Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Round-up time

Some of you will have noticed that a new page link has appeared in the list headed PAGES in the right-hand column. This takes you to a short and selective history of English architecture in the 16th and 17th centuries and the few years on either side – roughly speaking, the Tudor and Stuart periods. As with the previous page on Medieval architecture, links within the page take you to relevant posts from this blog, to illustrate the development of the architecture. There are rather fewer links than in the previous page, which covers the vast sweep from the Saxon period to c 1500, but enough, to give a broad idea of some key developments.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Kings Stanley, Gloucestershire

Industrial classical

We get into the habit of pigeon-holing the areas and counties of England. It’s too easy to think of Cornwall as all picturesque fishing villages (forgetting the widespread poverty) or to imagine Staffordshire as consisting only of decayed former industrial towns (ignoring the rural beauty). The popular view of the Cotswolds, of course, is of a rural idyll full of the country houses and cottages of the stars. Stone villages do a great deal of “nestling” and green valleys their fair share of “girdling” on a thousand chocolate boxes and souvenir calendars.

It’s easy to forget, therefore, that most of these picturesque villages once had a mill, and that a thriving cloth industry made the region what it was in the Middle Ages. And in later centuries there was industry on a larger scale too, as shown by the wealth of larger textile and other mills scattered around, especially in the Stroud valleys, but also close to such towns as Chipping Norton, Winchcombe, and Painswick.

This cloth mill at King’s Stanley is a case in point. Stanley Mill’s brick-walled grandeur marks it out as different from the usual stone of the Cotswolds and its large scale sets it apart too. Built in 1812–14, it was designed to house spinning mules, looms, and other textile-manufacturing equipment, all powered by five water wheels fed from a 5-acre mill pond across the road. The identity of the mill’s architect is unknown, but he gave the building a certain grandeur that fits with its large size, from the rich red brickwork to that row of round-headed windows on the top floor.

It’s the interior, though, that makes it really special. This is a metal framework building, in which most of the weight of the structure is taken by a system of iron columns and trusses made by Benjamin Gibbons of Dudley. These trusses in turn hold up the shallow brick vaults that make up the floors and ceilings – the whole creating a fireproof structure of the kind that was more and more current in factory construction since 1779, when Abraham Darby showed the potential of cast iron by building the first iron bridge at Coalbrookedale

The columns are designed in an elegant form, something between classical Doric and Tuscan. The trusses form a delicate openwork pattern of pointed arches, semicircles, and circles. This layout makes for a spacious interior, with the narrow “arcade” of columns flanked on either side by more generous spaces, which were no doubt once loud with the racket of spinning mules. The “fireproof” construction was put to the test too. In 1884, part of the building caught fire. The roof was destroyed and the upper floors damaged, but much of the structure survived.

It all makes a wonderful and quite unexpected sight just a few miles from the baaing inhabitants of the hill farms that supplied the wool that made it all possible. For farming and industry, the known and ignored aspects of the region, were in the 19th century inseparable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Blandford Forum, Dorset

Have you got the scrolls?

Pevsner’s Dorset volume says that the old Greyhound Inn, in the centre of Blandford Forum, takes façade decoration to ‘Bavarian extremes’. Although there’s a hint of Saxon (or even Lutheran) hauteur about that comment, he doesn’t mean that the gloriously named John and William Bastard, architect-builders of Blandford who reconstructed the town after the fire of 1731, had been at the beer when they conceived this building, but that the decoration is less restrained than the norm in this town and more like the ornate baroque pastel and white facades of Central Europe.

English Georgian architecture can come over as rather plain, getting its effect not from decorative curlicues but from order, proportion, and restrained classicism. We think of Georgian building in terms of simple brick walls and rows of sash windows, relieved by the occasional pilaster, stretch of rustication, or fancy fanlight, and given form, in the best examples, by craftsmanship of the highest quality – meticulous brickwork, fine carpentry, and so on.

The facade of the Greyhound seems indeed to come from a different world. The decoration around the triangular pediment is from the top drawer, an encrustation of classical details. The Corinthian capitals below it, too, are exceptionally ornate and full of delicate fronds and curves. And then there’s that central window: the big plain keystone at the top and the protruding ‘ears’ at the upper corners are the kind of things seen on many a Georgian window. But the generous scrolls up the sides, the lavish moulding around the sides and top, and the fancy-shaped apron below the sill set this window apart. Even better is the small face in the middle of the apron. Is it a drunken satyr, bearing grapes and welcoming us to the inn? That’s the answer, then: it was wine that the builders were drinking that day.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Broughton, Oxfordshire

Across the fields and through the trees

To walk across green fields up to the beautiful Elizabethan front of Broughton Castle on a sunny morning is a real pleasure. Even if the sun is lighting up the other side of the house, the building still looks well, ringed by its moat and surrounded beyond by pastures full of baaing sheep and lambs. The place seems the essence of continuity of landscape, settlement, and building. And so it proves. The core of the house dates from the 14th century, but there was a major remodelling in the 16th century, since when not a great deal has changed – even the ownership: Broughton came into the Fiennes family in 1451, and it remains with them today.

