Friday, January 30, 2015

Thaxted, Essex

Weather forecats

Plain vanes or pennants often, fish now and then, foxes and hounds, ships, and human figures occasionally, and the ubiquitous cockerel more frequently than not; sometimes a stag, a horse, or a beast from the field of heraldry; a dragon or grasshopper or two. That list sums up the iconography of weather wanes (or wind vanes, or weathercocks, as in ‘That weathercock’s a fish!’), though no doubt my readers can think of some more examples.

There are also a few weather vanes that are famously unique landmarks: Old Father Time at Lord’s Cricket Ground, Sir Cloudesley Shovel’s ship The Rodney at Rochester, Erasmus seated the wrong way round on a horse in Whitechapel.

My picture shows one that’s more humble than these examples, and far from unique. But I’ve not often come across feline weathervanes, so wanted to share this cat in Thaxted, set on his pleasantly scrolly mount. His tail is scrolly too, and his markings admirable, although I wondered when I saw him if they had faded from a deeper ginger. Whether or not that’s so, he still stands guard effectively, catching the eye, and the wind.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Garrick Street, London


Here’s a detail from a shop in Garrick Street, next door to London’s famous Garrick Club and of the same date, the 1860s. I must have passed this hundreds of times before I paused to look at the architecture, mainly because I’m so interested in the contents of bookshops that their design sometimes passes me by more readily than that of most buildings.

In this case, the architecture is an arcaded frontage that’s very much of its period. There are classical pilasters with inset panels of dark stone. Between these pilasters are tall, round-headed arches  with dark marble shafts, producing an effect of restrained grandeur that’s very much in keeping with the large club next door (the architect was responsible for both club and shop). But what particularly caught my eye was the gold filigree decoration in the spandrels, the almost-triangular spaces made when you fit the rounded arch into the rectangular facade. It’s a delicate gold floral pattern and a smaller version also appears on the capitals.

These delicate decorative touches come from a time when the designer of a shop front expected it to last, not to be replaced with new fittings in a couple of years. One wonders if Frederick Marrable, the architect of this London block, would have expected it still to be here 150 years after it was built. Perhaps he and his contemporaries would have been surprised, but no doubt pleasantly.

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The architecture and decorative sculpture of the neighbouring Garrick Club are described and illustrated at the excellent Ornamental Passions blog.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Woodbridge, Suffolk

On the water, by the shore…Illustration of the month

Here’s a new idea, new for the English Buildings blog, at least. When not looking at buildings or writing about them, I often have my nose in a book about architecture or about some place or other. Some of these books are illustrated with paintings or drawings. So I offer for your delectation the odd post about a drawing or painting of a building or a scene with some architecture in it somewhere.

As the first of what I hope will be an occasional series, here’s a picture of a Suffolk coastal scene at Woodbridge by an artist who’s not much known these days, Paul Sharp…

Paul Sharp (1921–98) was born in West Yorkshire, and studied at Leeds College of Art before serving in the RAF during World War II. He then went to the Royal College of Art before teaching at Farnham College of Art and building up a reputation as a printmaker and illustrator. He could work quickly, and it is said that he did pen and ink drawings of all of London's bridges in one day for a guidebook to London.

Paul Sharp's ability to capture a place in a few strokes of the pen is put to good use in the drawings he did for a short series of books for the National Benzole oil company. He also did colour illustrations, in watercolour and gouache for these books, and my example is one of these illustrations from the National Benzole Book Sailing Tours: Essex and Suffolk (1963).

I like the way he gets the essence of the coastal buildings with a few strokes of the brush (these weatherboarded structures, one a former tide mill, are white now and more picturesque, less industrial). His skill is also well applied to the boats and the sky. A few strokes for some pebbly tidal mud; a few more for the rough side of a hull; some streaks to give body to the water and perhaps to suggest the bottom, not all that far down; then some finer lines to portray rigging and the cross-braced strictures of cranes.

It's wonderful stuff, given life by all those swans and some people in the shadows in a small boat. How well does he draw boats? Someone who knows more of these things will be able to tell me, I'm sure. But he seems to me to get the feel of the place very well.

And it's very English too. The weather is dull; the patch of light and the orange paint aren't that bright (though maybe that is the fault of the printing). The muddy shore in the foreground and the texture on the lower part of the large boat’s hull have a hint of John Piper about them and although the sky is a far cry from John Piper’s inky blackness over Windsor Castle, one is reminded of the more famous artist and of George VI's remark: "You seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper." Sharp, indeed, seems to have drunk a little at Piper's neo-Romantic spring. He's no worse for it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Dinton, Buckinghamshire

Advice to the wise

To go with the pair of tympana that have caught my eye during recent church visits, here’s another tympanum, this time from my archives. It is both stunning and very unusual.

