Monday, December 28, 2015

Poet of places

The man who fought the planners

For many, I know, the period between Christmas and the New Year is a dead time, especially for those who don’t fancy what in the UK are still referred to as ‘the January sales’ – the post-Christmas time when the shops lure us on to the High Street with promises of massively discounted goods. Now many of the the sales start before Christmas anyway. But there’s always television or that Christmas-stocking box-set or whatever the online suppliers can offer…

Or maybe something a little different. I thought one or two of my readers might like The Man Who Fought the Planners, a documentary about the writer and broadcaster Ian Nairn that was made a while back and has surfaced on YouTube. Ian Nairn (1930–1953) was a writer, broadcaster, and poet of descriptive prose whose work I’ve enthused about before. My review of a an excellent book about him will fill in the background for those who don’t know about him; my account of Nairn’s London, which I think is his best book and one of the all-time best books on London, is here.

If you want something to cheer you up in the post-Christmas gloom, this video may not be a good idea. This is, after all, a documentary about a man who drank himself to death, who spent a lot of energy lamenting destructive planning decisions, and even whose enthusiasms, which are many and revealing, are expressed with a kind of melancholy. But fans of Nairn will know that his observations on buildings and, especially, places are the things that make this unlikely and unglamorous broadcaster worth watching – the insights into townscapes, the sense of space, the love of the unloved. The memories of those who knew him, worked with him, or who, like me, are simply people who like his writing and have benefitted from his perceptions – all these are valuable too.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Ancient styles

Sometimes a few notes, or a particular quality of sound, can do it: a memory is summoned and I am somewhere else entirely. Listening on the radio to an extract from a new recording by British vocal group Stile Antico the other day, I was transported back a few years year to a concert given by the same group in the late-medieval church of St James in Chipping Campden. The building is one of the Cotswold “wool” churches, built, that is to say, using the proceeds of the wool trade in this part of England. These churches have tall bell towers (without spires), big windows, and spacious interiors with flattened arches and roofs not very steeply pitched. Campden church is a particularly graceful example of this style – known to architectural historians as Perpendicular, for its marked vertical emphasis. The bands of stone running right the way up the faces of the tower are an example of this trait, as are the windows with their long vertical glazing bars that extend from the top of the frame to the bottom.

The rather box-like proportions produced by the shallow pitch of the roof work well both visually and acoustically, in my opinion. Churches like this have clear acoustics that are not too echoey and this quality is put to good effect in Chipping Campden when the church hosts a summer music festival. And it was a concert in one of these festivals in which I remembered this group singing. Stile Antico is a small group – just twelve singers I think. They perform early vocal music – mostly written before the 18th century, and mostly the kind that interweaves several different lines: Italian masters such as Palestrina and Monteverdi, English stars like Tallis and Byrd, out of the way composers such as the Slovenian Jacob Handl, whose extraordinary harmonies caught my ear on the radio the other day. They sing this complex polyphony without a conductor.

For the English Buildings blog, some English music: here they are in a piece of music by William Byrd. It’s his setting of the Ave Maria, from a recording of English music for Advent and Christmas. This Ave Maria is two minutes of grace indeed. Renewed wishes for a Happy Christmas to all my readers.

* * *

Stile's Antico's website is here.

The photograph at the top of this post shows the tower of St James’s church, Chipping Campden and the East Banqueting House (part of the largely vanished Old Campden House.
Image by Saffron Blaze, used used Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 unported license and attributed to: W. Lloyd MacKenzie, via Flickr @

Friday, December 18, 2015

Jackfield, Shropshire

Seasonally graphic

A few weeks ago the Resident Wise Woman and I visited the Jackfield Tile Museum in Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire. Housed in the former Craven Dunnill factory (visitors can see tiles being made in the adjacent buildings), this place is a visual feast, packed with tiles from the most interesting designers of the 19th and 20th centuries, from William de Morgan to John Piper, and the products of all the major British manufacturers, from Doulton to Carter's. Single tiles, panels of tiles, entire tiled room sets: the museum is a joy.

My picture shows one example from the Jackfield museum. Its cheerful and Christmasey image is on a tile produced by Maw and Co, one of the most prominent tile manufacturers in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. Maws started in Worcester in 1850, before moving in 1862 to the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, where there was plenty of good clay suitable for tile-making. They produced millions of architectural tiles and were especially famous in their early days for their encaustic tiles, which were widely used in churches, public buildings, and houses. They also made colourful pictorial tiles like this one, which were sometimes used, in the late-19th century, to decorate furniture.

This tile is one of several along the back of a washstand. Its combination of red-breasted robin and red-berried holly is very appealing: one can't be surprised that robins and holly have become symbolic of the Christmas season. They did so in the last decades of the Victorian period, the era when the Christmas card developed (it was officially invented in 1843 and was commercially widely available from the 1870s onwards); Christmas cards greatly helped popularize all the images now associated with Christmas. Their arrival and rise in popularity coincides pretty closely with the heyday of the decorative tile in England.

Some readers might find things to take exception to in this picture. The holly is a variety with variegated leaves, not the traditional deep green stuff that we find growing wild in England – but variegated holly is common enough in gardens. The robin* is rather sleeker of build than what we think of as typical – but the last couple of robins I saw in the garden did in fact look less plump than those on many a high-street card. I think of this robin, then, as an image from the garden, and offer it, with my seasonal greetings, to all my readers.

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*And, of course, it's a European robin (Erithacus rubecula), which is very different from the North American robin (Turdus migratorius). Even now I can remeber my puzzlement as a small child when, watching the film Mary Poppins, the bird that popped up during the song 'A spoonful of sugar' ('A robin feathering her nest') looked nothing like the European robins that I'd seen in our English garden.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why am I here?

For the last of my clutch of pre-Christmas reviews, I turn to a book about the life and works of one the great Victorian architects, George Gilbert Scott. It’s a revelation…

Gavin Stamp, Gothic for the Steam Age:An Illustrated Biography of George Gilbert Scott 
Published by Aurum Press

Until now, history has not done well by George Gilbert Scott. He was immensely productive and designed some major buildings, but a lot of his work seems dull beside, say, the polychrome dazzle of Butterfield, the vision of Street, or the souped-up inventiveness of Teulon. And yet you can’t get away from Scott, and if you actually look at his work, there’s much to admire. Gavin Stamp’s excellent new book shows us why, and tell us quite a lot about the work and the life of the man who created it.

The first half of the book covers Scott’s life (mainly his hyper-active professional life) and begins with a section on how his work in general has been received over the decades since his death, from the almost general dismissal of Victorian architecture that prevailed during the first half of the 20th century to the more open-minded approach to the period, pioneered by John Betjeman, since World War II. This turn-around has been accompanied by a less prejudiced way of looking at Scott’s restoration work – he’s seen now as a much more conservative restorer, respectful of old work, keen not to replace when he could repair, than was the case after his death: it took his reputation a long time to recover from the maulings administered by William Morris.

The section on the life begins with a brief account of his youth. Unlike most of his brothers, who went to Cambridge and became priests like their father, George Gilbert Scott was a difficult, solitary boy, who got most of what education he had at home. He was apprenticed to a London architect called Edmeston, who was no great shakes as a designer (and a classicist to boot), but gave his young pupil the rudiments of building and construction. After a spell as an assistant with Henry Roberts, he set up in practice with Moffatt, whom he’d known at Edmeston’s office. Scott and Moffat started at the right time, just after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act created a demand for a new building type: workhouses. Scott designed dozens of them, honing his skills in Gothic and beginning his life of whizzing around the country (on mail coaches at this date, later on trains) to make client- and site-visits.

