the entrance to a beautiful, and social, house.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rous Lench, Worcestershire

An unusual post

I had been meaning for a while to do a post about post boxes and was on the look out for some early hexagonal pillar boxes when I came across this, a village post box set in its own little building. It was built because Rous Lench is the Victorian estate village par excellence.

Rous Lench was held by the Rous family, and then the Rouse Boughtons, from 1382 to 1876. It was the last of the local Rouse Boughtons, Sir Charles Henry Rouse Boughton, who improved the village with a magnificent Gothic school and village hall, plus various cottages. Then in 1876 he sold out to the improbably named Rev W K W Chafy Chafy, who made further improvements. The letter box by the village green, set in sandstone with a timber-framed gable and, I think, the Chafy coat of arms, is one of his felicities. What a telling reminder, in these days of the email and the tweet, of the importance of letters and their housing. Rev Chafy’s letterbox is truly an asset amongst the hedges, evergreens, and honeysuckle of this verdant Worcestershire village.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Lacock, Wiltshire

Take the A-Frame

Nearly every house in the Wiltshire village of Lacock is interesting, but it’s easy to miss the interest of this one – looking at the end of the building, squashed up against the house next door, one can see that it’s based on a cruck frame. Crucks were basically A-frames in which the two main pieces were made up of matching timbers, naturally curving if possible, and sometimes cut by splitting a tree trunk so that they matched perfectly. This cruck shows the construction well – how the curve in the timber is exploited; how the frame is set above the ground on a low stone plinth; how the eaves are supported by a horizontal timber that protrudes from the main frame; how this arrangement allows for a vertical front wall. There will be another cruck at the other end of the house, and the pair would have been assembled on the ground and then lifted into place and connected by means of a horizontal ridge pole.

I don’t know how old this building is – probably late medieval. It used to be thought that primitive-looking cruck buildings were inevitably older than those with box-frames. But the cruck frame is mainly a geographical phenomenon – crucks are most common in the North of England, the Midlands, and the West (but not the far southwest). They are very rare in East Anglia and southeastern England, where there are many ancient box-frames. It’s uncertain why this should be so, but Alec Clifton-Taylor, in The Pattern of English Building, suggests that in the eastern part of the country there was more influence from France and the Netherlands, where crucks are not used, and that in the West there were more suitable trees for this kind of frame. And some of these ancient trees are still doing the job they did more than 500 years ago.