Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sunningwell, Berkshire*

Classicism, Tudor-style

St Leonard’s church, Sunningwell, is a small parish church mostly built in the medieval period and restored by the Victorians. It has one extraordinary feature: this seven-sided porch at the west end, added to the church just after 1550. I’ve no idea why the porch should have seven sides, although the number seven is a widespread one in Christian symbolism, from the seven days of the rcreation to the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. The porch is interesting not only because of its seven-sided form, but also because of its mixture of architectural styles – it’s half-Gothic and half-Classical.

This strange stylistic mix is very much of its time, the second half of the 16th century. In this period, rural buildings were still using the Gothic style of the previous century, with its pointed arches and cusped window openings, though the pointed arches had got flatter (as in the doorway here) and the windows were sometimes rectangular rather than pointed. More adventurous builders, though, were learning about the Classical style of ancient Greece and Rome – but their Tudor Classicism is often an insular affair, in which the standard designs of columns and capitals aren’t in quite the right proportions (there is often the addition of decidedly unclassical ornament, too).

At Sunningwell, the columns are of the Ionic order, the one with the spiral volute decoration, but the spirals here are much smaller than on Greek or Roman buildings. And whereas Ionic columns are usually fluted, these are plain. So these details represent a rustic form of Classicism, but they’re still remarkable – Sunningwell may be the first English parish church to have Classical columns supporting part of its fabric.

The reason for this unusual stylistic adventure in a rural church is that the porch was paid for by a man of great learning and international connections. John Jewel, scholar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, theologian, apologist of the Anglican church, and eventually Bishop of Salisbury, began his church career as rector of Sunningwell in the 1550s. His learning no doubt influenced the design of the porch, setting a trend in architecture in the unlikely setting of a quiet English village.

*I'm using the traditional county divisions here, as does Pevsner's Buildings of England series. Postally, the village is in Oxfordshire.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bristol, once more

Bristol brickwork (3)

Before I move on to something completely different I wanted to share with you one more red-brick building from Bristol, to complement those a posted a couple of weeks ago. Just a few doors along Victoria Street from the buildings in my previous Bristol post is this little stunner. The central window with its petite classical columns, elaborate arch, and central roaring lion is a showpiece in architectural terracotta, and the cornice above it is a no less ornate essay in the same material. The ground-floor arches belong to a 1990s refurbishment but the rest is to the 1870s design of J. Michelen Rogers.

I don’t know much about this building. Its original use eludes me, although the British Listed Buildings web site lists it as a shop. And I’m unsure of the precise significance of the lion with its motto “Courage”. But I do like its bold architecture – the terracotta details that catch the sunlight so well, the big central window in its arch with the dainty columns and Gibbsian surround, and the eccentric dormer window topping it all off. It all goes to prove that a small building can embody grandeur and that in an unregarded thoroughfare it is always worth looking up.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eardisland, Herefordshire

Brotherhood of the road

AA telephone boxes were scrapped in 2002, but a few still stand as a reminder of the hundreds of black and yellow boxes that once dotted the British landscape. They were originally known as sentry boxes, and when the first ones were erected in the years before World War I they were intended as shelters for AA patrolmen who were there to help with directions, repairs, and advice to the growing number of motorists who joined the Automobile Association. In the 1920s, AA members were issued with keys, so that they could open any sentry box and make use of the contents – a lamp, maps, and so on. Eventually, the boxes became telephone kiosks, equipped with one-button telephones with which they could summon help when broken down. All the boxes were numbered, so if callers simply gave the box number from which they were calling, the operator would know their exact location and send a patrol to help.

From 1956 onwards the four-gabled black and yellow box was the standard design. Such boxes stood not just for a welcome helping hand, but for a tradition of fellowship and support summed up for many motorists by the AA’s distinctive winged badge – I am old enough to remember the anger among older members when this badge was replaced by a more modern, and much blander, one in the 1960s.

The AA box that caught my eye stands by the Cross Inn in the village of Eardisland just off the A44 in northern Herefordshire. It started its life at Legions Cross, just outside Eardlisland on the A44, and my copy of the 1962 edition of the AA Illustrated Road Book of England and Wales confirms the presence of an AA box here. In the age of the satnav and cellphone it seems to come from another era – a time when the AA, with its uniformed patrolmen, winged badge, yellow vehicles, and shiny telephone kiosks constituted a true motoring fraternity.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Upton on Severn, Worcestershire

A Ludlow in Worcestershire

The previous post about pillar boxes seemed to attract a lot of interest, so, although I’ve not managed to pass an Edward VIII post box recently, here’s a letter box with the monogram of his brother, George VI.

There have been wall boxes, post boxes set into the walls of Post Offices or into all kinds of other walls in the countryside, since Victorian times, and I don’t normally give them too much attention. But this one caught my eye because of the unusual enamel plate. Jonathan Glancey’s good little book Pillar Boxes (1989) tells me that this is what’s known as a Ludlow box, manufactured by James Ludlow of Birmingham, a company that supplied non-standard wall boxes from the late-19th century until the firm closed in 1965. Their boxes have a white enamel plate and no rain hood over the letter slot. The body of the box is not cast iron, like most post boxes, but is made of wood with a covering of sheet metal.

Perhaps the lighter body and the tendency for the enamel plates to come away from the front have made Ludlow boxes slightly less durable than their cast-iron counterparts. But it was good to find this one, still accepting mail and still catching the eye with its businesslike enamel panel.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

Pillar of the community

I’m always on the lookout for interesting street furniture (although I’m not sure I like the term) – horse troughs, drinking fountains, benches, bollards, and pillar boxes. Maybe they’re not quite buildings, but many early pillar boxes are certainly miniature works of architecture, none more so than the kind, now very rare, that are actually made in the form of a pillar.

