Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Conisborough, Yorkshire

Britton's Britain

John Britton’s The Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain, a work of the early-19th century, was, according to the RIBA ‘from its inception…received as marking a new era in architectural topography’. The book consists of a series of essays on notable historic buildings, from castles and great houses to abbeys and churches, each accompanied by engravings – plans, the occasional measured drawing, and more atmospheric portraits of the buildings in their landscape settings.

John Britton was born in Wiltshire in 1771. As a young man he worked as a wine merchant’s apprentice and cellarman, studying on his own in his spare time and meeting his friend Edward Wedlake Brayley in a bookshop in Camberwell. Soon Britton got a job as a lawyer’s clerk and began to write for publication too. A book on his native Wiltshire led to a long collaboration with Brayley and others on a series on the English counties.

During his work on the counties Britton gathered together a team of artists and engravers, and many of these also worked on The Architectural Antiquities. They rose to the challenge posed by Britton’s aim, to show the distinctive styles of medieval architecture, by ‘correct delineations and accurate accounts…drawn and engraved with scrupulous accuracy’. Nothing like this had been attempted before and if Britton’s historical texts were not always accurate, the illustrations were both informative, evocative, and worthy of their subjects. They were influential too, helping to put the Gothic revival on a new, more historically informed, footing.

This example, ‘etched by Wm. Wise from a Sketch by B. Howlet’, shows the massive great tower of Conisborough Castle in South Yorkshire. The tower was built in around 1180, when the castle was held by Hamelin Plantagenet, half-brother of Henry II. With its circular plan and enormous buttressing protrusions, the tower displays a strong and unusual design. The nearest thing to it is a castle at Mortemer, near Dieppe, which was also held by Hamelin’s family, and it may be that it was designed by Hamelin himself.

The view of the castle in Britton’s book is very much of its period. It evokes the time when you came upon such ruins to find them rather unkempt. There were plants growing on the stones here and there, walls might be ivy-covered, and the surrounding grass was kept short by sheep or goats. Visitors sat down to rest on unexcavated lumps and bumps probably marking the sites of demolished walls, and birds wheeled around overhead. A Romantic poet would have his notebook out in a trice and the engraving has perhaps drawn out the Romanticism of the scene by slightly exaggerating the height of the tower in proportion to its diameter.

The image evokes some of the wonder people in the early-19th century must have experienced in coming across ruins like this. Most of our castles are so conserved and curated now that this kind of encounter can happen only rarely. But now and then, when a ruin has been left in its overgrown state (Wigmore Castle is a favourite example), we can recapture something of this surprise and appreciate anew the original thrill of Britton’s publication.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

St Mary Aldermary, London

Wren the Goth

Sir Christopher Wren is probably Britain’s most famous architect. Most people know him as the designer of St Paul’s Cathedral and of the churches that replaced those destroyed during London’s great fire of 1666. Because of this glorious legacy, we think of Wren mainly as a classical architect, a man at home with domes and Corinthian capitals. But Wren was a versatile architect – the rich variety of his London steeples shows that – and he could turn his hand to Gothic too.

St Mary Aldermary (the curious repetitious name is probably an indication that this was originally the oldest of London’s churches dedicated to the Virgin) is Wren’s great essay in the Gothic style – Pevsner thinks that it and St Mary’s Warwick are the two best Gothic churches of the period. It’s not quite the kind of Gothic a medieval master mason would recognize: that’s a plaster vault, not stonework. But with its fan vaulting, flattened arches, and tracery, it’s still a beautiful take on the late Gothic that became fashionable in the 15th century.

This church is also an example of the architect’s ability to adapt to his sites. Nearly all Wren’s city churches are hemmed in by the surrounding building plots, so they often have irregular or unconventional plans. In the case of St Mary Aldermary, the east wall with its big window is not at 90 degrees to the flank walls. The effect is rather odd, but it’s also another example of the endless adaptability of Sir Christopher Wren.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bath, Somerset

Windows on the world

Every time I go to Bath I marvel at its Georgian architecture. The way both individual buildings and the larger plan of the town, the sense of both architectural and urban space, have survived into the 21st century is simply glorious. And the place is very well looked after, so its survival looks secure.

There’s so much to see in a place like Bath that the eye doesn’t know where to look next. At one moment the visitor is trying to take in an entire sweeping terrace or crescent, the next focusing on some detail – a door surround, say, a carved street name, a bit of ironwork. All of which can make it easy to miss things, such as how some of these buildings, beautifully preserved though they are, have been altered over the years.