Scott built on his success with the mixture of dedication to Gothic architecture and sheer hard work that became his hallmark. Before long more interesting commissions were coming his way – the Martyr’s Memorial in Oxford, educational buildings (the universities were expanding), and countless churches. There were church restorations too, by the dozen, and a series of jobs restoring cathedrals; this side of his work lasted his whole life, and he was involved with the restoration or repair of virtually every English medieval cathedral. He, his assistants, and his many pupils (they included stars-to-be as such Street, Bodley, and T G Jackson) were so busy that it’s possible to believe the story of Scott told by W R Lethaby and others: ‘…having left town by the six o’clock train, “the office”, on slackly assembling, found a telegram from a Midland station asking, “Why am I here?”’.

Gavin Stamp summarizes this burgeoning career, telling briefly the story of such high-profile projects as the Albert Memorial, covering Scott’s fruitful relationships with craftsmen in metal, glass, and stone, and surveying the architect’s developing attitude to different kinds of Gothic. Scott is known for his use of a specific sort of Gothic (Geometric Middle Pointed), but Stamp shows how he also respected the later English Perpendicular style, and how he could be influenced by the medieval architecture of France and even Italy. There’s also a telling passage showing Scott’s openness to the use of ‘new’ materials such as iron, quoting a passage from one of Scott’s books reminding his readers that the Crystal Palace was more like a Gothic cathedral than a classical temple.

The government buildings in Whitehall, in which Scott had to contend with a badly run competition, a Prime Minister (Palmerston) who hated Gothic, and a very mixed reception from members of his own profession, are another key project. Scott had to abandon his Gothic design and re-do it in Classical form, and the book makes a case for treating these designs seriously, and not as the compromise that some observers have seen. The conception works, in spite of Scott’s admission that he had to mug up the classical style by investing in ‘some costly books on Italian architecture’.

Gothic For the Steam Age is a model of concision, covering all this material with vividness, sharp description, good well chosen illustrations, and a gift (born of looking at Scott’s work for years) for picking out the key aspects of each building. For anyone remotely interested in the period and its architecture, it’s a must.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

On the green

I thought I was aware of the full gamut of English building types, and that this blog was having a good go at embracing the least regarded, from public lavatories to bus shelters. But here in my fourth pre-Christmas review is a book that highlights a building type I’d not even considered. It’s a specialist book, to be sure, but fascinating nonetheless…

Hugh Hornby, Bowled Over: The Bowling Greens of Britain
Published by Historic England

What would you say was Britain’s national sport? The beautiful game? The summer game?* If you’re Scottish, do you prefer golf? Hugh Hornby makes a case for another sport entirely: bowls, which has a longer history than any of those and is played in some 7,200 clubs up and down the country. In Bowled Over, Hornby traces this long history, from the time of Henry VIII who banned it (too much of a distraction from honest trade and labour), to its Victorian golden age (standardization, a proliferation of clubs) to the sport today, with its almost sedate image but great popularity. He looks at the two rival traditions (crown green and flat green bowls, with their different cultures and origins) and traces the sport’s social role through time and across the social classes. Anne Boleyn played bowls as did, famously, Francis Drake. Bowls is in the national psyche, from Drake’s famous determination to finish his game before going off to teach the Spanish Armada a lesson to the imagery of Shakespeare.†

And then, yes, there’s the architecture. In tracing the stories of many bowling clubs, Hornby beguilingly introduces some delightful buildings, structures with stories and that look wonderfully at home next to expanses of greensward from Land’s End to all points north. Tiny green-side shelters like the little white timber-fronted ones, probably Regency, at Hadley Heath, Worcestershire or the lovely thatched shelter next to a pub green in Painswick in the Cotswolds; more formal structures like the classical stone bowling green house at Chatsworth, probably by William Talman and the lovely red-brick pavilion, with Gothic glazing bars, at Newark; or still more assertive pavilions such as the almost baronial-style turreted eye-catcher at the Fulwood Conservative Club, Preston and the vast Tudoresque pavilion at Old Trafford, Manchester. I hope at some point to write some individual posts about some of these buildings. In the meantime, I have been entertained and informed in equal measure by Hornby’s account of them and the sport that gave them birth.

* Non-British readers might find it helpful to know that these are football (aka soccer) and cricket respectively.  
† As in 'there's the rub' (Hamlet); George Herbert also uses the phrase.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell others

My third pre-Christmas review this year is about a book that chronicles the history of a great English house, Renishaw Hall, through the stories of its various owners. They’re the members of the Sitwell family, an interesting bunch, in many different ways…
Desmond Seward, Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells
Published by Elliott & Thompson

A few decades ago someone with my interests couldn’t avoid coming across traces of the Sitwell family, the literary siblings who shot like a comet over England’s literary and social life in the mid-20th century, and then sank noisily behind the horizon. There was Edith with her outré poetry (she influenced Dylan Thomas a lot), Sacheverell with his books about architecture (the baroque was a  particular passion), and Osbert with his extended memoirs, which said how great he and his siblings were but how appalling their father, Sir George Sitwell, was. None of them is so well known now – a few of Edith’s poems have survived, and the ‘entertainment’ called Façade, her collaboration with the composer William Walton, but otherwise, not a great deal else. Except for the family house, Renishaw.

Desmond Seward starts with the house and its early inhabitants. The first chunk of the book consists of entertaining brief lives of all the owners of Renishaw from the first George Sitwell in the 17th century to Sir Reresby Sitwell (died 1862), followed by more extended accounts of Sir George, his famous three children, and their descendants. The opening ‘brief life’ chapters are a joy. They portray a varied and interesting cast of characters – a Cavalier, an ancestor who got involved in an almost-ruinous legal case, a noted gentleman scholar, a merchant who restored the family finances, a Regency buck avant la lettre, a formidable Victorian woman who saved Renishaw through her financial nous, a watercolorist and friend of Ruskin, and others. Each is a rounded portrait, vivid and full of incident, and in each case the owner’s contribution to the house, the lasting legacy, is described. I found myself wanting more, but also keen to get on to the next character in the saga.

Then there’s Sir George, portrayed by Osbert in his multi-volume memoirs as a repressive unimaginative dull dud and upper-class buffoon. This is a picture (upheld by Edith but not so much by the other son, Sacheverell) that has been generally accepted by readers and biographers until now. On the contrary, Seward shows him to have been a kind and astute man, who improved the house, developed its garden and spearheaded the revival of baroque art that his son Sacheverell also championed in his books. Sir George also seems to have been good at making money (on the Stock Exchange), ensuring that he could keep the hose and buy and restore another home, Montegufoni in Italy, which provided him with a refuge.

