Friday, July 26, 2013

Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire


This surprising structure, Henley's Imperial Hotel and its flanking shops, is meant to make travellers pause in amazement. It stands near the entrance to the town's railway station and, although not directly linked to the station as many such hotels were, was no doubt intended to attract people using the railway. Its heady mixture of timbered gables, bay windows, oriels, balustraded balconies, and tall brick chimneys, was put together by the architect William Theobalds in around 1897.

Theobalds had no doubt absorbed the influence of Richard Norman Shaw, who liked to give his houses timbered gables and tall chimneys and made this kind of domestic Tudorish revival popular. But Shaw knew as well as anyone that this kind of building drew on a variety of sources. As Shaw said modestly, 'If I could get myself to believe that my half-timbered work and tall chimneys were in any way my own, I should sit up on my hind legs and purr away like our tom cat John, but common honesty compels me to own that they are simply indifferent copies of old work.'

Theobalds added to the mix, using wooden-framed windows where Shaw preferred mullioned ones, adding an ornate finial to make the skyline interesting, fitting natty bargeboards, and cladding the piers on either side of the entrance in granite. The shop fronts that curve away from the main central block are unusual too, with their large, arched main windows and row of little square windows above. The whole row, the big hotel gable with its flanking smaller gables, makes a confident impression that reflects Henley's status in the late-19th century as Thames-side resort and is still dazzling in the sun.


Hels said...

The Henley Imperial Hotel was fortunate to be located near the entrance to the town's railway station. I am sure that such a location was indeed intended to attract people towards using the railway, as you say.

But I also think it was to attract railway travellers to the hotel. If the hotel was smart, they would send a coach to pick up the train travellers and take them to THEIR hotel (and not to another).

Certainly the hotel must have made a great impression!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: I meant when I wrote 'to attract people using the railway' precisely what you say in your second paragraph - that the building was meant to attract users of the railway to the hotel. I didn't realise that my words could be interpreted the other way around! It doesn't matter - no doubt this eyecatcher of a building worked both ways.

Sigrun said...

Which wonderful buidings, Philip!


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Pastiche in full-blown unoriginality! I am wondering what sort of structure would have met the eye if it had been constructed in the past 50 years. We can enjoy this kind of building again and again, even deriving some humour from the recognition of details that are out of place from the purist point of view. Functionally, no doubt, it might need a few lifts and ramps installed, and better heating and wiring, but so would something built since WWII. But aesthetically it just makes a town - rather like Droitwich - or, changing the pastiche, Eastbourne, Penarth or Llanwrtyd Wells. No doubt this is "dishonest" "derivative", "overblown", etc. etc., but what a treat for old eyeballs, even if you never step inside it!

Evelyn said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention as I am currently writing about Oxfordshire on WordPress. This Hotel would be seen as a Gingerbread by Americans, of course, because there are so many elements from different eras which gives it rich texture visually. Certainly not just another timber frame!

Hels said...

oops Philip

sorry. I was fascinated by the entire coaching inn industry and hope that the link to train stations took off where coaches left off.

It continues to be a great topic.
thanks for the link

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: I have a distant memory which I hope is right (I read the book over 30 years asgo) that in Dickens' Dombey and Son, Mr Dombey, when he takes a train journey, has his coach put on a special freight car that is part of the train, so that he can continue his journey by coach at the other end. A good symbol of the transition between coach and rail.