Look at these two houses, part of a sequence that steps its way majestically up Gay Street. Most of my readers will notice quickly one difference between them. The windows of the house on the left still have their small panes, four up and three across, while the windows on the right have been converted to plate glass. All expect for the small unregarded windows in the attic and basement – the ‘low status’ servant-haunted parts of the house, which the Victorians did not think worthy of clear, shiny, plate-glass windows.

Examine the right-hand house more closely and you’ll see another difference. The windows on the central floor are taller than those in the house on the left. And the left-hand house has a band of stone running beneath the widows at this level. This suggests that the Victorians made another change – they lowered the sills of their middle windows to make them taller, eliminating the stone band in the process, to give more emphasis to, and bring more light into, the principal rooms on this floor. This would have been a labour-intensive job, but it was quite often done in Bath.

One cold go on, of course. About the preserved shutters in the right-hand house, which are at odds with the opportunistic and unfortunate window blinds. And the window box on the left. And the paint colours: who’s for National Trust green? Or neutral white? Do any experts in historic paint finishes read this blog, and can they tell us what colour they’d prefer?

The houses in Bath, then, well preserved though they are, exhibit lots of changes, many of which are themselves historical indications of how taste has changed. Such changes are interesting in their own right. These are real houses where real people have lived and it’s fascinating to find signs of their presence and traces of their taste.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ten of the best

I’ve refreshed my ‘Ten of the Best’ feature, with ten new links in the right-hand column to some favourite posts from the English Buildings blog from the past months and years. This time the theme is places of worship, and I’ve gone for a selection of unusual post-medieval churches and chapels from the Tudor period to the Arts and Crafts movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. I hope you find something to enjoy here, especially if you’ve come to this blog recently and missed many earlier posts.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Billesley, Warwickshire

On the path through life

All Saints’ church, Billelsey is between the towns of Alcester and Stratford upon Avon. It’s a tiny church with an atmosphere that you could best describe as ‘country Georgian’ – round-headed windows, box pews, plain white walls. There’s a tradition that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway here, and in their day the church would probably still have had its some of its medieval fittings and atmosphere – it would have been darker, with smaller windows and maybe this wonderful carving, now on display inside the church, was over the door.

A carved relief like this is a real surprise in rural Warwickshire. Its style (the vigorous interlacing foliage, the linear design on the figure’s kilt-like costume, the bird, the serpent) is like the work of the Herefordshire sculptors of the 12th century – I’ve posted previously about their wonderful carvings at Kilpeck, Shobdon, and Castle Frome. But their work wasn’t confined to Herefordshire – there are a few examples in nearby counties such as Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire too.

The Billesley carving seems to show a man, pursued by sinister forces (a serpent and a dragon) trying to escape towards a dove, symbol of peace, purity, and the Holy Spirit. The whole carving of this figure on his path through life is bursting with vigour and the surprise of finding it among the plain white walls of this quiet church is part of the pleasure it gives. There would no doubt have been more carvings here by the same 12th-century master, but all except this one and a fragment of a stone cross have vanished in later rebuildings of the church. We can only be grateful for the burgeoning vigour of what survives.

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Note This church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Brookland, Kent

Odd things in churches

Doing the previous post about the lookers’ huts of Romney Marsh reminded me of my last trip to the Marsh a couple of years ago, in the company of friends and marshophiles from Hastings (you know who you are and how grateful I am for your hospitality). A favourite building from that trip was St Augustine’s church at Brookland, with its extraordinary detached belfry shaped like an overgrown candle-snuffer.

Brookland church also has some curious contents – a set of late-18th century weights and measures, a chest said to come from the Spanish Armada, and the odd item shown in the photograph above. What could it be? If you think it looks rather like a sentry box, you’re quite close. It’s apparently designed to provide shelter for a priest taking a funeral service in the churchyard when wind and rain are whipping across the Marsh. The name for this miniature portable building is a hudd or hud, obviously the same word as ‘hood’, although I can’t find a reference in the OED to the term being used in this way.

The funeral hudd is a piece of plain and practical joinery that is just about light enough to trundle out into the churchyard when needed and has just enough space for a person to stand up in. I’m not sure when it was made or when it was last used – it seems redolent of Georgian clergymen wanting to keep their wigs dry, or slightly later ones keeping the mud off their cassocks. Maybe Jane Austen’s Mr Collins would have used a hudd – though he might have worried that it concealed him from the watchful gaze of his patron. Lady Catherine De Bourgh.