Sir George, then, not his three children, is the hero of this book. Osbert made his mark on the house - not least in commissioning John Piper to paint it many times: there’s a magnificent collection of Pipers at Renishaw as a result. But both Edith and Osbert come over as the difficult and pesky characters they were: they made enemies easily and were undoubtedly damaged in different ways by difficult relationships with their father; these problems were not all one way. Sacheverell is portrayed as more genial and more likeable. Osbert being gay (Sir George clearly had a big problem with this: he did have his flaws), the house passed to the descendants of Sacheverell, who seem to have inherited his geniality. So the book ends on a happy note. The house survives in all its eclectic glory, the garden flourishes. We can be thankful to Desmond Seward for writing about Renishaw and its inhabitants so eloquently. And the John Pipers glow: for those, at least, we can be thankful to Osbert.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Bill Stickers will be celebrated

The next review in my current series of featured books is something very different. It tells the story of a colourful episode in the history of the National Trust. It’s an engaging, often amusing, story in its own right, but also throws fascinating light on all kinds of subjects, from the history of conservation to women’s work during World War II. Welcome to the world of Ferguson’s Gang…

Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck, Ferguson’s Gang
Published by National Trust Books

1939. In the era of British anxiety over Irish terrorism just before World War II a pair of masked bandits enter the annual general meeting of the National Trust, thrust an unidentifiable object (What is it? A bronze pineapple? A grenade?) into the hands of James Lees-Milne, Secretary of the Trust’s Country House Committee,* and leave. Does it contain high explosive? The members of the distinguished gathering pass it gingerly from one to another, like a jittery game of pass the parcel. When one of them plucks up the courage to look more closely, it turns out to contain a donation of £100: a gift from Ferguson’s Gang, one of a series of such unorthodox deliveries.

This is a story from the era of debagging and appie-pie beds, a tale of a group of upper-class and upper-middle-class young women dressing up as gangsters and pulling off amusing stunts: not the kind of book I’d normally read. But this book is different from the expected account of jolly japes. The pranks were benevolent and they involved raising money for the National Trust and delivering the cash to the baffled Trust board members with élan. It’s also an episode in the fascinating story of how people became more aware of issues to do with conservation (both architectural and environmental) in the interwar years.

The gang members were interesting in their own right. Although they came from variously rich and privileged backgrounds, they were a conflicted and troubled lot. Their leader (there was no Ferguson) was Peggy Gladstone (later Peggy Pollard, great-great niece of Prime Minister W E Gladstone), known in the gang as Bill Stickers; she had a double first from Cambridge in Oriental languages and felt the early death of her beloved father deeply. Others included Brynnie Granger (aka Sister Agatha), the confused product of a ménage-à-trois consisting of her parents and her mother’s close friend Henrietta Sadd; Joy Maw (aka Kate O’Brien the Nark), fragile of health, impoverished, feeling the effects of her parents’ disintegrating marriage; Rachel Pinney (aka Red Biddy) depressive, confused, sexually abused by her father, who was the General of Siegrfried Sassoon’s celebrated poem; and Ruth Sherwood (aka the Bludy Beershop), artistically gifted, Slade-educated, who invented a series of rituals for the gang that seem like early incarnations of performance art. It’s the opinion of the authors of Ferguson’s Gang that the group used make-believe as a way of coping with and escaping from their troubled home backgrounds, and they’re probably right.

The book traces the story of their donations to the Trust and tells us a bit about the places and properties they rescued. Among these were the Old Mill, Shalford, the Old Town Hall, Newtown, Isle of Wight, and Priory Cottages, Steventon, Oxfordshire. They were also key to the purchase and saving of several parts of the Cornish coast (including Frenchman’s Creek, made famous by Daphne du Maurier), and gave generously to other Trust appeals benefitting sites from Buttermere to Avebury. We also learn about their work with architect John Macgregor, known to the gang as the Artichoke, on conserving buildings according to the best practice laid down by the SPAB. And we find out a lot about the lives of the gang members, including their other peacetime work (in schools, in administration, with refugees); or lack of work (talented Ruth Sherwood gave up her promising career as a commercial artist because she saw that other talented artists needed the money more than she did); their war work (on the land, ambulance driving, helping the wounded, designing utility clothing, even firefighting); and their often troubled love and sex lives (Rachel Pinney in particular being deeply scarred by her terrible upbringing). The book is full of vivid vignettes – of the gang’s famous masked visits to the National Trust HQ, of poor well-meaning Rachel Pinney being sent to prison for ‘kidnapping’ a young person she was trying to help, of an elderly Peggy Pollard playing ‘Lily the Pink’ on the organ of Truro Cathedral.

It’s worth reading Ferguson’s Gang for these stories alone. But it’s also worth it for the context: the way in which the gang were responding to an increasing national anxiety about heritage, and bringing publicity to the cause that helped usher in other and more profound changes than they could make themselves – changes to planning law, other Trust acquisitions, broad alterations in our view of our history, architecture, and landscape. On all these levels, Ferguson’s Gang is a treat.

*Lees-Milne’s work led to the Trust’s acquisition of numerous country houses, saving them for posterity and, in effect, setting the Trust’s agenda for many years. His diaries have been published in numerous volumes and make entertaining and informative reading.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Scratching away

As the streets outside get back to normal after my town’s annual pre-Christmas festival and knees-up (everything from Santa’s Grotto to the Mummers’ Play, plus food and presents galore) I realise that it’s once again the time of year when English Buildings becomes a book blog for ten days or so as I review some recent publications. As usual, I’ve stuck to books on subjects in some way related to the main subject of this blog, and to books I especially like, in the hope that some of my readers might find something they’d like to give or receive for Christmas. I begin with a book on a subject I’ve been intrigued by for years: the graffiti scratched on the walls of England’s parish churches, much of it done hundreds of years ago…

Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches
Published by Ebury Press

There’s quite a lot of ancient graffiti in England’s medieval churches. It’s usually not immediately obvious, but once you get your eye in, you see more and more. Ships, animals, abstract designs of various sorts, bits of heraldry, images of people and fish: all these appear frequently, scratched into the stone, and when you add masons’ marks and mass dials, it adds up to a formidable body of imagery that ought to tell us quite a bit about the people who made it. Matthew Champion’s book aims to describe this material and, where possible, to explain why it was made.

It’s a fascinating account of a phenomenon that passes most people by because, scratched shallowly into the surface of the stone, much of the graffiti is difficult to see. The book does a good job of describing it and pointing us towards it, drawing on lots of original research, especially that done by the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, of which the author is Project Director. Other parts of Britain have been researched less thoroughly. There’s clearly a big job waiting to be done.

The text is lively and ranges widely across the evidence – archaeological, documentary, contextual –  that can help us understand the graffiti. The book is often inconclusive – we simply don’t know why a lot of this stuff was produced – but no worse for that because the text is absorbing, asks fascinating questions about the material, and makes illuminating distinctions. Champion distinguishes between the consecration crosses that were carved or painted on church walls for use in the ceremony of consecration and the many cross-like graffiti which are sometimes confused with these. He worries away at the simple little sundials, known as ‘Mass dials’, seen on so many churches, and asks what they could have been for, since so many of them are impractical for people to use to tell the time of upcoming Masses (many of these dials are on north-facing walls, for a start, a number of churches have several such dials close together on the same wall, and anyway most churches had bells). He talks about marks attributed to merchants, pilgrims, and other groups, untangles charms and curses, and suggests sources of symbolism and metaphor. Along the way he has some entertaining examples of how difficult these markings can be to interpret. One of my favourites involves a verbal inscription (few of these marks actually include words: they were mostly done by the illiterate). This line has been translated by one scholar as ‘In AD 1381 was the insurrection of the common people’ and by another as ‘In the year of our Lord 1381, five plough lands belonging to the church were exchanged’.