The north front, shown in the picture above, is from the 16th-century, and it’s typically Elizabethan. The large mullioned windows, tall ornate chimney stacks, prominent gables, big bays, and central oriel are all typical of Elizabethan architecture, as is the general overall near-symmetry of the layout. If this had been a completely new build, there would most likely have been perfect symmetry and a central door. But because the original medieval room layout was preserved, with a great hall with an entrance passage at one end, things don’t match up perfectly, and the door is set to one side, cunningly concealed in the side of one of the window bays.

At the left-hand end, a battlemented wing protrudes. This is part of the earlier fabric, as the Gothic window suggests. There are more Gothic details on the east front, visible through trees from the main road and seen in my second photograph. In spite of the battlements, though, this was never a true castle. It was a fortified manor house protected by a gatehouse, moat, and minimal military features, and a very fine one too.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Czech interlude

i m Hannah Kodicek 1947-2011

A brief detour from my usual territory, as I remember a dear friend who died last week.

* * *

Walking around the back of Prague castle, we make for a small baroque church. Hannah pushes at the door: ‘It’s not always open.’ The oak yields and the group of us make our way in for another dose of the outsize baroque statuary that Prague churches specialize in. But the church is filled with sound. High in a balcony, so far up that we can’t see the music stands and work out what’s being played, a tiny group is rehearsing what sounds like an 18th–century cantata. Just a couple of string players, the organist, a flautist, and a soprano. The singer and flute duet, producing a series of cascading runs, Italian syllables echoing across the church and tumbling down towards us, aping the apparent movement of a group of gilded putti that seem to be falling headlong from the ceiling.

There is no way we can interrupt these musicians, totally absorbed in what they are doing, to ask them what it is they are playing. So we keep as quiet and still as we can, and listen as they play on, their notes as light and bright as the sun shining on the gilded statues and candelabra. It’s a wrench, finally, to leave, but we have had, at least, an experience of that perfect marriage of music and setting, of sight and sound, that is typical of this place and typical of the woman who has brought us here.

She liked this coming together of the arts of music and architecture, this Gesamtkunstwerk, as too she loved opera, and the joys of a well restored, well decorated house, and the pleasures of being immersed in nature (in southern Bohemia especially) or being surrounded by beautiful buildings (in her beloved Cesky Krumlov, the southern Bohemian town that she made her home, above all). And when it came to a joining together of the arts, she knew what she was talking about. A pianist trained in Prague and London, a painter, a successful actress, a writer, a restorer of houses, there seemed to be little she could not do. But hers was not the planetary ego of the star. It was typical of her that she should work as a story editor, toiling in the background to help bring focus and credibility and pace to film scripts written by others, including that of the oscar-winning The Counterfeiters.

The generosity with which she threw herself into the task of working on a script, only complete focus and commitment being acceptable to her, was mirrored in the generosity with which she gave time to her friends. She introduced us to so many aspects of her beautiful, baffling, sometimes exasperating central European country. We were and are enriched by her insights into everything from alchemical symbols on buildings in Krumlov to Czech social customs, from the structure of Czech words to the behaviour of a litter of kittens on her sitting room floor.

As I look back I realise that the times I spent with her were often quite short. But at each meeting she would throw revelatory light on whatever it was we talked about, and that light and the warmth associated with it drew one into the field of her insight and creativity. And they remain, these feelings, now that she is gone, and make one believe in the truth of what Michael Bywater wrote at the end of his meditation on loss, Lost Worlds: ‘Loss sheds its light on what remains, and in that light all that we have and all that we have had glows more brightly still.’

* * *

An obituary can be found here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sherborne, Gloucestershire

Tin among the trees

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m a fan of corrugated iron, which I like because it can be bent to form interesting shapes and because its undulating surface looks good in the sun. I hope I’ve shown by now, in posts about corrugated iron "tin churches" and other buildings, that this is not a substance that should be consigned to the bottom of the hierarchy of building materials, and that can be at home in both farm and village, by both road and railway.

