Saturday, August 27, 2011


Late-flowering modernism

I’ve been passing by this building on Hereford’s inner ring road for years. I remember being vaguely aware of it as a teenager (when I was a teenager, I mean, although the building was probably in its teens at the time too). But thanks to a few long waits at the traffic lights I’ve started to look at it more lately. And now the building looks past its best, and the shops on its ground floor look closed, and I’m thinking I ought to share it with you, while it’s still there.

Looking at the Franklin Barnes building is also timely because, as many readers of this blog will know, the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain is being celebrated, and this looks like a building designed very much under the influence of the kind of modern architecture fostered by the Festival, the sort of modern design that didn’t mind playful use of colour, or sculpture, or whacky lettering – modernism with a human face, as it were.

There are so many typically 1950s things about this building. Look at the way the central block is arranged in a series of layers – a central white core, then two slabs of red bricks, then the two layers of boldly framed windows. This massing in layers or slabs is very 1950s, as are many other features – the railings on the block to the left, the use of small tiles of grey slate for some of the facing, and that bold lettering, which, if not actually lifted from the Festival Hall or the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion, must have been influenced by the ‘Egyptian’ letters used there.

Architects Cecil Corey and Harry Bettington certainly knew how to pull all these elements together. But what was this building for, and who was, or were, Franklin Barnes? Furniture dealers? Electrical retailers? No. The sculpture in the niche gives the game away. It’s a stylized flower by Trevor Worton: Franklin Barnes ran a garden supplies business and florist’s. May their building continue to flourish.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Faringdon, Berkshire*

Moving on

So solid, buildings do not generally move. Permanence is one of the conditions of architecture, and when we hear of a building moving, we are apt to get excited, because it’s being dismantled and re-erected stone by stone (like London’s Temple Bar), or because it’s being transported on an overgrown truck, or because it’s suffering from “structural movement”, the bugbear of surveyors and the owners of houses, meaning it’s subsiding, and may fall down. “The crack is moving down the wall, We must remain until the roof falls in” are the relentlessly repeating lines in an eerie poem by Weldon Kees, the American poet who disappeared one day in 1955, not about to let his own house fall down around his ears.

Statuary, especially anything made of stone and larger than life-size, also tends to stay put. But sometimes, under the influences of circumstances, accidents, and strong wills, buildings and statues move, or even move together. London’s Crystal Palace, of course, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was taken apart and its miles of iron framework and acres of glass were re-assembled in a slightly different form in South London. Later, it burned down, leaving only vast and trunkless legs of stone, or foundations of stone at any rate.

Other survivors of these vicissitudes were a pair of statues personifying the continents of Africa and Asia. These figures were bought in 1966 and placed in the park of Faringdon House by Robert Heber-Percy, heir and former partner of Lord Berners. Berners, the “versatile peer”, who had written music, painted, dyed his doves in bright colours, and generally been entertaining, made your standard English eccentric look staid and unproductive. Eccentricity can be fragile, crumbling with the passing of the eccentric, But Berners lives on in his music, his folly tower overlooking Faringdon, and his writings.

I like to think there’s something of his spirit in the importation of these statues, one of which, Africa with her sphinx, is generously made visible to the passer-by over the park wall. Made, no doubt, to symbolize Britain’s dominion over the world’s continents, its original meaning is irrelevant in today’s world. Rather than smash it up, though, why not preserve it to remind us how we once saw ourselves and others, in the days before these bulky traces of the Crystal Palace moved from London to a corner of a garden on the edge of an English country town?

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*I use the old-style English county boundaries.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Sailing to Byzantium

Bristol, an important port for centuries, enjoyed a great expansion in the 19th century, with the arrival of the Great Western Railway and the building of many warehouses, shops, offices, and factories of various kinds. One of the most outstanding buildings from this period is the Welsh Back Granary, built in 1869 to the designs of locally based architects Ponton and Gough. The architects chose a Byzantine revival style, though the multicoloured brickwork (courtesy of the Cattybrook brick pit at Almondsbury) owes a lot to the influence of Venetian architecture too. This is a style, sometimes known as Bristol Byzantine, that may have developed after Ponton and Gough got to know John Addington Symonds, literary critic and historian of the Renaissance, who was born in Bristol. The use of a mix of Venetian and Byzantine elements, though, which recalls the architecture of some other Bristol buildings I’ve posted in the past, also suggests tbat the Bristolians were trying to associate their city with two of the world’s most famous maritime cities, Venice and Istanbul.