Fascinating stories and images emerge from such ambiguities. And not only this. The sheer volume and variety of graffiti lead Champion to a modified view of the parish church in the Middle Ages. Parish churches were not, or not only, places where the common people stood and watched the priest uphold the rituals and traditions of the church and celebrate Mass. It was a more interactive space in which parishioners not only responded to the dazzling array of statuary and stained glass (actually, it has to be said, we do not fully understood how they interacted with those things either) but also added their own contribution, making marks in the stone in which we can hear the distant echoes of their lost voices. Medieval Graffiti fascinatingly makes some of those echoes clearer, while modestly and rightly not trying to cover up the remaining mysteries.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Kettering, Northamptonshire

Local hero

Regular readers will known that I sometimes amuse friends and acquaintances by announcing that I have visited, for pleasure, places they’d not normally associate with tourism. St Austell before the Eden Project, say, or Kidderminster more recently.* Why go there when you can visit the oodles of beautiful towns and villages, stuffed with listed buildings and interpreted for our delight by dedicated heritage-wallahs? Well, I visit my share of such places too, but there are many towns, off the tourist map or lacking the stereotypical array of picturesque streets or quaint shops and houses, that offer rewards to the curious. It was with such thoughts in my mind that I ignored the snorts of laughter and made my way to Kettering.

I recently posted about a lovely cooperative building in the town, which grew in the Victorian period as a result of the Northamptonshire shoe industry. Very close to the centre one finds streets of 19th-century brick-built terraced houses next door to factories of the same period. None of these factories are huge, so there’s no sense of conflicting scales. Some of them still make shoes – the celebrated Loake’s shoes are still produced in Kettering, for example. The town also has some wonderful schools. One of the best is Stamford Street School (actually in Montagu Street), which is in a red brick Tudor-revivalish style with this stand-out tower.

The relief carving and openwork on this tower is truly jaw-dropping, a cut or two or three above what’s usual for  board-school architecture, which is generally purposeful and functional, with sometimes to odd bit of carving or terracotta decoration here and there, depending on the local budget and the commitment (or not) to produce a building that reflects civic pride and gives the inmates something to inspire them. The huge roundel on this tower is extraordinary: was it meant to be a clock face? Was it ever used as such? There seem to be no vestiges of painted numerals or holes for the hands. As for the elaborate openwork, I’d taken it to be intended to allow the sound of a bell to be audible. But the recent revised Pevsner Northamptonshire volume describes this as a chimney tower, so presumably it’s to do with heating and ventilation. It’s functional, then, but you’d rarely see anything so ornate adorning a locally funded school – even considering that the date is 1892, taking us back to a period in which architectural ornament was enjoying a burgeoning heyday.

The firm of architects responsible for this wonder was local practice Gotch and Saunders.† I’ve known of John Alfred Gotch for years because he wrote books¶ about historic architecture, especially Elizabeth and Jacobean architecture, so it was a pleasure to find his work dotted all over this town. He was prominent in his profession, serving as President of the Architectural Association and of the RIBA, the first provincial architecture to be honoured by the latter post. A local hero, then, who did well by his town, helping an outwardly unassuming place to shine.

* Kidderminster still has several striking former carpet factories, about one of which I posted here.
† The practice continues locally as Gotch, Saunders and Surridge (GSS Architecture)
¶ Gotch’s books include Early Renaissance Architecture in England (1914), The Architecture of the Renaissance in England (1894), and The Growth of the English House (1909).

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire

Slow fade

Several times I’ve visited the small church of Stoke Orchard, not far from Cheltenham. The main reason that Stoke Orchard is famous is because of its medieval wall paintings. They are doubly rare, first in that they survive at all and second because they depict a series of stories about St James of Compostela, an unusual saint to to celebrated on such a scale in an English parish church.

These paintings are well known among experts, and even have a mention in one of my favourite short novels, J L Carr’s A Month in the Country. In the book* the narrator Tom Birkin, a restorer of wall paintings who has just returned home from the trenches of World War I, has arrived in the fictional village of Oxgodby to uncover a wall painting in the parish church: ‘I willed it to be something good, really splendid, really astonishing. Like Stoke Orchard or Chalgrove.¶ Something to wring a mention from The Times and a detailed account (with pictures) in the Illustrated London News.’

Tom Birkin indeed finds something good. But what would a real Birkin think if he visited Stoke Orchard today? He’d probably be saddened that the paintings had faded so much, but at least his knowledge of their iconography would enable him to work out what they depict. If I tell you that the fragments in the image above are some of the clearest that remain, you will get the picture. Or not.

Fortunately the Birkin role of explicator is taken at Stoke Orchard by a series of panels with explanations and old images that are somewhat clearer than the real thing. They reveal that the section above, which you'll have to click on to have chance of seeing much at all, depicts part of the ‘Hermogenes episode’ of James’s story. Hermogenes was an evil magician whom St James converted to Christianity. In one part of the story, Hermogenes asks for the saint’s help in overcoming demons, and the magician is given James’s staff to help him. This image shows Philetus (left), an associate of the magician whom James has also converted, handing Hermogenes the staff.

English medieval church wall paintings are nearly always faint and hard to make out, having been whitewashed over during the iconoclasm of the 17th century, to be uncovered† by dedicated Birkin-figures in the 19th or 20th. Many look as if they are at the end of a long uneven cinematic slow fade and their faded state is sad. Unlike some vigorous medieval stone carvings§ that look as if they could have been done yesterday, they actually look their age, and more. But repeated visits, frequent changes of viewing position, and steady scrutiny make looking at them rewarding and worthwhile and moving too.

* A Month in the Country is widely available as a Penguin Modern Classic.
¶ In Oxfordshire, another church with outstanding paintings.
† Pevsner’s Buildings of England Volume, Gloucestershire 2: The Vale and the Forest of Dean says that the Stoke Orchard paintings were ‘mostly uncovered in 1952–56 by Clive Rouse”, making it anachronistic of J L Carr to make his hero mention them in 1918, but A Month in the Country is a novel, after all.
§ Some medieval carvings have of course been recarved by later restorers, confusing this neat picture.

Friday, November 20, 2015

King's Lynn, Norfolk

 The English pig again

I’ve noticed recently the creative use of decorative tiles in shops and on shopfronts in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, butchers being particularly drawn to tiles for their decorative and hygienic qualities. It’s a large field, which I need to look into in more depth, but meanwhile I can’t resist sharing one more example that I found recently, even though I know little about it. This is a shop front in King’s Lynn, which has a number of beautiful pictorial tiles, each featuring an animal or farming scene delineated in fine detail.

I do not know who made these tiles. I know Minton used this sepia palette (I once owned a house that had a fireplace adorned with lovely Minton sepia tiles), and they produced farm scenes with drawings by William Wise, although these in Lynn do not match the examples I’ve seen. Minton as well as other companies must have had various ranges to fulfil the no doubt heavy demand. These are particularly characterful, a strong pig’s head, confronting us full on with steady gaze and creased flesh; a well drawn cow or bull’s head with a lot of fine detail; and a group of sheep huddled together in a setting of grass, twigs, and picturesquely tumbledown fencing. The sheep, I think, are conventionally charming, but to my eyes the drawing of the two animal heads is particularly strong and effective.