I didn’t expect, though, to find a corrugated iron building in a quiet valley in the Cotswolds, fitting in amongst the water, grass, and trees. And I have to admit that I’d been along the road that passes this small boathouse many times before I even noticed it. In a way, that’s the point. This unassuming green building is in part designed to blend into its surroundings. But its builders took the trouble to give it a curving, pagoda-style roof, so once you do notice it, there’s that extra touch to admire. As I did one evening recently, as, interrupted by only the occasional quack from the water, the sun slid silently down behind the trees.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Lamport, Northamptonshire

In the shadow of the great house (2)

The predominant building type in the English countryside is the cottage. As we travel around, we’re used to seeing them, clustered together in villages, occupying isolated positions at junctions or even, like the cottage my maternal grandfather lived in, set in fields full of ruminating cows. Many of the older, more picturesque ones, are vernacular cottages, built by local builders in local materials. But some cottages are designed in a more self-conscious way, with a deliberate “look”. Houses built for the workers on the great country estates, especially in the 19th century, are often like this. They might be built in brick rather than local stone, or have uniform ornamental bargeboards, or a particular kind of glazing, or the coat of arms of the lord of the manor. They stand out from the norm, and locals known instantly that they belong to such and such an estate.

Few estate cottages stand out, though, like these polychrome houses in Lamport , done in three shades of brick. They date from the 1850s, when the Victorian Gothic revival was well underway, architects like William Butterfield were dreaming up elaborate brick churches such as All Saints’ Margaret Street, London, and when the writer John Ruskin was promoting the idea of “structural polychromy” – in other words multicoloured buildings in which the colours were derived from the actual materials, rather than being merely skin-deep. Not that Butterfield or Ruskin had in mind quite the jazzy approach of this pair of estate cottages. Part of me sees them as uncomfortable aliens amongst the toffee-coloured lias stone of Northamptonshire; part of me admires their sheer nerve.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Lamport, Northamptonshire

In the shadow of the great house (1)

The village of Lamport in Northamptonshire is dominated by Lamport Hall, a vast country house of various dates, designed principally by John Webb in the 17th century and the Smiths of Warwick in the 18th. Looking away from the hall’s long, sash-windowed facades, I began to notice interesting smaller buildings in the main village street, all of them related in some way to the great house.

This one was built as the rectory in c. 1727–30 for Dr Euseby Isham, who was rector and a member of the Isham family who owned the hall. The architect was Francis Smith of Warwick, principal member of a renowned family of architects and builders who came to prominence (rather like the Bastards of Blandford Forum) when their home town burned down at the end of the 17th century. The Smiths built many buildings in the Midlands, especially with striking distance of the home town.

The rectory was actually the first work that the Smiths did at Lamport – Francis Smith started to extend the hall a couple of years after this house was built – and it displays the typical features of its time and of Smith’s work: limestone quoins, sash windows with limestone eared architraves, a pediment above the door, and so on. Its design is very much of its time, its materials – especially the toffee-coloured lias stone – very much of its place: it is a gem of an early-18th century house.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Victoria, London


When it comes to architecture, Victoria is not the most illustrious of the great London railway termini. It lacks the great iron and glass conservatory-like sweep of Paddington, the very resolved design of King’s Cross, or the restored glamour of St Pancras. It’s also structurally slightly confusing, partly because of its history of serving two railways – the South Eastern and Chatham and the London, Brighton and South Coast. It’s still a station of two halves, with the old South Eastern and Chatham platforms on the left as you stand on the concourse looking towards the tracks, the London, Brighton and South Coast platforms on the right.

There are still some little noticed but still notable details at Victoria, though. My picture shows one from the London, Brighton and South Coast side of the station, a cast-iron Ionic capital from 1898, when the LB & SC rebuilt their side of the station in red-brick Renaissance revival style. The roof is held up by impossibly tall Ionic columns, each terminating in a capital like this one beneath the arches that support the metal and glass roof.

This is a Victorian interpretation of a Greek capital: the curvaceous spiral volutes and egg-and-dart moulding are variations on what would be found on a Classical temple or Renaissance palace, the swags below them are a more fanciful addition, though probably copied from some Renaissance source. The capital and its cousins are hardly visible from down on the station concourse, but as I dashed up the escalator towards Victoria Place on my way to the Passport Office this morning, I found myself quite close to the roof and face to face with this capital. Trying to ignore the mystified glances of passing commuters, I aimed my mobile phone to record a bit more unregarded architecture for your delectation.