The doorway itself is another showy late-Norman (12th-century) piece of design, complete with an outer row of billet mouldings (the repeating raised rectangles), a band of chevrons, a plain roll moulding, and, innermost, around the tympanum itself, a lovely bit of interlace that is carved in quite low relief. The ornament continues lower down, too – the capitals of the shafts on either side of the door are just visible at the bottom of my photograph.

The tympanum shows two monsters that have lion-like manes and dog-like heads but each beast has only two legs and their bodies taper into their tails. They are eating fruit from a tree which may be a tree of life. Below on the lintel is another beast – this time winged, to make it look more dragon-like. It’s said to be the dragon attempting to devour St Michael, who defends himself with a cross.

Between the tympanum carving and the lintel is an inscription in Latin, which is a very rare thing indeed to see in a Norman doorway on a parish church. It’s not easy to read, because its capital letters are run together without word spaces and the second line is placed on the edge of the lintel, but it seems to go: ‘Praemia pro meritis si qis despet habenda Audiat hic preepta sibique sit retinenda’ and this has been translated as ‘If anyone despairs of having rewards for his merits, Let this man hear the advice and let it be retained by him.’  Which is hardly specific, but suggests, I suppose, that it would be a good idea to listen to what you’re told in church – an interesting emphasis on the teachings of the church at a time when there was a greater stress on liturgy and the sacraments than on sermonizing.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ruardean, Gloucestershire

Hero in motion

Gloucestershire has a long border with Herefordshire, and it’s not really surprising that, in the west of the county, there are some examples of work by the renowned Herefordshire school of Romanesque sculptors, the artists responsible for churches such as Kilpeck and glorious works like the font as Castle Frome. One Gloucestershire example is the tympanum at Ruardean in the Forest of Dean. This shows St George killing the dragon, and a wonderfully vigorous carving it is, even if not quite up to the stellar standard of Kilpeck.

St George is on horseback, his mount stretched somewhat horizontally to fit the space, his cloak streaming in the wind,  his spear entering the dragon’s mouth. There’s the usual linear quality seen on many Herefordshire school carvings – it’s visible in the dragon’s head, the folds of the cloak and the saint’s ribbed lower garment. The horse is doing a good job of helping its rider by treading all over the dragon’s long, serpent-like body.

The horse’s elongated form, the blowing cloak, and the angle and thrust of the spear all give the carving a dynamism, as if the saint has made his strike while his mount is still moving at some speed. It’s an eye-catching image (it exhibits a wonderful collection of undulating curves that I find really effective), if not as well carved as some – Malcolm Thurlby in his book* on the Herefordshire school suggests that it may have been the work of an assistant to the master carver. Whoever did the work, it does a good job of conveying the power of the galloping horse and the thrust of the deadly spear.

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* For more information on the Romanesque sculpture of this area, see Malcolm Thurlby, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture (Logaston Press, 1999)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Great Rollright, Oxfordshire


The fascinating church at Great Rollright, not far from Chipping Norton in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, has many notable features and I’ll more than likely return to it, but for now, I wanted to share the wonderful late-12th century doorway. This is a rustic example of Romanesque carving: it has many of the typical features of this style – chevron ornament, beakheads, a carved tympanum (the semicircular panel above the door) – but all of these done in a very vigorous and simple way that shows the hand of a local carver. This is not the work of a top-notch sculptor, then, like the great doorway at Malmesbury Abbey or the outstanding work of the Herefordshire school, but still arresting.

The beakheads are crudely done. They’re recognisable, just, as heads with beaks, although some seem to lack eyes of other facial features (and a couple on the far right seem to break with the conventions completely) so one has to wonder if the carver knew exactly what he was doing. And yet their simple shapes and strong linear carving have a strong character. For beakheads and chevrons done with more sophistication, look at the doorways at Elkstone or, especially, Kilpeck.

The tympanum bridges the gap between completely abstract, patterned carving and the figurative work that the Normans often placed above their church entrances. Along the bottom there are roundels, some flower-like, some that seem to incorporate a star pattern, others looking a bit like round shields with a central boss. Above are cross patterns and an enigma – a carving that seems to show a large fish, a human head, and a figure wrapped in a decorated shroud. I wondered when I first saw them if the head and fish were meant to represent Jonah and the whale – but why the shrouded corpse?

If this doorway poses more questions than it answers, it’s still an eloquent reminder that all over the country, from Yorkshire to Sussex, there was an explosion of sculpture in the late-12th century, work that survives in large quantities, in both towns and remote villages, and can still give us much pleasure.