That all this can appear on a mass produced tile a few inches square, set off with a band of bright geometrical tiles that are also very attractive, is a tribute to the Victorian marriage of art and industry, which at its best could be harmonious and more than just eye-catching. Advertising of a kind, it’s true. But the sort of advertising that stands the test of time.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Wells, Somerset

Slightly foxed

At the weekend I was teaching a course about architectural ornament and the participants were amused and, I think, charmed by a number of variations on the classical orders that I showed them. I wanted to demonstrate that the orders weren’t necessarily regarded by masons, carvers, and builders as a set of hard-and-fast rules. They could be starting points on which the craftsman played variations. A particular hit was a Corinthian capital with a bird fluttering among its acanthus leaves in Birmingham. It reminded me that there are capitals featuring animal heads on a building in the High Street at Wells. They occur on the Bath stone facade of a bank of about 1880. But what kind of capitals are they? And what are the animals?

The official listing text for the building describes the capitals as “quasi-Ionic”; the text doesn’t mention the animals at all, not concerning itself with such trivialities. The Ionic element is the spirals, although there are also some acanthus leaves lurking at the back, so it might just as well be “quasi-Corinthian” I suppose. The beast is an oddity: the Resident Wise Woman suggested an attempted fox, observing that the ears seem to be turning into a leaves. A mythical beast? Or just a poorly carved one? No matter. It’s a bit of fun however you look at it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Victoria Street, London

On reflection

Among the rampant office blocks and stores of Victoria Street stands the Albert, a pub of 1862 built in solid yellow brick with dressings in red brick, trimmings in stucco, and a big, decisive cornice. It belonged, apparently, to the Artillery Brewery, which was just across the road and built in a similar style. In the late sun of an autumn afternoon, its brickwork glows.

The pub exterior has its fair share of the kind of decorative elaboration the Victorian pubs and their owners went in for, and the aspect of this that particularly caught my eye was the engraved glass. It's said to be original and is a cut above a lot of pub glass, which bears arabesques and curlicues of a fairly standard and formulaic nature. At the Albert we have trails of foliage, flowers, fruit, and some wonderful birds. I particularly liked the one above, though I'm not sure what species it is or whether the image is at all ornithologically accurate. My main efforts on the sunny afternoon when I passed were in trying to photograph it without including too many reflections. It's difficult, on a bright day, but I offer my efforts anyway, because I think the glass is good, if the photography is not.

And in a way, the reflections are part of the point. A pub is a social building, that wants both to include you in its image, but also to stop you looking in, to give the drinkers inside some seclusion from the street. What's more, the reflections also include some of the pub's other decorative touches. There's a mirror image of some of the ornate ironwork in my photograph below and you can see the iron "Albert" sign, shadows of iron scrolls, the reflection of the building across the road, and glimpses of some interior lights. It might be a confusing picture, but even in the sun and even with all these reflections, the decoration of the glass still shines.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Upton on Severn, Worcestershire

Great minds…

The other night I was giving a talk about the history of the high street in Britain, illustrated with pictures of shops and shop fronts down the ages. After the talk, which was in Gloucestershire close to the border with Worcestershire, a member of the audience asked me if I’d seen the recently revealed old sign above a shop in Upton on Severn, not far away. She liked it, and thought I would too. As it happened, just a few weeks earlier, I had seen it and admired it. Great minds think alike.

The shop is now Sweet Daisy, an “old-fashioned” confectionery shop, with rows of jars containing sweet things. But the proprietors, or the owners of the building if they are different, have done a fine thing, and left the rather good old sign of a long-gone firm, the London Meat Company, exposed, it having been covered up for years as other businesses had occupied the building. The bold gold capital letters of the old Meat Company are an asset to the street. The sign still looks good surrounded by the bright red of the shop front, even if they’re not perhaps as bright and shiny as they were in their heyday. Which was when? I’d imagine the early-20th century, although the letters could be Victorian. The strips of green tiles with stylized flowers on them look Art Nouveau,* so perhaps the shop front and sign were done around 1900. Whatever its age, thank you Sweet Daisy for leaving the sign visible. No doubt its helps draw in the curious and paradoxically encourages the purchase of barley sugar, sherbet pips, humbugs, rhubarb and custard, Scottish tablet, and so on and on…

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*Which I omitted to photograph in close-up. Next time I’m passing…

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

The English pig

Going back a few years from my previous post and we reach around 1910 and the golden age for English tiled shopfronts, when the architectural ceramicists were still being influenced by the swirls and curls of the Art Nouveau style, and before World War I banished jollity. Welcome, then, to the premises of Jesse Smith, butcher of Cirencester, a company that has hung on to a lovely Edwardian shopfront and interior, one with tiles that beautifully celebrate the pig and what a butcher can do with it.

 It begins before we even get inside the shop, with a pig portrait in one door reveal and, low down in another (above: almost obscured by some barbecuing equipment last time I passed) a legend in curvaceous Art Nouveau lettering designed to make the pig fancier’s mouth water: Pickled tongues. The design on the right of this image, with its sinuous lines and mysterious semicircles (Do they evoke stylised flowers or seed heads?) would not look out of place in Vienna. The Secession comes to the Cotswolds for a short break.

Inside, porcine eyes follow you round the room as you contemplate cuts of pork and home-made pies. Around and above them swirl the arabesques so typical of Art Nouveau design, scrolls of foliage and tendrils that curl this way and that, describing those two-way “whiplash” curves that turn-of-the-century designers so loved. Was there ever a pig so jaunty as the specimen to the right of the interior wall in my top photograph, with nose upturned, one ear up and one ear down? It’s a characterful beast, but the one on the left (and enlarged in my photograph above) seems to me a more convincing specimen of pigginess: this is an animal, after all, that’s built to look down towards the ground and rootle.

As I come out clutching my pork pie, I reflect that I know few better architectural celebrations of the English pig. But I also reflect that the French know a thing or two too. Wasn’t Paris a cradle of Art Nouveau? And don’t they say that Tout est bon dans le cochon?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Great Malvern, Worestershire

Postcards from England

I’m fascinated by the way in which shop designers used tiles to make a colourful splash on street frontages, a type of decoration that enlivened many a shop front from the Victorian period until well into the 1930s. One of my favourite examples of this is on the front of a branch of W H Smith in Malvern, and one of its tile panels came to mind the other day when, in my previous post, I used the phrase ‘postcards from England’ to describe my blogging activities. This is a building I’ve posted before but one of its tile panels* is so beautiful, and, I think, so mysterious, that’s worth sharing once more.

This panel, set into a narrow reveal to one side of the shop window and so very easy to miss, advertises postcards – clearly, in a much visited spa town like Malvern, postcards were an important thing to stock. The view it depicts is a bit of fantasy architecture by moonlight. A medieval stone bridge leads across a river towards a gatehouse in what looks like a town wall. In the background is a looming tower, that seems to exist in a space that’s separate from the rest of the picture. Or not quite. In the foreground, the corner of this tower seems to grow out of the bridge, but in the background it appears to be behind the city wall. It’s also drawn, to seems to me, to a much larger scale than the bridge or gatehouse.