Built to store grain, the Welsh Back building was highly functional – all those pierced openings were to ventilate the grain as it was dried by the heat from fires on the lower floors; the round holes close to the ground-floor arches contained chutes through which grain could be released to waiting carts. But what high-octane decoration – polychrome bricks, pointed Venetian battlements, natty pointed arches, restless patterning – cloaks this functionality. Part palace, part silo, this building is designed to dazzle. In the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a jazz club here, which metamorphosed into a rock venue in the 1980s, all of all seems rather appropriate for this loud and colourful structure. There’s a more sedate restaurant in the base of the building now; the dazzling brickwork remains.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Leominster, Herefordshire


I took these pictures a couple of years ago in one of the main streets in the town of Leominster, Herefordshire. I was inspired to have another look at the photographs when I saw an interesting post on the blog Caroline’s Miscellany about a printer’s shop in York.

At that time I first saw these figures, the shop was a delicatessen and, although I wanted to go inside and ask about the charming figures on either side of the shop sign, the place was full of people buying olives and unsalted butter, and the last thing the staff would have wanted was someone going on about the shop front. So I thought, ‘I’ll come back another day, at a quieter time, and ask then.’ So I returned a few months later to find that the place was no longer a deli, but an antiques shop. ‘Aha, I thought, just the people to be interested in my antiquarian enquiries.’ But the shop was closed, and was still closed when I came back later the same day. I made a third visit, a few months later still, and the shop was completely empty.

So I can’t tell you how old these figures are, or what they’re meant to represent, although clearly no printer’s devilry has been at work here. Some of the features of the frontage (the rosettes, for example) give it an early-19th century feel, but it could equally be a 20th-century design in homage to the earlier period. And as for the figures – I was going to compare them to classical caryatids, until an architect I know, when I showed him one of the pictures, pointed out that they’re more like ship’s figureheads, which indeed they are. But the age of these figures doesn’t matter so much as the facts that someone took trouble over them and that they still make us smile.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sherston, Wiltshire


In the large village of Sherston in Wiltshire, roughly east of Malmesbury, this graceful medieval church stands at one end of the town. The church has a Norman core and was extended in the 13th and 15th centuries. The tall tower at first glance looks like one of the 15th-century additions, its style not a million miles from the more ornate church towers of Somerset. The openwork parapet at the top, the pointed openings with pierced stone panels to let out the sound of the bells, the niche for a statue – all these are things you can also see on 15th-century Somerset towers. Only the two little windows right at the bottom of the tower beneath the niche strike an odd note.

And those windows give a clue to what is different about the tower at Sherston: it dates not from the 15th century but from 1730. It was the work of a master mason called Thomas Sumsion, who came from Colerne, which, although in Wiltshire, is quite close to Bath and the world of those stunning Somerset towers. Sumsion worked very much in the medieval tradition. In 1730 George II was on the throne and classical architecture in the vein of St Martin in the Fields was all the rage. So the Gothic style of Sumsion’s tower here at Sherston was unfashionable in 1730 – maybe 250 years out of date.

But this kind of work was what Sumsion had learned, perhaps from his father, who had learned it in turn from an earlier generation. They’d no doubt continued building country buildings in the Gothic style through the Elizabethan period, through the Classical age of Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, and into the Georgian period. This phenomenon is known to historians as the Gothic survival. At Sherston it makes you feel pleased that Gothic survived in this way. Thomas Sumsion produced a tower of particular beauty and grace.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sezincote, Gloucestershire


Walkers of the Heart of England Way going south through Gloucestershire leave Bourton on the Hill confident that their path is well named. The stone houses of Bourton, the rolling terrain, the sound of English birdsong, and even the smell of English cowpats: it’s all there. A few fields along the way, the farming landscape changes subtly. The pasture is punctuated with mature trees, giving the sense that we are entering the park of a big house. And beyond a small wood, there it is on the crest of a rise: a most surprising and un-English country house – Sezincote.

Sezincote was built for Charles Cockerell, who inherited the estate in 1798 on the death of his elder brother, John. Both were nabobs, men who had made their money in India, and Charles asked another of his brothers, the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, to build him a house in the Indian style. The plump central onion dome shows instantly what they were about, but there are many other telling details lifted from Indian Islamic buildings – the little corner turrets with their own tiny onion domes, the bracketed cornice that runs around the building, the chimneys on either side of the main dome, the flattened central arch, the ornate windows on the little pavilion on the far right (there are similar ones on the curved greenhouse wing just visible on the left). Even the stone has what is said to be an authentically Indian orangey tinge (specially stained, according to some authorities).

This astonishing house was begun in 1805, and in 1807 the Prince Regent came to visit. No doubt his stay at Sezincote partly accounts for the prince’s enthusiasm for the Indian style, which John Nash adopted for the remodelling of the prince’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton in 1815. Brighton’s Pavilion, so outré with its cluster of domes and intricate fretwork, so famous because of its owner’s character and colourful life, is now far better known than Sezincote. Which is good in a way because the nabob’s house* still has the power to surprise us and to remind us that here in the heart of England there are still things that pull us up short with an architectural jolt and remind us of the multifarious cultural and economic links that make up British history.