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Please click on the image to see more detail in the carving.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Maida Vale, London

Roundel, deluxe version

London’s roundel symbol, conceived for the underground but also used on buses and coaches from the 1930s onwards, is one of the most successful logos in the world. When shown bearing the word UNDERGROUND it alerts us instantly, and combined with the underground’s typical architecture (oxblood-tiled early-20th century stations by Leslie Green, 1930s ones by Charles Holden and his colleagues, for example) it quickly becomes part of the visual vocabulary of anyone visiting or living in the capital.

The roundel appears in various forms – painted, reproduced in tiles, or printed, for example – but I know of only one station (maybe there are others) where it’s reproduced in the form of a mosaic. This is at Maida Vale’s station (opened in 1915), where two big mosaic roundels, their red tesserae glinting slightly, greet the passenger at the top of the stairs. The roundel is complemented by the off-white tiles around it, and the elegant linear pattern of off-white and green tiles, a lovely touch. It’s an early version of the roundel, with the red disc that preceded the now-familiar red ring (it’s actually one of the last to have the disc) and with non-standard typography, but still striking.

I don’t know why Maida Vale station was singled out for this visual treatment, but it’s an absolute treat. Excellent as the exterior is – it’s one of the oxblood tiled ones, with segmental-arched windows and bold white diamond glazing bars – it doesn’t prepare one for these mosaics. A pleasant visual surprise for the visitor and a feature in which locals can take justified pride.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


A new light

A change in the light, a chance upward glance, and we can see familiar buildings anew. I’ve walked past this branch of Lloyd’s Bank in the middle of Gloucester dozens of times, and often registered its 1890s gables, Flemish Renaissance details, and modest signs. It took a particularly strong dose of winter sunshine to make me see its familiar face more clearly: to mark the differences between the pediments above the windows (segmental in the projecting side bays, triangular in the central recessed section); the ornate pinnacles and oeil de boeuf at the top of the central gable; the horizontal bands giving a touch of extra richness in that gable; the variations in the window sizes.

The architect was a local man, Frederick William Waller, son of Frederick Sandham Waller, also an architect. Both father and son worked widely in Gloucestershire and round about and must have been successful men of the city. They were both architects to the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral as well as prolific designers of new buildings and restorers of churches. This bank shows Waller Junior articulating in his building some of the prosperity and confidence of his home city – port, mercantile hub, manufacturing centre, and county town.

When the sun lit up this facade the other day, making the red bricks as red as they can be in all their colourful glory, its illumination made me look a little more closely than I’d done before at this confident frontage. It helped me to realise that the dressings of this very red brick exterior were not stone, but terracotta, lending the whole upper part of the building a warmth that contrasts with the paler granite of the arched ground floor, just visible at the bottom of my photograph. Perhaps I was seeing this frontage for the first time as the architect hoped people would see it, standing out in all its redness against a clear deep blue sky.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


A top ten of 2014

Before we advance into a new year of architectural encounters, it occurred to me to take a look at what my readers have found most interesting during the last year – or which of my 2014 posts, at any rate, have been viewed the most. I have compiled a top ten, and they are a mixed bunch indeed, featuring mostly modest buildings such as prefabs, a shop front, some almshouses, and a public lavatory. They also include some memorable architectural details and a couple of reviews (of the recent exhibition of Edwin Smith’s photographs and the reprint of Nairn’s London). Miscellaneous as they are, they seem to represent a reasonable if partial cross-section of my interests and, I hope, those of my readers to.

They are:

Far from ordinary: the story of prefabs in Catford, south London, notable examples of the glory of the ordinary.

A sort of Jacobethan: a whimsical but interesting bit of pseudo-Jacobean detail in Northampton. God, or the Devil as they say these days (and well they might in these unMiesian contexts), is in the details.

Hygienic high-style: a terrific Art Deco shopfront in Ashby de la Zouch, showing that Deco can be about restraint as well as showing off.

The essence of place: the stand-out exhibition of the photographs of Edwin Smith (closed now, but it’s still worth reading about this photographic master).

What we see, and when we see it: a meditation in Malmesbury about how photography often reveals what we don’t see.

Fifty years on: a personal memory of some almshouses in Louth and the architecture of James Fowler.

Old orders changing: an unusual classical order in Clifton (pictured above).

The ladies, vanishing: a memorable cinema in Cheltenham, which is no more.

Being moved in London: a review of my favourite book about London, which has recently been reprinted.

From the sun to the stars: a cast-iron public lavatory in Bath.

Happy New Year to you all.