None of this matters very much, because the image, with its varied shades of blue and purple and its eery moonlight is a lovely confection that seems to invite us into a world of night-time mystery and make-believe. It certainly draws you in, although a postcard with a run-of-mill photographic view on it might be a bit of a come down after seeing it.

The other wonderful thing about the tile panel of course is that (together with another opposite it advertising maps) is still there. It must have been installed in the 1920s or 1930s and it takes us back to a time when shop fronts were designed for a life of decades rather than a year or two, when businesses weren’t expected to reinvent themselves every six months, but traded on their history and reputation. My readers can decide for themselves whether or not the change to a less long-term outlook is a good thing. But I’m glad at least that the old ways produced bits of occasional art like this.
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*Made by Carter's of Poole, as one of my fastest-off-the-mark readers has reminded me.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ham Yard, London

            Image courtesy John Nassari

Amara Interior Blog Awards

Last night I went to a very congenial awards ceremony at Ham Yard, the new, luxurious, and appealingly tardis-like hotel not far from Shaftesbury Avenue on the edge of Soho in central London. The nice people at Amara had told me a while back that this blog had been nominated for one of its Interior Blog Awards and, to my great surprise, it got on to the shortlist for the Best Architecture Blog. So it was, I thought, as a shortlister that I went along to the ceremony, to admire the interior, take advantage of the fine double-height bar (I'm propping it up in the picture above, but you have to be quite sharp-eyed to spot me), and give the winners of the various categories the applause they deserve.

So after some chatting, nibbling, and vertical drinking, we were summoned into the theatre (What has this hotel not got? A bowling alley? Wrong: it has one of those as well) for the award-giving. And imagine how my ghast was flabbered when the first award to be announced was in the Architecture category, and the winner was English Buildings. I staggered to the stage to pick up my award (a bit of modern design in its own right) and returned to my seat to take pleasure in the applause and clap in genuine enthusiasm the other 12 or so category winners.

The various civilized aspects of the event included meeting other bloggers and their representatives, chatting to some of the fine people who did the judging, and giving and receiving various congratulations. Another civilized thing was that I did not have to make a speech. That meant that I couldn't make public my thanks to those involved in making this event happen and bringing us all together – the people from Amara, the judges, the award sponsors (including G P & J Baker, sponsors of my award), and... I could go on, but I won't. Thank you all. Brevity is the soul of this blog: a picture, a couple of paragraphs with some personal observation and comment, then I move on. I sometimes think of my posts as Postcards from England. This one is more like a thank-you letter. A short one, but none the worse for that.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Fleet Street, London

Getting your message across

I’m in the process of preparing a course about architectural ornament, and looking through my photographs to find examples of ways in which 20th-century architects turned against the modernist call in the 1920s for architecture that should be functional and devoid, or largely devoid, of the decorative elements that had so preoccupied their predecessors. There are numerous ways in which they made this turn, of course, one of them being the increasing use of ancient Egyptian design as a source: think various cinema facades and factories of the late-1920s and 1930s. To make this point in the past I’ve often used a personal favourite – the old Carreras tobacco factory at Mornington Crescent, with its Egyptian columns and wonderful black cats. Here’s another example, the former Telegraph building in Fleet Street.

The Telegraph building was designed for the newspaper of that name by Elcock and Sutcliffe with Thomas Tait and built in 1927–8. It has a very bold, ultra-imposing facade with a row of giant fluted columns topped by carved Egyptian capitals. Bands of abstract carved ornament run along cornices and over window lintels. The whole thing is designed to make a big mark, to overwhelm the passer-by.  And so it does – look at the way it dwarfs the pedestrians in front of it.

Further decorative touches make a big difference. The clock, itself enormous, lends colour to this stony frontage. Its design is full of the diamonds, jagged edges, chevrons, and radiating, sunburst-like motifs that Art Deco artists loved. The relief above the doorway, by, Alfred Oakley, is another such feature. With its sun-rays, compass rose, Britain at the centre of its hemisphere, and the two caduceus-bearing messenger figures racing out across the empire with news, it symbolises the newspaper’s business of communication, and sets it, and Britain, at a pivotal place in the world that would not have seemed inappropriate in 1927. On the bright day I passed by, some rather dramatic shadows were obscuring some of the detail of this carving, but it’s strong enough to make its point without the direct light of the Art Deco lamp above it.*

As ever, God (or the Devil, if you wish) is in the details. If this gigantic facade does seem over the top, the carving and that jewel-box of a clock give it different accents, and make one pause to look closely. Which is one of the things good architectural ornament can do so well.

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*As so often, the excellent Ornamental Passions blog has more about the carving on this building, with more photographs.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Hook Norton, Oxfordshire

Back and forth

I’ve been to the delightful village of Hook Norton in Oxfordshire quite a few times, although the fact that I drive there means that I don’t usually take immediate advantage of the place’s best product: the beer proceed by the excellent Hook Norton Brewery. I’ve visited the brewery though and taken beer away with me to enjoy. And I’ve been to the church, the Baptist chapel, and one of the pubs, as well as just just stopping and staring or passing though. It was on one such passing, in a friend’s car on a cloudy day and en route to refreshment elsewhere, that I first saw this sight: an interesting piece of motoring history to add to my virtual collection of old petrol pumps. I had to go back when the sun was shining, and have done so twice since, on neither occasion getting quite the photograph I wanted, although the one above comes close.

On the day I took the photograph, the workshop door was open, so I peered inside and was greeted by the owner, who told me that the globe once belonged to a garage tucked not far behind this building. After it closed, the man I was talking to swapped the globe for a decent bottle of whisky and mounted it on his wall, where it remains near the old pump as an ornament to the street and a reminder of a bit of village history. The red colour on the shell-shaped Dieso-Shell globe has almost gone now, but its very fading quickly alerted me to the fact it was an original and not one of the many reproductions that are about, good as these are. How heartening that there are people around to save these scarce traces of the past.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Strand, London

Green and gleaming: Illustration of the month

‘Have you seen how “VITROLITE” has brightened the bathrooms at the Savoy Hotel London?’ That’s the headline of a full-page advertisement in the August 1936 issue of The Architectural Review. The artwork, which I've chosen as my illustration of the month, shows a bathroom of great Art Deco elegance. The walls are clad mainly in eggshell green Vitrolite, a form of opaque pigmented glass that was especially popular between the two world wars, with strips of Wedgwood blue here and there to provide accents. The Vitrolite is fitted to different heights in different parts of the room, giving a stepped effect (partly visible in the reflection in the mirror) that’s typical of this decorative style. The chromium-plated fittings, angular basin and bath, and glass shelf complete the picture.

Everything is shiny and reflective (easy to clean and dazzling to look at), and the anonymous artist of this illustration is at pains to capture these mirror-like surfaces in the picture – a rug with a zigzag pattern is revealed reflected in the Vitrolite that surrounds the bath. The image is full of telling details: those reflections, the green soap, the glassware on the shelf. Everything works together, and everything is shiny and modern. The design was by Stanley Hall, Easton and Robertson, and perhaps this glamorous illustration was done in their office. It brings back the period and the style as perfectly as the Art Deco cinemas and factories of which I’m so fond.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Piccadilly, London

Red face, red box

Having coffee in Notting Hill Gate before calling my son to arrange our visit to the Ai Weiwei exhibition, I take out my mobile…to discover that the battery is completely drained. As I search my memory (I did put the mobile on charge, didn’t I?) I’m sure that there’s a public telephone in the underground station…but I’m equally sure that I can’t remember my son’s number. Well, who needs to know phone numbers? They’re in the mobile’s memory, are’t they? The problem requires the ingestion of more caffeine….