*This building is celebrated as "the nabob's house" in John Betjeman's autobiographical poem Summoned By Bells.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The London Nobody Knows

BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interesting short programme tonight by Dan Cruickshank, in which the writer and broadcaster celebrates the work of Geoffrey Fletcher, author and illustrator of such as books as The London Nobody Knows. Fletcher's books, published between 40 and 50 years ago, explored and vividly evoked unregarded bits of London – pubs, markets, public lavatories, hostels, and other dark but lively corners – many of which have vanished now. Cruickshank visited some of the survivors (including a Deptford pie and mash shop, Wilton’s Music Hall, and Ridley Street Market) and talked to Iain Sinclair about Fletcher and his need to go “off-beat”. The short programme is worth catching on BBC’s iPlayer where it will be for about a week. In addition, my earlier post about Fletcher is here.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Trafalgar Square, London, and beyond

A new view (2)

Having taken in the view of St Martin in the Fields described in the previous post, I turned through 90 degrees and saw in the distance the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, the structure popularly known, after the great bell it contains, as Big Ben. A touch on the zoom ring and there was another photograph of a familiar building from a new viewpoint.*

The clock tower is of course the most famous part of maybe our most famous building. The Houses of Parliament, built after its predecessor was destroyed by fire in 1834, took decades to complete. The basic design was by Charles Barry, but Barry enlisted the aid of A W N Pugin as a specialist in the Gothic style, and Pugin became more and more involved in the design to the extent that it became as much his own as Barry’s. Burning the candle at both ends, Pugin poured out drawings of decorative details of all kinds, creating the glorious interior of the House of Lords, designing wallpapers, mouldings, carvings, and furniture, and bringing Barry’s scheme to full Gothic life. The clock tower seems to have been completely designed by Pugin, who based its distinctive shape and refined details on a tower he did for Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire.

By 1852, Pugin, sick with what was to be his final illness, was still overworked with drawings for Barry. His biographer, Rosemary Hill, quotes an extraordinary letter, which veers from lucidity to incoherence, in which Pugin describes his overwork: “I never worked so hard in my life for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole mechanism of the clock.”† He meant to write that he was to design the mechanism of the clock, but his slip seems apposite – Pugin was doing drawings at a relentless and mechanical pace, although the content, full of artful touches, was far from mechanical.

A few months after his frantic letter, Pugin was dead. He never lived to see the tower that would become his most celebrated work. We take it for granted now and see it everywhere, reproduced on news programmes, sketched in the background to political cartoons. But glimpsing it from the National Gallery steps made me see it anew: its artful vertical lines, its distinctive roof, the way the tower swells slightly to emphasizes the clock, the manner in which the gilded details catch the light of the sun. My new view of the tower revealed something else too: the structure’s lightness of touch in contrast with the grey ventilation towers of Portcullis House, the 2001 parliamentary office building across the road from the tower. It rises above them as a medieval church spire might against a background of dark, Satanic mills.

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*In spite of the marked difference in the cloud cover, this photograph was taken just a few seconds after the one in the previous post. England’s skies are ever varied, ever changing.

†Rosemary Hill’s book, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (2007) is one of the best and most enjoyable architect-biographies of recent years.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

St Martin's Lane and Trafalgar Square, London

A new view (1)

For many years I worked in London’s Covent Garden, and day after day I passed Trafalgar Square and the Georgian church of St Martin in the Fields on my way to and from the office. I’d always admired St Martin’s, which is one of the most influential churches in the history of English architecture. It was created in the 1720s by James Gibbs, who in his design tackled headlong the question of how to build a church with both a columned classical portico and a steeple. These two elements, the one Greek or Roman, the other English, didn’t rightly belong together, and Gibbs combined them by simply sticking one behind and above the other. It ought not to work, having a tower emerging out of the top of a Roman portico like this, but it does, somehow, or we are so used to St Martin’s, and the many churches built in imitation of it, that we don’t see any incongruity any more. And the whole thing is now a London landmark, its steeple – with its square tower and octagonal spire and its marvellous rhythm of arches and circles – dominating its corner of the great square.

Having admired this church for years, I’d never photographed it, partly because there seemed to be no adequate viewpoint. Too near, and you can’t get it in the frame; farther away and you end up with a picture full of red buses and dashing pedestrians. Then the other week I was coming out of the National Gallery and at the top of the gallery steps spotted this view, which encompasses the whole façade without letting the buses spoil one’s view of the architecture. Finally I appreciate the National Gallery for something other than the paintings.