The idea of making post boxes in the form of fluted Doric columns seems to have begun in 1856, just three years after Britain’s first post box was installed. At this time there was no single standard design, and post-box pioneers were trying out different ideas. The Doric boxes were cast at Smith and Hawk’s Eagle Foundry in Birmingham, and were apparently designed by an architect called Edge. The first kind was in the form of a fluted column topped by a substantial bell-shaped dome on which was a large crown; the whole thing was about 8 feet tall. None of these monsters survive on our streets, but a few of the smaller models with the shallow domed top, like my example from a street in Malvern, can still be found. And very satisfying it is too, with its cast lettering, fluted body, and solid moulded base.

People who know about these things will have noticed one more unusual feature of this particular Victorian pillar box. It has a horizontal letter slot, like most modern post boxes but unlike most of the surviving Doric boxes, which have vertical slots. So the design of this box looks both back and forward, as well as making a cheering red splash on this quiet, rubble-walled street corner.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bristol, again

Bristol brickwork (2)

My walk to the Tramways Generating Station, the building described in the previous post, took me along Victoria Street, an in many ways unremarkable street that now forms one of the routes from the city centre to Temple Meads Station. As I walked along it, I was struck by how much evidence there was of Bristol’s admirable Victorian buildings, the kind of thing that the city was full of before the place got comprehensively bombed during World War II.

This row of buildings shows what I mean. At the far end, mainly in shadow, is the former Talbot Hotel (of about 1873), in attractive polychrome brickwork, and the largest of these structures. It was converted to offices after World War I and refurbished much more recently – I believe in the 1990s. The two nearer buildings continue the brickwork theme, with additional adornments: on one a row of pointed Gothic arches, on the other, number 8, dressings of stoner. The Pevsner City Guide to Bristol suggests that number 8 may be by an architect called Henry Masters, who did much work in the city in this period.

Whoever designed these buildings, they were no doubt influenced by John Ruskin, who liked this kind of Gothic with a Venetian feel to it, with colour expressed in the materials rather than painted on, and with scope provided for the carver. The pointed arches with their stone capitals have a particularly Venetian feel, a link which to my mind is made stronger by the worn-down, antique-looking carving of the capitals. Not death in Venice, exactly, but Venetian decay – and, praise be, survival.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Bristol brickwork (1)

Passing through Bristol last week, I thought I’d take a look at a favourite building I’d not seen for a while. When I last went past, one side of the structure was covered in scaffolding. Maybe this time the poles would be gone. But to my surprise, the building, the Tramways Generating Station, on Counterslip near the river, was covered in even more scaffolding and netting than before, so the photograph I show above is actually from my previous visit.

In 1895, having had horse-drawn trams for some twenty years, Bristol became the first city in the United Kingdom to build an electric tram service and in 1898–99 this new power station was constructed to supply electricity for the quickly expanding tramways network. This power station was designed by a young architect, William Curtis Green, who later became better known as the creator of buildings such as London’s Dorchester Hotel. The Bristol power station contained four steam engines coupled to four generators, and supplied power to the tramway system until 1941, when one of the many bombs dropped on the centre of the city struck a nearby bridge and severed the power lines.

To house the power plant, Curtis Green created a building of neoclassical grandeur. The details – columns, windows, arches, and doorways – are picked out in Bath stone and stand out beautifully from the red brick walls. The façade on Counterslip, shown in the photograph, is rather narrow, and this emphasizes the height of the structure, making it seem even larger than it is. In a way, the effect is rather pompous. The very grand Venetian window on the ground floor, the row of four Ionic columns at second floor level, the triangular pediment at the top with the tiny window in the middle – it’s a busy, unbalanced, and over-the-top composition.

But it makes you look, and it makes you think: the Bristolians were clearly proud of their tramway and their electrification scheme, and it’s not such a bad thing to build a public transport system to be proud of. Not for the first time, I came away impressed by the swagger and confidence of the buildings in England’s southwestern metropolis.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Great West Road, London

Driving past the future

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Great West Road was the future. A row of factories, done out in the latest Art Deco style, lined the road, flagship premises for firms making what the people of modern England wanted: toothpaste, cosmetics, motor accessories, electrical goods. It was actually the frontages of these factories that were done out in Art Deco – these were the office blocks, the public face of the companies; behind were utilitarian, plain-vanilla factory sheds where the goods were actually produced. A number of these factory frontages – low slung blocks with white walls, strip windows, the occasional Egyptian detail (as on Perivale's famous Hoover factory in another part of West London), and tall towers – survive. As I drove along the road the other day, I resolved to come back and look at them properly, but photographed this one quickly by pulling on to a slip road and opening the car window.

It’s the former Curry’s electrical factory, but is now the headquarters of J C Decaux, the advertising firm whose posters and advert-festooned bus shelters are familiar in the capital and every other city in the land. It was designed in 1936 by F E Simkins and features the usual metal-framed windows, pale walls, and central clock tower. The combination of strong horizontals with the tower is typical of these factories, as are small details such as the step-topped buttresses, the three-section tower window, and the way the walls and windows curve in towards the tower. And what could be more 1930s than an octagonal clock face? Curry’s is not the showiest of the big Deco factories, but one of the best, and it’s good that it has survived and found appreciative new users. The building was restored by Foster and Partners in the late-1990s with this original office frontage preserved and a new warehouse replacing the original factory at the back.