As I stare into the coffee lees and try to turn over the compost heap of my memory I somehow uncover part of my son’s number. By the time I get down into the underground and a blast of fresh air and particulates has further invigorated my system, I have managed to recover all of it – I really don’t know how – and my problem is solved. Later, walking into the gateway of the Royal Academy I see the origin, as it were, of my salvation: the prototype red telephone box, the very first K2 box, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott as an entry in a competition in 1924 and built, this experimental one, out of wood.

One or two of my steadfast readers will know that I am occasionally an advocate of kicking a building, but this one I tap, and yes, it gives off a woody sound. Looking at the prototype, it’s very similar to the final iron K2 design. Differences include the precise proportions of glazed to solid area in the door (the prototype has a slightly larger solid area at the bottom) and the pierced lettering of ‘TELEPHONE’, which was replaced by the glazed panel in the final version. The pierced lettering has the added advantage of providing ventilation – the old boxes could get rather stuffy inside. Both prototype and finished designs are again subtly different from the later and more common K6 box, which is slightly narrower and shorter and has a different glazing pattern. The K2, by comparison, is grander, larger, more imposing, truer perhaps to the origins of the design in the neo-classical architecture of that master of shallow domes and ingenious lighting effects, Sir John Soane. Dignified yet brashly coloured, classical yet practical in a modern world, the K2 is, quite simply, a lovely design.

I was grateful, the day I stopped and looked at Giles Gilbert Scott’s little masterpiece, that London still has some public telephones. They’re too often seen, in these days of the ubiquitous mobile, as useless ornaments fit only for tourists to pose in. But they’re still admired as elegant bits of ingenious design, and inventive souls, I’m pleased to say, are busy finding new uses for some of the redundant ones, from miniature art galleries to libraries. Whether used for its original purpose or not, hats off to the red box.

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Looking back over my posts, I see I’ve blogged about telephone boxes several times before. For readers who like this kind of thing, here are some links to these older posts:
A telephone box in Yorkshire re-used as a miniature art gallery
Another, in Hertfordshire, that has become an art gallery
A memory of the time when kiosks gathered together in sociable little groups
A more recent KX100 box with Banksy graffiti
A ‘vermillion giant’ box, with added facilities

Monday, October 12, 2015

Piccadilly, London

The Ais have it

I suppose if I added them up, I’d find I’d spent quite a few hours, over the years, in the courtyard of Burlington House, the Royal Academy's building in London’s Piccadilly. Waiting for friends, waiting in particular for a friend who’s a member and sometimes gets me in free as his guest, waiting for my son, queuing for a ticket. Fortunately, I always find something to look at: bits of relief carving, the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, a memorable red telephone box, and the building itself, naturally. On Sunday all this was put into the shade by Tree, a large, site-specific work of art by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Tree is made up of sections of actual trees that have died in China. The artist buys these bits and then pieces them together to make whole trees. Except that they’re not, of course, whole trees: they consist of trunks and large branches, but have no roots, leaves, or twigs, and they are bolted together very obviously (how things are put together is a constant fascination of this artist’s work). And yet the forms Ai Weiwei has made are unmistakably tree-like, are the essence of tree as it were, and the trees thus made form an absorbing grove around the Reynolds statue, through which visitors wander, and look, and take photographs. The contrast between the classical architecture and this curious and woody construction is thought-provoking and when I was there, dozens of people were pausing, and looking, and having their thoughts provoked, and smiling in an engaged but rather wistful way.

It was much the same inside. Eleven rooms of Burlington House are full of Ai Weiwei’s work. A lot of it is assemblages of found objects – bits of trees, stools joined to one another that seem animated because they are set at such precarious angles, reinforcing bars from the concrete structure of a school destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, recycled masonry from Ai’s studio and gallery that was bulldozed by order of the Chinese authorities. All of this has huge visual power, as do some of the pieces made in other ways: 1 x 1 x1 metre cubes fashioned from rosewood or impacted tea, for example, like a standard measure of compressed Chinese culture, ordered from the sculptor’s yard and deposited in place on a beautifully crafted delivery palette.

As we walked around the galleries, alternately smiling at the loving way in which these items have been put together and frowning at the stories of trauma (the earthquake, Ai’s own imprisonment recreated in a suite of particularly disturbing dioramas that you view through tiny apertures*) evoked in these works, my son and I realised we were seeing something we’d always remember. It was partly that we were appreciating the material on so many levels – visual, constructional, in terms of its meaning, as metaphor of China, as objective correlative for Ai's life, and so on. And it was partly that this kind of art, conceived by the artist and then made or assembled by someone else, so familiar and sometimes so exasperating in art today, can take on a new meaning when it involved an artist who in the past hasn't even been allowed to leave China† and supervise the planning and assembling of his exhibitions. Stepping out into the sunshine and walking through the trees again, the world seemed a different place.

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*Reviewers and writers keep mentioning Marcel Duchamp in terms of the Ai Weiwei’s readymade pieces. Fair enough: Ai does too. But has anyone talked about how the dioramas relate to Duchamp’s last, disturbing work?

†The artist has now been issued with a passport (and, finally, a visa for the UK) and was able to travel to London for the installation of this show. Thanks to the readers who have pointed this out and added links such as this one. I hope Ai Weiwei continues to be granted freedom of movement.

Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy until 19 December.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Dungeness, Kent

Sunrise, sunset

It's National Poetry Day in the UK, a celebration of poetry in all its forms involving readings, national radio, and even (praise be) television. What to post on the English Buildings blog to mark these celebrations? Wordsworth's Dove Cottage in Grasmere? Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford? I've decided on a reprise (with a different photograph) of a building I posted way back in 2008 when this blog was just getting into its stride: Prospect Cottage, the home of film-maker Derek Jarman, set on the shingle at Dungeness. I've chosen it, as the sun comes out here in the Cotswolds to illuminate the British autumn, because this wooden house is adorned with lines, themselves picked out in cut wooden letters, from John Donne's poem, 'The Sunne Rising': 'Busie old foole, unruly Sunne, Why dost thou thus, Through windows and through curtaines call on us? Must to thy motions lovers' seasons runne?’

The letters that make up the poem, the same colour as the black walls of the cottage, need strong sunlight on them to be clearly visible and readable, so that the sun itself enhances the effect of this poem about the sun. It feels right, not just because of today's sunshine, but also because it seems appropriate for Jarman, a man who lived for the effects of light on celluloid, for whom light, as it were, was meat, drink, and inspiration. Sadly, Jarman went blind towards the end of his life. Cruel as this was for a film-maker (as for who not?) he took his blindness bravely. Perhaps he knew the consoling words of the great blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges, a book-lover who landed the enviable job of head of his country's National Library, reflected in a poem about the 'splendid irony' that 'Granted me books and blindness at one touch'. Borges also told us that we should not fear blindness, because 'It is like watching a slow sunset.'

Monday, October 5, 2015

Earls Barton, Northamptonshire

A flower among towers

The tower of Earls Barton church in Northamptonshire is one of the most famous bits of Anglo-Saxon architecture in England. There aren’t many towers in England that were built before the Norman conquest and this is not only the most spectacular of them, but also one of the best preserved. Every part of the tower except for the very top is Saxon, dating from the decades before 1066. We don’t know exactly how people used church towers back then. Some think they fulfilled a mixture of uses – perhaps worship on the ground floor, a dwelling for the priest above, with possible defensive use too, in times of strife. Some churches in this period may also have had bells in their towers.* However it was used, the tower’s design is full of telling details – the long and short stones making up the corners, the lovely, if irregular, bulbous columns between the window openings (see the picture below), and above all the pattern of raised stonework (pilaster strips, in the trade) that extends across the entire structure.

This kind of artful combination of straight lines, curves, and diagonals is something the Saxons did quite a lot (I noticed something similar a while back in a post I did about a church in Bradford-on-Avon). Architectural history books tell us that this sort of thing was probably copied from the frameworks of wooden structures – after all, most Saxon buildings, from humble hovels to the grand halls that are the settings for Saxon poems like Beowulf, were made of wood. But I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this idea. The pattern isn’t really that much like a wooden frame – the strips are very thin, the diagonal ‘braces’ are positioned oddly, likewise the semi-circular arches. Maybe the idea of making such a pattern comes from wooden structures, but the actual pattern – well, it’s purely decorative and I can’t help thinking that it must be there because people liked it that way. I’m rather glad they did. 
Earls Barton tower, detail of window openings and pilaster strips

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*The early history of church bells is unclear, but back in Saxon times having a tower didn’t necessarily mean you had bells.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Kettering, Northamptonshire

Bake off

I know, I know. I don’t always pick the most obvious destinations for my architectural explorations. A while back, a neighbour of mine actually laughed when I said I wanted to go to Kidderminster, but I enjoyed looking at the carpet factories there nonetheless. The same went for Kettering, where I hoped to find shoe factories but, as usual, I found more than I was expecting.

Tucked away amongst the Victorian red-brick houses and shoe factories, for instance, and hemmed in by white vans and old mattresses, was this Co-operative Bakery. It seems to have been converted to flats, but it’s still a neat example of a medium-sized factory in brick, dating from 1900. It’s lifted above the commonplace with the eye-catching stripy design on the corners and up the walls, by the shallow relieving arches above the windows, and by a couple of stand-out details.
The most obvious of these is the lettering: huge capitals made up out of white tiles. They’ve clearly been specially made – look at the bespoke bits of the B and V – and they leave no doubt about what this building is, or about the Co-op’s pride in it. The other detail is smaller: the graphic devices, in cast iron, set along the side. They spell KICS, for Kettering Industrial Co-operative Society. A lovely touch, on which the raised outlines of the letters catch the sun.
Kettering Industrial Co-operative Society certainly left its architectural mark – there’s a factory and a warehouse in neighbouring streets, too, and its impact was reflected in numerous stores in the town and surrounding villages. And the Kettering Co-op was responsible for at least one major milestone in the story of the Co-operative movement: the town elected the first-ever Co-operative Member of Parliament, in 1918. If a lot of these buildings no longer fulfil their original function, their design very effectively reminds us of their history – and made my journey more than worthwhile.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Vincent Square, London

When brick works

I’m not usually a fan of yellow brick, but this building makes it sing. It’s part of the Westminster Kingsway College building on the corner of Rochester Row and Vincent Square in an area of London I suppose you’d call Victoria. When I saw it my jaw  dropped and, frankly, I just stood there and stared in silence while people walked past, eyeing me suspiciously as if they were wondering what on earth I could be looking at. I didn’t know what it was, but it was obviously a modern building – 1950s – and was unashamedly decorative without trying too hard to make a point. The result, with its crosses and diagonals of brickwork, its pierced parapet, and its tower (stairs, presumably) with those slanting glazing bars) is enjoyably and inherently brickish, as if the building has learned what the Victorians could do with its material, shaken this up in some sort of imaginative kaleidoscope, and come up with something modern.

The architect, I learned when I got home and loped the building up, was Harry Goodhart-Rendell, designer of St Olaf House in Tooley Street, a wonderful church in St Leonard’s, Sussex (a favourite of mine), and other churches, and a great defender of Victorian architecture back at the time when defending such a thing was neither profitable nor popular. His building in Vincent Square has a steel frame, and indeed mostly very utilitarian metal-framed windows, but wraps these in this attractive, and no doubt efficient, brick covering, which looks as comfortable as the textile that it reminded me of. People say that this building is as good to use as it is to look at. Why didn’t we learn?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Gloucester Cathedral

Tallis Fantasia

On A September evening in 1910 a few hundred people gathered at Gloucester Cathedral for a concert that formed part of the Three Choirs Festival, the longest-standing music festival in the world, which rotates between the three cathedrals of Worcester, Hereford, and Gloucester. The main work on the programme was Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, long enough to fill a programme in itself. But on this occasion it was accompanied by a new work, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The composer was in his late-thirties but was not yet well known. The Tallis Fantasia must have come as a wake-up call for the audience that night: a major work by an English composer and a piece with a sound-world of its own, and very different from what most of its audience would have been used to. Two younger composers, locals Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney, spent a long time after the concert wandering around the dark streets of Gloucester in a daze, mulling over what they’d heard.

Vaughan Williams wrote the Tallis Fantasia with the acoustic of the cathedral specifically in mind. It’s based on a tune by the English Tudor composer Thomas Tallis that was originally composed as a setting for a psalm and was recycled as a hymn tune by Vaughan Williams when he edited The English Hymnal. The composer clearly saw then that there was much more he could do with this theme.

The composer created the piece’s distinctive and striking sound by writing for strings alone (no woodwind, no brass, no percussion) and by using harmonies more often associated with folk or Renaissance music than with orchestral scores of his own time. Above all, he got the effect he wanted by dividing up his orchestra into groups and arranging them spatially in a particular way.

Vaughan Williams arranged his strings in three groups: orchestra 1 (a full band of first violins, second violins, cellos, and double basses); orchestra 2 (one desk from each group of strings, making up a group of nine players); and a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) whose members also play solos. Vaughan Williams specified that if possible orchestra 1 and orchestra 2 should sit apart from one another, their spatial separation emphasizing the dialogue between the two groups, with its developments of the Tallis theme, and its echoes, responses, and layers of sound. 

Space being at a premium in concert venues, conductors often have room for only a slight separation between  the groups of strings. Andrew Davies, in his 2010 centenary recording, had the luxury of an empty cathedral. This is not quite how Vaughan William could have imagined the first performance of course, with its large audience, but it does give a wonderful impression of the way the two groups work together, just as the video gives a visual impression of the cathedral’s architecture. Moving past the dizzyingly intricate lierne vault of the choir, with its network of stone ribs, past the choir screen and organ, to the empty nave, its rows of massive round Norman piers, the video reveals not only something of the diversity of Gloucester’s architecture, but also of the cavernous quality of the space. As the groups of strings converse across the Romanesque spaces and their sounds reverberate against the Gothic masonry, one can appreciate how well Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece fits the building for which it was written.